Last Night in Soho

A nostalgia soaked horror film from director Edgar Wright is just what we need for this Halloween Weekend, but does it satisfy? My companion for this film was invested in the first two thirds of the movie so much that it rivaled other films of Wright’s for praise, but,there is a turn and a series of actions that happen in the film that stopped her embrace of the film in mid-hug and resulted in a display of invective that I marveled at for a hour. While I did not have the same negative reaction, I did feel the film fall from greatness to mediocrity in the third act. Regardless of it’s ultimate faults, there is still much to recommend for this interesting addition to Wright’s filmography.

I avoid as much as possible, simply recapping the story in these posts, but sometimes you need a little context and this is one of those times. Thomasin McKenzie plays Eloise, a slightly off center girl from a countryside community, who longs to become a fashion designer. Ellie is the kind of kid who is willing to go out in public in clothes she has designed, but she has yet to develop the thick skin needed to deflect the catty comments of schoolmates, who in a two faced manner praise her bravery, but secretly despise her and are jealous of the attention she will generate. Her mother also was interested in the industry but took her life ten years earlier, and Ellie has visions of her Mom on a regular basis. Eloise soaks herself in 60s nostalgia, because that’s the style her Mother and Grandmother knew so well. Peter and Gordon, Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark ring in her head as she moves to London to attend a college of fashion design. When her wold collides with the hipster bitch she is roommates with, she decides to take a flat in a nearby neighborhood and suddenly the distance between the world she lives in and the era of her dreams begins to diminish. New visions of a girl not unlike herself, striving to make it into the pop world as a singer in 1965, fill Eloise’s nights and she gets caught up in another life in a different era, with outcomes much more grim than she is prepared to face.

The 1960s settings are nicely staged with appropriate production details. I especially liked the giant “Thunderball” Poster on the cinema, as well as the stylish women’s fashions of the time. The two nightclubs that Eloise sees in her visions are also startlingly beautiful in a retro way. The most beautiful thing she encounters however is Sandie, the girl aspiring to be a singer who is a near doppelganger for Eloise and who is played by Ana Taylor-Joy. Wright uses some marvelous camera tricks and clever choreography to meld the two girls from fifty years apart into one character that we see at a time, although both are present. This is a horror story in the long run, and the events in the 1960s should be enough to make us pull back in terror at what can become of a girl trying to make it in a world filled with sharks dressed as men. The first part of Sandie’s story is plenty horrifying without having to elaborate too much with blood and viscera. Like all horror stories these days, there has to be a twist and this is where things start to go off the rails a bit.

Eloise’s obsession is turning dangerous and she has difficulty separating her visions from her real life. There is a character set up to tie the two eras together in the real world, and naturally, this is one of the places where Wright has to cheat a bit to get in the surprise that he has in store for us. If you are turned off by characters in horror stories doing illogical things and making unsubstantiated assumptions, then you will start to feel the resentment that I referred to in the opening of this piece. Somewhere out there, a young adult woman would ask some questions that all of us could see might be relevant, not Ellie. She pursues an investigation but she ignores a key term in her search that is sitting right in front of her. The explanation that her nightmarish visions begin to follow her is the best cover that can explain why she acts the way she does, but that seems inadequate and it ignores a lot of options that she had available to her. After successfully creating a real world heroine in Eloise, who can perceive a threat from an otherwise chipper cab driver, you want to scream at her for not looking more closely at the red herring in front of her and the obvious connection to the past that she occupies every night.

At this point, the movie turns into a conventional piece of cinema horror trickery, which uses the distractions of another historical era to misdirect us while the heavy footed plot twist plays out. If you can ignore those irritating moments of character stupidity, then the follow through will be satisfying enough. I for the most part went along with it because I want the magic trick to work. The fact that I noticed the trick movement did not rob me of all the pleasure I’d already had from the film, but those missteps will bother a lot of people more than me. McKenzie and Taylor-Joy are both excellent. They create a real sense of the enthusiasms for a bygone time and watching them revel in the fashion, dance and music of the era is a pleasure. Diana Rigg makes her final screen appearance in this film in a role that is more substantial than you might have expected. The film also features Terrance Stamp who has been menacing and charming and revolting in movies for sixty years now. Stamp gets to show his persona with just a few scenes and some great close ups on his face. Wright gets the most out of the camera and lighting when he is looking at Stamp’s character. It is too bad that this effort gets wasted as a plot device rather than an essential plot component.

Edgar Wright has a number of films to his credit that I have loved. His sense of humor is terrific and he has an editors eye as a director, he is capable of creating a scene in our mind that works because he knows how long the shot should last and where to cut it and what kinds of transitions to make. As a storyteller, he has taken some sharp left turns over the years that work, but maybe that is because of the genre he was working in. The tone shift and plot twist in “Last Night in Soho” don’t hold together as well as the work he has done before. I would still recommend the movie, but if you get whiplash from third act character actions, don’t say I did not warn you.

The Sparks Brothers

So, I’ve seen the new Edgar Wright film, have you? No, I’m not talking “Last Night in Soho”, that comes out in October and it looks to be scary fun. This film is a documentary about the eccentric band “Sparks” and the two brothers that are the heart and soul of musical integrity. Someone once said that rock and roll and comedy don’t really mix well, but that person had never heard Sparks, or maybe that’s why they never heard them because their offbeat sense of humor keeps the pop market from fully embracing their music. 

This was a father’s Day activity for me. My daughter, who barely had any inkling of this band, found the subject  delightful and fascinating. I was slightly better off than her in approaching this, I knew of Sparks during their second phase, and I enjoyed their music, owned a couple of albums and even went to see them once live at the same amusement park that they filmed a movie appearance in. I was a casual fan, who lost track of them, and now I wish I was the kind of person who had all of their albums and had been following them for fifty years. 

Well there is an abundance of Talking Heads in the documentary [the interview style not the band], there are also performance clips, news footage, chat show appearances, and intriguing music videos to bring us all up to speed. Ron and Russell Mael are not British, though many might think so since much of their breakthrough work was first successful in the United Kingdom. They are in fact Southern California boys who unfortunately went to UCLA, but do not seem to have been permanently harmed by that experience. The older brother Ron, is the Principle songwriter and keyboardist for the band and his younger brother is the lead singer/frontman of the band. They have had various other musicians, in and out of the band over a fifty year time span, and many of them appear in this film as do a legion of their admirers. 

In movies, there are several uses of “Sparks” music. One of my late wife’s favorite films was the 1983 film “Valley Girl” and there were two Sparks songs on that soundtrack, “Eaten By The Monster of Love” and “Angst in My Pants“. My favorite film of 2010 was “Kick Ass” and it features a moment with their first big hit “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us“. In the documentary, there is a discussion of the era of KROQ radio station in Los Angeles and how influential it was in getting New Wave acts played on the air, Sparks, while not a New Wave band per se did get covered on that station. In the years 1980 to 1983, my radio was always on that station number and that’s how I heard about Sparks appearance at Magic Mountain for a Halloween show. The band made a brief musical moment in the movie “Rollercoaster”  in 1977 at the same park, but in the Halloween show, they played the same stage where the Puppet show headlined and “Spinal Tap” got second billing. It’s also the stage featured in “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park”, and coincidentally, my Father played that stage in 1971 right after the park had opened, I worked with him for two weeks at the holiday period. 

The band is prolific and continues to be eccentric. This film was two hours and fifteen minutes, and we saw it at an Alamo Drafthouse with a thirty minute lead in hosted by director Edgar Wright, so the whole experience was even longer. It still felt short, especially in comparison to “In the Heights” which we had jus seen a couple of days earlier. If you are a fan of the band and their music, you really should get out to a theater to see this. If you are not a fan, you should go see it and become one. 

Baby Driver

While I was tempted at one point to suggest that the hyperbole around this film was a bit over the top, I got closer to the end of the film and realized that I was wrong. This movie may not be able to be oversold to the audience that it is made for. Baby Driver hits the notes, plays a nice melody, and has a crescendo that will build and satisfy like  the final movement of a symphony. All these music references are relevant because the song score for this movie is an integral character and you need to be able to grove to it to appreciate the way the film is put together.

In fairness to all of you, I will say upfront that I am an Edgar Wright fan. His off kilter story development and flashy cinematic style is strong enough to make a mundane story work, but it usually does so within the constraints of the universe that he has created. People who don’t like “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” are put off by how excessive the imagination seems to be. That film however is a comic book story that is designed to flaunt convention and dazzle us with flash. “Baby Driver” is full of flash, but not the kind of cinematic magic that you see in every other action film these days. There are not bullets tossed in the air and then magically landed into the chamber of a gun as it is twirlling in slow motion through the air. Lots of movies will have those moments (in fact I saw that very thing in the trailer for “The Dark Tower” which played before this film). The synchronized cinematic moments have to do with the soundtrack and the pop songs that populate it. The music matches the driving, shooting and running action on the screen. Yet when Baby, as played by Ansel Elgort, drives a car or runs across the screen, if is not obviously digitally enhanced. The moves look real.

The story is not new. There are standard gangster tropes throughout the film. The crews have nicknames, the main character is involved against his will, the brains behind the plots are ruthless and there are innocents that are used as leverage against our hero. Yet for every trite moment, there is a variation or twist that makes the story pay off for the character. An eight year old is used for cover in the process of casing a job, and the kid does a better job than the criminal. When there is a car chase, the cars really get damaged and the criminals shook up. The innocent romantic interest is tougher than we expect her to be, and the big boss turns out to have more empathy than you would have imagined given the stereotype that is set up. There is a seemingly indestructible bad guy who keeps going like the energizer bunny, but he is a character that is motivated by romantic revenge not simply the story requirements.

Except for the style of filming and the ability to use camera angles and editing tools so very smoothly, this feels like a 1970s heist picture. Everyone knows that something will have to go wrong, the interesting things in the story are what things go wrong and how they play out. It’s as if this film is the grandchild of “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” crossed with “The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3”. The bad guys make  few mistakes but when they do, a double cross or a shift in loyalty is coming. Jamie Foxx and John Hamm are effectively grim and disturbed as members oif the violent crew of criminals. Eiza González is perhaps the most blood thirsty of the gang, so there is a feminist moment for you. Lily James as Deborah, Baby’s love interest kept reminding me of one of the girls from the original “Twin Peaks”. Maybe because she is a waitress (trope #243), she just seemed a lot like Shelly Johnson. Baby is over his head in the violence department, but he is never afraid for himself. He is smart, but clearly not as smart as Doc, the mastermind played by Kevin Spacey, in a role he feels like was tailored for him. He has played enough bad guys that this part is hardly a challenge but it still feels natural.

The practical car stunts and gritty character moments are the things that make this film enjoyable for an old timer like me. I only knew half of the songs that were used in the film, but all of them felt right for the moment and the fact that they are not as well worn as the songs used in a lot of other films, is a plus from my point of view. There were a few moments in the middle of the film that are not action heavy and I started to wonder if the film was moving off track, but it was just a counter tempo and a character theme and we get right back to the melody after those brief solos. “baby Driver” is definitely gritty and stylish. It is not a garish shoot-em up, but rather a fast paced heist movie with a strong 70s feel. Just the thing to help rescue the movies from the summer doldrums of films like the “Transformers” sequel or “The Mummy”.  Be sure to buy the song soundtrack, but make sure you get it on vinyl.