Downtown, Waiting For You Tonight

Last Night in Soho

by George Wolf and Hope Madden

A pair of Beats headphones is Last Night in Soho‘s first clue that you’re not where you think you are.

The sights and sounds of young Ellie’s (Thomasin McKenzie) bedroom scream 1960s London. And though that’s where and when she’d really like to be living, Ellie is a modern-day British country girl, brought up by her Grandparents after her mother’s suicide years earlier.

Ellie dreams of a career as a designer, so she’s thrilled by an acceptance letter from the London College of Fashion. But once in the big city, the shy “country mouse” has trouble adjusting to the pace and the pressures of city life.

Her refuge becomes vivid dreams from the swinging 60s era she celebrates, detailed visions that put Ellie alongside Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a young singer looking for fame and fortune among a sea of predatory men.

As Sandie’s trust in nightclub manager Jack (Doctor Who‘s Matt Smith) leads her down a dark and dangerous path, Ellie’s dreams turn truly terrifying. And the deeper Ellie is drawn into Sandie’s world, the more she believes a creepy old dude from her local pub (Terence Stamp) is really present-day Jack, who needs to pay for his past misdeeds with a succession of starstruck London girls.

Director and co-writer Edgar Wright slows his often frantic pace this time, trading those trademark edits for a more languid, appropriately dreamy vibe. His love of color is still front and center, and a giallo pastiche is just one in his Soho arsenal. There’s a time-hopping mystery here, sitting at the center of bloody thrills and a Black Swan-esque exploration of female trauma.

Wright hooks you early with delightful period details and – of course – some effortlessly hip throwback tunes for the soundtrack. His camera is nimble and his faming is precise, often using mirrors to exquisitely blend Ellie’s dreams with Sandie’s past.

McKenzie is doe-eyed perfection as the naive Ellie, an innocent somehow working out her own issues through the tragic past of a kindred spirit. Taylor-Joy is equally wonderful, bringing sad authenticity to Sandie’s quick descent from confident talent to broken soul. Stamp and Smith provide terrific support, eclipsed only by the bullseye casting of Diana Rigg (in her final role) as Ellie’s landlady.

Last Night in Soho is an often glorious mashup of settings and genres, and though you’ll recognize all of them, the package still carries a postmark that’s uniquely Wright’s. Maybe that’s why the resolution lands as curiously rote.

As was the case with the darling zom-rom-com Shaun of the Dead, it seems as if Wright doesn’t have the meanness to make a scary movie. He understands them, clearly, and bends their tropes to his will. Here he pulls apart Hitchcock and Argento to invert the genre’s fetishistic relationship with violence against women. Wright does this with such panache for 2/3 of the film that the final act feels abruptly tidy, too clear a reversal.

Does it spoil the Soho experience? Don’t be silly, baby! This film is a gas, but one that leaves you with with a little reminder that Wright’s most perfectly groovy film is still to come.

I See Old People

Old

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

The last 20 some odd years have been somewhat odd for M. Night Shyamalan.

There was the meteoric rise, the faceplant fall, and the unexpected rise again. The writer/director’s highs (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Split) have been clever, crowd-pleasing and well crafted, while the lows (The Last Airbender, After Earth, The Happening) became self-indulgent, condescending misfires.

Old, Shyamalan’s first since the disappointing Glass two years ago, may not rank among his best, but there is enough here to hold your interest while it delivers an earnest message about precious time.

Guy (Gael García Bernal) and Prisca (Vicky Krieps) are ready to separate, but want to enjoy one last dream vacation with 6 year-old Trent (Nolan River) and 11 year-old Maddox (Alexa Swinton) before breaking the news.

Shortly after getting a VIP welcome at their tropical resort, the family is offered access to a private beach paradise, just a short drive away. Once there, they find a few other guests have also gotten the invite to the pristine beach surrounded by majestic and imposing walls of rock.

But of course, there is a price to be paid for this privilege: time. Trent and Maddox are suddenly years older (and now played by Alex Wolff and Thomasin McKenzie), while the rest of the group (including Rufus Sewell, Abbey Lee and Aaron Pierre) also begins to feel the effects of a rapidly increased aging process.

Shyamalan’s camerawork – usually a plus – is again nimble and expressive. He’s able to fuel a feeling of confusion and disorientation on the ground, while frequent overhead shots provide the unmistakeable suggestion that this group is being watched.

His pace is also well-played, fast and frantic (with one very effective visual fright) in the early going, then a bit more measured to reflect cooler heads trying to plan an escape.

But while Shyamalan’s script is an adaptation of the graphic novel Sandcastle by Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Frederick Peeters, dialogue can still trip him up. It’s too frequently both silly and obvious, yet almost always rescued by a talented ensemble that never shrinks from selling every word of it.

This is a Shyamalan film, though, which will lead many to expect a humdinger of a twist. Don’t.

There is something waiting beyond the clearly defined metaphor about appreciating every day. But like the film, the resolution of Old is more tidy than revelatory, as easy to digest and appreciate as it is to forget.

Triumph of the Kiwi

Jojo Rabbit

by Brandon Thomas

Fargo and No Country for Old Men director Joel Coen has described directing movies as “tone management.” New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi obviously feels the same way as his new film Jojo Rabbit walks a tonal tightrope between irreverent, melancholy and playful.

Few other filmmakers would be able to deliver a Nazi dramedy that opens with a German cover of The Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” over the opening credits. 

Young Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is a bright and excitable boy. More than anything in the world, Jojo wants to be a good little Nazi. His dream is to eventually become best friends with the Fuhrer himself. Due to his inability to wring the neck of a cute little bunny, Jojo finds himself on the outs with the rest of the young Nazi trainees. Thankfully, Jojo’s imaginary friend, Adolph Hitler himself (played by director Waititi), is there to reassure him, indulge his worst musings, and generally crack wise. 

Jojo’s carefree reality, where the war lacks any kind of seriousness, is suddenly changed when he finds that his mother (Scarlett Johannson) is hiding a young Jewish girl (Leave No Trace‘s Thomasin McKenzie) in their home. As the indoctrination of the Third Reich begins to wear off, Jojo comes to realize that the world around him is larger and more complex than he ever knew.

Waititi’s ease at telling stories about the difficulties of growing up isn’t new. His previous works, Boy and The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, dealt with young men coming to terms with life’s hard lessons, and Waititi’s inherent playfulness again allows him to recall the wonder the world holds when you’re young. Anything and everything is possible. Waititi’s same understanding of our humanity grounds the characters inside of these silly worlds he concocts.

Jojo Rabbit asks a lot of its audience. Nazis aren’t supposed to be funny. Anything that even touches how the Jewish people were treated during World War II must be handled with the utmost care. This is the fine line Waititi walks through the entire film, as he manages to acknowledge the horrors of the past while making fun of the perpetrators in the same breath. It’s an amazing feat.

The stacked cast helps carry so much of the film’s burdon. Young Roman Griffin Davis is tasked with making us care about a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Nazi. His fervor is icky, to be sure, but his compassion overwhelms everything else. Likewise, Johannson amazes as Jojo’s mother. She hasn’t played a character this spirited in a long time, and her connection with Jojo serves as the film’s moral center. She abhors what her son wants to be, but also sees through the facade he’s constructed.

Jojo Rabbit, like all good satire, doesn’t pull punches. The film firmly places its finger right in the eye of Europe’s troubling past, but it also manages to show that even amongst the death, bombardment and xenophobia, not everyone gave up their soul to hate.