By Alex McPherson

A lusciously stylish descent into nostalgic madness, director Edgar Wright’s new film, “Last Night in Soho,” can’t match its technical brilliance with satisfying storytelling.

The film follows Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), a naive soul obsessed with the 1960’s who leaves her rural village to study at the London School of Fashion. She’s haunted by ghostly apparitions, including her mother, a fashion designer who died when Eloise was seven.

Out of a desire to make it big and follow in her mother’s footsteps, Eloise arrives in the big city, unprepared for what she’ll find — social alienation. Her roommate, mean girl Jocasta (Synnove Karlsen), and others judge her for her supposedly antiquated interests, while pervy men casually harass her. To get away, Eloise rents a West London apartment maintained by a wryly funny landlady (the late Diana Rigg, giving a glorious performance in her final role). The room Eloise rents — bathed in flashing red and blue neon light — seems pleasant enough, if a bit creepy. 

One night in her slumber, Eloise is transported back to the 60’s to live in the shoes of Sandie (Anya Taylor Joy), an up-and-coming singer who wants to become the next Cilla Black. An embodiment of the sort of confident, ambitious woman that Eloise hopes to become one day — and a chanteuse able to sing a killer rendition of “Downtown” — Eloise quickly becomes infatuated with her. However, darker truths are revealed when Sandie gets involved with an alluring, slimy bugger named Jack (Matt Smith) who promises to make her a star. Sandie’s traumatic experiences start bleeding into Eloise’s present as increasingly morbid visions impact her waking life.

This storyline represents an interesting deviation from Wright’s male-driven comedy background. Unfortunately, “Last Night in Soho” feels jumbled, with a spellbinding first half that devolves into clichés by the conclusion. Still, the film is invigorating thanks to its deft craftsmanship and wholehearted performances from the entire cast, McKenzie and Taylor-Joy especially.

Indeed, Eloise is a sympathetic protagonist, a youthful fish-out-of-water struggling to fit in. McKenzie’s acting lends her an innocent vulnerability, making her rapid infatuation with Sandie somewhat believable, and her later descent into paranoia all the more disturbing. The last third requires McKenzie to be in constant panic mode, yet she keeps emotions grounded when the script proceeds in absurd directions.  

Eloise’s initial time-traveling visions are utterly fantastic — throwing her (and viewers) into a decadent world of glitz and glamour that blocks out the darkness lurking beneath the flashiness, featuring the pervasive pop culture references that Wright specializes in. With shimmy-worthy tunes blaring in the background, these sequences are a pure joy, most notably a hypnotic dance sequence involving Taylor-Joy and McKenzie being swapped back-and-forth mid twirl.

“Last Night in Soho” shines in these instances, where Eloise and Sandie are experiencing the euphoric bliss of realizing their dreams with sky-high hopes for the future. This idea of escaping into an idealistic version of the past is, in fact, a key theme in “Last Night in Soho.” Eloise gradually sees the cracks in the facade, observing how the sexism of the time continues to infest the London of today, rendering her deeply traumatized. 

Although Wright and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns aren’t able to massage this concept into something truly impactful, Wright deploys nearly every cinematic tool at his disposal to catch viewers off-guard in the grim second half, in which the film shifts from a coming-of-age tale to a mystery to outright horror. Combining giallo-inflected, fever-dream lighting and camera movements with a soundscape mixing together classic tunes and foreboding ambiance with whispers of dialogue, “Last Night in Soho” depicts Eloise’s mental turmoil with immersive aplomb.

However, this jack-of-all-trades approach sacrifices the dramatic pull that could have elevated it to another level. Firstly, we don’t get to spend enough time with Sandie for her to feel like a fully developed character. Taylor-Joy brings a confident energy to her performance that’s always entertaining to watch, but Sandie is kept frustratingly distanced from viewers throughout. We only witness snippets from the highs and lows of Sandie’s burgeoning career, eschewing nuance to keep the story moving forward at an overly brisk pace. 

Additionally, when the horror arrives, “Last Night in Soho” has predictable jump scares and generic-looking baddies. It also lacks much of the clever self-awareness that helped make Wright’s other films so successful. Moments of dark comedy are certainly here — Terence Stamp chews scenery to a pulp as a sketchy creep who would fit in well among the “Greater Good” crowd — but “Last Night in Soho” takes itself quite seriously, even in its ludicrous finale, in which Sandie takes center-stage and Eloise’s arc is left frustratingly streamlined.

Along with a token Black character willing to risk his life for Eloise despite barely knowing her and an unnecessary slasher detour in the climax, the film becomes ever-more trippy, losing sight of the real societal issues that Wright and Wilson-Cairns obviously care so much about.

“Last Night in Soho” is easy to get lost in. When you peel back the curtain, though, it’s a cinematic ride built on a rickety foundation.

Thomasin McKenzie

“The Last Night in Soho” is a 2021 psychological mystery-thriller directed by Edgar Wright and starring Thomasin McKenzie, Anya Taylor-Joy, Diana Rigg, Terence Stamp, Matt Smith. Its run time is 1 hour, 56 minutes, and it is rated R for bloody violence, sexual content, language, brief drug material and brief graphic nudity. It opened in theatres Oct. 29. Alex’s Grade: B.

By Alex McPherson
Whenever Edgar Wright releases a new film, my heart races with anticipation. After such classics as “Shaun of the Dead” and my all-time favorite, “Hot Fuzz,” I had high expectations for his new documentary about the difficult-to-describe pop band known as Sparks. The film, aptly titled “The Sparks Brothers,” isn’t as fine-tuned as his previous efforts, despite Wright’s stylistic touches and the likability of the subjects at its center.

“The Sparks Brothers” chronicles the rickety journey of brothers Ron and Russell Mael — two individuals passionate about staying true to their creative spirit, despite outside pressures. Growing up in Los Angeles with a love of music and French New Wave cinema, Ron and Russell were eager to make a name for themselves by walking paths less taken. As a result, their artistic “genius” — rammed into our heads by a huge group of interviewees, including Flea, “Weird Al” Yankovic, and Neil Gaiman — was often overlooked by record companies, nevertheless influencing a number of successful bands down the road. They have remained steadfast in their desire to create art, frequently layered with social commentary, that never panders to a given audience and remains beautifully unpredictable. Wright’s film, organizing their story by spotlighting specific songs from each of their 25 albums, aims to finally give them the recognition they merit.

An energetic, inspiring, yet overly glowing music documentary, “The Sparks Brothers” feels like a film made by Sparks fans for Sparks fans. Viewers previously unaware of the band, like myself, will likely leave the film with an urge to listen to some Sparks songs and not much else. Sure, perhaps Wright wasn’t aiming to “move” viewers, but when the two-hour mark rolls around, hearing the huge pool of interviewees gush about how much they love Sparks grows tiresome.

“The Sparks Brothers” is, thankfully, a much more self-aware documentary than most others I’ve seen, filled with Wright’s signature quick-cuts and sight gags that usually put a smile on my face. He incorporates archival footage, stop-motion animation, and staged reenactments to visualize anecdotes during Spark’s tumultuous history. For example, to complement discussion of Spark’s beginnings, we see shots of a colorful bird spreading its wings, and shots of doors being shut in people’s faces when they struggle to get signed. These moments don’t necessarily add poignancy to the proceedings, but their charm helps keep the film moving when the runtime threatens to derail my interest.

It doesn’t hurt that Ron and Russell are excellent interview subjects, each with a dry sense of humor that fits perfectly among the characters in Wright’s filmography. Russell, the more traditionally handsome, outgoing one, is effectively contrasted with Ron, who dons an Adolf Hitler/Charlie Chaplin mustache and retains stoic facial expressions. They seem inseparable, sticking together through challenges, even when they dip in popularity and end up abruptly abandoning those they collaborate with. While we don’t get an in-depth look at their personal lives or their songwriting process, their desire to create songs that challenge and entertain is admirable.

Anecdotes about mishaps onstage, their love lives, and unfortunate cinematic involvement are amusing, albeit not especially compelling from an outsider perspective. When specific songs and album covers are discussed, on the other hand, “The Sparks Brothers” is considerably more appealing. The surprising themes of “Tits” and the stylistic subversion of “Kimono My House” are enlightening. I wish “The Sparks Brothers” contained more of this deeper analysis, and spent less time on famous interviewees repeating themselves about how godlike the band is. A tight, 90-minute cut is in there somewhere, but two-hours-and-twenty-minutes is really pushing it. Maybe Wright’s excess matches those of the Mael brothers themselves, though, marking their big-screen treatment with the showmanship they deserve (at least until their new project alongside Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, and French director Leos Carax releases later this year).

When the dust has settled, “The Sparks Brothers” feels somewhat superfluous, but remains passably engaging through to the end. Watching the film in two sittings could provide a more satisfying experience, but I’m eager to add Sparks to my playlists, so perhaps that’s good enough.

Sparks_By_Anna_Webber_9 c Ron Mael and Russell Mael star in Edgar Wright’s documentary THE SPARKS BROTHERS, a Focus Features release. Credit: Anna Webber / Focus Features

“The Sparks Brothers” is a 2021 documentary directed by Edgar Wright. It is Rated R for language and runs 2 hours, 15 minutes. Alex’s Grade: B-. The film is in theaters June 18.