Review: ‘The Forgiven’ (2022), starring Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain

July 15, 2022

by Carla Hay

Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain in “The Forgiven” (Photo by Nick Wall/Vertical Entertainment and Roadside Attractions)

“The Forgiven” (2022)

Directed by John Michael McDonagh

Some language in Arabic and Tamazight with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains area and the city of Tangier, the dramatic film “The Forgiven” features a cast of white and Middle Eastern characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: While on vacation in Morocco, two unhappily married, upper-middle-class spouses (he’s British, she’s American) are involved in a drunk-driving car accident that kills a teenage boy, and they use their privilege to avoid being arrested for the crime but must face judgment from the boy’s father. 

Culture Audience: “The Forgiven” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain, as well as to viewers who are interested in tension-filled movies about people who have conflicts with laws and customs in foreign countries.

Pictured clockwise, from left: Ismael Kanater, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Caleb Landry Jones and Mourad Zaoui in “The Forgiven” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment and Roadside Attractions)

The dramatic film “The Forgiven” doesn’t flow as well as it should for a piercing look at spoiled and entitled people who use their privilege as a weapon and as a shield. However, the performances are worth watching to see how terrible people can be their own worst enemies. In other words, “The Forgiven” is not a “feel good” movie. Be prepared to witness a lot of self-absorbed and insufferable conduct from snobs and bigots who think a lot of “real world” rules and manners don’t apply to them unless they can get something out of it.

Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, “The Forgiven” is based on Lawrence Osborne’s 2012 novel of the same name. The movie has the tremendous benefit of a talented cast that can turn some of the soap opera-ish dialogue and make it into something resembling a satire of the pompous characters who cause the most damage. Although the story is fictional, there are plenty of real-life examples of people who act this way. “The Forgiven” had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival and its U.S. premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

The movie’s opening scene sets the tone for the unpleasantness to come. British oncologist David Henninger (played by Ralph Fiennes) and his American wife Jo Henninger (played by Jessica Chastain), who live in London, have arrived in Tangier, Morocco, to attend an Atlas Mountains party thrown by a wealthy gay couple whom David and Jo have known for an unnamed period of time. David and Jo have no children and have been married for 12 years. But it only takes a few minutes into the movie before their bickering starts.

David thinks Jo is a shrewish nag. Jo calls David a “high-functioning alcoholic.” He responds by saying that “high-functioning” cancels out “alcoholic.” David knows that Jo is correct because he really is an alcoholic. If David is awake, chances are he’s drinking alcohol. And his alcoholism is a direct cause of the car accident that results in a tragedy.

Later, it’s revealed in the movie that Jo is a children’s book author whose books have never been bestsellers. She also hasn’t written any books for the past eight years. It’s unknown if frustrations over her career and marriage have made Jo such a bitter person, or if Jo already had this type of personality before she married David. However, what’s obvious is that Jo and David are both deeply unhappy people—together and apart.

Before David and Jo arrive at their party destination, the movie shows a scene of two Moroccan teenage boys (who are about 15 or 16 years old) in a cliff area of Atlas Mountains. One of the boys is sniffing glue from a plastic bag. Viewers later find out that his name is Driss Taheri (played by Omar Ghazaoui) and that he and his friend Ismael (played by Aissam Taamart) sell fossil rocks as a way to make some money.

As Ismael hammers at some rocks to find fossils, Driss scolds Ismael for never leaving their village or never having ambitions to leave for bigger and better things. Ismael replies by saying that he doesn’t have the money to leave. Driss says there’s always a way to get money. Poverty in this community becomes a big issue later on in the story.

“The Forgiven” then shows David and Jo in their rental car going from Tangier on the way to the party in the High Atlas Mountains. It’s nighttime on a deserted road, and David is driving, although he probably shouldn’t be driving, because he’s more than likely well past the alcohol legal limit to drive. Jo and David get lost and are arguing some more when tragedy strikes: The car hits a teenage boy who suddenly appears in front of the car on the road. He is killed instantly.

Meanwhile, viewers see several people who are gathered for this house party. The party hosts are wealthy British real estate developer Richard Galloway (played by Matt Smith) and his American boyfriend Dally Margolis (played by Caleb Landry Jones), a very pretentious couple who threw this party mainly to show off some of their wealth. The home where Richard and Dally are having this multi-day party is big enough that most of the guests (including Jo and David) will be staying overnight on the property.

With the guests gathered in an outdoor patio area, Richard gives a speech bragging about all the fine delicacies and luxuries that the guests can see and enjoy during this soiree. He adds, “We hope you’ll find this place a vision of paradise, a place in which to receive the people we love.” It’s a very shallow speech because it’s questionable if anyone in this group of partiers really loves each other.

Richard then says, “And don’t forget the figs—typically representative of a woman’s vagina.” Dally, who is standing near Richard, giggles in response: “Or so we’ve been told.” This is the type of dialogue that’s in a lot of “The Forgiven.” It’s indicative of how some people who are rich when it comes to money and property can still lack class.

Other guests at the party also conduct themselves with an air of jaded superiority at being in this luxurious environment. Financial analyst Tom Day (played by Christopher Abbott) is a smirking and lecherous American, who tells Richard: “I’ve got three girlfriends. They all hate me.”

Cody (played by Abbey Lee), who is also American, is the requisite modelesque-looking “party girl” who’s often too intoxicated to comprehend where she is and what she’s doing. When Cody dances drunkenly near Tom, he tells her that his wife left him because she ran off with a hedge fund manager. Later in the movie, there’s a random and very out-of-place scene of Cody wandering around lost in the desert on the day after the party started.

French photographer Isabelle Péret (played by Marie-Josée Croze) takes photos at the party and has a mild flirtation with Tom when they have a conversation. Leila Tarki (played by Imane El Mechrafi) is an independent filmmaker whom Isabelle greatly admires. At the party, Isabelle points out Leila to Tom and describes Leila as “the Moroccan auteur. She’s the coolest.” Isabelle also mentions that Leila is in Morocco to raise funds for Leila’s new movie, which will be about nomads.

Maisy Joyce (played by Fiona O’Shaughnessy), whose occupation or social purpose is never stated, is a gossipy guest who makes low-key snarky comments about everyone she observes. When she meets Tom, she bluntly asks him: “Are you gay?” Tom replies, “No, but I fucked a man who is.” Tom is the type of person who doesn’t make it clear if he’s telling the truth or if he’s joking when he makes this type of statement.

Later, two other party guests show up: middle-aged playboy William Joyce (played by David McSavage) and Maribel (played by Briana Belle), one of William’s much-younger trophy girlfriends. All of these party guests, except for David and Jo, end up being backdrops to the drama that unfolds because of the car accident. It should come as no surprise that the party continues as planned, even though the dead boy’s body is temporarily brought to the house.

Richard gets a call from David during the party and hears the horrible news about the car accident and death. David and Jo are in a panic because they’re afraid of being arrested for the death of this child, whom they say has no identification. Richard reluctantly allows Jo and David to come over to the house, so they can talk about what to do next. The body of the boy has been put in their car.

Richard sends his most trusted employee Hamid (played by Mourad Zaoui) and some other servants to escort David and Jo back to the house. Hamid can speak Arabic and English, so he acts as the main translator in this story. He also advises the Westerners about Moroccan and Muslim customs and traditions.

Dally is very nervous and thinks that he and Richard shouldn’t get involved in this car accident case, but Richard thinks that the local police can be bribed if necessary. Richard and David are also alumni of the same elite university (which is unnamed in the movie), so Richard feels obligated to help David. Richard mentions this alumni connection on more than one occasion, such as when Richard repeats stories he heard about David being a notorious troublemaker at the school.

Richard tells some people that one of the stories he heard was that David went on top of a building to drop mice wearing miniature Nazi flags on some school officials. The mice died, of course. Whoever committed this disturbing act was never caught, but David was widely believed to be the culprit. It was apparently someone’s warped way telling these school officials that they act like Nazis. And if David was the culprit, it’s an example of how he’s been an awful person for a very long time.

Before the police are called about the car accident and death that David caused, Richard advises David and Jo to act as remorseful as possible to increase the chances that they won’t be charged with any crime. Jo is willing to take that advice, but David balks at the suggestion because he doesn’t think he did anything wrong. David blames the boy for being out in the road at night.

And it isn’t long before David’s story begins to morph into saying that the boy was probably trying to commit a carjacking. David and Jo, on separate occasions, also express fear that this car accident victim could have been an ISIS terrorist. It’s blatant racism, but racists like David and Jo don’t care.

The police arrive and take statements from David and Jo. The chief investigator is Captain Benihadd (played by Ben Affan), who quickly determines (within 15 minutes) that the death was an accident and that David and Jo won’t be arrested. David doesn’t get asked to take a sobriety test or any test that would detect the level of alcohol or drugs in his system. Viewers with enough common sense can easily see why David doesn’t get much scrutiny by police who want to be deferential to people who appear to be rich.

After it’s declared that David and Jo won’t be arrested, Richard’s relief turns to dismay when he finds out that because the morgue won’t be open until the next day, the body has to stay on Richard’s property until it can be transported to the morgue. As far as Richard is concerned, it puts a damper on the party. Richard, Dally and David aren’t as concerned about how this child victim belongs to a family who will eventually hear the devastating news about his death. Jo shows a little more compassion and guilt, but not enough to erase her racism, since she automatically makes the racist assumption that the boy who was killed could be a member of ISIS.

Even though the police didn’t find any identification for the boy, and none of the people who saw his body say they know him, he does have a name: Driss Taheri. David, Jo and the other people at Richard’s house who know about this death will eventually find out Driss’ name. But even after they find out his name, they often won’t say it, as if it’s easier to think of him as nameless and unwanted. Privately, David makes this callous remark to Jo, “I hate to say it, but the kid is a nobody.”

The next day, David is riding horses with Isabelle and Macy, as if they don’t have a care in the world. A few Moroccan boys suddenly appear and throw rocks at David before the boys run away. One of the rocks hits David on the head hard enough that he gets a bloody injury on his head, and he falls off of the horse. The injury is not serious enough for him to go to a hospital though.

David nastily complains to Jo that people in the community must have found out that he was the one who caused the death of a local child. David shows more of his racism and xenophobia when he says, “They’re insatiable gossips. It’s a function of being illiterate.” Jo sarcastically replies, “What a nice little facist you’ve become since being hit by a stone.”

The way that these self-centered partiers find out Driss’ identity is when his grieving and distraught father Adbdellah Taheri (played by Ismael Kanater) shows up the next day at Richard’s house to claim the body and to talk to the people responsible for Driss’ death. Driss was his only child. (Driss’ mother is not seen or mentioned in the movie.)

With Hamid acting as a translator, David finds out that Adbdellah wants some kind of payment from David to compensate for Driss’ tragic death. Adbdellah initially didn’t want any payment, but he changes his mind when he sees that David seems very cold and uncaring about killing Driss. David flatly refuses this demand for payment.

Adbdellah also insists that David accompany Adbdellah back to Adbdellah’s home in the Moroccan region of Tafilalt, to atone for the killing, out of respect for Muslim tradition. David reluctantly agrees to this request, even though he and Jo are paranoid that it could be a trap set by “ISIS terrorists.” David goes on this trip because he also thinks it will get Adbdellah to stop expecting money from David.

The rest of “The Forgiven” shows what happens during David’s “atonement” visit, what Jo does when David is away, and the aftermath of decisions and actions that are made. The movie has flashbacks to the moments immediately before and after Driss was struck by the car and killed. These flashbacks give a clearer picture of who David and Jo really are and how they responded to this crisis.

Fiennes and Chastain give skillful but not outstanding performances as snooty pessimists who are trapped in misery of their own making. It’s never really made clear how long David has been an alcoholic, but he doesn’t have any intention of getting rehab treatment for his addiction, even after causing someone’s death because David was driving drunk. As for Jo, she’s got her own issues, because she feels like a failure who has no purpose in life.

“The Forgiven” is not going to appeal to viewers who are expecting a movie where most of the people are “likable.” The movie holds up a mirror to people who want to project an image of being “glamorous” but they actually have very ugly personalities. There’s a certain point where the movie’s ending is easy to predict. Considering all the clues pointing to this ending, it doesn’t feel like a shock but like something that was bound to happen.

Vertical Entertainment and Roadside Attractions released “The Forgiven” in select U.S. cinemas on July 1, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on July 15, 2022.

Review: ‘Morbius,’ starring Jared Leto

March 30, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jared Leto in “Morbius” (Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

“Morbius”

Directed by Daniel Espinosa

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in the New York City metropolitan area (and briefly in Costa Rica, Greece and Sweden), the horror/action film “Morbius” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A brilliant but illness-plagued biochemist named Dr. Michael Morbius finds the cure to diseases and death, but it comes at a price of becoming a superpowered vampire who craves human blood. 

Culture Audience: “Morbius” will appeal primarily to people interested in movies adapted from Marvel comic books, but the movie’s weak screenplay ultimately lowers the quality of this already-mediocre film.

Jared Leto and Adria Arjona in “Morbius” (Photo by Jay Maidment/Columbia Pictures)

“Morbius” works better as a horror movie than as a vampire superhero origin story that’s supposed to have a place in the “Spider-Man” franchise. “Morbius” has too many plot holes and not enough personality for it to ever be considered a classic superhero film. In fact, “Morbius” recycles so many familiar vampire clichés and action battle scenes, viewers will feel like they’ve already seen the movie before it even ends.

And so, what’s a stereotypical movie to do when it doesn’t have a lot of new ideas to offer? It usually has to rely on the charisma of the cast members to engage viewers in a way that will make audiences feel personally invested in what happens to the characters. But that charisma is mostly lacking in “Morbius,” which has a very talented cast that is limited by uninspired dialogue that renders their characters as nothing more than generic and hollow. “Morbius” was directed by Daniel Espinosa and written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless.

That’s not to say that “Morbius” is a complete waste of time. The movie’s visual effects, although not spectacular, still get the job done well enough that they look convincing in most parts of the film. And the acting isn’t terrible. The performances in “Morbius” just are not up to the memorable standards they could be for audiences who have become used to superhero movies where the main characters have strong and distinctive personalities.

Even as an origin story, “Morbius” falls flat. Dr. Michael Morbius (played by Jared Leto), a brilliant biochemist, is first seen in Costa Rica with a team of people, as he entices a cave full of bats out of the cave, by taking a knife and using it to slice the palm of his hand with a superficial wound that draws blood. Considering that bats wouldn’t just swarm out of a cave because they saw or smelled a human being’s bleeding hand, this scene is supposed to show these are no ordinary bats. They’re vampire bats.

“Morbius” then abruptly cuts to a flashback that takes place 25 years earlier in Greece. Michael (played by Charlie Shotwell), at the age of about 12 or 13, is in a children’s ward of a hospital when he gets a shy new roommate who’s about the same age. The newcomer’s name is Lucien Crown (played by Joseph Esson), although Michael insists on calling him Milo. This new roommate quickly goes along with being called by this new name, with the implication being that he’s got self-esteem issues and is desperate for a new identity. Milo uses crutches to walk and needs a machine to help him breathe.

The two boys have health problems that mostly confine them to their rooms, so they know what it’s like to feel like outcasts. From their hospital window, Michael and Milo can see bratty schoolboys, who are about the same age, taunting them for having health issues. Milo asks Michael after one of these tauntings: “What would you do if you could be normal for just one hour?” Michael curtly answers, “I don’t think about it.”

Milo and Michael become fast friends, with Michael being the more assertive and confident of the two. Michael tells Milo that they’re both in this hospital because they have the same blood disease and because “there’s something missing from our DNA,” so they are undergoing experiments. A scientist named Dr. Emil Nicholas (played by Jared Harris) is the leader of these experiments.

Dr. Nicholas is kind and paternal to Michael and Milo. Where are these boys’ parents or other family members? The movie never answers that question. However, people familiar with Morbius from Marvel Comics already know that Milo comes from a wealthy family, while Morbius was raised by a single mother. The Morbius in this movie never talks about his family or anything else about his background.

One day, Michael saves Milo’s life. When Milo’s breathing machine malfunctions, and Milo loses consciousness, Michael is able to quickly solve the problem. He fixes the machine by removing a tiny spring of coiled wire. Dr. Nicholas is so impressed with Michael’s problem-solving skills, he tells Michael that Michael will be sent to a school for gifted children.

Before Michael leaves, he writes a letter to Milo in which he promises that they will see each other again. Soon after Michael leaves, Milo is outside and being harassed by some of the bullies who have found Milo carrying this letter. The harassment turns into an assault that’s halted when Dr. Nicholas comes to Milo’s rescue.

The movie then flash-forwards to the present day. An adult Dr. Morbius is on stage in Sweden and about to receive the Nobel Prize. At this point in his life, he uses arm braces to walk. While a Nobel Prize official makes an introductory speech, it’s mentioned that Morbius was a prodigy who completed his doctorate at the age of 19. Viewers never get to see what happens next, but it’s described in the next scene.

“Morbius” then makes an abrupt time shift once again. He’s now back in New York City, where he lives. Morbius works at a hospital and has built has a scientific lab on a cargo ship, where he can do his top-secret experiments. While attending to a patient—a girl named Anna (played by Zaris-Angel Hator), who’s about 9 or 10 years old—she says to him, “I can’t believe you dissed the king and queen of Sweden.” Morbius then makes an anti-monarchist comment in response.

What happened on the way to Morbius getting a Nobel Prize? A newspaper headline reveals that he refused the prize, after going to all the trouble of being at the ceremony. This was a missed opportunity for the filmmakers to show Morbius having an irreverent, maybe mischievous side that made Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark/Iron Man so fun to watch for many fans of superhero movies. Unfortunately, what happened on that Nobel Prize stage stayed on that Nobel Prize stage, only to leave it up to viewers’ imagination what kind of uproar Morbius caused at that event.

Morbius’ closest colleague is Dr. Martine Bancroft (played by Adria Arjona), who is more cautious than Morbius is, when it comes to his radical experiments. She warns him that she knows he’s doing experiments that mix good DNA and bad DNA, and he could lose his medical license if authorities found out. Morbius is undeterred by Martine’s concerns. Martine later becomes Morbius’ obvious potential love interest, even though Leto and Arjona have little to no romantic chemistry together.

Meanwhile, Morbius’ former childhood friend Milo (played by Matt Smith) and Dr. Nicholas are both in New York City too. Milo (who is now a flashy extrovert, in contrast to how introverted he was as a child) is eager to get the same serum that Morbius has been working on to cure them both of their blood diseases. Morbius tells Milo that he can’t have any of the serum until Morbius tests it on himself first. You know where this is going, of course.

Because “Morbius” is a comic-book movie, viewers have to suspend disbelief that within this hospital, Morbius works in a lab with a large cylindrical cage full of bats. It’s implied that these are the same bats that Morbius got in Costa Rica. Morbius wants to see if he can solve his health problems by infusing his DNA with bat DNA in a serum, so that Morbius can not only eliminate his illnesses, he can also possibly live forever. Try to read that without laughing.

A trial test on a mouse proves to be successful. And the next thing you know, Morbius and Martine are on the cargo ship off of the coast of Long Island, so she can inject him with the serum. Why have the lab on a cargo ship, which is out in the open and would put it on the radar of the U.S. Coast Guard or other entities that monitor sea vessels? Don’t expect an answer for that either.

It’s all just a way for Morbius to end up killing people when the serum experiment goes very wrong, and he finds out that he has become a homicidal vampire who craves human blood. A massacre ensues that leaves eight people dead on the ship, with Morbius and Martine as the only survivors. Martine’s injuries (she was knocked down by one of the ship’s crew members) leave her recovering in a hospital. It won’t be the last time she gets seriously injured in this movie.

Meanwhile, the formerly sickly-looking Morbius finds out he’s now healthy with an athletic physique and superpowers, but he’s also a vampire who now craves human blood. Morbius is horrified and deeply ashamed of what he’s become, and he wants to make things right by trying to reverse the serum. However, he’s the main suspect in the cargo ship massacre, so he goes into hiding. And where does this fugitive go when authorities are looking for him? Right back to his workplace, where no one seems to notice that he no longer has to use braces to walk.

Two agents from the FBI are hot on Morbius’ trail: Simon Stroud (played by Tyrese Gibson) and Alberto Ramirez (played by Al Madrigal), whose names are not Mutt and Jeff, even though they act like Mutt and Jeff stereotypes. Agent Stroud is the stoic, no-nonsense type. Agent Ramierz is the goofy, nervous type. Agents Stroud and Ramirez are assigned to the FBI’s Department of Enhanced Individuals.

That’s why these FBI agents don’t really seem shocked when Morbius is brought in for questioning, and he starts to partially transform into a vampire right in front of them. Agent Ramirez brings holy water to protect himself in this interrogation, while Agent Stroud somewhat scoffs at Agent Ramirez’s fear of vampires. It’s enough to say that Morbius’ stint in a detention center is short-lived, and he goes on the run again.

The rest of “Morbius” is essentially a “vampire on the loose” story, with the FBI trying to capture Morbius, who gets blamed for some more vampire murders that he did not commit. The movie falters in how certain fights involving Morbius (such as a major brawl that happens in a subway station) are treated as everyday occurrences and certainly not investigated adequately by law enforcement that has launched a massive manhunt (or is it vampire hunt?) for Morbius. But viewers can’t really take this “massive manhunt” seriously when Agents Stroud and Ramirez are the only FBI officials who seem to be available to show up and investigate the vampire crime scenes.

The action sequences in “Morbius” liven up an otherwise dull storyline that lacks originality. Smith seems to be having some campy fun in his role as the adult Milo. Leto has done much better work elsewhere, although “Morbius” certainly isn’t his worst movie. The rest of the cast members are serviceable in their average roles.

Two mid-credits scenes tease Morbius’ involvement with a character who was in 2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” Who this character is not a secret, but it won’t be mentioned in this review anyway, so as not to spoil the surprise for viewers who don’t know. Spider-Man and Venom both get briefly mentioned in “Morbius.” It’s enough to say, based on what the underwhelming “Morbius” has to offer, any future “Morbius” movies—just like many other superhero movies—might have to rely on Spider-Man to bring more excitement to the story.

Columbia Pictures will release “Morbius” in U.S. cinemas on April 1, 2022.

Review: ‘Last Night in Soho,’ starring Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy

October 28, 2021

by Carla Hay

Anya Taylor-Joy and Thomasin McKenzie in “Last Night in Soho” (Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh/Focus Features)

Last Night in Soho”

Directed by Edgar Wright

Culture Representation: Taking place in England (mostly in London), the horror film “Last Night in Soho” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A fashion student in London has nightmarish visions of a nightclub singer from the 1960s. 

Culture Audience: “Last Night in Soho” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Edgar Wright and horror stories that have intriguing murder mysteries.

Matt Smith and Anya Taylor-Joy in “Last Night in Soho” (Photo by Parisa Taghizadeh/Focus Features)

Stylish and unnerving, “Last Night in Soho” is a mind-bending, time-jumping psychological horror movie that is riveting from beginning to end. The movie wears its retro influences (such as Italian giallo horror movies) on its vibrantly hued cinematic sleeves. It’s an homage to Swinging London in the 1960s as much as it’s a nod to how feminist issues have changed (or remained the same) since then. “Last Night in Soho” gets a little too conventional in its last 15 minutes, but the movie overall is an above-average thriller that’s elevated by compelling performances. Get ready for a spooky and fabulous ride.

Edgar Wright directed “Last Night in Soho” and co-wrote the screenplay with Krysty Wilson-Cairns. Wright is also one of the movie’s producers. Although “Last Night in Soho” is not the first horror movie from Wright (his filmography includes the zombie flick “Shaun of the Dead,” his 2004 feature-film debut), “Last Night in Soho” is a departure for Wright in many ways. And it was a risk that paid off to be one of his most accomplished films in years.

For starters, “Last Night in Soho” is Wright’s first movie where women are the main protagonists. As such, it made sense that he collaborated with a female screenwriter for the movie; it’s the first time there’s a female co-writer on a feature film that he’s directed. “Last Night in Soho” also marks a big change in Wright’s typical comedic tone for his movies, because “Last Night in Soho” is most definitely not a horror comedy. The movie does not let up in its intent to terrify and keep viewers on edge to see what happens next. And, for a lot of people, that’s the best kind of horror movie.

“Last Night in Soho” begins with a whimsical opening sequence of British protagonist Eloise Turner (played by Thomasin McKenzie), a young woman in her late teens, who is at her home in a small town in England’s Cornwall county. She’s whirling around and dancing joyfully in a mid-length flare gown made of newspaper, as Peter and Gordon’s 1964 hit “A World Without Love” plays on her turntable in her bedroom. It’s a gown that Eloise designed herself because she’s an aspiring fashion designer, but she doesn’t have the money for luxurious fabric.

Eloise has a pixie-ish, otherworldy air about her, almost like she stepped out from a time machine from the 1960s. However, Eloise isn’t from the 1960s, the era of her grandmother’s youth. Eloise is currently living in the early 2020s, but she has a fascination with pop culture and fashion from the 1960s. Her collection of vinyl records consists almost entirely of 1960s music. She also prefers literature and movies from the 1960s.

Eloise is a shy loner who lives with her widowed grandmother Peggy (played by Rita Tushingham) in a cozy house. A love of fashion runs in the family. Peggy is a seamstress. Eloise’s unnamed mother (Peggy’s daughter) was also an aspiring fashion designer. Tragically, Eloise’s mother committed suicide when Eloise was 7. Eloise’s father has not been in her life. Viewers will get the impression that Eloise’s father was never in her life because she never talks about him.

Peggy is a loving and somewhat over-protective grandmother, whose nickname for Eloise is Ellie. Eloise and Peggy have mutual respect for one another, but it become immediately apparent that Eloise (who recently graduated from high school) is restless and ready to move out and into her own place. Eloise applied to London College of Fashion, a prestigious institute. And when Eloise gets the acceptance letter in the mail, she’s elated.

Eloise breaks the news to Peggy, whose response is more cautious. London is where Peggy’s daughter moved to pursue her fashion career too. It’s implied that Peggy somewhat blames London for aggravating whatever led to the suicide of her daughter. Peggy warns Eloise: “London can be a lot … Your mother didn’t have your gift.” And Peggy isn’t talking about the gift of fashion designing.

It doesn’t take long for the movie to reveal that Eloise has psychic abilities. The first big clue is in the opening scene, when Eloise looks in her bedroom mirror while wearing her homemade dress, and she sees her mother smiling and standing next to her. Aimee Cassettari portrays Eloise’s mother, who appears in Eloise’s visions more than once in the movie.

Eloise is legally an adult, so she’s free to live on her own. Peggy doesn’t discourage Eloise from pursuing her dreams, but she tells her granddaughter that she’s welcome to move back with Peggy in this small town if things don’t work out for Eloise in London. And so, with a bittersweet farewell where they try not to break down and cry, Eloise has her bags packed and drives off in a taxi to her new life in the big city.

Eloise has been assigned to live in a hotel-like dormitory with other students from London College of Fashion. Her roommate is the talkative and worldly Jocasta (played by Synnøve Karlsen), who is also a first-year student at the fashion institute. Jocasta is originally from Manchester and thinks of herself as the hippest queen bee at the school.

The first sign of Jocasta’s pretentiousness is when she insists that no one use her last name. She explains that she wants to be a one-name celebrity. “Just like Kylie,” Jocasta tells Eloise. “Kylie Minogue?” asks Eloise. “No,” Jocasta says with exasperation, as if Eloise is stuck in the 20th century. “Kylie Jenner!”

In their first conversation together, Eloise and Jocasta tell each other a little bit about their backgrounds. When Eloise says where she’s from, Jocasta says in a pitying voice, “I’m sorry,” as if she really meant to say, “I’m sorry you’re a country bumpkin from a small town.” Jocasta also seems amused by Eloise’s homemade clothes, which Jocasta obviously thinks are unfashionable, unflattering and unsophisticated.

Jocasta softens up a little when she mentions that her mother is also dead: She passed away from leukemia when Jocasta was 15. But that empathetic side to Jocasta is short-lived. She has a “mean girl” streak that Eloise sees for the first time when she hangs out at a pub with Jocasta and three other female students from the dorm: Lara (played by Jessie Mei Li), Cami (played by Kassius Nelson) and Ashley (played by Rebecca Harrod), who do not have distinguishable personalities and are essentially echo chambers for Jocasta’s bullying nature.

On this night out, Eloise quickly notices that Jocasta, who seemed friendly to her in their first meeting, is actually mocking Eloise when she thinks Eloise isn’t looking. Jocasta also influences her cronies to laugh at Eloise too. At Eloise’s first time going to a dorm party in London, she’s timid, socially awkward, and isn’t interested in getting drunk or stoned like many of the other partiers.

When a drunk guy (played by Josh Zaré) aggressively flirts with Eloise at the party, a nice guy classmate from the fashion institute gets the rude partier to back off of Eloise. The gentleman student introduces himself to Louise. His name is John (played by Michael Ajao), and it’s obvious that he feels an immediate attraction to Eloise, who is inexperienced in dating. Eloise gets uncomfortable when she senses that men want to act on their sexual attraction to her. John is respectful to her and tries to initiate a friendship with Eloise. The movie shows how their relationship develops over time.

At London College of Fashion, Eloise gets encouragement in the classroom from a teacher named Ms. Tobin (played by Elizabeth Berrington), who thinks Eloise has a lot of talent and potential. Jocasta and her gaggle of mean girls continue with their catty whispering and thinly veiled insults directed at Eloise, who tries to ignore them. But the last straw for Eloise is when she overhears Jocasta telling the other girls in the clique that Eloise’s mother committed suicide, and Jocasta predicts that Eloise will go crazy and drop out of the school.

It’s enough for Eloise to look for a new place to live. She answers an ad to rent a room in a house owned by an elderly woman named Ms. Collins (played by the Diana Rigg), who is a no-nonsense landlord. Ms. Collins bluntly tells Eloise some of the rules of the house, including no male visitors after 8 p.m. and no loud partying. Rigg (who died in 2020, at he age of 82) was quite a casting coup for “One Night in Soho,” since she was a 1960s icon for her role as Emma Peel in “The Avengers” TV series.

It’s why there’s an air of authenticity to the story when Ms. Collins reminisces about her heyday in the 1960s. It’s a topic that Eloise is fascinated by, and Ms. Collins is pleasantly surprised by how much knowledge and reverence that Eloise has for 1960s culture. Eloise thinks she’s found an ideal place to live. But maybe Eloise should’ve paid more attention when Ms. Collins demanded two months’ rent as a deposit (instead of the usual one month’s rent), because Ms. Collins said that previous tenants had a tendency to quickly move out and break their lease.

Eloise’s bedroom is directly across from a business that flashes neon red and blue lights all night, so her room is often bathed in red and blue at night. It’s a striking visual motif that’s used throughout the movie and becomes increasingly sinister as the story goes on, and red becomes the dominant shade. At first, Eloise doesn’t mind the distraction of these blinking lights.

But then, Eloise’s seemingly peaceful existence in her new home is shattered when she starts having vivid nightmares. In these nightmares, Eloise has stepped back into the mid-1960s and is an invisible observer of the turbulent life of an ambitious, aspiring pop singer in her early 20s named Sandie (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), who’s looking for her big break at any nightclub that will book her. (Sandie spends a lot of time in London’s Soho district.) In these dreams/visions, Eloise can see herself in mirrors, but the people in the dreams can’t see her.

At times, it looks like Eloise has morphed into Sandie in these dreams. But it soon becomes apparent that it’s just wishful thinking from Eloise, who has a growing admiration of Sandie. At first, Eloise seems enchanted by what she thinks is Sandie’s glamorous and sexy life. Sandie is everything that Eloise is not: confident, extroverted, and someone who is unafraid to go after what she wants. Sandie also ends up influencing how Eloise designs clothes and how Eloise undergoes a makeover.

Sandie begins dating a slick, smooth-talking manager named Jack (played by Matt Smith), who has several female pop stars as his clients, including Cilla Black (played by Beth Singh), who has a brief singing performance in the movie. But (you knew this was coming), Jack is a playboy. And even though he helps Sandie with her career, at what cost will it come to Sandie’s heart or her life? As time goes on, Eloise’s dreams about Sandie become increasingly ominous until she’s certain that Sandie’s life is in danger.

Eloise is haunted by the feeling that Sandie was a real person, not a figment of Eloise’s imagination. Much of “Last Night in Soho” involves the untangling of this mystery. Eloise’s dreams-turned-nightmares about Sandie start to negatively affect Eloise at school, because she starts having alarming visions of Sandie during the day. Expect to see Eloise have more than one public freakout in this movie. Eloise and some of the people around her start to wonder if she’s going crazy.

Adding to the mystery, there’s an elderly man (played by Terence Stamp) who seems to be following Eloise, ever since she arrived in London. The identity of this man is eventually revealed. Meanwhile, when Eloise talks to her grandmother on the phone, Eloise pretends that everything is just fine.

“Last Night in Soho” has such great attention to detail in the movie’s production design and costume design, it’s an absolute visual treat to watch this movie. This is a movie that namechecks Biba, the now-defunct but still legendary department store that was a mecca for Swinging London fashionistas. In addition, “Last Night in Soho” has a well-chosen soundtrack (not just 1960s music) that perfectly conveys the mood that the filmmakers want for each scene. Petula Clark’s 1964 hit “Downtown” is used in a standout sequence.

But all of these assets would be wasted if the actors’ performances in the movie were substandard. All of the principal cast members bring emotional authenticity to their roles. Fortunately, McKenzie and Taylor-Joy, who are the heart and soul of the movie, give fascinating performances, filled with angst, happiness, vulnerability, strength and hope. Taylor-Joy does her own singing in some dazzling scenes where Sandie is showcased on stage. Taylor-Joy is American-born with an upbringing in Buenos Aires and London, so her British accent is authentic. In real life, McKenzie is from New Zealand, and her British accent in the movie is entirely believable.

Eloise and Sandie are two young women living in London and who seem to have very different lives and contrasting personalities. However, Eloise and Sandie share some things in common: They have to make decisions about how they want to pursue their dreams and how much they want their careers to be a part of their identities. And they both have no family in London and no real friends to turn to for support, so they have to make it on their own while navigating the emotional treachery of people who want to demean them.

“Last Night in Soho” also demonstrates larger issues that are relatable to women, such as thoughts and safety precautions that women have to experience when they are traveling alone that aren’t as major issues for men who travel alone. There’s a very realistic scene of Eloise trying to get herself out of a creepy situation when a middle-aged taxi driver (played by Colin Mace) tries to take advantage of her being new to London when Eloise is his passenger. At first, the driver appears to be friendly and chatty, but it soon becomes obvious he’s just trying to fish for private information about Eloise. He then tells Eloise in no uncertain terms that he’d like to get to know her better.

Eloise knows exactly what he means and what he wants. She astutely decides to be dropped off at a grocery store instead of her intended destination. Eloise peeks apprehensively from the store window as the taxi driver, like a stalker, waits in his car and watches for her to come out of the store. And she breathes a sigh of relief when he eventually drives off. Most women and teenage girls have experienced this type of stalker-ish unwanted attention.

Aside from Eloise’s nightmares, the movie lays bare the constant threat and damage of sexual harassment and sexual degradation that could always be a possibility when men with power decide to abuse their power with women. Even though Eloise is invisible to the people in Sandie’s world, Eloise becomes very protective of Sandie, who’s vulnerable to this type of disrepectful treatment. And this protectiveness taps into a rage that represents what a lot of women feel when they go through the same type of misogyny.

Eloise’s invisibility is symbolic of how many women feel invisible and powerless to stop this societal problem. “Last Night in Soho” does not get bogged down in any feminist preaching, and it does not lose sight of its intention to be a horror movie. But it’s a horror movie that will make viewers think beyond the gory scenes and think about what can happen when a feminine psyche is pushed to the limits.

Focus Features will release “Last Night in Soho” in U.S. cinemas on October 29, 2021.

Review: ‘His House,’ starring Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù and Wunmi Mosaku

January 28, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù in “His House” (Photo by Aidan Monaghan/Netflix)

“His House”

Directed by Remi Weekes

Some language in Sudanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in England and in South Sudan, the horror flick “His House” features a predominantly black cast of characters (with some white and Latino people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A refugee husband and wife flee from war-torn South Sudan to England but find a different kind of horror in their new home.

Culture Audience: “His House” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in horror movies that are more about dark psychological issues and society oppressions than bloody gore.

Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù and Wunmi Mosaku in “His House” (Photo by Aidan Monaghan/Netflix)

At first, the horror movie “His House” might appear to be a standard horror flick about a haunted house. There’s the surface-level plot that is common in movies with haunted house movies : A married couple moves into a new home, which is plagued by spirits that cause terror. But “His House” (the feature-film debut of writer/director Remi Weekes) delves much deeper than just the protagonists’ usual dilemma about what to do about the ghosts. It’s also a blistering meditation on trauma, both self-inflicted and that which is imposed by society.

In the beginning of “His House,” married couple Bol Majur (played by Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù) and Rial Majur (played by Wunmi Mosaku) are shown fleeing their native South Sudan by boat with other war refugees. They land in an unnamed part of England, but are quickly detained by immigration authorities. Bol and Rial are told by a condescending immigration official Mark Essworth (played by Matt Smith) that they will be freed from detention under certain conditions. “This is bail … not citizenship,” Mark tells the couple.

In exchange for their freedom, Bol and Rial are placed in a run-down housing development, where they are assigned a nearly empty house that’s also in a state of disrepair. The U.K. government has also assigned jobs to Bol and Rial, as a condition for the couple not to be deported. Living in the house comes with strict government rules: No guests, no smoking and no candles.

Mark tells Bol and Rial that they should feel lucky because this house is much larger than what the government gives to an undocumented immigrant couple. Rial is immediately suspicious. “Why are we so special?” she asks Mark. He replies, “You must’ve hit the jackpot.”

Bol and Rial try to make the best of the situation by looking at this new chapter in their lives with a positive attitude. Rial comments, “We will be new here.” Bol adds, “Born again.” However, it’s hard to overlook that the one-bedroom house is such a dump. It’s dirty, the wallpaper and paint are peeling, and the house’s electrical connections don’t always seem to work properly.

During the couple’s first night in the house, it becomes immediately apparent that things aren’t quite right there. Bol hears the sound of someone humming and then rustling sounds. And then, a bat flies through a hole in the wall after he sees a vision of Rial on the floor.

The area around the house is desolate and bleak. The neighbors keep to themselves, and so do Bol and Rial. The movie gives a slight feeling of disorientation when Bol visits a barber and asks him if they’re in London. And the barber gives a strange answer: “Why not?”

As time goes on, Bol and then Rial start to see frightening visions of people in the house. Sometimes the people appear to be hiding between the walls, while other times the people appear in the same rooms. During one startling incident, Bol finds behind peeling wallpaper that there’s a long rope attached to seaweed. He then sees a blonde girl doll, which a mysterious hand then quickly grabs and pulls back into the abyss.

Bol and Rial are terrified to tell people what they’re seeing in the house, because they don’t want to risk looking like crazy immigrants. If they report the house as haunted, they could be even more at risk for being deported. And they can’t move from the house, as per government rules that Bol and Ral agreed to, in order to avoid being deported. The best that Bol and Rial can do is report that the house is experiencing electrical problems, with the hope that government officials who come to inspect can possibly find the root of the problem.

As part of their government-sanctioned asylum, Bol and Rial get medical checkups. During Rial’s visit with a doctor, she explains why she has unusual marks on her body: While in South Sudan, she marked herself with the signs of both warring tribes so that she wouldn’t get killed. The idea was to confuse any possible captors about which was her real tribe. Later in the story, it’s revealed that before fleeing to England, Rial watched her entire family in South Sudan get murdered during a brutal massacre.

The rest of “Our House” gradually uncovers more layers to the story, and the details won’t be revealed in this review. However, it’s enough to say that there’s a family curse and a dead daughter that have a lot do with why Bol and Rial might be haunted by the spirits who inhabit the house. And certain characters aren’t necessarily who they first appear to be.

“His House” also has the added depth of being an immigrant story of people who are in a foreign country that they both admire and fear. In movies about haunted houses, the people being plagued by these ghosts are usually there of their own free will and won’t move because they’ve got too much invested financially in staying in the house. “His House” flips that typical narrative by making it a movie about people essentially forced to live in a haunted house, on orders of a government. This immigrant couple was seeking freedom in another country, but the irony is that in this new country, this husband and wife have essentially held captive by a government which is controlling their lives.

The movie is also about how trauma can be its own kind of prison. At various points in the story, viewers are left to wonder what might be “real” and what might be a hallucination. And as the visions get more threatening and oppressive, Bo and Rial have different ways of handling everything. “His House” plays guessing games about who might be more mentally unbalanced: Bo or Rial?

“His House” writer/director Weekes brings a “slow burn” terror to the story that has enough scares to make it a genuine horror movie. The movie does not get bogged down in too much bloody gore, which is the direction that many other movies of this type might go. Even though the house is dilapidated, Weekes brings almost a stylish gloom to the atmosphere when the ghosts appear.

“His House” is also not a typical haunted house movie where, one by one, people get killed in the house, because the Majurs are very much isolated in their new home. Dìrísù and Mosaku turn in admirable performances, especially when more of this couple’s background is revealed. The movie’s acting is effective, but the story’s real impact comes from the lingering feeling that people can move to different places, but they can’t really escape from emotional baggage.

Netflix premiered “His House” on October 30, 2020.

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