Tag: anya taylor-joy

The New Mutants

The New Mutants (2020)
★ / ★★★★

In the lounge of the secret facility where young adult mutants are confined so they can learn how to control their powers, Season 4 of Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is constantly playing on television, arguably the show’s worst season. There is a reason for this. The film and the cult TV show’s fourth year tackle a similar theme: identity. Despite this, I found myself wishing I were sitting through Buffy and the rest of the Scooby Gang’s first year in college than having to endure another interminable minute of “The New Mutants,” written by Josh Boone (who directs) and Knate Lee, an insipid, boring, spiritless, and highly expository dirge set somewhere in the “X-Men” universe. I dub it “X-Men on Quaaludes.”

For a movie revolving around teenagers with budding superpowers, not much of interest happens. The problem isn’t the fact that the patients are stuck in one location. An imaginative and well-written screenplay finds freedom within physical confines. Creating compelling characters outside of their superpowers—abilities that we’ve all seen before within and outside of the “X-Men” franchise—is the biggest hurdle the work is unable to overcome. Through flashbacks, nightmares, and imaginings we manage to take a peek into our heroes’ tragic pasts. However, once we have the necessary information, awful memories remain just that: they haunt, they force their possessor to assume the fetal position. Their bearers never undergo convincing arcs and so when the movie is finally over, we wonder what point the story is trying to make, if any.

The enigmatic facility is run by Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga), a mutant capable of generating powerful force fields. Although there are no walls or fences around the hospital, there is no escape. The newest arrival is a Native American named Dani (Blu Hunt), the sole survivor of a mysterious attack against her tribe. No one knows her power, not even herself. There are four other patients: spitfire Illyana (Anya Taylor-Joy, a scene-stealer) who possesses the power of teleportation (and her arm can change into a sword), the welcoming Rahne (Maisie Williams) who can transform into a wolf, the guilt-ridden Sam (Charlie Heaton) who can move faster than a rocket, and playboy Bobby (Henry Zaga) who can envelop his entire body into flames. These comic book characters are not translated in a way that works in a cinematic medium. As they clash and prance around nondescript hallways, I felt as though all of them are mere cardboard cutouts.

How can this be when the movie is so dialogue-heavy? There are at least three group therapy sessions with Dr. Reyes. A handful of moments where the teenagers hang out and measure each other up, particularly Dani and Illyana. And there is a budding romance between Dani and Rahne. It goes to show that just because characters are speaking to one another does not necessarily mean they are saying much. I felt awful for the performers because I felt their enthusiasm behind each portrayal. But they never stood a chance because the screenplay is dead in the water.

Of course the film must wrap up by employing visual effects extravaganza. I felt numb by all of it. It’s like walking into a room where a friend is attempting to defeat the final boss of a Japanese role-playing video game. It looks epic—Lights! Magic! Pulse-pounding score!—but it’s difficult to care because you don’t have the necessary context as to why that final battle is important for the avatars fighting. But watching the closing chapters of “The New Mutants” is actually worse because the visual effects are muddled at times and we did sit through the context yet it still fails to make an impact.


Emma. (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★

Despite being completely ignorant of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel of the same name, I had some idea of what I was in for due to the Austen brand: British high society, colorful and detailed clothing, beautiful estates and stunning outdoors, delectable food and expensive silverwares, posh dialogue that will bore most to tears. But something I did not expect: a titular character so unlikable, I likened her, at least initially, to a snake slithering in tall grass—always on the lookout for her next romantic project because she considers herself to have a such green thumb when it comes to matchmaking. In reality, she is terrible at it; not only are her chosen pairings devoid of chemistry, the futures we imagine for them is bleak and miserable.

Clearly, the work is a satire of class. From the opening frame it appears hyperbole is in its marrow as we follow the young and wealthy Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) sniffing flowers in the greenhouse while accompanied by help holding some sort of lantern—in broad daylight. This picture is peppered with so many quirky details that at some point I had to wonder if such elements were simply meant for laughs or if these were in fact accurate depictions of lifestyles at the time. In either case, I found entertainment and engagement in what is shown on screen; the direction by Autumn de Wilde is energetic, the script is witty, and there is terrific timing in the execution of the jokes—visual, aural, and what is simply felt given what we come to know about the characters and what they don’t know about one another.

The first half is an orchestra of Emma’s vanity and sheer ignorance of romance and romantic feelings—there is a difference—when she herself has never been in love and has declared never planning to marry. Taylor-Joy plays Emma with a certain slyness, an intelligence far beyond the character’s age and experience, and so I felt compelled to catch up to her and try to figure out her long-term goals when it comes to lovebirds she’s cramming into a cage.

Her arrogance is disgusting at times, especially when she looks down on the people whom she considers to be lower than her, whether it be in terms of money, reputation, education, or biology. (She is especially disapproving of the farmer that her most recent project, Harriet [Mia Goth], has her eyes on.) Despite Emma’s bad behavior, those within and outside of her social circle still feel obligated to look up to her, trust her, respect her. I think there is honesty in that depiction of the character. The privileged tend to get away with a whole lot.

Given she is our heroine, it would have been far too easy to overlook or excuse Emma’s wrongdoings after just one incident that blows up in her face. No, the screenplay by Eleanor Catton is correct to give the audience plenty of time to watch Emma feeling like—and realizing—the rotten person she has become (no matter how well-intentioned she is at times). Catharsis comes in the form us seeing the character we wish to root for finally realizing the errors of her ways. It does not depend on whether or not she finds a man to fall in love with (Johnny Flynn, Callum Turner)—although this subplot is present and possesses some level of predictability.

I think those who dive into the film with an open mind will find themselves surprised at some point. “Emma.” is not a tight-lipped, straight-faced, deoxygenated period comedy-drama. There is a risk-taking modernity in how Austen’s progressive source material is translated on screen. Choose to look beyond the heavy clothes, palatial homes, and how people speak. You’ll recognize a number of the things we still struggle with, individually and as a society, two centuries later. Only in this and age toxic influence is amplified by social media.


Thoroughbreds (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Cory Finley’s first feature film “Thoroughbreds” is a black comedy so bleak and straight-faced that it is likely to be mistaken for a thriller. After all, it involves a plotting of a murder by two former friends, Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke), recently reunited at the end of their final year of high school to study for college entrance exams. The latter is notorious as the girl who killed her family’s horse and she is now awaiting sentencing for animal cruelty. It is a daring project, which may work for some due to its occasional bouts of originality, but looking at it as a whole leaves a lot to be desired. Certainly its tale is not as fully realized as it should have been.

Nothing more can be asked of Taylor-Joy and Cooke because they play the characters with moment-to-moment intriguing vivacity. They manage to sell every line even though a handful of them sound like dialogue in a play. They are in command of how their characters express themselves, how they take up space, how they approach challenges or what they perceive to be challenges. The problem is, I think, the screenplay, the manner by which these characters lack a requisite arc in order for the story to come across genuine and for the audience to feel some sort of satisfaction when all is said and done. I felt no emotional connection to it, let alone emotional investment.

We are provided a template that Amanda is the unfeeling half, completely foreign to a range of feelings like happiness, sorrow, regret—some might say the very elements that separate humans from animals. Lily, on the other hand, is the complete opposite: too feeling, sensitive, consistently apologetic even during her moments of honesty. We are excited for how might the two will clash and complement one another during their conspiracy. I enjoyed that it tackles the question of how two people who lack empathy might relate with one another. Keeping their natures in mind, we dissect which emotions are real and which are convincing fabrications.

The heavy-handed dichotomy shoves the viewer in a state where one notices immediately things that do not quite belong. Despite the solid portrayals of Amanda and Lily, it doesn’t appear that they exist within a convincing environment. For instance, during intense exchanges between the girls, we hear a line or two that sounds like it should have been uttered in a play rather than a movie. It knocks us off-guard.

Although the scene recovers, the distraction is consequential enough for us to look away from the focal images and toward, for example, the presentation of a kitchen—not just how it is spotless, but also in how it appears to never have been used. Untouched utensils begin to look like props. Is the faucet even connected to a water line? The set looks like a set and we are reminded of it repeatedly. This is bothersome because the story unfolds indoors most of the time. There is an overall fragility and artificiality here that is alarming when one thing looks or sounds out of place—enough to take one out of a would-be intense experience.

I have always stated that dark comedy requires surgical precision. While an above average effort as a whole and some elements do work, “Thoroughbreds” is perhaps a kind of story that a filmmaker ought to make after he or she has made three or four strong films. Still, I admired writer-director Cory Finley for attempting to bring a challenging piece to life and so I look forward to his next project. I am convinced there is at least one great movie in him.


Split (2016)
★★ / ★★★★

One criticism against “Split,” written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, that holds no weight is its lack of realism or truth in depicting dissociative identity disorder. The film is not a documentary but a horror-thriller after all. And the point of the horror genre is to take our fears to the extreme, to stretch it even to the point of disbelief, and explore it. But herein lies my criticism of the movie. Although it is well-made and well-acted, the plot certainly taking a real-life psychological disorder into the realm of fiction, the material does not explore deeply enough to function as a high level psychological horror-thriller.

A major limitation is in its utilization of flashbacks. Although these are meant to educate us about Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), one of the three high school students (Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula) abducted by a man with multiple personalities (James McAvoy) after a birthday party, in terms of her personal history outside of the hostage situation, the jumps in time consistently sever the tension that builds.

Poorly used flashbacks is not an uncommon problem in horror and thriller pictures. But in order for this tool to work effectively, events during the present and the past must be equally fascinating. Here, the present is far more captivating and the past, while informative, is a bit tired and predictable. One extended flashback early on in the picture—or smack dab in the middle right before a pivotal moment so that we are suspended us in suspense—might have been a fresher, more potent alternative. I expected a more inspired choice from a master of tone and pacing like Shyamalan.

Another important shortcoming is in the presentation of personalities—not what we see on screen because McAvoy does a solid delivery with each identity but with respect to the writing. While understandable that we do not get to meet all twenty-three personalities due to time constraints, getting to know two or three on a deeper level might have made the experience eye-opening, highlighting the humanity underneath the disorder, fictional or otherwise. Having done so could have turned a clever ending into a powerful shot to the gut, further supporting the idea that this move is, beyond the superficial horror-thriller elements, a character-driven piece.

The writer-director is at his best when he plays with the camera, employing awkward angles and extreme closeups in order to highlight a sense of dread and impending doom. Shyamalan’s Hitchcock-ian spirit is one I’ve admired and will continue to admire for a long time because even though a scene or a shot doesn’t quite work, one cannot help but feel regaled, or alerted, by his sense of style and confidence when that camera moves with magnetic purpose.

“Split” offers passable entertainment but not a riveting experience. Although there are creative choices, such as a more complex than expected characterization of its final girl and McAvoy’s ability to balance terrifying, bizarre, and humorous personalities, the flow is broken far too often. When it comes to movies of this kind, gulping it down should be like smooth liquor.

The Witch

The Witch (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The experience of watching this meticulously crafted horror film is like being shoved into a dark, utterly silent room in which the space is lit only by flickering candles, a translucent dusty shawl permanently stitched around our heads, and we are forced to make sense of what exactly it is we are seeing, where we are possibly going, and what mysteries lie behind our limited sensations. It respects instead of cheapens the horror genre from the beginning right to the very end, a rarest quality that should be acknowledged, celebrated, and, hopefully, become a source of inspiration of future filmmakers with genuinely scary stories to tell.

“The Witch,” written and directed by Robert Eggers, is one of the best horror picture in years, one that deserves to be remembered for years to come. One of the main reasons is its hyper-realistic imagery. It is easier to embrace the universe of a story being told when what we see on screen is in line with what we imagine a specific time period to be.

Let us take a look at the clothing as example. The patriarch and his family have found a spot of land after being banished from a plantation. The family of seven start a life there and so the clothing look worn, dirty, lived in. It looks like the colors have been drained out of them. Because of what they wear, we believe that every day must involve hands-on hard work, that the lifestyle is the complete opposite of glamorous, perhaps not completely hygienic based on today’s standards. The vision and determination of getting the clothing exactly right benefits the work immensely because it functions as a conduit to transport us back in time. It becomes easier to buy into the reality of the tale and so the characters’ fears inevitably become our fears.

Something malevolent is out there in the woods. Or is there? The screenplay demands the audience to look very closely. Is the reason why the family is unable to grow crops due to a paranormal being out there in forest? Or is it that starvation itself is the trigger that forces the highly religious family to believe that an evil force is preventing them from growing food? There is an incident involving a baby suddenly disappearing that leads us to consider that perhaps it is the former. But certain images after the mysterious vanishing can be purely symbolic or imagined, not at all uncommon in intelligent, well-researched horror films in which the stories are drenched in myths and folk tales.

The acting is impeccable all around. From the leaders of the family who must conceal many secrets and endure hardships (Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie) to the young children (Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson) who claim to communicate with a goat named Black Phillip, everyone delivers not only a strong performance but also at least one memorable scene that sticks in the mind. Traumatizing events accrue; we become uneasy not only because of the environment and how the family dynamics shift over time but also when it comes to the animals in the farm and those that visit it.

Siblings Thomasin and Caleb, played by Anya Taylor-Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw, respectively, are the heart of the picture. Taylor-Joy and Scrimshaw have very strong presences, faces made for tight closeups, and chameleon-like qualities in the way they move, emote, and speak. I very much look forward to their future endeavors.

Just about every square inch of the film is alluring. The sky often looks gloomy but the open spaces harbor a mystery. When a character goes outside in the dark holding nothing but a lantern, one can hear a pin drop because the tension is so high. We squint our eyes a little more to anticipate what might be lurking in the darkness. Mainstream and sloppy horror pictures usually go for the scare after a few expected beats. This one does not. Instead, it drowns us into feeling anxious for minutes at a time. At times it downright disturbs.

Equipped with a very disquieting score, “The Witch” is clearly from a filmmaker with a clear vision and inspiration. There is a quiet confidence about it, despite being a debut feature film, that made me believe it is exactly the movie he wanted to make. My most enthusiastic congratulations to writer-director Robert Eggers for creating a piece of work that deserves to worm its way into the collective imagination.