Morgan (2016)

Ever since Anya Taylor-Joy made her grand entrance as a name to watch in her stunning, starring role in The Witch (Swampflix’s 2016 Movie of the Year), she’s continued to be a compelling presence in modern genre cinema. Perhaps typecast for her wide-eyed, witchy visage that appears as if she just stepped out of a Victorian oil painting, Taylor-Joy has continued to dwell in genre cinema corners ranging from the Gothic horror vibes of Marrowbone & The Miniaturist to the highly stylized modernist thrillers Split & Thoroughbreds. I’m unsure if that reflects her personal taste in choosing roles or just the range of options being made available to her, but it seems constant to her career path stretching back even before her name became synonymous with The Witch. The same year The Witch was released to wide audiences, Taylor-Joy starred as the titular character in a more mainstream production that made much less of a splash. The sci-fi horror Morgan, directorial debut of Ridley Scott’s son Luke Scott, was largely dismissed in its initial run as merely being an obvious, Hollywood-style rehashing of the superior work Ex Machina, perhaps rightfully so. As hyperbolically negative as I find the film’s general critical reputation to be, I somewhat understand that dismissal and can mount no defense of the mediocre-at-best thriller as some great lost work worthy of reclamation. After recently falling in love with Anya Taylor-Joy’s screen presence all over again in the BBC miniseries The Miniaturist, however, I did find Morgan worthy of a revisit, if not solely for the merits of her performance.

Like Ex Machina, Morgan is a Turing Test thriller where an outside party is hired to determine the commercial viability of a femme A.I. creation in captivity at a remotely located science facility. Toby Jones, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Leslie, Paul Giamatti, and Jennifer Jason Leigh round out an over-qualified cast of scientists & staffers assigned to this A.I. experiment, but they mostly amount to archetypes who hang around to get slaughtered once things inevitably go wrong. Only two characters really matter in this movie: Anya Taylor-Joy as the titular, dangerous A.I. creation and Kate Mara as a corporate “risk management consultant” hired to assess the artificial creature’s commercial viability. A very human-like creation with a recent history of violent episodes with the staff, Morgan presents two ethical questions the movie only pretends to wrestle with: “Is her advancement of technology worth the risk of her potential violence?” and “Is she a person or is it property?” These very basic sci-fi concerns are mostly just time-wasters in the lead-up to the film’s true payoff: Morgan’s escape & horrific slaughter of every human that held her captive, even the ones she once considered close friends & family (as much as an A.I. creature could). These horror genre leanings are reinforced by the sci-fi lab’s locale in a spooky Gothic mansion & a few last-minute, telegraphed twists that are much more concerned about in-the-moment thrills then they are philosophical ponderings. Morgan’s main concern is an attempt to be coldly creepy, and it’s something the movie often pulls off well thanks to the seething animosity that binds Mara & Taylor-Joy’s performances.

As a sci-fi horror about an A.I. creation that escapes captivity & erupts into bloodshed, Morgan doesn’t offer much of interest that can’t be found elsewhere. As a showcase for Anya Taylor-Joy’s acting range, the film does feature some deviating touches in performance that feels like a far cry from her more typical modes in The Miniaturist & The Witch. Although often cast in spooky genre fare, Taylor-Joy typically plays a traumatized, delicate victim, batting her giant doe eyes to convey innocence in a world ruled by evil (deceptively so in Thoroughbreds). Here, she’s allowed to be fierce & dangerous throughout, even opening the film in a vicious lunge to tear out one of her captor’s eyes. Taylor-Joy plays Morgan with the brooding anger of a teenage girl who’s been wronged and stripped of her agency, expressing a quiet, violent anger halfway between explosive emotional outburst & cold, machine-like calculation of who exactly to strike. You can even sense this atypical use of her screen presence in her costuming, which forsakes her usual period-specific garb for a modernist sweatpants & hoodie combo – the comfy outfit of a pissed off teen locked in their room by parents who Just Don’t Understand. Her striking looks are intensified by a cold makeup effect that almost renders her silver, as if she’s in black & white while the rest of the film is in color. It’s a different approach to how her appearance & talents are typically deployed in genre films and that deviation is largely what makes Morgan a worthwhile watch. As a Hollywood companion piece to Ex Machina the film could only suffer through comparison, but as a demonstration of explosive teenage anger from a compelling actor who doesn’t often get to express it, it finds a way to feel worthwhile.

You’re unlikely to walk away from Morgan with any intense interest in whatever follow-up project Luke Scott has in the works. The film is competent enough to get by as a passable sci-fi horror diversion about a Killer A.I., but it’s ultimately nothing special in terms of style or texture. The takeaway is more the question of what other sides of Anya Taylor-Joy’s abilities as a performer are we not yet privy to this early in her career. I appreciated seeing her as a teenage killing machine here, but I’m even more excited by what that indicates about what she might be able to unleash in future roles. It’s a career worth keeping a (gigantic, doe-like) eye on, to say the least.

-Brandon Ledet

Shoot ‘Em Up (2007) and the Value of John Woo’s Sincerity

When John Woo jumped down from the heights of his Hong Kong action heyday in Hard Boiled to the more pedestrian American mold of action cinema in its follow-up, Hard Target, you could immediately feel a tampering of his penchant for excess. It takes Hard Target nearly an hour of contextual narrative buildup before the over-the-top excess of Jean-Claude Van Damme punching rattle snakes, gangsters shooting up Mardi Gras parade floats, and Wilford Brimely going full Crazy Cajun in the film’s third act. Hard Boiled, by contrast, starts with one of its most chaotically violent set pieces (the showdown staged at the bird-watching tea house) and mostly maintains that same intensity throughout. Hard Target plays a little like a compromise, with American studio execs only allowing Woo’s sensibilities to show at the seams instead of flying at the screen full-force at every possible opportunity, as they had in his past Hong Kong efforts. As much as the 90s action thrillers that followed in the footsteps of Hard Boiled and its Hong Kong contemporaries were highly entertaining, they were often self-aware about not coming across as silly in a way the films that inspired them weren’t. Hard Boiled is entirely unembarrassed by its indulgences in excess and cheese. Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat) doesn’t play jazz clarinet or drive around to cheesy synth-pop in a convertible as a sly wink to the audience; he does it because it supposedly looks cool. Mad Dog (Philip Kwok) doesn’t wear an eye patch or ride his motorcycle through a wall of flames to distract the audience from his pro wrestling-simple villainous persona; he does it because it obviously looks cool. Oddly, one of the few American films directly influenced by Hard Boiled that nails its unembarrassed indulgence in excess & cheese is the 2007 action genre spoof Shoot ‘Em Up. Even as a loving parody, Shoot ‘Em Up feels more like a faithful carbon copy of Hong Kong excess than even Hard Target, which John Woo himself directed. Unfortunately, though, it fatally lacks Woo’s sincerity.

Shoot ‘Em Up telegraphs its nature as an ironic comedy by making the genre it’s spoofing clear in its title. It’s as if a slasher send-up were titled Horror Film or, you know, Scary Movie. Director Michael Davis was inspired to write the film after seeing Hard Boiled and being delighted/baffled by the sequence during the climactic shoot-out when Tequila teams up with a newborn baby to defeat the film’s legion of faceless baddies. Like Hard Boiled, Shoot ‘Em Up drops you into its violent, chaotic narrative with very little introductory context. Clive Owen stars as a drifter who gets caught in the crossfire of an opening gunfight, where his instinct to protect a pregnant woman in labor results in delivering the baby himself, mid-shootout. He separates the umbilical cord with a bullet from his pistol. The mother dies in the fray. The drifter finds himself carrying & the protecting the newly orphaned baby through many more over-the-top gunfights, but never any that reach the entertainment value of the film’s opening minutes. Shoot ‘Em Up’s rapid-fire, ZAZ-style spoof humor means that the jokes are abundant and any one bit doesn’t last for long. They’re also just rarely funny (which might be why the Scary Movie franchise came to mind). A rare gag like the baby being swapped out with a robo-decoy or the drifter leaving them on a filthy public bathroom floor to clean his gun on a changing table can be inspired. Mostly, though, the film is painfully unfunny & grotesquely macho, especially in its treatment of sex workers (practically the only women in sight) and in every single thing that Paul Giamatti says & does as the villain. By the time the film reaches for a second joke about how shooting a gun is like “blowing your load,” its difficult to care that one of its best gags was later blatantly ripped off in the deranged Nic Cage vehicle Drive Angry. Shoot ‘Em Up was built around a borrowed concept anyway and Drive Angry at least recognizes the value in playing the material straight/committing to the bit.

I don’t mean to suggest that Hard Boiled is unintentional in its humor. In the baby-themed shootout sequence that inspired Shoot ‘Em Up, Chow Yun-Fat delivers a great physical comedy performance, protecting the infant’s ears between gunshots & even singing it a hip-hop lullaby. The intentional humor of the sequence’s over-the-top excess is not in question. Where Hard Boiled is more successful is in its in-the-moment sincerity. Chow Yun-Fat is straight-faced & fully committed, playing the baby scene & the jazz clarinet as if they were totally typical to the action genre. Clive Owen’s drifter in Shoot ‘Em Up, by contrast, is a literal stand-in for Bugs Bunny, the king of winking at the audience. Before he even fires a gun, Owen is shown loudly gnawing on a carrot on a public bench, a habit he continues throughout the film to clue the audience in that it’s all a big joke. Unfortunately, the joke isn’t all that funny and only gets less impressive as it’s driven home with repetition. The entire film plays like the dick-shooting gag in Our RoboCop Remake, except that it runs for 90 minutes instead of 90 seconds. Its wacky! insincerity & ultimate lack of imagination (not to mention its boys-will-be-boys misogyny) are exhausting at that length. I admire Shoot ‘Em Up for capturing the spirit of the nonstop, over-the-top excess of 80s Hong Kong action cinema that most other American films failed to imitate in that movement’s wake. I just wish it had learned a lesson about the value of sincerity & playing it straight while admiring the humorous excess of films like Hard Boiled. John Woo’s comedic touches are twice as funny without trying half as hard to earn a laugh. Their unembarrassed embrace of cheese allows them to mix in with the over-the-top action seamlessly, creating a much more genuinely enjoyable product as a result.

For more on February’s Movie of the Month, the John Woo action cinema classic Hard Boiled, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its American follow-up, Hard Target.

-Brandon Ledet

Love & Mercy (2015)

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fourstar

Biopics are difficult to make interesting. That may even be especially true about biopics that detail the lives of high profile musicians. It’s a genre so engrained in its own rote tropes that, no matter the level of talent involved, it’s always probable that the final product will feel more like a made-for-TV movie than an artistic endeavor. There are obviously a few exceptions to this conundrum, but the genre’s tropes are so well-defined that they’ve earned their very own (brilliantly funny) ZAZ-style spoof in Walk Hard. Walk Hard even took the time to spoof the subject of this review, Beach Boys’ mad genius Brian Wilson. When Love & Mercy shows Wilson struggling to wrangle French horns, dogs, and bobby pins in the studio, it’s near impossible to not think of Dewey Cox demanding lamas & fifty thousand didgeridoos. Luckily, Love & Mercy also chooses to play this moment for a laugh. If it had a straight face it would’ve been a painful cliché, something the film sidesteps entirely. That’s far from the only pitfall it sidesteps.

A large part of what makes Love & Mercy special in the context of the biopic genre is its intimate, bifurcated structure. Instead of telling the entire story of Brian Wilson’s life, the film focuses on two of his most significant moments. Both Paul Dano & John Cusack play Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy and the film is smart to not apply any pressure for them to tie their roles together, but instead allows them a lot of room to breathe & make it their own. It’s okay that that both Dano & Cusack feel like they’re playing different people because at the two points detailed here, Wilson was a different person.

Paul Dano, trying his damnedest to look slightly pudgy here, has to hold down the more cliché biopic moments of the film. Portraying Wilson while he was recording his masterpiece Pet Sounds & essentially losing his mind, Dano has to both go big & literally bark like a mad dog as well as understatedly smile like a pleased turtle because he knows he’s onto something special. Trying to move away from the group’s faux surfer past while simultaneously competing with both The Beatles and his own controlling father, Wilson was under an unfathomable amount of pressure at this point of his career. As he learns how to “play the studio” as an instrument and create an entirely new kind of pop music experience with Pet Sounds, he also loses a grip on himself, cracking under the pressure. Dano does a great job of balancing humor with poignancy in these scenes, but it’s a tough balance to maintain.

John Cusack’s scenes save the film from being too predictable. If it were just Dano’s scenes the This Is Really Important vibe would be overwhelming. Cusack picks up the story after years of depression & bed rest, showing Wilson squirming under the control of a controlling quack played by a sublimely menacing, clean-shaven Paul Giamatti. Helpless, Wilson falls for an in-over-her-head Chrystler salesman, played by Elizabeth Banks, who struggles with Giamatti’s Evil Doctor for control of Wilson’s autonomy. In several key scenes, Cusack isn’t even present for this half of the story, but whenever he is it’s a great reminder of just how wonderfully talented the actor can be when he sets his mind to it.

These two halves of the movies are woven together, told simultaneously. Although Love & Mercy cannot avoid every biopic trope out there, it does itself a huge favor by aiming for a feeling instead of a complete story. With phrases like “lonely, frightened, scared” and “Even the happy songs are sad,” the movie achieves a more accurate depiction of Brian Wilson than a straightforward telling of his entire life story, (Charles Manson, “Surfin USA”, and all) could possibly have accomplished. There’s a sadness to Wilson’s life’s work that is often overlooked, but expertly captured here. In an exchange with his abusive father, Wilson pleads that “God Only Knows” is “a love story.” His dad counters, “It’s a suicide note.” Love & Mercy does little more to tie its two disparate parts together than achieving this whimsical melancholy throughout and drawing comparisons between Dano’s Wilson’s controlling father and Cusack’s Wilson’s controlling doctor. The approach is impressive in both its audacity and its results.