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

The Last Witch Hunter (2015)

witch

three star

campstamp

So a witch, a priest, and an assassin walk into a bar . . . And if you want to see the punchline of that joke play out, you’re going to have to lend two hours of your time to The Last Witch Hunter. I guess the question is whether or not the movie is funny enough to be worth that effort. How do you even critique a film like this, really? Do you judge it based on its merits as a self-serious action fantasy ostensibly aiming to build a franchise that certainly isn’t coming? Or do you enjoy it for what it truly is: a trashy throwaway trifle you enjoy once & then immediately forget? I’ll admit to enjoying the film well enough as a one-time-use trifle, but your own personal mileage may vary by how much enjoyment you automatically derive from bloodthirsty witches & an immortal Vin Diesel wielding a flaming sword (an image so inherently metal I could practically hear Slayer playing in my head both times it appeared onscreen). For me, that’s a pretty easy sell.

I will say this much on The Last Witch Hunter‘s behalf: it’s cartoonish inanity is far from half-assed. The movie’s sense of self-mythology is amusingly complex, as if it were trying to squeeze in volumes of source material comic books into a single feature film. In fact, since the movie is flopping hard enough to guarantee that no sequels will follow (despite its desperate wishes), a comic book adaptation might not be the worst future for this property. The story begins in The Dark Days of the Witch where Vin Diesel’s titular witch hunter gets his start by stabbing his flame sword into the chest of The Witch Queen, an evil hag made of tree roots who plans to wipe out the human race with The Black Plague in order to make room on Earth to expand her personal garden (seriously). In her dying breaths, she curses the newly crowned witch hunter to live forever, which eventually leads to a truce between witches & witch killers and the establishment of The Axe & The Cross, a spooky UN-type organization meant to ensure that “The peace endures” (a phrase that serves as the movie’s version of “May the Force be with you.”). Of course, this all leads to Diesel’s witch hunter being Double Axed & Double Crossed in modern day NYC when a strange figure similar to WWE’s Bray Wyatt or an extra from the first season of True Detective upsets the status quo by reintroducing black magic into the world,  a force explained to be “beyond evil.”

I’m getting exhausted trying to capture everything going down here & I haven’t even touched on ideas like “dreamwalkers”, “The Witch’s Council”, “The Witch Prison”, or the fact that folks like Michael Cain & Elijah Wood somehow got involved in this silliness. And I’m pretty sure I’ve mostly just included concepts introduced in the first act. As a whole, the movie has the convoluted mythology of a years-old game of D&D (something Vin Diesel is reportedly a huge fan of). The film also has a somewhat complex visual palette depicting a magical version of NYC with the general ambiance of a metropolis-sized absinthe bar. This is sharply contrasted with the old world witchcraft of insects, tree roots, fire, and endless voids. It’s all too easy to root for the witch’s side of the equation here (as if it’s ever not), since their evil queen’s dream of a worldwide garden is much more appealing than modern magic’s much more frivolous uses of selling cupcakes & promoting witchy fashion shows. Also, when The Witch Queen reminds the witch hunter that since witches pre-date humans, “You are trespassers on our world,” it’s a very convincing argument.

In a way, that’s what’s wrong with The Last Witch Hunter in a nutshell: too much witch hunting, not enough witches. Instead of constantly depicting witchcraft in action, the movie is much more interested in serving as a temple to Vin Diesel’s awesomeness as a mumbly action movie god the same way films like Commando used to do for Schwarzenegger in the past. It’s a lot of fun in this way. Diesel plays the part as a buff, action hero David Blane. He seduces witchy women, winks at curious children, rocks a Cracker Jack decoder ring, and uses MacGyver-esque tools like a glass of water & a floating staple in his leisurely witch hunts. In a lot of ways his cursed immortality undercuts a lot of the film’s potential conflict, but The Last Witch Hunter cheats enough on that detail to make it work. This is a hopelessly dumb film, to be sure, but it’s also complexly, ambitiously dumb, making for a mostly amusing trip to the theater. If you’re into Vin Diesel, wicked witches, D&D, and flaming weaponry, I’d definitely recommend giving it a shot, but I’d also recommend bringing booze.

-Brandon Ledet