Tag Archives: Anya Taylor-Joy

Split (2016)

I wasn’t as down on the Shamhammer as some others were after his string of well-publicized debacles, from Lady in the Water to The Last Assbender to After Earth. On the other hand, I wasn’t has high as some others have been about his so-called comeback movie from 2015, The Visit. So I guess my expectations were cancelled out for his latest effort, Split.

As the title suggests, the film is about a crazy dude with dissociative identity disorder (played by the brilliant James McAvoy), who kidnaps three teenage girls (Anya Taylor-Joy from The Witch and Morgan, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula) to a strange and unknown location somewhere. Much of the movie is about figuring out just what this guy is doing and what he wants as he shifts between 23 different personalities, each with its own name and traits. Critical to the storyline is his therapist, played by veteran actress Betty Buckley.

The first thing I will say about Split is that it’s very well-made for a low-budget film (US$9 million), once again demonstrating Shyamalan’s skills as both a writer and director. His ability to create tension and a sense of claustrophobia is as good as it’s ever been, and what I enjoyed most about the movie was the feeling that I had no idea what would happen next. And most of the time, the plot was indeed very hard to predict. You always look for a “twist” in Shyamalan movies, and I must say I quite liked what he had in store for us this time, even though it is more of a “reveal” than a twist per se.

The strengths of Shyamalan’s script and direction are anchored by three excellent performances. Of course, James McAvoy is absolutely astounding, pulling off each of his personalities with enough differences — subtle or otherwise — to tell them apart easily. At times he’s creepy or funny or brutal or pathetic or dangerous — and the fun lies in never knowing what you’re going to get.

Anya Taylor-Joy has been on my watch list ever since The Witch, and again she’s mesmerizing as the outsider Casey. There is just something about her eyes and expressions that add an air of mystery and vulnerability to her character. She’s going to be a star for years to come. And Betty Buckley is really a standout too as the therapist who has certain beliefs about dissociative identity disorder that become pertinent to the story.

Unfortunately, there were also a few things about Split that I didn’t like. As solid as the script was, there were still snippets of dialogue that came across as too contrived, conjuring up memories of Shamhammer at his pretentious worst. The film was also far too long at 117 minutes and felt that way towards the end. A compact 90-100 minutes would have made the film a lot tighter and more effective. And lastly, I wasn’t a fan of how the essential torture of these girls was sexualized. If it was merely to add tension, I would be okay with it, but I felt a lot of it was gratuitous.

In all, thanks to an interesting premise, well-crafted suspense, strong performances and a climax that doesn’t ruin the entire film, Split is good enough to be regarded as one of the better thrillers of the year. I wouldn’t put it anywhere near Shyamalan’s earliest films such as The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, but Split could very well be his best effort since The Village from 2004.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: There’s a pretty cool scene at the very end of the film right after the credits start, so make sure you stay around for that. It’s a nice little surprise.

Morgan (2016)

Just about every year, there are a couple of movie releases that will take me by surprise. They kind of popped up out of nowhere, with no buzz or early trailers, but feature a cast of big Hollywood names. Morgan is one such film.

The first time I actually saw snippets of the Morgan trailer and poster was actually the weekend before its release. I had never heard of it and couldn’t believe it when I found out that it starred the likes of Kate Mara, Rose Leslie, Paul Giamatti, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Yeoh, Toby Jones, Boyd Holbrook (soon to be seen as the main villain in Logan), and Anya Taylor-Joy (who was absolutely brilliant in The Witch).

The poster seemed intriguing as well, dominated by a dark, hooded figure I could only presume was the eponymous protagonist (or antagonist, if you will). The trailer gave away wait too much as usual, but essentially, Kate Mara plays some sort of risk assessment manager who ventures into a secluded research facility that managed to genetically engineer a synthetic human being, ie Morgan (played by Anya Taylor-Joy). Pretty much everyone else in the cast is a scientist or a handler of some sort.

I was definitely intrigued. It seemed like a thinking person’s horror movie, with elements of Ex Machina and shades of the underrated Splice. Yes, it is yet another one of those “man should not mess with nature” or “living creatures should not be kept in captivity” cautionary tales, but the fact that such a great cast had faith in the project suggested to me that it would be worth watching.

Well, I was about half right. Morgan turned out to be borderline watchable. What started off as a compelling premise and some early tension soon crumbled into predictability and genre tropes. We all know Morgan’s not as innocent as she seems and that she will get out of her glass box eventually. But instead of pursuing the more interesting and thought-provoking opportunities the premise offers, Luke Scott, the son of legendary director Ridley (who produced the film), chose to indulge in the usual slasher and horror cliches. The action isn’t handled too shabbily, though it would be a stretch to call it outstanding. Same goes for the horror elements — Morgan (both the character and the film itself) never really scared me.

At some point in the movie, it also became impossible to not guess the “twist” at the end. It’s just so obvious and telegraphed that when it is finally revealed there is no sense of shock whatsoever.

Still, I have to be fair. Morgan is still at least serviceable and better than most of the straight-to-DVD horror-thrillers these days. The initial set-up is interesting, I’ll give it that, and the execution — whether it is the action, tension, or horror — is passable. Throw in a star-studded cast who genuinely seemed to put in effort rather than mail it in for a paycheck, and you end up with a movie that isn’t a complete waste of time but could have been so much better.

2.5 stars out of 5

The Witch (2016)

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Good horror movies are a rarity, and unique horror movies are virtually extinct. That makes The Witch a highly endangered species.

Written and directed by Robert Eggers, the film tells the story of a religious family of seven — father, mother, eldest daughter, son, twin daughters and a baby — excommunicated by the church in the 17th century and is forced to live on their own on a farm outside a large New England forest that may or may not be inhabited by evil. Isolated from the rest of the world and struggling to feed themselves, the family begins to fear not just for their survival but for their souls, as pain and paranoia gives way to hysteria.

Critics raved about this period horror drama after it debuted at Sundance last year, though audience reviews have been much more mixed. I agree that this film is an acquired taste because it is vastly different to the jump-scare-happy horror flicks of the modern era. This film is a slow burn that values atmospheric horror over cheap tricks, and relies on hair-raising images and sounds to send chills that will stay with audiences long after the final frame.

I must admit that I completely understand why some audiences have branded the film boring. It takes a while to get going, and the glum look and feel does sap out a lot of energy in the early going. It reminded me a lot of the 1996 adaptation of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible — the Daniel Day- Lewis and Winona Rider film about the Salem witch trials — except with far less characters and melodrama. The 17th century dialogue, much of which was apparently taken from diaries, journals and court transcripts from that time, was also difficult to follow at times, especially when delivered by the mumbling voice of lead actor Ralph Ineson.

So if you go into this film expecting something like The Conjuring, which is arguably how it is been marketed, you’ll likely end up going WTF and give up on it very early on. I was fortunate enough to know what to expect, including the pace and style, so I stuck with the movie knowing that the pay off will come.

And lucky I did, because The Witch drew me in and mesmerised me in a way few horror movies have. It also made me think a lot more than I thought it would have, delivering an intriguing history lesson that offers a lot on insight into the devastating effects of isolation combined with religious obsession. Yet, the film also isn’t ambiguous in its visual depictions — it has no problems letting you know whether the evil is real or imagined, though doubt still lingers because of the twists and turns in the way the story develops. It’s an interesting decision that shows the confidence of Eggers’ writing and his command over the type of film he wanted to achieve.

The climatic final act of the The Witch is riveting and horrifying, and it works so well because of the tension built up throughout the film. Coupled with a thumping score and solid performances all round (particularly the two female leads, Anya Taylor-Joy and Kate Dickie), it left me shocked and disturbed by the brutality and insanity of it all. Terrific imagery in both senses of the word. When it was over I wanted to see it again, but at the same time I was afraid to. That’s the sign of an effective horror movie.

4 stars out of 5