Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The New Mutants

A little more than a month since my last movie in a theater, which was longer than I expected, even though it's hard to enthusiastically go to the movies right now. I'm probably going to pick the pace up a little, although hopefully not so much that I stop being careful. It would probably be different if there were places open that I can easily walk to (although I might give the hike to Kendall a shot as things cool off, especially if I can find a good reason to stop and recharge along the way).

Still, this is weird:

That shot wasn't taken as I left, but as I entered. Empty lobby, shut down concession stand, because apparently that's how we're rolling in Massachusetts. I brought a soda and a straw from home, slipping the latter under my mask without uncovering more than a corner at a time, but that's uncomfortable and gets me thinking about the process and screwing up. I'll probably look elsewhere for a pre-movie snack next time.

Anyway, that sight is weird and it kind of makes me wonder how this whole situation is working. It's fairly common knowledge that theaters make most of their money by marking up cheap things like popcorn and soda syrup to sell to their captive audience, and without that, how are they making money by being open? There were five of us in the audience, paying $14 a seat. Presume that's typical - $70. 19 screens - $1330. Maybe they're getting the same numbers for two shows a day, even once you figure in matinee prices and weekends - $2660. I think I saw four or five employees there, so they're probably making payroll on a daily basis, but how can they possibly be paying rent? It just can't be possible. Best I can figure is that while theaters could probably get a break on their expenses while they weren't allowed to open, now that they've got the option, they can't cite anything keeping them from being open (other than good sense) to their partners, and basically have to do this in order to not make money, but lose it less quickly.

That's a heck of a thing, and I kind of wish that I could be using this as an excuse for supporting local small businesses rather than nationwide chains.

Shame, because The New Mutants is actually pretty decent, and I've been growing fonder of the characters because Jonathan Hickman has been using the characters in his Avengers and X-Men runs in the comics.

The New Mutants

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 September 2020 in AMC Boston Common #15 (first-run, DCP)

The New Mutants has been a punchline or running gag for the past couple of years as it got pushed down the schedule as much as a result of things well outside filmmakers Josh Boone's control as the movie's own faults, from another movie being delayed to one studio consuming another and pushing the whole slate out months until, finally, the new studio decided this was an appropriate bone to throw theaters in the middle of the pandemic (after deciding not to do the sort of reshoots that probably would have helped because the young cast members could no longer pass for teenagers). It is, by and large, much better than its cursed path would indicate, but one can certainly see why it was always the thing that got pushed back while other movies were given priority.

It starts in apocalyptic fashion, with Cherokee teenager Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt) being roused from bed by her father (Adam Beach) and told to flee from a disaster befalling the reservation. Dani is seemingly the only survivor, waking up chained to a hospital bed, with Dr. Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga) telling her that she is a mutant, like the X-Men, with her as-yet-unknown power likely the reason she survived. Reyes appears to be the only staff at this facility for new mutants, though there are four other teenagers there - sweet Scottish girl Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams), Kentucky coal miner's kid Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton), Brazilian rich kid Roberto da Costa (Henry Zaga), and unstable Russian ice queen Illyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy). But are they alone? Something appears to be dredging up their worst fears, which is pretty dangerous even when the traumatized kids in question don't have superpowers that often initially manifested in destructive fashion.

The idea of doing The New Mutants as a horror film is pretty strong - not only had Twentieth Century Fox recently been having better luck with the mutant characters from Marvel comics when they strayed from conventional superheroes, but that's the way that this particular bit of the source material leaned anyway - but the execution is often missing something. The tight budget and cast of relative unknowns is likely what gave Boone the freedom to do something a little different, but the first half of the film often feels a little timid; there's little chance for the characters to play with their powers so that they're familiar by the action starts or a reflection of their personalities. It's often flat get-to-know you material as well, Boone and co-writer Knate Lee seemingly not having an in for anyone but Dani and maybe Rahne, despite Berto and Sam having fun odd-couple potential based on the comics and Illyana being the sort of fun mean girl that an actress as good as Taylor-Joy can do a lot with. It feels like a slasher film that didn't have the budget for a few extra characters to kill off along the way, just marking time to get to the finale.

That finale is fun, though, embracing the comic book lunacy that had been seeping its way into the movie from the start, making good use of both the hoarded effects budget and the idea that these teens are still messed up even if they're having a breakthrough. The special effects probably wouldn't have been completely convincing two years ago, but it works for this movie, embracing the stylization of someone like Mike Mignola or original New Mutants artist Bill Sienkiewicz rather than something more photo-realistic. It's a natural build on how the teens spend most of the movie in a seeming limbo between the 1990s and near future, just a step or two away from reality even controlling for being in an X-men story.

And if they didn't have the money for some extra bodies, it's at least in part because, a couple characters with notably lighter skin tones than they have in the comics aside, it's an extremely well-cast group. Blu Hunt settles into the center of the movie well, never receding even when events have Dani not often able to act on her own, and she pairs well with Maisie Williams as Rahne, even if their initial scenes together seem clunky more from unimaginative dialogue than teenage angst. Charlie Heaton and Henry Zaga are both fun in their roles, with Heaton seeming to go kind of big as Sam although maybe that's just because this sort of film doesn't often include folks with Sam's background. Anya Taylor-Joy has solidified herself as a rising star since making this, and it's not hard to see why; not only is she the one who is clearly having the most fun as the often manic, bitchy Illyana, but she's able to make a moment late in the movie where Illyana is called on to demonstrate a lot of self-awareness work better than it has any right to.

It's a group that a viewer could easily see carrying more movies if this one had traveled a less rocky road to theaters, especially if a budget boost for sequels gave Boone a little more room to stretch. It's a bummer we won't get that, and that they have to spend so much of this movie treading water until the good stuff starts; The New Mutants seems like it has everything it needs to succeed except luck.

Also at eFilmCritic

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