This is a movie that understands grief and anxiety, how they exacerbate each other, how they leave your nerves perpetually frayed, how they leave you perpetually on guard. This is a movie that knows how much more chilling a thriller can be when the primary scare is uncertainty, the sense that something is wrong but you can’t put a finger on it. This is the root fear of anxiety, after all: not that something horrible is happening, but that something horrible is going to happen, you just don’t know when or why or where.
The Invitation defies simple genre categorization. It’s a drama about grief and some of the most understandable human fear. It’s also a horror film about when that fear mingles with fear of something more sinister, and when there are just enough clues, nerves, and odd strangers that that shadow begins to grow into a shape both distinct and terrifying.
The film opens on Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) driving to a dinner party. It’s at his ex-wife Eden’s place. Eden (Tammy Blanchard) has been out of touch with everyone she knows for two years. Her marriage with Will fell apart after their son’s death. She disappeared into Mexico and emerged with a new boyfriend, David (Michael Huisman) in tow. She has invited Will, Kira, and several of their closest friends to a dinner party in her home in the Hollywood Hills. On the way to the party, Will hits a coyote with his car. Rather than leave it to die, he kills with it a tire iron. His nerves won’t be any less frayed the rest of the night.
The Invitation was directed by Karyn Kusama. She knows how to film anxiety. Will is jittery and uncomfortable from the moment he arrives at Eden’s home, which they once shared. Every room triggers memories of his son, or of the aftermath of his son’s death, when he and Eden were at their lowest. In the present, Eden emerges, smiling widely, talking serenely, looking angelic in a flowing white dress as she talks proudly of how she has completely overcome her grief. This needles Will. He doesn’t seem to believe her, and fears immediately that she has come under the influence of some sort of cult. But the script, by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, is smarter than to rely on fear of a religious cult as the main narrative thread. That would be the stuff of a conventional thriller. The Invitation is more invested in its characters, more curious about them, than convention would allow.
Logan Marshall-Green is splendid in a role that demands a lot from him. His face is open and earnest. Hiding behind long hair and a full beard, his eyes convey his deep personal wounds. Watch how he conveys Will’s agitation, his profound discomfort at being in this house that fills him with pain. It’s a beautiful performance. Blanchard is excellent too, selling a role that could easily devolve into camp with a less measured performance. It’s essential for us to believe that Eden believes completely in her transformation. More than that, we need to be able to at least consider for a moment the possibility that whatever she did in Mexico actually helped her.
That moment doesn’t have to last, however, and soon David shows the party a video that spells out his and Eden’s beliefs in ways that discomfort everyone at the party to varying degrees. Will is deeply unsettled. Some of his friends laugh it off, attempting to comfort Will, insisting that Eden and David are simply the sort of harmless New Agers who are dime a dozen in a city like Los Angeles. And yet around every corner Will senses that something is deeply wrong in his old house. David and Eden have two friends from their group at the party. Both are quite odd, casually saying things that make everyone deeply uncomfortable. David insists on locking the doors of the house. Expensive wine flows freely. Will refuses to partake.
Kusama deftly handles the audience’s wavering sense of discomfort with the party. This is not an action-packed film, but it is a tense one. It never reveals its hand until the precise moment it needs to. Until that point, it uses Will’s skyrocketing anxiety as a main source of tension. As an anxious person, I would absolutely want to check out of the party early. And yet we can never quite shake the possibility that his anxiety- amplified exponentially by his grief, by seeing his ex-wife for the first time in so long, by the fact that she seems to have moved on completely from their tragedy- is warping his view.
All this makes The Invitation sound like a heavy drama. How is it, then, a horror film? I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say: it drips with realistic, sweaty dread. Its depictions of how all-consuming grief and anxiety are at times chilling. It swerves into territory that is deeply unsettling, even disturbing. By the end, The Invitation scared me. Like the best horror films, its scares come from places in the psyche that every person has. It is the fear that comes from a soul that is grieving and raw. A fear that can only be coaxed out with skill and empathy. The Invitation is one of the best films of the year.
Hey all! I hadn’t watched any horror this month, so to catch up I’m trying to watch two films a day, preferably movies I haven’t yet seen. I signed up for Shudder to help me along, and yesterday I started off with Angst (1983) and Hush (2016).
Angst (1983) dir. Gerard Kargl
This Austrian thriller comes with a history of controversy and a devoted cult following. It is considered a predecessor of films that look unflinchingly at serial killers, like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Funny Games. Unfortunately, Angst doesn’t hold up nearly as well as either of those films. It opens with a long explanation of the history of its protagonist, a man who has just been released from prison and who immediately sets out to kill again. As he terrorizes a family, we hear his nonstop internal monologue, as he uses his present-day murders to find release from the traumas from his past. It’s all profoundly heavy-handed; as he commits a murder, he describes precisely the event or person from his past that he blames for making him do it. Angst lacks both the gravitas to simply be about the horror it depicts (like Henry succeeds at doing) and the wit to provide some sort of insight into the killer’s mind without being relentlessly on the nose. Extremely disappointing.
Hush (2016) dir. Mike Flanagan
In this indie horror film from earlier this year, Maddie (Kate Siegel) a deaf writer living in a remote, woodland house, is terrorized by a masked stalker (John Gallagher Jr.). Hush feels at first like a conventional home invasion thriller, with the characters going through the expected motions of the genre. We know the beats well at this point: the introduction of the villain, the standoff, the heroine making questionable decisions regarding self-preservation, the villain’s hubris leading to his downfall, supporting characters bumbling into their doom, etc. Two-thirds of the way into Hush I was ready to accept it as a decent movie that I’d not likely revisit again. But then, the last act propels the movie into a breathless finale that gets deeply inside Maddie’s head as she faces the extreme likelihood that she won’t survive the night. Hush doesn’t reinvent the genre, but the script (written by Siegel and Flanagan) finds its footing beautifully in the last act, and the film charges into its conclusion on the strength of its characters and story. Despite its imperfections (even at 81 minutes the story still spins its wheels at times) Hush is a surprising and genuinely suspenseful film, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.
This was much harder than I thought it’d be; I haven’t attempted a comprehensive list like this in about a decade. There are at least 55 films I could likely swap with the bottom third of the list and not feel bad about.
- Princess Mononoke (1997)
- Three Colors: Red (1994)
- Children of Men (2006)
- Millennium Actress (2001)
- The Night of the Hunter (1955)
- The Godfather (1972)
- Tokyo Story (1953)
- Tree of Life (2011)
- 5 Centimeters Per Second (2007)
- Spirited Away (2002)
- Mulholland Drive (2001)
- The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
- The Bicycle Thief (1948)
- A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
- Whisper of the Heart (1995)
- The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
- My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
- The Lion King (1994)
- Star Wars (1977)
- Only Yesterday (1991)
- Raise the Red Lantern (1991)
- Ran (1985)
- The Princess Bride (1987)
- Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
- Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2003)
- Yojimbo (1961)
- Psycho (1960)
- Late Spring (1949)
- Sunset Boulevard (1950)
- Taxi Driver (1976)
- The Fall (2006)
- Dark City (1998)
- Suspiria (1977)
- The Shining (1980)
- A Little Princess (1995)
- Casablanca (1942)
- Inglourious Basterds (2009)
- Rear Window (1954)
- The Vanishing (1988)
- Beauty and the Beast (1991)
- Ratatouille (2007)
- Brooklyn (2015)
- Alien (1979)
- On the Waterfront (1954)
- All About Eve (1950)
- Departures (2008)
- Jurassic Park (1993)
- The Night of the Living Dead (1968)
- Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
- Summer Wars (2009)
- Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
- The Thing (1982)
- Jaws (1975)
- The Apartment (1960)
My little blog turned 5 years old today. On one hand, I haven’t been the most prolific blogger. It has had numerous fallow periods. But it has always been here for me when I need it. Writing about movies is therapeutic for me. It does me a lot of good to have a place where I can write what I want, when I want, at my own pace.
That I have picked up some followers along the way amazes me. Again, I’m not a full-time or even part-time blogger. My output leaves a lot to be desired. But every comment, every view I get makes me happy. That my writing has an audience of any size makes me happy.
So here’s a little present from me to my readers, to celebrate today, a few things to commemorate my blog’s 5th anniversary. Below are some top 5 lists: five posts that I’m proud of, five great blogs I love, and later tonight, my 55 favorite films of all-time.
Thanks for reading, and I’m looking forward to what the next five years will bring!
Five posts of mine I’m proud of
I was still figuring out what this blog was going to be when I tried a just-for-fun experiment: seeing what I could learn about movies I loved by looking at the opening shots. It was the first time I realized just how much fun writing about movies could be. After that, I tried to keep writing only pieces I could really enjoy writing.
In which I make the case for one of my most deeply-held beliefs about movies: that adapting books to the letter is much less important than capturing their spirit.
I sometimes dabble in writing about TV shows, and Game of Thrones is a favorite of mine. Of course, that hasn’t stopped me from criticizing it when I think it’s merited. I do feel vindicated by this piece, though: the show’s sixth season was widely praised as one of its best, and it dialed back much of the empty shock value that nearly made me give up on the show in favor of the intrigue and epic sweep that made it so gripping in the first place.
I was going through a bout with depression when I wrote this piece, about another mental illness I’ve been grappling with my entire life. I was extremely nervous about hitting “Publish” on this piece, but I’m so glad I did.
This one means a lot to me for so many reasons. As an American, it’s important for me to remember what I love about my country in an election season that has so often given a megaphone to those who would enforce the worst, most narrow-minded instincts upon the entire populace. Brooklyn is a beautiful film that reflects a country that I can be proud of.
This piece also meant a lot to my mom. It is as much a tribute to her as it is to the movie. After she read it she told me with tears in her eyes how much it meant to her. Four months later, she passed away. I don’t think I have it in me to watch Brooklyn again now. But it is a special movie to me for that reason, and this review will always have a special place in my heart.
Five blogs I love
Anna over at Film Grimoire hasn’t posted in a couple of weeks, which means I haven’t been able to read her lovely writing about movies as often as I’d like. Her reviews are straightforward, honest, and excellent. She is also a tireless promoter of other excellent bloggers; her monthly favorites lists are required reading.
They really aren’t assholes, try as they might to convince you otherwise. Matt, Jay, and Sean are passionate cinephiles whose love for movies and writing about them is so infectious, that even if they were assholes I’d still love their site.
Rob at MovieRob watches so many movies, half the fun is simply seeing what he’s watching next. His monthly Genre Grandeur blogathons are always a lot of fun as well, to both participate in and to read when they’re finished.
Horror is my favorite genre, and horror writer Michael Thomas-Knight runs a superb site that covers horror from all angles: films, fiction, interesting attractions, and more. I always know I’ll find something fun whenever I visit.
Joshua Hoffine’s horror photography has been some of my favorite horror in any medium over the last few years. He doesn’t update his blog very often, but the behind-the-scenes looks at his photography are wonderful. If you love horror like I do, please check his work out!
(Coming later, my 55 favorite movies!)
I haven’t written here for a while. Here are some thoughts I spilled last night to get the gears moving again. Some spoilers below for the movies discussed.
Beauty is something we can all immediately recognize, even as we can never agree to a person what is and isn’t beautiful.
Beauty is one of the aspects of a movie I respond to most of all, even if I can’t exactly define what makes a film beautiful. At least not in a way that I can apply consistently from movie to movie.
For example, I loved Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. But is it beautiful? Dazzling, sure. Visually stunning, absolutely. But I’m not sure I’d call it beautiful. Not as a whole work. There are certainly gorgeous shots, but beautiful shots can’t make a whole film beautiful any more than a few individual words can make a whole poem beautiful. My favorite films often have the same appeal of poetry to me; at their best, they evoke strong, specific emotions.A good poem can transport me into the mind and heart of the poet. Good movies can do the same thing.
What about my favorite film of Cuaron’s, Children of Men? I would call it one of the most beautiful of all films. Yes, it takes place in a grimy, miserable universe. Yes, it tells a story rife with death. But it’s a deeply humanist film, and its visuals are propulsive and actively serve the storytelling. The beauty of the images and the beauty of the story culminate in that tracking shot near the end when a brutal battle is interrupted, for a moment, by the sight of a baby. The moment is Cuaron’s masterpiece, taking an element that could have been mawkish all on its own and building to it with precision until he created a symphony of images and narrative that was as moving as any scene I’ve seen in a movie theatre.
Just as there’s more to making a painting truly beautiful than recreating a beautiful scene, the most beautiful films are always more than the sum of their parts. You know how much I love Hayao Miyazaki, and no one would argue over how beautiful his films are. He is the 21st century standard for imaginative filmmaking. And yet for as much as I love Miyzaki (Princess Mononoke will always be my favorite film) I don’t think he’s responsible for the most beautiful Studio Ghibli movie. That honor goes to Only Yesterday, the bittersweet drama by Isao Takahata. Its visuals aren’t as lush as Miyazaki’s (or even those in Takahata’s lovely The Tale of Princess Kaguya). The story, of a 27 year-old woman looking back on her childhood while casting an uncertain eye to the future, isn’t as obviously moving as the rich, propulsive plots of other Ghibli films. But there’s a quiet beauty constantly humming beneath the surface. Every scene is rich with life, sometimes sadness, sometimes delight, but mostly just everyday familiarities, moments that sing with truth. Sometimes the most beautiful thing an artist can provide is empathy.
Of course, there’s more to beauty in art than humanist affirmation. Have you ever read Flannery O’Connor? She specialized in southern Gothic tales of mean people doing cruel things to each other with passages that, out of nowhere, evoke feelings of something divine, even apocalyptic. The beauty in a Flannery O’Connor story is not the type that inspires wistful reflection. It is always at odds with the material, fighting through it, giving you fits because the mere suggestion of a shred of beauty in a story like A Good Man is Hard to Find seems so at odds with the material. And yet it’s undeniably there, made somehow more potent by its suddenness and brevity.
Those moments of beauty are my favorites. They pop up so unexpectedly and have the sort of permanent impact on me that truly inspires. For this reason, there might be no more beautiful film than The Night of the Hunter. Charles Laughton’s only film as a director tells a tale that is as dark as the woods at night. At times it is demonically sinister. It is filled with cosmic dread. And then, it finds the beauty. The scene where Shelley Winters body is found submerged at the bottom of the lake still retains its horrific power, even as it evokes the same feelings of grand religious paintings. The scene where Robert Mitchum chases the children through the swamps is one of the most deathly frightening chase scenes ever filmed, culminating in his character screaming one of the most fearsome screams in cinema history. The standoff at the end between Mitchum and Lillian Gish’s kindly caretaker of orphaned children is almost literal in its divine imagery, pitting Mitchum’s satanic false preacher against Gish’s guardian angel. It wouldn’t work if it weren’t for the film’s total conviction in its imagery. It wouldn’t be so powerful if it weren’t so convincingly ugly, if it weren’t so divinely beautiful.
Was there ever another actor like Gene Wilder? He was unrelentingly funny. But unlike most unrelentingly funny actors, he never settled into a single familiar persona. He could play soft and gentle. He could play manic and furious. He could play a completely original, weird concoction of his own making and make it work.
As is the ritual when a beloved celebrity dies, I discovered Gene Wilder’s passing today with a Twitter feed full of people reminiscing on their favorite moments, films, and performances. It’s easy to be jaded by the familiarity of this ritual. I’d urge everyone not to become so. There’s a reason some people resonate with so many.
I’m out of anything to say. Gene Wilder was a man whose art mattered to so many, myself included. That’s one of the most remarkable things a person can accomplish. I’ll miss him.
In July two of my favorite movie bloggers- Anna at Film Grimoire and Rob at Movierob– ran a blogathon centered around movies that are 90 or fewer minutes long. I contributed a review of Millennium Actress. You can find all the essays here.
“What does the key open?”
“The most important thing there is.”
Memories are all we have, really. The present is fleeting. The future hasn’t happened. Everything else is memory. Memories define how we see ourselves, and how others see us. Love of all forms is built upon and sustained by memories. There are two love stories at the center of Millennium Actress. One is based almost entirely on one memory; the other is built on the accumulation of decades of memories.
Milliennium Actress jumps right into its story. Genya, a documentary director, drags his cameraman, Kyoji, to the home of the long-retired, long reclusive film star, Chiyoko Fujiwara. Genya is making a documentary about her. Upon meeting her, he gives her a present: a key. The key is a memento of hers long lost. What it opens materially is irrelevant. When he gives her the key, her memories begin to flow.
Millennium Actress was the second film by the brilliant animator Satoshi Kon. From 1997 through 2006, Kon had an astonishing run of quality, directing four films (Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, and Paprika) and the 13-episode series Paranoia Agent. He passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2010 while working on a fifth film (the still unfinished Dreaming Machine). Most of his films- Tokyo Godfathers excepted- dance in and out of reality, deliberately challenging the viewer to a point where we have to abandon our usual expectations of narrative flow.
Millennium Actress might be Kon’s most ambitious work in this regard. It plunges into and out of Chiyoko’s memories, those memories blending with scenes from her movies. Genya seems in on the game, popping up regularly in memories and scenes he has no business being in. Kyoji is the audience conduit, offering bewildered meta-commentary on the constant scene-changes.
If it sounds like Millennium Actress is hard to follow, it’s not. This is an enchanting film. Kon knows well how memories are as much about feelings and sensations as the actual events. It makes sense at a level beyond linear narrative. It bursts with energy and heart. Kon’s animation was never lovelier than it is here. His signature lush foregrounds and simple, static backgrounds give it a dreamlike quality.
If I haven’t begun to describe the plot of Millennium Actress, that’s because the plot is fairly spare. We discover early on that the primary catalyst in Chiyoko’s journey is her search for a political prisoner she helped escape from the police. The man was an artist. We see their one conversation, gazing up at the moon that night. He leaves in the morning. That’s as much as I will reveal. The plot is minimal, which makes room for what Millennium Actress is really about. It’s about how a moment so innocent and innocuous can take on a cosmic significance. How a moment of kindness, a conversation under the stars, or a gift that unlocks long-lost memories, can become impassable mountains in the path of the narrative of one’s life. My favorite scene in the film involves Chiyoko discovering a memento left behind for her years before. In a typical film, with a linear narrative, it would be a sweet, sentimental moment. In this film, it’s a moment of equally towering joy and sadness.
With remarkable empathy, Millennium Actress explores how deeply we really are tied to our memories. Memories shape us. We can spend lifetimes dissecting a moment from our past, trying to explore it from every angle. It’s a frenetic tale, yes, but then so is life. Millennium Actress is attuned to life in its full spectrum.