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New Releases for Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Invitation

Genre: Thriller

Directed by: Karyn Kusama

Run time: 100 minutes

Rating: Unrated

Format: Blu-Ray

The Lowdown: The term ‘slow burn’ can sometimes seem like a bad thing.

In movies, it implies the passage of time, as in drawn out or, worse, it suggests that for a long time very little happens.

But ‘slow burn,’ when done right, really means a tightening of the screws, a ratcheting of tension, an expertly paced, perfectly plotted pot-boiler that ever so slowly grabs hold and then – Bam! – throttles the living daylights out of you.

And, that, in a very brief description, is Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation.

Kusama burst on the scene in 2000 with “Girlfight,” her stunning debut that introduced the world to Michelle Rodriguez. She received the inevitable big-budget invitation from Hollywood and stumbled immediately with the lackluster “Aeon Flux.” Then, in 2009, she roared back with a film that was criminally shunned and received little to no critical praise – the under-appreciated, wickedly funny and bloody good horror gem, “Jennifer’s Body.”

Seven years later, she’s finally returned and this time people are paying her proper attention.

The Invitation isn’t a slow-moving movie, but it wisely takes its time welcoming you to the ultimate dinner party from hell. The wonderful Logan Marshall-Green, his hooded eyes blazing with skepticism, plays Will, the former husband of Eden, whose relationship was severed by the untimely death of their child. Two years later, Eden and her new husband David have invited Will and his girlfriend and a group of longtime former friends to a special dinner celebration.

Eden and David have embraced a newfound ideology whereby they renounce guilt, remorse, sadness, jealousy – any negative emotion that seeks to mire them down. And they want to share their new life with their closest friends, even and especially Will, who remains trapped in guilt and wrapped in sadness. And they want to introduce their friends to Pruitt (the wonderfully creepy John Carroll Lynch), who may or may not represent the archetype for the new quasi-religion, spiritually-murky mindset they have discovered.

Eden (and Will’s) former friends deftly eschew traditional stereotypes and instead provide a welcome slice of realness to the proceedings. These are people you know, both former friends and new acquaintances. You instantly recognize them for who they are and the roles that they might play in your own life.

The first act whets the appetite as Will carefully and systematically moves throughout his old home, finding old memories and discovering the ways in which it has changed.

The second act offers a buffet of a main course as libations give way to confessions and Pruitt’s addition to the party serves to unsettle Will that much more. Marshall-Green does a marvelous job of barely containing his contempt and suspicion, even as he grows more unsure of who this woman is that he once loved and started to raise a child with.

By the third act, the just desserts, as you will, Kusama has masterfully maneuvered her hand tightly around our throats. You don’t even realize the moment her nails expertly pierce the skin until it’s too late. And by too late, I mean, she unleashes holy hell.

The Invitation explodes in its final act in ways that bigger-budgeted, A-list-starring feature films only wish they could. As the carefully-constructed façade quickly turns nightmarish, Kusama never loses sight of her end goal and she stages each big WHAT-THE-HELL moment with a dexterity and skill that other filmmakers only wish they possessed.

The make-of-it-what-you-will ending, awash in apocalyptic dread and dripping with venomous portent, is perfect in its queasy ambiguity.

As the bigger picture questions begin to flood your brain, you realize just how well-crafted and intelligent the proceedings you just witnessed truly were.

This is one invitation you cannot afford to ignore. RSVP now.

The Stuff You Care About: Hot chicks – Yes.

Nudity – Yes. Gore – No.

Drug use – No.

Bad Guys/Killers – Cults, man. Cults.

Buy/Rent – Buy it.

Hellhole (Shout! Factory, 95 minutes, R, Blu-Ray): The women-in-prison, low-budget 1985 exploitation film Hellhole isn’t a great women-in-prison, low-budget exploitation film, which is surprising. Especially since it stars Judy Landers, who is famous for two things, and neither one of them is acting. But the film, dusted off by Shout! Factory and given a high-definition release, does have its moments, and most of those are sprinkled throughout in classic snippets of dialogue. My favorite? “Once they take you to Hellhole, you don’t never come back.”

The Perfect Husband (Artsploitation Films, 85 minutes, Unrated, Blu-Ray): The Perfect Husband is the perfect example of how trying to be too clever with a big twist can completely undermine a film.

Italian writer-director Lucas Pavetto’s The Perfect Husband could have been a great slice of nasty, gory horror. Pavetto apparently has no qualms letting the blood spurt. He seems gleeful in depicting amputations, severed limbs and seriously wicked axe chops to the chest and head.

And, with lead actress Gabriella Wright, he has a beautiful muse – the perfect final girl – that any slasher film would be fortunate to employ.

So what went wrong? Without spoiling The Perfect Husband, it’s nearly impossible to dissect the major plot points that completely undo Pavetto’s movie, but suffice to say, the third-act twist, the big reveal, once it is revealed, it does explain a lot that was utterly confounding in the first two acts but it’s also handled so poorly that it just makes you mad you were duped for so long.

I almost stopped watching The Perfect Husband twice because of how disjointed it felt, how completely unbelievable its central characters were acting, how out-of-left-field certain developments seemed. While Pavetto’s twist neatly explained why I felt the way I did, it also only served to aggravate me further because then all I could think about was how there had to have been a better way to accomplish what he set out to do without sacrificing common sense and the established rules of human behavior that we expect people to operate by.

Maybe I’m in the minority. Other people might watch The Perfect Husband and have no problem whatsoever with the choices made and how the film achieves its central goal. That’s the beauty of a thoroughly subjective medium – everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But for me, it just didn’t work the way I’m sure it was intended, and for that reason, it left me unsatisfied instead of exuberant.

Hardcore Henry (Universal, 97 minutes, R, Blu-Ray): Writer-director Ilya Naishuller’s POV-action flick Hardcore Henry isn’t easy to watch. The cinematic equivalent of a first-person shooter videogame likely could induce nausea in viewers who find the 3D rides at Universal Studios too much for their sensitive constitutions to handle. It also isn’t necessarily as much fun as one might assume. Sure, at first, you feel like Henry himself, a half-human, half-cyborg awakened from sleep stasis to learn his wife is being targeted by a weird Fabio-looking albino. The first few point-of-view bursts of mayhem are exhilarating, but they quickly lose their luster. By the time Henry (and you) finally reach the laboratory of his creator, the experience has grown wearisome. The best part about the film? It isn’t the ridiculous violence and crazy stunts, although both are impressive when taken at face value for what they reflect. The best part for me was whenever the mute Henry throws up his hands in exasperation at the next obstacle he must clear, his hands appear in front of the screen, as if they are your own. That made me giggle. Repeatedly. The rest, not so much.

Criminal (Lionsgate, 113 minutes, R, Blu-Ray): In the 1980s, film studios like New Line Cinema, Cannon Films and American International Pictures made cheap action films starring guys like Chuck Norris and Michael Dudikoff that emphasized action over substance, cool swagger over actual character development and lots (and lots) of explosions, gun battles and hand to hand fisticuffs.

The current embodiment of this genre approach seems to be Millennium Films, which also makes lower-budget action films that emphasize action over substance, cool swagger over actual character development and lots (and lots) of explosions, gun battles and hand to hand fisticuffs.

The major difference is Millennium Films somehow has inked a deal with the devil in exchange for securing former A-list talent and still relevant A-list talent, to topline its brash, bombastic and often dunderheaded releases. I’m talking about a veritable who’s-who of actors like Bruce Willis, John Travolta, John Cusack, Antonio Banderas and Dolph Lundgren. Hell, even Morgan Freeman starred in a Millennium feature.

Maybe that’s why the production company was able to lure four still-viable actors (Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones and Ryan Reynolds) and one serious up-and-comer (Gal Gadot, aka DC’s Wonder Woman) to Criminal, the latest Millennium Films shoot-em-up and blow-em-up that looks great in a two-minute trailer but drags like hell when stretched to nearly two hours.

The true travesty is that Criminal could have been wicked fun, a la John Woo’s “Face/Off.” The story, what there is of it, concerns a fallen federal agent (Reynolds) who just happens to know the location of a known terrorist who just happens to have the codes to control all of the world’s nuclear warheads. When he’s killed by an uber-bad guy (Jordi Mollà, in the only kind of role he regularly gets to play), Reynolds’ brash boss (Oldman) summons a surgeon (Jones) to implant part of Reynolds’ brain into the brain of career criminal and also uber-bad guy Jericho Stewart (Costner), reaffirming the fact that only characters in the movies are named Jericho.

So, basically, they’re doing a reverse lobotomy or something like that. Don’t get too wrapped up in the medical realism because there ain’t any. This is a movie, which means that immediately after enduring traumatic brain surgery, Jericho is awake, alert and able to move around.

I’m not sure which is worse – the fact that Costner is simply too good for this kind of low-fi pabulum or the fact that instead of unleashing the ultimate killing machine, newly embodied with the memories of a skilled mercenary agent, to seek revenge on his assassin, the story instead screeches to a halt repeatedly to allow Gadot something to do as she is forced to immediately accept that somehow her beloved husband’s memories have miraculously been transplanted inside Costner’s grizzled head. Seriously, if you look up the word “treacly” in the Dictionary, you should find the poster for Criminal. See Jericho play piano with the dead guy’s daughter. See Jericho learn how to cry and feel things. See Jericho develop a conscience.

It’s so bad that after the known terrorist launches a nuclear warhead into the stratosphere to prove that he has control of all the nuclear warheads, I stopped watching Criminal because I didn’t care if one or more of the bombs might actually, eventually hit a target.

Not to Be Overlooked:

Doc Hollywood (Warner Bros., 104 minutes, PG, DVD): Warner Archive re-releases the 1991 Michael J. Fox-starring Doc Hollywood, and that’s a good thing. This is his best film following the Back to the Future franchise.

Also Available:

The Last Diamond

Barbershop: The Next Cut

The Boy Who Cried Werewolf

The Boss


I Am Wrath

Sing Street

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