The Invitation (2015): Group Grief (Review)

Logan Marshall-Green as Will in The Invitation

The Invitation is the latest offering from the director who  brought us Æon Flux and Jennifer’s BodyKaryn Kusama. Written by the scribes who put together the poorly received R.I.P.D. (Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi) the film is a surprising look at grief and how it affects the group dynamic. 

Considering the events of 2016, it can also be seen as a statement on society and its reactions to death and the overall state of disarray that is modern  America.

The film opens with Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) driving through what looks like the Hollywood hills. They are on the way to a dinner party being hosted by Will’s ex; Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new partner David (Michiel Huisman). 

On the way their car strikes a coyote. Will checks on the animal and as it is not dead he kills it with a tire iron. This opening scene sets up the rest of the film rather well. We learn that it has been years since Will has had contact  with Eden and that he is a compassionate man.

He is also not afraid to get his hands bloody.

Not to say that Will is bloodthirsty, he does hesitate, but ultimately the thought of killing the animal as an act of mercy carries him forward.

The party is full of old friends from when Eden and Will were married, sans “Choi” who has not arrived yet. New  additions to the group party are David, Pruitt (played by prolific character actor John Carroll Lynch) and Sadie (Lindsay Burdge). 

The atmosphere at Will’s old home, he shared it with Eden previously, is uncomfortable acceptance.  It is not clear yet just what happened to drive the two apart but there is an apparent awkwardness between the two.

As the party progresses it appears that there is a hidden agenda behind the invitation. David and Eden seem to belong to a cult that they encountered in Sonora, Mexico. Even before  this revelation, and the disturbing  “recruitment” video, Will is uncomfortable and wary of the rationale behind this get together.

The house is full of memories and he has flashbacks while his uneasiness increases. What are Eden and David really up to and why are Pruitt and Sadie there? And where is Choi?

Kusama puts us in an uncomfortable place from scene one.  Using subdued shades of color and a minimalistic soundtrack our senses are directed fully at the characters and their behavior.  The discord and suspicion that Will is experiencing practically screams in our faces and we are soon caught up in his paranoia, anxiety and grief.

The sound used, oh so sparingly, includes an effect not too dissimilar from the violin noise used in Ringu (the sound plays during repeated viewings of the cursed video) and each time we hear it, our own unease increases.

The Invitation is captivating. The film  is not adrenaline paced nor is there any nudity or exciting interactions between characters for the vast majority of the film.  The movie does have an ticking sense of rhythm however.  Like a metronome the pace is  a slow cadence that moves us toward the intense conclusion.

There is a splendid double twist at the end that is not signposted anywhere in the film.  Like the main protagonist Will, we can almost guess one of the little fillips toward the end but not the other.

There are oddly discordant moments throughout and Marshall-Green manages to pull us along with him and his paranoiac stress.  (The actor looked very different from his character in Prometheus, beard not withstanding, and he proves here that he is not a one trick pony.)

John Carroll Lynch manages to be menacing despite his calm exterior. The sheer size of the man helps to enforce this image of pent up rage. (The actor is six feet three inches tall and has hugeness  keeps him from looking less like a string bean and more like a professional wrestler.)

Blanchard and Hulsman pull off equal parts creepy and unconventional affection while working well together to increase the uneasiness. They also manage to set the teeth on edge with their jarring behavior.

At 100 minutes the film comes close to feeling too long, but  this appears to be on purpose as it does intensify the feelings of unease at the dinner party’s direction.  If one were in that social setting the entire party would feel overly long.

By the end of the film we are drained by this intense experience.  The Invitation is close to being an art house film sans subtitles.  It boasts a depth that is impressive and a plot with an ending that is surprising and it is shocking.

This is a 5 star effort.  Streaming on Netflix at the moment set aside some time to see this one.  It is gripping and intense. Do not miss this one.

The Ruins by Scott Smith: Death by Mayan’s

Unknown

I first heard of this book “through the backdoor” as it were. I’d seen the film first. I can somewhat hazily remember liking it. It wasn’t anything to write home about, as far as I can remember, but the film did strike a chord with me. I discovered that it had been made from Scott Smith’s (no relation) book of the same name.

I discovered the book whilst perusing the many available books on Amazon. My eye caught a blurb by the horror Meister himself Stephen King. He gave what I thought was a glowing recommendation of the book. That to me was a seal of approval and I then ordered a hardcopy of the book.

It was only after getting said book that I realised that the glowing recommendation was for his first book, A Simple Plan. Upon learning this disturbing and misleading fact, I raised my clenched fists to the sky and cried, “Damn you Amazon!”

Not really. I did, though, mutter a slight curse at my obvious gullibility and no, I do not want to buy prime real estate in the swamplands of Florida… Or do I?

I haven’t read Mr Smith’s first novel, but I am going to since I trust Stevie King implicitly. But for now, I’ll just focus on the book I have read.

The Ruins is set in Mexico (obviously since the Mayan’s don’t come from any other part of the globe) and it follows the deathly journey made by a group of young people who are just starting out in the world. Jeff and Amy are medical students. Stacy and Eric are happy-go-lucky kids who have drifted together. Eric has been hired as an English  teacher and Stacy has no idea what she is going to do.

This group of four have been joined by Heinrich and Mathias, two German men who happen to be in Mexico on holiday and three Greeks who, since no one can speak the language are referred to as Don Quixote, Pablo and Juan. When Heinrich runs off to some Mayan ruins in pursuit of a female student who is working at the site and then seemingly vanishes, Mathias decides to find him.

Jeff, Amy, Eric, Stacy and Pablo decide to accompany him on what appears, on the face of it, to be a lark and an adventure. Unfortunately for this small band of “explorers” when they eventually find Heinrich they also find something deadly amongst the ruins. After being trapped on the archeological site by neighbouring villagers, the group must try to survive until help arrives.

Jeff, the Eagle Boy Scout, is the leader and he must struggle to keep them alive as well as try to find a way out of their deadly predicament.

This was a great read. I honestly cannot remember if the film adapted from the book was a faithful representation of the story. I’ve down-loaded the film and I’ll watch it soon so I can make an accurate comparison.

Smith does a good job of fleshing out all his characters and paints a great picture of the young people who don’t let language barriers stop them from connecting with other people.  Unfortunately this lack of language skills is what helps to trap the happy-go-lucky group in the ruins.

The only drawback to the book was some of the actual characters themselves. I bonded with Jeff and with the “spacey” Stacy but none of the others had traits that made them personable enough to connect with. And the “foreigners” like Mathias and especially Pablo, did not have enough development either because of the language barrier (Pablo) or lack of character information due to personality (Mathias).

Despite my “disconnection” with some of the main players, I did feel a lot of empathy for the group and their fight for survival. Smith has also introduced a “Big Bad” that was properly creepy and downright scary! And this big bad was nasty and cruel. I can’t tell you what it is, you’ll have to read the book to get that. But it not something you’ll forget about after you’ve read it.

A real 5 star book with just a couple of 3 or 4 star moments. Keep an eye out for Mr Scott Smith, both his books thus far have made a bit of a wave in the literary community. While I try to chase down a copy of his first foray into the horror/suspense/thriller genre, I’ll be looking for any new books he may release.

Author Scott Smith (no relation)
Author Scott Smith (no relation)

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975): Oblivion in the Outback

Directed by Peter Weir (The Cars that Ate Paris) and adapted for the screen by Cliff Green from the book written by Joan Lindsay. The film has the “unofficial” title of being Australia’s most loved film and it was a critic’s favourite when it opened in 1975. It has since risen to a cult favourite. The screenplay should be counted as one of the best adaptations of a book it is amazingly faithful although the ending was altered a bit.

The film got off to an inauspicious start when the actress cast as Mrs Appleyard fell ill at the last moment and Rachel Roberts agreed to step in and take over the role. Such tricks of fate can seldom be so advantageous. Roberts gave the role as the schools headmistress a sinister and cold air that was apparent in the book and that helped the adaptation seem all the more faithful.

The remainder of the cast was split into well-known Australian actors and most of the children were unknown. Helen Morse, Jacki Weaver, Tom Llewellyn-Jones, and Anne-Louise Lambert were all well-known to the Australian public with Morse and Weaver being somewhat better known than the rest. Weaver seems to have enjoyed a “Barbara Windsor” type of reputation and Morse had been extremely active in television.

The film, like the book, is set in the year 1900 on St Valentine’s Day. Appleyard’s College for girls, which is a boarding school for European wealthy off-spring (and the odd Australian rich girl) are going out for a picnic at the local geographical wonder, Hanging Rock. Only one girl is left behind; because of her stubborn refusal to learn a poem she has been punished.

Also like the book, the girls and their chaperones (the French teacher and Miss McCraw) as well as the drag driver Mr Hussey all arrive at the picnic spot. Unfortunately not all of them return. Three of the girls have gone missing as well as Miss McCraw. While we know that the girls have gone exploring the rock, we never really know what happened to Miss McCraw apart from the chubby Edith’s story of seeing the teacher in her pantaloons when she alone ran down the rock full of screams and hysteria.

The class before everything goes so wrong.

The film then shows just how deeply this event has affected everyone and the resultant hysteria and shock of the Victorian inhabitants of this ancient and savage country.

Weir maintains an air of eeriness that pervades the entire film. This combined with the odd nature of Hanging Rock and the haunting (and sometimes very obtrusive) music builds a state a languorous tension that slowly builds throughout the film. The cinematography is misty and foggy, high lighting the ephemeral look of the film and the images of the missing girls, especially the otherworldly Miranda, and swans heighten the feelings of a mythical aura.

The overall feeling of the girls outing is one of impending doom. Weir’s use of slowing the frame rate as we follow the girls (and the other people at the site) movements during the picnic and later as they climb the rock on their journey into oblivion; he also uses the slower frame rate when dealing with other emotional or crucial scenes.

Like the book, the film shows the heat of the summer and the sounds. Cicada’s buzzing while heat waves shimmer over the napping girls; the rising dust from horses and the drag (carriage) and the heavy uncomfortable clothes that everyone wore in the oppressive heat. It also showed the misty appearance of Hanging Rock itself, viewed from the distance and looking like some eerie and dangerous monolith waiting for victims to come close enough for it to devour.

After finally reading Joan Lindsay’s brilliant book that the film had been made of, I searched for a copy of the film. Luckily there was a three disc Deluxe Edition for sale via Amazon and I snatched it up. It has the Director’s cut; the original theatrical cut (made from a negative as the original theatrical cut could not be found) and a disc devoted to the making of and other documentary films about the movie.

I have not seen the director’s cut yet, but I did watch the theatrical cut and watch most of the special features. These were priceless bits of interviews with the cast and crew; they also included an interview with the author Joan Lindsay. It was very interesting to find that not a lot of people were pleased with Peter Weir’s decision to re-cut the film years after it had been made.

I also noted on Amazon that a lot of folks did not like the “new” director’s cut either. I will watch it, just to see what slant Weir adds or takes away from the original. Either way, it is easy to see why this has been declared Australia’s favourite film. The film has aged well and my only complaint  was that the music was sometimes so loud that I could not easily hear the dialogue. This was actually solved by putting the subtitles on. I am sure that part of the problem lay with my laptops limited stereo capabilities though and not of the soundtrack.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is a classic film that should be right at the top of “films to see before you shuffle off this mortal coil.” If you haven’t seen it, do rush out and find it, stream it, rent it, and try to get hold of the special features. It is definitely worth the time it takes to see what went on “way back then.”

Climbing to oblivion?