‘The Invitation’ this year’s cheap, late-summer gem

Awesome. Images courtesy Sony Pictures Releasing.

8/10 The Invitation is exactly the kind of easily skippable highlight that rewards me for trying to see everything I can.  

When newly orphaned Evie Jackson (Nathalie Emmanuel) discovers a second cousin Oliver Alexander (Hugh Skinner) on an ancestry website, he invites her to a wedding in the English countryside. The New York City waitress accustomed to late payments and sexual harassment suddenly finds herself an honored guest in a well-staffed English manor and a favorite of its master, Walter Deville (Thomas Doherty), and I don’t want to spoil anything, but the movie cites Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” as its inspiration, so.

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‘Bullet Train’ brings up the smooth caboose of summer 2022

The bullet train is cool and a plot device and a pun, but not a theme. The picture seems to shy away from big political and cultural questions about why we can’t have them in America. Image courtesy Sony Pictures Releasing.

8/10 Bullet Train is an exclusive after-party of a movie, an after-dinner engagement for viewers with refined taste. It fails to be the riotous laugh-out-loud comedy it shoots for, but its camerawork, lighting, constant action, stellar costumes and disciplined story make for a fun, supportive watch.

Aboard the three-hour bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto, an American hitman codenamed Ladybug (Brad Pitt) is assigned to steal a briefcase full of cash intended for a ransom payment, then step off at the first stop. The notoriously unlucky Ladybug is harried at every turn by a wide array of assassins with varying relationships to the kidnapping. The fighting draws him into the heart of Japanese organized crime as the train hurtles toward a rendezvous in Kyoto with its mysterious Russian-born leader known only as the White Death.

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‘Vengeance’ searches for the Deep South, finds West Texas

What would you even call this – West Texas Gothic podcast noir? The aesthetic is very strong. Images courtesy Focus Features.

8/10 Night, West Texas, red solo cups litter the ground. A young woman is dragged away from a party to die, witnessed only by natural gas wells churning silently in the desert. Two thousand miles away, Old Glory catches on the East River breeze and unfurls proudly over the Brooklyn Bridge as the class of Manhattan magazine writers mingles in nondescript celebration.

The wee hours of that morning, New York Magazine reporter Ben Manalowitz (B.J. Novak, who also writes and directs) gets a call from Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook) to tell him that his sister, Abby Shaw, is dead. Under the impression that Manalowitz was Abby’s boyfriend, the Shaw family insists he come out to Texas for the funeral, where Ty Shaw confides to him that Abby’s death, an open-and-shut overdose on the opioids readily available on the oilfield, was actually murder most foul, a conclusion based on nothing but his own intuition. Manalowitz commits to stay and record a podcast about his search for vengeance.

Vengeance hangs on a very solid “want vs need” narrative skeleton, what’s cited as a common character arc but can only really work this well in a journalism or detective story, where the main character is necessarily separate from what he’s focused on. It’s an inherently dynamic setup. The storyteller dictates the story, but the story changes the teller.

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Brief notes on ‘DC League of Super-pets’

Image courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

There’s no more palpable bromance in Hollywood right now than the one between Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart. Their electricity is palpable and joyous, and the Jumanji co-stars seem to have endeavored to work together more as time has gone on. With one starring in DC League of Super-Pets as Krypto the Superdog and the other as Ace the Bat-Hound, it seemed like a nice way to kill an afternoon. I don’t want to do a full analysis of a movie about talking animals with the celebrity voices – I’m 30 years old, that’s not fair, but there’s this one thing, this one small thing about it –

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Improve your life with ‘Marcel the Shell with Shoes On’

Images courtesy A24.

10/10 Sometimes, a fresh pair of eyes is all it takes.

After his marriage dissolves, documentarian Dean Fleischer Camp (himself. Camp also writes, directs, edits and produces) moves into an Airbnb, but discovers it is already inhabited by Marcel (Jenny Slate, who also writes and produces), a conscious shell with shoes on. Marcel was part of a collection of shells belonging to a family that used to live in the house, but they were separated, and he now spends his time in relative isolation doing chores around his massive environment taking care of Nana Connie (Isabella Rossellini), his only remaining relative who is showing early signs of dementia. Dean makes a Youtube documentary about Marcel, becoming an internet sensation.

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is the feature-length culmination of several stop-motion shorts – Slate and Camp have been working on these characters for 12 years. The story goes that, both early in their careers when they were sharing a hotel room at a wedding with five other people to save money, Slate started speaking in a tiny voice, and Marcel came to life on YouTube 48 hours later.

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