The Invitation

How to make a movie about Dracula feel new, or at least new-ish?  The Invitation addresses this by telling a very familiar story about a very familiar character through the eyes of Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel), an African American toiling away in the States as a waitress.  Her job sucks and with her mother’s recent death, misses having connection to a family.  The answer to her ennui arrives when she completes a DNA test and discovers she’s actually a long-lost relative to the white-as-can-be Alexander family in England.  Her best friend Grace (Courtney Taylor) cautions her not to go, but nobody ever listens to their best friend’s advice in these movies.

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Nope

The flying saucer movie has been a staple for over seventy years.  The first movie to feature a UFO, appropriately titled The Flying Saucer, came out in 1950.  Since then, the genre has primarily been about a flying saucer, or flying saucers, showing up on Earth causing problems for hapless humans.  There have been some great ones over the years, including The Day The Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET.  However, this category of science fiction mostly exists to provide cheap thrills.  Oh no, a big-headed alien has just abducted our helpless heroine!  Send in the Army and all of its tanks, jets and men with machine guns!

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The Black Phone

Set in 1978, a child killer nicknamed The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) has been terrorizing a Colorado suburb.  Under the guise of a hapless magician, he snatches kids in broad daylight, spraying an intoxicant into their faces before cramping them into his black van.  A middle-schooler named Finney (Mason Thames) eventually becomes his target and finds himself trapped in a soundproofed basement.  When Finney is alone, a phone on the wall rings.  This is curious as the phone is disconnected.  On the other end is the voice of another boy Finney knew.  Subsequent calls are from the other boys who’ve gone missing, five in all.  Initially they give Finney advice on how to not play The Grabber’s “game”, which has been lethal for them.  They then proceed to coach him on things he can do to try to escape.

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Men

If director Alex Garland had any sense of humor at all, he would have titled the movie “Fear and Loathing in Cotson”.  As it is, Men is about how badly men behave, particularly when they are rejected by women.  Jesse Buckley plays Harper, a woman suffering in a marriage with the violent and emotional James (Paapa Essiedu).  When she says she wants a divorce, he threatens her with committing suicide.  He figures she would prefer to stay married over having to deal with the guilt of his death, but Harper is determined.  James dies suddenly, and it’s unclear whether it was intentional or an accident.  Some time afterwards, Harper decides to take a vacation.  She rents a house in the English countryside.  Once there, Harper meets proprietor Geoffrey, an overly polite English type.  On a walk, she’s stalked by a naked man.  Shortly afterwards, she is confronted by an angry child, an oily vicar, a dismissive policeman and assorted male dullards, all played by Rory Kinnear.   (“The Many Faces of Rory Kinnear” would also have been a better title.)

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Antlers

Antlers is a micro-budget horror movie that aspires to be much more meaningful than it is.  In a perpetually rainy town in Oregon, a young boy named Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) is trying to keep his family together while his meth-cooking father is in the throes of something that is turning him into an animal.  Lucas’s teacher Julia (Keri Russell) believes that Lucas’ disheveled state and withdrawn behavior are tell-tale signs child abuse, because she was abused as a child.  Her monosyllabic brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), the town sheriff, warns her not to intervene, but you know how this will turn out.  Graham Greene cameos as former Sheriff Warren who reveals that Lucas’s father was bitten by a Wendigo, a creature based in Native American legend.  From here on out, danger signs go unheeded, people get eaten and the movie’s big confrontation wraps up surprisingly quickly.

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Lamb

Lamb is a horror/fantasy/drama.  The story concerns Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason), two Icelandic farmers.  They lost a child years ago, and their lives are now filled with the routine tasks of tending to their field and their flock of sheep.  One day, an ewe gives birth to a lamb that is not a lamb.  It’s part lamb, part human.  Seeing the lamb a second chance at motherhood, Maria takes it from the barn and cares for it as if it were her own baby.  The trio become a family, but the unexpected return of Ingvar’s ne’er-do-well brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) threatens their happiness.  Before long, Maria is forced to confront the tension between her and Pétur, as well as the ramifications of taking the lamb from its birth mother.

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Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley is director Guillermo del Toro’s follow-up to his Academy Award winning film The Shape of Water.  That movie, a love letter to the monster movies of the fifties (particularly 1954’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon) was infused with modern themes of inclusion and acceptance, took home the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director.  Del Toro’s latest is a remake of the 1947 film directed by Edmung Goulding and starring Tyrone Power.  If you’re seen it before, this version will feel very familiar.  (If you haven’t, I recommend watching it either before or after you see the current version as a fun film study exercise. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did!)

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