Review: ‘The Invitation’ (2022), starring Nathalie Emmanuel, Thomas Doherty, Stephanie Corneliussen, Alana Boden, Courtney Taylor, Hugh Skinner and Sean Pertwee

August 26, 2022

by Carla Hay

Nathalie Emmanuel in “The Invitation” (Photo by Marcell Piti/Screen Gems)

“The Invitation” (2022)

Directed by Jessica M. Thompson

Culture Representation: Taking place in England and briefly in New York City, the horror film “The Invitation” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one biracial person, a few black people and one Asian person) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An aspiring ceramic maker, who is an American orphan in her 20s, is invited to go to England to meet her long-lost relatives, but she finds out these relatives have sinister plans for her.

Culture Audience: “The Invitation” will appeal mainly to people who don’t mind watching formulaic horror movies that are frequently dull.

Thomas Doherty and Nathalie Emmanuel in “The Invitation” (Photo by Marcell Piti/Screen Gems)

If the horror flick “The Invitation” were an actual invitation, the RSVP would stand for “regurgitated, silly vampire pap.” As the movie’s “woman in peril,” Nathalie Emmanuel tries to bring personality to a film that’s relentlessly mediocre. The movie trailer for “The Invitation” gives away about 80% of the major plot developments. But even if you don’t see this movie trailer filled with spoiler information, everything in this unimaginative film is easy to predict.

Directed by Jessica M. Thompson (who co-wrote “The Invitation” screenplay with Blair Butler), “The Invitation” is a cinematic version of a cheap romance novel with a vampire twist that fails to be suspenseful. The movie’s jump scares look forced and don’t last long. All the horror elements of “The Invitation” are derivative of much better horror movies.

The protagonist of “The Invitation” is Evelyn “Evie” Jackson (played by Emmanuel), an aspiring ceramic artist in her 20s who lives in New York City. Evie, who later says she’s trying to get a master of fine arts degree, hasn’t been able to make a living as an artist. She pays her bills by working as a server at a catering company.

Evie is an independent-minded bachelorette who lives alone and currently has no special person in her love life. She has a (cliché alert) sassy best friend named Grace (played by Courtney Taylor), who is also a bachelorette, and they often commiserate with each other about their lovelorn experiences with dating. Later in the movie, Evie mentions that she’s in no rush to get married, which makes a certain turn of events in the movie more horrifying to her.

Evie’s father died when she was 14. Evie’s widowed mother died of cancer a few months ago. Evie has no siblings. And so, when Evie spends her birthday by herself, she does so by making ceramics and listening to a past voice mail message from her mother. It’s the movie’s obvious way of showing that Evie is in such grief over her mother’s death, Evie wants to spend her birthday alone.

Not long after her birthday, Evie takes an at-home DNA test, by using a kit from a genealogy company that had a recent event where Evie worked as a catering server. When the DNA test results come back, Evie finds out that she has a long-lost second cousin named Oliver Alexander III (played by Hugh Skinner), an aristocrat who lives in England. The next thing you know, Evie is having a lunch meeting in New York City with Oliver, who initiated this meeting.

Oliver explains to Evie that their great-grandmother Emmaline Alexander had an affair with a footman, who was black. In an era when interracial relationships were very taboo, Emmaline got pregnant and gave birth to a son, who was Evie’s maternal grandfather. Evie is also the child of an interracial couple. Her mother was black, and her father was white. Oliver lets Evie know that the current members of the Alexander family are not racists and that she’s welcome in the family.

Oliver invites Evie to meet her long-lost British family during a wedding that will take place at a lavish English countryside estate of another wealthy family whose surname is Deville. (“The Invitation” was actually filmed in Hungary.) Oliver quickly mutters something about a cousin named Martin who’s marrying a member of the Deville family. Oliver insists on paying for everything for this first-class trip. Evie is hesitant at first to take this generous offer, but of course you know that she changes her mind. Oliver simply won’t take no for an answer.

When Evie arrives at the estate, she’s outside and accidentally bumps into a few maids, who are carrying drinking glasses that shatter on the ground. Evie makes profuse apologies, but the estate’s haughty head butler Mr. Fields (played by Sean Pertwee) scolds the maids, even though Evie says she’s entirely to blame for the accident. Mr. Fields looks up and down at Evie (who wears a nose ring) and coldly asks her who she is and what she’s doing there.

Mr. Fields’ snobbish attitude toward Evie has racist overtones, since Evie is the only guest at the estate who isn’t white. Oliver steps in and introduces Evie to Mr. Fields as a member of the Alexander family. Mr. Fields’ attitude immediately changes to being polite and professional, but Evie feels hurt and angry over his insulting demeanor toward her when they first met.

It isn’t long before Evie meets the handsome and charming owner of the estate: Walter “Walt” Deville (played by Thomas Doherty), who makes an apology to Evie about Mr. Fields’ rudeness when Walt sees that Evie feels offended and uncomfortable. Evie is immediately attracted to Walt, and the feeling seems mutual. They mildly flirt with each other in a way that people do in movies where you know that that this flirtation is going to turn into a romance.

Mr. Fields shows Evie around the inside of this palatial estate, and he tells her that she’s welcome to go anywhere except the library, which is locked. And it’s at this point in the movie that you know Evie will eventually go in the library, where secrets are obviously being kept locked up. During this house tour, Evie meets chief housekeeper Mrs. Swift (played by Carol Ann Crawford), a friendly staffer who has been assigned to be Evie’s personal maid during this trip.

Evie feels awestruck by all the opulence and wealth on display. She also feels somewhat out-of-place, since she never grew up with this type of money and privilege. In order to cover up her insecurities, she makes sarcastic comments to Walt and to Grace (who talks with Evie on the phone for video chats) about what it must feel like to be super-rich.

Sure enough, Walt begins to court Evie. In a private conversation that Evie has with Oliver, she checks with him to make sure that the Devilles are not biologically related to the Alexanders. Oliver says with a smirk that the two families are not biologically related. And as soon as Evie gets confirmation that if she got romantically involved with Walt, it would not be incest, Evie lets Walt get closer to her. Eventually, Walt tells Evie that his parents are also deceased.

The courtship is a whirlwind affair. Walt even does things such as give Evie a designer gown to wear at a pre-wedding party at the estate. Evie thinks it’s almost like a fairytale where she is being treated like a pampered princess. But since “The Invitation” is a horror movie, this fairytale is going to turn into a nightmare.

Before that happens, Evie starts to feel more comfortable around her stuffy family members and the Alexander family’s equally stuffy friends when they hold a reception in her honor. She’s given a warm welcome by family patriarch Alfred Alexander, who leads the group in raising drinking glasses to give an enthusiastic toast to Evie.

Almost all of the family members are men. Someone in the group mentions in a foreshadowing comment that they need more women in the family. Evie might have been welcomed into this family, but she still wants to keep her identity. When Oliver introduces Evie as “Evie Alexander,” she corrects him and reminds him that her last name is Jackson.

At a pre-wedding party, Evie is introduced to two more people from nearby aristocratic families: Lucy (played by Alana Boden) is a bubbly blonde. Viktoria (played by Stephanie Corneliussen) is an icy brunette. Lucy is amiable to Evie, but Viktoria is openly hostile to Evie. Viktoria also shows signs that she’s very jealous of Evie’s blossoming romance with Walt.

There are demon creatures lurking around the Deville house at night. “The Invitation” has a lot of stereotypical jump scares involving these creatures, with very brief moments of effective tension. Evie sees one of these creatures on the top of her canopy bed. She screams and hides underneath the bed, but she doesn’t do what most people would do: Leave the house, or at least insist on sleeping in another room.

The movie’s opening scene also shows a woman in the house committing suicide by hanging herself. Later, when Evie is at the mansion, Mrs. Swift tells Evie that this woman was “the lady of the house,” who died recently. The name of this woman should come as no surprise when it’s revealed. And then, certain maids end up getting murdered.

The problem with “The Invitation” is that it could have been more intriguing, but everything in the movie is just shallow. “The Invitation” just goes through the motions of things that have already been done in many other horror flicks about ghosts, demons and vampires. The movie has issues about race and social class that are dangled in front of viewers but never fully developed. “The Invitation” didn’t need to be a “Get Out” ripoff, but it could have made some clever commentary about social prejudices or feeling like an outsider in the context of this horror story.

Instead, the movie just has Grace make unfunny, racist wisecracks about Oliver being “the whitest person I’ve ever seen,” and Grace saying that Evie better be careful about being around so many white people. Grace comments that these white people could be after Evie to harvest her organs. (It’s this movie’s weak semi-nod to “Get Out.”)

Because, yes, as already shown in the trailer for “The Invitation,” Evie has been lured into a trap by a group of vampires. The reasons why they targeted Evie are eventually revealed, but these reasons aren’t surprising since the movie trailer shows Evie in a wedding dress. As for the vampire groom, remove the last two letters of the name Deville. This movie is not subtle at all.

In her performance as the strong-willed and independent Evie, Emmanuel seems to be doing her best to make Evie a convincing character. But after Evie sees the demon in the bedroom, Evie unrealistically seems to get over it quickly. Doherty’s performance as Walt should have gotten more menacing as the story goes along. Instead, the performance becomes campier as the story devolves into a cesspool of vampire clichés. All of the movie’s other cast members give adequate or forgettable performances.

Although the production design and costume design for “The Invitation” are attractive to look at, the movie’s visual effects aren’t very impressive. “The Invitation” has scenes where a massive fire has engulfed an area—and all of the fire looks very phony. The fight scenes are almost laughable. However, “The Invitation” has a manicure scene with some effective sound editing and sound design intended to make viewers squirm.

“The Invitation” takes so long to get to any real action, by the time the showdown scenes happen, they all feel anticlimactic. Certain fight tactics that are used by the protagonist are too easy to predict. And there are some aspects of the story that are just downright dumb. For example, the very last scene in the movie is ridiculous and unnecessary. “The Invitation” is not the worst horror movie ever made. It’s just not an impressive horror movie, and it will be forgotten quicker than a hungry vampire can bite a victim.

Screen Gems released “The Invitation” in U.S. cinemas on August 26, 2022.

Review: ‘Falling for Figaro,’ starring Danielle Macdonald, Hugh Skinner and Joanna Lumley

October 13, 2021

by Carla Hay

Hugh Skinner and Danielle Macdonald in “Falling for Figaro” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Falling for Figaro” 

Directed by Ben Lewin

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Scotland and briefly in England, the romantic comedy/drama “Falling for Figaro” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with two people of Indian heritage and one black person) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A successful fund manager, who is bored with her job and with her life, goes on a leave of absence to train as an opera singer, but she has conflicts with her singing instructor and the instructor’s longtime protégé.

Culture Audience: “Falling for Figaro” will appeal primarily to fans of co-star Joanna Lumley and to people who like lightweight but appealing romantic dramedies.

Joanna Lumley and Danielle Macdonald in “Falling for Figaro” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Falling for Figaro” hits all the predictable beats of a romantic comedy/drama about a woman who goes outside her comfort zone and ends up finding true love. Thanks to a charming performance from Danielle Macdonald, the movie is slightly better than the usual schmaltz. “Absolutely Fabulous” co-star Joanne Lumley, who has been typecast as portraying cranky battle-axes with an acerbic wit, does more of the same type of performance in “Falling for Figaro.” However, Lumley’s fans should enjoy how she embodies the role with such comedic commitment that viewers will wonder what foul and mean-spirited things will come out next from this character’s mouth.

Ben Lewin directed “Falling for Figaro” and co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Allen Palmer. The movie has the added benefit of being set in the world of opera competitions, which is a unique context for a romantic comedy/drama. But make no mistake: “Falling for Figaro” is utterly formulaic in its story arc and structure. A talented cast makes this movie mostly enjoyable to watch, because most viewers will know how this movie is going to end.

In “Falling for Figaro,” Macdonald portrays Millie Cantwell, an American living in an unnamed big city in England. She works at a corporate job as a fund manager. (Macdonald is actually Australian in real life, but her American accent is flawless.) Millie is a rising star at the company. And it’s not just because her boss happens to be her live-in boyfriend.

His name is Charlie (played by Shazad Latif), and he’s proud of Millie’s success as a fund manager and wants to promote her to a higher position. Millie (who’s in her early 30s) and Charlie (who’s in his mid-to-late 30s) met when he interviewed her to work at the company. There are no flashbacks in this movie. The story begins when Millie and Charlie have already been living together for an unspecified period of time.

It’s kind of a tricky situation in this #MeToo era for a boss to be dating an employee. But somehow, Millie and Charlie have worked it out and are open about their personal relationship while keeping things professional at work. Early on in the movie, she jokingly says to him in private: “I’m going to make more money than you. You’re going to rue the day that you hired me.”

Even though Millie is on the fast track to a big promotion at her job, she’s actually bored and frustrated with her career choice. The first scene in the movie shows Millie and Charlie on a date together at an opera performance. Millie is enthralled and has a fantasy that she’s the one who’s up on stage as the star of the show. Meanwhile, Charlie could care less about opera. He falls asleep during the performance. You know where this is going, of course.

It doesn’t take long for Millie to confess to Charlie that she’s going to take a big risk in her life to pursue a longtime dream of hers: She wants to become a professional opera singer. And in order to do that, Millie is going to take a year off from her job to go through opera training. When she tells Charlie this surprising news that she wants to be an opera singer, his incredulous response is, “Like, in the shower?”

Once the shock wears off, Charlie sees that Millie is entirely serious and determined to achieve this goal. Millie gets some advice from an older co-worker named Patricia Hartley, who tells her that the fastest way to be discovered as an aspiring opera singer is to go on the TV talent contest called “Singer of Renown.”

Millie says to Patricia, “I’m not going to spend the rest of my life as a fund manager … Why shouldn’t I follow my heart?” Patricia doesn’t want to discourage Millie, but she expresses some skepticism about Millie trying to become an opera singer when many people start training in their childhood or teen years. Millie says defiantly in response to this skepticism, “Patricia, I’m not that old, and it is not too late. I’m willing to do this, with or without your help.”

Patricia recommends that Millie get her training from an opera instructor whom Patricia knows named Meghan Geoffrey-Bishop (played by Lumley), who is based in the Scottish Highlands small town of Drumbuie. Meghan is at an age when most people are retired, but she refuses to think of herself as too old to work. Patricia warns Millie about Meghan: “She’s a little unorthodox.” A more accurate description of Meghan is, “She’s a little crazy and very rude.”

Charlie thinks that Millie is making a mistake to pursue a career as an opera singer. However, Millie has already made up her mind. And so, off Millie goes to Scotland with big dreams, a lot of hope and the expected amount of fear that she might end up failing.

Drumbuie is the type of small town where the local pub/restaurant (The Filthy Pig) is the center of the townspeople’s social lives. The Filthy Pig’s bartender Ramsay Macfadyen (played by Gary Lewis), who’s about the same age as Meghan, is the type of friendly person who knows regular customers by their names. He’s attuned to what’s going on in most of the customers’ personal lives. (In other words, he’s nosy.) And in a case of “opposites attract,” it turns out that Ramsay and Meghan have a little bit of a romance going on, but they’re trying to keep it low-key.

One of the waiters at the Filthy Pig is named Max (played by Hugh Skinner), an occasionally sullen introvert in his mid-30s. Max works at the Filthy Pig to supplement his income as he trains to become a professional opera singer. Up until Millie comes along, Max was the only student of Meghan, who is very choosy about which people she wants to train. Meghan is also like a mother figure to Max, whose background isn’t really explained except for a mention that his parents are no longer alive and he has no other family members.

Meghan acts like such a domineering mother to Max that viewers might think that at some point there might be a reveal in the story that she really is Max’s mother, but that doesn’t happen. Max is a live-in handyman on Meghan’s property, so she often treats him like a lowly servant too. It seems like the main reason why Max puts up with Meghan’s shoddy treatment is because he respects her as a vocal instructor and he has an emotional attachment to her because she’s the closest thing he’s got to having a family.

Millie’s audition for Meghan is an outright disaster. For her audition piece, Millie sings “Voi Che Sapete” from “The Marriage of Figaro.” She’s nervous and stumbles in her vocal delivery because during the audition, Max has been working on some plumbing nearby, and the loud noise is very distracting. Not surprisingly, Meghan rips into Millie not just for her performance but also to personally insult Millie.

Meghan goes on a rant that includes saying haughtily to Millie, “I haven’t finished telling you how worthless you are!” Meghan warns Millie that if Millie becomes Meghan’s student, Meghan will make Millie’s life miserable. Millie is undeterred. And because Millie has no other immediate options, she practically begs Meghan to be her vocal instructor. Meghan is secretly impressed by Millie’s determination and reluctantly agrees to train Millie.

Meanwhile, Max is feeling a little jealous that Meghan has accepted a new student, when he was used to having Meghan all to himself. Max tries to make Millie feel inferior by telling her that he’s been training with Meghan for so long, he can help Millie with some vocal techniques. Millie declines his offer and seems a little insulted because she thinks Max is being condescending to her.

The way that Max takes the rejection indicates that he might be interested in Millie for more than professional reasons. He doesn’t seem too pleased when he finds out that Millie has a boyfriend back home. Millie describes Charlie as her “significant other.” Max’s response: “It doesn’t exactly sound like a love match.” Meanwhile, Meghan sees that there’s some friction between Max and Millie. And what does Meghan do? She suggests that Max and Millie work on a duet together.

Viewers can easily predict how the rest of the story is going to go from there. Max and Millie have their share of disagreements, but they also learn to respect each other’s talent. Charlie arrives for the inevitable surprise visit, as Max and Millie’s attraction to each other grows. Max and Millie end up competing against each other in the “Singer of Renown” contest. Thankfully, the outcome of that contest isn’t as predictable as most people might think it is.

There’s a “Singer of Renown” contestant named Rosa Patullo (played by Rebecca Benson), who might be the most talented singer, but she has confidence issues. Kind-hearted Millie befriends Rosa and helps her deal with these insecurities. Millie isn’t a complete angel in this story, because there are some infidelity issues that she gets herself into during the inevitable love triangle between herself, Charlie and Max.

The opera singing in the movie should delight opera fans and even people who aren’t opera fans but appreciate musical artistry. What isn’t so creative is how many of the supporting characters end up being unremarkable clichés. There’s a gaggle of Filthy Pig regulars who are entirely forgettable. And the movie skimps on a backstory for Millie. Viewers will learn nothing about how and why she ended up living in the United Kingdom and what kind of family background she has.

Max as a love interest is a little bit on the bland side, while Meghan can be a little too over-the-top with her cruel comments. Skinner and Lumley play those roles accordingly. And that’s why the main appeal of “Falling for Figaro” is with Millie’s character, thanks to Macdonald’s relatable and grounded performance in a movie that largely follows a fairytale formula. The direction of this movie is breezy and light, which is an interesting contrast to the heavy bombast of opera. “Falling for Figaro” is far from a groundbreaking romantic movie, but it’s a pleasant-enough diversion for people who want the cinematic equivalent of comfort food.

IFC Films released “Falling for Figaro” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on October 1, 2021.

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