The Films of Karyn Kusama
Æon Flux (December 2/05)
It's never a good sign when the only pre-release screening for a film is at 10:00PM the night before it opens, thus ensuring that print critics will be unable to include a review in the following day's paper. It's a tacky tactic that's generally reserved for schlocky, low-rent horror flicks and silly, gross-out teen comedies. Æon Flux - from all outward appearances - hardly seems like the sort of movie that needs to be actively kept away from critics, as it's been directed by a respected indie filmmaker and stars an Oscar winner in the title role. As it turns out, however, the film has been kept under wraps not to create an aura of mystery but rather to conceal its true identity as a thoroughly awful and unusually incoherent piece of work. Screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi eschew exposition and character development in favor of a ridiculously convoluted storyline that doesn't even attempt to make any sense, as though this were the third or fourth installment in an ongoing series. Right from the outset, Hay and Manfredi make no attempt to draw the viewer into this world - despite an admittedly intriguing and seemingly foolproof premise. Set in a futuristic world 400 years after a virus wiped out 99% of the Earth's population, Æon Flux follows the title character (Charlize Theron) as she attempts to take down benign dictator Trevor Goodchild (Martin Csokas) for unknown reasons. That the movie never makes it clear just why Flux and her cohorts want to overthrow Goodchild's regime makes it impossible to sympathize with Flux's efforts; why should we care whether or not she succeeds if we have no idea what's at stake? Director Karyn Kusama's decision to employ typically flashy visuals only exacerbates matters, and generally emphasizes the complete lack of substance within the screenplay. As a result, the viewer is treated to sequence after sequence of Flux slinking from one stereotypically futuristic set to another - while occasionally pausing to participate in meaningless, utterly incomprehensible action set-pieces. Æon Flux comes off as nothing less than a total disaster, and the unmistakably campy vibe (a woman with hands for feet? Who thought that was a good idea?) precludes any chance the film might have had of being taken seriously. Theron will likely walk away from this mess unscathed, though it's impossible not to wonder what originally drew her to this astoundingly preposterous tale.
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The Invitation (April 11/16)
The Invitation follows Logan Marshall-Green's Will as he and his girlfriend (Emayatzy Corinealdi's Kira) arrive at the home of his ex-wife (Tammy Blanchard's Eden) for a seemingly run-of-the-mill dinner party, with the already-awkward gathering taking on a whole new level of discomfort as Eden and her new beau (Michiel Huisman's Dave) surprise their guests with a rather unexpected revelation. The degree to which The Invitation ultimately manages to engross the viewer is somewhat surprising, as the movie kicks off with a deliberately-paced opening stretch that's riddled with decidedly less-than-appealing elements (including odd, discomfiting flashbacks and unusual behavior among certain guests). It's clear, though, that the movie grows more and more compelling as time progresses, with filmmaker Karyn Kusama, working from a script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, effectively developing both the various characters and mysterious narrative to an increasingly captivating extent. There's little doubt, as well, that the undercurrent of palpable tension goes a long way towards perpetuating the intriguing atmosphere, as it does become progressively clear that something isn't quite right with certain figures. (It doesn't hurt, either, that Kusama effectively forces the viewer to wonder if Will is simply imagining things or if there really is a threat here.) And although the movie admittedly does take a conventional turn in its third act, The Invitation closes with an absolutely jaw-dropping final few minutes that more than compensates for its minor deficiencies - which ensures that the film remains lodged in one's head long after the credits have rolled.