SWALLOW (2020)

March 5, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Have you ever picked up a marble and wanted to ingest it?  How about a push-pin? A battery? Any other items normally considered inedible? If not, you likely don’t suffer from the psychological disorder known as pica – an eating disorder at the center of the feature film debut from Carlo Mirabella-Davis. While pica may be new and confounding to most of us, the real story is what drives someone to swallow items that could be harmful and cause severe pain?

Haley Bennett (THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN) stars as Hunter Conrad, a newly married trophy wife to spoiled and handsome Richie Conrad (Austin Stowell). Richie is so entitled that his even more entitled dad (David Rasche) makes a big deal out of promoting his son to partner by proclaiming at a dinner party that “he earned it.” Oh and this is after the parents bought the newlyweds a stunning home with a view. It’s obvious Hunter ‘married up’ from a socioeconomic perspective, but her GQ husband pays more attention to his cell phone than he does to his wife or the picture perfect dinners she prepares. Hunter’s Mother-in-Law (Elizabeth Marvel) offers up awkward support and passive-aggressive compliments … such as a self-help book entitled “A Talent for Joy.”

The book is a gift to Hunter immediately after Richie tells his parents “We’re pregnant!” A passage in the book mentions to ‘push yourself to experience new things’. It’s at this point where Hunter sees herself become even more of an accessory within the family. One morning she spots a decorative marble and pops it in her mouth. She seems to take pleasure in this, and … um … after it passes, displays it as some type of trophy. Soon other items join the marble on display, until finally, Hunter is in so much pain, she’s rushed to the hospital for surgery.

Pica is a disorder that’s difficult to understand. Haley seems to be complacent, having no real persona other than her pretty face and pristine wardrobe. Swallowing the items evidently delivers the feeling lacking in her life – a life where her job seems to be becoming the perfect wife, mother, and daughter-in-law. Worried about the safety of the unborn baby, the family hires Luay (Laith Nakli), a Syrian live-in nurse, to keep an eye on Hunter. Oddly enough, the war-toughened Luay shows more compassion to Hunter than anyone in the family.

The film shifts gears a bit when we start learning more of Hunter’s backstory during her trips to the psychiatrist (Zabryna Guevara). This backstory is of course tragic and explains a great deal about Hunter’s strange compulsion. It also leads to a sequence with Denis O’Hare, who is a welcome presence in most any movie. The two share a scene that allows Hunter to fill in the gaps of her life.

Director Mirabella-Davis doesn’t treat the rich as caricatures, but rather symbolic of the self-centeredness that seems to go with wealth. We see good in places we don’t expect it. We lack the trust in places we should be able to depend on. Additionally, we question whether finding one’s true self through genetics makes any real sense when compared with just making up one’s mind about the kind of person they want to be. This is a disturbing, trippy, darker-than-expected film with an interesting score from composer Nathan Halpern. When it veers from the skirts of horror and suspense towards political and social topics, the film loses steam and tries to cram in a bit too much. Still, it’s an unusual and creative film with a terrific performance from Ms. Bennett, and leaves us looking forward to the next Mirabella-Davis project.

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BATTLE OF THE SEXES (2017)

September 29, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. At least two generations are too young to have experienced the 1973 media circus that was the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. However, what matters is that the impact and social changes that began in earnest that night at the Astrodome are still being felt and evolving today. It might seem incredulous that the 29 year old top-ranked women’s player emerging victorious against a 55 year old who played his last professional match 14 years prior would have an impact on anything other than TV rankings, but in fact, it caused a significant societal shift.

Real life married couple and co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are well known for their collaborations on iconic music videos and TV commercials, and since joining the movie world have brought us LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and RUBY SPARKS. Their talent for visual presentation is on display here in both the tennis scenes and the more intimate character moments. And, oh my, there are some intimate moments thanks to the script from Oscar winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE). There is no shying away from Ms. King’s sexual confusion/awareness/preferences.

Emma Stone (Oscar winner for LA LA LAND) stars as tennis legend Billie Jean King and manages to convey three different sides: the ultra-competitor, the champion for equal rights, and the married woman coming to grips with her sexual identity. Steve Carell captures the essence and mannerisms of Bobby Riggs, the former tennis champ, floundering in middle-age and always on the lookout for his next hustle or gambling opportunity. Surprisingly, only a minor portion of the film deals with the actual tennis match. Instead, the film dives into the personal lives of these two polar opposite personalities, each with their own challenges and issues.

Despite the fun and outrageousness that the Riggs character delivers, the film might have been better served focusing even more on Ms. King. While she needed the “villain”, it was really her dedication to the cause and strength amidst the backlash that made the difference … along with her court skills. Watching her stand tall in confrontations with the chauvinistic and powerful Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) is something to behold. Again, those that weren’t around might not believe some of the outrageous claims by the men of the times.

Supporting work comes from Andrea Riseborough as the all-important Marilyn, who turns Billie Jean away from her husband Larry (Austin Stowell), Sarah Silverman as promoter Gladys Heldman, Natalie Morales as Rosie Casales, Alan Cumming as the colorful clothes designer, an underutilized Elisabeth Shue as Riggs’ wife, Fred Armisen as Rheo Blair – Riggs’ partner in the herbs and vitamins game, and Lewis Pullman (Bill’s real life son) as Riggs’ son, Larry. We are even treated to a Bob Stephenson sighting as the Sugar Daddy PR guy at the match.

This was the era when the Vietnam War was winding down, the Watergate scandal was raging, outside “the norm” sexual preferences were kept in the closet, prize money for men’s tennis was 8-10 times that of women, and the overall respect for women and their sports was excruciatingly misguided. Listening to Howard Cosell speak so condescendingly during the national broadcast merely confirms the inequity. Of course, these same issues are discussed and debated even today, as society evolution is often slow, even when moving in the right direction. The film might not add much to today’s cause, but it reinforces the early legacy of Billie Jean King as a difference-maker.

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BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015)

October 16, 2015

bridge of spies Greetings again from the darkness. For a director, true power in the movie industry means you can obtain the financing and assemble the cast and crew you need to make the films that have meaning to you. With his 40 year career of unmatched combined box office and critical success, Steven Spielberg is the epitome of film power and the master of bringing us dramatized versions of historical characters and events. In his fourth collaboration with Tom Hanks, Spielberg tells the story of James B Donovan.

You say you aren’t familiar with Mr. Donovan? In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the CIA (Allen Dulles was director at the time) persuaded James Donovan to provide a bit of Cold War legal service. Mr. Donovan was by trade an Insurance attorney, but after others in his profession passed on the “opportunity”, his commitment to justice and human rights drove him to accept the challenge of defending suspected Russian spy named Rudolph Abel. In the face of an angry populace and government, Donovan took the case all the way to the Supreme Court – and his exact words are spoken in the movie by Hanks.

Not long after, Francis Powers (played by Austin Stowell) was piloting a CIA U-2 spy plane when he was shot down over Russia and taken captive. This sequence in the film is breathtaking to watch. Enter James Donovan again … this time to negotiate an exchange of prisoners: Rudolph Abel for Francis Powers. It’s these negotiations that provide the element of suspense in the story. Mr. Donovan was a family man, but he was also very confident in his ability to negotiate on the biggest stage and under the brightest spotlight (or darkest backroom).

The movie is exactly what you would expect from a master filmmaker. Spielberg slickly re-creates the era through sets, locations, and costumes. He utilizes his remarkable eye behind the camera, an interesting use of lighting, and the score from Thomas Newman. Nope, that’s not a misprint. It’s the first Spielberg movie in 30 years not scored by John Williams (who was unable to work on the project). Of course, the cast is stellar and it all starts with Tom Hanks. He just makes everything look so darn easy! Whether he is talking to his wife (Amy Ryan), his kids (including Bono’s daughter Eve Hewson), his law partner (Alan Alda), or agents from the U.S. or Russia … Hanks manages to make each scene real and believable.

It’s the scenes between Donovan and Rudolph Abel that are the most fascinating to watch. Mark Rylance plays Abel, and to see these two men grow to respect each other for “doing their job” is a true acting and screenwriting clinic. We find ourselves anxious for the next Rudolph Abel scene during an extended span where the focus is on Donovan’s negotiations. When the two finally reunite, it’s a quietly affecting moment where much is said with few words.

Spielberg utilized many of the locations where the actual events took place, and this includes Berlin and the Glienicke Bridge where the real exchange took place in 1962. While missing the labyrinth of twists and turns of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it’s knowing that these are real people in real situations that make this historic drama so thrilling and riveting to watch.  Film lovers will also get a kick out of the fact that the script was co-written by the Coen Brothers, and history lovers will enjoy seeing some of the details provided by the written words of those involved, as well as their surviving family members. It’s an era that seems so long ago, yet the topics are so pertinent to what’s happening in the world today.  Beyond all of that, it’s a story of a man standing up for what’s right at a time when that was not the easy or popular way.

watch the trailer: