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.

watch the trailer:


THE WALL (2017)

May 11, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. When a director’s filmography includes “big” action movies like Edge of Tomorrow, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and The Bourne Identity (the original), the last thing we expect is a stripped-down war movie whose camera focuses on a single character for most of the run time. Director Doug Liman certainly understands how to use the camera in creating tension and stress, yet while he and writer Dwain Worrell seem so intent on proving the confusion and futility of war, they seem to forget that a thriller needs either a hero to cheer or a villain to jeer.

It’s late 2007, and the war is winding down as rebuilding efforts are underway. Hulking Staff Sergeant Matthews (John Cena) and his fellow soldier Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) have been perched and camouflaged on the side a hill for more than 20 hours as they carry out reconnaissance on the site of an under-construction oil pipeline. All they have seen is the remains of a massacre – 8 bodies with no signs of life. Peering through his malfunctioning scope that once belonged to a now-dead friend, Isaac (known as “Ize” – get it?) and his training thinks something doesn’t seem right. When Matthews deems the site safe, he heads down to check it out. Of course, all heck breaks out and soon enough, an injured Isaac takes shelter behind a teetering stone wall. It turns out a sniper, more patient than the American soldiers, had been biding time for the moment.

The first eight bodies are construction contractors and a security detail … none of which matters to the sniper. The hook here is that the sniper hacks into Isaac’s radio and seemingly wants to chat it up, rather than finish him off. We never see the sniper, and neither do Matthews or Isaac … but we do hear him plenty. Laith Nakli voices Juba – known to American soldiers as the Angel of Death, responsible for dozens of US casualties. The film spirals into a psychological game of chess – or, more fittingly, the torture of Isaac. This isn’t the war we’ve come to expect in movies. Isaac’s situation seems hopeless, and banter with the man responsible never strikes him as a worthwhile pursuit.

The biggest issue here is that Juba seems the most interesting character, and not only are we never provided a way to connect with/hate him, we don’t even get enough backstory to bond with Isaac. Plenty of obstacles are thrown at Isaac: blowing sand, lack of drinking water, skittles for sustenance, blazing sun/heat, radio issues, and a brutally painful knee wound courtesy of Juba. The success of the movie depends on two things: Aaron Taylor-Johnson selling us on Isaac’s predicament, and the radio dialogue between he and Juba. The former is fine, but the latter falls short.

Better sniper movies include American Sniper and Enemy at the Gates, while more effective (mostly) one-character thrillers include Locke, Buried, and 127 Hours. The film makes excellent use of sound, but the little jabs at American ideals grows old quickly (such as asking who is the real terrorist). A different approach to a familiar topic deserves a chance, but while Juba only misses on purpose, the efforts of Mr. Liman and Mr. Worrell miss the mark by not engaging the viewer with the character(s).

watch the trailer: