Swallow


(2019) Psychological Horror (IFC MidnightHaley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Denis O’Hare, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche, Luna Lauren Velez, Zabryna Guevara, Laith Nakli, Babak Tafti, Nicole Kang, Olivia Perez, Kristi Kirk, Alyssa Bresnahan, Laura Dias, Elise Santora, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Nicholas M. Garofalo, Matthew Waiters, McGregory Frederique, Jackie Almonte, Mingjie Li, Sophie Max. Directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis

 

A great movie tells a great or compelling story. We are taken from point A to point B and all the way to the end, watching the story unfold. That isn’t always the case, however. Sometimes, what makes a movie great are the things that are left unsaid.

Hunter (Bennett) would seem on the surface to have it made. She is married to a wealthy husband (Stowell), a rising star in his father’s (Rasche) firm. She lives in a gorgeous house her in-laws bought for the couple. To top it all off, she is newly pregnant. What’s not to like?

Plenty, as it turns out. As the movie progresses, we see that the in-laws, supportive and caring on the surface, pay only lip service to that persona. What they really are is condescending and controlling, particularly her mother-in-law (Marvel). Hunter has come to realize that she’s in a prison cell. A comfortable, beautiful prison cell but a prison cell nonetheless.

Her means of regaining control is by ingesting objects that aren’t edible, starting with marbles and dirt, ramping up to more dangerous items like batteries, pushpins and thumbtacks. Is she trying to off herself and/or the baby? Or is there something deeper at play here?

This squirm-inducing psychological body horror film is based on a real condition called pica. Mirabella-Davis takes the tactic of not answering all the questions; we are never given a definitive answer as to why Hunter is subjecting herself to this dangerous habit. Is it a means of courting danger and getting an adrenaline rush? Is it compensation for her past which is revealed during a conversation with her therapist (Dias). That past is dealt with eventually in a coda in which she establishes that she has a voice and is no longer content to be the submissive, mousy little housewife. The tone of the denouement is at odds with the rest of the movie which renders it much more effective.

Bennett is a revelation, delivering a mind-blowing performance that is terrifically layered, showing a surface persona that hides deep-seated anxieties and resentment. Despite Hunter’s often maddening submissive behavior, Bennett makes the character someone we can root for particularly in the last third of the movie.

The production design is also quite amazing; despite the modern conveniences (Hunter constantly plays video games on her smartphone), there is very much a 50’s/early 60’s vibe here, from Hunter’s perky blonde bob, her A-line skirt wardrobe and the 64 World’s Fair furnishings. Cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi impresses with shots bathed in lush primary colors. It’s visually a very striking film.

This isn’t for everyone. The scenes of her ingesting some of the items are cringe-inducing to say the least and the scenes of her retrieving the bloody objects from the toilet may send some straight for the exit. Still, this is a mesmerizing film that cinema buffs are going to appreciate and horror fans might just find compelling.

REASONS TO SEE: Bennett gives a bravura performance. Disturbing on in a good way on so many levels.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sometimes gets caught up in its own bizarre tone.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, plenty of sexuality and some truly disturbing behavior.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Mirabella-Davis’ first solo feature film; the movie was inspired by his grandmother’s institutionalization and eventual lobotomizing. During the film’s Tribeca screening, an audience member actually fainted during the thumbtack ingestion scene.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews: Metacritic: 67/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Teeth
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Los Ultimos Frikis

Frances


Crazy is in the eye of the beholder.

Crazy is in the eye of the beholder.

(1982) Biographical Drama (Universal) Jessica Lange, Kim Stanley, Sam Shepard, Bart Burns, Jonathan Banks, Jeffrey DeMunn, Zelda Rubinstein, Anjelica Huston, Pamela Gordon, Kevin Costner, Bonnie Bartlett, James Brodhead, Daniel Chodos, Nancy Foy, Gerald S. O’Loughlin, James Karen, Biff Yeager, Allan Rich, M.C. Gainey. Directed by Graeme Clifford

Waiting for Oscar

1983 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Actress – Jessica Lange
Best Supporting Actress – Kim Stanley
WINS: 0

Times change. So much meaning can be packed into two little words. It can hide all manner of sins, convey all sorts of poignant meanings. It can refer to an individual, or to society. However it is meant, it is true for all of us.

Frances Farmer (Lange) was just a high school girl in Seattle when she won an essay contest the subject of which was that God was dead. She courted further controversy when she accepted an all-expenses paid trip to Moscow to observe the Moscow Art Theater. Returning home, she had been bitten by the acting bug but hard. It is also here she met Harry York (Shepard), a budding writer who liked her very much but her mind was on other things.

She tries out Hollywood for size and immediately makes a big splash. She refuses to do publicity stunts, won’t wear make-up on camera and essentially opts out of the Hollywood game, even though she’d by this time rung up a couple of legitimate hits. Clifford Odets (DeMunn), the noted playwright, convinced her that she would be better served on Broadway and the two began an affair, one which ended badly for her as Odets was already married.

Frances had her demons however and the break-up of her relationship brought them howling to the surface. She began to rely more and more on alcohol and pills and her combative nature came more and more to the fore. She was arrested for driving in a black-out zone with her headlights on during wartime and was sued by a hairdresser (Bartlett) for breaking her jaw during a studio on-set tiff. Her mother (Stanley) came down from Seattle to help but that was more or less like throwing gasoline on a fire.

Farmer would be institutionalized twice; after the first her constant battles with her mother led the elder Farmer to commit her daughter to Western States Hospital where Farmer underwent shock and insulin therapy, was repeatedly abused and raped by the male staff (who would give her to soldiers to use sexually) and finally was lobotomized. When she was released she was perhaps a more pleasant person but the fire inside her was gone forever.

One thing to remember about this movie is that it is far from a definitive biography; director Clifford says during the DVD commentary that he “didn’t want to nickel and dime the audience with facts” and obliges by sparing us many. For example, York is made up out of whole cloth, the lobotomy sequence never happened (there is no evidence that it occurred) and Farmer was married three times, making her far from the lonely woman who had no romantic relationships other than with the married Odets that the movie portrays her as.

This is Jessica Lange’s movie and in many ways it is the role that this talented actress is most remembered for. It shows a woman in a time when women were expected to be submissive and meek but was instead demanding, loud and full of fire. Watching Lange’s performance you can’t help but think that if this was anything close to how the real Frances Farmer was, there’s no doubt in that case that she had two strikes against her from the outset – the men of that era would certainly not have tolerated the kind of strident independence that Lange portrays Farmer possessing. She may well have been institutionalized for that alone.

Even though there are plenty of people who do Frances Farmer wrong in this movie, there is no single villain. Certainly Odets, the lobotomy doctor (O’Loughlin) and Farmer’s mother come off poorly but then there were other factors leading to the actress’ spectacular fall which makes the story all the more poignant. While I can wish that the filmmakers hadn’t been such bastards in reality (reneging on an agreement with a writer and in general treating people badly) and that they had stuck to the facts of Farmer’s real life which were compelling in themselves, I can only go by the finished product, not by what I wish it might have been. This is a tremendous performance by Lange, one which is worth seeing all by itself.

WHY RENT THIS: Outstanding performances by Lange and Stanley. Real chemistry between Lang and Shepard.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Jumps from time frame to time frame. Never really explains Frances’  breakdown.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly disturbing scenes and mature content as well as its share of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally based on a fictionalized biography of Farmer by author William Arnold called Shadowland but in order to make the movie seem like original material, the screenwriters created the fictional character of Harry York in order to give Frances a love interest. However, things like the lobotomy which never happened in reality, came straight from Mr. Arnold’s book. He would eventually lose a lawsuit years after the film was released.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A 30 minute featurette on the real Frances Farmer.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5M on an $8M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Waiting for Oscar continues!

Sucker Punch


Sucker Punch

Superheroines don’t necessarily need to look slutty to be effective.

(2011) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac, Jon Hamm, Scott Glenn, Richard Cetone, Gerard Plunkett, Malcolm Scott, Ron Selmour, AC Peterson, Frederique De Raucourt. Directed by Zack Snyder

The imagination is a powerful thing. It can transport us from any situation, no matter how painful, and set us free. We can use it as a tool to help us escape from our pain – or else wallow in it and ignore the means of our own salvation.

Babydoll (Browning) has seen her mother die, her cruel stepfather attempt to rape both her and her sister (De Raucourt) and her sister die in a tragic accident for which she has been blamed. She is committed to a mental institution by said cruel stepfather who stands to inherit a fortune if Babydoll becomes mentally incompetent; a lobotomy would certainly go a long way to achieving that aim, but the doctor who performs these procedures will not be available for five days, so Babydoll gets the use of her brain essentially for five more days.

But is this really a gothic mental institution in the 1950s? Or is it a bordello into which Babydoll has been sold into white slavery, forced to dance for a high rolling clientele? Baby is befriended by Rocket (Malone), a spunky blonde who is also incarcerated there with her sister Sweet Pea (Cornish). Also there are their friends Blondie (Hudgens, a brunette) and Amber (Chung). They are presided over by Vera Gorski (Gugino), a Polish choreographer who might also be a doctor in the asylum. The club is owned by Blue Jones (Isaac) who may also be an orderly in the asylum.

It also turns out that Babydoll’s dances not only entrance her audience – they also transport Babydoll into a parallel world where she meets Wiseman (Glenn), a wrinkled old sage in a Japanese temple who informs her that she needs five items to escape; a map, fire, a knife, a key and a mystery. These can be found in the bordello but in order to retrieve these closely guarded items, Babydoll’s friends will need to grab them while the staff and guests of the bordello are distracted by Babydoll’s dancing. However, time is ticking down, cruel Blue might be onto them and each parallel world is more dangerous and scarier than the next. Can Babydoll and her friends make it out of their prison and into freedom?

First of all, let me just say that Zack Snyder is one of the most imaginative directors working in Hollywood today; he has given us 300, Watchmen and The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, all of which I can recommend without any hesitation whatsoever. I really can’t say the same for this one, however (which is incidentally the first original story he’s made a movie from – all the rest of his films are based on graphic novels, children’s books or are remakes of existing movies). In fact, this might wind up being the biggest disappointment of 2011.

There is so much going for this movie, too – great action sequences, lots of imagination and plenty of eye candy, both of the special effects sort and the female kind as well. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t gel. Much of this can be attributed by the storytelling, one of Snyder’s strong points but lacking here. He is essentially creating three parallel stories and trying to link them together but the linking is done in a clumsy fashion; the movement between the three parallel worlds should be seamless and frankly, it’s jarring the first time it happens, leaving the audience going WTF (which should also be in the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language if LOL is).

For much of the movie, the primarily female cast are mostly in lingerie and stockings, which while a fine idea to my mind also kind of demeans them as action heroes when the script calls upon them to be that way. You’d never have seen the members of The Expendables prancing around in Speedos and socks before going out to kick ass. Then again, would you really want to?

There are some very nice performances, particularly from the always-reliable Gugino as the Polish madame/psychiatrist who is a figure of sympathy despite having made a deal with the devil. Malone also fares very well as Babydoll’s bestie, showing an enormous amount of pluck as well as being sexy and strong. Cornish, who plays her big sister, also does well as the over-protective Sweet Pea who has seen her leadership position usurped by Babydoll.

Browning, however left me a bit flat as Babydoll. She has nice pouty lips and big blue eyes but she never really convinced me as the action hero or the leader of the pack. She’s done fine work in other movies, but this one ain’t gonna be one of her shining career moments.

We rarely get to see female team movies like this and given the propensity for women to bicker and argue among themselves (at least as seen when they are teamed up by gender on reality television shows), I might have liked to see a bit more of the dynamics of an all-female action team. Unfortunately that’s a lost opportunity here.

Most of the men here are either rapists, flunkies or hopelessly clueless with the exception of Scott Glenn’s Yoda-esque Wiseman. Glenn is one of those actors from the 80s and 90s who did extensively good work (who can forget his turn as the sub captain in The Hunt for Red October or as the iconic cowboy hero Emmett in Silverado) but rarely got credit for it. He’s a terrific screen presence who I love seeing on the screen even though he’s pushing 70 now.

I really, really, really wanted to recommend this film and I really, really can’t. The story is too disjointed, the performance of Browning not compelling enough to grab my interest. The special effects, the fantasy sequences and the lingerie all are good enough to command my attention but the sad fact of the matter is that the movie simply doesn’t come together into a cohesive whole and the disappointing box office reflects that. I know Snyder as a director is as capable and imaginative as they come – I just wish he’d let a capable and imaginative writer handle the script.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible special effects and an amazing amount of imagination.

REASONS TO STAY: Storytelling shortcuts ruin the flow of the movie. Some of the performances are less-than-compelling.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of sexuality (as you can see from the picture although no overt sex), some fairly graphic violence, a bit of bad language and some disturbing thematic stuff.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Emily Browning doesn’t have a line of dialogue (despite being the lead character) until nearly twenty minutes into the film.

HOME OR THEATER: The digital effects alone are worth seeing on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: The Queen