[REVIEW] ‘Swallow’ or Stop Eating That!

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While most of us are stuck inside and the cinemas are closed there is definitely a dearth of new movies to watch. However, there are some films available VOD and on streaming services and today I had the chance to look at the strange psychological thriller Swallow which can be rented on any streaming service. It’s definitely not a movie for everyone and I had mixed feelings about it but if you are in the mood for something different it definitely delivers

Swallow is directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis and stars Haley Bennett in an outstanding performance as a woman who develops a habit of pica or eating non-edible items. The idea is she is a trophy wife who isn’t given much to do besides prepare a proper house for her husband. Once she becomes pregnant she feels a need for control over her body and starts eating items like marbles and tacks until she has to have surgery to remove them.

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I will admit the visual of her eating all of this stuff is pretty gross and hard to stomach but it is nonetheless compelling because of the great performance from Bennett. Swallow is also beautifully filmed, mostly in one house. The way the director uses color and lighting builds up a chilling and effective atmosphere. This helps make the character’s choices feel more valid because the room is such a strange red color. Crazy house= crazy behavior.

Where the film doesn’t work is the last section. They try to give a backstory for why she is compelled towards this addiction, and I really didn’t like what they came up with. I liked it much better when her motivation was simply feeling awkward and out of control with a baby inside her. That was much more interesting than the revenge angle they took.

Swallow reminded me a lot of Todd Haynes’ film SAFE (which I love). Both films are about housewives who become obsessed with some aspect of their health. We then follow where the psychosis takes the lead characters. Because of the ending SAFE is more effective but they are similar in tone and style.

I debated whether to go fresh or rotten on Swallow because the ending was a bummer, but I still think Bennett’s performance is so  strong and the movie is well made enough to recommend it. If the concept intrigues you give it a rental. Like I said: It’s definitely not for everyone!

5.5 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘McMillions’: Oh What an Entertaining Web we Weave

 

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So you might not have heard but recently I’ve found myself with a little bit of time on my hands. The movie theaters are closed, screenings are cancelled and most films are postponed, so what’s an aspiring film critic supposed to do with herself? Well, I have a lot of fun stuff planned but to begin with I watched the new documentary series on HBO called McMillions and boy is it entertaining!

McMillions follows the $24 million fraud perpetuated behind the McDonald’s Monopoly game sweepstakes between 1989 and 2001. The story has almost nothing to do with McDonalds but it is a many tangled web of all kinds of characters who become involved: ‘from Mobsters to Mormons’ as the ads promise.

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Even the agents investigating prove to be very entertaining. This is especially true for agent Doug Mathews who was born to be on television. He is funny, charismatic and probably a little bit nuts but it makes for great TV. In fact, the series suffers a bit when it goes to long without him. What makes him so appealing is his innocent enthusiasm for every part of the investigation. He doesn’t want those boring old cases. No way! He wants to be where things are happening and he can go undercover and do crazy things. It’s the best.

Aside from Matthews there are a ton of different personalities on both the investigator and criminal side and the scheme is very well executed. In fact, it may have never come to light if there wasn’t a mysterious informant who tipped off the FBI. It brings up the interesting question if someone came up to you and offered you a million and all you had to do was turn in a game piece that you didn’t organically find would you do it? I think a lot of us would.

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Also in the end who is really hurt in this whole scam? McDonald’s isn’t. They would have given the money out regardless of who won. The American public? I guess they had no chance to really win but the chance was so small to begin with that it is hardly a large wound. The marketing firm went under after it was revealed one of their employees did this but that’s about the worst it got. Is it a victimless crime?

I suppose that is for the courts to decide and not me but I do know this documentary series was very entertaining especially agent Matthews who should totally have his own show. He’s got that secret sauce for television you don’t see every day. So fun!

Have you seen McMillions? What did you think? I would love to hear in the comments section.

Even though this is on HBO it’s pretty clean minus some language.

Blind Spot 51: ‘Goodfellas’

When I set up my 2020 Blind Spot list I knew immediately I wanted to include something from director Martin Scorsese. He not only caused a lot of ruckus with his ridiculous and out of touch comments about superhero movies not being ‘cinema’ last year but then he achieved great critical acclaim with his film The Irishman.  I famously did not care for this Oscar nominated film, and I also hated his film before that Silence, so I began to wonder if maybe the famous director and I simply don’t mix very well (I did like Hugo and The Aviator so there’s that)?

Anyway, I knew I wanted to give his other mobster movie, Goodfellas, a shot this year to see what I thought. Now I have seen it, and I’m happy to say I liked it. It’s not a top-tier film for me but definitely entertaining and far better than The Irishman in every way. I still prefer the gravitas and messaging of The Godfather over this film but I can see why it has its ardent fans.

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Goodfellas tells the story of Henry Hill a real life mobster in 70s and 80s who works and serves the family despite not being a full-Italian ‘made’ member. We start out the film with Henry as a teenager dazzled by the lifestyle and family-connection of organized crime. He gets taken under the wing by a caporegime named Paulie played by Paul Servino. Joe Pesci plays a violent and erratic man named Tommy Devito and Robert De Niro plays a leader of the group named Jimmy Conway.

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The reason I liked this so much better than The Irishman is the characters are all more dynamic. My problem with Robert De Niro’s character in The Irishman is his come to Jesus moments come too late in the narrative. For 80% of the movie he is perfectly happy being a soldier for the mafia and someone who simply follows orders isn’t interesting for a film, especially a long film.

In contrast, Henry has many moments where he bucks against the system, especially in the 2nd half where it becomes more of a heist movie than a mafia film. He even challenges orders in his personal life with wife Karen and mistress Janice/Sandy. This makes him an interesting character. We want to root for him because he is our protagonist, but he’s such a sleazy guy that it becomes difficult. Such conflict is cinematic and entertaining. It also doesn’t hurt that Ray Liotta does a very good job playing Henry so you both want to hang out with and smack him at the same time.

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Unlike The Godfather, Goodfellas doesn’t attempt to teach us lessons through the insular society of the mob. It’s not an allegory to society at large or a treatise on group behavior and loyalty. It’s just Henry’s story- a biopic if you will, with all the highs and lows we expect from that genre. It is greatly aided by witty and engaging dialogue by screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi. It clips along and stays free from both exposition or over-narration.

As far as flaws it still feels self-indulgent at times. Scenes are stretched out longer than they need to be and certain sequences are repeated that provide no real addition to the plot. For example, we see multiple scenes with them laughing it up at the comedy club in the beginning of the film. One scene is fine and establishes the juvenile nature of these men; however, I didn’t need to see it again and again. Same with scenes with the drug-trade later in the movie. We get the idea the first time. We don’t need scene after scene of them getting blow. It’s almost like Scorsese lacks confidence in his scenes so he has to repeat them again. (Come to think of it one of the things I hated in Silence was the repeated torture. He would literally show a scene of torture and show that exact same scene again in case we didn’t get it the first time. No thank you!).

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Goodfellas is also very well edited and the production values are all top rate. It doesn’t feel dated in any way. It could be released now and hold up (honestly better than The Irishman with its distracting special effects). I also enjoyed the cinematography and music choices throughout.

If you can handle a hard R rated film for violence and language I recommend giving Goodfellas a watch. If you do, you will find a well-told story about a complex character in the form of Henry Hill. It’s got a sharp script and good performances all around, which makes it very entertaining. I can definitely see why it is a favorite of those who love the gangster genre.

What do you think of Goodfellas? I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments section

7.5 out of 10

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On another note I can see why so many compared Hustlers to Goodfellas. They have a very similar structure especially in the last half of the film and have the same type of repetition and character beats.

 

[REVIEW] ‘Emma’ and Why Miss Woodhouse is Austen’s Most Delightfully Flawed Heroine

Everyone knows I love me some Jane Austen. For someone who wrote in the late 18th century it truly is remarkable how relevant and entertaining her work still remains to this day. Each year I try to re-read her books and I have seen every film adaptation out there from heroines killing zombies, facing cliques in high school, to Bollywood, to our traditional retellings in Georgian era garb and British accents. They almost always work for me to one degree or another.

And yet even by her fans sometimes Austen isn’t given the credit her writing deserves. They are admired but casually grouped in with romantic novels only about silly women falling in love. This is far from the case. The women of Austen are dynamic humans who are forced to make choices, and frankly the only major choice within their power at that time was who they agreed to marry. So when Lizzie refuses Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice this is not a normal dating scenario but a radical departure from customs and even a risk to her own survival and that of her family.

Austen’s novel Emma is especially interesting because it has her only heroine that is not on the outs of society. Lizzie and Jane are losing their home, Eleanor and MaryAnn in Sense and Sensibility are left in rather dire straits after their father dies, Fanny in Mansfield Park is dependent upon her cousins for survival and Anne in Persuasion has a double woe of being both an old maid and having a foolish father who has squandered their fortune.

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But then we have Emma. Miss Emma Woodhouse not only faces no financial crisis but she is so comfortable and frankly bored that she deems it her responsibility to meddle in other people’s lives. As one might expect, the more she meddles the more trouble she gets into and this makes her an interesting character. She has different flaws than the other Austen heroines.With these flaws it would be easy to make Emma an unlikable character, but there are two reasons why her story works:

First, she always has the best of intentions. Whether it is meddling with Harriett or encouraging Mr Elton, she is trying to increase the joy of those around her. This makes her foibles easy to relate with despite her aristocratic lifestyle.

Secondly, the narrative never fails to call her out for her mistakes. This is usually done by Mr Knightley but occasionally by Mrs Weston and sometimes it is her own inner monologing that teaches Emma the lesson she needs to learn. By the end of the novel she has grown immensely and has a new appreciation for her entire community. This is what you want to see in a story- character growth in addition to a compelling romance.

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2020 Film

Anyway, I tell you all this to try and explain why I think the new adaptation by director Autumn de Wilde of Emma works so well. She seems to instinctively understand and respect what Austen was going for in the story and character. Then she adds her own flair and touches I found completely delightful and charming. Aside from Clueless this may be the outright funniest version of the story and yet it still has the heart and vulnerability we need from the titular character.

In this version, Emma is played by actress Anya Taylor- Joy, and she feels younger and more sheltered than other versions. This makes total sense for her character. She certainly would not be someone that would have ever gone to any formal schooling or been out a lot in social situations. Most of her experience would be from her governess and/or her Father. Now her teacher and Mother-figure is leaving, so it’s no wonder she quickly finds a more naive and innocent person she can teach and train in Harriett Smith.

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Harriett is played by Mia Goth and she’s definitely my favorite person to play the role with the exception of perhaps Brittany Murphy in Clueless. The two of them are truly the blind leading the blind but they both mean well and seem to have a true bond of friendship that helps them to forgive and quickly find new loves to dote upon.

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Then we have the Eltons played by Josh O’Connor and Tanya Reynolds (her hair was especially memorable! Take note come Oscars). They are our comic relief/ or rich people who don’t learn and grow like Emma does. Miranda Hart is lovely as the chatter-box that is Miss Bates and Callum Turnder is the mysterious and selfish Frank Churchill. All of these characters sparkled with humor and wit.

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However, the funniest of them all is Bill Nighy playing Emma’s father Mr Woodhouse. He is a hypochondriac who has the doctor on continual notice (even when a baby is crying he wants to call the doctor!) and is constantly worried about the drafts in the house (which leads to a hilarious bit I won’t spoil). Even his reaction to the weather made me laugh. I would nominate him for best supporting actor if it was up to me. So funny.

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Finally, let’s talk about Mr Knightley and Emma in this version. This is a younger version of Knightley than we get in the novel, which I was a bit anxious about but it worked. Because he has clearly been working and out in the world more than Emma, his lectures and scolding still feels valid and earned.

I loved the way de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton give time where Emma and Knightley are fighting so hard they are shouting at each other. It was very refreshing for this kind of period piece. Also actor Johnny Flynn has the smoulder and suffering for his girl we like to see in spades! However, it is not all grand gestures as we see sweet and swoonworthy moments where he is crying in desperation for Emma. It helps that Taylor-Joy and Flynn have sizzling chemistry together especially in the dancing scenes where they are allowed to touch and linger on the feel of each other’s hands. So good!

While watching Emma I definitely felt some inspiration from 2018’s The Favorite and 2016’s Love and Friendship. They are both films with a period sensibility but a sharp sardonic sense of humor, and I’m all for that. It’s what Austen would have wanted and enjoyed in this day and age. It’s what she was going for with her bold heroines who defied convention in the one way they could: LOVE! It’s the best. l love Austen and I really loved this version of Emma! Go see it!

9 out of 10

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