|by Peter Sobczynski
Please enjoy short reviews of "Blow the Man Down," "Swallow" and the Criterion Blu-Ray of Spike Lee's 2000 masterwork "Bamboozled."
With its array of oddball characters, weirdo humor and moments of amusingly grisly violence, it is a virtual certainty that many of the reviews for "Blow the Man Down" a feature film from the writing/directing team of Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krody that will be premiering today on Amazon Prime, will cite the works of the Coen Brothers, especially "Blood Simple" and "Fargo." While the film may not quite reach those exalted heights, it nevertheless works well enough to justify those comparisons. Set in a chilly Maine fishing town, the film centers on the Connolly sisters, the practical and straightforward Priscilla (Sophie Lowe) and the more headstrong, yearning-to-break-loose Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor), who, as the story opens, have just buried their mother and have been saddled with the need to continue running the family store in the hopes of staving off the loss of their home. Fleeing the funeral reception to get drunk, Mary Beth heads to the local bar and meets sleazo Gorski (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). Alas, booze, drugs, anger and a harpoon prove to be an unfortunate combination that leaves Mary Beth with a corpse on her hands and seemingly no way out.
I would not dream of revealing the details of where the story goes from here, except to note that it involves a significant amount of missing money, a crime scene that has not quite been cleaned of all evidence, sea shanties a-plenty, a goofy young cop (Will Brittain) with a crush on Priscilla, a trio of local busybodies (Annette O'Toole, Marceline Hugot and June Squibb) and, most significantly, Enid (Margo Martindale), who runs the local bed-and-breakfast that proves to put its emphasis on the former and who holds a number of local secrets, including some involving Priscilla and Mary Beth's mother. None of this is especially new (with the possible exception of the shanties) but Cole and Krody have taken a number of familiar genre tropes and breathes new life into them with a screenplay that is clever without overdoing it and direction that generates a number of strong laughs as well as some genuinely suspenseful moments to boot. The film is also blessed with a number of good performances from the cast with the exception of Martindale, who is really kind of great as Enid, who is a tough and fearsome broad in the best sense of the word but also demonstrates a few moments, however fleeting, of surprisingly vulnerability as well. As good as the rest of "Blow the Man Down," she is the element that makes it into a must-see enterprise.
On the surface, Hunter (Haley Bennett), the central character of the intense psychological drama "Swallow" (streaming everywhere) appears to be living the dream--a handsome husband (Austin Stowell), a beautiful house and anything she could possibly want. Not surprisingly, her seemingly picture-perfect life is not what it seems and when she discovers that she is pregnant, it triggers in her a case of pica, a real-life disorder that manifests itself in the form of an unstoppable urge to swallow inedible objects, later passing them and laying them out on a tray as if they were trophies. This starts innocuously enough with her ingesting a marble but as things progress, the items she takes in become increasingly dangerous, both for herself and for her unborn child. When they discover the problem, her husband and his overbearing parents try to take care of her but their efforts prove to be less than successful because they fail to recognize that her compulsion is the kind of thing that can be handled with a quick fix--it requires her to confront the buried traumas of her past before they can destroy her.
Although "Swallow" is not nearly as grotesque as it may sound from a recitation of its premise--the details of her condition are handled with relative subtlety, though that hardly makes them any less squirm-inducing at times--the film is still most likely going to be a chore to sit through for most audiences. The first half of the film, although undeniably grim, evokes a queasy sort of fascination as we observe Hunter as she begins to succumb to a compulsion that she knows is painful at best and potentially life-threatening at worst but which nevertheless offers her some illusion of control over herself for what may be the first time in her life. The problem with writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis's film is that a good portion of the second half tends to get bogged down in the details of explaining the litany of woes in Hunter's life that has driven her to this point, robbing the narrative of some of the intrigue and mystery of the earlier scenes, though it does rally towards the end with a confrontation between her and a man (Denis O'Hare) from her past. Ultimately, the film is anchored by the strong and convincing performance by Bennett, who makes Hunter into a real and relatable person instead of a compilation of freakish behavior. It is her work that makes "Swallow" worth watching, although perhaps not at a time when you are planning on eating anything yourself.
Most people regard Spike Lee's 1989 film "Do the Right Thing" as his most important work--the one that is sure to stand the test of time and be part of the conversation of the great American films for as long as people are discussing such thing. I would not disagree with that assessment but if I were to pick one of Lee's films as my personal favorite, I think that I might find myself leaning towards "Bamboozled" (The Criterion Collection. $39.95) his scabrous 2000 media satire that was dismissed by many as being wildly over the top in its approach , its Blu-Ray debut should hopefully inspire people to check it out again (or for the first time) and realize just how bold, brilliant and uncompromising it was at the time and continues to be. Damon Wayans stars as Pierre Delacroix, who is one of the few African-American executive at the low-rated television network that he works for. Charged by his boss (Michael Rapaport)--one of those guys who insists that he cannot possibly racist because his office is filled with African- American-related sports memorabilia - to create a show that will be a hit with black viewers, the self-loathing Delacroix hits upon an idea that he hopes will get him fired and reveal his boss to be racially insensitive for putting it on the air in the first place--he hires a pair of street musicians (Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson), renames them Mantan and Sleep 'n' Eat and builds a variety show around them entitled "The New Millennial Minstrel Show," complete with a house band (played by The Roots) known as The Alabama Porch Monkeys. To Delacroix's astonishment, the show becomes a massive hit, especially among white liberals, and he begins basking in the adulation and prizes until he finally begins to realize just how badly he has betrayed both his performers (who are supremely talented despite the offensiveness of the material) and his people as a whole. It may not be very subtle but it is very funny, confrontational and thought-provoking throughout. Lee's screenplay is smart and incisive throughout and even when it threatens to go off the rails, especially towards the climax, the combination of cutting humor and genuine anger that he deploys throughout keeps it on track before wrapping up with a painful montage illustrating how even though actual minstrel shows were long defunct, the attitudes that inspired them continued to thrive for decades to come (and still do). Long unavailable on home video, the film has been presented by Criterion in an edition that offers up a new 2k restoration, ports over the commentary that Lee recorded for its original DVD release and presents new documentaries on the film and its legacy, deleted scenes and new interviews with Lee, Glover, Davidson and costume designer Ruth E. Carter.
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originally posted: 03/19/20 21:19:05
last updated: 03/20/20 08:37:18