Movie Review – The Parallax View

The Parallax View (1974)
Written by David Giler, Lorenzo Semple Jr., and Robert Towne
Directed by Alan J. Pakula

Since the colonial period, conspiracy and paranoia have been foundational to the American psyche. Europeans crossing the Atlantic to rape & pillage grew to fear Indigenous people whether they were an actual threat or not. This would continue as closed religious communities struck out against themselves (see the Salem Witch Trials), and Westward Expansion bolstered bootstraps ideology which led to further social atomization.

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Movie Review – Vertigo

Vertigo (1958)
Written by Samuel A. Taylor, Alec Coppel, Maxwell Anderson, and Thomas Narcejac
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

In my opinion, Vertigo is Hitchcock’s greatest film. It contains all those elements associated with his work but perfectly distilled to their most impactful essence. Hitchcock collaborator Jimmy Stewart gives his best and final performance for the director. Bernard Herrmann composes a gorgeous musical score that haunts the picture. Vertigo is also Hitchcock’s most honest film about himself, revealing many of his own obsessions and the way he tormented his actresses, especially foreshadowing what was to come with poor Tippi Hedren in just a few years.

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Movie Review – The Gift

The Gift (2000)
Written by Billy Bob Thornton & Tom Epperson
Directed by Sam Raimi

I noticed that, without planning, every Flashback to a year I’ve done in 2020 has included a Sam Raimi picture. There had been no desire to do a look at his work specifically, but through these series, I’ve had the opportunity to see how he grew as a director over the years. The Gift is the most jarring of these films because it’s so unlike anything else I’ve seen from him. It’s a much more muted picture and feels like an independent film from the late 1990s/early 2000s. It seemed like he was becoming more over the top and stylistic with pictures like Darkman and The Quick and The Dead, but here everything is so sedate with mild touches of Raimi’s aesthetic.

Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett) is a widow living in a small Georgia town who makes ends meet with her late husband’s social security and a side gig as a clairvoyant fortune-teller. Her readings for Valerie (Hilary Swank) lead her husband, Donnie (Keanu Reeves), to become irate with Annie and threaten her life if she keeps putting what he sees as evil thoughts in his wife’s head. Annie is also becoming close with her eldest son’s principal, Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear), engaged to a wealthy local socialite, Jessica (Katie Holmes). Things turn tragic when Jessica goes missing, and Annie has visions that the woman has been killed and tracks her down to a specific location outside of town. Annie realizes that, while the law believes the killer’s identity is apparent, things are much more complicated than she first thought.

Raimi definitely leans into many Southern-fried cliches, and his actors don’t necessarily capture the accent’s essence. The cliches are pretty abundant with swamps, weeping willows, the class divide between the wealthy and poor, and even a To Kill a Mockingbird-esque trial with Annie’s son secretly watching from the balcony. Raimi is pulling back with only some uses of his tropes. There’s a scene early on where Annie has a vision while in the principal’s office, and a supernatural wind blows her hair while the camera pushes in, and you can see just a little touch of the director’s aesthetic there. Otherwise, I see this falling more in the camp of pictures like Sling Blade and The Apostle. It plays things pretty low key.

Cate Blanchett does the best job of things and plays Annie with total believability, which helps ground the sometimes silly proceedings. You can see how this role could very easily be hammed up by a lesser actor, someone who overplays into farce. Her abilities are represented through short quick visions, a pencil rolling off a desk, falling into a puddle of water, which reveals a character’s corpse-like foot, hinting at their fate. Blanchett finds ways to play Annie as vulnerable but can pull herself up when circumstances become dangerous to her and her family.

There is a lot of plot here, and not all the arcs feel like they belong together initially. By the end of the film, characters’ stories begin to flow together so that the finale is incredibly satisfying and provides a reason for every person’s presence in the narrative. Surprisingly, this film didn’t do well at the box office because it had the star power to get people’s attention and deliver a very well-plotted mystery story with classy special effects. I wouldn’t say I hope Raimi makes more films like this one, as I love it when he goes insane (see Darkman), but it is a pleasant surprise in his filmography. The Gift appears to have become one of those overlooked gems that people will hopefully rediscover from time to time.

The Best of Moonlighting Part One

Moonlighting is a show that doesn’t often enter the modern discourse on television, but I’m here to argue that it is a remarkable television achievement that opened up the door for other hour dramas to be comedies and to experiment with their format. Moonlighting allowed flights of fantasy to take over the show and engaged continuously in Fourth Wall-breaking and meta-conversation about being a television show. 

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Movie Review – Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2019)
Written & Directed by Bi Gan

There are two starkly separated halves to this film. The first half is nothing too remarkable, some beautiful cinematography and a noir story that will feel very familiar, no real surprises. The second half is a shock; the visuals are the focus, yet somehow they still keep the narrative going. Bi Gan takes some significant risks in this latter section, banking his entire film on what could easily have just been a gimmick. Instead, he turns this into a remarkable feat, something rarely attempted in filmmaking, but Bi Gan sticks the landing.

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Movie Review – Knives Out

Knives Out (2019)
Written & Directed by Rian Johnson

Knives Out appears on the surface to be a modern take on the classic Agatha Christie murder mystery, and on a certain level, it is precisely that. However. writer-director Rian Johnson has cleverly managed to subvert our expectations and tell the story he’s interested by dressing it up in the tropes and formulas in this genre. About a third of the way into the story, the audience is privy to the circumstances of the murder, and it seems as though the rest of the picture will be a cat & mouse game. The murderer will be continually trying to be one step ahead of the law and will likely get caught. But that’s still not the story Johnson is telling.

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TV Tryouts – Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies (HBO)
Season 1, Episode 1 – “Somebody’s Dead”

Written by David E. Kelly
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée

There is so much television I hear I should watch and with 24/7 streaming services abounding it can quickly become overwhelming. To finally get a taste of all these great shows I will start doing TV Tryouts. Each month I will watch a couple of pilot episodes of series I have been hearing rave reviews about and see if that first episode can hook me to keep watching. Now, an argument you might make is that you have to view the first six or entire first season before a show “gets good.” To that, I say, “I just don’t have the time.” A television series should have strong enough writing that its characters, dialogue, and plot naturally compel me to keep watching. If it doesn’t then that’s ok, plenty of shows for everyone.

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Movie Review – Bad Times at the El Royale

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)
Written & Directed by Drew Goddard

The El Royale is a unique Lake Tahoe hotel in that is straddles the California/Nevada line. The place was one a prestigious getaway for many of the Rat Pack and other glittering stars of a bygone age. By the time the film begins, 1969, the glory days are gone, and the hotel has fallen into disrepair. On this fateful day, a priest, a lounge singer, a vacuum salesman, a mysterious woman have checked in. El Royale has only one troubled staff member who seems to discourage these people from staying but reluctantly gives in. By the end of this night, all of these guests will be changed forever, facing their fears and discovering the dark secrets behind the El Royale.

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Movie Review – Under the Silver Lake

Under the Silver Lake (2018)
Written & Directed by David Robert Mitchell

Sam is aimless. He’s far behind on rent; his relationships involve random flings or women he ogles after from his balcony. His apartment is reeking of an awful smell; he claims its the skunks roaming around the area. One evening he meets Sarah, a new neighbor whom he shares a quiet moment with. The next day everything in her apartment is packed up and gone. Suddenly, Sam is thrust into a conspiracy of codes and symbols; the mundane is given greater meaning. There are cultish rooftop parties. The band with hidden messages in their records. Fallout shelters deep beneath Los Angeles. The pirate. The balloon girl. The homeless king. Sam finds the surface of reality rippling in bizarre ways. But is this a revelation or his delusion consuming him?

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TV Review – Search Party Season 2

Search Party Season 2 (TBS)
Written by Sarah-Violet Bliss & Charles Rogers, Jordan Firstman, Starlee Kine, Anthony King, Christina Lee, Andrew Fleming, and Matt Kriete.
Directed by Sarah-Violet Bliss & Charles Rogers, Lilly Burns, and Michael Showalter.

searchparty

The first season of Search Party ends with the central mystery solved but a much more significant problem on the hands of the four main characters: they murdered someone. The second season picks up right where the first let off and becomes an entirely new animal. Dory is wracked with guilt, knowing that her actions led to this murder. Her ex-boyfriend Drew continues to distance himself from her and is now joined by their friends Elliott and Portia. Each of them is dealing with their part in the murder and cover-up in very different ways, yet all destructive and sloppy in some manner. Whereas the first season was a mix of comedy and mystery, this round is still funny but much more psychological and darker in where it goes.

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