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.


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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TV Review – Search Party

Search Party (TBS)

Created by Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, Michael Showalter


Dory (Alia Shawkat) has no real aim in life. She works as a personal assistant to a rich housewife and in dwindling relationship with her boyfriend. On a walk to work one morning, she comes across a Missing poster for Chantal, a girl she vaguely remembers from college. Apparently, during the weekend of her older sister’s wedding shower in the Hamptons Chantal vanished and her family is starting to think she may have been killed. Dory believes otherwise and makes this mystery the center of her life. She enlists her nebbish boyfriend (John Reynolds) and two best friends (John Early and Meredith Hagner). The quartet attempts to solve the mystery while getting distracted by their day to day lives and bouts of narcissism and ennui.

The depiction of Millennials in popular media has come under scrutiny in the last few years. Shows like Girls, The Big Bang Theory, Two Broke Girls, and more recently The Great Indoors have created some contentious dialogue about just how the Millennial generation should be portrayed. Writer-Directors Bliss and Rogers had previously produced Fort Tilden, an independent film about two of the most grating, yet somehow endearing 20-something young women on a Godot-esque trip to hang out with some guy at Fort Tilden. There was a certain endearing quality to these two central characters despite their surface level vapidity. They were complex and not just figures of ridicule.

Bliss and Rogers bring this same layered sense of character to Search Party and, because of its ability to spend more time with its characters, does an even better job than Fort Tilden. Alia Shawkat leads the cast and could have easily become the straight woman to the antics of John Early and Meredith Hagner. However, she delivers the best performance I’ve ever seen out of her, bringing realism to the feeling many people in their late 20s feel about prospects for their future. Searching for Chantal allows Dory to feel like she is actually doing something rather than just existing. As Maeby Funke in Arrested Development, Shawkat played the kid smarter than all the adults but here she is a character who makes mistakes and gets lost in her own frantic energy to hunt down the truth. There is comedy here but with a lot of well-measured pathos interwoven.

John Early is the obvious stand out from the supporting cast as Elliot. I became a quick fan of Early from a small role he performed in Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer series, and he went on to be featured in an episode of their The Character anthology. Here we have Early played a character he has mastered, the self-involved insecure, dumb guy. He brags about his charity to bring water bottles to the children of Africa and gets comically frustrated when confused friends start to question the whole premise of the charity. He frequently brings up his teenage bout with leukemia as a way to avoid criticism though it rarely has anything to do with the feedback he’s getting. Meredith Hagner plays Portia, a wealthy kid who has recently booked a role on a Law & Order pastiche. The most painfully real and funny part of this gig is she’s a blonde white woman cast as a Latina police detective and seems oblivious to the inaccuracy. Hanger and Early have fantastic comedic timing and often have the opportunity to play off each other.

The cast member that surprised me the most is John Reynolds as Dory’s boyfriend Drew. This character could easily have come off as a flat, easy to dislike antagonist to Dory. Instead, Bliss and Rogers choose to introduce him that way at the start and subsequently develop him to challenge our first impressions. The relationship between Dory and Drew is much more interesting than I initially expected it to be. In the same way, the characters feel like they are going to fall into those lazy Millennial stereotypes, but the creators work hard to find the genuine humor in that but also show us these are fleshed out people.

At its core, Search Party is a comedy and mystery. The good thing is this is a comedy that is actually funny. The jokes are smart and situational. Nothing feels contrived, and the best humor comes out of the character interactions. This is balanced with a considerably strong mystery. As Dory investigates, she goes down dead ends but always seems to find at least one clue that keeps the momentum going. The answers behind the mystery are satisfying, and even the red herrings turn out to be incredibly entertaining.

I was honestly surprised at how much I enjoyed Search Party. I’ve become tired of the lazy portrayals of Millennials in media and this series manages to acknowledge the truth of some of those stereotypes while adding depths to character types that are often punchlines in other series.