Parallel Lives (1994, directed by Linda Yellen)


A large group of people gather together one weekend for a fraternity/sorority reunion.  Since college, some of them have become rich and powerful.  Some of them are now famous.  Some of them are now seedy and disreputable.  They all have college memories, though there’s such a wide variety of age groups represented that it’s hard to believe that any of them actually went to college together.  After the men spend the day playing practical jokes and touch football and the women spend the night talking about their hopes and dreams, they wake up the next morning to discover the someone has murdered Treat Williams.  A pony-tailed sheriff (Robert Wagner) shows up to question everyone.

Parallel Lives was made for Showtime with the help of the Sundance Institute.  Today, it’s a forgotten film but, for some reason, it was very popular with American Airlines during the summer of 1997.  That summer, when I flew to the UK, Parallel Lives was one of the movies that we were shown.  (It was the second feature.  The first feature was Down Periscope, a submarine comedy starring Kelsey Grammar.  Fourteen year-old me enjoyed Down Periscope but, in retrospect, it wasn’t much of a flight.)  A month and a half later, when I flew back to the U.S., Parallel Lives was again one of the films shown on the flight!  For that reason, I may be the only person on the planet who has not forgotten that a film called Parallel Lives exists.

Parallel Lives, I later learned, was an entirely improvised film.  The huge cast were all given their characters and a brief outline of the film’s story and they were then allowed to come up with their own dialogue.  Unfortunately, no one did a very good job of it and the men were reduced to bro-ing it up while the women spent most of the movie having extended group therapy.  The story doesn’t add up too much and, even when I rewatched it from an adult’s perspective, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to get out of everyone talking about how different the real world was from college.  Technically, the film’s a murder mystery but you can’t improvise a successful murder mystery.  This film proves that point.

Of course, it doesn’t help that there are 26 characters, all trying to get a word in at the same time.  Some of the roles don’t make much sense.  Dudley Moore shows up, playing an imaginary friend.  (How do you improvise being a figment of someone’s imagination?)  James Brolin introduces himself to everyone as being, “Professor Doctor Spencer Jones” and that appears to be as far as he got with his improv.  Ben Gazzara is a gambler and Mira Sorvino is the prostitute that he brings to the reunion while Mira’s father, Paul Sorvino, moons the camera several times.  Jack Klugman is a senator with Alzheimer’s and Patricia Wettig is his daughter.  The majority of the movie centers around Jim Belushi, playing a reporter and falling in love with JoBeth Williams.  Liza Minnelli, Helen Slater, Levar Burton, Lindsay Crouse, Matthew Perry, Ally Sheedy, and Gena Rowlands all have small roles.  How did so many talented people come together to make such a forgettable movie and why did American Airlines decide it was the movie to show people on their way to another country?  That’s the true mystery of Parallel Lives.

Film Review: Indiscretion (dir by John Stewart Muller)


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Indiscretion is a strange one.

(And by strange, I mean dull and kind of pointless.)

This film premiered on Lifetime last Saturday but, as I watched it, it quickly became obvious that it wasn’t originally produced for Lifetime.

For one thing, the film was shot on location in Louisiana.  Instead of letting Montreal or Toronto stand in for a generic American city, this film was actually shot on the streets of New Orleans.  (Unfortunately, the film also made New Orleans seem kind of boring.)

Secondly, Indiscretion turned out to be one of those films where the soundtrack would suddenly go silent whenever a character said anything stronger than “damn.”  It was odd because you would see a character very obviously saying something like, “Fuck you,” but you wouldn’t be able to hear the voice.  I guess that was to protect the gentle sensibilities of the viewer but what about people who read lips?

And finally, Indiscretion didn’t feature any of the usual Lifetime actors.  Instead, it starred Mira Sorvino as a frustrated wife and Cary Elwes as her politician husband.  Sorvino’s real-life husband, Christoper Backus, played the troubled sculptor who has an affair with Sorvino and then ends up stalking her family.

So, no, Indiscretion was clearly made to, at the very least, be released straight to video.  It was not meant for commercial television.  And yet, somehow, it ended up making a somewhat awkward premiere on Lifetime.

Anyway, Indiscretion starts out well enough.  It doesn’t waste any time arranging for Sorvino and Backus to meet at a fund raiser and for them to end up having a passionate affair.  Sorvino, of course, claims that it was just a weekend fling and that she loves her husband.  Backus refuses to believe her and soon, he’s worming his way into her family.  He befriends her husband and even gets to go on a hunting trip with the governor of Louisiana.  He also ends up having an affair with Sorvino’s teenage daughter.

(Or, at the very least, he takes some pictures of her, which Sorvino later discovers.  It’s a sign of how haphazardly constructed this film is that you’re never quite sure what’s going on with Backus and Sorvino’s daughter.  Backus also uses one of those old Polaroid cameras to take pictures.  Apparently, troubled artists don’t use digital cameras.)

The problem is that, after the first, artfully-shot sex scene, the film itself slows down to an interminable crawl.  It’s as if the film’s director, editor, screenwriter, and producers all forgot that the audience has already seen a hundred movies just like this one.  Nothing surprising happens and, unlike the best Lifetime films, Indiscretion never winks at the audience or indirectly acknowledges the clichéd nature of its narrative.  The whole thing is just painfully dull and no amount of mood lighting is going to change that.  There is a little twist at the end but most viewers will probably be so bored with it all that they probably won’t even notice.  That’s just the type of film this is.

If you want to see an entertainingly over-the-top and pulpy film about people having sex in New Orleans, I would suggest checking to see if Zandalee is still available on YouTube.

44 Days of Paranoia #13: Quiz Show (dir by Robert Redford)


For today’s entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, I want to take a look at a film that I recently caught on cable — 1994’s Quiz Show.

Directed by Robert Redford and based on a true story, Quiz Show was nominated for the Academy Award for best picture but lost to Forrest Gump.  Among those of us who obsess over Oscar history, Quiz Show is often overshadowed by not only Forrest Gump but two of the other nominees as well, Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption.  When compared to Pulp Fiction, Quiz Show certainly feels old-fashioned.  At the same time, it’s not quite as much of a sentimental crowd-pleaser as Gump or Shawshank.  Perhaps for those reasons, Quiz Show never gets quite as much attention as some other films that have been nominated for best picture.  However, taking all of that into consideration, Quiz Show is still one of the best films of the 90s.

Quiz Show takes us back to the 1950s.  The most popular show on television is 21, a game show in which two contestants answer questions, win money, and try to be the first to score 21 points.  The American public believes that all of the questions asked on 21 are locked away in a bank vault until it’s time for the show.  What they don’t know is that the show’s producers have instead been rigging the show, giving the answers to contestants who they feel will be good for ratings.

When Quiz Show begins, nerdy Herbie Stempel (John Turturro) has been the champion for several weeks.  However, both the show’s producers and sponsors feel that the untelegenic Herbie has peaked.  Hence, the handsome and charismatic Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) is brought on the show and Herbie is ordered to lose to him.  Reluctantly, Herbie does so.

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Charles is initially reluctant to cheat but, as he continues to win, he finds himself becoming addicted to the fame.  Charles is the son of the prominent academic Mark Van Doren (Paul Scofield) and his success on television finally gives him a chance to escape from his father’s shadow.  Indeed, the film’s subtle and nuanced portrait of Charles and Mark’s loving but competetive relationship is one of the film’s greatest strengths.

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Herbie, however, is bitter over having to lose and has subsequently gambled away all of his winnings.  When 21′s producer (David Paymer) refuses to help Herbie get on another TV show, Herbie reacts by going to the New York County district attorney and publicly charging 21 as being fixed.  Though the grand jury dismisses Herbie as being obviously mentally unbalanced, his charges come to the attention of a congressional investigator, Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow).

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Goodwin launches his own investigation into 21 and discovers that the show is fixed.  (As the ambitious Goodwin puts it, he wants to “put television on trial.”)  Along the way, he also meets and befriends Charles Van Doren and finds himself torn between his desire to expose the show and to protect Charles from the bad publicity.  Again, the film is to be applauded for the subtle way that it uses Goodwin’s investigation of both Charles and Herbie as a way to explore issues of both class resentment and class envy.  Goodwin may have come from the same ethnic background of Herbie but it quickly becomes obvious that Goodwin has more sympathy for the genteel (and very WASPy) world that produced Charles Van Doren.  When Goodwin tries to justify protecting Charles, his wife (played by Mira Sorvino) responds by calling him “the Uncle Tom of the Jews” and it’s hard not to feel that she has a point.

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While I greatly enjoyed Quiz Show, I do have to say that, on one major point, the film fails.  Try as he might, director Redford never convinces us that a rigged game show is really as big of a crime as he seems to be believe it to be.  Perhaps in the 1950s, people were still innocent enough to be shocked at the idea of television reality being fake but for cynical contemporary viewers, it’s hard not to feel that the “scandal” was more about Richard Goodwin’s ambition and less about any sort of ethical or legal issue.  Towards the end of the film, one character suggests that television will never be truly honest unless the government steps in to regulate it.  “What?” I yelled back at the TV.

Seriously, it seemed like a bit of an overreaction.

As I watched Quiz Show, I found it hard not to think about the reality shows that I love.  For instance, I know that The Bachelor and The Bachelorette are largely staged.  I know that the previous season of Big Brother was largely set up so that Amanda could win.  (And, believe me, if Amanda hadn’t sabotaged her chances by turning out to be a mentally unstable racist bully, she would have won and she would probably would have been invited back for the next all-stars season.)  I know that shows like Storage Wars and Dance Moms are “unscripted” in name only.  I know that reality shows aren’t real but my attitude can basically be summed up in two words: “who cares?”  Perhaps I would be more outraged if I lived in the 50s which, to judge from both Quiz Show and a host of other movies, was apparently a much more innocent time.

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That said, I really enjoyed Quiz Show.  A lot of that is because I’m a history nerd and, therefore, I have a weakness for obsessively detailed period pieces.  But even beyond that, Quiz Show is a well-made, entertaining film that features three excellent lead performances and several strong supporting turns.  If you love to watch great actors playing great roles then Quiz Show is the film for you.  Rob Morrow lays his Boston accent on a bit thick but otherwise, he does a good job of suggesting both Goodwin’s ambition and the insecurities that lead him to desire Charles’s friendship even as he tries to expose him as a fraud.  John Turturro brings an odd — if manic — dignity to Herbie Stempel while Johann Carlo is well-cast as his wife.  Best of all, Ralph Fiennes makes Charles Van Doren into a sad, frustrating, and ultimately sympathetic character while Paul Scofield is the epitome of both paternal disappointment and love as his father.  The film is full of great supporting turns as well, with David Paymer and Hank Azaria perfectly cast as the show’s producers and Christopher McDonald playing the show’s host with the same smarmy charm that he brought to a similar role in the far different Requiem For A Dream.  Perhaps best of all, Martin Scorsese shows up as the owner of Geritol and gets to bark, “Queens is not New York!”

Even if Robert Redford doesn’t quite convince us that the quiz show scandal was as big a deal as he obviously believes it to be, Quiz Show is still an uncommonly intelligent film and one that deserves to rediscovered.

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Other entries in the 44 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading

Horror Film Review: The Presence (dir by Tom Provost)


The Presence opens with nearly 20 minutes of near-silence.  We watch as an unnamed and emotionally unstable woman (Mira Sorvino, who is literally listed in the credits as having played The Woman) arrives at an isolated cabin.  As she settles in for what is obviously a very needed vacation, she goes about her business without saying a word.  This is because she believes herself to be alone.  However, those of us watching know that this isn’t true.  She is sharing her cabin with a silent and initially passive ghost (Shane West) and, though she can’t see him, those of us in the audience can.

Eventually, the silence is broken as other visitors come to the cabin.  There’s the boatman, Mr. Browman (Muse Watson).  There’s the woman’s boyfriend (Justin Kirk)  who unexpectedly shows up to ask the woman to marry him, a proposal which visibly upsets the ghost. Finally, there’s the Man In Black (played by Tony Curran).   Though the woman cannot see the Man In The Black, she can hear him when he whispers dark thoughts into her ear.

The ghost, however, can see the Man in Black.  The Man In Black offers the ghost a proposition.  If the ghost kills the woman’s boyfriend, the Man In Black will allow the ghost to leave the cabin.

First released back in 2010, The Presence is a film that got (and gets) next to no love from the critics and from the type of people who specialize in leaving snarky comments over at the imdb.  However, I rather like it.  Director Tom Provost makes the risky choice to emphasize atmosphere over easy scares.  The end result is a film that is full of striking images but which requires a bit more patience than most audiences are probably willing to give.  When I think about The Presence, I think about the sight of Shane West passively watching Mira Sorvino, obviously wishing he could reach out but knowing that he cannot.  It’s a haunting image, one that perfectly captures both the fear and the pathos of a good ghost story.

And that, ultimately, is what The Presence is.  It’s a good ghost story and what better time for a good ghost story but Halloween?

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Dance Scenes I Love: John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino in Summer of Sam


Today’s dance scene that I love comes from Spike Lee’s frustrating yet brilliant 1998 film, Summer of Sam.  In this scene, a perpetually unfaithful husband (John Leguizamo) dances with his wife (Mira Sorvino).  In this scene, Lee establishes the dynamic of Leguizamo and Sorvino’s troubled marriage.  Leguizamo may be the man but Sorvino is definitely the star.