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Non-Review Review: The Vast of Night

The Vast of Night is a loving fifties homage, with more than a few contemporary resonances.

The film is structured so as to evoke pulpy science-fiction, opening on a slow push in on an old black-and-white television set airing Paradox Theatre, a show clearly designed to evoke the various fantastical anthology shows modelled after The Twilight Zone. Director Andrew Patterson keeps reminding audiences of this framing device, occasionally pushing out of his narrative on to the grainy distorted television screen and even occasionally cutting to black to underscore the fact that the narrative the audience is watching is being controlled.

Zero to fifties in only ninety minutes!

The premise of The Vast of Night is remarkably straightforward. One summer evening late in the fifties, something strange happens in a New Mexico town. As the bulk of the town gathers for a big basket ball game, only a handful of residents remain at home. Fay dutifully mans the town switchboard, while the charming DJ Everett handles the radio broadcast for the benefit of “the five of you out there listening.” However, his radio show is briefly interrupted by a strange noise, sparking an investigation that leads to somewhere very strange indeed.

The Vast of Night doesn’t really have too many surprises. After all, the basic premise all but suggests an inevitable conclusion: what could possibly be causing strange signals in New Mexico in the late fifties? However, The Vast of Night is elevated by a number of key factors. Patterson brings a very confident and assured direction to the story, making The Vast of Night a very compelling watch given its relatively low budget and tight focus.

Radio gaga.

However, writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger deserve a great deal of credit for the script. The Vast of Night is a film that takes great pleasure in the trappings of its late fifties setting, and is keenly aware of the context in which its characters operate. “I am not now, nor have I ever been a member of the communist party,” Fay jokingly records into a microphone early in the film, while later events include accounts of the horror of radiation. The Vast of Night is a loving homage to the era in which it is set.

However, more than that, The Vast of Night understands the strange tethers that tie that idealised past to the more complicate present. By its nature, The Vast of Night is a film about hearing and listening. More than that, though, it is a story about the choices that people make in what they choose to hear and who they choose to listen to. It is a film about conversation, about signal, about noise, about cross talk, and about decay. The Vast of Night is a story about the breakdown of communication, and the horrors that unfold in what society tunes out as white noise.

Interview to a kill.

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Non-Review Review: The High Note

The High Note doesn’t quite manage to hit the peak that it title suggests, but it hits most of the notes that it needs to.

The basic plot of The High Note concerns a personal assistant named Maggie who works for Grace Davis. Davis is a singer in the twilight years of her career, working hard to remain relevant and to stay afloat in an industry that seems ready to cast her aside. Maggie is convinced that her boss (and her idol) is capable of delivering so much more than her management and her record label expect of her, but finds herself trapped in an uphill battle to prove that she has a vision that is worth listening to.

She’s got the juice.

There are any number of obvious comparisons to be made with The High Note. The classic underappreciated-working-stiff-is-finally-recognised-as-a-prodigious-talent narrative unfolding against a Hollywood backdrop obviously evokes any of the myriad (official and unofficial) versions of A Star is Born. However, the emphasis within that template on a demanding ageing female star and the younger woman working under her feels like it is somewhat carried over from Nisha Ganatra’s previous film, Late Night.

The High Note is tremendously predictable, but it’s to the credit of Flora Greeson’s screenplay that the movie understands this. There are very few surprises nestled in the story, but The High Note leans into that. It is a surprisingly and endearing gentle movie about the path to stardom, one that keeps its stakes low and which tempers its formula with just enough self-awareness to avoid feeling stale or rehashed. The High Note is solid, sturdy and appealing – even if it seems to reflect the Grace Davis that audiences see, rather than the one that Maggie aspires towards.

Tune in for more…

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Non-Review Review: Scoob!

Have you ever wondered what it might look like is a beloved fifty-one-year-old children’s television franchise had a midlife crisis?

If so, Scoob! might just be for you.

We have lift-off.

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Non-Review Review: M.o.M. Mothers of Monsters

M.o.M. Mothers of Monsters is an ambitious and clever piece of indie horror constructed on a tight budget.

It marks the feature-length narrative directorial debut of Tucia Lyman. Lyman has a variety of experience in horror, particular on television shows like Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files, Ghosts of Shepherdstown and Ghosts of Morgan City. With that in mind, it makes sense that Lyman’s first narrative feature should borrow a lot of the language of paranormal reality television. M.o.M. is essentially a found-footage horror film, with the audience navigating and assembling a collection of seemingly raw video files into a cohesive narrative.

Will he snap?

There is something inherently old-fashioned about the found footage horror template. The format was all the rage in the early years of the twenty-first century, perhaps informed by the use of first-person camcorder footage to document events like 9/11. It arguably reached its apotheosis with the release of the security-camera home haunting horror Paranormal Activity in 2007. Contemporary horror has moved back toward more traditional approaches, prompted by the success of films like The Conjuring, making M.o.M.‘s found footage approach feel decidedly retro.

M.o.M. is occasionally a little clumsy and heavy-handed, sometimes stretching its premise a little too far and struggling to balance sharp tonal shifts between heightened sensationalism and grounded domestic horror. Still, there’s something endearingly committed and energetic in this low-fi horror thriller, an infectious and gleeful embrace of its more absurd elements.

Receiving a dressing gown.

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Non-Review Review: The Assistant

The Assistant is a quiet and simmering examination of complicity.

The story unfolds over the course of a single day in the life (mostly the office) of Jane. Jane is the eponymous assistant, working at an independent film company in New York as the right-hand woman to a(n in)famous producer with an explosive temper and monstrous appetites. Kitty Green’s film follows Jane from her early morning Uber ride into work to the single muffin that she allows herself at the deli on the way home, keeping an intense and claustrophobic close-up on lead actor Julia Garner.

Garnering praise.

The Assistant arrives with enough weight that the audience knows what it is about even before the film clearly articulates it. The Assistant is transparently a #metoo movie and the unnamed and largely unseen (but very clearly heard and very strongly felt) producer is very plainly a stand-in for convicted sexual offender Harvey Weinstein. This allows The Assistant a great deal of freedom. Because the audience comes to the film with that assumed knowledge, Green’s script and direction are able to peddle in ambiguity and tease the veil of plausible deniability.

The beauty of The Assistant lies in the way that both the audience and Jane (and seemingly everybody else) knows what is happening, but keep their head down and their focus elsewhere. It’s a story about looking away so that one might see no evil and the noise that people make so that they might hear no evil. It’s an anxious, ominous, suffocating study of the constant smoothing done at the margins of these sorts of horror stories.

Dial it back.

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“Whose Gesture Would Remove Me?” Fate and Chance in Sorcerer and The Wages of Fear

“You going to tell me where I’m going?”

“I swear to Christ, I don’t know.”

The fates seemed aligned against William Friedkin’s Sorcerer.

The very idea of the film was an act of hubris, with Friedkin daring to remake one of the classics of world cinema. The Wages of Fear is justifiably regarded as one of the best movies ever made, and so for an American director to assume that he could remake it in his own image felt like an act of arrogance. Sorcerer often felt like a doomed project, suffering from wound both rooted in Friedkin’s self-regard and resulting from broader cultural trends.

Friedkin’s refusal to compromise cost the movie a bankable leading man in Steve McQueen, something that Friedkin regrets to this day. The decision to shoot on location South America led to a ballooning budget, conflicts with cast and crew and a variety of logistical difficulties. Friedkin refused to compromise with the studio during production, being openly antagonistic when they offered notes. The decision to open the movie with seventeen minutes of subtitled prologue may have alienated audiences, along with the use of title that conjured images of an Exorcist  sequel.

Perhaps all of this was meaningless. Maybe there was nothing that Friedkin could have done during the production of Sorcerer would have made a difference. After all, Sorcerer had the misfortune of opening a week after Star Wars. George Lucas’ science-fantasy epic obliterated the more restrained and more cynical film. It’s debatable to what extent Steve McQueen’s face on a poster or more favourable reviews in the papers might have helped. Friedkin’s career might have fared better after the failure if he’d been easier to work with, but it seems the film itself was always doomed.

In its own way, this feels entirely appropriate. Sorcerer is a story about a vindictive and mean-spirited universe, one that seems actively antagonistic towards the characters who inhabit it. Sorcerer is a story about the whims of fate, and the inescapability of destiny, populated by characters who are doomed long before they sign on to a suicide mission to transport highly volatile dynamite across the Amazon. It seems entirely reasonable that Sorcerer itself would be just as ill-fated as any of its central characters, just as subject to the sinister machinations of a cruel world.

However, all of this gets at the most interesting aspect of Sorcerer, the part of the film that is most distinct from The Wages of Fear. The film is definitely a remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic, but it does what most truly great remakes do: it finds a fresh angle on the same basic source material. In many ways, The Wages of Fear is a uniquely European blockbuster that exists in the context of the aftermath of the Second World War. Sorcerer is undeniably an American movie, one that insists on finding order in the chaos of the turbulent seventies.

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New Escapist Column! On the Bleak Nihilism at the Heart of Alien³…

I published a new piece at Escapist Magazine this evening. With “Alien Day” arriving tomorrow, I thought this was as good a time as any to celebrate the most under-appreciated film in the series.

Alien³ has a somewhat tarnished legacy. It was subject to a lot of criticism when it came out, some of which was justified and some was not. While director David Fincher’s original vision is lost to history, there have been welcome efforts to reclaim the film. The Assembly Cut is well worth any film fan’s time, and deserves consideration as a worthy entry within the larger franchise. Even allowing for this minor rehabilitation, the film is still undervalued.

Alien³ will never be as good or as iconic as Alien or Aliens. However, it is a worthy successor. The film’s unrelenting commitment to – and loud endorsement of – nihilism is very much in keeping with the spirit of the franchise. Alien³ is a massive and expensive studio blockbuster that argues for the horror of existence and the cruelty of a vicious universe. It is a $50m argument for self-negation in the face of such cosmic terror. These ideas simmered through Alien, but Alien³ allows them to come to a boil. It’s breathtaking.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.