Tag Archives: B

THE VAST OF NIGHT

Producers: Andrew Patterson, Melissa Kirkendall and Adam Dietrich   Director: Andrew Patterson   Screenplay: James Montague and Craig W. Sanger   Cast: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer, Bruce Davis, Cheyenne Barton, Gregory Peyton, Mallorie Rodak, Mollie Milligan, Ingrid Fease, Brandon Stewart, Kirk Griffith, Nika Sage McKenna and Brett Brock   Distributor: Amazon Studios

Grade: B+

It’s difficult to make a solid sci-fi film on a small budget, but Andrew Patterson and his cohorts, relying on mood rather than big-time effects, manage the trick with “The Vast of Night,” a small-town period piece that plays effectively on 1950s paranoid fears.  It juxtaposes two very different cinematic approaches—long, simply staged theatrical monologues and virtuoso tracking shots—to generate a creepy atmosphere that juices what is essentially a very simple “X-Files”-type “the truth is out there” story.

But the television program the screenplay specifically points to as its inspiration is “The Twilight Zone.”  The movie is presented as an episode of a fictional fifties series called “Paradox Theater,” introduced by a host who sounds suspiciously like Rod Serling.  A flickering black-and-white TV screen announcing the title morphs into the widescreen that Patterson and his cinematographer M.I. Littin Menz cannily employ except for those paradoxical interruptions.

They start out anxious to impress—and succeed in doing so—with a long tracking shot focusing on the story’s young Scully and Mulder.  She’s Fay (Sierra McCormick), a high school student who works as a telephone switchboard operator in Cayuga, New Mexico, and he’s Everett (Jake Horowitz), the night DJ at the town’s radio station.

They meet at the school gym where a basketball game is about to start.  As the camera follows him without a cut, Everett crosses the court where the teams are practicing and helps the gym staff set up the sound system before he hooks up with Fay, helps her take charge of a new tape recorder and walks her into the parking lot; they briefly talk with some of the fans arriving for the game before proceeding to their jobs, with the camera prowling after them as they talk along the way.  The sequence is an impressive technical accomplishment that might make you recall the way Brian De Palma opened “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”

Unlike that big-budget bomb, however, “Vast” doesn’t drop the ball after that opening salvo.  It continues with a sequence of Fay at work, snapping wires into the appropriate slots as she takes calls and sends them on to their destinations.  She’s taken aback, however, when a frightened woman calls in, saying that huge craft are hovering over her house, only to be quickly cut off.  Fay’s also confused about a strange, unidentifiable sound she hears on a line, and sends it on to Everett, who broadcasts it with the request that anybody who can identify it should call in.

That gets a response from a veteran named Billy (voiced, though never seen, by Bruce Davis), who says that he remembers hearing the sound when he was on active duty and summoned to participate in a secret mission: his quickly-assembled squad was flown out into the desert and instructed to bury what appeared to be a large airship.  As they dug a massive tunnel, he says, they heard the sound Everett had broadcast, and afterward many of the menthe men in the squad fell ill.

After Billy’s account is broadcast, a call comes in from elderly Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer), who has a story to tell about the sound and invites Everett and Fay to come to her house and hear it.  Her tale, told as a monologue as lengthy as Billy’s while the camera creeps slowly around the musty room, suggests that those craft flying around town have long been engaged in more than just observation and may not be of this earth.  Naturally it leads the intrepid duo to go off into the woods and seek them out.

There isn’t a great deal of surprise in “The Vast of Night,” and it lacks the smack-to-the-forehead twist that “The Twilight Zone” always favored (clearly “Paradox Theater” would have been an also-ran in that department), but Patterson teases a good deal of suspense out of the predictable plot.  McCormick and Horowitz make an engagingly naïve pair, in which Fay takes the lead, and Davis and Cronauer—the only other major players—etch incisive cameos of people on the emotional edge.

As good as the performances are, however, it’s the technical team that really shines here.  The remarkable work of Patterson and Menz in the opening tracking shot is seconded later on in the film, when the camera traverses a street, enters the gym parking lot, enters the building, proceeds through the basketball game action and climbs the bleachers to pass through a window before taking to the street again.  It’s a stunt that really serves no special function—though it might suggest how the town is being observed by unseen forces—but it’s another virtuoso bit that will undoubtedly spur the movie’s usefulness as a studio calling-card for both director and cameraman.

The other technical contributions are expert for such a mini-budgeted picture as well. Adam Dietrich’s somber production design convincingly captures the feel of a fifties small town at night , though a few outside locations don’t look quite right, and Junius Tully’s deliberate editing contributes to the overall mood.  Kudos are also due the imaginative score by Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer and David Rosenblad’s sound design, both of which complement the visuals effectively.

It might not be vast in scope, but this little film, with its echoes of the Roswell legends and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” as well as “The Twilight Zone” and “The X-Files,” is a triumph of skill over resources.  One hesitates to overpraise “The Vast of Night” to avoid raising expectations too much, but the eerie exercise in otherworldly tension is a genuine find.  It’s no wonder Amazon scooped it up.     

THE TRIP TO GREECE

Producers: Josh Hyams and Melissa Parmenter   Director: Michael Winterbottom   Cast: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Claire Keelan, Rebecca Johnson, Marta Barrio, Tim Leach, Cordelia Bugeja, Justin Edwards, Tessa Walker, Richard Clews, Harry Taylor, Kareem Alkabbani and Soraya Mahalia Hatner   Distributor: IFC Films

Grade: B+

This fourth—and reportedly final—installment of the satirical travelogue series by Michael Winterbottom, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon is, like its predecessors, a re-edited, shortened version of a six-part television program.  It’s another amusing exhibition of its stars’ skill at improvisation and willingness to indulge in self-deprecation, with mournful undertones about aging and mortality.

The conceit behind this trip is that Coogan and Brydon are following the voyage home that Odysseus takes in Homer’s “Odyssey” (though allusion is also periodically drawn to the Roman equivalent, Vergil’s “Aeneid”).  Thus they begin their journey at the site of Troy in Turkey, proceed across the Aegean to Macedonia, and then continue via Delphi and Athens to the western coast of Greece, visiting Pylos before moving on—it’s arranged—to Ithaca.  Along the way they dole out bits and pieces of mythology, literature and history to situate viewers who might not be up on knowledge of ancient Greece.  They also point out that they’ve been doing the series for ten years—the purported length of the Trojan War.  

As usual, the stops along the way are marked by visits to fine restaurants, where the duo enjoy scrumptious meals while striving to outdo each other in comic improv.  This too is given a basis in the Greek classics near the start, when Brydon reads a passage from Aristotle’s “Poetics” to the effect that all art is imitation—something that obviously connects with the stars’ emphasis on impressions in their battle of one-upsmanship.

Coogan and Brydon show themselves, once more, as skilled vocal mimics.  They begin with a riff based on Coogan’s recent turn as Stan Laurel in “Stan & Ollie” (part of the joke—as in the previous installment’s references to “Philomena”—is his insistence on being referred to as an actor and writer rather than a “mere” light entertainer, like Brydon—and his repeated mention of the numbers of BAFTAs he’s won).  In this case Brydon adopts the take on the muffled diction of Tom Hardy that the two have used before to move into a conversation between a very different version of Laurel and Hardy than the one we’re accustomed to.

That’s just the beginning.  In the course of the trip the two hit numerous unsurprising vocal targets—Marlon Brando, Laurence Olivier, Mick Jagger, Sean Connery, et al.  Coogan also returns to his funny bit imitating Godzilla and dubbed movies, and Brydon to his “man in a box” voice. But in addition to the predictable and recycled material—which still earns some chuckles—there’s plenty of new stuff, like Brydon’s routine on Dustin Hoffman’s many voices over the years to Coogan’s impression of Ray Winstone playing King Henry VIII as a Cockney gangster.  And that’s just the beginning, which goes on to their competitive singalongs during their long drives.  The competition continues elsewhere, too—in a swimming race on the Hellespont, for example.

Some of the humor, it should be noted, is more than a little risqué, in a juvenile way.  On the island of Lesbos, they can’t resist joking about Sappho and the hotels named after her.  And when Coogan discourses on the battle of Salamis, the discussion quickly veers to jokes about the male anatomy.  Even Winterbottom is not immune from this sort of thing.  He regularly shows workers in the restaurant preparing the pair’s luscious dishes, and the wait staff delivering them to their table with a flourish.  But when it happens to be a beautiful young thing wearing a pair of tight shorts as she brings their orders to them on a patio overlooking the Aegean, the director and his editor Marc Richardson make sure not to miss a single course.

But the film adds a disquieting note to the proceedings by adding to the series’ customary concerns about growing old another theme taken from Homer and Vergil—that of the ties of family and “getting home.”  A brief encounter with an actor (Kareem Alkabbani) now working at a refugee camp touches on the subject; the displaced residents obviously reflect the loss of home.

But Winterbottom also personalizes the matter.  For Brydon that means regular calls to his wife, whose fidelity during his absence he doubts, though without real cause.  It turns out that she’s a modern Penelope, and she comes to join her husband in Greece at the close.

That happy reunion is contrasted with what happens in Coogan’s case.  His calls home to his son (Tim Leach) are concerned with the health of his father (Richard Clews), who in his dreams morphs into Anchises, Aeneas’ doomed father.  At one point Coogan, an inveterate, now divorced philander, jokes about losing a wife and gaining an empire, but his worry about his career “empire” in calls to his agent is compounded by the news he receives from his son, which causes him to break off the filming and abruptly return to England, where his ex-wife commiserates with him.  The part of the journey in which Steve and Rob take a boat through water-filled caverns, recalling the final legendary trip to the domain of Hades (a role that, we’re repeatedly reminded, Coogan played in a Percy Jackson movie), reinforces the idea that death is an inevitability everyone must finally confront. 

“The Trip to Greece,” in other words, is more than just an extended vaudeville routine between Coogan and Brydon—though it’s enjoyable on those terms.  And it’s more than a lovely travelogue through the Aegean, lovingly photographed by James Clarke.  It also serves as a rumination on family, aging and death, in which the mournful mood of its music score—composed of bits by Michael Nyman and Philip Glass, among others—plays a major role. 

Though it’s not without blemishes—at one point Coogan tells Brydon he can be exhausting, to which Brydon responds, “You should try meeting you!“—“The Trip to Greece” is a fitting capstone to a series that, unlike so many others, hasn’t outworn its welcome.