‘The Vast of Night’ Delivers the Small-Scale Sci-Fi Goods

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Amazon Studios

Starring: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer, Bruce Davis

Director: Andrew Patterson

Running Time: 89 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for The Looming Threat of Something Alien

Release Date: May 29, 2020 (Amazon Prime Video)

Imagine, if you will, a movie coming out in 2020 that presents itself as an episode of a fictional anthology TV series called Paradox Theatre, which is clearly inspired by the most famous actual anthology series of all time. Twilight Zone fever is alive and well, baby! The truth is, Rod Serling’s iconic creation, and all the brethren it’s inspired, has never really gone away. (That would still very much be the case even if the CBS All Access revival didn’t exist.) It’s pretty damn hard, nearly impossible even, to recapture the spirit of O.G. Twilight Zone, but I nonetheless love that The Vast of Night wears its influence so openly on its sleeve. The Paradox Theatre framing device could have been deployed even more thoroughly than it is, but it nevertheless sets a vibe that assures you that debut director Andrew Patterson is worth paying attention to.

Patterson and screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger whisk us back to one night in 1950s New Mexico, where there’s a big basketball game at the local high school that everyone in town is headed to. But we’re not here to follow anyone on the team. Instead, we’re going along with two other students as they head off to their jobs sending audio content through the ether. Fay (Sierra McCormick) is a switchboard operator, and Everett (Jake Horowitz) hosts a radio show. He’s constantly razzing her, but he also takes her seriously enough to know it’s worth doing some digging when she alerts him to some weird noises coming through the boards.

If you’re into the genre, you know where this is headed, i.e., EXTRATERRESTRIAL VISITORS HAVE A MESSAGE FOR US! The fun and the thrill of it is getting to study Fay and Everett’s faces as it dawns on them that major secrets are about to reveal themselves. Something bigger than their regular old small-town life might just actually exist.

The Vast of Night is in its sweet spot when it keeps things claustrophobic. Eventually Fay and Everett venture back out into the night to track down the source of the noises, and there is a nice frantic energy, as they (and seemingly the entire town) become swallowed by panic and paranoia. But when Everett is flipping tapes and Fay is turning knobs and switching wires, there is a pleasantly intense procedural quality to the awe they experience while just sitting around and going through their routine. When you realize that you’re at the mercy of something as vast as the universe just outside your window, it’s enough to make you lean in and become a budding little investigator. Throw in some era-appropriate fixings like thick-framed eyeglasses, full-length skirts, and jokes about the future of cell phones, and you’ve got yourself a slick little satisfying genre picture.

The Vast of Night is Recommended If You Like: The Twilight Zone, Amazing Stories, The X-Files

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Switchboards

If Only ‘The Lovebirds’ Were More for the Birds

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Skip Bolen/Netflix

While appraising the Michael Showalter-directed, Kumail Nanjiani-and-Issa Rae-starring The Lovebirds, I feel a lot like Graham Chapman’s Colonel character from Monty Python, but like, in reverse. I want to pop in there and go, “I noticed a tendency for this movie to not get silly enough. Now let’s move it along and be more silly.” For something as outrageous as this bad-night-gone-wrong-then-worse rom-com, “not silly enough” might sound like a patently ridiculous accusation. Which is fine by me, as  I love being ridiculous and securing a patent for it. Furthermore, it’s possible to be over-the-top without being silly. The Lovebirds takes a grounded approach, wondering how a couple on the verge of a breakup would realistically react if someone jacked their car to murder someone in cold blood and then they proceeded to uncover a conspiracy connected to that fresh killing. The result is kind of funny and fairly heartfelt, which is enough to make me put a checkmark to my to-watch list and maybe add a smiley face.

As a veteran of The State, Stella, and Wet Hot American Summer, Michel Sho clearly has a transcendent amount of silliness in his funny bone. And Kumail certainly does, too, as he was so, so stupendously silly on Portlandia as a series of weirdly officious service employees. From what I know of Issa, she’s more awkward and goofy than silly, but I’m sure she could get into the silly groove with the right team. Now generally, I don’t like to review movies by taking them to task for what they could’ve been. Instead, I like to approach them on their own terms and ask if they did a good job at pulling off what they were attempting. But if The Lovebirds was attempting to show how people would really react to a bunch of life-threatening shenanigans, well, I believe there are some folks who would bulge out their eyes and cock their heads and maybe stare at the camera. Or maybe not. Perhaps this isn’t a proper review. Could it be that this is actually the introduction of my journey to become the Reverse-Colonel? … Bird is the word!

I give The Lovebirds 2.5 Bacon Strips out of Hot Bacon Grease.

How Mascot-errific Are the Mascots (And Everyone Else) in ‘Mascots’?

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Scott Garfield/Netflix

I’d been meaning to watch Mascots for a while ever since it arrived on Netflix in 2016. Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries represent one of the most significant trends in American comedy, after all, so I need to stay on the up-and-up. So on May 16, 2020, I decided that it would finally be the day. And then after that personal resolution, I heard the news of Fred Willard’s passing. And well, I had no choice at that point. It was almost as if Willard himself had left me a note saying, “If I die, please have fun by watching this.” He seemed like the sort of guy who would leave behind such a message. Thanks for the laughs, Fred!

CREDIT: Scott Garfield/Netflix

So now that I’ve watched, I’ve decided to rank several of the main actors by how much their acting embodies the spirit of mascots, which consists of a mischievous mix of adorable and devious, plus a dash of uncanny valley. My evaluations are based mostly on Mascots, with some consideration given towards their performances in other Guest films (where applicable):

More

The ‘Valley Girl’ Remake Just Can’t Resist Being a Sugar-Saturated Jukebox Musical

1 Comment

CREDIT: Orion Classics

Starring: Jessica Rothe, Josh Whitehouse, Chloe Bennet, Jessie Ennis, Ashleigh Murray, Logan Paul, Mae Whitman, Alicia Silverstone, Camila Morrone, Judy Greer, Rob Huebel

Director: Rachel Lee Goldenberg

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for A Row of Bare Butts Utilized for a Promposal

Release Date: May 8, 2020 (On Demand)

Valley Girl the remake updates a low-key rom-com 80s charmer and turns it into a cotton candy-nostalgia-lensed jukebox musical. The song-and-dance numbers are often buoyant, but I’m more interested in the weirdness lurking around the edges. That said, the synth-heavy, new wave-dominated pop music of this particular decade is more off-kilter than other eras’ popular tunes and plenty of people find it irresistible. So when our lead Valley Girl Julie Richman (Jessica Rothe) intones, “Life was like a pop song, and we knew all the words,” you might think to yourself, “You mean something like ‘We Got the Beat’ by iconic L.A. girl group the Go-Go’s?” And sure enough, everybody on screen promptly starts singing that anthem of musical possession. Or maybe, if you’re like me, during the part when Men Without Hats’ indefatigable “The Safety Dance” pipes up, you realize that it’s a perfect tune for a wedding reception, especially the version in which they spell out the title. The mind bounces around with highly personal ideas when thoroughly familiar songs keep tirelessly piping through the speakers.

When the original Valley Girl came out in 1983, the stereotype of ditzy, superficial, upspeaking teenage female San Fernando Valley residents was already firmly ensconced in American culture. Frank Zappa and his daughter Moon had just released their song “Valley Girl” the year before, after all. So while O.G. VG was self-aware of its setting, it was also still living through its era and thus it wisely took a snapshot instead of a whole panorama. But 2020 VG‘s appetite might be bigger than its tummy. It plays just about everything a little too straight and obvious. The Romeo and Juliet template of two lovers from opposite sides of town is very much intact, as Julie falls for punk rocker Randy (Josh Whitehouse). The modern-day framing device of a grown-up Julie (Alicia Silverstone) telling the story to her own teenage daughter (Camila Morrone) only underscores the predictability. Also a bummer: the casting of YouTuber Logan Paul, who has a reputation for controversial videos that actually prompted the film to be delayed from its original 2018 release date. Although, it’s worth noting that if you’re worried you might be turned off by his presence here, it helps to know that as Julie’s current boyfriend Mickey, he is supposed to come off as a massive tool.

After watching Valley Girl, I started to develop another interpretation after I looked over director Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s filmography, which mainly consists of titles released by notorious mockbuster distributor The Asylum as well as A Deadly Adoption, the bizarrely straightforward Lifetime original movie starring Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig. Maybe playing it straight with no comment is just Goldenberg’s sensibility. If you asked her why she cast twentysomethings and thirtysomethings as teenagers, I can imagine her answering, “Isn’t that just how you’re supposed to do things in Hollywood?” (Rothe does at least have a young face, although she has a very grown-up aura.)

Look, when a movie like this one has lines like “Everyone would probably have a total cow if I left” and “Technically speaking, punk is dead,” you kind of start to realize that it’s making fun of itself. And if you’re still worried about a fatal lack of a sense of humor, at least hang around for the moments with Rob Huebel and Judy Greer as Julie’s parents. The two of them (three if you count Huebel’s mustache) are fully alive as the most wonderful exaggerations of pushy parents who have mapped out their kid’s future. Valley Girl, huh? More like “Valley Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

Valley Girl is Recommended If You Like: Jukebox musicals, I Love the ’80s, Beach Blanket Bingo

Grade: 3 out of 5 Ronald Reagan Masks

Original Streaming Movie Catch-Up Christmas in April Edition: ‘Noelle’

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Disney/YouTube Screenshot

I very, very, very, very, very much enjoyed watching Noelle. I watched it for the first time in April of 2020, MONTHS after the most recent Christmas. Maybe part of my enjoyment had to do with the fact that it wasn’t the holiday season, and I didn’t feel enormous pressure to be as festive as possible. My enjoyment also certainly had to do with the charming Anna Kendrick being charming in the lead title role. If you don’t find her charming, then I don’t know what to tell ya. You know what else I enjoyed? The future prospect of making Noelle a Christmas tradition. I love traditions! Especially ones that make me happy.

Okay, now that I’ve gotten all that positivity out there, I want to mention the one big, BIG thing about this movie that made me go, “Da fuhhh?” Every character … in this movie … wants … for Christmas … an iPad! Even the ones who are pointedly not materialistic and primarily want something like more time with Dad or a new job for unemployed Mom, also make sure to request of Noelle, daughter of Santa, “nd an iPad.” It is no great stretch to say that an appropriate alternate title would be Everybody Loves iPad. Did Apple underwrite part of this production? That doesn’t sound very Disney of a Disney+ original movie. Corporate synergy – what are ya gonna do!

I give Noelle 5 Merry Christmases and an iPad in a Pad Tree.

Onward I Go with My Thoughts on ‘Onward’

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Pixar/YouTube Screenshot

There’s a certain trope that’s kind of popular in TV and movies. And you can tell that it’s popular because the characters are always so enthusiastic when it happens. In fact, it’s kind of defined by its enthusiasm. I’m talking about, you guessed it, the almighty Title Drop! It’s that triumphant moment when movie characters say the name of the movie within the course of the movie itself. If they do it really well, it makes you go, “Hey, that’s the name of the movie!” (Thanks, Arrested Development!) And Onward, as it turns out, has a doozy of a title drop. In fact, I’ve decided I would like to evaluate the entire film based on how strong that title drop is.

But first, I’ll run through some more straightforward thoughts I have. This tale of elf bros Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) attempting to resurrect their dad for one day feels like a pretty straightforward quest adventure, although it does have the added twist of taking place in a world where magic has petered out despite the population of magical creatures. Ultimately a big part of your enjoyment of Onward will likely depend on how much you connect to its message of brotherhood. And as a brother, and someone who has a brother, I must fairly say, I felt the brotherly vibes. If you too are a brother, or have ever imagined what it feels like to be a brother, you might feel similarly.

Now, back to that title drop. As the action is really starting to ramp up, with Ian taking the wheel of Barley’s trusty van Guinevere, Barley commands, “Put it in ‘O’ for ‘Onward’!”

Did that moment make me go … well, you know?

Indeed it did.

Success!

‘Velvet Buzzsaw’: Something Killer This Way Arts

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Claudette Barius/Netflix

Not too long before I watched Velvet Buzzsaw, I discovered that its director, Dan Gilroy, has been married to one of its stars, Rene Russo, for nearly 30 years. I migh have previously known that fact, but I don’t think I knew about it as far back as Gilroy’s last film, 2014’s Nightcrawler, which also featured Russo acting quite excellently. Besides making movies together, they also have a daughter who’s already all grown up. I mention all this because I enjoy thinking about the familial background that can go into making a movie. And also, I find it more satisfying to think about the Gilroy-Russo family than I do to think about Velvet Buzzsaw. That’s not to say that Velvet Buzzsaw is bad, but rather, it’s just to say that I’m the type of person who generally finds it heartening to see even just a snapshot of any family life.

Anyway, it’s particularly interesting to think about this marriage in light of Russo’s death scene in Buzzsaw, which her husband wrote AND directed! Honestly, I think it’s the sign of a good relationship when you can orchestrate your spouse’s death onscreen but not do so in real life. It’s a pretty gnarly moment and probably the best realization of the movie’s concept of “killer art.” I got a real Wes Craven’s New Nightmare “art imitating life” vibe during Velvet Buzzsaw‘s first deadly set piece. It takes us a little while to get to all the moments of the paintings and pieces tearing up human flesh, but when they do happen, they’re impressively, lavishly staged. But I think I would have recommended getting to the gore a little more quickly, because before we get there, we don’t have much to latch on to, other than Jake Gyllenhaal (who, you may recall, was also previously directed by Gilroy in Nightcrawler) as a fellow named “Morf” lounging around naked with only a laptop to cover his naughty bits.

I give Velvet Buzzsaw 3 Thick Black Eyeglass Frames out of 5 Wax Families.

Older Entries