Friday, May 29, 2020


Opening virtually this weekend:

The Vast of Night--In a small New Mexico town one night in the mid-'50s, a teenage switchboard operator and the cocky young radio DJ with whom she's infatuated hear the same weird, unearthly sound coming through both of their boards. When they're contacted by a couple of listeners who claim to remember the sound, and narrate their backstory with it, things get weirder still.

This sci-fi flick, directed by Andrew Patterson from a script by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, begins with the conceit that we're seeing an episode of Paradox Theatre, an earnest anthology series in the Twilight Zone manner. The filmmakers wisely don't try to maintain this throughout, but now and then they shift back to a grainy TV image for a few minutes, as if to remind us of the tradition they're working in.

The script is so talky, really, that it could probably be an effective radio play, yet the film is visually wondrous as well, with flashy editing and dazzling long tracking shots (accomplished by drones, I guess) that evoke an otherworldly flavor. Best of all is the acting; Sierra McCormick is extremely adorable as the sweet, bespectacled young heroine, loping through the streets of the town at the slightest, always decent, impulse. Jake Horowitz seems for all the world like he's doing his best junior-league Matthew McConaughey as the DJ, and it works well. Bruce Davis, in a voice-over performance, and the excellent Gail Cronauer cast a cumulative chill as the witnesses.

The film isn't quite a home-run; the resolution is somehow both a little too vague and a little too literal. But The Vast of Night is so rich and inventive that I feel ungrateful pointing this out. It's as if Robert Altman and Stephen Spielberg collaborated on a Twilight Zone, and it almost worked.

The High Note--Tracie Ellis Ross plays a superstar pop singer. She'd like to work on new material; her handlers, led by Ice Cube, want her play to it safe with a Vegas residency. Dakota Johnson plays her put-upon personal assistant, who of course is an aspiring music producer. Kelvin Harrison, Jr. is the inexplicably obscure young musical prodigy the assistant falls for, and would also like to produce.

Although I don't know if audiences will (or should) share my reasons, I liked this movie, one of the higher-profile releases so far to get exiled to streaming by the pandemic, precisely because it was an undemanding big-budget indulgence; a pop-music story without a lot of drug use or other torturous, tiresome self-destructive behavior on parade. Although Johnson is attractive and agreeable enough as the reckless heroine, the star performance is the charming, funny Tracie Ellis Ross; defiantly batty, mercurial and high-maintenance, but not a villain. Mostly thanks to Ross, The High Note stays on-key.

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