Extraterrestrials arrive, a father and son go to Ireland, and comedians get personal in films that begin streaming this week.
“The Vast of Night” is a science-fiction drama so beautifully crafted and dramatically engaging that its lack of psychological depth and narrative substance hardly matter.
First-time director Andrew Patterson, working from a script by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, has made a low-budget alien-invasion movie inspired by radio dramas, 1950s TV and Michael Mann’s single-night thriller “Collateral,” among other big-screen suspensers.
It is visually striking, while also forcing us to listen.
Set in the fictional town of Cayuga, New Mexico (that apparent magnet state for UFOs), the film opens with a shot of a television screen. A “Twilight Zone”-like program is playing. The black-and-white picture becomes color and expands into a full-screen format. A high school is preparing for a basketball game.
A lengthy shot (there are many in the film) introduces the protagonists.
Sixteen-year-old Fay (Sienna McCormick) is ponytailed and enthusiastic and has a night job as a switchboard operator. Slightly older Everett (Jake Horowitz), Fay’s friend, hosts a radio show and helps the school troubleshoot technical problems.
The spookiness begins when an unidentified frequency, featuring a strange sound, cuts off Fay’s switchboard calls and interferes with the transmission of Everett’s broadcast.
Everett plays the eerie sound on the air and invites listeners to phone him if they can identify it. A military retiree (Bruce Davis) and an elderly woman (Gail Cronauer) respond with disquieting accounts of past experiences that they believe involved otherworldly forces.
Meanwhile, townsfolk report seeing unfamiliar flying objects.
To investigate, Everett and Fay go on a frenzied nighttime journey.
The plot unfolds predictably and the conclusion is underwhelming. Patterson delivers nothing profound.
Sometimes, style overwhelms the characters. When returning periodically to the old TV set, on which the movie appears in small-screen form, Patterson breaks the drama’s grip. The device feels gimmicky.
Yet dexterity at the wheel, visual prowess and ability to keep viewers rapt make for an exciting directorial debut and mighty fine sci-fi entertainment.
The inexpensive camerawork includes a knockout sinuous tracking shot taking viewers up a street, into the basketball gym, over fan-filled bleachers and beyond.
At an even bolder point, the screen goes completely black. Patterson, who has cited a fondness for radio dramas, keeps things dark for several minutes.
Fun genre references (Cayuga is the name of “Twilight Zone” narrator Rod Serling’s production company), too, are on the bill, as are period specifics like horn-rimmed glasses, Elvis and Cold War paranoia.
The filmmakers also touch on midcentury social issues such as racism in the military and the limited opportunities available for girls.
McCormick, delightful as the bouncy, capable Fay, and Horowitz, top-notch as well, share a chemistry that transcends so-so character development and allows them to make the most of cute moments. Fay mishears “Breaker, breaker” as “Bacon, bacon” for starters.
The Vast of Night
Starring: Sienna McCormick, Jake Horowitz
Written by: James Montague, Craig W. Sanger
Directed by: Andrew Patterson
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Available: May 29 on Amazon Prime
“End of Sentence” doesn’t contain directorial flair like Andrew Patterson’s, nor does it take its characters anywhere notably original. But actors John Hawkes and Logan Lerman keep the movie satisfying as their emotionally genuine performances carry a contrived story.
Elfar Adalsteins, making his directorial debut, combines recipe-book road-tale entertainment with a sensitively presented father-son journey, with the latter prevailing over the triter material, in this indie written by Michael Armbruster.
Hawkes plays newly widowed Frank Fogle, whose estranged 20-something auto-thief son, Sean (Lerman), is released from an Alabama prison. Frank asks Sean to accompany him to Ireland, the native country of Sean’s mother, Anna (Andrea Irvine). Anna’s dying wish was for father and son to scatter her ashes there.
Sean, who needs to be in California in a few days for a job opportunity, wants nothing to do with Ireland, or with Frank. But when Frank makes Sean a deal that includes buying Sean a California plane ticket, Sean gives in.
The pair argue constantly. The aggressive Sean regards Frank as a meek loser, while Frank’s own father-related issues cloud the air.
In Ireland, the pair attend a wake for Anna, where Frank learns about his late wife’s “wild” romantic past. Shaken, he devotes some of the trip investigating.
Sean has a fling with Jewel (Sarah Bolder), a woman he’s met at a bar. Jewel, who hitches a ride with the men, shifts the drama into action mode.
Forced to stick together in crazy circumstances, Frank and Sean start getting along.
As the men quarrel, bond, get into scrapes and take unexpected detours, the story feels overly familiar. Adalsteins’ straightforward direction, while competent, is unexciting. Contrived scenarios, including a police chase, tonally clash with the more serious relationship material. Bolger’s Jewel, a winning musical moment aside, is little more than a plot device.
Despite considerable problems, it’s hard to abandon this movie, which at its high points is an affecting drama about family hostilities, aggression and passivity, parents and children disappointed with each other and the process of healing.
Hawkes and Lerman create textured characters and generate truthful emotion together. Even their most intense moments, like an attempt by Sean to force mild-tempered Frank to slug him, feel natural and not a jot overblown.
Also deserving mention is cinematographer Karl Oskarsson, whose shots of Ireland’s countryside are entrancing.
End of Sentence
Starring: John Hawkes, Logan Lerman, Sarah Bolger, Andrea Irvine
Written by: Michael Armbruster
Directed by: Elfar Adalsteins
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Available: May 29 on VOD
“Funny Pains” profiles New York City-based comedian Wendi Starling and looks at the process of turning personal trials into audience-friendly performance.
Directed by Jorgy Cruz, the film features an interview with Starling (“Jammerz: The Selfish Help Podcast”), who’s a force of raw energy and self-awareness. Starling discusses her Los Angeles childhood, her move to edgier New York, and her struggle with bipolar disorder, an issue she’s worked into her comedy.
Cruz interweaves this material with a conversation with Starling and fellow funny folk Krystyna Hutchinson, Bonnie McFarlane, Jim Norton, Nikki Glaser, and several others. They talk about their careers, the New York comedy scene, their challenges and traumas, including crack addiction and sexual assault, and how comedians can address such issues onstage without discomforting audiences.
The film isn’t a penetrating look at the comedian psyche, and it could use more footage of Starling performing. Its reenactment scenes are unnecessary.
But Starling and company are an engaging, amusing lot. In these times when humor is essential, spending 90 minutes with these people is an agreeable deal.
Starring: Wendi Starling, Krystyna Hutchinson, Bonnie McFarlane, Jim Norton
Directed by: Jorgy Cruz
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Available: Now on VOD