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The Vast of Night (Amazon Prime): A unique and fascinating visual/audio experience


  • By The Newnan Times-Herald
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  • May. 29, 2020 - 2:33 PM

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The Vast of Night (Amazon Prime): A unique and fascinating visual/audio experience


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Review By: Jonathan W. Hickman

At the beginning of John Carpenter’s 1980 film “The Fog,” Oscar-winning actor and renowned producer John Houseman tells a ghost story around a campfire. His perfect diction and delivery help make a dry story work within the cinematic medium. It sets a creepy tone for what is to follow.

Although movies are primarily a visual experience, hearing a good story told well never gets old.

In “The Vast of Night,” filmmaker Andrew Patterson, directing from a script by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, relies heavily on old-fashioned story-telling. Through the power of two strong story-tellers, this little movie stands out in our over-caffeinated marketplace. There’s a lot of talk in the film, but it’s fascinating and thrilling to watch and listen.

“Vast” is set in the fictitious small town of Cayuga, New Mexico. Our protagonists are 16-year-old switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) and slightly older radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz), who are drawn together during one very strange night.

The story is prefaced as if it is part of an old black & white television show called “Paradox Theatre,” which is reminiscent of an episode of “The Outer Limits.” From the comfort of a 1950’s living room, an antique television set glows in flickering shades of gray, and a weird tale is projected on its screen.

The camera slowly pushes in as color images begin to fill the picture. We travel to Cayuga, where preparations for a high school basketball game are underway.

Everett walks into the school’s gymnasium, called there to assist with a power outage. The gym is buzzing with activity—players warm-up, cheerleaders do cartwheels, the band readies their instruments.

As Everett meanders through the crowd, he barks dismissive orders to students preparing a tape recorder to tape the game. He’s reminded several times that in the past, a squirrel had caused an outage by biting through a wire.

At some point, he encounters the bespectacled, enthusiastically chatty Fay, who begs him to give her instructions for operating her new tape recorder. The two seem made for one another as they gab about radio and recording. We soon learn that Fay also helps to operate Cayuga’s telephone switchboard.

“The Vast of Night” is marvelously made. The opening sequence is fantastic. A flowing camera follows Fay and Everett through what appears to be the entire length of the town. Director of photography M.I. Littin-Menz pulls off long moving shots coupled with a dialogue track that is like something from a Robert Altman classic. This homage isn’t lost on director Patterson, who subtly has a character complains of possible “cross-talk” on the game recording.

Once the action slows down, the film moves comfortably into story-telling mode. Fay hears a strange sound through the telephone switchboard, and she calls Everett at the radio station. Since it will make "good radio," he puts it out on the air. From there, the mystery deepens.

“The Vast of Night” combines old and new concepts. The long, smooth, motion shots are the product of Steadicam, possibly brushless gimbal stabilization, drone technology, and seamless cutting. This cunning combination of equipment and software takes the viewer from one location to another in one continuous, seemingly unbroken sequence. And following these exhaustive and hugely entertaining sequences, there are long shots that stay on one character for minutes as stories are told.

One complaint that some viewers may have are transitions in which the screen fades entirely to black. While watching the movie, you might have the inherent desire to check your internet connection. Don’t do this. The fades to black are all part of the visual and audio approach.

In a way, “Vast” is like an old radio serial, and the excellent combination of innovative visuals with timeless sound design and perfect-scoring is unique. I’m confident that viewers who are into podcasts will respond favorably to Patterson’s filmmaking strategy.

It is surprising that “The Vast of Night” is first IMDB credit for Patterson and his two screenwriters. While I’m told that Patterson worked in corporate video before this film, a debut that is this bold and accomplished is quite a feat. And given the push that Amazon is giving such a relatively small movie, I suspect that we will see more from this exciting and creative team.

****

A RottenTomatoes.com Tomatometer-approved critic, Jonathan W. Hickman is also an entertainment lawyer, college professor, novelist, and filmmaker. He’s a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, The Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Georgia Film Critics Association. For more information about Jonathan visit: FilmProductionLaw.com or DailyFIlmFix.com