Since we started quarantine, over 289249292 years ago, rewatch has become a way of life. This is due, in part, to the apparent lack of new content that has been launched during this time – besides “Tiger King”, which nobody wants to talk about anymore (hopefully).
Because of that, I started to plan this bucket list with a list of films that we hadn’t seen in a while and that might feel different today (thus worth a rewatch), but I ended up with only one film that fits this description, and two films in a whole different category that we could maybe call “hidden jewels”. Interestingly enough, my rewatched blockbuster is also a mostly forgotten film that deserves more attention than what it received, and thus another kind of jewel.
And this was great because I feel like it gave a sense of variety to my recent viewing experience and it will also hopefully will give YOU, reader, some perspective and might even persuade you to see some films that you probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise. However, this also means that you’re about to see some quasi-review thoughts about two vastly different films that have very little in common besides the fact that they’re all unique and well-executed visions.
So let’s get to it.
The Vast of Night (2020)
Available on Amazon Prime
Directed by: Andrew Patterson
Starring: Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz
I saw some discussion about this film online and it made me curious to watch it. To be honest, I was not expecting much, but I was more than pleasantly surprised. “The Vast of Night” is a low-budget film (produced for less than $1 million) directed by Andrew Patterson in his feature film debut. By definition, the film was bound to have limited production values and no stars. But not in spite of this but BECAUSE of this, the film is a triumph.
At its core, genre filmmaking should be motivated by love for the form and the themes portrayed therein. Unfortunately, this point is frequently forgotten in the studio-produced films we usually watch in theaters. This doesn’t mean that all films produced by a studio are flawed; it just means that it is rare to watch a film that shows the author’s love for genre with the same efficiency as “The Vast of Night”.
In many ways, science fiction has transformed in recent years. Current films in the genre tend to focus on the special effects-filled spectacle, the dark side of technology or the horror of the unknown. For “The Vast of Night”, Patterson chose to focus on an excitement for the unknown that culminates in fear once we realize where we actually stand in front of these forces that are way beyond our control. While doing so, the film portrays an extraterrestrial invasion through the eyes of very humanized characters from a more innocent era in suburban United States.
The film tells the story of a night in the lives of small-town people searching for something more besides what they see in their seemingly unexciting lives. Fay and Everett, the main characters, are people with hopes and expectations that are beyond what they’re living at the moment. Despite being tossed into a larger than life scenario, the film keeps the storytelling focused on them as opposed to the grand scheme of things, and it does so through the eyes of a filmmaker convinced by his own vision without trying to please executives with financial interests. There are some great things in independent filmmaking.
With this film, Patterson goes for unconventional narrative structures that had every reason to be a complete disaster but end up working thanks to a mostly great cinematography, fantastic performances and a great script. For example, in what should be wrong for the “show don’t tell” principle used in most films, we barely even get to see what the aliens do in this film, but we get to hear a lot of people talk about their experiences. This affects the emotions and storylines of the main characters, which is what is relevant in this story.
As much as I liked “The Vast of Night”, I do recognize that it’s far from perfect. For instance, the mostly great cinematography (which has some fantastic one-take scenes that work great in the context of the film) has some issues with the lighting, especially in the first half of the film, where we barely even see the main character’s faces. From the way I understood it, the more the film advances and the characters are further humanized, the closer we get to seeing their faces, but I could see how this might feel jarring for some people. Also, the first few minutes of the film feel overblown with mostly irrelevant dialogue and people talking over each other. It’s not until we get to see Everett and Fay interact with each other that the movie kicks off.
Further, the film is probably not made for everyone. I have trouble thinking that people will immediately love this unconventional approach to suspense storytelling. Thus, even if I felt at the edge of my seat for the entire runtime, I could see some people that don’t love the genre as much feel bored because not enough things happen throughout the film.
Notwithstanding, I can’t recommend this film enough. There’s a lot to see here, and a lot to learn about creativity when budget is limited.
I, Robot (2004)
Available on Hulu
Directed by: Alex Proyas
Starring: Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan and Alan Tudyk
After the success of films like “Independence Day”, by 2004 Will Smith had established himself as the biggest and most charismatic star in the world. Following some flubs like “Wild Wild West” and “Men in Black II”, he moved on to a new kind of science fiction loosely inspired by the writings of Isaac Asimov, with the somehow mostly-forgotten “I, Robot”. The formula, ultimately, was similar to what had worked before with some of his great films of the past: a charismatic policeman is thrown into a situation he does not fully understand while he is surrounded by people that think and act very different from him. Unfortunately for “I, Robot”, however, even though it was a success at the box office, it has been mostly forgotten.
As a child, Will Smith was my favorite actor. I loved most of his movies and everything about his demeanor just screamed “cool” to my eyes (I wasn’t wrong there). Notwithstanding, I would count myself as someone that tends to forget about “I, Robot” when thinking about the hall of fame of Smith’s filmography, and that is perhaps why I decided to give “I, Robot” another chance. It wasn’t until I was about halfway through that I realized that I hadn’t seen the film since it came out.
“I, Robot” is a pretty good film that is held together by a great performance by Will Smith as Detective Del Spooner – a character with a troubled past that ends up having a very interesting arc. There is also a very interesting visual aesthetic in the film that manages to prevail in spite of some poor special effects (this came out after groundbreaking films with amazing special effects, such as “The Lords of the Rings”).
But above all, the film stands out because it deals with issues of existentialism, interpretation of laws and how that affects conflicts among people (and machines!), and the natural advancement of artificial intelligence towards sentience. While these issues are not addressed as gracefully as they are in other films or TV shows (e.g. “Westworld” or “Blade Runner”), it is pretty commendable to include them in the plot of what, at its heart, is a summer blockbuster action film.
As much as I enjoyed the film, I felt a bit frustrated by Bridget Moynahan’s performance as Dr. Susan Calvin, the female lead. While there was not a lot to do with the “stiff lady” character she was envisioned to be, her performance could have used a bit more charisma and depth. She’s not bad enough to derail the film, but she’s not a memorable female lead in any sense of the word.
I would really recommend “I, Robot” if you haven’t seen it or if you’re like me and you don’t remember it. It’s a great film for quarantine or any time, and you’ll have a lot of fun with it. It’s even possible that, like me, you’ll wish to have Will Smith back as the biggest star in the world.
Under the Silver Lake (2018)
Available on Amazon Prime
Directed by: David Robert Mitchell
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough and Topher Grace
I’ve been meaning to write about “Under the Silver Lake” since last year, but I just couldn’t figure out what to say. It’s a pretty difficult movie to talk about, especially in the confinements of a conventional review. Notwithstanding, it’s a film that begs to be discussed and analyzed (hence the existence of a substantial Subreddit dedicated for that exact purpose), and the best way to do so is after numerous viewings. I have now watched the film 4 times and there’s still so much I haven’t figured out. Unfortunately for me, none of my friends of family have seen it, either, so I haven’t been able to discuss in substance (I also don’t really use Reddit).
It is because of the film’s oddity that A24, the studio that produced it, opted to barely give it a theatrical release and proceed to release it on VOD with barely any publicity. I only managed to notice that it has been released one day when I was looking for something else at Target, if you can believe it. And it was only available on DVD because there wasn’t even a Bluray release. Fortunately, the film is now available for purchase on iTunes (which is where I got it) and, for your convenience, streaming on Amazon Prime.
“Under the Silver Lake” is directed by David Robert Mitchell, who I was a big fan of after watching his film “It Follows” (another film that you should go watch right now if you haven’t), and it depicts the story of Sam, who sets on a quest to investigate the apparent disappearance of a woman he felt attracted to but barely met one night (some people may say he fell in love with her, but I maintain he did not). While this sounds like a simple premise, Mitchell’s film is way past any sense of simplicity.
Not everything is what it seems in “Under the Silver Lake”, and that is why it’s hard to find a way to talk about it without getting into spoilers – and I really don’t want to spoil anything here. Thus, I’ll resort to talking a bit about the themes present in the final product to see if I can persuade you to watch this fantastic piece of filmmaking.
Although a lot of what’s present in the film would fall within the mystery genre (described as neo-noir), “Under the Silver Lake” goes way beyond expectations. Since, as mentioned, I’ve watched it several times, I can confidently say that at least some sections of the film do not represent the reality that Sam is living, and that’s the point. Sam is going through a difficult time in life due to lack of success in his career (implied to be in the entertainment industry), and a recent failed relationship.
It is because of this that both Sam and the viewer have a hard time distinguishing reality from fiction, and, again, that’s the point. I know I have my own theory of what’s real and what isn’t, but it feels like Mitchell packed the film with so many red herrings that I’m pretty sure that most people will have a different interpretation of what happens.
The above does not necessarily mean that there’s nothing else in “Under the Silver Lake” besides an opportunity for the viewer to interpret what’s happening on screen. There is a lot to like in this film for more casual moviegoers that won’t obsess over the film like I did. For instance, there is a truly fantastic performance from Andrew Garfield and lots of interesting and exotic supporting characters. There is also a really beautiful cinematography that portrays the landscapes of the Silver Lake neighborhood in Los Angeles and beyond, as well as a score that was clearly inspired by noir films of the past.
At its core, however, “Under the Silver Lake” has a lot on its mind about the treatment of people – particularly women – in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles. This is perhaps what led to several reviewers to deem the film as misogynist or say that it glories objectification of women, but they’re just missing the fact that that’s the point. The movie is criticizing (and to a certain extent satirizing) this aspect of entertainment, and the level to which people become obsessed with “making it” in the industry that leads them to depression when they fail. On par with that, the film depicts the extremes that people go to so they can leave their mark in the filmmaking industry.
Hollywood is a complex business, and the manner in which “Under the Silver Lake” portrays it is worth a view, at worst, and a thorough analysis, at best. This film will make you think about the implications of the culture in the filmmaking industry. What’s behind the magic on screen is way more complex, and thankfully or unthankfully, this film will not just give you the answers. You’ll have to find them yourself through reasoning and maybe rewatch (like me).
So next time you turn on your TV, try something different like “Under the Silver Lake”, so we can discuss it. You can find me at http://www.filmopinionitis.com, and @filmopinionitis on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.