"Search Party" and "The Vast of Night" are this week's selections.
As another week passes by with no consequential film or TV news, I don't have much to say. I hope everyone is doing OK, but if you're not, I hope you know that that's OK too.
In case you missed last week's edition, I want to again plug the list I put together of 10 films and TV shows either created by or starring black directors and actors. I'll also remind you that Spike Lee's new film, "Da 5 Bloods," hits Netflix today. I haven't watched it yet, but based on the reviews, I can't wait.
"Search Party" (2016-present)
HBO Max, rated TV-MA, 20 episodes, eight hours of content; season three premieres June 25
I love a good detective story, and I especially love a detective story where the detective gets lost in the case, so lost that they can no longer focus on anything in their lives other than the case.
Most of these stories revolve around men, and the stories are about the nature of obsession and how it destroys you. "Search Party" flips this trope in a few ways, first by having the main character not be a male detective but a female burnout living in Brooklyn with her boyfriend. The second way is by making her obsession not about losing herself but finding herself — albeit in the most disingenuous way possible.
When Dory (Alia Shawkat) sees that a former college dorm neighbor, Chantal (Clare McNulty), is missing, something in her recognizes that the real Dory is missing too. Or maybe she never existed. She's working an unfulfilling job as an assistant for a rich socialite (Christine Taylor). Her relationship with Drew (John Reynold) is teetering on the brink. When Dory spots Chantal alive in a Chinese restaurant, she tries to approach her, but Chantal bolts. Tracking her down suddenly gives Dory purpose.
This all sounds quite serious, but "Search Party" is two parts comedy for every part drama, and that's largely thanks to Dory's friends, who get pulled along for the ride. Drew's a decent-enough guy who spends most of his time trying develop a metaphorical backbone in times of crisis. Something about Reynolds' delivery throughout the series kills me, and I can't put a finger on why. Maybe it's the way he slightly slurs and elongates his words. Whatever it is, it works wonders, as do the comedic chops of John Early and Meredith Hagener, playing Elliot and Portia respectively. Elliot's a self-centered, lying entrepreneur who likes to fight with his on-off boyfriend, Marc (Jeffrey Self), while Portia is a struggling actress desperate for approval from her family. They're funny on their own and hysterical whenever the show gets them in a room together.
The gang also meets a host of wild characters along the way, from a sketchy private investigator working for Chantal's family (Ron Livingston) to Dory and Drew's violent and verbally abusive upstairs neighbor, April (Phoebe Tyers).
The mystery of what happened/is happening to Chantal is compelling too, and the conclusion to the story is surprising while also making sense within the larger context of the show's themes. I can't talk about season two much — its content and tone are a direct result of what happens in the Season 1 finale — but rest assured, the show manages to reinvent itself in a fun way while maintaining all the things that make season one so likable. With season three (and four) on the way, I have no doubt the show will continue that trend. With each season taking just four hours to watch, "Search Party" is a perfect weekend binge.
"The Vast of Night" (2020)
Prime Video, rated PG-13, 89 minutes
"The Vast of Night" is a science-fiction movie, but there are no jump scares. There is no blood. There is no physical violence of any kind. There are no visible monsters. If anything scares you, it's something your mind created, and that the film's trick: Nothing is scarier than the unknown.
Nothing is more exhilarating, either, both for its characters and its audience.
"The Vast of Night" is the debut film from Andrew Patterson, and it's a fascinating way to spend an hour and a half. The film is framed as some sort of "Twilight Zone" substitute within its world ("Paradox Theater"), which is completely unnecessary in terms of story but does get your prepared for the film's tone. That's all the film is, by the way: It's a living, breathing tone poem and a love letter to radio dramas of bygone eras. The story, as much as one exists, follows young radio host Everett (Jake Horowitz) and high school phone operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) as they work the lines one night in a small New Mexico town in the 1950s. There's an important high school basketball game going on — no one's listening or calling into the radio — so they're preparing to take it easy before a strange sound comes over the airwaves.
It's the sort of thing that most people would shake off as nothing, but in this small town, it's the most interesting thing to happen in ages. Everett and Fay put out a call to any listeners who might be out there, asking them to call back if they know what is causing the sound. One listener does, and what he has to say changes the course of not just their night but their lives as well.
The movie is a collection of five or six long takes, with the camera zooming through the town for an almost-as-long tracking shot between each one, which gives the audience a clear view of how small this small town really is. How Patterson got these camera angles is an interesting story in its own right; you can read about that over at Variety. The long takes and the tracking shots combine to create a movie that is meticulously slow, letting the magic of the setting and the story take precedence over everything else. The film is drenched in darkness. The score also accentuates the tone, propelling the action when it needs to and creating tension the rest of the time. I'll put it this way: The first 20 minutes of the movie are just Everett and Fay walking around talking to each other and other people. Not about anything that has to do with plot. Just … chatting. Small talk. It wouldn't work if they weren't each charismatic as hell, but they are, and it does. At least I think so. If you get 20 minutes in, and you're bored, maybe the film just isn't for you.
Then again, the audacious-ass tracking shot that follows the first 20 minutes might pull you back in. That's when the movie kicks into gear. When its firing, it make you feel like you're floating in the unknown. I have qualms about the film. I don't love the final shot, the story is thin, and the characters, while engaging, are a little flat. But Patterson clearly cares less about the what than the how. It's not about what you learn from "The Vast of Night" but what you feel while in its embrace.
I love movies that make me think as much as anyone, but there's something to be said for a movie that makes you long to live in its world a little longer.