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Schultz reviews: '7500' and 'The Vast of Night'

Schultz reviews: '7500' and 'The Vast of Night'

Carl Schultz

“7500”   Distributed by Amazon Studios, 92 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released June 18, 2020:

Memories of September 11, 2001 might still be a little too raw for some viewers to truly enjoy “7500,” the new movie written and directed by German filmmaker Patrick Volrath and now playing on the Amazon Prime streaming service.  But those nightmarish images and recollections might actually be the point of the picture--although the network describes “7500” as a thriller, during some sequences a disquieting sense of verisimilitude causes the picture to seem almost like psychological horror.

In “7500,” an international airliner flying from Berlin to Paris is commandeered by terrorists.  The flight crew manages to expel the invaders from the cockpit and secure the door, but the plane’s captain is mortally wounded in the process.  Also injured and bleeding, the flight’s first officer must take command of the plane and simultaneously negotiate with the terrorists and calm the passengers while guiding the plane to a secure destination. 

Despite a few scenes and situations which will likely ring familiar to anyone who’s seen airborne disaster movies from 1954’s “The High and the Mighty” to 1980’s “Airplane!” taut direction and persuasive performances boost “7500” to a higher altitude than a run-of-the-mill adventure drama.  In fact, the picture is a genuinely effective little thriller reminiscent of Paul Greengrass’ fact-based 9/11 docudrama “United 93” from 2006.

The picture establishes its credibility early with the opening sequence depicting eerily soundless black-and-while footage from an airport security camera--from that perspective, we all look like terrorists.  And during the arrival of the flight crew, there’s a nice feeling of authenticity in the interactions between Paul Wollin’s captain and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s first officer--the usual jokey interplay switches to humorless professionalism as the flight crew runs through the preflight checklist, as solemn and unsmiling as surgeons performing delicate brain surgery.

The flying sequences too are depicted with a flair for stagecraft and lighting which belies the picture’s small budget and limited perspective (almost the entire movie takes place in the airliner’s tiny cockpit).  The takeoff sequence in particular is startlingly realistic despite an absolute minimum of special optical effects.  Whether the viewer considers air travel an adventure or a nuisance, this is one movie that gets the essence of the experience right.

The second third of the movie switches gears and really gets down to business.  As the terrorists attack and are repelled from the flight deck and confined to the plane’s cabin along with the unprotected crew and passengers, “7500” becomes more of a suspense drama mixed with psychological horror.  The terrorists’ incessant banging on the reinforced door to gain re-entry to the flight deck suggests the same persistent menace as the zombies doing much the same thing with earth’s solitary human survivor in 1964’s seminal “The Last Man on Earth.”

Although “7500” has a running time of only 92 minutes, the picture seems much longer...mostly because it goes on for a full 25 minutes after the point when every fiber of your moviegoing experience tells you it should end.  During the picture’s third act “7500” in effect becomes a colloquy, a dramatic face-off between Gordon-Levitt’s First Officer Ellas and Murathan Muslu’s frightened and confused young terrorist, Kenan.  The picture also loses a few points for finally ending more or less the way you figured it would, but by that point you might actually be too pooped from the movie’s intensity to care.

While Patrick Vollrath the writer can use a little more seasoning and experience in his craft--especially with narrative structure--Patrick Vollrath the director shows enormous promise in his first effort as a feature filmmaker (the director has a number of award-winning short subjects already on his professional resume).  Vollrath is one filmmaker who plainly knows how to stage a scene for maximum effect.  The fight scenes in the cockpit between the flight crew and the terrorists especially contain the same claustrophobic savagery as the train compartment brawl between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw in 1963’s “From Russia With Love.”

But “7500” works best as a showcase for actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  With his quietly mature and authoritative performance as Flight 7500’s first officer, Gordon-Levitt at age 39 begins to finally shed the boyish image he’s possessed since his days on “3rd Rock from the Sun” in the 1990s.  

Viewers who recall Gordon-Levitt’s astonishing recreation of Donald O’Connor’s legendary “Make ‘Em Laugh” act from “Singin’ in the Rain” live on TV’s SNL in 2009 already know he’s one performer who’ll give everything he has to put on a good show (at the end of SNL’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” performance, the actor collapsed exhausted to the stage).  In “7500,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt contributes still another act which will be tough to follow, and nearly impossible to top.

Rated PG-13 for violence and some intense sequences, “7500” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

“The Vast of Night”   Distributed by Amazon Studios, 89 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released May 29, 2020:

Energetic direction, spirited performances, and excellent production values elevate “The Vast of Night” several steps above the 1950s drive-in movie fodder it purports to emulate, in the process making this agreeably creepy little picture almost a drive-in classic of its own.

Set in the 1950s, in “The Vast of Night” (even the title sounds like a Stephen King short story), when a mysterious radio signal interrupts life in tiny Cayuga, New Mexico on the night of the high school’s big basketball game, the local radio station’s disc jockey and an intrepid 16-year-old switchboard operator try to locate the source...which as the seconds tick by appears more and more to be something from another world.

Filmed in and around Whitney, Texas and framed as an episode of a 50s-era Twilight Zone-like television show called “Paradox Theater,” this nifty little potboiler evokes memories of practically every black-and-white science fiction cheapie you’ve ever seen, from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ to “The Day the Earth Stood Still”...but borrows or steals from practically none of them.  This picture sets its own exacting standards and possesses its own unique personality and appeal.

Directed in his feature movie debut by Oklahoma filmmaker Andrew Patterson from a script--or rather a “teleplay,” according to the credits for Paradox Theater--by Craig W. Sanger and James Montague (a pseudonym for director Patterson), “The Vast of Night” is even canny enough to employ a dramatic technique from the days of radio dramas like Orson Welles’ legendary 1938 “The War of the World” radio broadcast in 1938--the filmmaker occasionally allows the screen to fade to black and focus on the soundtrack and dialogue.  It’s a disquieting effect, and it works beautifully in the framework of the narrative.  Patterson is one young director who knows how to punch a viewer’s buttons.

Loosely based on two actual incidents involving alleged interactions with UFOs and featuring likable performances from movie newcomer Jake Horowitz as the DJ and former child actress Sierra McCormick as the teenager, “The Vast of Night” is secure enough in its rich drive-in movie heritage to be released theatrically on May 15 to regional drive-in theaters prior to its “official” release on pay-per-view and the Amazon Prime streaming service on May 29.  The picture is earning glowing reviews from the critics, including an approval rating of 92% from Rotten Tomatoes and an average score of 82% from Metacritic, indicating rare universal acclaim.

Director and co-writer Patterson reportedly financed “The Vast of Night” with money he earned producing television commercials for the Oklahoma City Thunder professional basketball team.  Filmed in four weeks during the autumn of 2016, Patterson spent over a year editing the picture before submitting it to the annual Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, which showcases emerging filmmakers and low-budget independent productions.  After its exhibition at Slamdance, distribution rights for the picture were acquired by Amazon Studios.

Currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, “The Vast of Night” is rated PG-13 for sequences of science fiction intensity.

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