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What to watch: The vast attendant machine
Hey there! I just had a baby so the Pop Culture Brain newsletter is currently on parental leave. I’ll be back soon with regular news, trailers, and recommendation emails — but for now please enjoy highlights from the what to watch segment!
The Vast of Night, available on Amazon Prime, is a different type of science fiction thriller. On the surface, Andrew Patterson’s indie seems like a pastiche of The Twilight Zone, it even employs a framing device that puts you literally inside a Rod Serling-esque TV show. Yet, Patterson’s modern sensibility results in a slow burn that Serling and the B-movie makers of the 1950s didn’t have room for. Patterson takes his time to set up an eerie, unsettling tone with long tracking shots and dialogue scenes that go on for several minutes. He creates captivating and frightening moments not with special effects or camera tricks, but rather words, sound design, and the actors’ performance. It’s hard to find a recent movie quite like this and it’s sure to give cinephiles and genre fans quite a lot to chew on.
When HBO Max’s The Flight Attendant first came to my attention, I thought I knew what it was all about. Kaley Cuoco, who had just spent more than a decade on a sitcom, was proving her dramatic chops by leading a formulaic murder mystery. Yet another dark anti-hero story somewhere between Broadchurch and Breaking Bad.
I’m happy to report that I was very wrong. From script, to direction, to performance, The Flight Attendant is a gripping and snappy thrill ride. Yes, it’s a murder mystery, but it’s light on its feet, balancing heavy themes with wit, charm, and levity. Its twisty story from showrunner Steve Yockey (based on a novel) is cleverly plotted and perfectly propulsive, making it especially bingeable. Yockey employs some genius and experimental ways of getting into the hero’s mind that smartly breaks up the action. Director Susanna Fogel then injects a ton of stylistic verve, evoking the ‘60s and ‘70s with her split screens, NYC location shooting, and dynamic photography.
But it all comes together because of Kaley Cuoco. She does prove her dramatic chops here, as I presumed, but it’s her charisma and comedic timing that make Cassie so compelling. Cuoco balances the darker sides of her character, a raging, self-destructive alcoholic, with big-eyed surprise, a knack for physicality, and genuine sense of who this person is despite larger than life circumstances. Likewise, Michelle Gomez crackles and steals every scene she’s in.
It’s nice to be wrong about something when the surprise is as winning as The Flight Attendant. Yockey and company did an excellent job setting up a second season while still bringing the first to a satisfying conclusion, so book your flight now.
Action, heart, comedy, and visuals. I’m not sure what else you could want from a movie that The Mitchells vs. the Machines, now on Netflix, doesn’t deliver. The animated feature—produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, written and directed by Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe—tells the hilarious, heart-pounding, and heartfelt story of a quirky family facing a robot apocalypse. And it signals an arrival of sorts for its producers. Lord and Miller have proven themselves to be in the conversation with Pixar, Disney, and Miyazaki.
As the best of Lord and Miller’s movies do, The Mitchells packs an absurd amount of jokes, both visual and dialogue-based, into every minute. Comedy bits and call backs literally explode onto the frame. Rianda and Rowe draw humor from specific, well-drawn characters, as well as punchy satire of technology, social media, and more. The levels at play are downright impressive.
Yet they do not forget the film’s primary directive of action, adventure, and eye-popping visuals. The movie’s visual style is poppy, fast moving, and fun. It leans heavily into the doodles ‘created’ by its teenage heroine to cross blend hand-drawn and computer animation a la Phil Lord’s Spider-Man Into the Spiderverse. The action set pieces are super clever and never skimp on the stakes or peril. Rianda and Rowe’s ability to weave character moments and action is also quite thrilling.
Anchoring the whole thing is the movie’s beating heart, its story about family, fathers and daughters, and growing up. The combination of a robot apocalypse and a family dealing with immense change works shockingly well. Abbi Jacobson and Danny McBride ground the movie with their performances and inject as much soul as any Pixar hit. It’s miraculous how such a heightened, fantastical narrative reveals so much about ourselves.
I could go on and on about The Mitchells vs. the Machines. For example, I didn’t even mention its kick ass score and soundtrack, filled with a dozen banger needle drops (I really love the end credits track “On My Way”). It’s become clear that Lord and Miller do not miss. From Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, to the Lego franchise, and Spiderverse, they’ve created an animation style and comedic voice all their own. Sony should consider itself lucky to have them and Netflix should consider itself lucky to have this movie.