Streaming Spotlight: Tune in, drop out

This week we're highlighting films that celebrate radio

by Amber Wilkinson

The Vast Of Night
The Vast Of Night Photo: Courtesy of EIFF

Though it might sound unlikely, given that movie making is such a visual medium, films have always found the radio and those things connected with it to be fertile ground for storytelling - from DJ sound booths to messages coming through on the squelch. So this week for our Streaming Spotlight, we're tuning in and dropping out...

The Vast Of Night, Amazon

This homage to 1950s storytelling like The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone is also a love letter to radio plays like The War Of The Worlds and so it's fitting that one of its main characters is radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz). On what starts out as an ordinary night at a basketball game, turns into anything but when he and switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) find something strange on the airwaves and are soon on the trail of a mystery that could well be out of this world. The story may hold familiar beats but the filmmaking is inventive and the pacing spot on as first-time director Andrew Patterson moves from quick fire dialogue to suspense and back again  - perfect for anyone who has ever curled up by the radio for a good old-fashioned sci-fi yarn.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, Amazon Prime, GooglePlay and other platforms

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa
Andrew Robertson writes: Alpha Papa brings Alan Partridge into the digital era. North Norfolk Digital, a regional station going through a takeover. A corporate one at first, but it becomes a hostage situation. One of Steve Coogan's many personas, long form provides new opportunities for humour. There are plenty of familiar faces. The supporting cast extends to include comic Tim Key and Colm Meaney. There are plenty folk that are cross but nobody fades away. Newcomers get enough to tune in. Existing fans are well served. If you know cart walls from crayfish consider your laughter button depressed. If you don't then jargon will still jingle you to jocularity. Comedy thrillers often have too much on their plate, but Alpha Papa finds a sweet spot between them. Read our interview with Coogan.

The Night Listener, Amazon, GooglePlay and other platforms

The Night Listener
The Night Listener
Adapted from Armistead Maupin's book, which the writer describes as "a thriller of the heart", Robin Williams stars as Gabriel Noone, a late-night radio host who forms an unusual relationship with a teenager who is dying of AIDS. When something happens to make him question the veracity of what he has been told about the boy, he embarks on an obsessive journey to discover the truth. Much is often made of Williams comic timing but he also brought a resonant emotional depth to serious roles like this one and his measured, understated performance here is one of his best.

Frequency, Amazon Prime, YouTube and other platforms

Better known for his TV series work on the likes of NYPD Blue, Gregory Hoblit and writer Toby Emmerich - who would go on to write a spin-off series of the film - worked a little bit of magic together for this solid time travel thriller. It's central premise - of a cop in 1999 (Jim Caviezel) suddenly being able to communicate with the father (Denis Quaid) he lost when he was six over a CB radio - has a strong emotional hook and, as he tries to save his dad from death, we all know what happens when you mess with the space time continuum. The dad and son relationship between the two men is carefully established and winning, which makes it considerably easier to suspend your disbelief with the plot's sillier elements.

A Prairie Home Companion,

A Prairie Home Companion
A Prairie Home Companion
Tributes to radio don't get much more warm-hearted than Robert Altman's final film - which offers a fictionalised, back-stage version of Garrison Keillor's real-life variety show. It's an enjoyably laidback meander through the show's "final broadcast" which, in a plotline that any Muppet fan will find familiar, is about to lose its home to heartless developers. Altman's camera roves about the place, both on-air and off, taking in the back stories of singing sisters Yolanda and Rhonda (Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin), who have Yolanda's teen daughter (Lindsay Lohan) in tow, alongside bantering cowboy double act Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson, John C Reilly) and Kevin Kline's gumshoe style detective narrator Guy Noir, who works as a security guard for the show. Every inch the variety show at heart, there's home truths, humour and some good ol' life lessons all packaged up with music and a sponsor with Altman making a virtue of the film's rambling nature, encouraging you to kick back and go with the flow.

Radio Days, Amazon, Chili

Radio Days
Radio Days
Jennie Kermode writes: A meandering, sometimes incoherent film which resembles the narratives that develop when one sits around twisting a radio dial, Radio Days is an oddity in the Woody Allen canon. Made in 1987, it exhibits the maturity of his later work (before it lapsed into self-parody) yet successfully recaptures the warmth and charming silliness of his early, funny films. At its heart is the story of an intellectually frustrated boy (check) from a suffocatingly close Jewish family (check) in New York (check), who finds escape by imagining his way into a whimsical yet bittersweet 1940s. There are similarities to The Purple Rose Of Cairo, made a couple of years earlier, but this is a story which feels far more personal and this, in turn, gives it an intimate quality and a sense of completeness that make it compelling despite its reluctance to allow for any more conventional narrative structure. It's a testament to Allen's enduring fascination with what media like radio and cinema actually mean.

Pontypool, Amazon Prime

Jennie Kermode writes:  One of the smartest pandemic-themed films ever made, Bruce McDonald's 2008 thriller may, at first glance, look like a zombie movie, but it's something else entirely. Following Grant (Stephen McHattie), a talk radio DJ in rural Ontario who is suddenly faced with international enquiries about rioting and a possible terrorist incident involving Quebecois insurgents, its wholly original plot takes on the complexity of life in a a dual language nation and explores the deep psychological influences of language itself, manifested as a sort of memetic virus. Though it has its gory moments, its real horror is of the existential variety. it's also politically savvy, humane, and sometimes outrageously funny (especially if you're familiar with Canadian culture). It's deeply embedded in radio station culture, which it handles with insight and affection. This is one of those truly stunning films that occasionally slip under the radar. Don't let it get away from you this time.

We're heading back to the late-night DJ booth for our short selection this week, as a graveyard shifter experiences Interference. If you're looking for more streaming inspiration, check out this week's Stay-At-Home Seven.

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