Watch this industry long enough (and you won’t have to watch for very long) and you’ll realize that a lot of films fall through the cracks of distribution and release. The reasons vary – sometimes it’s business, sometimes it’s personal, and sometimes it’s somewhere in the middle. Sometimes they’re good films stuck in limbo through no real fault, and sometimes they star Eddie Murphy.
And sometimes one of those “vanished” films can surprise you.
VOSOT could have been one of those films you never heard of again. The last feature from writer/director Brett William Mauser, its fate was left uncertain after he left the industry to return to his education (his company soon followed, as Ponderous Productions closed its doors in March). No one could be blamed for wondering if we’d ever see that final film.
But the show went on, and on April 8, Mauser’s most personal film premiered to a packed house.
Inspired by Mauser’s life in the South Texas news market, VOSOT (for “Voice Over/Sound On Tape”) is at once a satire and a tutorial. Set in a fictional Texas TV station, the film leads viewers through a typical day in the typical life of a typical news team, through the eyes of someone who has seen it all: photographer Bryce Walker (Justin Riley).
As Bryce shows us everything that goes into choosing, producing, and broadcasting news stories, the industry’s terms are explained to us through a very clever visual device that I won’t spoil here. And as we learn more about the station’s methods and madness, VOSOT offers pointed commentary about what the news industry has become.
Despite that point of view, the film’s tone is less biting than bemused. That’s partly because it seldom preaches, but it’s also because, like the newscast it depicts, VOSOT is driven by personalities. Its humor and its message are grounded in its characters; in who they are when the cameras are on, and when they’re off; and in what they do with (and to) each other. And the News 22 team has some memorable characters.
Steve Highland (Craig Rainey), “The Face”, rules his desk and his station with an iron hairdo, and little else in his head. His partner, Sally Wallace (Sally Colombo), is all too eager to take down her co-anchor, and anyone else who catches her at the wrong time. Mark Johnson (the ever reliable Marc Daratt) thinks he’s a hard-hitting investigative reporter, but usually ends up just hard-hit instead. Speedo model/reporter Ricardo Ramirez (Everette Henderson) is News 22’s rico suave, much to the annoyance of weathergirl Jessica Reigns (Aisha Love, whose facial reactions are priceless). Assignments editor Barney (Tim Poynter) knows a great story better than anybody, but is cursed with a tone-deaf news director (Kirk Harrison). Samantha Gordon (Pamela D. Hardy) would like to tell a great story, but instead has to make do with the same old scraps. And as the station’s Creative Services department, Brett (Mauser) and Brad (Bradley Bates) are the film’s Ben Pierce and John McIntyre, staying sane by embracing insanity.
Those names are just part of a much larger cast; collectively they’re all terrific (including Mike Roberts, whose cameo as an old-school anchor is especially poignant). And in this ensemble, two characters and performances stand out.
Maggie Tyler, the harridan of News 22, is a terror to everyone she works with, most of all the depressed cameraman Lenny, whose great curse is to always be assigned to her on her bad days (which seem to happen seven days a week). Their scenes together have an energy and chemistry that elevates the entire film, and it’s to the actors’ credit, and to Mauser’s for casting them. Anyone who knows Taylor James Johnson personally will be blown away by his performance as Lenny. There’s none of the filmmaker’s usual spirit; instead, there’s only someone who may have once been a functional person, laying bare his neurosis in a monologue worthy of Spalding Gray.
Then there’s Maggie. Nikki Young. And the character brings out the best in the actress, whether she’s tearing through scenes and characters like a juggernaut, or giving the reporter a subtle and unexpected depth in her rare quiet moments. Nikki’s performance is at once over the top and surprisingly human, and I think it’s some of her strongest screen work.
That’s true of the film as a whole. It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s both outrageous and grounded, and it has heart. VOSOT may be Brett Mauser’s last film, but it could also be his best.
If you weren’t there for the screening, I hope you’ll get a chance to see it for yourself. It might be one of those films that surprise you.
Thank you as always for reading. Until the next time, “be seeing you…”