American Animals (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
Writer-director Bart Layton tells the story of an actual crime planned and executed by four university students with such joie de vivre that I couldn’t help but feel electrified by the images, feelings, and psychology emanating from the screen. It is strange, incredible, and fascinating—that Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson), and Chas Allen (Blake Jenner) actually managed to convince themselves that they could get away with stealing extremely rare and valuable books, some of which date back to the eighteenth century, in broad daylight… and then actually sell them without the authorities knowing about it.
The young men gambled their futures simply because they were bored with the present. And so there is undeniable power in putting the real people portrayed in the film in front of the camera to tell the viewers directly what they thought about at the time, how they felt while planning the heist, and learning about what happened to them following the inevitable prison time. There is delicious irony particularly in Spencer’s case, the artist who found himself uninspired or dispassionate toward the craft he had chosen while in university. In a way, a compelling argument can be made that it is almost poetic, or karmic, or destiny that the heist would fail just so he would find his calling.
Layton plays with the story’s form like an expert juggler, shuffling between reenactment and documentary with buttery ease. There is an engaging flow in his approach, always propulsive, even when the pacing slows down at times, but not once painting his subjects using sentimental brushes or colors. On the contrary, his approach touches upon darkly comic moments, but never cruel, especially when the writer-director highlights the thieves’ sheer stupidity. They talk big but their actions are desperate, messy. They learn first-hand that heists are not like the movies where robbers simply slip in and out, despite sudden left turns, after excellent planning. We are meant to feel tickled by watching the quartet squirm and struggle under the pressure of possibly getting caught.
Keoghan, Peters, Abrahamson, and Jenner do share chemistry but it is not the kind that is pleasant—which is the correct decision. They must not come across as friends but accomplices. Instead, each performer brings something different to the table. For instance, we are able to recognize with ease which one is the most intelligent, the most practical, the most uncertain, the one most willing to take risks just so the plan becomes reality. I found it interesting that although each character embodies a certain archetype, the writing, as with everything else, consistently leaves enough room for uncertainty. (At one point, I doubted whether the purported real figures were truly the actual people involved in the heist.) Thus, not one of them is ever boring or one-dimensional. Although they are criminals, we are reminded they are still people who care about the ramifications of their actions.
“American Animals” is a success for the most part because it dares to tell a truly bizarre story in a strange way—combining the dramatic genre with that of a documentary approach. Although some level of suspense is sacrificed due to the handful of interruptions between reenactment and recollection, the film, as a whole, offers a compelling experience nonetheless because it inspires those watching to create our own interpretation of the truth. Heist films usually just… are. This film, on the other hand, leaves enough room for curiosity.
Demon Within, A (2017)
★ / ★★★★
Ayush Banker and Justin LaReau’s dreadful “A Demon Within” challenges the audience to check out early, do laundry, go grocery shopping, walk the dog, nap… basically anything else rather than to have to endure another second of sub-par, F-grade material. Although there is a plot involving a haunted house and demonic possession, the film does not have a strong screenplay from where to lift off and so the story fails to go anywhere interesting.
The opening scene shows an exorcism in 1914, but the rest of the picture has only a tenuous connection with the flashback. The spirits involved, revealed during the climax but the material is so predictable that viewers with an IQ of over 30 can glean what’s about to occur from the first “scare,” are the more modern variety, one of which involves the town doctor, Jeremy (Clint Hummel), drowning his sorrows in alcohol—spirits (get it?)—for having failed to get his daughter to the hospital as she begins to succumb to her bizarre illness. Meanwhile, a mother and her daughter, Julia (Charlene Amoia) and Charlotte (Patricia Ashley), move into Dr. Miller’s former home without being aware of its history.
Dialogue between so-called horrific moments, which are almost always driven by cheap visual effects, are an assault to the eardrums and the intelligence. For instance, the priest (Michael Ehlers) is not at all believable. Perhaps the intention to portray Father Donald as concerned for his community but the words he uses, in addition to the acting, paint him to be more of an annoying busybody. As a result, the religious practitioner may don a robe and carry a bible, but not once do we forget that what we are seeing is an actor playing a part. There is minimal subtlety in the portrayals across the board.
Scares are cheap and formulaic. A girl investigates a strange noise upstairs when she is alone in the house. When the camera is slightly off-center, we know that when the character turns around, there will be someone, or something, standing there. Cue the sudden loud noise designed to make the viewer jump… A trashy technique employed when the filmmakers are not convinced themselves that the images on screen are scary enough. Just in case that isn’t adequate, a character exclaims, “Don’t do that!” or “You scared me!” Our eyelids grow heavy.
The bedroom exorcism is ripped right out of William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” but without the ambition, vision, precise execution, subtle elegance despite ostentatious display of violence, and genuine terror that results from staring directly into the darkness. Instead, what we see is cheap cosmetics on the face (but the body looks perfectly untouched), confusion regarding where actors ought to stand, and bad lighting to the point where it is a challenge at times to see what is unfolding. Even the priest’s pronunciation of Latin is questionable. When asked about details regarding exorcisms, he does not provide answers.
Clearly, the film was not ready to be made and yet it was.
Predator, The (2018)
★★ / ★★★★
“The Predator” is a marginally entertaining but unmemorable action sci-fi flick that offers a welcome change in scenery. This time, instead of people being hunted in the jungle, the action, for the most part, takes place in the suburbs and a military research facility. However, a different setting does not save the picture from being generic. Although Fred Dekker and Shane Black’s screenplay attempts to infuse some level of characterization behind sheep to be slaughtered, there is a lack of a central presence strong enough to hold the picture together. While this approach can work, as if to build an impression that anyone can drop dead, the project is not helmed in such a way that the danger is constant and convincing.
Boyd Holbrook is given a challenging task of portraying a badass action star. I liked the casting choice because of the contrast between what we think a classic action figure ought to look like—sinewy, tanned, inclined to overact—but Holbrook is the antithesis. Clearly, he is a dramatic actor who just so happens to be very capable of being in action films because he can look good while shooting guns—or, in this case, sniper riles. One gets the impression that he has gotten so used to supporting roles that he does not feel the need to play it bigger than life. As a result, notice that when the performer is in a scene with the likes of Trevante Rhodes (who is so interesting here that I wished to know more about his character) and Thomas Jane, Holbrook almost blends into the background.
This is a weakness because the plot revolves around the sharpshooter who comes across alien technology that he then ships to his son (Jacob Tremblay) prior to learning that its owner would like to get it back. Note the lack of logic of this one-sentence plot description. Those looking for holes will find them—and will grow bored of the exercise. It is a true Hollywood blockbuster in that more thought is put into creating perilous situations than creating an intelligent roadmap of character motivations and the larger power—whether it be terrestrial or extraterrestrial—they fight against. Observe the presence of government personnel and how they are there only to amp up the body count.
The action sequences are standard but watchable. It is surprising that humor is used to allay some of the more hardcore images such as profuse gushing of blood from a gunshot, intestines spilling out of the gut, limbs being torn off completely. While humor does create a reaction, it is noticeable that the approach is double-edged in that because there is comedy embedded between terrifying encounters with the Predator, tension does not build as consistently. It does not help that the plot is pretty much an ordinary rescue operation. It offers no surprises when it comes to character deaths, revelations, or even the resolution.
I walked away from the picture with a marginally positive impression—not because of the action, the characters, or the special and visual effects. Rather, I was surprised by the picture’s willingness to utilize politically incorrect humor, especially in this hypersensitive day and age. It is directed by Shane Black, no stranger to taking risks as writer-director. If only he took more risks with the material, perhaps by subverting it completely, instead of succumbing to Hollywood expectations. After all, the work is meant to revive the franchise which requires a massive jolt. This work is but a nudge.
Open Grave (2013)
★ / ★★★★
A man wakes up among a pile of corpses and discovers a bite mark on his arm. Disoriented and with no memory of who he is, he comes across a gun and enters a house. There, he discovers five people who appear to be in a similar situation as he is. They decide to work together despite being suspicious that perhaps one of them knows exactly what is going on. While exploring the surrounding area of the house, a little boy calls the man Jonah (Sharlto Copley), the former clearly terrified of the man’s presence.
Movies with an interesting premise but failing to aspire to achieve anything else should not be tolerated by audiences. “Open Grave,” written by Eddie Borey and Chris Borey, is this kind of film—so devoid of horror, intrigue, and rudimentary idea of how to create a steady rising action, I wished the film were over less than halfway through. Almost everything about it is uninspired.
The screenplay lacks life despite a mystery that involves a group attempting to figure out who they are and why they are thrusted in an almost impossible situation. It does not have an ear for dialogue. Listen carefully to how characters speak. Ignore the voices and focus on the words and phrases. Notice that they talk almost in an identical manner. As a result, the characters come across wooden, mere figures on screen who do not inspire us to want to know them.
It relies on flashbacks to create a dramatic arc. This is almost always a mistake because it requires not only a first-class screenplay but also deft direction to make it work. Because so much information relies on flashbacks, the current events surrounding the characters are overshadowed. Thus, why set the film’s plot, including its climax, in the present when, clearly, the past is more important? Miscalculations this significant should not be overlooked—by the audience and the filmmakers themselves.
The confused characters scout the area for possible answers. Instead of the material focusing on answering the mystery, already dramatic scenes are overemphasized further by two characters staring intensely in one another’s eyes. Supposedly, that sort of thing triggers memories. I laughed at it at first but then I grew bored by it just as quickly. By the fifth similar scene, I was convinced it was only biding time in order to keep the mystery covered up. It is a charade designed to waste everybody’s time.
Despite some wide shots involving obvious CGI, I enjoyed looking at piles of dead, rotting human bodies. In movies of its type, I find that there is something beautiful about rotting flesh cobbled together in silence with buzzing of the flies highlighting the effect.
“Open Grave,” directed by Gonzalo López-Gallego, is insufferable. It makes one too many elementary mistakes that we wonder if the filmmakers had any inspiration to draw from. The characters are confused. More importantly, we are confused because the persons behind the camera fail to plan and execute a story that comes together in such a way that is adroit or even remotely original.
Secret of Marrowbone, The (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Here is a horror film that is more interested in telling a story than scaring the wits out of its viewers. Those familiar with the name Sergio G. Sánchez will not be surprised by this claim considering he was the screenwriter of “El orfanato,” another horror film in which the scares are byproducts of the mythos to be told. This time, putting on the shoes of writer-director, he helms “Marrowbone” like a drama that just so happens to have a secret at its center. Sánchez intends for the viewer to care about the characters first and foremost so that revelations during the final minutes make sense and the emotions that come with them are earned.
For the most part, the risky experiment works. Although apparently not for a typical modern audience who wishes to encounter jump scares every five minutes, those willing to peer closer into the mystery will be rewarded by a beautiful-looking picture, so atmospheric even during daytime when it is supposed to be safe. Notice the way Sánchez captures the open landscapes—meadows, seashores, a small town—and how he uses their majesty as contrast against the cramp indoors in which underaged siblings (George MacKay, Charlie Heaton, Mia Goth, Matthew Stagg) must hide themselves after the death of their mother (Nicola Harrison). All they have to do is wait for the eldest, Jack (MacKay), to turn twenty-one so authorities would no longer have the legal power to separate them.
There is a convincing romantic subplot between the eldest sibling and a librarian (Anya Taylor-Joy). It is handled with care, simplicity, and authenticity. Not once does it get in the way of the core story. In fact, the relationship between Jack and Allie serves as a beacon of hope in an otherwise increasingly dark material in which the threat of being found out looms over like having to exhale eventually. In a story like this, we know it is only a matter of time until the siblings’ secret is found out. A jealous porter (Kyle Soller), for instance, who takes a special interest in Allie cannot help to put his nose in places where it doesn’t belong.
A wonderful chemistry is shared among the siblings. Although they do not share numerous dramatic moments, plenty is communicated, for example, when they play board games, frolic along the beach, or decide what to do with the aforementioned porter who wishes to collect the two hundred dollars in addition to the deceased mother’s signature. Money is a problem… but actually acquiring signature from a dead person is another matter entirely. We watch in careful anticipation as the siblings attempt to extricate themselves from tricky situations. Meanwhile, the youngest, Sam, is convinced there is a supernatural force in their mother’s childhood home. Noises can be heard from the attic.
I admire “The Secret of Marrowbone” for its bold vision and confident execution. While most horror filmmakers are out to terrorize their viewers, Sánchez wishes to envelop us in a creepy atmosphere and build a strong sense of place. To me, it is a superior approach because the strategy requires some level of specificity, an emotional investment. By contrast, in order for jump scares to work most of time, all that has to happen is to suddenly show a figure in front of the camera accompanied by the breaking of silence with a deafening noise. The result is evanescent. In this film, on the other hand, we cannot help but think about what we had just seen or experienced as the credits roll.
August: Osage County (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
When their father (Sam Shepard) took off without warning, a note, or a telephone call, a rarity occurs: the Weston daughters—Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), and Karen (Juliette Lewis)—are all under one roof with Violet (Meryl Streep), the drug-addicted, cancer-stricken matriarch. It isn’t long until old wounds are rubbed with salt and the pain, anger, frustration are exorcised to the surface. There are good reasons why the women meet only during dire occasions. Every little thing turns conversations turn into arguments.
Based on a play and written for the screen by Tracy Letts, “August: Osage County” offers big and often entertaining performances. If you like to see emotionally self-destructive characters yelling at each other until others hurt as much as they do, then look no further. However, it is a bit of a disappointment because it feels too much like a play in that we rarely feel that these characters have inner monologues or have inner lives. Just about everything must be expressed verbally which is simply not very cinematic.
Streep is mesmerizing to watch as usual but it is Roberts that grabbed me most. I was interested in the character she plays because Barbara is so blind with rage that she fails to realize she no longer has anybody. Her daughter (Abigail Breslin) does not respect her. Her husband (Ewan McGregor) seeks emotional and physical comfort somewhere else. She is not very close with her sisters. Forget about having any relationship with her mother. At one point, I wanted to ask her directly if she was tired—tired of being alone, being so undesirable to be around, being so into her head that she neglects to see the big picture.
I wished the picture had shown more of the landscape where there is only farms, yellow grass, and mountains for miles. Being in that dark house takes a toll eventually and I began to get tired of the incessant whining and barking. When characters drive through the highway or step outside the vehicle, I imagined the scent of the wind, how it caresses the skin, and what it must feel like to walk barefoot on dried grass. Director John Wells fails to take advantage of contrast: the elegance of open space against the unpleasant quarreling in the household.
The characters confronting each other is a claustrophobic and uncomfortable experience. The dinner is one to be remembered, for better or worse, because it builds for an extended amount of time. Just when we think it has hit the highest mark, the next minute shows that the previous one is only a warm-up. While it has its share of histrionic lines, it entertains in a campy sort of way.
About halfway through, I asked myself what “August: Osage County” wishes to say—about family, the idea of unconditional love, generational gaps—but cannot come up with any. And that is a problem. Though the seeds are there, none of them are given the chance to sprout and thrive. Like many plays that have been translated onto film unsuccessfully, perhaps this one should have remained on the stage.
Nun, The (2018)
★ / ★★★★
Something has to be done with these horror movies that are so reliant on CGI, the filmmakers who helm these projects forget that the horrific experience they strive to create must be rooted in something genuine and convincing. It goes without saying that “The Nun,” written by Gary Dauberman and directed by Corin Hardy, is yet another generic would-be fright flick, a product created simply because “The Conjuring 2” was successful financially. There is nothing scary about; it merely offers a series of loud noises designed to make the viewer jump but they prove ineffective because those in charge do not understand how to build suspense and tension.
It is unfortunate because Taissa Farmiga, who plays a Catholic novitiate accompanying a priest (Demián Bichir) in a Romanian abbey following a nun’s apparent suicide, is quite watchable in the role. Those saucer eyes are so mysterious, they are perfect in a film that takes place inside a dark castle where bizarre events occur come sundown. But the writing does not give the performer any sort of justice. Sister Irene is reduced to yet another heroine to be terrorized and nothing else. I’m still waiting for Farmiga’s breakout film role because I am convinced she has the makings of a performer who can do great work for decades.
The supposed scares are as typical as they come. There is a strategy so played out, that by its third or forth execution, viewers with an IQ of above fifty can predict when the jump scare will materialize. For instance, the camera’s subject encounters a hooded figure from a few feet away. In order to get a better look of the figure’s face or countenance, the subject reaches for an object, like a candle or a lantern. Naturally, the camera’s perspective follows where the subject is looking. When the camera returns to the spot where the figure was found originally, it is no longer there. Three beats pass. There goes the deafening noise. Of course the jump comes from behind the subject. It is boring and uninspired.
Given such ineffective repetition, I wondered if the filmmakers became bored of themselves. I wondered if they still considered themselves artists when they fail to even strive to create something new or exciting. I wondered if they were in it only for the money or experience. Yes, giving us bottom-of-the-barrel material should be considered a personal affront. It is an insult to us because they waste our time, money, and attention.
They even fail to create a convincing sense of place. Here is a story that takes place in a castle, commanding such a Gothic style of architecture from the outside that even when it is daylight there is a foreboding feeling about the milieu. And so we cannot wait for the characters to explore inside. But what happens? The characters end up being in the same place. We get to see only about ten percent of castle—which is a mistake not only because the scares are redundant, the images themselves become repetitive, too. Furthermore, these same rooms look like a set. Look at the candles closely. Those are electric, those cheap ones from the dollar stores.
“The Nun” is so uninteresting to me, I began counting how many times I yawned throughout the film: twelve times. It is so dull, I began to count how many hours of sleep I had the night before: eight hours. And it is so devoid of artistry, of craft, of intelligence, I lost track of the number of clichés it dared to commit. I stopped at about fifteen.
★★★ / ★★★★
Written by Kevin Donner and Zack Parker with a twisted imagination and a willingness to keep viewers on their toes, “Proxy” is a kind of picture that mainstream Hollywood dares not to make, let alone support, due to its lack of commerciality. But aside from its occasionally shocking content that dares to focus on characters with dark ideations, the film works as an exercise of style, so malleable and consistently interesting as it undergoes genre-bending acrobatics that would tickle even Alfred Hitchcock, its apparent inspiration.
The film quietly opens with a pregnant woman whose baby is about two weeks away from being born. Her name is Esther (Alexia Rasmussen) and, after engaging in a brief and impersonal exchange with an obstetric technician, we get the impression she does not at all seem excited to raise a child. Whether her sorrow is simply a part of her personality or due to her current state, we do not know. (Rasmussen knows this is the character’s hook and so the performer plays upon the mystique.) On her way to the bus stop, we witness Esther get mugged and her assailant, with a brick in hand, pounds away at the would-be mother’s belly. We do not see a glimpse of the attacker’s face, but we note the red sweater.
To reveal more about the plot and where it is going is to perform a disservice to those who shaped the picture. Notice the screenplay’s knack for efficiency, how nearly every other scene appears to reveal a pattern: characters tend to express or do things that they ought not to—at least not in public. Because every one of them seems to be damaged, perhaps even pathological, in some way, we attempt to understand these figures either through crumbs of their histories, which can be found in conversations, or the defense mechanisms they employ in order to be liked, regarded, and thought about by others. Those who have experience with a psychology course or two can have a field day with these subjects for the material almost requites to the viewer to peek underneath the facade in order to realize the horror lurking underneath.
In the middle of this beguiling suspense-thriller, I wondered what the screenwriters are hoping to communicate to the audience. Surely the film’s purpose is not only to entertain because the plot is not the propulsive kind. In fact, some stretches are quite ruminative, silent, and the camera fixates on a body language or face. It is willing to take the time to show what grief does to a person. How loneliness cripples from within. This is a story of desperate people who look pretty normal on the outside but screaming on the inside.
I believe Donner and Parker attempt to point at our humanity, or a largely unexplored part of it, something so embedded in our subconscious that none of the events that we see on screen—at first—should register as even remotely amusing. But as one looks at it further, dissects it, maybe it is funny, for instance, how far we go to keep our needs a secret—needs that are not socially acceptable, those considered to be morally wrong, ugly, dark, even sick. Perhaps the film is a critique of our society, the sacrifices we make to be “normal,” to belong.
Musings aside, Zack Parker directs “Proxy” in such a way that it delivers a memorable experience. Although the work can be criticized for the occasionally overwritten script, the actors being tasked to sell the more complex dialogue that befits a play, this shortcoming can be overlooked because nearly everything else functions on a high level. Here is a film for those with unconventional tastes, those looking for projects unafraid to take risks.
★★ / ★★★★
Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper), a military contractor who currently works for a billionaire (Bill Murray), visits Hawaii for five days in order to make an important deal with the locals and to supervise a gate blessing at an airport. A member of the Air Force, the very enthusiastic Captain Allison Ng (Emma Stone), is assigned to be his escort. The two soon hit it off despite Brian’s initial reluctance because his former flame (Rachel MacAdams), currently unhappy with her marriage, also lives on the island.
“Aloha,” written and directed by Cameron Crowe is a fine movie—which is not a compliment. It is too vanilla—divorced from people’s outrage regarding the casting of Stone playing a character who is supposed to be a quarter Asian—meaning there is not much flavor in the story, script, and style of direction. There are, however, highly watchable performances, particularly by Stone who is radiant in just about every scene. Cooper has a strong, likable presence, sort of like an uncle you want to hug and share a beer with, but it is Stone who steals the movie.
There is some believable chemistry shared between the central potential couple. The two eventually realizing that they feel attracted to one another does not take half of the running time which is a nice surprise because this decision makes room for other, more interesting avenues. I particularly enjoyed the strained relationship between Brian and Tracy, his ex-girlfriend with whom he had not seen for over a decade. Because Cooper and McAdams are seasoned performers, comfortable with projecting emotions under multiple wavelengths, I believed that they have history and that is hard for them even being in the same room, let alone excavating a bit of the past.
One might argue that the story does not truly come into focus. Another might claim that it is really about nothing new or deep, just a series of scenes where we follow the main character and events unfold. Neither would be wrong. What I liked, though, was the feeling of being involved in the light comedy-drama despite not having a classic story arc. For example, there is no expected villain here—which is surprising because the ex-girlfriend could have been an easy target. Another potential source of conflict could have been Tracy’s husband (John Krasinski). Instead, these two are actually likable even though there are some problems with their partnerships.
Less effective are scenes involving the military and the billionaire which comprises about a third of the picture. Those in position of power are written and played like caricatures. While it is apparent that none of them are supposed to be taken seriously, I found them rather dull and boring. Casting big names to play these men is a waste.
Although Alec Baldwin and Bill Murray have at least one scene where they are allowed to shine, neither character says nor does anything that impacts the story significantly. I argue that if these scenes were removed altogether or only mentioned, the final product would have been stronger because the material would have turned out leaner. Emphasis would likely have been on human relationships rather than a thinly plotted redemption/patriotism subplot that comes across as highly tacked on.
“Aloha” is predictable and strange tonally—the latter being a compliment. I was curious, never frustrated, with where it is going and as far as light fares go, it could be worse. Still, aside from pretty good performances from actors with whom we know we can rely on to deliver, there is nothing much to recommend here.
Imperialists Are Still Alive!, The (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Somewhere deep inside “The Imperialists Are Still Alive!,” written and directed by Zeina Durra, is a well-meaning commentary about the effects of war on the lives of immigrants living in America. Instead, for the most part, it sandwiches emotions that should be taken seriously, like the fear of losing a loved one from bombings, kidnappings, and violence, between comedic, ironic, or satirical situations. While this bold approach might have worked with a profound screenplay as well as a confident and focused direction, it is clear that such is not the case here. What results is a mishmash of tone and techniques, often mistaking cinéma vérité for meandering bore.
Asya (Élodie Bouchez) is a conceptual artist whose father is Jordanian-Lebanese and mother is Bosnian-Palestinian. She is from Paris but she is connected to her cultures. When she meets Javier (José María de Tavira), a Mexican lawyer in the process of completing his Ph.D. in Medieval Law, while leaving a party, they do not exactly start on the same page but they end up sleeping on the same bed.
I did not know what to make of the romance. Bouchez and de Tavira look good together, but the romance shared between their characters does not go anywhere interesting. Perhaps this is because we never get the chance to get to know them as separate people. Aside from their ethnicities and what they do, not once do we get to experience the essence of their inner sanctums. While they walk around the streets of New York City, there is a lack of tension or danger—in their minds, with each other, and among the diverse people they encounter. It is never a good sign when you notice the characters’ wardrobes and start questioning how they manage to afford what they have on when it appears that they do not have stable jobs. I’m from the San Francisco Bay Area but I imagine the living cost in NYC is not cheap.
There are a few scenes that are savagely funny, intentional or accidental. The one that easily comes to mind is an early scene that takes place in the women’s restroom. Tatiana (Karolina Muller) has locked herself in one of the stalls. She is crying and inconsolable because she has received news that a friend is taken into a rendition aircraft whilst on a commercial flight. While the girls console their friend, the camera cuts to a restroom attendant who seems to be on the verge of laughter.
That woman caught my attention because if I were in her shoes, I probably would have had the same reaction. I think that there is something funny, ludicrous about individuals who cannot get a grip on their emotions in a public place. If it really is that personal, at least find a secluded spot. Otherwise, it appears as though one is putting on a show.
When the material takes a jab on a sort of hipster lifestyle, it works. There is a sequence involving Asya’s group of friends, presumably rich or who have parents that are rich, visiting a bar that is highly exclusive—hidden at the back of a poorly-lit Chinese restaurant—only to take one drink and leave just as quickly. I found it amusing because the taxi ride to get there took a whole lot more time than the group spending time with their drinks. As one gets up to leave, the others follow like sheep. A “regular” person, like myself, would have said something like, “Why are we leaving already?”
But the movie is not a comedy. In a way, scenes that are supposed to be deadly serious, such as Asya being in a state of constant anxiety for not knowing if her brother is still alive, are cheapened because there is a lack of transition between comedy and drama. There should have been more telephone conversations between Asya and her brother. We do not see his face but we can image what is all around him. The other line tells a story with just sounds: explosions, trucks, and panic. It is stunning that we spend the entire film with Asya but, for the most part, it is a whole lot of nothing.
★★★ / ★★★★
Once in a while a film like “Searching” comes along to show that a device currently being used to tell certain stories is so limited, it manages to set a new standard. “Searching,” written by Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian, directed by the former, unfolds, for the most part, on a computer screen, but it is confident enough to break from the conceit when the time is precisely right. In a way, allowing our eyes to focus on a box full of icons, missed call and voicemail notifications, webpages, and chat windows is an act of creating a sense of claustrophobia. Getting out of that box eventually is thus an act of exhalation and yet the tension remains since the mystery is yet to be solved.
The mystery involves a widower (John Cho) who begins to suspect that his teenage daughter (Michelle La) is missing after she failed to come home from study group and did not attend school the next day. His fears escalate when his calls go to voicemail directly, his texts remain unanswered, and discovering later on that the weekly money he gave his daughter for private piano lessons did not go toward that at all. In fact, the piano teacher claims that Margot had stopped her lessons six months ago. Cho is nearly every frame and he delivers a spectrum of emotions as a parent who grows increasingly desperate to find answers regarding his child’s whereabouts. It is said that great performers can tell a story even when being shot only from the chest up. I’ve never seen him this good in a lead role.
Perhaps most enjoyable about the picture is that it puts the viewer in the shoes of a parent who investigates. Following the mouse’s arrow going from one website to the next may sound unappealing at first, but those familiar with websites like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Gmail, Venmo, and Tumblr will immediately recognize the logic of the investigation. More importantly, however, those who are less familiar are still able to follow because it is shown that each one has a specific purpose.
For instance, Instagram is more aligned with posting a picture with a short caption underneath while Facebook tends to showcase statuses and events. Venmo involves currency while YouTube involves easily searchable videos (with toxic comments to boot). In other words, the technologies used within the conceit of staring at a computer screen is made accessible—crucial in telling stories that we can invest in emotionally.
The story offers a minefield of twists and turns. Particularly enjoyable is we get a chance to suspect that anyone and everyone could be involved in Margot’s disappearance—even the father who is apparently so distraught, he would be willing to attack another person in public just to get the next big clue. At one point, I wondered whether the parent was simply using the various technologies to record his misery and all of the effort he put in finding his daughter—just so he wouldn’t be a target of suspicion by the authorities. (I suppose that shows the way I perceive humanity at this point.) Better yet—even when a figure in Margot’s life may no longer be a suspect, we wish to take a closer look. Just like Cho’s character, we cannot help but wonder if we made a mistake in treating something trivial but turning out to be critical in order to solve the puzzle.
“Searching” knows how to build suspense effectively, from the way the score builds from silent to frantic down to the manner in which editing is utilized to paint a picture of how a father feels when he has finally discovered a trail of breadcrumbs. But even when there are breadcrumbs, an individual makes so many footprints online that we wonder if these crumbs would lead to another dead end. But that is what skillful mystery-thrillers tend to offer: A series of hopeless situations illuminated only by opening a locked door after sleuthing and taking on seemingly insurmountable hardships.