“Searching” Spoiler-Free Full Review

Remarkably spellbinding! Searching takes the concept of “screen life” movies to impeccable levels. Although the concept of a film relying entirely on computer screens is not new, this is the first time that it has been executed perfectly. The first wide-release film to take this approach was 2015’s Unfriended, and it was quite the pioneer in its approach to essentially adapting Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, with the end result being pretty good. The following films to take the approach, including the more recent Unfriended: Dark Web, failed to tell a coherent story. Learning from the successes and failures of this cinematic concept of the past “computer screen” films, writer-director Aneesh Chaganty, along with co-writer/producer Sev Ohanian, crafts a suspenseful thriller that truly understands the power of the internet and how it enables and affects our actions. There is genuine emotion felt in this film. You will truly care about the lead characters and remain hooked for the entire film. Chaganty seems to have taken a page right out of the Alfred Hitchcock playbook for suspenseful storytelling that relies upon character development, twists of the everyday, and only use on-screen violence or graphic details to supplement the story. This tension-filled voyeuristic crime drama is successfully created–not through viruses, the supernatural, dark web or illegal activities–but through the mundane things we do everyday. Perhaps this film uses modern technologies to tell the story, but the soul of this film is brilliant old-fashioned suspense. And that solid foundation is why this film will do incredibly well.

Following the tragic death of wife and mother Pam, David (John Cho) and his daughter Margot are forced to move on with their lives, doing their best to cope with the loss of their loved one. Over the couple of years since his wife’s death, David and his daughter have drifted apart but still maintain a relationship. Loss of a mother and wife has a major impact upon a family. After Margot fails to return home after a study group session at a classmate’s house and repeated unreturned texts and phone calls, David fears that something terrible has happened to his daughter. When another classmate informs David that Margot never showed for a trip on which she was invited, David reports her as missing to the police. Detective Vick (Debra Messing) heads up the investigation into the whereabouts of Margot that immediately leads nowhere. Lead after lead leads the investigation to believe that Margot may have simply ran away. Convinced that his daughter did not run away, because of so many elements of the investigation not adding up, David turns to the one piece of evidence that was initially overlooked by the police, Margot’s laptop. Following the cookie crumbs left in the seemingly mundane websites visited by Margot, David begins to connect the dots that will hopefully lead him to what happened to his daughter.

No spoilers here. In fact, I urge those who have seen it to NOT spoil it for everyone else. In a manner of speaking, this film feels very much like Psycho must’ve felt when it was released. Hitchcock mandated that no one be allowed to enter the auditorium after the movie began; and furthermore, he insisted on an adherence to strict show times. In fact, much of how our modern cineplexes are run today are a product, in part, by the release of Psycho. The closest I will get to spoiling is informing you that there is an amazing twist ending. Just when you think the story is coming to a close, watch out! Taking what Unfriended (the original, not crappy indirect sequel) did well, and learning from what Dark Web failed to do, Chaganty’s Searching provides audiences with a fantastic experience visually, and anchors the plot with strategic, effective emotional beats.

The story is just as much emotional as it is visual. Possibly even more emotionally and psychologically-driven than the images the frame can capture. Whereas other films that rely upon what we do on our computers fail to have genuine, authentic characters, Searching depicts everyday, real life people doing what millions of others do. How often have many of us been able to talk to complete strangers about something that we are uncomfortable talking to our family or closest friends about? That is precisely what Margot does. Providing additional commentary on the mediation of society through digital media, Chaganty highlights our digital selves versus our actual selves. This is evident in the healthy social life Margot was leading her dad to believe she was experiencing; when in actuality, she was quite alone and simply focussed on school work and little else. David realizes that he didn’t know his daughter at all.

Previous “computer screen” concept movies pretty much involved never leaving the primary computer screen–easily becoming visually exhausting. Chaganty’s thriller chooses to switch from iMac, to iPhone, to PC (with Windows XP), to online news footage. These changes prohibit the setting from ever becoming too familiar or boring. The minor changes keep the senses heightened. Hitchcock earned his moniker by consistently delivering suspenseful cinematic excellence; and this suspense was executed with visual precision coupled with strong emotion. Chaganty very much patterns his modern suspenseful crime drama after the exemplary work of Hitchcock. Different from previous films using real-time on a computer to allow the plot to unfold, this film takes place over a week–closer to more traditional “movie time.” One may be inclined to conclude that the tension feel less intense because of not watching the plot unfold in real time, but that is definitely not true with Searching.

From the moment Margot’s missed facetime and phone calls fail to waken her father to the heart-pounding conclusion, the tension is in high gear. Hitchcock describes suspense as the having to do with the audience having sympathy for the characters and an intense need for something dramatic or shocking to happen. While the audience does not want something bad to happen to the lead characters, they are still at the movie in hopes that something terrible happens. Ironic, isn’t’ it? Much like Hitch delivered suspense through information, Chaganty does the very much the same with Searching. Another way Hitch delivered and ensured a suspenseful atmosphere in his films was having two important events happing concurrently. With David and Vick very much leading their own investigations respectively, we often experience this dichotomy. And Hitch is certainly famous for his twits, and this film contains some fantastic red herrings and twists to the tension-filled plot.

Presently in a limited release, with the film opening everywhere August 31st, Searching is a phenomenal whodunit build upon effective suspense and visceral tension. You will be glued to the plot and feel the emotional rollercoaster experienced by David as he searches for his daughter. Chaganty has proven himself through demonstrable evidence that he understands suspenseful storytelling. Because the film exists in the everyday world we live in, it may get you thinking twice about the degree to which your own life is mediated by technology. The social commentary in the movie also reminds us to be ever vigilant who we correspond with through live video and chats. For you never know to whim you are really speaking.

If you’ve enjoyed this article, be sure to check out all my past ones! You can search for a film by title to see if I’ve written on it. Don’t forget to follow my blog by clicking the blue button in the upper left!

“Alpha” full film review

Visually stunning! You’re missing out if you do not choose to see Alpha in IMAX this weekend. The experience of many movies does not significantly change between standard and IMAX screenings, in my opinion; but because of the sweeping landscapes in Alpha, you’ll certainly want to experience it IMAX. However, I do not recommend watching it in 3D. The advanced screening to which I was invited was 3D, and I feel strongly that the cinematography is better appreciated in 2D. Alpha is one of those films that flies under the radar because it is quite niche in nature. Ordinarily, I am just as excited to see the smaller films as the big ones; but this is even a film that I wasn’t thinking much about. The power of visual storytelling is felt in this film that is set shortly after the last ice age, for there is minimal dialogue. And the dialogue that is in the film, is found in the subtitles because the film is in an unfamiliar language. Neither the foreign tongue nor the subtitles take away from the film. In fact, the absence of English and the minimal dialogue enable the audience to focus on the action. If you’re a dog lover or simply interested in anthropology, then this is a film for you.

Alpha tells the story of how the wild dog (or wolf) became man’s best friend. Taking place at the end of the last ice age, a northern European tribe of men is making the arduous journey across the tundra to the sacred hunting grounds where the bison roam before the first snow. On his first tribal hunt, Keda, son of the chief, is put to the test to evaluate his ability to provide for himself and his family, and eventually his tribe. While he “leads with his heart more than the spear” as his father notes, he father believes that he will make the tribe proud. Following a tragic accident during the hunt, Keda’s father and tribe fear him dead and must return to the settlement before the blistering winter sets in. Waking from a coma on the side of a cliff, Keda is determined to make it back to his home. Facing a perilous journey, he must pull on all the lessons he learned from his father in order to survive the vicious frontier. Along the way, Keda encounters a lone wolf left for dead, abandoned by his pack, with whom he develops a friendship after many weeks, and both help each other, against all odds, remain alive in the treacherous wilderness.

If you can make it through the first act, then you will greatly enjoy this intense film. Thankfully the first act was edited in such a way that is does have a hook at the beginning, but the remainder of the first act is relatively slow compared to the rest of the film. Acts two and three, provide audiences with a gripping story of survival against the elements and unforgiving landscape. Diegetically, Alpha is pretty straight forward high concept plot that is simple to grasp. Survival. However, due to the simplistic plot, the film is able to dive deep into character development. Simple plot, complex characters. Much like with A Quiet Place earlier this year, Alpha is a testament to the power of visual storytelling. The juxtaposition between the vast open vistas, hills, and valleys and the intimate story between Keda and Alpha, is fantastic. Quite the contrast. The stories of Keda and Alpha parallel one another, as both were left for dead by their respective tribes. In the tribes’ defense, both were genuinely thought to be dead. Alpha must work though wild instincts to trust Keda, as Keda is working to rehabilitate Alpha; likewise, Keda must work through his own weaknesses to teach himself how to survive and trust Alpha. Overcoming adversity and establishing trust are themes through the story. Even though the end is predictable, your attention is still captured for the duration of the film to witness just how Keda and Alpha are going to survive. The ending does hold a surprise for the audience, and for the characters I might add.

For lovers of anthropology or our canine friends, this is definitely a film that you will enjoy. Although the film has a PG-13 rating for intense moments, I would rate it PG. The film also possesses an inspirational nature about it, because we have all found ourselves in the wilderness trying to survive. Maybe we haven’t been stranded in the unforgiving tundra, but metaphorically we have been there.

“All the Money in the World” film review

A spellbinding thriller that will hold hostage your attention. Ridley Scott’s highly anticipated historical neo-noir drama depicting the infamous kidnapping of the favorite grandson of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty All the Money in the World is an incredibly suspenseful drama that is every bit as good as you’ve been hearing. Probably the highest profile Christmas season motion picture release after the–quite literal–last minute recasting of living legend Christopher Plummer as J. Paul Getty I, this film is a non-stop search and rescue of epic proportions. The most notable element of the film is the aforementioned casting; however, there is so much more to this movie than the role played by Plummer. This film has an incredibly organic feel to it–all the way down to the practical blood effects. Although many of the roles in the film are one-dimensional, don’t let that dissuade you from buying your ticket to see it on the big screen. Each and every character in the film is played with excellence by the respective actors. No slowing down in this film, the pacing is incredibly quick but works brilliantly for this nail-biting drama that will have your attention for the entire runtime of the movie. If there was ever a real-life Scrooge, J. Paul Getty would be a contender for the famed Dickensian character. Witness the lengths a mother will go to find and free her son despite being cut off from her father-in-law’s unparalleled fortune. Love, logic, and profit are at war in this fantastic motion picture that is sure to grab the attention of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

A king’s ransom. That’s what J. Paul Getty III (grandson of J. Paul Getty I) demand of the Getty family. All the Money in the World follows Paul’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams) and ex-CIA special operations Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) on their perilous journey to locate and retrieve Paul. Only one small problem, Gail’s ex-father-in-law is oil tycoon and ruthless J. Paul Getty, and he refuses to pay the ransom demanded by his favorite grandson’s kidnappers. With Paul’s very life in danger, Gail and Chase, otherwise unlikely allies because of his ties to J. Paul Getty I, are forced to team up in order to locate Paul and secure the ransom money from her former father-in-law who refuses to do anything with his money and time unless there is some sort of monetary profit in it. After Paul’s ear is found in the mail, Gail realizes that her only hope is to get J. Paul Getty to somehow agree to pay the ransom for his grandson.

From a storytelling perspective, the most notable aspect of this motion picture is the aggressively nonlinear storytelling. We begin in (then) present-day, go back to Paul’s early impoverished childhood, fast-forward to him a little older, then to the months prior to his kidnapping, back to the present-day again. We also take a look back at J. Paul Getty I in the early days of his oil business in the middle east. Although I am not typically a fan of flashbacks, it works very well for this story in order to truly understand the dysfunctional family dynamics. While his children live a life that barely gets by financially, J. Paul Getty I lives the life of the wealthiest man the modern world had ever seen. Still, J. Paul is also the embodiment of Ebeneezer Scrooge in every way shape and form. Every moment moves the story forward. Never once will you feel that the more than two-hour film is stagnated or treading water just to fill time. You will also encounter some of the most gruesome moments that Scott has ever put on screen.  The diegesis of the film is constructed with extreme precision, and it creates an overarching exemplary work of how powerful a historic crime drama/thriller can be.

But what kind of film is this? Is it a crime drama? Historic drama? Thriller? Or even classically structured and shot film noir? Often times, when writers or directors set out to create a hybrid film (meaning, more than one genre) run into the problem of the film being in a state of identity crisis. Each main genre has certain pillars and structural supports that need to be met in order to tell the genre story effectively. That doesn’t mean that you cannot have a film that has elements of more than one genre but it does mean that the more genre elements that you have, the more difficult it is to weave them all seamlessly together. Fortunately, Scott’s All the Money in the World written by David Scarpa is a masterpiece! Scarpa showcases his ability to utilize the best of the genre tropes that are in this film to tell a completely new story with a unique experience. If I were to select a genre that this film is best suited for, it would be film noir, in the vein of my review’s opening lines. For all its other elements, All the Money in the World is most closely aligned with film noir because our main character of Gail is in over her head, the non-linear storytelling, dark places and themes, Gail’s exquisite attire, and it’s a story filled with gloom, ill-fated characters, fear, and betrayal.

For those who have been to the famous Getty Museum in Los Angeles (I went a few years ago, and still remember it vividly), you will have a better understanding of how he acquired all those artifacts and art pieces, and how the museum came to be. Perhaps, much like The Founder may have caused you to call into question whether or not you want to support such an infamous legacy, you may also debate whether or not to support the museum that bears his name. Even though J. Paul Getty was a ruthless man, he did provide treasures for the American people and visitors to the states to enjoy for all time. For those who enjoy further reading after watching a historical drama, you’ll find that the Getty family continued to suffer and Paul never recovered from his kidnapping tragedy. His life was cut short after a drug overdose. This is the kind of film that you will want to watch again because of the powerful philosophical punch that pits love against money.

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” (2017) movie review

You know what, it’s actually good! I know, right??? For months now, many of us thought the sequel to the 90s classic was going to be a disaster. The truth is, this movie is incredibly well written, directed, and acted, and will ‘suck’ you right into the story. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a movie that was this much fun to watch. In fact, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle has a high degree of entertainment value and rewatchability. Honestly, the only negative critique is that the stakes are not high enough because, at the end of the day, you know the characters are in a video game whereas the actual town was under attack in the original. Although this is a completely new story and fresh take on the 1995 film, there are enough nods and references to the original that keep it within the same universe. All the characters display excellent chemistry and are lovable! You have solid writing, characters that you love and love to hate, humor, and action! In short, it’s an excellent movie. I went into the movie expecting to laugh AT the movie, and my friend and I found ourselves laughing WITH the movie. Furthermore, I was worried about the movie having way too much CGI because the characters are in a video game, but I am delighted to report that there is, for all intents and purposes, little CGI compared to many other action-adventure films.   This movie goes to show that when you have well-developed characters with well-defined external goals opposed by external forces in a visually intriguing setting supported by effective direction that you have a recipe for a successful movie. I remember in the first movie the game directions “do not begin unless you intend to finish,” and those words were taken to heart because director Jake Kasdan began and finished well. Do yourself a favor, and catch Jumani: Welcome to the Jungle this holiday season with your friends or family!

“Blade Runner 2049” film review

Just as mesmerizing as the original! Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is nothing short of a future classic that demonstrably possesses the soul of the original and pairs it with a new plot brought to life by a fantastic cast. Every minute is filled with beautiful cinematography that is perfect in every way and a haunting score that penetrates down to the bone. At its core, Blade Runner 2049 wrestles with this one central question: what does it mean to be human? A question that can spawn hours of debates or an exquisite nearly three-hour motion picture. Considering that Ridley Scott has not delivered the same quality for which he provided precise and poignant direction, it was a solid decision to attach Villeneuve as the director. This sequel 35 years in the making may not have had the classic Ridley Scott at the helm, but Villeneuve channels his inner Scott to provide audiences with the same profound cinematic experience today as Scott did when Blade Runner first released. From the color palette to the lighting to the sound design, this motion picture is one that typifies the power of the art of motion pictures and one that will surely be regarded as iconic as the years more along, very much in the same way that the original has been regarded over time.

Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is tracking down the remaining legacy Replicant models created by the infamous Tyrell Corporation, and his latest mission takes him to an obscure farm in the middle of dessert California. After retiring the replicant at the farm, K uncovers what will become a metaphor for Pandora’s Box, as it opens a mystery that law enforcement and the Wallace Corp. seek to solve. The secret contained within the box is one that could potentially plunge all “humanity” into complete chaos, not there there isn’t enough of that already for those left on earth. K’s journey takes him from the gritty, grimy streets of Greater Los Angeles to the dust bowl that was once Fabulous Las Vegas. There, he meets former Blade Runner Deckard  (Harrison Ford) who has been hiding from law enforcement and the Wallace Corporation for three decades. Together, they must work to locate the miracle that no one ever could have thought would happen–or could happen.

Despite not pulling the numbers that Blade Runner 2049 was forecasted to bring in over its October opening weekend, the film did what fans wanted–it kept the very essence of the original movie alive and well. For all the artificial intelligence in the film, there is nothing artificial about this long-awaited and highly anticipated sequel to the Ridley Scott classic. The reason for not pulling the numbers that it was predicted to do can likely be attributed to the tone of the film and the stylistic filmmaking approach that borders on neo-noir meets the avant-garde. Although not completely necessary, it is incredibly helpful to have seen the first film. And seeing the first film gives an appreciation for the sequel that cannot be experiences without having knowledge of the first. The slow-pace and dark atmosphere may be some of the reasons why more people did not wish out to see it as the weekend moved along. Looking at the two films side by side, this film is a direct extension of the original so the authenticity of this universe and story is genuine and almost visceral. For those who prefer more dialog or higher concept plots, the film may not strike the same level of enthusiasm because of the heavy visuals and dark themes in addition to the profound questions. This combination is not one that will attract the general populous in doves; however, this film IS what it needed to be. Sometimes a long-awaited sequel has to be made to remain true to its soul because that is what the fans want to see, and it’s the true fans who continue to visit the cinema year after year. Blade Runner 2049 may not win over new fans, but it keeps the diehard ones happy.

At the heart of Villeneuve’s cinematic masterpiece are existential questions that drive the plot forward. A plot driven by such questions told through a sedated pace is one that is not as easy to digest as one that is more superficial and more rapidly paced. Still, these questions are profound and cause one to think hard about what it means to be human. What sets this film apart from other science-fiction rapid fire blockbusters is the commitment to visual storytelling and the art of creating a motion picture. Blade Runner 2049 mirrors its predecessor and remains true to the experience of the first. Cinephiles will especially appreciate this film for it harkens back to a time when German expressionism was at the foundation of the set design and lighting. There are many exaggerated and elongated shapes that exist in a world of harsh shadows and dimly lit alleys throughout the film. Although the look of the future world in the original was one that audiences may not have believed would come true or could come true is seen differently by today’s audience that can easily see just how accurate the world of the Blade Runner movies actually is–the mediation of society today seems to be not that far off from this not-so-distant future.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins captures a wold through the lens that seems to go on forever in a world of greys and beiges. The only color to be found is in the prolific advertising on the sides of buildings. Deakins further extends the artistic approach to the cinematography by paying homage to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining in a shot that was actually added to one of the more recent recuts of Scott’s Blade Runner. That score, though. The sound design and score are an audible extension of the visual landscape. Composers Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer have created one of the most haunting scores to ever be heard in the cinema. The combination of ghostly groans and blood curdling howls echo the very look and feel of the landscape. I’ve rarely encountered such an immersive sound design and score in a film. Just as the world on screen is an uneasy place to live and one that contains faint images of the grandeur of a world that once was, the score accompanying this motion picture places you in the midst of this post-apocaltyic world that most natural-born humans have left.

Definitely a film that I want to watch for a second time in order to appreciate this film, boasting with artistic achievement, even more than I already do. Although most of the themes and subtext are centered in and around “what it means to be human,” there is a real message regarding the importance of bees. An important visual statement in the film because the populations of bees, the most prolific pollinators, are dwindling. Not for the casual movie-goer, this film is for those who want to experience a sequel in the vein of the original that shows the artistic side of the creation of motion pictures.