3 (out of 4)
John Cho's dramatic flexibility has been interesting to watch unfold – White Castle days far behind him, he becomes the first ever Asian American to headline a Hollywood feature in Searching. Cho spearheads the digitally-inclined drama Searching from first-time director Aneesh Chaganty in a noble debut following a slew of short films.
Unlike the offshoot of found footage features that have capitalized upon the omnipresence of technology in the 2010s – Paranormal Activity 4, the Unfriended films – this movie far exceeds the cheap gimmicks of cyber-minded horror. The facets of its visual storytelling format are not only effective but integral to the exceptional energy of this brisk, pulpy thriller.
The story of Searching affords considerably more than you could bargain for. Chaganty's work might have easily have settled for exploiting Gen Z's ability to exist separate from their actual selves through the instant connectivity of social media and electronic devices. But this is not a simple tale of a dad coming to grips with the taciturn mischief of his missing teenage daughter – Searching is a devilishly twisty, classically constructed mystery chock full of red herrings, rejuvenating revelations and plot turns of escalating intrigue. It won’t quite blow your mind but this cybernated paperback novel of sorts is persistently and appropriately captivating.
With Apple accessories abound, the blatant product placement is sure to be annoying if not distracting if the powerhouse brand isn't your technological go-to. Still, Searching's optic content isn't just logos and internet browsing – the taut editing interlinks desktop displays with FaceTime, security camera footage and television broadcasts to avoid any meandering one might expect from so modest a premise and framework. The scoring by Torin Borrowdale is also an understated asset, humming with morose piano melodies and propulsive electronic clicks – the slinking compositions are able to turn something as mundane as password verification into an absorbing process.
The film has a little too much to explain by its conclusion but Searching barely falters on its path to eagerly entertain – and Chaganty has little trouble in quietly hitting every emotional mark along the way.
2 (out of 4)
Lenny Abrahamson’s last film Room was the highlight of film in 2015 – perfectly performed, emotionally harrowing and cathartic as both a profound drama and a breathtaking thriller. Reuniting with Domhnall Gleeson four years following Frank, Abramson's latest The Little Stranger is afflicted with quite the identity crisis.
Though not an outright tonal blunder, The Little Stranger has no gauge on its genre. Originating with Sarah Waters' celebrated 2009 novel and continuing to the adapted screenplay by Lucinda Coxon, the eventual materialization cycles precariously between frights and melodrama. The dissonant film is a middling, staid and stodgy comedown following the Abrahamson's brush with Oscar prestige three years prior, largely owed to Brie Larson's revered lead performance.
From the vantage of direction, The Little Stranger is esthetic and elegant – the cinematography switches up many times in a given scene – wide angle, soft focus, handheld and everything in between keeps the film clear of lethargy on the visual frontier. Where The Little Stranger suffers is its severe shortage of narrative momentum – I’m all for well-developed central figures at the expense of structure or action, but there’s scarcely any plot outside of the stale romance of Gleeson's Dr. Faraday and Ruth Wilson’s Caroline Ayres that justifies the inflated runtime.
The cloak of horror the film bestows upon itself is the primary detriment. The sour courtship of our main characters is prudently presented but the jolts of gothic dread in ghostly jump scares – needlessly provided after every thirty minutes of dreary drama – aren't remotely warranted even with a centuries-old British mansion as the major locale. Either commit to angry spirits of dead relatives or tell a forlorn tale of a forced, wearied love affair; the textured gloom of The Little Stranger could aid either choice. Perhaps this storytelling divide works appropriately in the source material but the discordant elements are incongruous when translated into film.
The supporting cast (chiefly Charlotte Rampling and Will Poulter) settles into the weathered period ambiance and well-tuned dialects. But whereas Wilson's blunt charisma endears as it should, Gleeson's distant, impersonal nature as the subdued leading man is as underdeveloped here as the typically typecasted roles of his past. The characters themselves still bewitch us far more than the story, which ends with an unforgivable shrug. Just as it flopped at the box office, The Little Stranger will suitably remain unknown.
1 ½ (out of 4)
Without trying to answer the admittedly unbeatable standard set by Jaws, The Meg struggles to separate itself from the corn of recent revivals in selachophobia such as Open Water and Deep Blue Sea. A gnarly concept courtesy of its bestselling source material and a 130 million dollar budget at its idiotic disposal, the film hardly even stands in line with lesser efforts of late like The Shallows and 47 Meters Down.
Jason Statham may thrive when scrambling to keep himself alive in Crank or playing an impassive badass in the Transporter series, but his void of charisma could never have saved The Meg even if his life really depended on it. Unable to shepherd a paltry platter of shark fodder stock characters down a creature feature checklist, Statham fades into the same obscurity belonging to the film's decidedly weak cast.
Inverting the structure of Spielberg's breakout blockbuster classic with a discount James Cameron opening act, Jon Turtletaub's film manages to fall short of the C-tier director's own agreeably dumb output along the lines of National Treasure and its sequel Book of Secrets. The Meg botches just about every angle for maritime, flesh-eating thrills with recklessly impetuous pacing, stale camerawork and a softened, bloodless MPAA rating. The Meg's vacuum of excitement is populated with a collection of stereotypes, including a listless love interest (Li Bingbing), and padded out with prosaic attempts at scares and comic relief. Turtletaub ultimately leaves you with one of the most underwhelmingly moronic movies of the summer, straddling very little of the insanity and B-movie pleasures that its premise promises.
You're honestly better off watching Sharknado or any of its insipid sequels. The only thing monstrous about The Meg is its mediocrity.
1 (out of 4)
Even as the most famous of creepypastas, generating a wealth of internet-generated lore and mythology, it's difficult to claim that Slender Man was worth a movie. Nevertheless, arriving several years too late, this feature resembles nothing even close to a serious effort to spawn a new horror icon.
With a real life incident wherein two Wisconsin teens endeavored to sacrifice their peer to Slender Man in 2014, an online culture responsible for turning the faceless suited stalker into a online legend and an adequate if rudimentary woods-wandering PC game, there was at least something worth incorporating into a film adaptation of the ambiguous, haunting figure. Perhaps its the ambivalence in origin and character that eventually equated to 90 minutes of wholly superfluous detritus.
To call Slender Man cliché is a slight to the tradition of tropes. There isn’t a solitary instant that hasn’t been done and reworked countless time before. The film's only hint of value as horror is in brief, mildly diverting hallucination sequences. Slender Man is also shot on shit-o-vision or some similar lens, where even daytime shots are so incomprehensibly murky that you’ll have to regularly squint at the screen just to distinguish what's happening. Our band of teenage girls are blank slates led by Joey King of The Conjuring (an overrated horror film that deserves nearly as much criticism for securing the viability of The Nun 2, Lord save us) and the uniformly derided Wish Upon.
The actual attempts at eeriness or spooks – though they do not lean as hard on jump scares as the very worst of this strain of flick – are weak bordering on entirely absent. Unresolved storylines, a sparse, illegible plot and a pathetic establishment of rules and background folklore serve only to secure Slender Man as instantly forgettable and torturously trite. The neutered original cut offers an aggressively safe PG-13 rating just to make sure this needless film's existence is even more irrelevant and insulting.
3 ½ (out of 4)
Bo Burnham has ascended from bedroom-dwelling YouTube jokester to the most original voice in modern stand-up in what seems like no time at all. His triptych of comedy specials (Words Words Words, what. and Make Happy) are tremendous works of shrewd intellectual comedy and his old teenage raps still hold up pretty well to this day.
That prodigious level of clout behind Burnham's name is what makes Eighth Grade, his first cinematic effort, so perplexing. A fairly straightforward coming-of-age story about a thirteen-year-old girl in 2017 seems just a smidge beyond his capacity to communicate honestly. But while there is little authorship that screams Burnham’s idiosyncratic brand of dense wordplay and cynical, postmodern edge, as a fresh-faced director he has engineered one of the most uncomfortable and strangely thrilling debuts of the decade.
Lead Elsie Fisher is, like most of the cast, a non actor and you can’t help but appreciate the candor in which the performances play out as Burnham’s script is recited. Very few directors or writers would opt for as much blemished naturalism in the delivery of dialogue, especially when it comes to teenagers. Every hiccup, stutter, stammer, faltering and vocal imperfection is maintained, just like in real life. This is an acne and all portrayal of the inconvenient cusp of young adulthood, and Eighth Grade manifests truths that are as universally profound as they are blisteringly awkward and at times piercingly painful.
The idea that other movies have explored themes on identity and similar examinations of individuality (that overarching "human condition") seems like stilted bunk next to the way Burnham – a stalwart critic of social media – has commented on self-image in the digital age. I can see most audience members over thirty finding the post-millennial references and petty middle school problems difficult to relate to, but Eighth Grade is fundamentally about the suffocating effect of untamable social anxiety and how our own inability to truly know ourselves – let alone express what that is – keeps our ultimate potential just out of reach. In the era of Snapchat, Instagram and vloggers, the space between our projected personality and our actual likeness has become unrecognizably obscured.
Burnham unrelentingly picks away at the life or death stakes of girls making their way through grade school adolescence as they part from their innocence piece by piece, willingly or not. There's no indie gloss here like in The Edge of Seventeen or The Diary of a Teenage Girl – Eighth Grade's unflinching veracity already puts it in the leagues of the genre's cult classics like Welcome to the Dollhouse.
Anna Meredith's dramatically overcharged electronic score enhances Burnham's nimble accuracy on the subject of social unease. Featuring moment after moment of cringe-inducing realness, the film is like a suspended panic attack punctuated by strange and primitive examples of embarrassment and elation. Not since Synecdoche, New York have I seen comedy and drama so thoroughly interwoven or the trivial pangs of life illuminated with such authenticity. However Bo's goals are the inverse of Kaufman's seismic ambition – Eighth Grade is instead brimming with introspective, infinitesimal truths.
2 ½ (out of 4)
The Hundred Acre Wood has never before been witnessed in live action but its true splendor may belong solely to animated incarnations of A. A. Milne's creations. In regards to Pooh and company, the augmented realism and pathos that Christopher Robin longs to exhibit is undone by its staunch adherence to the limitations of family fare.
Director Marc Forster – a man capable of spinning compulsively watchable action movies out of big-budget disasters in waiting (Quantum of Solace, World War Z) – attempts to recapture the Oscar-lite poignancy of his analogous and superior 2004 film Finding Neverland in Disney's latest Winnie-the-Pooh feature since 2011. Christopher Robin positions itself to comment both on the importance of domesticity (shocker) as well as how we ultimately suppress our childhood impulses in the wake of the professional concerns of adulthood. But the inherent modesty of the film's themes, which sidesteps sincere maturity at nearly every turn, can’t rise above simply criticizing work-obsession and championing basic family values.
Hayley Atwell and Ewan McGregor are lovely individually and as husband and wife here, but their charms only carry the film's insufficient sentiments so far. The Up-like gravity of the Christopher Robin's opening credits montage – chronicling Robin's tragic childhood through his major romance and service in WWII – is more emotionally impactful than the sum of the remainder of the film. Thankfully Atwell's character didn’t fall in love with Steve Rogers in waiting for her husband to return from overseas.
The slapstick is a few degrees too silly set against handsome period aspects, though it will offer kiddies more beneficial entertainment than any Illumination or Dreamworks dreck. There’s no denying how short Christopher Robin is on worthwhile morals and wisdom – I wholeheartedly agree that nothing often leads to the very best of something, it's just not the case here.
To keep it brief...
Soon to Come:
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
and A Star Is Born
The Absolute State
of /tv/: Film on 4chan