ESCAPE ROOM (2019) – Puzzle Thriller Better Than Expected

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escape room

Deborah Ann Woll feels the heat in ESCAPE ROOM (2019).

 

I wasn’t expecting much from ESCAPE ROOM (2019), the new “solve the puzzle or you die” thriller that clearly has eyes on becoming a franchise. Critics haven’t been kind to it, and word of mouth has been mute.

But in spite of a boneheaded opening and very contrived ending, ESCAPE ROOM was easily better than I expected.

ESCAPE ROOM opens with a supposed harrowing sequence of a young man Ben Miller (Logan Miller) desperately seeking clues inside a room that is quickly closing in on him, and he’s in danger of being crushed to death unless he can find whatever it is he’s looking for. Since we know absolutely nothing about this character, this opening sequence is just okay and is hardly an exciting way to open the movie.

The action jumps backwards several days, and we meet a group of characters who all receive a strange cube for various reasons inviting them to take part in an escape room puzzle game that will put them in a room with seemingly no escape. If they can figure their way out, they win $10,000.

There’s main character Zoey Davis (Taylor Russell) an extremely introverted college student whose professor advises her to take more risks in life, and to start by doing something that is out of her comfort zone over the Thanksgiving break. We also meet Ben Miller, a young man who’s sort of a loser and is struggling even to keep his grocery store job. Of course, we met Miller in the opening sequence, giving away any suspense as to his fate since we know he’ll survive long enough to reach the collapsing room, which is why I called the opening sequence boneheaded.

There’s also Jason Walker  (Jay Ellis), a hotshot stockbroker who always plays to win, Amanda Harper (Deborah Ann Woll), an Iraqi war veteran with a traumatic past, Mike Nolan (Tyler Labine) a down to earth truck driver, and Danny Khan (Nik Dodani) a nerdy gamer who’s played these escape room games before.

At first, they’re all pretty excited to play, except for Amanda who seems to sense something is wrong from the outset, and something is wrong, because it doesn’t take these folks long to realize that it isn’t a game but is real. If they don’t escape from each room, they die, and once they start being killed, the intensity ratchets up.

The main reason ESCAPE ROOM works as well as it does is its cast, which creates amiable characters who in spite of their flaws are folks you easily feel comfortable rooting for.

Taylor Russell is excellent in the lead role of Zoey Davis. She’s convincing as an introvert who later on must channel her energies to survive and help her new friends to do the same. Russell was also memorable as Judy Robinson in the Netflix reboot of LOST IN SPACE (2018-2019). She is a young actress to keep your eye on.

Logan Miller is very good as socially challenged Ben Miller, and his performance keeps the audience from ever really disliking a character who could have been very annoying. Miller has also appeared on TV’s THE WALKING DEAD.

Jay Ellis is sufficiently cold and driven as winner-take-all stock broker Jason Walker, and Deborah Ann Woll adds a lot of depth to her Iraq-war veteran character Amanda Harper. I’m a big fan of Woll’s work on the Netflix Marvel shows DAREDEVIL (2015-18), THE PUNISHER (2017-2019) and THE DEFENDERS (2017) where she has the recurring role of Karen Page. In fact, the main reason I wanted to see ESCAPE ROOM was because of Deborah Ann Woll.

Tyler Labine does a nice job as Mike Nolan, while Nik Dodani plays the one character Danny Khan who’s sadly reduced to being a cliché.

Most of the escape rooms in the film are pretty creative, and the sequences where the characters need to escape or die are generally exciting, although they never approach seat-squirming levels. It’s all pretty neat and safe, but it’s not dull, and with these actors in the roles I really did care for them and wanted to see them survive.

The screenplay by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik works for the most part. Its strength is it creates likable characters and gives them realistic dialogue. It wisely avoids giving away answers— the biggest question being who is doing this and why?— until the end, and that’s where things dip a bit.

The idea of characters having to escape a series of deadly rooms works best in the abstract. It all makes for thrilling cinema until the moment arrives when it’s time for some answers. Who is doing this? Why? How? And these answers are far more difficult to come up with while keeping the story realistic. I can’t say the writers really succeeded here.

And the set up for a sequel is by far the most contrived part of the movie and the least believable. It’s also the weakest part of the film.

But before this I thought director Adam Robitel did a nice job keeping things suspenseful. I certainly enjoyed ESCAPE ROOM more than I did Robitel’s previous directorial effort, the dreadful INSIDIOUS:THE LAST KEY (2018).

The story itself here is secondary to the plight of the characters trying to escape the rooms, and that’s the best part of this enjoyable thriller. For most of the film, you don’t know why this is happening, but you also don’t really care. The characters are fleshed out enough so that you care about them.

And sometimes for a movie to work, that’s all you need.

—END—

 

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Worst Movies of 2018

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the happytime murders poster

Here’s a look at my Top 10 Least Favorite movies from 2018:

10. OCEAN’S 8 – I’ve never been a fan of the OCEAN’S movies starring George Clooney and company, and this new all-female version starring Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett didn’t do anything to change my opinion. Forced and contrived, this one just never won me over.

9. ADRIFT- Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin play two free spirits who meet, fall in love, and decide to sail across the ocean together, but their plans are thwarted by a massive hurricane which threatens their lives. Sounds better than it is.

8. BAD SAMARITAN – David Tennant plays an ultra evil baddie who likes to keep women chained in his home. When his house is broken into, the thieves discover his secret, but they can’t go to the police because they’re thieves, so they decide to save the day on their own, but he doesn’t like that very much.  A completely over-the-top thriller that strains credibility.

red sparrow

7. RED SPARROW -Ridiculolus thriller wastes the talents of Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton. Lawrence plays a Russian spy, Edgerton a CIA agent, in a tale that is muddled from start to finish.

6. UNSANE – Steven Soderbergh shot the entire film using an IPhone 7 Plus, which ultimately, doesn’t really add much to this lamebrained thriller. Claire Foye is enjoyable in the lead role, but ultimately a bad script does this one in.

5. INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY – Enough with the INSIDIOUS prequels already! True, Lin Shaye is enjoyable to watch as Elise Rainer, but since the character was killed off in the very first INSIDIOUS movie, these continuous looks into her back story just aren’t all that compelling.

1517 to Paris poster

4. THE 15:17 TO PARIS – Clint Eastwood made the fateful decision to film this re-telling of the true story of three Americans who thwarted a terrorist attack on a train in Paris by hiring the three young men to play themselves rather than use actors. It’s a decision that didn’t really work, as these three guys on screen are dull and boring. There’s a reason movies employ professional actors.

3. THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS – An R-rated raunchy comedy starring Muppets and Melissa McCarthy sounds like a funny idea, but unfortunately, this film directed by Brian Henson doesn’t deliver. It does start off pretty darn funny, but it all goes downhill from there. My least favorite comedy of the year.

2.THE NUN – And here’s my least favorite horror movie of the year.  With its on-location filming in Romania, the film looks great! But the story and dialogue are dreadful. Part of the CONJURING universe. A lot of people liked this one, but I thought it was bottom-of-the-barrel horror.

Peppermint-Movie

1.PEPPERMINT –  And my pick for the Worst Film of 2018 goes to PEPPERMINT, an abysmal thriller starring Jennifer Garner. Garner plays a vigilante going after the people who killed her family. Plays like a female version of the DEATH WISH movies. Things are so bad here that even the vengeance scenes fall flat. By far, the most boring movie I saw this year.

And there you have it, my list of the Top 10 Worst Films from 2018.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

OVERLORD (2018) – World War II Actioner/Horror Movie Generally Entertaining

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MOVIE 'OVERLORD'

Jovan Adepo and Wyatt Russell in OVERLORD (2018).

A horror movie set during World War II, hours before the Allied invasion of Normandy.

Sound like a pretty good combination to me!

And OVERLORD (2018) is just that: an action/horror hybrid that isn’t half bad.

In the battle of Normandy, code name Overlord, it’s the mission of a select group of allied soldiers to land behind enemy lines and destroy a Nazi radio tower to give the allied planes protection as they provide cover for the invading ground forces. The battle zone is insanely chaotic, and the plane carrying these soldiers is shot out of the sky, with only a few soldiers successfully making it out of the plane via parachute. Fewer still survive once they hit the ground in Nazi territory.

Only a handful of soldiers remain. OVERLORD is their story. Ranking officer Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell) leads this group to the radio tower which is located on top of a church. Among these soldiers is Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo), a black soldier who’s been called out for not being much of a soldier, mostly likely because of the color of his skin.

On the ground, they meet a young French woman Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), and since Boyce is the only soldier there who speaks French, suddenly he’s a bit more valuable. Chloe provides shelter for the soldiers at her aunt’s farmhouse, which she shares with her sick aunt and kid brother. While Ford and company prepare for their mission, they have to lay low from the marauding Nazis, led by a particularly nasty officer named Wafner (Pilou Asbaek).

While at the farmhouse, the soldiers hear rumors of strange scientific experiments being conducted by the Nazis underneath the church, experiments that are killing many of the townspeople.  While fleeing Nazi soldiers, Boyce accidentally finds his way inside the bizarre underground lab, and what he sees there horrifies him.

He reports back to Ford, who tells Boyce and his fellow soldiers that the stuff happening inside the lab is not part of their mission, but when events bring the horrors from the lab onto their doorstep, they suddenly find themselves with no choice but to confront the monstrosities head on.

The best part of OVERLORD is its combination of World War II adventure and horror tale is a good one and for the most part works. The World War II story is exciting on its own, which is a good thing because the horror elements don’t really come into play until the movie’s third act.

And that’s one thing I didn’t like about OVERLORD. It takes too long to get to its best part, the stuff with the Nazi experiments. As such, it really isn’t much of a horror movie. In fact, even when it’s revealed just what those experiments are, and things get a bit gruesome, the subject matter really isn’t all that horrific. OVERLORD plays more like a violent action science fiction adventure than a horror movie.

That being said, I had a lot of fun watching OVERLORD. I just wished its genre elements had been darker.

I fully enjoyed the cast.  Jovan Adepo is excellent as Boyce, the character audiences will relate to the most.  He’s both the voice of reason and caution, and his decisions throughout the film are spot on and in tune with what audiences expect from a movie hero. One problem here, however, is with historical accuracy.  While the notion of having a black character here as the lead is a good one and one I really enjoyed, the U.S. military was still racially segregated during World War II. Oops!

Wyatt Russell is also very good as Ford. Now, Russell is the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, and there are times when his mannerisms and dialogue delivery really resemble his father, which is a good thing. Russell makes for a likeable action hero.

Likewise, Mathilde Ollivier is also thoroughly enjoyable as Chloe, the fiery French woman who assists the allied soldiers. She’s smart, tough, and terribly sexy.

And Pilou Asbaek makes for a sufficiently nasty villain as Nazi officer Wafner. Asbaek has starred on GAME OF THRONES (2016-17) and in the movies GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017) and THE GREAT WALL (2016), among others, but this is my favorite role I’ve seen him play so far. He was fun to hate.

OVERLORD was produced by J.J. Abrams, and early rumors were that this film was going to be part of the CLOVERFIELD universe. It’s not, although at times it certainly felt like it. The only thing missing was any reference to the word “cloverfield.”

OVERLORD was directed by Julius Avery with mixed results.  The World War II stuff is exciting and nicely paced, though nothing audiences haven’t seen before. The horror elements which finally show up in the film’s third act, are violent and energetic, but hardly scary.  This one is rated R for language and bloody violence and science fiction style mutilations, and it plays like OPERATION: FINALE (2018) meets A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016).

The best scenes are the World War II fight scenes. While the blood and gore increase towards the film’s finale, the suspense doesn’t.  I will say the special make-up effects were very good.

Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith wrote the adequate screenplay.  It’s filled with serviceable dialogue and situations, but nothing that pushes the envelope all that much. In all honesty, I expected to be more horrified by the film’s revelations, but that wasn’t the case. The horrors revealed here do not rise above the comic book level.

At least the tone remains serious, and  never deviates into campiness, and I liked this. No surprise here, really, since Ray wrote the screenplay for the Tom Hanks film CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013), while Smith wrote the screenplay to THE REVENANT (2015) the film in which Leonardo DiCaprio won the Academy Award for Best Actor, two very serious movies.

OVERLORD, incidentally, refers to the Normandy invasion code name, and not the popular Japanese novel series and anime.

I liked OVERLORD well enough, even though it didn’t fully deliver with its horror elements. The World War II scenes provide plenty of adventure and excitement, while the whispers of bizarre Nazi experiments generate interest throughout. It all leads to a bloody conclusion that is more action-oriented than frightening.

The end result is a movie that generally entertains even as it falls short in the horror department.

—END—

 

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018) – Uneven Opening Gives Way To Intense Second Half

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bad times at the el royale poster

So, are there bad times at the El Royale?

You don’t know the half of it.

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018), the latest film by writer/director Drew Goddard, takes place at a run down hotel, the El Royale, which sits on the border between California and Nevada, and follows the stories of several guests who all arrive there one night, each with dark secrets. When their lives intersect, all hell breaks loose.

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE is uneven at times, especially early on, when the stories told are somewhat disjointed, but it’s one of those movies where your patience will be rewarded. It gets better as it goes along, and it finishes strong. Still, it doesn’t entirely work as a complete package. It’s more a series of moments, and it does have some powerful moments, scenes that pack a wallop. You just have to wait for them.

The film is also helped by an excellent cast, with several players delivering outstanding performances. Jeff Bridges, for example, carries the film whenever he’s onscreen, which is a lot, and Chris Hemsworth, who shows up towards the end, steals the scenes he’s in.

It’s 1968, and struggling singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) arrives at the El Royale to find a priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) standing out front looking lost. They strike up a friendly conversation and enter the hotel together to find the lobby empty except for one other person who’s helping himself to the bar, and that’s salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) who tells them he can’t seem to find any hotel staff.

This opening scene, in which the three have an extended conversation, plays like something out of a dream. The hotel seems to be deserted, yet they’re talking like that’s not so strange. It’s a weird and slow scene, not the strongest sequence in which to open a movie, but like I said, things get better.

The hotel clerk, a young man named Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) eventually shows up and apologizes for not hearing the bell, and as he does so, another guest arrives, a woman named Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). Needless to say, none of these folks are simple hotel guests. They have all arrived with an agenda, a story, and through a creative series of flashbacks, we learn what they are all doing there. Yet, the flashbacks are only a small part of the story, as most of the film takes place at the hotel when these characters’ stories intersect, and the less said about their stories, the better. I wouldn’t want to ruin the fun.

And BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE is a lot of fun, in a dark violent sort of way.

Drew Goddard has written a very creative script, which is no surprise, because he’s done this before.  Goddard wrote the screenplays for such films as THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2012), which he also directed, THE MARTIAN (2015), and one of my all time favorites, CLOVERFIELD (2008). He’s also written a lot for television, lending his writing talents to such shows as BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (2002-2003), LOST (2005-2008), and Marvel’s DAREDEVIL (2015-2018), a show in which he also serves as the series creator.

With BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE, as both the writer and director, Goddard has created an enjoyable puzzle of a movie. The characters’ stories intertwine seamlessly, helped along by Goddard’s effective use of flashbacks, both from years past and just minutes before. The film shows several events more than once, as seen through different characters’ eyes.

There’s even a Hitchcock MacGuffin, a roll of film containing footage of an unnamed prominent figure, now dead, in a compromising situation. It’s an item everyone wants because of its value.

As I said, the cast is at the top of their game.

The two characters who get the most screen time are singer Darlene Sweet and Father Flynn. Cynthia Erivo is very good as Sweet, and of all the characters in the story, she’s the most straightforward. Her past isn’t so much about a secret, but about a decision to buck the system, to reject the sexual advances of her producer who promised he could make her a star. She decides to make it on her own. Her story really resonates today.

Jeff Bridges is superb as Father Flynn, who does have a secret to hide. Now, since Bridges has had a long and remarkable career, I hesitate to say that this is one of his best performances, because he’s had a lot of those, but let’s put it this way: he’s really, really good. For me, even more than the story, Bridges’ performance is the best part of this movie, and is what I enjoyed most. Bridges’ best scenes are when he talks about and deals with his bout with Alzheimer’s.

Jon Hamm is also very good as Laramie Seymour Sullivan, although his character ultimately has less of an impact than Bridges’ or Erivo’s. For me, the best part of Hamm’s performance was he was playing someone very different from Don Draper on MAD MEN (2007-2015).

Dakota Johnson is fine as Emily Summerspring, but even better is Cailee Spaeny who plays her younger sister Rose, and Lewis Pullman as hotel clerk Miles Miller.  There’s something almost hypnotic about Spaeny’s performance as Rose, a sort of flower child who becomes obsessed with Chris Hemsworth’s Billy Lee, a relationship that leads her to violence and murder. And Pullman starts off as a meek hotel clerk, but his secrets are painful and deep, and his performance gets better as the film goes along.

Speaking of Chris Hemsworth, he has a field day as Billy Lee, this 1960s anti-establishment leader who sees himself as a cross between Abbie Hoffman and Jesus Christ. Throw in a little Charles Manson and you get the idea. Hemsworth fills the character with creepy charisma.

It’s on full display in the scene where he uses an allegory to share his views on war, having Rose fight another young girl while he stands back and watches, asking his followers to observe how he has made them fight while he remains far away from the scuffle and profits from it.

Hemsworth and Bridges are the two best parts of this movie, and their confrontation during the film’s climax is a major highlight.

That climactic scene where Billy Lee holds the characters hostage and uses a Roulette board to play a deadly execution game is a nail-biter and by far the most intense sequence in the film.

However, one major knock against the script, as fun as it was, and as much as I liked it, is it’s not all that believable.  Other than the Alzheimer’s subplot and Darlene Sweet’s plight with her sexual predator producer, there’s not a lot of realism here, and for the most part, I didn’t believe what was going on. For me, this usually spells doom for a movie, but that’s not the case here. I enjoyed all the clever touches used to tell this story, and combined with the phenomenal acting, it made up for the lack of believability.

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE begins slowly, but it gets better, providing some potent moments while it builds to a satisfying and intense final act.

These are some bad times you don’t really want to miss.

—END—

 

THE NUN (2018) Is Not Fun

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the nun

THE NUN (2018) has one major thing going for it: atmosphere.

And that’s because it was shot on location in Romania, and so you have enormous ominous castles and an Old World countryside that is ripe with superstition and evil spirits. In terms of setting, you can’t get more authentic. It’s so rich in atmosphere it brought me back to the Hammer Films of yesteryear.

And yet it’s all for naught because unfortunately, sadly, in spite of this being an atmospheric gem, the rest of the film is unbearably awful.  As in really awful.

What a shame.

This one would only have needed a halfway decent story, and direction that just allowed the story to flow without getting in the way, and yet the writers and director here couldn’t even do that.

Again. A shame.

THE NUN is the latest film to take place in THE CONJURING (2013) universe.  THE CONJURING of course is the well-received horror movie by director James Wan, and a film that I liked a lot, that told the story of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. It was followed by THE CONJURING 2 (2016) and a pair of ANNABELLE movies featuring a scary doll which first appeared in THE CONJURING.

Now we have THE NUN which features a scary demon from THE CONJURING 2  that looks like a nun.

And this nun demon which goes by the name of Valak is pretty scary looking, which is another thing this movie has going for it. This film actually has a few things going for it, which makes it all the more amazing that it’s so gosh darn awful!

The film opens in Romania in the 1950s at a cloistered abbey where we witness two nuns fighting an unseen demon. To prevent the demon from entering her body, one of the nuns hangs herself.

The action switches to the Vatican where a priest named Father Burke (Demian Bichir) is informed he’s being sent to Romania to investigate the suicide of a nun, with the implication being that there’s more going on there at the abbey because Father Burke has experience with exorcsims.  Burke is told he needs to bring a young nun with him, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) because she has experienced visions, and these visions will be of help to Burke in his investigation.

In Romania, Father Burke and Sister Irene interview the young man who found the body of the hanged nun, a man who goes by the nickname Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) because he’s French. Duh.

So, Burke, Irene, and Frenchie go to the abbey and begin the investigation, which does not go well. Why, you ask? Because there’s a demon there of course! And this demon doesn’t like people poking around in his business, and so he does all the things audiences are used to seeing demons do in horror movies: makes loud noises, makes people see things that aren’t there, jumps out at people, and generally wreaks havoc all the while giving people in the CGI business jobs.

Yawn.

I’ve pointed out a couple of things THE NUN did well, but now it’s time to mention the things it didn’t do too well.

Let’s start with the special effects overkill.  There’s so much going on in the special effects department I felt like I was on the Disney Haunted Mansion ride. And when this happens, it kills any authenticity the film has. I didn’t believe any of it.

 

The story here has a lot of problems. The screenplay by Gary Dauberman creates very dull characters without any real sense of purpose. I’m still not sure what it was exactly that Father Burke was investigating or why exactly the Vatican wanted Sister Irene to help him. Additionally, I don’t really know what this demon was all about. Why was he possessing these nuns? It’s not like he’s actively trying to leave the abbey.  Is he a demon-homemaker who just wants to be left alone?

And the characters here have zero depth and are all rather boring.

Demian Bichir, an actor I generally enjoy, looks serious as Father Burke, and he definitely carries himself with some presence, but he’s about as interesting as a rosary bead.

The far more interesting bit of casting is Taissa Farmiga as Sister Irene. Farmiga is the younger sister of Vera Farmiga, who played Lorraine Warren in THE CONJURING movies. Hmm. THE NUN takes place before the events in THE CONJURING, and here we have a character Sister Irene, who because she is played by Vera Farmiga’s sister, bears a strong resemblance to the Lorraine Warren character. Would there, I wondered, be some sort of connection between the two? In other words, would the filmmakers have used this potentially ingenious bit of casting to the story’s advantage?

In a word, no.

So much for that.

Anyway, Taissa Farmiga is very good as Sister Irene, but again, I didn’t know much about the character or understand what her visions had to do with the story being told here in this movie.

THE NUN was directed by Corin Hardy, and I can’t say that I was impressed.  The scares were practically nonexistent, and the pacing poor. For a film that clocked in at just over 90 minutes, it felt much longer than that, especially during its second half. It also featured far too many special CGI effects which did nothing but detract from its storyline.

The other thing I did like was the music score by Abel Korzeniowski, which certainly captured the whole possessed abbey feel with lots of religious undertones. You could almost see the chanting monks hovering in the damp dark corridors. Korzeniowski also composed the music for the PENNY DREADFUL (2014-16) TV show.

THE NUN actually gets off to a good start. The on-location shooting in Romania combined with Abel Korzeniowski’s effective music score easily lured me into the proceedings. And upon first meeting Father Burke and Sister Irene, and buying into the performances of Demian Bichir and Taissa Farmiga, I was definitely interested in joining them on their investigation into the mysterious occurrences at the haunted abbey.

But this investigation only led to lots quiet moments searching dark corridors and hallways, with ghostly encounters that made little sense, and demonic confrontations that featured over-the-top CGI effects that were anything but scary, and some pretty awful dialogue.

Yes, when it became apparent about two-thirds of the way through this one that its story wasn’t going anywhere, the film simply lost my interest and became flat-out dull and boring, which is too bad, because it really looks good.

What a shame that the filmmakers went all the way to Romania to make this movie but didn’t bother to bring a decent story with them.

And I don’t know about you, but I went to see THE NUN to see a horror movie, not a Romanian travelogue.

—END—

 

SEARCHING (2018) – Missing Daughter Thriller Nearly Done In By Ridiculous Ending

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searching poster

SEARCHING (2018), a new thriller about a man named David Kim (John Cho) searching for his missing daughter, hooked me in immediately and never let go— until its ending.

The gimmick in SEARCHING is that all of its action takes place on a computer screen, which is similar to the same gimmick used in the horror movie UNFRIENDED (2014), a film I thought I would hate, but I didn’t, as I found its computer use surprisingly refreshing. I found the same here with SEARCHING. In spite of the fact that everything that happens in this movie is seen through a computer screen, it all works. I believe this is so because we are all so familiar with personal computers that looking at them for the duration of a movie seems both comfortable and natural, which I know sounds weird, but I think it’s a major reason why the tactic works.

SEARCHING opens with the familiar Windows screen from a decade ago, and in an opening computer montage, we learn all about David Kim’s family. We see footage of his daughter Margot’s first day of school, and fun videos of him and his wife raising Margot. But then things get serious as his wife Pamela (Sara Sohn) learns she has cancer, and we follow her struggle to beat back the disease, achieve a victory with a remission, only to ultimately lose the battle and die, her death depicted on a computer calendar marked with the words “Mom comes home,” the phrase copied and pasted to a later date, before it is quietly deleted.

This opening montage, completely told from images on a computer screen, emits more emotion in five minutes than a lot of traditional movies do in their entirety.

After this montage, the action settles on David communicating via Face Time to Margot (Michelle La) who is now in high school, as she’s rushing off to a study group which she says will go late.  The next day, David awakes to find a couple of missed calls from his daughter. His attempts to contact her the next day go unanswered.

As the entire day and night pass without word from Margot, David suspects foul play and calls the police. He’s put in touch with Detective Vick (Debra Messing) who’s the lead detective on the case.  She promises David she will do her best to locate his daughter, and what follows, as David continues to track down leads himself using his daughter’s computer, searching her contacts and friends, is a series of twists and turns that will keep audiences off-balance and guessing until the final reel.

It’s all riveting and exciting, until the end, which provided one twist too many. This final revelation is rather ludicrous and for me ruined what ultimately would have been a very credible thriller.

But before that final twist SEARCHING is a first-rate thriller.

It also has some things to say about families and computer use.  David is shocked to learn once he starts looking into his daughter’s contacts that he really didn’t know his daughter, that there was so much in her life that they never talked about. The film serves as a nice reminder for parents to remember to take the time to talk to their kids.

David is able to learn so much about his daughter once he starts searching her computer because everything is recorded. That’s one of the more fascinating parts to the story, that he can learn as much as he does by researching Margot’s online connections. The electronic stamp we leave with our online use is both fascinating and somewhat scary.

John Cho gets most of the screen time in this one as frantic father David Kim, and Cho is more than up to the task of carrying this movie. He’s excellent throughout.  We get to see a lot of emotions from David, from when he first fears his daughter is missing, to learning that she probably ran away, which goes against everything he knows about her, to other evidence which supports foul play.

Cho, who plays Sulu in the new STAR TREK movies, and who played Harold in the silly HAROLD & KUMAR movies delivers a top-notch dramatic performance here.

Michelle La is also very good as Margot, although since her character is missing she’s really not in the movie all that much and makes less of an impact that Cho.

As Detective Vick, Debra Messing, who plays Grace on TV’s WILL AND GRACE (1998-2018), is okay, but there was something grating about her character. The film continually hammers the point home that for Vick family is everything, and so she is extra driven to help David find his daughter.

A stronger performance was turned in by Joseph Lee as David’s brother Peter, who like any good brother is there for David both as support and to help search for Margot. Until there are some sketchy revelations regarding Peter that suddenly cause David to question his brother’s character.

Director Aneesh Chaganty has made a very entertaining thriller.  I really enjoyed its creative style of storytelling by only showing events on computer screens. This gimmick didn’t detract from the story at all.  On the contrary, it somehow made it even more compelling.

Chaganty also wrote the screenplay with Sev Ohanian, and it’s a good one.  The mystery of Margot’s disappearance is strong, the characters three-dimensional and fleshed out, and the dialogue very sharp. I completely bought David’s relationship with his daughter, and it played out like an authentic father-teen daughter relationship.

I also enjoyed the various twists and turns this one had to offer.

Except for the last one.

Just how bad was that last twist?

It was so bad. How bad was it?

It was so bad it came close to ruining the entire movie for me. It didn’t. But it came oh so close.

It reminded me, for those of us who used to watch soap operas back in the day, of one of those really bad soap opera plots. You know the ones I’m talking about.  Where someone disappears and the clues lead everywhere, and then there’s that one person who should be the last person who is a suspect, but since this is a soap opera where anything is possible, it turns out that yes, that’s the person who committed the crime!

It’s one of the more ridiculous endings to a movie I’ve seen in a while, which is too bad, because everything that came before it was pretty darn good.

All in all, I enjoyed SEARCHING.  It held my interest throughout, all the way to its very disappointing ending, where it offered one twist too many, a twist that comes oh so close to ruining all that came before it.

If only the writers had spent more time searching for a better ending.

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Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

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Print cover

For the Love of Horror cover (3)

Ebook cover

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

Streaming Movie Review: THE GIFT (2015)

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Rebecca Hall, Justin Bateman, and Joel Edgerton share an awkward dinner in the mystery/thriller THE GIFT (2015).

Even though I see lots of movies each year, I’m never able to see every one I want to see at the theater, so it’s always fun to catch a film I missed the first time around.

Such was the case with THE GIFT (2015) a thriller from few years back written, directed, and starring Joel Edgerton.

I like Joel Edgerton a lot.  I’ve enjoyed nearly every movie I’ve seen him in, from IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017), BLACK MASS (2015), to THE GREAT GATSBY (2013) where he played Tom Buchanan.  THE GIFT was his directorial debut, and as debuts go it’s pretty darn good.

 

THE GIFT tells the story of a married couple, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) who move to California to get a fresh start in life since Robyn had recently suffered a miscarriage. They move to a place close to Simon’s home town. Not long after they are there, they run into a man (Joel Edgerton) who says he used to know Simon, but Simon doesn’t recognize him until he tells Simon his name, Gordon Mosely, or “Gordo” for short. At that point Simon does remember him and they have a polite exchange.

That is the end of that until Gordo sends them a gift, a gesture Robyn thinks is sweet, but Simon strangely seems unnerved by it, and explains to his wife that Gordo was something of an odd duck back in school, so much so that he earned the nickname “Weirdo.” When Gordo begins to visit more often and attempts to become closer friends with the couple, Simon pushes back, and the whole thing raises a red flag for Robyn because she doesn’t quite understand her husband’s feelings of hostility toward Gordo.

As things grow weirder and tensions rise, and as Simon and Robyn begin to feel threatened by Gordo, Robyn decides to look deeper into the man’s background, and what she finds is not what she expects, especially regarding her husband.

I really enjoyed THE GIFT.  Its story grabbed me right away and held my attention throughout. Because I thought I knew where the plot was heading, I kept expecting it to become stupid or predictable, but that didn’t happen.  It stays strong throughout and kept me guessing all the way to the end.

As a result, THE GIFT is a solid mystery/thriller.

The three principal actors all do an excellent job, and as a director, Joel Edgerton should be commended for getting so much out of his actors, even if one of those actors was himself.

First and foremost, it was fun seeing Jason Bateman cast against type. The comic actor, who has enjoyed a very long career and has starred in the recent comedies GAME NIGHT (2018), IDENTITY THIEF (2013), and the HORRIBLE BOSSES movies, as well as the ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT (2003-18) TV series, is really good here as Simon, the seemingly wonderful husband with a dark past. I bought his performance throughout.

Likewise, Rebecca Hall is equally as good as Robyn. It’s a nuanced performance because she has to react to things that affect her intuition and gut feelings, rather than to things that are blatantly in her face.  And she pulls it off because most of the time I knew exactly what she was thinking and feeling. I’ve enjoyed Hall in other movies, in films like THE TOWN (2010) and VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA (2008), but her performance here ranks as one of my favorites.

To round out the trio, Joel Edgerton does a fine job as Gordo as well.  As I said, I’m a big fan of Edgerton’s, even though the last two films I saw him in weren’t very good, GRINGO (2018) and RED SPARROW (2018), but that being said, Edgerton’s performances in those movies were just fine.  In THE GIFT, as was the case with Rebecca Hall, Edgerton’s performance is a nuanced one. At first, there’s something quite sad about the man, and then something a little creepy, but then sad, or is it creepy? That’s part of the reason this movie works so well.  It keeps you guessing.

Which brings me to the screenplay, also by Joel Edgerton. It scores high on several fronts. It creates realistic three-dimensional characters who are difficult to label, because we get to see different sides to them. It also works as a solid mystery and thriller.  I did not figure out where the story was going ahead of time, which is always a good thing, nor was I disappointed with the reveals at the end of the movie. Everything pretty much works.

The screenplay also works as a social commentary, as it has something to say about bullying, and it says it well.

And as I said, it’s an impressive directorial debut for Edgerton. In addition to being a successful mystery, it’s also an effective thriller.  The best part is that it doesn’t rely on violence to unnerve its audience.  It relies on its story and its characters. There is a feeling of unease throughout the movie, a feeling that keeps the audience off-balanced, and this feeling pervades until the end credits roll.

THE GIFT is an excellent thriller, one that I’m sorry I missed at the theater during its initial run. But it’s currently available on Netflix, and I highly recommend you take a look.  You’ll be sure to enjoy it— unless, of course, a long-lost friend shows up at your doorstep bearing gifts. If that happens, you might want to look over your shoulder— or into your significant other’s past.

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