Searching (2018)

Directed by: Aneesh Chaganty Written by: Chaganty and Sev Ohanian

SearchingFilm reflects reality, and with cell phones and social media becoming an increasingly prominent part of our world, a film like Searching was inevitable. It is a movie entirely set on screens. Its prologue is presented via files and chat messages sent on a PC. As the film progresses it becomes more traditional in its aesthetic, however, all the scenes remain on-screen somehow: they are shown on webcam feeds, online videos, a camera viewfinder, etc.

Film’s commitment to depicting contemporary technologies can have mixed results. At times new technologies are depicted as they facilitate unique kinds of stories (eg Ingrid Goes West and Eighth Grade). At other times, however, these technologies seems to make it onto the screen simply because they are “in.” Searching doesn’t quite fit into either of these boxes. At times I felt its commitment to being all on screen was a gimmick. Much like “3-D” I noticed the schtik for a few minutes and then forgot about it. At other times, however, I found the movie to very much be a commentary on its featured mediums.

Searching is the story of a father, David (John Cho) who comes to report his daughter Margot (Michelle La) missing. When asked to help Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) with the case by providing details about his daughter’s life, David begins to worry that he does not know his daughter as well as he would have liked. He thus logs in to her social media accounts and begins to try and identify who her friends are.

I suppose the reason part of me wants to dismiss Searching’s all-on-screen approach as a gimmick is that, independent of its technological elements, Searching is a very well constructed thriller. It is replete with provocative red herrings and well-placed details of relevance (and seeming relevance) along its way. The film’s ultimate theme (I can’t be too specific without spoiling it) is parent-child relationships. Searching does not end as say Ingrid Goes West does, in a way that truly cements it as a tech era fable. I was thus left asking, why did it all have to be on screens? Is it mere tribute to the ever-growing church of the smartphone?

Upon further reflection, however, I came to appreciate the observations Searching makes on internet culture, even as they may not be the film’s defining feature. One recurring character in Searching  uses violently vulgar language on his social media pages. While one might expect this character’s rhetoric to have subtext, it ultimately doesn’t; and thus the film shows how truly vacuous online nastiness can be. On a related note, the film also depicts the stark difference between how people express themselves online and in person, and shows the various ways in which this can be very disorienting for those who don’t know how to balance cyber and non-cyber realities. Perhaps most importantly, the film illustrates how the internet allows all people, teenagers included, to expand the depth and detail of their private lives. Thus David, despite being a “good” father: someone who is affectionate and attentive, is left with the feeling he doesn’t know his daughter well: the internet makes this so.

If I were to quibble about anything, perhaps I would argue that Searching’s antagonists are not as fleshed out as they could be, as the film’s reliance on suspense necessitates keeping details about these characters in the dark. Even this, however, is meant as a mild and speculative critique, as given the constraints of the genre, the film actually does a decent job of developing all of its personalities. Overall, Searching draws a nice balance between engaging plot-development and topicality. And necessary or not, the distinct aesthetic doesn’t hurt either.




Big Little Lies (2017)

Written by: David E. Kelley. Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée

Opening_Title_CardI’m going to start this piece with a spoiler alert. I’m not going to spoil anything specific, but it’s hard to comment on the nature of Big Little Lies without dampening its plot arc. The 7-episode miniseries is set in Monterey California and tells a women-centric story of four families in the community. The community can broadly be described as wealthy, though the degree to which this description fits all the characters is unclear. One character, young single mother Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) is presumably an exception, though not enough so for it to explicitly affect the plot line.


Jane is part of a friend group of mothers including Madeleine Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) and Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) united by their kids’ attendance of the same school, and by their refusal to participate in the denunciation of Jane’s six-year-old son Ziggy (Iain Armitage). All this information is introduced early along with Madeleine’s ex-husband Nathan (James Tupper), his hippyish new wife Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz), Madeleine’s soft-spoken new husband Ed (Adam Scott) and Celeste’s tempermental husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgard). The cast is completed by quasi-antagonist Renata Klein (Laura Dern), and Madeline’s daughers Abigal (Kathryn Newton) and Chloe (Darby Camp).


The first episode also introduces a series of unnamed characters. The show breaks to footage of them addressing the camera as if they are either testifying before a detective or appearing on a reality show. While the first episode deals with marital grumblings and the question of whether one six-year-old was aggressive towards another or not, these interviews make clear that the show will get darker.

These interviews, it can be said, add some tonal richness to the show. There’s something frustrating about them, however. While I would not call Big Little Lies a slow-paced show, it’s not exactly full of sharp curves in narrative either. In Annihilation, every time the action is broken to show Natalie Portman’s character giving testimony, the testimony pushes the plot forward and is used to punctuate dramatic shifts in the film’s story line. This is what I expected after each provocative statement from an interviewee in Big Little Lies, but I eventually realized I was expecting too much. Perhaps the interviews would seem more meaningful if I re-watched the show. Perhaps they will get new meaning when the second season comes out. Perhaps, but the only impression I was left with is that the show’s writers wanted to say things about their characters that didn’t neatly fit into the narrative. They thus used the interviews to force some of those ideas onto the screen.


Then again, this may also be a case where a flaw is a merit. Big Little Lies is not a mystery and yet it sets itself up as one. This anti-climatism is consistent with the show’s political message: sometimes we do not see the obvious. Sometimes unpleasant and even un-nuanced observations are paths to important truths.


I cannot say more on that matter without spoiling the series. What I can say is that the show’s artistic employment of anti-climacticism goes beyond this ultimate plot line. Big Little Lies doesn’t quite dabble, perhaps it flirst, with magical realism. It tells the stories surrounding a 6-year-old boy named after Ziggy Stardust with an unknown father. He lives by the beauteous, mysterious  pacific ocean. He could be some magical spirit, a chosen one. But he isn’t. Ziggy is just a little boy with a cool name: there’s nothing magical about him.


Another characteristic of Big Little Lies’ anti-climacticism is its realistic portrayal of conflict. While the show ultimately becomes dramatic, it also introduces a number of other points of tension that are resolved calmly or simply peter out: much like real world dramas. Take the example of the show’s depiction of its central character, Madaeline. Often stories follow the formula of having a “straight-man” protagonist who undergoes serious tribulations, while accompanied by silly sidekicks. Madeline breaks this convention. She is the most animated of her three-friends: a gung-ho sidekick, not a straight-woman. Furthermore, her personal dramas arethe least consequential within her friend group. Nonetheless, she is the protagonist. In the real world, we are all the protagonists of “the story.” This does not mean, however, we are all at the center of the world’s adventures. Many of us thus exist as protagonists with non-dramatic life stories: almost an oxymoronic way of being, and one that Madeline perfectly embodies.


Big Little Lies is a solid show. While not exactly “subtle,” the dialogue is well written and the diverse cast of personalities are easy to differentiate and take interest in. Nonetheless, unless you’ve done some research in advance, it may not be the show you think it is. And that may be because its exactly the show you think it is. This contradiction may not be Big Little Lies’ strongest selling point, but it’s certainly it’s most memorable characteristic.


Loving Vincent (2017)

Written by: Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman and Jacek Dehnel. Directed by: Kobiela and Welchman 

Loving_Vincent            Let me begin by saying that Loving Vincent is a work one should see independent of one’s opinion of its narrative merits. Those who have heard of it previously surely know why. It describes itself (presumably accurately) as the world’s first oil-painted movie. The project consists of 65 000 frames and was painted by a team of 115 painters. In short, it is an animation miracle.

That said, I hope my first paragraph does not sell the film’s narrative short. The movie takes place following Van Gogh’s death and tells the story of Armand Roulin, a young man, and subject of one of Van Gogh’s portraits. Roulin is sent by his postmaster father (also the subject of a Van Gogh painting) to deliver a final letter from Vincent to his brother Theo. As Roulin’s task grows more complicated, his journey turns into a mystery, one where he questions whether Van Gogh in fact committed suicide or whether he was murdered.

The film is arguably sold short by its title. It is not a predictable, gushy tale of people feeling guilty and learning to love a mentally ill man and his work too late. Rather it is a work that maintains a constant air of mystery. Roulin’s journey to understand Van Gogh ultimately sheds a light on how he does not and perhaps cannot understand Vicent. Perhaps, the film implies, this is because Roulin is not himself an artists, but a more typical hot-headed male hero-figure. An alternative explanation is that the film intentionally limits itself with its medium. Characters move slowly through their viscous, post-impressionist surroundings, surroundings that limit their abilities to express themselves. Therefore, even as the film is a post Van-Gogh work, it ultimately only retells the story that Van Gogh, through his work, had already made public.

While the film is meant to resemble a Van Gogh painting, its artists did not attempt to create facsimiles. Rather, actors were cast in the roles of Van Gogh’s painted subjects, and the film’s painters painted over digital renditions of their faces. Roulin’s features, for instance, are firmer then they are in Van Gogh’s original depiction of him, giving him an air of toughness (in contrast to the sadness Van Gogh may have seen in the then teenage boy, whom the film’s creator’s imply he did not know well).

In essence, viewers should go to Loving Vincent to appreciate its visual singularity, and in doing so can enjoy a decently compelling story. While the animation pace may take some time to get use to, the film makes for a pleasant celebration of a beloved historical figure.

My Cousin Rachel (2017)


Written and Directed by: Roger Michell

Disclaimer: This review treats My Cousin Rachel as a standalone work. I acknowledge that this is an adaptation of a novel by an iconic writer, and recognize that this film’s overall merits cannot be weighed without considering the parameters set by the original text.  


Based on a Daphne Du Maurier novel with (to my understanding) a slightly different plot structure, My Cousin Rachel is advertised as a work shrouded in mystery. Is it a period piece? A thriller? The film’s exploration of genre is perhaps its strongest point. Long running scenes of Victorian banter are occasionally interrupted with eerie-flashback-montages, and viewers are left wondering whether the dreary mansion where the film is set feels so dark simply because, well… its the Victorian era, or whether something more sinister is at play.


Just as the film’s genre is a mystery, the film’s story is a mystery. It follows Phillip, a 24 year old heir to a substantial fortune who finds himself living with Rachel, a cousin he has never met and who he suspects of, well…murder (I won’t say more). While the mystery of the film’s genre is a striking feature, one that adds a sinister energy to the film’s beautiful settings, the film’s mystery plot is underwhelming.


In a critique of Passengers (2016), youtuber Nerdwriter1 discussed one of that film’s weak-points by presenting its plot as a tree diagram, noting that once the film’s midpoint is reached there are only two possible outcomes for its (male) protagonist. Since both options are predictable, audiences are left under-engaged for a significant portion of Passengers’ run time. My Cousin Rachel has the same weakness, only it is far more exaggerated. The audience finds out mere minutes into the film that Rachel is suspected of a murder, and for the remainder of the film, the audience is left waiting for one of two possible outcomes: she dunnit or she didn’t.  Rachel’s personality is such that neither outcome would feel like a surprise. Her tender-vulnerability makes her being found innocent a highly foreseeable outcome, yet simultaneously, the audience knows they are seeing Rachel through Phillip’s naïve gaze, allowing for Rachel’s potential culpability to feel just as predictable as her potential innocence. This problem is further compounded by the film’s complete lack of a secondary plot: the question of Rachel’s guilt or innocence is all the film has to offer.


This is not to say My Cousin Rachel is dull or irredeemable. Rachel is both vulnerable and independent-minded, making her character engaging, even while her character’s story is is worth checking out if you like to dabble in horror without risking nightmares and/or are eager to see a new work with a (well filmed) Victorian aesthetic.