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.

 

 

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Thoroughbreds (2017)

Written and Directed by: Corey Finley

 

Thoroughbreds_(2017_film) Whether or not you watched the trailer going into Thoroughbreds, there is probably something you will pick up quickly: this is a film about dichotomies. The film stars two young-women actors, playing even younger (16/17 year old) characters. One, Amanda (Olivia Cooke), is immediately presented as emotionally-lacking. The character throws around some potential diagnostic labels, showing that this is the lens through which her character is viewed, but dismisses them all and never mentions them again (making it clear we should not view her as a caricature of any one condition). All we are supposed to know about her is that she does not have feelings, at least not, according to her, sadness and joy. Her counterpart is Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) who is timid, initially unassertive and working as an SAT tutor for Amanda. Thus we have our initial dichotomy cold-and-dark vs empathetic-and-sensitive.

 

Savvy viewers, will quickly begin to question the dichotomy between the girls. In the scene immediately following Amanda’s explanation of her condition, she can be seen playing online poker. Despite her criminal past, Amanda appears to be well off with a supportive mother (Lily, it should be noted is blatantly well off, living in a mansion and attending private school). Therefore, it would seem Amanda is gambling for fun, suggesting she does experience something resembling joy. Moreover, while I am clearly no psychologist, I was instantly troubled by the problem of what it meant for a person to feel no joy. I have heard the phrase “pleasure principle” thrown around to describe human behaviour and it sounds right to me: we seek that which makes us happy: why, therefore, would a person do anything if they don’t feel happiness?

 

While Thoroughbnreds never answers the question of whether or not Amanda does feel joy and whether or not she is a reliable narrator of her own experiences, the film does ultimately complicate its initial dichotomy. Lily is quickly revealed to have troubles of her own and is willing to act as recklessly as Amanda does. Without saying too much, we go from seeing Amanda as free of feeling and Lilly as full of feeling to seeing Amanda as bold in the face of her feelings (or lack their of) and Lily as a prisoner of her feelings.

Another (false) dichotomy lies in the character’s relationship to neuronormativity. While Amanda may be undiagnosed, we know she has been labelled as worthy of diagnosis. Lily has not been subject to any such process. Therefore we are initially led (and many viewers will no doubt fall into this trap even as the film concludes) to see Lily and Amanda in fundamentally different lights: one is sick, one is merely troubled. This distinction between sick and troubled, however, is completely arbitrary and can be described as the result of different lucky breaks playing out in the two girls’ lives.

 

Class is yet another important dichotomy in Thoroughbreds. Lily’s mansion-dwelling does not simply provide the film with charming scenery, it also serves as a metaphor: a place in which the girls’ web of secrets can hide amidst the many artifacts. Furthermore, by protecting the girls with socioeconomic privilege, the film is able to avoid other complications from intervening with their stories, and thus cut to what it wants to cover: their psychologies. The class dynamics of Thoroughbreds, however, is played out most through the character of Tim (Anton Yelchin). While Tim is introduced in a negative light, having served prison time for statutory rape and currently making money by selling drugs to kids, he is generally portrayed as timid, pathetic and perhaps even pacifistic in comparison to the film’s protagonists. While it is unclear what his previous socioeconomic status was, for much of the film he works as a dishwasher. His character thus shows the different consequences criminal behaviour can have for people in distinct socioeconomic circumstances.

 

Innocence and horror have long walked hand in hand. Surely many readers can picture the trope of a child eerily asking you to “come and play.” This too is a dichotomy Thoroughbreds embraces and manipulates. Rather than having them be haunted house props or antagonists, this film puts unsettling children at its centre. We are made to be terrified by them, but precisely because we feel for them and do not want them to be terrifying. Unless you don’t like blood, or suspense (there’s far more of that than blood), Thoroughbreds is a must see

Ingrid Goes West (2017)

Directed by: Matt Spicer Written by: Spicer and David Brandon Smith

Ingrid_Goes_WestIs this the Aubrey Plaza role to break Aubrey Plaza roles? That opening sentence is called a hook; it gets your attention. Ingrid Goes West works much the same way. We meet Ingrid (Plaza), her murderous eyes under the shadow of a hoodie, as she vengefully lashes out at one of her peers in a pang of Instagram-induced jealousy. We never fully come to understand the origins of this behaviour, but as audiences we experience it in two related ways: 1) as a continuation of the, caustic and sick-of-the-world persona Plaza has come to be associated with and 2) as a distinct version of that persona that is not supposed to be read as a caricature at all. Ingrid is not a twenty-something in a goth phase; she is unwell, scheming and utterly lonely

The bulk of the film’s story depicts Ingrid’s journey as she goes to ridiculous ends to befriend an Instagram celebrity. Instagtram and smart phones shape not only the film’s story, but its aesthetic: a montage of hip meals, neon lights and parties. Ingrid Goes West is certainly not the first movie to prominently depict smartphone usage: slow texting scenes were a mainstay in another 2017 film, Personal Shopper. Ingrid Goes West, however, is notable for its relationship to the present. Her (2013) used our phone culture as a springboard for vaguely related projections about the future. Personal Shopper, meanwhile, is a film of its time, not about its time. Its character’s excessive phone use is simply a realistic depiction of life in the 2010s.  Ingrid Goes West, however shoots its character’s phone use in such a way that audiences are made to feel uncomfortable. We are made to notice just how odd our society’s smartphone addiction looks when it’s blasted onto the bigscreen.

Ingrid eventually winds up in LA, and it is here that the story loses some of its charm. Ingrid essentially transitions from living with her miserable Instagram addiction to living in an Insta-reality. She befriends self-described photographer Taylor (Elizabeth Olson) and her manbunned artist husband Ezra (Wyatt Russel). She also comes to befriend Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr), her young, casually dressed, landlord, whose defining trait is being a Batman nerd. Infatuated with Taylor’s hipster-lavish and carefree lifestyle Ingrid becomes a fairly generic protagonist. Of course, savvy audiences will realize this is all an illusion, but it does have the effect of making Ingrid Goes West, not unlike Colossal or Brigsby Bear as a film whose shortcomings can be attributed to its having a great beginning and end but no middle.

Ingrid Goes West’s effectiveness is further undermined in that we only get to know one of its characters, Ingrid, on a three-dimensional level. To some extent, this makes sense. In a film about the dangerous-shallowness of the Insta-life, Taylor’s stinging superficiality makes perfect sense. Ezra’s underdevelopment more questionable, however. This character is introduced as a privileged-hipster-caricature. The film begins to show that Ezra is unhappy with his role in the insta-world, but this nuance in his personality is eventually abandoned, returning him to the status of place-holder-character.  Again, this writing choice is not all bad; It can be said to be part of the film’s spectrum of superficial portrayals. Taylor is made vane by the superficial, Ingrid is addicted to the superficial and Ezra has the consciousness to question the superficial, but not the consciousness to really understand what his questions are or to act on them .

The film’s 2-D character’s proble, however, is most unforgivable in the case of Dan. Dan’s function in the script is essentially that he exists outside of Taylor’s Insta-world: it is thus dramatic irony when Taylor’s brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen) refers to Dan as Ingrid’s “Imaginary Boyfriend.” Because Dan represents an escape from smart-phone superficiality, he is written in a way that lacks nuance. He comes across as perfect: he’s a kind, brave, forgiving, struggling-artist-without-the-financial-troubles.

But as I said, Ingrid Goes West does end brilliantly. As Ingrid’s perfect world falls apart and the Ingrid of old re-emerges, she is no longer scary: audiences will sympathize with her. Furthermore, if they haven’t gotten the message, it will become clear to them that the way we are led to judge Ingrid early in the film is very hypocrtical. She looks absurd as she systematically searches instagram for validation, despite the fact that this behaviour arguably defines our generation. Perhaps, Ingrid Goes West is thus not so much a critique of social media, but how social media interacts with our larger socioeconomic society. The 1% of social media (those making money off their avocado toast photos) are just as “ridiculous” as the Ingrids of the world, yet our social-media-social-class positions can lead us to experience social media addiction very differently.

Viewers should be aware there is a plot-point in the film that makes use of suicide in a way that may make it unsafe viewing for those with active suicidal tendancies. Other viewers should rest assured, however, that in context, this scene is tasteful and very poignant.

Ingrid Goes West is overall an easy-to-follow fable, told from the perspective of a struggling, compelling protagonist. Check it out, and prepare to have your own social media habits uncomfortably put on display

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.  

My_Cousin_Rachel_(2017_film)

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 not.film 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.


 

It Comes at Night (2017)

Written and Directed by: Trey Edward Shults

It_Comes_at_Night“Watch a Patriarchy Crumble in It Comes at Night,” proclaims Rich Juzwiak of Jezebel. Juzwiak’s summation of the film is not a bad one. It Comes at Night stars Joel Edgerton as Paul: a cold, strong father who will kill when he has to, and insists no one outside of his family can be trusted. Paul even runs his own family in a dictatorial fashion, a dynamic made particularly plain by the (unstated) possibility that he is the stepfather to the family’s comparatively gentle son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.).

Yet while It Comes At Night undoubtedly depicts a patriarchal family, the film is arguably not so much about patriarchy or distrust as it is about inevitability. Vegetarians, vegans and animal lovers will notice this theme first, when Will (Christopher Abbot) offers Paul’s family food, and by food he means live chickens and goats (one supposedly played by Charlie (Black Phillip from The Witch). Perhaps some audience members will squirm at the sight of these animals, fearing they will be featured in a slaughter scene (don’t worry, there is none). Despite their squirming they will not be able to blame the humans of this film for having to find ways to eat in their desolate, post-apocalyptic living conditions.

In It Comes at Night, this sad-logic of the life of farm animals comes to effect the film’s humans. When Paul kills, as much as audiences may be repulsed by his comfort with his actions, they will not be able to dismiss him as a bad character. If what Paul, and to a lesser extent the other characters, says is true, he has no choice but to kill those who have been infected by “it” in order to protect his family. Nothing can persuade him to act differently, regardless of how conflicted he may feel internally. His violence is inevitable.

The true terror of It Comes at Night is thus not Paul’s brutality in itself, but the horrible thought that Paul’s killings may very well be justified. It’s one thing to endure the psychological pain that comes with fleeing a raging gun man—it quite another to have to both endure this pain and the pain of knowing the gunman is chasing you with justice running by his side.

It Comes at Night is a well-paced story with a good range of characters: many of whom are likeable, but all of whom remain somewhat shrouded in mystery. Viewers in search of a well told, discussion-provoking horror movie should check it out.