CVIndependent

Sat11282020

Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

Regular readers know that I can’t stand most found-footage films. I also bitch a lot about movies where the whole damn thing happens on a computer screen, with the director finding cute ways to never cut away from Skype, FaceTime, Words With Friends, etc., while the plot unfolds.

Well, Searching is strange, because I actually almost like the way director Aneesh Chaganty utilizes computer screens, apps and news reports to tell his story. I also really like the central performance by John Cho as David Kim, a slightly annoying parent who discovers through a break in technological communication that his daughter, Margot (Michelle La), has gone missing.

What I can’t forgive is the terrible detour the mystery takes into ridiculous, convenient and unimaginative territory. The screenplay really blows it in the end, and is further hindered by a stiff and strange performance from Debra Messing as a cop assigned to Margot’s case.

The film’s start is cute enough, with David and Margot having a harmless argument about Margot’s failure to take the trash out. The argument establishes Margot as a generally normal kid, while her father is a bit of a tight-assed paranoiac and kind of a daughter-stalker.

David’s overprotective nature has something to do with the loss of Pamela (Sara Sohn), his wife and Margot’s mom. Some of the movie’s more-touching moments involve David looking at old computer videos of Margot and Pamela playing piano. A video of David and Pam running together, with Pam stopping because she is too ill, reminds of the melancholy opening of Up.

Back to the main portion of the film: When Margot still fails to take the trash out, and then doesn’t respond to his various texts and calls, David starts to get very twitchy. He eventually calls in a missing-person report, and Detective Vick (Messing) comes on board. This is where the film begins to come apart.

Messing, unlike Cho and La, doesn’t come off as a real person using all of these gadgets and technologies; she comes off more like a big star making a one-dimensional cameo on C.S.I.: Bummed Out Cops. She has moments in the movie that are so tonally off that they become funny rather than serious. Messing has been great in past roles, but she is woefully miscast here.

That’s not entirely her fault; the story developments Searching employs in its closing act are some major bullshit. The film takes itself seriously; it’s not any kind of spoof or sly take on social networking and telecommunications, despite the aforementioned B.S. When the story goes off the rails, the movie becomes a lame joke.

Cho and La come through as champs. I actually think I could’ve enjoyed a simple film with these two communicating on their gadgets for one day about normal things, and dealing with the loss of Pam, without the missing-person element. The performers (and the director) pull off the feat of making FaceTime and iMessage communications semi-watchable without being too gimmicky … at least for a while. That’s not an easy thing to do.

Searching, in the end, is a movie that could’ve been so much greater—perhaps an indictment of our over-reliance on gadgets to communicate—if it had stayed away from the ridiculous. Turns out it’s just a third-rate thriller wrapped up in a snazzy modern bow. If this story, and its ending, were presented as a straightforward, linear movie without Facebook and FaceTime, it would be lambasted.

It’s not as bad as Unfriended, or your average found-footage movie, but Searching is pretty bad all the same. I’m seriously hoping that the existence (and moderate success) of films like this doesn’t lead to Hollywood scribes dusting off old, rejected TV scripts thinking they can repackage them as computer screen thrillers. Let’s stop with the computer-screen movies, OK? They’re just a tad hokey.

Searching is now playing at the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews

Lily Tomlin moves right to the top of my 2015 Best Actress list thanks to her performance in Grandma, a film that should put her in strong contention for an Oscar nomination 40 years after she got a nom for her first movie role in Nashville.

As Elle Reid—a grandma who will kick your boyfriend in the dick rather than offering him tea and cookies—Tomlin delivers a performance that runs the full gamut of emotions while being consistently funny. Every line delivery feels organic and natural, as if the role was created and written with her in mind.

Writer-director Paul Weitz, who worked with Tomlin a couple of years ago on Admission, did, in fact, write the role of Elle for Tomlin. It’s a role the legendary comedian richly deserves. It’s nothing short of a total blast watching Tomlin let loose in the sort of spotlight role that has evaded her for too many years. Grandma is her best role since playing Ben Stiller’s druggie mom in Flirting With Disaster nearly 20 years ago.

Elle’s granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), shows up at the door shortly after Elle has broken up with Olivia (Judy Greer), her younger girlfriend. Sage has an age-old problem: She’s pregnant; she’s scheduled for an abortion in a few hours; and she’s flat broke. Elle, a well-known writer, would seem like a good candidate to have some cash on hand. Unfortunately, she has used all of her cash to pay off credit card debts, and she cut up those credit cards to make some nice wind chimes for the front porch.

The two jump in Elle’s old 1955 Dodge Royal (a car actually owned by Tomlin) and set out to find some quick cash before Sage’s appointment at the clinic. Their travels include a stop at a café for bad coffee. (There’s a good cameo by John Cho, aka the new Sulu.) They eventually wind up at Sage’s boyfriend’s house, where said boyfriend (Nat Wolff) gets a hockey stick to the nuts courtesy of Elle.

Elle and Sage meet a lot of people on the way to the clinic, and each encounter gives Tomlin a chance to blow up the screen. There’s nothing stereotypical about this grandmother, a cantankerous woman with a good heart behind all of her sarcasm and staged coldness.

Coming out of nowhere with what might be his career-best performance is Sam Elliott as Karl, one of Elle’s former lovers. Elle and Sage drop by his house in their quest for monetary assistance, and Karl’s reaction to their visit goes from pleasant, to confusion, to utter disgust. Elliott only has one scene in the film, but it’s so powerful that he could find himself in Oscar contention as well. He’s that good.

Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden arrives late in the film as Judy, Elle’s daughter and Sage’s mom, a career-driven woman who has a treadmill set up at her workstation. Harden puts another charge into a movie that is already high-octane; she finds the humanity in a woman who is a bit neglectful as a mom, but can perhaps come through in the clutch. Harden, like Tomlin, finds some stinging laughs in Weitz’s script; it’s her best work in many years.

The late Elizabeth Peña, in one of her last performances, makes a memorable appearance as a former friend of Elle who lowballs her on some first-edition books she attempts to pawn. The film eventually wraps after a series of character resolutions that are completely satisfying and devoid of schmaltz.

It’ll be a shocker if Tomlin doesn’t attend the Oscars with a shot at gold next year. Elle is the kind of role that wins awards—or at least earns you a seat next to Brangelina for the show. Tomlin—who received an Emmy nomination for Grace and Frankie, a Netflix series co-starring 9 to 5 partner-in-crime Jane Fonda—is back in top form.

Grandma is now playing at the Ultrastar Mary Pickford Stadium 14 (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City; 760-328-7100); the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342); and the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

Published in Reviews

When director J.J. Abrams created the alternate timeline with his brilliant 2009 Star Trek reboot, it gave the franchise a chance to construct all new adventures for Kirk and Spock. It also gave Abrams the opportunity to mess around with variations on characters and adventures that we have already seen.

Such is the case with the exhilarating Star Trek Into Darkness, a movie that includes elements of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and “Space Seed” (a classic Trek TV episode).

The film starts with Chris Pine’s cocky Kirk getting himself into more trouble. He ignores Starfleet directives and rescues Spock (Zachary Quinto) from an erupting volcano, allowing a primitive alien species to set their eyes on a big UFO in the form of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Kirk gets demoted by Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood), but keeps a relatively high rank thanks to his pal Pike pulling some strings.

Back on Earth, a bomb goes off in London courtesy of renegade Starfleet officer John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch); that same officer attacks a gathering of Starfleet commanders soon thereafter. He is pissed off, and anybody in a Starfleet uniform is his target.

Kirk and Spock find themselves en route to Klingon territory, where their homegrown terrorist has gone to hide. They have unorthodox directives from Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) to target and assassinate the terrorist from the skies using torpedoes. (Echoes of drone targeting and the U.S. hunt for Osama bin Laden, right?)

So … you have Klingons, terror in London, commanders getting attacked and volcanoes erupting with Vulcans in their belly. That’s a pretty damned good start to a sequel, no?

The true identity of Cumberbatch’s character might not come as a surprise. Heck, his real character name is listed in the cast on IMDB.com. As for me, I remained in the dark until some jackass uncorked a spoiler on the Internet a few weeks ago. Damn you, Internet reviewer. Damn you! The Internet is a fun thing, but it sure does wreak havoc on those fun movie secrets.

Abrams gets a little heavy-handed with the Sept. 11/War on Terror allegory, but he still keeps his movie effective, and even moving at times. As for his use of a tribble—the furry pests the Enterprise contended with in a famous series episode—it is my least-favorite part of the movie. The way the tribble is utilized makes no sense and feels like a stretch.

Abrams also oversteps a bit with pivotal late scene between Kirk and Spock that is a mirror version of an infamous scene in Khan. I don’t mind him messing with the Trek legacy, but keep it original. Bring back some famed characters, and hint at moments from franchise past, but don’t blatantly copy them. There’s a moment when Spock yells a particular word that got unintentional laughs from me.

Cumberbatch does a great riff on an old adversary, and his deep voice is one for the ages. He’s one of those anything-can-happen movie villains who is frightening, yet oddly virtuous. Weller gets his best role in years as Marcus, a flawed man with an imperialistic agenda that might have some people viewing him as the film’s real villain.

Alice Eve is another memorable new addition as Carol Marcus, the admiral’s daughter and a stowaway on the Enterprise. Some of you might remember a scientist from a previous Star Trek film with that same name. Well, from now on, you’ll remember Eve, who has an obligatory underwear scene that is right up there with Sigourney Weaver’s out-of-nowhere strip in the original Alien.

Pine and Quinto might not have you forgetting Shatner and Nimoy, but they have established themselves in their roles and can probably own them as long as they want. Zoe Saldana has many shining moments as Uhura.

Simon Pegg’s Scotty, John Cho’s Sulu, Anton Yelchin’s Chekov and, especially, Karl Urban’s Bones all contribute to the party. The Star Trek franchise gets the award for Best Reboot Casting.

If you see Star Trek Into Darkness in 3-D, know that this is retrofitted 3-D. It looks OK, but you are probably safe to take in the 2-D version (although the Abrams lens flares do look pretty cool in 3-D; the man loves his lens flare).

For a film called Into Darkness, there are many, awesome shots of the Enterprise during the day. It’s interesting to see a ship usually cloaked in darkness sailing around in daytime skies, and even going underwater at one point.

There’s a pivotal chase scene in which Kirk and Spock pilot a ship that has a Millennium Falcon vibe to it. That had me thinking about the next Star Wars, and what Abrams—who will direct—plans to do with it. Abrams has a grasp on major geek real estate with these two franchises. He’s, like, the Godfather of Geeks, and he could destroy all of us with a bad chapter in either series. He’s a powerful man capable of great good—or insurmountable evil.

Fortunately, he used his powers for good with Star Trek Into Darkness, a solid piece of summer entertainment.

Star Trek Into Darkness is playing in theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews