CVIndependent

Sat01192019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Bob Grimm

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).

Over Labor Day weekend, I binge-watched Ozark, a show about a Chicago family whose financial-expert patriarch, Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman), made the unfortunate decision to launder money for a Mexican drug cartel. He eventually winds up in the Ozarks with his family, where he finds ways to launder more money through the lakeside businesses he gobbles up.

The first season worked just fine. Bateman himself directed a couple of episodes that I found to be generally gripping, and Laura Linney had some great moments as Wendy Byrde, mother and wife. Julia Garner was very good as Ruth, a local looking to ride Marty’s fake wealth into a better life.

As for the just-released second season … I am four episodes in so far, and it stinks.

It’s all about the Byrdes being stuck in the Ozarks and trying to manipulate their various schemes, with the first few episodes trying too hard to explain what happened in Season 1. It’s a show in which it seems like the writers are desperately worried about reminding viewers about all the past details. Hey, let it fly; we’ll figure it out.

The first season focused on criminal activity in the small territory. The second goes into state government and political intrigue as the Byrdes try to build a casino. The dialogue gets dumber and dumber as the show wears on, and it becomes a slog.

I don’t like what I’m seeing. Ruth has become nothing but annoying; Marty and Wendy are just running around over-explaining why they are bad; and Trevor Long’s increased screen time as Ruth’s disgusting dad is unwelcome.

I hope things get better in the final six episodes of Season 2, If they do not, Ozark will have been better off as a limited series rather than a continuing entity. It’s stretching its premise to extremes that are not at all entertaining.

Ozark is currently streaming on Netflix.

It’s tough being a puppet these days. After what seemed like a return to puppet glory with The Muppets in 2011, the cinematic Muppet momentum ended three years later with Muppets Most Wanted—and then the 2015 TV series tanked.

Considering this stalling of The Muppets franchise, it seemed like a good time for a former Muppet stalwart, Brian Henson (son of Muppet founder Jim), to take puppets in a more-adult direction. After all, Jim Henson had a more-adult incarnation for The Muppets in mind way back in the 1970s when they appeared on the first season of Saturday Night Live. (It’s true!) A raunchier band of puppets would be a fine addition to the Henson legacy.

That is, it would be a fine addition had Henson Alternative—an “adult” branch of the Jim Henson Company—made something better than The Happytime Murders, a listless, joyless, humorless exercise in how not to make a puppet movie.

The film is set up like a Muppets movie, with puppets interacting with humans—but Kermit and company are banned from the set in favor of bland, seriously unfunny puppets that fail to distinguish themselves in any way. Brian Henson directs, his first big-screen directing gig since Muppet Treasure Island, and it’s a lost puppet cause. Henson’s directing chops have not aged like fine wine; they’ve aged like a mango that got lost in the back of the refrigerator six months ago.

Melissa McCarthy—having a disastrous year with this and the terrible Life of the Party—takes the lead human role as Det. Connie Edwards, former partner of puppet cop-turned-private investigator Phil Philips (voiced by Bill Barretta).

The two team up again when puppet cast members of ’80s TV show The Happytime Gang start getting the cotton pulled out of them in a series of visually uncreative deaths. (OK, the one puppet getting shredded by band of dogs led by a Boston terrier made me chuckle a little, but it’s only because I have a Boston terrier currently living in my home, and I’m pretty sure she would shred a living puppet if given the chance.)

While there are hints of some funny premises—for example, Connie got a puppet liver transplant, so she’s tragically addicted to sugar—none of them are taken to fruitfully funny extremes. That’s because writer Todd Berger’s screenplay thinks gags should be a laugh-getters just because they’re naughty. There’s no room for wit or depth in his land of puppetry, just F-bombs and silly-string ejaculate. Frankly, I’m surprised the film doesn’t have an overload of puppet farts. (Actually, puppet farts might be funny. They’d sound like wind passing through sheets left out on a line to dry on a sunny summer day.)

Other human actors looking totally lost include Joel McHale as an FBI guy. (I couldn’t help but notice that McHale’s hairpiece/transplants look less convincing than the hair on the puppet heads.) Maya Rudolph fares a little better as Philip’s human secretary, but Leslie David Baker appears to be in serious pain delivering his typical police-chief lines. Elizabeth Banks gets the worst gig as Jenny, the only human member of the Happytime Gang, who is forced to make out with Philip.

I am very much up for some nastily funny puppet activity. I think Team America: World Police is one of the 21st century’s funniest movies, and The Happytime Murders had good people involved. Alas, a mundane McCarthy and babbling felt heads lead to what will stand as one of the year’s lousiest movies.

I’d say nothing that nothing good could come out of The Happytime Murders, but maybe its failure will create a hankering for the return of Kermit and friends. Regardless, something tells me if McCarthy gets a script for a new Muppet movie by courier in the future, she’s going to kick that courier in the nether region.

The Happytime Murders is playing at theaters across the valley.

Moll (Jessie Buckley), a loner, meets Pascal (Johnny Flynn), another loner, and they seem to hit it off as the film Beast gets under way. He’s mysterious and he has kind eyes. However, he also poaches animals and has a controversial past—which is brought to her attention by authorities after they have gotten romantic.

Local girls are disappearing and winding up dead, and Pascal, who has a criminal past and fits the profile of a serial killer, is now a prime suspect. That puts a damper on the romance, obviously, as Moll struggles to find out who she is really in love with—and whether or not he’s capable of such heinous acts.

Michael Pearce has made a chilling, effective thriller, thanks to a cool, stylish and quiet directorial style that works beautifully with the stellar lead performances. The effectiveness of a movie like this relies upon the director’s ability to keep the viewer in the dark—and Pearce does this admirably.

The film is constructed in a way that diminishes the importance of guessing who the killer is, because you are so taken in by the duo at the center of it all. Buckley and Flynn make Beast something well beyond your typical whodunit, with searing performances.

Beast is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com; it will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on Sept. 4.

Alpha, a story about the first personal interaction between man and dog, is a winner if 1) you are a dog person, and 2) you can watch a movie taking place 20,000 years ago and believe that the inhabitants could have such stylish leather jackets.

The jackets really are pretty cool—made of buffalo hide, I presume, with lovely fur collars. I think I would buy one if I saw it on Amazon (with fake fur and leather, of course). There’s no way somebody could’ve put these things together way back then, without a sewing machine. If so, that person was the Versace of the day.

Directed by Albert Hughes (From Hell, Menace II Society), this is a sweet hypothetical story about a boy, lost in the wilderness after a hunting trip gone awry, befriending a wolf. It’s not a syrupy-sweet story; the two go through hell trying to find the boy’s homeland during the onset of winter. But if you are a dog person—and I am—the gradual warming of their relationship as they rely on one another to survive is nothing short of adorable and powerful.

Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is on his first buffalo hunt with dad Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson). He’s a good kid, but he’s a terrible hunter—and winds up critically injured on a cliff, far out of rescue’s reach. A distraught Tau leaves his presumably dead son and goes home to bang rocks together, or whatever they did in those days. However, Keda isn’t ready to die. A vulture peck on his lip wakes him up; a flash flood creates enough of a cushion for his fall; and he has a new lease on life.

Unfortunately, that new lease involves a lot of vicious animals trying to eat him, with his escapes hampered by an injured foot. One such attack, by a pack of wolves, results in the pack leader wounded at the foot of a tree Keda scampered up to escape. Rather than driving a spear through his wounded foe, Keda takes pity and carries the wounded wolf to a nearby cave.

Things start off with a lot of snarling and growling as Keda tries to establish himself as the master of the situation. Gradually, Alpha (as the dog is eventually named) comes to appreciate Keda’s tendency to provide food and water while only occasionally acting bossy. The two join forces, take turns saving each other’s lives, and become pals.

There obviously was a first time that a man walked up to a dog-like creature and thought, “Say, I would like to play fetch with this beast, as long as it doesn’t bite my face off. Maybe if I give it a biscuit, it will like me?” That dude probably got his face bitten off … but, as we know, dogs became man’s best friend over time. The film contains its interpretation of man’s first tug-of-war with a dog, man’s first game of fetch with a dog, and man’s first campfire snuggle with a dog. Aww!

Hughes doesn’t simply rely on a sweet story. His movie is often gorgeous-looking, featuring majestic landscapes, excellent CGI work and a damn fine dog as the title character. Smit-McPhee (the boy who cried “Papa!” in The Road) is onscreen for almost every scene, and although he’s relegated to a fake caveman language for his dialogue, he delivers some career-best work here, and sufficiently carries the human half of Alpha’s story.

Cavemen movies usually suck. 10,000 B.C. sucked. Caveman starring Ringo Starr sucked. Quest for Fire starring a pre-Hellboy Ron Perlman really sucked. So it’s refreshing to see a film set in prehistoric times that actually engages, provides some thrills and warms the heart.

After the credits rolled on this one, I promptly drove home and gave my little dog some extra treats and belly rubs. Dogs are awesome, and Alpha is a decent-enough guess at what our first hike with one of them was like. Now, if I could just get me one of those snazzy buffalo jackets …

Alpha is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons and Futurama, sets his sights on The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones with Disenchantment, his latest animated series. While the finished product looks a little rushed on the visual side, there are enough good laughs to make the series a success.

Bean (the voice of Abbi Jacobson) is the restless daughter of King Zog (John DiMaggio). With her assigned demon, Luci (Eric André), at her side, and Elfo the elf (Nat Faxon) as her sidekick, she sets off on a series of adventures.

The humor is part The Simpsons, and part Monty Python (there are actually a lot of “not quite dead” jokes), with more hits than misses. André is a constant laugh-getter as the wisecracking demon, while DiMaggio is very funny as the unorthodox king.

Hopefully, Netflix will straighten out the visuals in future seasons and make this look more like a grown-up cartoon and less of a rush job. As it stands, it’s still better than Game of Thrones. I just don’t understand the appeal of that show.

The first 10-episode season of Disenchantment is currently streaming on Netflix.

Kelly Macdonald is terrific in Puzzle as Agnes, a mother of two and wife to Louie (an also-excellent David Denman). Agnes is loved by her family, but they tend to not pay attention to her at times—and she’s beginning to lose interest in their mundane routines.

She finds solace in jigsaw puzzles, and realizes she has a talent for putting them together fast. She sees a posting for a person looking to find a “puzzle partner,” gives him a call, and strikes up a friendship with Robert (Irrfan Khan), an eccentric millionaire with a shared fascination for puzzles. As the two meet twice a week to train for a puzzle competition, things go beyond friendship, and Agnes is forced to make some decisions about her home life.

Marc Turtletaub’s minimalist direction is perfect for this story, which plays a lot better than it sounds. Macdonald is first-rate during every second she’s onscreen—especially in her scenes with Denman and Khan. Khan brings a lot of dimension to Robert, who is basically a nutty, lonely guy. Denman does a remarkable job of making Louie likable, even if he is a bit of a dick at times.

It’s not a film I was especially anxious to watch, given its premise. I was pleasantly surprised.

Puzzle opens Friday, Aug. 17, at theaters across the valley.

The great Spike Lee has returned with BlacKkKlansmen, his best film since Malcolm X came out 26 years ago.

Based on a true story—with some significant tweaking—it centers on Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, son of Denzel), a black police officer in Colorado who, on a whim, decided to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan by posing as a redneck. It wound up being a two-man sting, with Stallworth pretending to be a white man on the phone while sending in a white partner (depicted here by Adam Driver) to do the face-to-face work.

Stallworth’s investigation eventually leads to him being named the head of a local chapter of the KKK, and direct dealings with David Duke (Topher Grace), Grand Wizard of the KKK and major asshole.

The movie is as crazy as the story was, with Spike perfectly balancing intense drama and humor. Washington is fantastic, and Driver continues to show he’s always a cast MVP.

Lee, shooting on celluloid again, makes a fantastic-looking movie; he’s a master of period pieces, with this one set in the 1970s. The film’s conclusion utilizes current-events news footage (including Charlottesville), showing the unfortunate and all-too-real racism parallels between the events in this film and the current state of America.

The movie is a great watch, but it is also a loud wakeup call.

BlacKkKlansmen is playing at theaters across the valley.

It’s been more than two decades since author Steve Alten released his big shark story Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror, the first of many Meg books. From the moment the book hit stands, producers have been attempting to make a movie out of it.

Many directors have flirted with the movie, including Jan de Bont, Guillermo del Toro and, as recently as 2015, Eli Roth. It eventually ended up under the directorial guidance of Jon Turtletaub, the guy who made Cool Runnings, the National Treasure movies and 3 Ninjas.

The result? A movie as misguided, sloppy and boring as you would expect from the guy who directed 3 Ninjas.

Let’s get the obvious problem out of the way: The Meg is rated PG-13, and as it was made, it probably could’ve pulled a PG. This is not a horror film; it’s an undersea adventure with a big, messy CGI shark and sci-fi twist. Roth left the project because they wouldn’t let him gore it up, and they wouldn’t let him star as deep-sea diver/adventurer Jonas Taylor.

Instead, we get Jason Statham as Jonas, and not much of a need for makeup artists on the set due to a lack of bloodletting. Heck, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial had more blood in it when Elliott pricked his finger on that saw blade. Like I said, this thing could be PG. Jaws, the mother of all shark movies (and the greatest movie ever made, thank you very much), had a shit ton of bloodletting, and it was also rated PG. It also had nudity, and a constantly palpable sense of dread.

Come to think of it, how the hell did Jaws get away with a PG rating? Oh, how the times have changed.

When a submarine from a huge underwater-exploration facility goes deeper than any expedition has gone before, it gets attacked by something big and winds up trapped on the ocean floor. Enter Jonas, who, in the film’s prologue set years before, failed to rescue some of his friends when a big something or other also attacked something and caused a mostly bloodless death toll.

Much of this movie consists of long, drawn-out sequences during which submarines dive around and get swatted about by a at-first-mostly unseen 70-foot shark. Other long, drawn-out sequences involve Jonas and his crew floating around at sea while the CGI menace circles them. You’ll be pretty damned surprised how not scary a 70-foot shark can be.

The rushed finale features a lot of those shots you saw in the trailer, with tons of swimmers in the shark’s path, including a little doggie named Pippin. (The black Labrador that got eaten in Jaws was not named Pippin. That dog’s name was Pippet. So the attempt at an Easter egg here is a little off.)

The trailer is very misleading; for 75 percent of this almost-two-hour-long movie, the shark terrorizes a very small group of people. When it finally does go after beach-goers, the vast majority of them get out of harm’s way, although the guy in the big, bouncy ball like the one Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips uses to surf concert crowd gets eaten … bloodless PG-style.

The movie brings along the usual stereotypes, including Rainn Wilson as the hipster billionaire who funded the underwater lab thing and wears lots of Nike products. Statham himself is one big action-hero stereotype. The movie also makes a few too many Jaws references. You shouldn’t constantly remind people of a genre film far superior to yours.

If The Meg could’ve found a way to be campy fun—like, say, the very bloody Piranha 3D or Deep Blue Sea—I’d be looking forward to the inevitable sequel. Instead, it’s about the equivalent of the terrible Jaws 3-D. It’s not as bad as Jaws: The Revenge, though: If that were the case, I wouldn’t have been able to write this review, for that surely would’ve killed me. Bloodlessly.

The Meg is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

A young man shows up for his first year at college—and gets greeted as if he’s been there before. Eventually, someone figures out he’s the identical twin of a former student; this brings about a reunion of the two siblings. It becomes a big story in the newspaper, and then another young man sees the boys and instantly notices a resemblance.

Boom … the three identical brothers, all adopted by different families, find each other as young adults in New York. This is the fascinating tale behind documentary Three Identical Strangers.

I lived in Long Island, N.Y., when the story broke about these guys. They became a sensation, showing up on talk shows and even opening their own restaurant. Sadly, as Tim Wardle’s documentary shows, when the boys found out the real reason for their separation at birth, things took a sad and ultimately tragic turn.

The documentary is set up in a way that, even if you remember this story, what happens in the end will surprise you. The now-grown men sit for interviews, and the stories they tell are captivating, entertaining and maddening at once.

Three Identical Strangers is now playing at the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033).