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Searching, Longing and Singing in Columbus Theaters

Hope Madden Hope Madden Searching, Longing and Singing in Columbus TheatersStill from "The Little Stranger," via IMDb.
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It’s Hollywood’s off-season, which can be a good thing and a bad thing. Blockbuster season is over (for the moment), so big studios are either releasing outright garbage or smaller films they took a chance on. Cinemas are also less reluctant to share their screens with indies, so you see more choices—it’s just that a lot of those choices are pretty terrible. So, let us help you with the decision making.

Searching

by George Wolf

Searching is the latest reminder that for social media-themed movies, at least, things are looking up.

In his debut feature, director/co-writer Aneesh Chaganty crafts a smart, fast-moving internet mystery that plays out on the screens of various platforms. Dropping sly clues among its plot twist head fakes, the film becomes a surprisingly satisfying B-movie potboiler, a terrifically tense race against time that reminds us how tech-entrenched we are without resorting to any heavy-handed judgements.

Busy father David Kim (a perfect John Cho) is annoyed when his 15-year-old daughter Margot (Michelle La) won’t answer his texts or face time requests. Annoyance turns to desperation when it becomes clear Margot is a missing person.

Detective Vick (Debra Messing, effectively understated and against type) is on the case, and as David follows her advice to scour Margot’s online history for clues, we learn along with Dad that Margot had secrets.

Right from a nifty opening montage that serves to bond us with the Kim family while it wistfully reminds us how our own connections to technology have grown, Chaganty establishes a commitment to narrative momentum that rarely lets up. Very little time feels wasted because there’s no time to waste.

At least one plot twist seems a bit of a reach, and the final reveal stops just south of a Scooby Doo-inspired explanation, but Searching has brains and heart enough to rise above.

Though Chaganty assembles the film with the latest in frame wizardry, he surrounds it with familiar thriller elements that bring a subtle throwback feel to the astute look at how we live now.

Ultimately, Searching is a mystery with as much to say about parenting as posting, and a remarkably in-the-moment statement.

Grade: B+

The Little Stranger

by Hope Madden

There were a lot of reasons to be excited about The Little Stranger.

The film is director Lenny Abrahamson’s follow up to his staggeringly wonderful 2015 film Room. It stars three of the most solid character actors you will find (whether you know the names or not): Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson and Will Poulter.

Who else? Oh, yes, Charlotte Rampling, who’s been a miracle of understated power since the mid-60s. The entire case is great, though Poulter is underused.

But something’s gone terribly wrong with The Little Stranger.

Caroline (Wilson) longs to be free. Longing is maybe the most palpable theme in the film, along with the underlying nod to classism. Unfortunately, by Act III, you’ll be longing for some action of any kind.

Abrahamson’s film, adapted from Sarah Waters’ novel by screenwriter Lucinda Coxon (The Danish Girl), moves at an iceberg’s pace. Though the bumps, burns and bruises in the night are developed with the proper haunted house atmosphere, the resolution is so underdeveloped and slow in coming that the film cannot help but disappoint.

The reveal makes sense to a degree, and bravo to Abrahamson for expecting audiences to have paid enough attention to earlier dialog that we might fathom the conclusion. At the same time, with too much thought, that reveal can fall apart. So, if you’re not paying attention you will have no idea what just happened. Pay too much attention and the mystery’s resolution will disintegrate on you.

It’s unfortunate, because there is an awful lot of talent and aesthetic going to waste here.

Grade: B-

Juliet, Naked

by Brandon Thomas

Movies that mix music and quirk tend to punch me right in the feels (is a 36-year-old allowed to say “feels”?). Once, Begin Again and Sing Street are a few examples of movies that gave my tear ducts a workout. The only feelings Juliet, Naked conjured in me were boredom, apathy and a dash of frustration.

Annie (Rose Bryne) is stuck in a rut. She lives in her sleepy hometown and works the same job her father did. Her boyfriend, Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), is more interested in a long-disappeared musician than starting a family with her. When a CD demo for Duncan’s favorite musician, Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), shows up at their home, Annie is the first to listen. Her negative reaction to the album, mixed with Duncan’s over-the-top positive one, sets off a chain of events that ends with Crowe himself visiting her in England.

I realized halfway through Juliet, Naked that director Jesse Peretz (Our Idiot Brother) was trying to reinvent the classic rom-com. Instead, it’s more of a Frankenstein’s monster hybrid, as one part indie drama mixed with your classic rom-com clichés makes for strange bedfellows. It’s not to say that these tropes couldn’t exist together – they could – but it would need to be in the hands of a stronger filmmaker.

The cast fares a little bit better. Hawke and Byrne do what they can with a messy script, and they have an undeniable chemistry. The problem – again – lies in that it sometimes feels like the characters are moving between two different films. One moment, Hawke’s character is lamenting his shortcomings as a father, and the next he’s in a hospital bed surrounded by all of his ex-wives/lovers. It’s a scene that wouldn’t feel out of place in a network sitcom.

Byrne is the one saving grace. She’s always been able to lift the material she’s given, and it’s no different here. There’s a sweetness to Annie that never feels naïve. She’s a competent, driven woman who just hasn’t allowed herself to go after what she wants in life.

There’s a behind the camera pedigree to Juliet, Naked that makes its shortcomings all the more disappointing. It’s based on the book by Nick Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity), and produced by Judd Apatow (Bridesmaids, Superbad, Pineapple Express). Apatow has especially shown himself to be adept at producing really funny, thoughtful comedies.

Had Juliet, Naked kept both feet firmly in one genre, I think the film would’ve had something nice to say. Instead, it’s a murky mess of what could have been.

Grade: C

Also opening in Columbus:
Active Measures (PG13)
Boarding School (R)
BuyBust (NR)
The Captain (NR)
Kin (PG13)
Madelines Madeline (NR)
Operation Finale (PG13)
Skate Kitchen (R)
Ya Veremos (PG13)

Read more from Hope and team at MADDWOLF, and listen to her weekly film podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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