Searching was one of 2018's real surprises, as well as one of my picks for the great films of that year. Told entirely through the lens of computer, cell phone, and video cameras, it chronicled a father (played by John Cho) and his desperate search for his missing teenage daughter. The movie caught me totally by surprise with how effective it was able to draw genuine drama and suspense from such a simple concept limited by the fact that all of it was filmed on personal camera devices, and it had some effective plot twists as well that I genuinely did not see coming.
Made on a budget of under $900,000, the movie went on to gross over $75 million worldwide. We certainly didn't need a follow up, but when you make that kind of profit in Hollywood, you get one, so here is Missing. And while not really a sequel, it uses the same central gimmick and idea. Like before, the movie has been filmed entirely on personal cameras, computers and phones, and it once again centers on a mysterious disappearance of a family member. This time, instead of a middle aged father, the central character is 18-year-old June, played by the talented Storm Reid. Making the main character someone who grew up in the tech generation, and knows all the ins and outs of internet sleuthing is a great idea on how to differentiate this film from the original. Ms. Reid also brings a large amount of nuance to her performance as she desperately seeks information on the whereabouts of her mother (Nia Long), who disappears while on vacation in Columbia with her new boyfriend (Ken Leung).
For the first hour or so, I was totally on board. The movie was using its gimmick brilliantly, and didn't seem like it was just rehashing the success of the earlier formula. I was involved in the early bits of the mystery that it was dropping our way, and I was enjoying the casual friendship that June slowly builds with a local man over in the city her mom was vacationing (Joaquim de Almeida) who helps her look up any possible clues over video chats. But then, the movie slowly begins to sink into generic thriller territory, and my heart quite literally sunk. There are few experiences at the movies more disheartening than watching a movie you were previously into start to sink into cliches and over the top performances. I kept on hoping that the writers would be able to pull off a miracle, but they don't.
Missing desperately wants to surprise us, so it piles on one plot twist on top of another to the point of madness. Every time we seem to learn something, we suddenly find out a few scenes later that things are not what we seem. I don't mind it when movies play with my expectations. In fact, I wish more would do it. But when it becomes the sole point of the film, and it does it over and over, the movie is not playing with the audience, but instead laughing at us for trying to figure it out. Are we supposed to be smacking our foreheads in disbelief with each new revelation? I honestly don't know what the filmmakers are trying to do. In their desperation to be clever, they instead end up being overly convoluted.
What made Searching work is that it felt real. I bought every second of the film, and was genuinely surprised near the end when the information came out that changed what I thought I knew. Here, as the secrets, reveals, and red herrings piled up, I constantly knew I was watching a scripted thriller. I especially knew I was watching a very bad scripted thriller when the third act popped up, and it started throwing psycho movie cliches into the mix, all the while desperately trying to figure out ways as to why we are watching this on a handheld camera. The movie eventually strains belief so much that it snaps, and we know we're being manipulated. The spell of the movie is broken, and I watched the climax unfold with silent disbelief. I wanted to go back to the earlier part of the film that felt like the movie was going to follow in the footsteps of the first, and be a believable and fun time.
Missing gets so wrapped up in throwing us off course, only to end with such a predictable and schlocky conclusion. This is one of those movies that's not worth going through the trouble of all the hoops it forces you to jump through in order to figure it out. It also feels like a bait and switch, as the first half is grounded in the same reality as the earlier movie, only for it to go off the edge.
You look at Plane, and two immediate questions spring to your mind. First, how long did it take the writers to come up with that title? Second, how much did they get paid to do so? The movie is an assembly of 80s action cliches that might have served well as a direct to streaming picture, but as a theatrical release (even one being pushed out in the dreary days of early January), comes up short.
Despite the presence of a recognizable star like Gerard Butler, the movie has an overly cheap feel with a rushed script, dim lighting, and a tone similar to those 80s Cannon action films that used to star Chuck Norris. You know the ones. The hero is a seeming everyman who just happens to be very adept at kicking all kinds of ass. Apparently the filmmakers didn't want to go beyond being a mere homage. The script isn't any better than it has to be, the supporting characters would be called cardboard if it wasn't an insult to perfectly good packing material, and the villain is as one-note as they come. I know there's an audience for this out there, but if you can hold out, it will probably play better at home.
As is to be expected, the main character has a past. Butler plays the wonderfully-named Brodie Torrance, who used to have a good commercial airline pilot job, until he got physical with an unruly passenger, and now he's stuck flying for a cheap East Asia airline that is never full, and skimps on just about everything. He's hoping that his luck will turn around eventually, but given that this is an action movie, you know he's dreaming. We also know he's in trouble, because one of his passengers on this flight is a prisoner named Louis Gaspare (Mike Colter) who is being transported by an armed marshal. Even if Louis is not the villain here, it's never a good sign in a movie when one of your passengers is a convict.
Sure enough, flying over the Philippines, the plane is struck by lightning, and Brodie is forced to make an emergency crash landing, which kills off some of the unnecessary passengers (like the marshal) and crew. As Brodie tries to guide the survivors safely through the jungle, they are beset by armed militants who kidnap nearly everyone, and plan to use them as hostages. Now Brodie and Louis have to work together to try to contact home free the hostages, and kill as many of the bad guys as possible. Yes, Plane really is as simple as its title suggests, and while I can easily see this being fun, the screenplay never gives us a reason to care about anyone in this situation, so it never builds to any suspense.
Nothing is fleshed out here, especially not the buddy relationship that is supposed to slowly form between the pilot and the convict, who perform most of the action stunts and killing throughout the film. In a movie like this, you have to create some unique banter between the heroes or maybe a unique angle, but it would seem that writers J.P. Davis and Charles Cumming forgot to get that far into the writing process when they were slapping this thing together. Not only that, but the direction by action veteran Jean-Francois Richet is as basic as it comes. The plane crash sequence is the one sequence that actually provides some thrills. All the future firefights and gun battles are blandly shot, poorly edited, and instantly forgettable.
Plane is a January movie through and through, but even by those low standards, this still could have been more. I kept on waiting for some sign that the movie wasn't totally asleep at the wheel - Some kind of wit in the dialogue, or perhaps a really well executed sequence, but it provides little to none. My guess is you've seen dozens of movies just like this, and there's little reason to see this one.
The Whale has been a largely polarizing movie for critics and audiences. Some have praised it and called it brave, particularly for the lead performance from Brendan Fraser, which is easily a career best, while others have called it a grotesque spectacle that revels in stereotypes of the obese. Having just seen the film, I honestly don't understand what those who criticize the film are getting at. I found this moving, involving from the first frame to the last, and tremendously heartbreaking.
The film is an adaptation of a stage play by Samuel D. Hunter, who also provides the screenplay here. And even though the film never really leaves the apartment of the main character (aside from a few exterior shots now and then), it doesn't feel claustrophobic or overly staged. Director Darren Aronofsky has given us one of his most powerful films, and when you consider this is the guy who did Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler, that's saying something. This is a story of a man who truly believes that people are amazing, and uses his optimism of humanity to combat his addictions that are slowly killing him. He has to be optimistic, because he has so little in his own life. If he didn't believe in others, he would probably be in a worse state than we already find him.
And to those who call this movie exploitative, I have to wonder what movie they saw. The lead character of Charlie is played by Fraser under a fat suit and tons of make up to make him appear as a 600 pound man at the end of his life. Some have accused Aronofsky of fat-shaming, or playing only in stereotypes, but I never saw Charlie as anything more than a tortured soul who is desperately clinging to what little hope he has. He is disgusted with himself and what he has become, he is miserable, and he is a broken man. And yet, I never pitied him, because Fraser is so complex and involving here. He's not just hiding behind a lot of make up, he's giving a genuinely devastating performance. He shows us Charlie as a man, not just as an effect. It's one of those rare performances that transcends acting, and becomes truly believable. It's a wondrous feat of acting, and the film is pretty marvelous as well in my eyes.
Fraser is not just hiding behind make up, but has eyes that seem to be pleading in nearly every scene. Whether it's for help, or for someone to look at him without disgust or contempt, he constantly has a look of sadness that is the deepest and most thorough I have seen on film in a while. With his thinning hair and near-permanent sweat stains on his clothes, his Charlie has pretty much become glued to his couch where he teaches a college writing course on line. He never lets his students see him, saying his camera is broken, and so they only hear his voice. When he's not doing his job, he often binge eats. Every night, the delivery boy drops off two large pizzas for him on his doorstep. They develop a sort of friendship through the door, as they never see each other. Charlie leaves the money in his mailbox, and waits until the kid is gone before he opens the door to take the food left behind on the bench by his door.
The film covers one specific week in Charlie's life where various people from the outside world become involved with him. These include his caregiver Liz (Hong Chau from The Menu) who seems constantly torn between berating him for his self-indulgent eating and enabling it, a young man named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) who is a traveling Christian Missionary who gets wrapped up in Charlie's life and becomes determined to save him, and Charlie's teenage daughter from a previous marriage, Ellie (Sadie Sink), who seems to have a permanent chip on her shoulder toward her father and everyone else who walks into her life. She wrote her father out of her life a long time ago, but he is so desperate to spend time with her this week that he offers to pay her everything he has if she will just spend time with him.
It's through these various visits that the plot is revealed to us. We learn of Charlie's previous marriage and why he left in the first place, we learn that the young man who visits him may not entirely be what he seems, and we learn why Liz just does not take Charlie to the hospital, despite the fact his heart is in danger of failing him. All the while, The Whale makes Charlie into an enormously flawed yet sympathetic character. I did not sense the hatred for him that some claim the film has. Yes, the movie is very hard to watch, but so are a lot of other great movies. This is not a movie you watch to "enjoy". You watch this for the amazing performances, and for some very personal and powerful insights into the lives of the characters. The movie has a quiet and haunting tone that simply mesmerized me. It never once talks down to the audience, and I never felt like it was making me hate Charlie. It puts his demons and addictions on display, but it never sneers at them.
Beyond Fraser's performance, this is also one of the best acted films I've seen in a while. The entire small cast is note perfect. Yes, with its limited setting and number of characters, its origins as a stage play are transparent, yet it never bothered me here like it sometimes does. Aronofsky's visual style and the performances are more than enough to make the emotions in this piece larger than life. It's rare for a film to grip me this strongly emotionally, but it's always a wonderful experience when one does. When you see as many movies as I do, you start to notice how few of them actually leave any sort of impact. Here, from the first second to the start of the end credits, I was feeling something, and it was certainly not disgust or hatred as others have claimed.
The Whale holds not just some of the best performances of 2022, but it's one of its very best films as well in my opinion. Fraser has always been able to excel in both blockbuster entertainment and dramatic work, but here he goes beyond anything I've seen him do. He's amazing, his co-stars are amazing, and so is just the movie itself in every way.
A Man Called Otto is a sweet little movie that is too scattered in its characters and plotting to be fully effective. It's a movie about an old curmudgeon, but since he's played by Tom Hanks, we know he's not what he seems. We also know this, because the movie frequently supplies nostalgic flashbacks to his sad past set to sentimental pop songs, and the equally sentimental music score by Thomas Newman.
This is a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve, and there are moments here that I liked. But there are just as many that feel calculated and scripted. The movie is inspired by the Swedish novel, A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, which got its own movie in its native language back in 2015. Having not read the book or seen the previous film, I can't judge this as an adaptation. What I can say is this Hollywood film simply jumps around too much from one crowd pleasing element to another. The movie has a lot of elements that should work, but because it can't narrow its focus, it winds up simply coming across as disorganized. I liked Otto, and I liked his neighbors, but the movie keeps us at arm's length because it can't decide how it wants to tug at our heartstrings.
This should be a sweet little movie about a grumpy old man who learns to open his heart again after the passing of his wife, but because the movie can't pick an angle, it tries to do so much more. It supplies the main character with some boisterous new neighbors with two precocious little daughters (with a third baby on the way, so there can be the inevitable child birth hospital scene), a transgender kid who gets kicked out of his home by his father that Otto bonds with and helps out, a cute little cat that the old man unwillingly becomes the owner of, an evil real estate company that is trying to kick an elderly couple out of their home, and some young social media reporters who view Otto as a hero after he saves someone who fell on the train tracks.
Various characters and subplots play out through A Man Called Otto, and the movie tries desperately to juggle all of these emotional elements, but it just never stays on anything long enough for us to get attached to them like we should. All this, and we also have Otto's own sad past concerning his true love, Sonya (Rachel Keller), who he met by chance when he was a young man (played in flashbacks by Hanks' real life son, Truman) and eventually married. These flashbacks tell us why they never had children, and why he became so shut off to everyone except his wife, and why after she died from cancer, he doesn't want to go on anymore. It becomes kind of a morbid running gag in the film that Otto wants to kill himself through different means, but keeps on getting interrupted somehow by one of the many other neighbors who keep on showing up at his door like characters in a sitcom.
These flashbacks are far too scattered and brief for us to truly get lost in the emotion that the movie wants to create. Think back on Pixar's Up, and how that movie spent its first fifteen or so minutes showing us the love that Carl and Ellie had for each other. It told us everything we needed to know in the form of an amazing short film hidden within a roughly 90 minute movie. The approach worked, because that film's director, Pete Docter, let the emotion truly wash over its audience, and told us everything we needed to know all at once. Here, it feels like director Marc Foster (2018's Christopher Robin) is just hiding information from us until it's dramatically convenient. He also rips off a key moment from the underrated John Hughes film, 1988's She's Having a Baby, using a similar scene scored to the same song (Kate Bush's This Woman's Work), and only proves that Hughes did it better 35 years ago.
The thing is, I liked the performances here, especially Hanks, who gets to give a real performance without a bizarre accent like his last two films, Elvis and Pinocchio. I even liked his neighbors, and thought if the movie slowed down long enough for us to get truly attached to them, they could be really something. A Man Called Otto so desperately wants to warm our hearts and leave us with a tear in our eye, but it can't decide how it wants to do so. It goes at it from so many angles that I got frustrated. I hate when that happens.
In 2019, there was an updated remake to the seminal 80s killer doll movie, Child's Play, which reimagined the notorious Chucky doll as an AI toy gone rogue that only wanted to be its human owner's best friend by killing the boy's enemies. The movie was far too goofy to work, going for laughs over genuine suspense, and never took advantage its ripe premise for satire of exploring the effects high tech social media toys have on children like it should have.
M3GAN has a similar premise to that remake, as well as an equally goofy and satirical tone. However, this movie works where the previous one failed in how it uses its absurd qualities to its advantage. And while the movie has obviously been toned down in order to obtain a teen-friendly PG-13 (a mistake in my eyes), it still manages to be twisted fun as long as you don't apply much thought to it. This is not a movie for thinkers to begin with. Screenwriter Akela Cooper (2021's Malignant) also does a much better job of exploring a child's obsession with a tech toy than the Chucky film from four years ago. She also shows a great sense of humor, which is wonderful since Malignant (while equally goofy) took itself way too seriously, and suffered for it.
That humor is on display right from the start, as the film opens with an advertisement for the latest kid's tech craze, the Purrpetual Pet, which looks kind of like a Furby crossed with the hair of a troll doll. It's basically designed to be obnoxious, as it poops and spews dated catch phrases over and over. Still, it is the best friend of little Cady (Violet McGraw), who spends more time looking at her iPad than at her parents, who aren't in the movie long, as they're killed in a freak car accident while taking their daughter on a ski vacation. The orphaned girl is placed in the care of her aunt Gemma (Allison Williams), a robotics designer at the toy company that makes the Purrpetual Pet, but has secretly been working on her own highly advanced robot doll without the knowledge of her boss (Ronny Cheng).
Gemma is not the parental type, so she sees her niece as the perfect test subject for M3GAN, which stands for Model 3 Generative Android. The doll is an AI toy like no other, as it bonds with and learns the personal needs of the child it's connected to. She can be playful, understanding, entertaining, and soothing when need be. M3GAN has an appropriately Uncanny Valley look, but is actually portrayed by two different actresses, with child actor Amie Donald providing the physical performance and Jenna Davis giving her voice. M3GAN is designed to be a child's best friend, but as in all stories of this type, it gets too smart for its own good. Her primary function is to keep Cady safe, and when the robot starts coming across people who don't like her friend, those people start mysteriously turning up dead.
The victims are the expected lot in a thriller such as this, like the obnoxious neighbor with the mean dog (Lori Dungey), or a boy who bullies Cady in front of M3GAN. In all honesty, the thriller aspects of the film are predictable, and not what drew me in. It was the tongue in cheek satire, as well as its overall message of children building such a strong bond with tech toys that they forego human connection that intrigued me. By the time the robot girl is murdering random people for no reason and going on a rampage, the movie kind of settles into a safe and somewhat censored (due to the obvious editing to tone down the rating) tone. And yet, the movie has a playful energy that kept me engaged.
M3GAN embraces its goofiness without going so far as to lose its effectiveness like 2019's Child's Play (which was made by no one involved with the actual Chucky franchise that is still running). It's smart in the way it rehashes thriller tropes while mixing it with some intelligent social commentary. As mentioned, this is not a movie for thinkers, but it has been well thought out enough that I usually had a goofy grin on my face while watching it. You can tell that the cast and crew were having fun with this, and it comes through to the audience. It's the kind of movie you hopefully watch with a large audience that scream and laugh at all the right spots, and forget your problems for about 100 minutes.
Movies released the first weekend of January are usually disposable, but this one bucks that trend, and offers a good time. Yes, there are moments that make no sense (Would a toy company really use a child's personal tragedy of losing her parents in its marketing?), but for a movie that's designed to be check your brain at the door entertainment, it knows what it's doing.
I am a rabid movie fan since 1984 who calls them as he sees them. Sometimes harsh, but always honest, I offer my 'reel opinions' on today's films. I don't get money for my reviews, and I have to pay to get into every movie I see (even the really awful ones), so what you will see here is the true reaction of a man who is passionate about film. - Ryan Cullen