Computer-Screen Thriller “Searching” Is a Strong Argument for Logging Off

Director Timur Bekmambetov has said that he developed the screen-capture technology responsible for the transtextual horror film Unfriended: Dark Web and the thriller Profile when he realized Americans spend up to half their waking hours online or connected to devices. Now he has produced a feature directed by Aneesh Chaganty called Searching, starring John Cho as a checked-out father combing through his missing daughter’s online footprint, hunting for any clues that might help reveal what has happened to her. The story shares hallmarks with some of the best twisty, turny whodunits, and that at least kept my interest, but as the action played out via FaceTime and YouTube videos, I couldn’t help but wonder: What’s actually gained by this novel technique of watching a story on a screen on a screen? And every time I wondered this, I imagined how whatever scene I was watching might have been staged and shot and acted out in a more traditional film — and I was inevitably disappointed by what has been lost, especially in terms of cinematic decision-making and flesh-and-blood performances.

We meet husband David Kim (Cho) and wife Pam (Sara Sohn) through a long, ten- or fifteen-minute montage of videos, emails, and texts presented in a manner reminiscent of those Apple ads that try desperately to convince you it’s a joyful thing to commit your entire life to their tech. Chaganty is essentially trying to sell his audience something similar — please buy his tech-based story! He’s savoring rather than critiquing. Even the music seems ripped off from twee commercials. We see David and Pam go on vacations and cheer on the accomplishments of their daughter Margot (played by a succession of actors as Margot grows older, including Alex Jayne Go, Megan Liu, Kya Dawn Lau, and finally Michelle La). An email with the subject line “Test Results” pops up, and then Pam’s struggle with cancer is portrayed through a Google search for “How to fight cancer as a family?” I admit that I’ll cry at most tearjerker commercials, and this montage is a potent example of the form, so it’s not surprising that my eyes wetted when we learn that Pam has taken a turn for the worse — a revelation followed by an image of Margot’s first day at school with just her father.

The next time we see David, he’s FaceTiming with his teen daughter, telling her to come home right after her study session — and to take out the trash. He’s stilted, tense. In the middle of the night, David misses three calls from Margot, and then everything goes awry. Now no one knows where Margot has gone, and after digging into her computer, David finds out he may not know his daughter at all. It’s an apt story for today. Think of how many news articles have popped up about parents who didn’t realize their kids had been indoctrinated into Nazism via YouTube.

So, the film has promise, but the tech keeps getting in the way of the performances. Debra Messing, who plays Detective Vick, is a formidable actress, and yet I didn’t believe a word she said, especially when she was just a detached voice on the phone — too clean and too crisp. Why wouldn’t you want to see John Cho and Debra Messing actually vibing off each other in a scene? Chemistry between actors has only fueled Hollywood filmmaking for a century! But the bigger question is why a filmmaker would be so committed to putting what we watch on the small screen on the big screen. What’s the point, when even YouTube is creating content (like Cobra Kai) that is designed to make you forget you’re watching YouTube?

See, there’s a thing called “co-presence” — that feeling of being there with the people you see on the screen — that most filmmakers strive to achieve for their audience, even if they don’t know that’s what they’re doing. Tech has been trying to make big strides toward co-presence with 3-D and motion capture, though scientists have found that attempting to ape reality’s dimensions onscreen doesn’t actually trick the human brain. It might look cool, for sure. But we don’t buy it as real. The only thing that does create a feeling of co-presence? Big-screen technology like IMAX or your local Cinerama Dome, with traditional filmic cinematography. It’s one of the reasons film lovers are so averse to watching movies with the smooth motion setting on their TV.

In the least effective parts of Searching, David must leave his FaceTime camera on his laptop open, even after calls have ended, so that we can see Cho’s performance. I was yanked out of Searching’s reality every time this happened. Bekmambetov’s purpose for telling stories onscreen is to mirror our reality, but the choices the characters make to keep the drama unfolding before our eyes are at cross-purposes with the producer’s intent. Though the script by Chaganty and Sev Ohanian is taut and surprising, I’ve felt more absorbed in an episode of Murder, She Wrote than I did in this film, because, there, it’s story and performance that we’re invited to savor, not just tech and technique.

Directed by Aneesh Chaganty
Sony Pictures
Opens August 24


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Aaron Katz Takes Los Angeles With Transfixing Noir “Gemini”

The writer-director Aaron Katz still gets pigeonholed as a progenitor of the mumblecore movement, that umbrella term that conjures wobbly framed scenes of directionless twenty-somethings’ meandering, natural-seeming relationship talk. That reputation does a disservice to the centrality of place, of thoughtfully composed exteriors, in Katz’s work. Katz has shot two movies in his native Portland, Oregon: his breakthrough debut, Dance Party, USA (2006), and the rain-soaked amateur-gumshoe noir Cold Weather (2010). Katz lived for a spell in Brooklyn, which informed his affectionate New Yorkset romance Quiet City (2007), and he later teamed up with Martha Stephens for the buddy comedy Land Ho! (2014), which unfolds in scenic Iceland. In each instance, Katz’s ear for dialogue and interest in person-to-person interaction is partnered with artful image-making and a gently revelatory focus on geography.

A few years ago, Katz moved to Los Angeles, which serves as the setting of his latest. Gemini is a shimmering puzzler that begins with an act of Land Ho!esque palling-around before warping into an unlikely detective story in the Cold Weather vein. Where Dance Party, USA opens on an intimate shot of Katz’s heroine (Anna Kavan) waking up groggily after a night of drinking, Gemini introduces itself with full minutes of images of upside-down L.A. palm trees — a moody montage of paradise inverted. This speaks to an enlarging of scope: Gemini is arguably the first Katz movie where the backdrop regularly supplants the characters populating it. Katz, who also edited, and his director of photography, Andrew Reed, relish the transitional sequences, pausing the narrative to marvel over neon-accented vistas in which palm trees and skyscrapers overlap. (Their reveries are aided by another terrific score from Keegan DeWitt, a national treasure.)

They tell a story in there, too. It centers on Jill LeBeau (Lola Kirke), assistant to movie star Heather Anderson (Zoë Kravitz), who’s going through a bit of a rough patch. Heather is engaged in a highly publicized breakup with a fellow celebrity, Devin (Reeve Carney), and wants to back out of her next project, whose hotheaded director, Greg (Nelson Franklin), has been invested in for years. She wants, it seems, nothing more than to disappear. “I don’t want to do anything for a while,” she confesses to Jill in the front seat of a car outside pizza joint Casa Bianca. These existential quandaries combine to inspire one of those never-ending nights for Heather: An old-fashioned leads to a drink at Jill’s place leads to K-town karaoke leads to Chinese food out of the carton and lying-awake ruminations on Scream and life and ambition. In the morning, Heather is found dead in Devin’s magisterial mansion from five gunshot wounds. Jill — who spent all night with her, and whose gun is at the crime scene — emerges as the lead suspect for Detective Edward Ahn (John Cho, his mane as opulent as ever). In response, the innocent Jill dyes her hair and sets out to crack the case herself.

As in Cold Weather, Katz incites suspense not through typical crime-genre conventions but through uncanny, off-kilter details and contradictions that create a general aura of uncertainty. Jill, for instance, is introduced in the glow of her smartphone screen, and yet still uses the stopwatch on her wrist to set her alarm every morning. Michelle Forbes, in a sharp one-scene performance as a hard-charging publicist, delivers to Jill this confounding compliment: “Look, I know you and I kind of hate each other, but I actually quite like you.” And Cho, in his minor role, enlivens the detective with hilariously enigmatic expressions of intimidation, as when, in a diner-set discussion, he scoffs at Jill, “Do whatever makes you happy,” after she commits the unthinkable crime of not wanting to drink the coffee he has ordered her. These mysterious, balance-threatening elements keep the tension at a healthy medium boil. Whenever Jill seems on the verge of facing legitimate peril, Katz drops in a light touch of reassurance: a cameo by an awkwardly friendly bartender, a comic argument between Jill and Greg that transpires in playfully meta terminology.

But for all the sharp-witted conversations and pinpoint performances, Gemini most impresses as a piece of clean, confident visual storytelling. Early two-person scenes excite in their staging: When Jill pours drinks for herself and Heather, the camera glides smoothly between kitchen and living room. But as Jill’s investigative journey takes her to more remote locales, the dialogue disappears and Jill becomes a determined, isolated figure in the frame. Standing outside a laundromat, she witnesses a pivotal piece of information on the television inside; she reads the news — and reacts to it. A police sedan trails Jill, who speeds away on a stolen motorcycle; she ducks into a darkened lot, lets the cop car past, and heads in the other direction. Unable to open the front door at a cabin in the woods, Jill spots a rock, turns it over, and discovers a key. She spies on a hotel-room meeting through the slice of a closet door, Blue Velvet–style. Such passages find Katz relaying simple, compelling physical action in visually gripping and legible tableaus and this is supposed to be the guy who invented mumblecore?

Written and directed by Aaron Katz
Opens March 30, Angelika Film Center and AMC Loews Lincoln Square


Love, Loss, and Modernism Collide in “Columbus”

In Columbus, architecture takes the place of emotions, to sometimes startling effect. An outwardly chilly, resolutely static film that nevertheless finds poignancy in the most surprising places, Kogonada’s directorial debut does a couple of important things so well that I can’t help but forgive the things it doesn’t. (Kogonada, by the way, is the name the Korean-born filmmaker likes to go by. We don’t know his given name, but he’s not exactly an unknown figure: He’s been posting fascinating video essays about cinema for some time online.)

The story is whisper-thin, and that’s mostly a good thing: When his legendary professor father winds up in a coma, Jin (John Cho) comes to the small town of Columbus, Indiana — a real-life cornucopia of modernist architecture, its landscape dotted with buildings designed by the likes of Eero Saarinen and Harry Weese — to help care for him. One day, over a cigarette, he meets recent high school grad Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), an architecture buff who works at a library branch designed by I.M. Pei. They bond, both bound to this Midwestern town for family reasons: Casey worries about what leaving for college would mean for her mom, a recovering addict, while duty and tradition compel Jin to stay by his father’s side.

But the drama isn’t so much in Jin and Casey’s interactions as it is in the unlikely and unreal backdrop against which they connect. Kogonada transforms his film’s spaces into expressive elements. The huge redbrick library where Casey works becomes a place of repetition and entrapment. The gleaming and immense central tower of an otherworldly suspension bridge feels like a transmitter to the divine. The façade of Columbus City Hall, which features two cantilevered walls that approach each other but never quite meet, creates a bewitching opening that, through Kogonada’s camera, conveys a sense of unreachable metaphysical yearning.

It’s not just these big-name modernist achievements that the director uses so effectively. There’s also the plush, carefully cluttered interior of Jin’s hotel, which should be inviting but feels forbidding. There’s the modest house that Casey lives in, which seems to be lit dramatically differently every time we see it. And there’s the narrow alleyway that seems to say something new every time the camera returns to it. It doesn’t matter if it was built by someone famous or if it’s just an accident of city planning — through the eyes of this director, it’s all emotional architecture, the angles and interruptions of longing and grief.

But while this novel, mesmerizing approach to space might be Columbus’s most notable or most immediately interesting element, it’s the lovely performance by Richardson that grounds the movie. She gives this bright, confused, gentle girl a presence and depth that you sense from the film’s opening scene, as Casey asks her work crush (Rory Culkin) if he wants to go to a movie that night. The interplay of casualness and tenderness on her face is transfixing and totally natural. It’d be easy to overplay a moment like that, to completely disrupt the balance and rhythm of the scene, but Richardson doesn’t. She eschews acting tics or look-at-me indication. The feelings are there if you want to see them. (You could say the same, I suppose, about architecture.)

Columbus is so good in filling its blank spaces, in imbuing throwaway moments and silent gestures with depth, that it loses steam whenever it gives us dialogue scenes or mundane bits of story business. Casey and Jin’s conversations tend to be awkwardly written, spelling out too much of what we already know from the filmmaking and the performances. There’s even a part when they talk about the emotional valence of modernist architecture, just in case you really haven’t been paying attention.

The actors do what they can with their lines, but it’s not their delivery that moves us; it’s their glances and their physicality, and the graphic contrast between Casey’s soft features and Jin’s hard, angular face, with his sharp chin and high cheekbones and nearly square hair. (Cho does wonders with the character’s reserve, though he ultimately cedes the spotlight — as he must — to his co-star.) I realize that in asking for less talk, I’m asking for this already rather arty and beautiful film to be even more arty, and possibly even a little alienating. But the power of what does work in Columbus tells me that Kogonada and his cast could achieve such a thing. These two leads create their own ecosystem whenever they’re together, one that renders words meaningless.