(On Cable TV, March 2019) Technology changes movies, specifically changes the grammar of movies, and after more than a decade of staring at computer screens, it makes sense to see the rise of a sub-genre of films executed as if from a computer screen from start to finish. Searching comes hot on the heels of films such as Open Windows and Unfriended (the last of which shares producer Timur Bekmambetov), but it manages to feel like something more than a cinematic experiment. It’s clearly more confident in what it can do, and so the execution incorporates different computers screens (to show the passage of time), zooms, flashbacks and multimedia variance. Even from a more nuts-and-bolts narrative perspective, it’s significantly stronger in terms of characterization, suspense, plot details and Easter eggs (I caught parts of the alien-invasion subplot, but not all of it). John Cho is quite good as a grieving father doing all he can to find his missing daughter—the first two thirds of the film are more about style than substance, but the last act eventually gets to the point of delivering some emotional payoffs as well. Searching is compelling viewing, paced for the Internet era and clearly eliding details that are taken for granted by modern audiences. (I’m having fun imagining what an average 1950s viewer would make of the film.) Some of the new film grammar invented by writer-director Aneesh Chaganty is quite clever, and so is the way that it makes use of the big Internet structures that we now consider part of our lives. I have no clue how well this is going to age, but I suspect that at the very least it’s going to be a fascinating time capsule of circa-2018 Internet use. (Complete with concern trolling, social media hypocrisy and anonymous attacks.) I liked Searching quite a bit, and as more than just a showpiece of a different kind of way to tell a story—although that counts for it as well.
(On Cable TV, June 2017) Ugh. Everyone knows that the risk in remaking a classic film is producing a remake so bad that it disappears without a blip. With Ben-Hur, the remake is dull enough that it self-erases from mind moments after the movie wraps up. Other than two standout sequences (the galley sequence and the remake of the classic chariot race), much of Ben-Hur is undistinguishable from so many other recent sword-and-sandal movies … and considering that there haven’t been that many of them, it’s already telling. But director Timur Bekmambetov’s strength is in strong visuals and action sequences, so the film only really comes alive during those moments—the rest is straight-up historical drama, loosely coupled with biblical content. At least it features a few largely unknown cast, the best of which (Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Nazanin Boniadi, Ayelet Zurer) have reasonable chances of landing roles in better movies. At least there are a few action sequences to make things worthwhile: While overly and obviously CGI-ed, the chariot race is frantic and event-filled (too much so at times—longer shots would have helped), while the galley sequence is one set of nightmares piled upon others. I would seriously recommend fast-forwarding the movie until you hit those sequences—the rest can barely be recalled after watching the film.
(On-demand Video, December 2012) I’m a forgiving fan of big dumb action movies, but there’s something just off in the way Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter is handled. The one-joke premise (fully encapsulated in the title) is so outrageous that the only way to do it justice is to fully indulge in the madness: make it big, make it outrageous, make it as demented as possible. Indeed, the two best sequences of the film are those in which writer Seth Grahame-Smith (who adapted his own rather more serious eponymous novel) allows himself to go as over-the-top as possible: Flinging horses and jumping away from collapsing bridges are exactly what I expect of a film titled Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. Unfortunately, the script calls for the rest of the film to be ponderous and reverential to the Lincoln mythos. This makes the end result feel far too heavy for its own sake and possibly insulting to the real-life history of slavery. Where is the fun? Where is the action? By trying to stand half-way between the historical record and the craziness of its ultra-contemporary premise, director Timur Bekmambetov (who’s capable of much better) ends up sabotaging the impact of his own project. At a time where campy irony is justifiably decried, I feel bad about calling for more of it… but the best moments of the film only highlight what it most missed. Fortunately, most of the actors do good work: Benjamin Walker is just fine as Lincoln (some camera angles late in the film make him look like Liam Neeson) and Rufus Sewell seems to have a lot of fun playing the antagonist. Aside from the stampede sequence and the train finale, through, there really isn’t much to Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter: the script is inconsistent, the dialogues are perfunctory and the pacing is slow enough to make anyone long for the next burst of madness. Unlike other reviewers, I had some hopes for the film. Alas, I can only register my disappointment.