‘The Grudge’ Just Won’t End, and That’s Fitfully Fascinating

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CREDIT: Allen Fraser/Sony/Screen Gems

Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Demián Bichir, John Cho, Betty Gilpin, Lin Shaye, Jacki Weaver, Frankie Faison, William Sadler

Director: Nicolas Pesce

Running Time: 94 Minutes

Rating: R for Dismemberment, Fire, Drowning, Stabbing, and Gunshot Wounds

Release Date: January 3, 2020

In the spirit of experimentation, I have decided that my first movie review of 2020 will be in the form of an acrostic. The letters I will be using will be those in the title (not including the “the”), that title being The Grudge, the remake of a remake (or perhaps the latest remake of the first version) about the ghostly curse that lingers in a house where an anger-filled murder has occurred. This time, it takes the form of a multi-murder mystery in which those investigating the deaths at 44 Reyburn Drive run the risk of becoming infected by the grudge themselves.

Great cast! I mean, just look at that list. That’s at least half a dozen folks that could carry a horror movie (or any movie) on their own, and here they are together. Do they elevate the material that’s on the page? Yes, and it could use some elevating.

Repeating the formula is the name of the game here, but not the Grudge formula (or not just the Grudge formula). If you’re hankering for a return to J-horror remake glory, chances are you’ve got The Ring on your mind, and so does, it would seem, The Grudge 2020, as Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) is most concerned about protecting her son from the effects of the curse that she is experiencing.

Upside-down is how you’ll be looking during one particularly grisly moment involving Lin Shaye. It’s also how you’ll be feeling when things turn metaphysical and conversations discuss how supernatural curses go hand-in-hand with time distortion.

Digits (i.e., fingers) get hacked off. In general, writer/director Nicolas Pesce is not shy about bodies becoming pummeled, ripped apart, and decayed. It’s this movie’s most effectively visceral technique.

Generosity, and a fair bit at that, is probably required to give this umpteenth entry in a long-running, occasionally ponderous franchise a chance. An effective atmosphere is met, and frankly, that is a must that must be met in this sort of challenge.

Ending… it looked like it was going to be conclusive, which wouldn’t have been a good fit for the endless hopelessness inherent in this premise. But then there’s a fakeout, and instead of a punch in the gut, you leave with more of a whoosh.

The Grudge is Recommended If You Like: Diving into the infinite reboot loop while allowing some room for hope

Grade: 2.75 out of 5 Hands Popping Out of Hair

This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Oath’ Offers a Caustic Vision of Thanksgiving in an America Built on Loyalty Above All Else

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CREDIT: Topic Studios/Roadside Attractions

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2018.

Starring: Ike Barinholtz, Tiffany Haddish, Billy Magnussen, John Cho, Nora Dunn, Chris Ellis, Jon Barinholtz, Meredith Hagner, Carrie Brownstein, Jay Duplass

Director: Ike Barinholtz

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: R for the Profanity of Thanksgiving and Surprisingly Potentially Lethal Violence

Release Date: October 12, 2018 (Limited)

I do not pledge allegiance to The Oath. Nor do I pledge anti-allegiance to it. That lack of fiery passion might be antithetical to a movie that is all about getting everyone riled up, but I need to be honest about how I really feel. And besides, I believe that The Oath ultimately advocates taking a breath and having more measured reactions to potentially explosive situations.

Is the America of The Oath the America that writer-director Ike Barinholtz is worried his country is turning into? He stars as Chris, alongside Tiffany Haddish as his wife Kai, with the two of them united in their disgust at The President’s Oath, an act that requests that Americans declare their allegiance to the president. Barinholtz and Haddish are both known for playing unpredictable balls of energy, but they both tone it down quite a bit here. Perhaps it is best to think of Chris and Kai as what the typical Barinholtz and Haddish characters would become if they settled down in the suburbs and had a young daughter. They are still plenty wound-up, though, Barinholtz especially, as Chris is a news junkie who despairs at every story that pops up on his screens. I suspect that Barinholtz is not quite so constantly on edge in his personal life and that he allows himself the catharsis of freaking out in his work. (If my presumption is wrong, then I sympathize with his friends and families.)

The fallout of the Oath on Chris and Kai and their extended family plays out on Thanksgiving, that hallowed day of controversial conversations between loved ones breaking down along predictably political lines. The Oath ups the ante by throwing government officials, firearms, and general creeping paranoia into the mix. Barinholtz is clearly influenced by a current administration that values loyalty above ethics, but he keeps his warning timeless by avoiding giving a name to anyone in charge. This breakdown in trust in society could happen any time, The Oath argues, and maybe wacky black comedies are the best thing we have to make sense of that.

The Oath is Recommended If You Like: Black comedy stage plays about squabbling families, Grounded political dystopias

Grade: 3 out of 5 Breaking News Alerts

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Searching’ Achieves Intimacy Through Screen-Based Storytelling

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CREDIT: Sebastian Baron/Screen Gems

This review was originally posted on News Cult in August 2018.

Starring: John Cho, Debra Messing, Michelle La, Joseph Lee

Director: Aneesh Chaganty

Running Time: 102 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Angry Outbursts and References to Patterns of Illegal Behavior

Release Date: August 24, 2018 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide August 31, 2018

If a movie is going to have a form-busting structure, it is probably best if its story works on its own merits regardless of the filmmaking style, unless the format is so unusual that audiences don’t even know how to process it. Searching is not the first film to be told entirely on computer screens, nor is it even the first from producer Timur Bekmambetov. This is just the latest in his “Screenlife” series, following in the innovative footsteps of Unfriended and its sequel, Unfriended: Dark Web. Searching is the story of widowed father David Kim (John Cho) desperately looking for his missing teenage daughter Margot (Michelle La), and it is compelling enough on its own beyond its medium-within-a-medium approach. But its unique structure proves to be an ingenious method for plumbing characters’ psychology.

Much of Searching is about David coming to terms with the fact that he may not have known his daughter as well as he thought he did. This is a phenomenon that many, perhaps all, parents experience at some point, but rarely under such tragic circumstances. Talking him through much of this crisis is Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing), the case’s lead detective, who assures David that there are always secrets between even the closest of loved ones. It’s a lesson worth keeping in mind for any viewers trying to suss out the twist to come when the truth is revealed, and it also illuminates what the Screenlife form can achieve. In one early scene, before David knows for sure that Margot is truly missing, he composes an angry text message to her … and then deletes and replaces it with something much more civil. The intimacy granted to viewers by seeing David’s process is on the same level of that between the reader and narrator of a novel.

One of Searching‘s major charms is its heavy use of outdated technology, not in terms of fetishization but rather the stasis typical of suburban parents. The opening montage features David and his wife keeping track of Margot’s early years on their new Windows XP computer. Cut to the present day, and David is still using a now decade-and-a-half-old operating system. It still runs perfectly fine, so there is no reason to be a consumerist shill and insist that he make an upgrade. But sticking to this routine is indicative of how he goes about his personal life as well. The nature of his quality time spent with Margot has not changed much since his wife died. But their relationship needs to change, because she is almost an adult and they need to talk to each other about how the loss of Mom has affected both of them. Searching does not take a stance on whether the domination of screens in modern society is a net positive or negative, but by thoroughly examining how much we document on computers, it demonstrates how valuable it is to occasionally keep track of those records.

Searching is Recommended If You Like: The Fugitive, Law & Order, Organizing Photos on Your Computer

Grade: 4 out of 5 File Folders

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Gemini’ is a Satisfying Light-and-Dark Neo-Noir

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CREDIT: NEON

This review was originally posted on News Cult in March 2018.

Starring: Lola Kirke, Zoë Kravitz, John Cho

Director: Aaron Katz

Running Time: 92 Minutes

Rating: R for Easygoing, Friendly Profanity and a Bloody Crime Scene

Release Date: March 30, 2018 (Limited)

What if you suddenly discovered that your life has turned into a movie? That’s essentially the same question as: what if you found yourself in the most extreme and unusual of circumstances? As one character in the neo-noir murder mystery Gemini puts it, the most likely culprit is the one with the motive, the opportunity, and the capacity. And there just so happens to be a perfectly creepy guy who fits all the criteria. But if this is a movie, then it might be the craziest, least obvious suspect who turns out to be the culprit. Occam’s razor may give you the right answer nine times out of ten, but that other 10% is where lies the basis for exciting, unpredictable films. Gemini is kind of enjoyably self-aware about that, but only as much as it can be when its leads are a couple of way-out-of-their-depth young adults.

Heather (Zoë Kravitz) is a young actress who is burnt out by the business in her twenties. The presentation of her world is vague to the point that we never get a full sense of just how famous she is, but we do know that she is enough of a star to have a sizable Instagram following and overaggressive fans approaching her in diners. Gemini could have just been a hangout movie depicting the carefree days of Heather and her assistant Jill (Lola Kirke), who are referred to as “freaky, fucked-up best friends,” the kind who “kill each other all the time.” But really, their friendship is genuine and supportive, and while they may keep secrets from each other, that is to be expected when living in a mostly empty mansion in a populous but often lonely city and working in a frequently soul-sucking industry. So when Jill finds Heather dead by gunshot wound, what should be a personal tragedy instead plays out as a hazy detour into purgatory.

If this were a film about millennial self-actualization, Jill would probably be a total boss, and Heather would be right by her side for the majority of the runtime. But instead, Jill does her best to adapt to her new noir status quo. She does some fine investigative work of her own and her psyche holds up well against the withering glare of the lead detective (John Cho, giving an intense performance marked by enigmatic motivation) who clearly suspects that she might be the killer. But she also has moments of silliness, like adopting a disguise that really doesn’t help her out in any capacity, and she gets called out for that pointlessness. Overall, writer/director Aaron Katz pulls off a remarkable tonal balance, utilizing Keegan DeWitt’s jazzy trip-hop score and Andrew Reed’s oppressive cinematography to firmly establish the devastation inherent in the premise while also maintaining a comedic lightness drawn from basic truths of characterization and performance. There is a lot of self-confidence on display here, and that goes a long way.

Gemini is Recommended If You Like: Mulholland Drive, Nerve, References to ’90s pop culture touchstones

Grade: 3.75 out of 5 Blond Wigs