‘Missing’ Delivers Yet Another Screenlife Winner

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Not Pictured: The People Who Are Missing (CREDIT: Screen Gems)

Starring: Storm Reid, Nia Long, Ken Leung, Joaquim de Almeida, Amy Landecker, Daniel Henney, Tim Griffin, Megan Suri

Directors: Nick Johnson and Will Merrick

Running Time: 111 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Over-the-Top Ragers and Implied Disturbing Violence

Release Date: January 20, 2023 (Theaters)

What’s It About?: 18-year-old June Allen (Storm Reid) sure is ready to make her way to college so that she doesn’t have to keep constantly rolling her eyes at her mom Grace (Nia Long). She’ll get to preview that independence for about a week as Mom goes on vacation to Colombia with her new boyfriend Kevin (Ken Leung, aka Miles from Lost). She proceeds to throw a nonstop, knockout rager but ultimately manages to schlep it over to LAX just in time to pick up Grace and Kevin upon their return back to the States. But then they’re nowhere to be found!

So to track them down, June enlists the help of an FBI agent (Daniel Henney), her mom’s lawyer (Amy Landecker), and a random guy on the ground in Colombia (Joaquim de Almeida). Over the course of the investigation, some rather surprising tidbits about Grace and Kevin’s pasts begin to emerge, and we see this all unfold on laptops, cell phones, and other modern Internet-connected screen devices.

What Made an Impression?: Is screenlife the best genre ever?!!! It’s a fairly young cinematic style, but it’s been producing hit after hit after hit. Unfriended was excellent! Unfriended: Dark Web took the scares to another level! Searching delivered the thrills in spades! And now we’ve got Missing serving as a standalone sequel to Searching, with a fresh story that maintains the same investigative approach and also the same gerund titling strategy. Neither Missing nor Searching has a plot that absolutely demands confining its action to screens, but that approach nevertheless keeps everything focused. And I think that’s a huge reason (perhaps even the hugest reason) why this subgenre has delivered so consistently. There are some cheats here and there in which the action spreads beyond the computer, but for the most part, the creative restraints fuel creative triumphs.

The undeniable fun of Missing is derived from its series of status quo-altering revelations, each one more gobsmacking than the rest. Pretty much everyone connected to the disappearance has their devastating secrets, and each one is calibrated for maximum audience satisfaction. I wonder if everything would still hang together on a repeat viewing, but even if the strings do start to show, that doesn’t change how effective the initial delivery is. This is a fine-tuned, well-oiled puzzle. You might be able to see greasy residue on some of the pieces, but that’s only evidence of all the essential attention to detail.

Missing is Recommended If You Like: Searching, Cable true crime docs, Online how-to guides

Grade: 4 out of 5 Windows


‘The Suicide Squad’ is Silly, Violent, Imaginative, and Easy Enough to Follow

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The Suicide Squad (CREDIT: Warner Bros./Screenshot)

Starring: Idris Elba, Margot Robbie, Viola Davis, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Sylvester Stallone, Jai Courtney, Peter Capaldi, David Dastmalchian, Daniela Melchior, Michael Rooker, Alice Braga, Pete Davidson, Nathan Fillion, Sean Gunn, Flula Borg, Steve Agee, Storm Reid, Taika Waititi

Director: James Gunn

Running Time: 132 Minutes

Rating: R for Various Body Parts Getting Torn Apart, a Full Roster of Potty Mouths, and a Little Bit of Nudity

Release Date: August 5, 2021 (Theaters and HBO Max)

The Suicide Squad feels like it came from another dimension. It shares a few characters with 2016’s (no “the”) Suicide Squad and has essentially the same premise. It’s ostensibly a sequel to that earlier effort, but it’s effectively a do-over. There are plenty of reboots every year at the multiplex, but rarely do we have such an unabashed mulligan. The multiverse theory posits that there is an infinite number of realities with any number of minor or major variations, and it seems that we’ve somehow been visited by the one in which James Gunn directed a Suicide Squad movie instead of David Ayer. Adding to this surreal state of affairs was the fact that I was in a bit of a fugue state while watching The Suicide Squad. It was a 10:00 AM screening, my first morning trip to a movie theater post-pandemic. My body was confused by the lack of sunlight at the early hour and thus my brain was unsure if it should be waking or dreaming. Either way, heads were always fated to explode.

The Suicide Squad takes a cue from Suicide Squad by having multiple beginnings, but this time it’s a cheeky bit of purposeful misdirection instead of stinky studio manipulation. Suicide squads are famously expendable, and it turns out that there are degrees of expendability, as one squad is introduced with plenty of fanfare only to serve as a diversion. Everyone involved clearly wanted to feature as many characters as possible to essentially say, “Can you believe all of the colorful ridiculousness that has actually appeared in DC Comics?” The team that we spend most of our time with consists of the ever-popular Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), a couple of sharpshooters (Idris Elba, John Cena), a queen of rodents (Daniela Melchior), and a guy who shoots polka dots out of his mouth (David Dastmalchian). They’re sent to the fictional South American island nation of Corto Maltese for some top secret political meddling, but a date with the fantastical awaits them.

I wasn’t prepared for the Big Bad in The Suicide Squad to be a giant starfish, but that is indeed what awaited me. And quite frankly, I’m glad that that’s what we got. I can take or leave the gleeful over-the-top violence; it’s good for a few laughs, but after a couple of hours, I’m exhausted by the fact that I’m not really meant to care about any of these characters (although a few do manage to find a small place in my heart). So I’m grateful that there’s a surplus of visual imagination to appreciate. Way too many extraterrestrial cinematic CGI creatures of the past 15 years or so are some variation on big bad bugs, so a massive starfish that squirts out hundreds of smaller starfish is a relief. I’d be happy to see Starro rolling around every future corner of the big-screen DC universe, whether or not the reject crew is around.

So in conclusion, if you like kooky superpowers at their absolute kookiest and rats getting their time in the spotlight, you’ll probably have a decent time with the Suicide Squad.

The Suicide Squad is Recommended If You Like: The trailers for 2016’s Suicide Squad, bodily mutilation played for laughs, Mouse Hunt

Grade: 3 out of 5 Rats

‘The Invisible Man’ Has a Scary Number of Tricks in Its Arsenal


CREDIT: Universal Pictures

Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman

Director: Leigh Whannell

Running Time: 124 Minutes

Rating: R for Deadly Weapons Deployed Unpredictably

Release Date: February 28, 2020

In the immortal words of Arthur C. Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And when it comes to loosely adapting H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man, one can give oneself a lot of leeway in terms of how much magic the titular fellow uses to render himself invisible. Writer-director Leigh Whannell (a veteran primarily of the Insidious series) makes it pretty clear which side of the magic-technology pendulum he’s swinging on by letting us know that his invisible man is “a world leader in the field of optics.” But while we are assured that there is a scientific basis for these strange happenings, that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of movie magic. One shocking set piece in which a steak knife suddenly starts floating in the air underscores the power of good old-fashioned well-timed editing. Then there are the moments of actors getting thrashed about by seemingly nothing, and it amazingly does not come off as silly, thanks to whatever combination of camera tricks, CGI manipulation, and precise physicality is employed.

The Invisible Man demonstrates the far-reaching power of abusive relationships. They do not just tear apart the people within them, they can also break down anyone who comes into contact with their deceit and manipulation. The film begins with Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) escaping the mansion where she lives with her thoroughly controlling husband Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). While crashing at her friend James’ (Aldis Hodge) house, she is initially barely able to walk out to the mailbox until she learns that Adrian has killed himself. But soon enough, a series of inexplicable occurrences convince Cecilia that Adrian actually faked his death and has now become the ultimate stalker.

Everyone in front of and behind the camera takes their cues from paranormal films in which the victim of supernatural phenomena is dismissed as suffering from the hallucinations of mental illness. As Cecilia notes, that is the profound insidiousness of an abusive relationship at work, as the abuser does everything he can to make the victim look like she’s crazy. This approach also works fantastically on a formal level, as Cecilia struggles to convince the people around her that Adrian is right there when they are in the utmost danger. She is not asking them to believe anything beyond the physical realm, but rather, to sniff out a high-level illusion. Not only is Adrian invisible, he’s also apparently soundproof, odor-free, and otherwise imperceptible. I had to wonder more than once: where and when does he eat and excrete? That’s not a criticism, just a further illustration of how much he renders himself untraceable. A supervillain this inventive does not come around too often, and it is quite the catharsis when his deception is exposed.

The Invisible Man is Recommended If You Like: Monster scientists, sleek modern mansions rendered as haunted houses, overwhelming horror scores, comeuppance for abusers

Grade: 4 out of 5 Diazepam Pills

A Touch of Time Travel: ‘Don’t Let Go’ Review

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CREDIT: Sundance Institute

Okay, so: Don’t Let Go is about a homicide detective (David Oyelowo) whose brother, sister-in-law, and niece are brutally murdered, and then he starts getting phone calls from his dead niece (Storm Reid), but it seems that she’s still alive, because she’s calling from … THE PAST! Yeah, so I’m hooked.

Det. Oyelowo gets right into it, directing Storm to start doing some covert investigating of her own in the hopes of altering the timeline. Of course then Don’t Let Go bumps up against a common time travel conundrum, i.e., if the past is altered, how will that affect the present, and will anyone remember the original past timeline, and if so, will that make sense? Or will it turn out that any “alterations” were a part of the original timeline all along, with any attempts to make changes proving instead to be a recursive insurance that it will all end up the same way?

Don’t Let Go actually manages to pull off the former in a way that makes enough cinematic sense to get by (and the shifts are rendered visually in satisfyingly disorienting fashion), as the past and present seem to be tethered together on an inflection point. And if we want to, we can say that the phone conversations are the portal that allows for the callers to have memories of multiple timelines. That being said, there are relatively few moments when the timeline is actually altered, and it certainly feels like there could be more. But I wonder if it had been bulkier that way, maybe it would have been too much to keep track of. So I’m mostly satisfied. Alfred Molina plays a reliable authority figure! It’s a fun genre experiment!

I give Don’t Let Go My Agreement to Complete Its Weird Requests.

This Is a Movie Review: A Wrinkle in Time

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CREDIT: Disney

I certainly enjoyed Ava DuVernay’s spin on A Wrinkle in Time, though I am a little disappointed it does not reach the level of blockbuster classic that I hoped it would. I think much of that has to do with its too-low-calorie mix of epic and low-key. Sure, Meg travels a great interdimensional distance to save her father from a dark entity threatening the entire universe, but she does so over just the course of an afternoon. That relative speed is part of the hook, sure, but it should not feel so speedy. It really would have been beneficial to more deeply explore the effects of tessering on Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace.

There are a lot of wonderful design elements and sufficiently creepy moments, but much of those do not feel terribly specific to what this particular film is trying to say. Perhaps the scariest sequence is the disturbingly harmonious cul-de-sac on Camazotz, but that is not really preying on any unique Murry family fears; the fight at hand is not really one against suburban conformity. As for the supposedly weightless bromides of inspiration and self-confidence, I do not find them terribly off-putting, but they certainly could have benefited from the offbeat verve that Zach Galifianakis naturally taps into as the Happy Medium.

I give A Wrinkle in Time 3 Happy’s out of 5 IT’s.

This Is a Movie Review: Sleight

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This review was originally published on News Cult in April 2017.

Starring: Jacob Latimore, Seychelle Gabriel, Storm Reid, Sasheer Zamata, Dulé Hill

Director: J.D. Dillard

Running Time: 89 Minutes

Rating: R for the Bloody Realities of Drug Dealing

Release Date: April 28, 2017

A young man hustles his way around Los Angeles street corners using his prowess in simple, but stunningly original magic tricks. Cards hover in the air and transport through glass windows. These are not the nonsensical shenanigans of Now You See Me. They are more akin to the weirdly practical effects of The Prestige that require a magical degree of dedication. An early peek at a metal disk implanted on the magician’s arm provides a hint of what is going on. Is he the result of secret government experimentation? Has he procured some rogue alien technology? Is this a stealth X-Men movie?

Sleight does not show his full hand right away, mainly because it is so crowded by the genre mish-mash. The light sci-fi added to the action illusions is already enough of a hybrid, but this is also a pretty full-blown coming-of-age romance and an even fuller-blown inner-city crime drama.  Bo (Jacob Latimore), the magician, is looking after his little sister Tina (Storm Reid) in the wake of their mother’s death. He is trying to move them on to a better life, and trying to help his girlfriend Holly (Seychelle Gabriel) out of an abusive parental relationship. Since magic only brings in relatively chump change, he is deep in some heavy drug dealing. He is fine with the hustle, but the dirty work makes him (literally) sick.

The satisfying unpredictability extends to the performances. It is always a joy to witness the sort of naturalistic interplay that Latimore and Gabriel display in their budding romance. This is the sort of tone that appears easy, but its rarity proves otherwise. There are also a couple of comedic actors playing rousingly against type. SNL’s Sasheer Zamata is nearly unrecognizable as a trusty neighbor, and veteran supporting player Brandon Johnson (Rick and Morty, NTSF:SD:SUV::) revels as the muscle in a criminal enterprise. But most stunning of all is Dulé Hill as one of L.A.’s top drug barons. The crowd at the screening I went to was rightly impressed but also eager to see him return to the friendlier TV roles (The West Wing, Psych) that made him famous.

Sleight slips up a bit in its last act by falling into the trap of cliché conflicts. Bo lets Tina go off on our own at a point when he knows their lives are the most in danger they have ever been. For a film that has been so sure-footed up to this point, such a lapse in judgment is frankly mindboggling. Furthermore, the genre mix is not handled perfectly, with certain story threads dropped for large chunks of the running time. (It is a good thing the image of the arm implant is so striking, because otherwise you are liable to forget about it entirely.) The ambition on display here makes a mere hour and a half a little unwieldy. But while Sleight wobbles a bit, it ultimately sticks the landing with a thrilling, uncompromising ending. The story mechanics are rusty, but the tricks are unprecedented.

Sleight is Recommended If You Like: Chronicle, The Prestige, Attack the Block

Grade: 3 out of 5 Electromagnets