Film Review: Searching (2018)

I was looking for something to watch the other night, and saw this was showing on a film channel, Film 4. I went online and read two reviews, deciding it seemed to be worth watching.

And it was.

**No spoliers**

For one thing, I didn’t really recognise any of the cast. And there was something else. With very few exceptions for some scenes, the whole film is played out on computer screens, smartphone screens, television screens, and over telephone calls. It feels right up to date, with characters communicating by text message, and on other messaging platforms. Switching between screens to check maps, with many different screens often displayed at the same time. Face-time conversations, video calling, and so many other things all too familiar in this modern world.

Please don’t let that put you off. It works, and works very well. All the images and texts are clear, easy to read, and not at all confusing. And it creates a feeling of helplessness and tension that would not have worked nearly so well in a conventional format.

The Kim family is an American/Korean family doing well in California. David and Pamela have good jobs, their daughter Margot is talented, and shows promise as a pianist. But tragedy strikes (early in the film) when Pamela is struck down with terminal cancer, leaving David to bring up his daughter on his own.

He makes the best of it, and is a loving and caring father to Margot. He allows her some freedoms, but also continues to nurture her piano talent, and provide a safe and comfortable home for his daughter. One day, she calls him to say she is staying over with a group of friends at study group, as they need to work on their school project. David tells her to call him the next day.

But she doesn’t. And she doesn’t answer his calls either. He is soon very worried, and contacts the police. Fortunately, the case is assigned to missing persons specialist, Sergeant Rosemary Vick. She is dogged and determined, and promises to find his daughter. Meanwhile, David takes to social media and technology to help. He gets into Margot’s Facebook, Laptop, Messages, bank records, and everything else she has been using.

And in the process, he discovers that he hardly knew anything about his daughter at all.

Leaving it there to avoid spoilers, I will add that this is a great little film, and the small budget is never apparent. Tension is highly wound throughout, and almost nothing is what it seems. In the central role of David Kim, John Cho is simply excellent. I completely believed that he was the father of a missing girl. Everyone else in the cast handles their part well, with special mention for Debra Messing, as Sergeant Vick.

BUT WAIT! There’s a delicious twist, one that I didn’t guess at all!

Highly recommended.

Here’s a trailer.

Film Review: Songbird (2020)

As far as I know, this film is curently only available on Amazon Prime.
At least that is the only place to find it in the UK.
**No spoilers**

A film about the Covid-19 pandemic, set in the year 2024. When it is now known as ‘Covid-23’.

This is a ‘worst-case scenario’ film, where the virus is not contained, so the people are contained instead. Filmed in a near-future version of Los Angeles, the theme is dark, and so is much of the action. There is an authoritarian government that keeps the population locked down by force, and anyone who shows symptoms of the virus is removed to a ‘Q-Zone’, and left to their fate.

Rich people still manage to beat the system. Buying fake ‘Immunity’ passes, and doing more or less what they like. And there are those that have natural immunity, allowed to work outside delivering parcels, or supervising the military-style teams that enforce the rules. Every person must do a temperature check on their phones by a given time every morning. Show a high temperature, and the removal squads arrive. Fail to register your check in time, and the removal squads arrive.

There is also a new version of ‘track and trace’. Did you talk to your neighbour? Have you been inside their home? If so, we smash your door down and off you go to the Q-zone, like it or not.

But of course, there is romance, albeit a relationship carried out over a very smart smartphone. And there is some hope, in the regions beyond the Q-zone that offer a form of sanctuary.

The film borrows many ideas from those like it. We have seen films set in pandemics before, and films where terrified ordinary people are inside, living in fear of zombies, or repressive governments. The film-makers wisely stayed away from making things too smart or too sci-fi. This is a world we can all recognise, with similar technology that is just slightly beefed up from what we have at the moment.

Casting is very good when it comes to the villains. You will recognise Peter Stormaire as Emmett, the man in charge of the removal squads. Suitably creepy and ruthless. Then the rich crook, Griffin. He is played by Bradley Whitford, who was so good in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. There is a surprisingly mature turn from Demi Moore as Griffin’s wife, conflicted by her desire to protect her sick daughter. But the younger cast members were all new to me.

So, not a great film. Entertaining enough, and certainly as ‘current’ as it gets. It might be the first film about the Coronavirus pandemic, but we can be sure it won’t be the last.

I should mention that I had to watch this film on a 10-inch tablet. I’m sure it looks better on a big screen.

Here’s a trailer.

Short Film: “This Time Away”

My friend Antony sent me this delightful short film, starring one of Britain’s foremost actors, Tim Spall.

Set in the near future, Spall plays Nigel, a lonely and bitter widower. Retreating into a life of alcolholism, and determined to be alone, Nigel happens across a small robot that befriends him.

With a short running time of just thirteen minutes, and a delightful twist at the end, this is high-quality film-making that will leave everyone feeling better for watching it.

My ‘Curnblog’ Articles

One of my first attempts to get an article published on another website was on the site of Australian Film expert, James Curnow.

James was very generous, and over the years he published no less than twenty of my articles on film and cinema.

Those of you who have followed my blog since the beginning will remember them, but for any new followers who are interested in Films and Cinema, you might like to read some of them. Or even all of them!

Here’s a link.

http://curnblog.com/author/pete-johnson/

An Alphabet Of Things I Don’t Like: R

Remakes.

It will come as no surprise to long-term followers of this blog that film remakes feature for ‘R’. With a handful of exceptions, the constant remakes of great films are usually unnecessary, and completely pointless too.

Yes, they remade ‘Carrie’, that classic Stephen King adaptation from 1976.
And it was truly awful.

Taking on one of the best British gangster thrillers ever, they remade the wonderful ‘Get Carter’, in 2000.
Why? Please tell me why!

Seemingly out to murder another classic Michael Caine film, they remade ‘The Italian Job’, in 2003.
COME ON! Just stop it!

I could also write a book on how they remake foreign language films for people who can’t handle subtitles, always ruining them in the process.
One of the worst examples has to be ‘The Vanishing’. They changed the ending in the US version, to make it ‘happy’.
GRRRRRRRRRR!

And don’t get me started on Japanese Anime classics with western actors voicing the characters!
How wrong does this sound? Very wrong, believe me.

BUT WAIT!

While I am on ‘R’, I have to mention ‘Reimagining’. In case you don’t know, this is the blatant plagiarism of classic fiction, ‘Reimagined’ for the modern reader. Take ‘Jane Eyre’, set it in modern-day California, call it something else, and you have ‘reimagined’ the original. You get the idea.

DOUBLE GRRRRRRRRR!

Film makers and writers, I have a suggestion for you.

DO SOMETHING ORIGINAL!

Film Review: Journey’s End (2017)

Journey’s End is a stage play written by R.C. Sherrif, and first performed in 1928, ten years after the period in which it was set. An anti-war play, it focuses on a few days around the German offensive in the Spring of 1918, during WW1.

It was first filmed in 1930, starring Colin Clive, but I have never seen that version. However, it was also filmed for television by the BBC in 1988, starring Jeremy Northam in the lead as Captain Stanhope. That remained the definitive version for me, with a superb cast sticking to the spirit of the original play. In this version, some of the action sequences were shown on film, something the play avoided due to theatrical constraints.

Most of what makes the play effective is the claustrophobic atmosphere of life in dugouts and trenches, viewed from the perspective of the officers, and their cooks and servants. The 1988 version deviated from this slightly, but remained powerful and compelling to watch.

So now we have the new version, with Samuel Clafin as Stanhope, Asa Butterfield as the young and impressionable Raleigh, and Paul Bettany excellent as the older experienced lieutenant known to all as ‘Uncle’. Add Toby Jones as the cook, and Stephen Graham as Lieutenant Trotter, and the casting is about as good as it gets these days.

The stresses and strains of trench warfare are all there. Men reaching breaking point, officers living on whisky to get through each day, and senior commanders issuing seemingly pointless orders from comfortable accommodation behind the lines. Social class is maintained in the mud and deprivation, and we have the added complication that Stanhope is the boyfriend of Raleigh’s sister back home, so idolised by the new arrival.

Tension builds as the expected German attack comes ever closer, exacerbated by last-minute orders to attack a German trench to capture a prisoner. We have a cowardly officer unwilling to play his part, and other stiff-upper lip officers pretending all is well, in order to maintain the morale of the men.

As a film, it is beautifully photographed in widescreen; with muted colours suiting the mood, and dingy scenes in the candlelit dugouts nicely done too. It never feels less than completely authentic, not for one moment. If you had never heard of the play, or seen the earlier BBC film, you would no doubt have thought it was a wonderfully moving production. Paul Bettany is quietly outstanding as ‘Uncle’, and young Butterfield looks as if he is actually living in 1918, with his wide-eyed enthusiasm concealing inner fears.

But I have seen the BBC film, and Jeremey Northam is magnificent as Stanhope in that. Tim Spall wipes the floor with Stephen Graham in the role of Trotter, and Edward Petherbridge is even better than Bettany as ‘Uncle’. So my advice is to try to watch the 1988 version. If you can access it, here it is on You Tube. It is not a great print, unfortunately.

But if for some reason you can’t watch this, the new film is still very good indeed.
Here’s a trailer.

A Film For Halloween: Pyewacket (2017)

***No spoilers***

With TV channels full of Halloween horror films, I have been recording some of those I have never seen before.

This Canadian film didn’t reach my radar three years ago, so I sat down to watch it yesterday afternoon. One benefit was that I didn’t recognise anyone in the relatively small cast, and had few expectations of it. A Pyewacket is a familiar spirit, mentioned as long ago as the 17th century. It was also the name of Kim Novak’s cat in the enjoyable film ‘Bell, Book, and Candle’ (1958).

Leah is a grungy teenager who hangs around with three friends at her high school. She has a crush on one of the boys, and they all have a great interest in the occult. Her father has died, and her mother is unable to cope following his death. She is still managing to go to work, but drinking heavily, and finding it hard to deal with the usual teenage issues of her daughter. She makes the decision to move away into the countryside, to a lonely house hidden away in some woods.

Leah is furious, angry that she will not be seeing her friends any longer, and having to adjust to a new life in a strange place. As a compromise, her mother agrees to drive her to school and back for the rest of that term, but says she has to change schools after the holidays. Following a heated argument, Leah wishes her mother was dead, and uses one of her occult books to find a spell to conjure up the Pyewacket.

As you might expect, things go badly wrong once she has been in the woods performing the ritual.

This film feels more like a coming-of-age teenage drama, than a horror film. It takes a very long time to build any suspense or scares, but when they come, they are handled deftly, though not that scary at all. The meat of the film is about the fluctuating relationship between mother and daughter following the unexpected death of the husband and father. But the atmosphere following the casting of the spell is very well handled, with the threat of an unseen menace always apparent.

The ending is unexpected, and very well done, though it failed to scare me sufficiently for me to class this as a real horror film. I still think it is worth watching, for the sound performances, and the very good cinematography.

An Alphabet Of things I Like: J

Japanese Films.

I have written about my love for films from this country many times, so it was always going to be the choice for J.

From my early teens as a member of London’s National Film Theatre, I was introduced to some excellent foreign films, many of which were from Japan. I know lots of you don’t like to watch films with subtitles, but I am going to recommend some anyway.

Akira Kurosawa was one of the coutry’s foremost film-makers, and his historical epics are breathtaking to watch. They also inspired the later ‘Spaghetti Westerns’, and of course ‘The Magnificent Seven’.

But Japanese cinema is about more than Samurai warriors and feuding warlords.

The powerful family saga, ‘Tokyo Story’, made in 1953.

Tough Cop dramas, often starring Beat Takeshi.

Chilling horror films, like these two.

There is also the tradition of monster films, using stop-motion animation. They loved to have famous monsters fighting each other!

That brings me to the wonderful anime films made in Japan by studios that are now world-famous. There are far too many to list, but I have chosen three examples.

Many of the animated films are available in dubbed versions, voiced by famous western film stars. So you don’t even have to worry about those subtitles.
Let me know if you have a personal favourite Japanese film.

Film Review: Disobedience (2017)

I am usually attracted to any film starring Rachel Weisz. Not only is she very nice to look at, she can act too. The second thing that appealed to me about this film is its North London setting, in the Jewish Orthodox area that I know quite well from my life in London.

Weisz plays Ronit, the daughter of a much-loved Rabbi. She has left England, and is working as a successful photographer in New York, when she recieves the message that her father has died suddenly. A return to the rather drab semi-surburban streets of her youth soon reveals the reason why she left.

She had a lesbian relationship with one of her best friends, Etsi. (Rachel McAdams) Caught ‘in flagrante’ by her deeply religious father, she left suddenly, and under a cloud of suspicion. She has not been back since, but felt drawn to attend her father’s funeral celebrations. She goes to visit another old friend, Dovid, (Alessandro Nivola) and he insists that she stay there with him and his wife. Shocked to discover that he is married to her old lover, Etsi, tensions begin between the three of them, and the strict religious community that surrounds them.

I am not religious, but know something of the Orthodox Jewish faith, and its restrictions on women. There is almost no association with others outside that faith, and traditions are upheld with little allowance for the free spirit of the returned Ronit.

As Etsi and Ronit rediscover their past relationship whilst Davod is preparing to take over as the new rabbi, things build to a satisfying climax that doesn’t settle for the ending you might expect.

Weisz is as excellent as always, and ably served by the two co-stars, as well as a teriffic supporting cast. Locations are completely authentic, as are the sets, and the feel of the script. Despite sex scenes between husband and wife, and the two female lovers, it never feels salacious or gratuitious. The sense of claustrophobia in an almost closed community is ever-apparent, and the spark of rebellion that Ronit brings back from America feels set to ignite a powder keg inside it.

A serious adult drama, and highly recommended.