‘Searching’ review: Perfectly-executed digital thriller

You’ll walk away of Aneesh Chaganty’s ‘Searching’ with a brand new awareness on social media exposure.

Searching hooks you right away with its 5-minute opening sequence. Shot from the point of view of a computer screen, the film builds a backstory of the Kim family through video clips, calendar events, photos, email messages, etc. It’s a clever hack – just like that, you already have an emotional attachment to the characters. You’re thinking, how long will the film commit to this style of execution? Well, it goes all the way. This may not be a first in cinematic history – Unfriended took the initiative back in 2014, but Searching definitely used this style as an effective storytelling device and not just a gimmick.

The owner of the laptop in display is David Kim (John Cho), a widowed father who seems to have an unspoken rift with his teenage daughter Margot (Michelle La). Things take a dark turn when one day, she doesn’t come home after a group study session. Upon realizing this, David enlists the help of the police and private detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) and together, they seek clues in her various social media accounts to find her. By using applications and websites that almost everyone is aware of, the film draws you in with a sense of familiarity. The message immediately clicks: We leave digital crumbs everywhere and our online activities can be traced by anyone. None of our secrets are safe.

Michelle La as the missing teen girl in ‘Searching.’ Photo via Screen Gems.

As the narrative expands and the case becomes more high profile, director Aneesh Chaganty works beyond the confines of a computer screen and uses other medium such as TV broadcasts and camera footages. Editors Nick Johnson and Will Merrick showcases phenomenal work in stringing them all seamlessly.

The resulting outcome feels very real and remarkably engaging. I was half-expecting the words, “based on a true story” to flash after the credits. Chaganty concocts every parent’s nightmare in such a tightly-paced screenplay. Was she abducted? Did she ran away? Is she still alive? The paranoia is built in such a procedural manner – the film trains the viewers to remember certain pieces of information like usernames and maps to lead you on. But at the same time, it’s always two steps ahead of you as leads turn out to be red herrings and misdirections.

As #FindMargot becomes a trending topic in social media, the film draws humor from hypocrite netizens jumping in to join the cause. Anonymous keyboard warriors challenge David’s innocence and a meme of him tagged as the “Father of the Year” even surfaces.

John Cho does everything to find her daughter in ‘Searching.’ Photo via Screen Gems.

Of course, this mystery-thriller won’t work if we didn’t care about the characters. Cho holds the film’s weight with such a steady composure that gradually breaks into a state of hopelessness. As his character’s search for her missing daughter deepens, another horror strikes upon him: she didn’t knew who her daughter was. It resonates to most audience, people put on different facades online versus real life. The film has also interesting redefinitions on the value of friendships – how it can be superficial in the advent of digital age. Count your Facebook contacts and I bet most of them are just acquaintances, some of them you never even have personally met.

Above all, Searching presents the psychology and behavior of a person through digital gadgets. Computers and phones have been embedded to our culture and upbringing more than we realize. Someone’s personality and interest can be understood through keystrokes and browser activity. At one point, the film cleverly shows us David’s state of mind through the texts he types and then deletes.

Searching tells a conventional mystery-thriller in a well-sustained, unorthodox fashion. By sticking to the digital realm, Chaganty makes use of the shortcuts available to him to explore backstories and encourage audience participation. This film encapsulates the face of humanity in this digital age and more importantly, it also serves as a cautionary tale that everyone, especially parents can benefit from. This comes as highly recommended.

5 out of 5 stars

Directed by Aneesh Chaganty, written by Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian
Cast: John Cho, Debra Messing, Joseph Lee, Michele La
Run time: 102 minutes

Jack Black plays fun uncle who teaches magic in ‘The House with a Clock in Its Walls’

For the role of Jonathan Barnavelt in Universal Pictures’ fantasy-adventure The House with a Clock in Its Walls, it was important to the filmmakers to find someone who would serve as the initially frightening relative to live with…who then becomes the really fun uncle to join you on an adventure.

For director Eli Roth, the role can be done justice only by comedy superstar Jack Black.

“Jack just encapsulates all of it,” says Roth. “It’s hard for me to think of anyone else in the role other than him. I’d seen him perform live in Tenacious D; I’ve seen all of his movies. You think of Jack, and you just laugh; he has so much personality, so much charm, and he’s so funny. But he also has such heart. In his films like School of Rock or Bernie, he’s an incredible dramatic actor. He has such humor, life, and such a soulful quality to him. It’s a dream come true to watch him create this role.”

The magical adventure tells the spine-tingling tale of 10-year-old Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) who goes to live with his uncle Jonathan Barnavelt (Black) in a creaky old house with a mysterious tick-tocking heart. But his new town’s sleepy façade jolts to life with a secret world of warlocks and witches when Lewis accidentally awakens the dead.

Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) is a warlock searching for the location of nefarious ticking sound in his home in “The House With A Clock in Its Walls,” the spine-tingling, magical adventure of a boy who goes to live with his eccentric uncle in a creaky old house with a mysterious tick-tocking heart. Based on the first volume in the beloved children’s series of books, the film is directed by master frightener Eli Roth.

Black has long thought of himself as a kid at heart, and like his collaborators, he appreciated the fact that Jack Kripke’s script brought the spirit of John Bellairs, author of the book from which the film was based. Despite its dark themes of loss and tragedy, the story offers lessons, excitement and pure joy. “This is a movie that kids of all ages can enjoy,” reflects Black, “but we want to give them a thrill. Sometimes you have to go dark to give them that.” He particularly appreciates the secret at the story’s core: “They’re living in a house that has a living clock of doom, and they have to disengage the clock to save the world.”

One of the core themes to The House with a Clock in Its Walls is honoring one’s individuality. In the film, Jonathan plays certain notes on his saxophone, and it will open up his magic…unique to him. Black reveals that element is one of his favorites about the story: “Tapping into our unique weirdness is the key to a person’s individual magic. Let the individuality out.”

Black was duly excited about Cate Blanchett’s casting as powerful witch Florence Zimmerman, and he remains appreciative of their time on set together. “The idea of working with Cate was exciting and daunting,” he states. “I told everyone I knew I was working on a Cate Blanchett movie; I think she’s the best actor in the world. Blue Jasmine is one of the best performances of all time.”

The chemistry between Black and Blanchett is unexpectedly whimsical, and Blanchett and Black had a ball delivering Kripke’s zingers at one another. “Jonathan and Florence have been long connected through their love of magic,” adds Blanchett, “but also a mutual respect. They bicker and fight like George and Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. But they have a deep love of one another, and they understand each other’s foibles—as well as the pain that they’ve both experienced. There’s a great love between them, as much as they tussle with one another.”

Now playing in Philippine cinemas, The House with a Clock in Its Walls is distributed by United International Pictures through Columbia Pictures.