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CONTRIBUTED PHOTOJohn Cho at the computer in “Searching.” CONTRIBUTED PHOTOJohn Cho at the computer in “Searching.”

Movie Review: ‘Searching’ for a movie

Wednesday, September 12, 2018 by Paul Willistein in Focus

Technological devices have often been plot devices in movies.

Film-makers Auguste and Louis Lumière scared the heck out of audiences in 1896 with their 50-second-long silent film, “L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat” (“Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat’).

Director William A. Wellman’s 1927 feature film about World War I fighter planes, “Wings,” received the first best-picture Oscar.

“The Story of Alexander Graham Bell,” released in 1939 and starring Don Ameche as the inventor of the telephone, entered the lexicon when “Ameche” became slang for telephone.

And who can forget when Hal, the Siri virtual assistant for Apple Inc. products of its day, went rogue in “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968).

Technology as a plot device plays such a prominent role in “Searching” that you might say technology “is” the movie.

It might even be incorrect to call “Searching” a movie, if by definition of a narrative fiction movie, we have actors in scenes together, with a screenplay that includes dialogue and action, whereby the actors play off of each other and the emotional content connects with the movie-goer.

“Searching” utilizes screens, such as the one on which I am typing this movie review right now, where several windows are open, including the Word document in which I am writing, the file in which the review is placed, and the ever-present email.

As you are viewing the movie, “Searching,” you are seeing the protagonist, a father, David Kim (John Cho), who is mostly looking at his computer screen, which makes it appear that he is often looking at you in your movie theater seat. The effect is not unlike that of “direct address,” as in a Shakespeare stage play when an actor speaks directly to the audience.

The father also has dialogue windows open, and frequently Googles information in an attempt to locate his 16-year-old daughter, Margo (Michelle La), who has gone missing from school. He checks facebook, Twitter and Instagram postings, and facetimes with Detective Vick (Debra Messing), a San Jose, Calif., detective investigating his daughter’s disappearance.

The movie-goer sees all of this on the big screen, often simultaneously, even to including computer screen software framing and “icons” or “buttons,” and the typing of text messages, often in very large size.

In addition to the cell-phone technology, “Searching” uses web cam, surveillance camera and law enforcement video, as well as TV newscasts to advance the story. We learn more about the daughter’s peril, her personality, school life and activities, friends, and her relationship with the father, a widower following the death by lymphoma of his wife, Pamela (Sara Sohn).

“Searching” encapsulates a fascinating concept for a movie in the wake of similar unconventional movies that deal with topics of family, friends and terror, including “Unfriended” (2014), “Friend Request” (2016) and “The Blair Witch Project” (1999), often with low-tech visuals in the service of exploring larger topics of relationship, parenting, and social media.

The critical artistic question with “Searching” is whether it is an interesting movie solely because of its unconventional approach. If you delete, pun intended, the social media visuals and approach, does the movie hold up? At times, “Searching” plays like a computer-use tutorial.

“Searching” works because of several plot twists in the final, say, 20 minutes that make it a memorable movie-going experience. Without that, you may as well stay away from the big screen and stare at the smaller screens on your home computer, laptop, tablet or cell phone.

Director Aneesh Chaganty, in his theatrical feature film directorial debut, working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Sev Ohanian (“My Big Fat Armenian Family” (2008), keeps the story engrossing.

Torin Borrowdale (“The Midnight Man,” 2016) adds a tension-filled soundtrack not unlike that of the TV game show, “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” (1999-present).

“Searching” gets it right when it comes to the use of social media by teens, and adults, for that matter. You’ve heard of the phrase, “He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword”? So be it for social media, too.

The lead actors are particularly convincing. John Cho (Sulu, “Star Trek: Beyond,” 2016; Harold, “Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle,” 2004) is completely involved in his role as the father. He’s relentless, with a furrowed brow and impassioned eyes. He has a very challenging part, in that his we see his face for the majority of the movie, and he cannot miss a beat. He doesn’t.

Debra Messing (Emmy, lead actress, comedy, Grace, “Will & Grace,” 1998-2018) plays a crucial role, and, as Detective Vick, is terrific. She doesn’t so much as crack a smile.

Michelle La, in her theatrical film acting debut, is very likable as the daughter Margot.

As the wife, Sara Sohn, in her theatrical film acting debut, provides a convincing arc from caring to dying.

Joseph Lee, in his theatrical film acting debut, is striking as David Kim’s brother Peter Kim.

At the conclusion of “Searching,” I wasn’t so sure that I saw a movie as much as had an immersive social media experience, which we can encounter day in and day out without going to the movie theater. In some respects, “Searching” is in search of a movie.

That said, “Searching” will be of chief interest to movie buffs and fans of independent cinema. “Searching” should generate lots of debate, just as it did with me and, hopefully, will with my movie review.

“Searching,” MPAA rated PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. Parents are urged to be cautious. Some material may be inappropriate for pre-teenagers.) for thematic content, some drug and sexual references, and for language; Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller; Run time: 1 hr., 42 mins.; Distributed by Screen Gems.

Credit Readers Anonymous: “Searching” received the Audience Award and the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

Box Office, Sept. 7: “The Nun” opened at No. 1, with $53.8 million, as “Peppermint” opened at No. 2, with $13.4 million, and “Crazy Rich Asians” dropped two slots to No. 3 after three weeks at No. 1 with $13.1 million, $135.7 million, four weeks.

4. “The Meg” sank two slots, $6 million, $131.6 million, five weeks. 5. “Searching” dropped one slot, $4.6 million, $14.4 million, three weeks. 6. “Mission: Impossible - Fallout” fell three slots, $3.8 million, $212.2 million, seven weeks. 7. “Disney’s Christopher Robin” ambled down one slot, $3.4 million, $91.9 million, six weeks. 8. “Operation Finale” dropped three slots, $2.9 million, weekend, $13.9 million, two weeks. 9. “BlacKkKlansman” stayed put, $2.6 million, $43.4 million, five weeks. 10. ”Alpha” dropped three slots, $2.5 million, $32.4 million, four weeks.

Unreel, Sept. 14:

“The Predator,” R: Shane Black directs Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, and Keegan-Michael Key in the Horror film. Lethal hunters return to Earth. Ex-soldiers and a science teacher try to prevent the end of the human race.

“A Simple Favor,” R: Paul Feig directs Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, and Andrew Rannells in the Crime Drama. A mother who is a blogger searches for answers when her best friend disappears from their town.

“White Boy Rick,” R: Yann Demange directs Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rory Cochrane, and Eddie Marsan in the Crime Drama based on the true story of a teenager, Richard Wershe Jr., who became an undercover informant about drug-dealing for the FBI during the 1980s.

“Unbroken: Path to Redemption,” PG-13: Harold Cronk directs Samuel Hunt, Merritt Patterson, Will Graham, and Gary Cole in the Biography Drama. Olympian, World War II hero and Japanese prisoner of war Louis Zamperini’s story continues. The film is based on Laura Hillenbrand’s bestseller, “Unbroken: Path To Redemption.”

Two Popcorn Boxes out of Five Popcorn Boxes