Ana Gasteyer is back behind the desk of American Auto ; a cell phone contains an entire thriller in Missing
(In theaters now)
Temma Hankin/Screen Gems
Searching, released in 2018, pulled off a neat little trick: a micro-budget missing-child thriller told entirely via smartphones and screens. That low-stakes experiment made more than $75 million at the box office, and so we get a sequel, this time about a single mom (Nia Long) gone AWOL, and the increasingly freaked-out daughter (Euphoria's Storm Reid) compelled to find her through any means necessary — WhatsApp, TaskRabbit, Siri — as long as the tools to do it exist somewhere in the cloud.
By the law of franchises, and the built-in restrictions of the premise, it should be diminishing returns. Instead, Missing puts an even higher polish on the original IP, a nimble re-up that's surprisingly light on its feet (haven't we all cursed a 15th failed password attempt?) if also longer than it strictly needs to be. Reid's June, too busy being a teenager, doesn't have time for her mother's anxious attempts at bonding; she just wants to see Grace clear out for Colombia for a few days with her new boyfriend, Kevin (Industry's Ken Leung), leaving her to all the house parties and unsupervised freedoms a girl on the cusp of college deserves.
When neither June or Kevin are anywhere to be found on their return flight to LAX, though, Grace has to become her own DIY detective. And when she starts to dig, things do not seem kosher down in Cartagena. Directors Nick Johnson and Will Merrick sometimes strain the credulity of what shooting in-screen can do — June's laptop camera does a lot of heavy lifting — but the movie rarely feels forced or claustrophobic; it's just a whizzing, cannily of-the-moment spin on a familiar genre, reupped for the Genius Bar age. Grade: B+ —Leah Greenblatt
(Premieres Jan. 24 at 8:30 p.m. on NBC, season 1 now streaming on Peacock)
This fiendishly funny sitcom about a hapless car company was a low-key gem in its debut season. I'm so happy NBC brought it back for a second year — and even happier some palpable last-chance-to-shine desperation is filtering directly into the show's calamity-capitalism plotting. Auto's premiere escalates a minor technological snafu into a series of ongoing scandals that engulf Payne Motors' CEO Katherine (Ana Gasteyer). The trouble brings out all the best worst instincts in the hilarious ensemble. Sadie (Harriet Dyer) tries to spin a press conference — and spins out of control. Cyrus (comedy sniper Michael Benjamin Washington) eats his feelings. Clueless scion Wesley (Jon Barinholtz) mourns his catamaran. And Elliot (Humphrey Ker) cements his status as the funniest lawyer this side of The Good Fight, strongly suggesting that everyone at Pane consider destroying some documents if they have a spare moment.
The premiere establishes high stakes for season 2, suggesting that everyone's continued employment depends on turning Payne out of its downward spiral. The show itself deserves more attention just for its quotable zingers. When a new crisis manager (Eric Stonestreet) talks about an unnamed superstar client, he hints: "Let's just say I am his top gun and to make him seem normal is a mission: impossible." The banter is cheerful; the will-they-or-won't-they is bit cutesy. But American Auto feels like it's closing in on something edgier, with its cast of catastrophically unprepared executives edging their legacy company towards oblivion. Also, there's no such thing as a bad catamaran joke. B+ —Darren Franich
(Premieres Jan. 22 at 9 p.m. on Fox)
Steve Wilkie/FOX Oakes Fegley and Michael Chiklis in 'Accused'
True anthologies — think a new story and cast every episode — are largely considered a relic of the '50s and '60s, when shows like Fireside Theater, The Twilight Zone, Playhouse '90, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents proliferated. In more recent decades, the most successful episodic anthologies have tended to fall into the horror and sci-fi category: Goosebumps, Tales from the Crypt, Channel Zero, and of course, Black Mirror.
Credit to Fox, then, for trying something a little different with Accused. Based on the 2010 BBC series and developed by Howard Gordon (Homeland), the crime anthology finds a new way to scare viewers with its suspenseful and at times melodramatic tales of well-meaning people making bad situations "you have the right to remain silent" worse.
Every episode is named after the accused — "Ava's Story," "Billy's Story," etc. — and begins with the protagonist in custody, awaiting legal judgment for his or her crime. The set-ups are dark and deceptively simple: An anguished father (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) pressures a detective (Wendell Pierce) to find the man who molested his daughter; a surrogate (Stephanie Nogueras) worries that the deaf baby she carried is not in a safe and loving home; a veteran rock star (Keith Carradine) and his wife (Anne Carlson) try to help their adult son (Evan Gamble) stay sober after his latest stint in rehab. Undue stress pushes these otherwise decent folks to take ill-advised, often impulsive action — which leads to a chain reaction of moral calamity.
"Scott's Story," penned by Gordon, is the strongest (and bleakest) of the five episodes made available for review. It stars Michael Chiklis as an equanimous oncologist who believes his surly teenage son (Oakes Fegley) is planning violent revenge against his classmates. The tense hour ends on a starkly grim and unsettling note, in contrast to the show's tendency toward last-minute uplift and courtroom speechifying. Overall, though, Accused offers well-cast, engrossing mini-mysteries with twists viewers (mostly) won't see coming. In the Dark Ages of broadcast TV, that qualifies as a glimmer of light. B —Kristen Baldwin
When You Finish Saving the World
(In theaters now)
Sundance Institute 'When You Finish Saving The World'
There's a certain kind of minor-key, uniquely Sundance-y genre of movie that might be called Small Epiphanies: modestly scaled indies in which fretful protagonists — melancholy, neurotic, generally upper-middle-class — must learn to grow and change, but not, you know, too much.
When You Finish Saving the World (which premiered at the festival last year) takes its cues from that long line: a shaggy discomfort dramedy centered on the semi-estrangement between a suburban Indiana social worker named Evelyn (Julianne Moore) and her teenage son, an aspiring social-media star named Ziggy (Stranger Things' Finn Wolfhard). It also happens to be the directing debut of actor Jesse Eisenberg, who has appeared in more than a few films like this (see: The Squid and the Whale, Adventureland, The Art of Self Defense), and his experience shows in its talky, familiar contours.
Stymied at home, both mother and son find outlets in other people: Evelyn with a new intake at the domestic-violence shelter she oversees, a boy named Kyle (Billy Bryk) who seems like everything Ziggy's not (sensitive, kind, not remotely concerned with TikTok view counts), and Ziggy with a pretty, self-assured classmate (13 Reasons Why's Alisha Boe) whose penchant for beat poetry and progressive politics put his own navel-gazing naiveté in sharp relief. (Never mind that his parents raised him on justice marches and protest songs; that ship sailed with puberty).
Adapting the script from his own 2020 audio play, Eisenberg treats his cast with measured acidity, drawing out their snarky moods and narcissistic missteps without mocking them too cruelly; you may not particularly love these characters, but that's no match for how little they like themselves. The script, as befits all Small Epiphanies, has a bigger plan for them anyway: redemption delivered incrementally and in single-serve doses, even if the world outside remains unchanged. Grade: B