Movie Review ~ Escape Room


The Facts
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Synopsis: Six strangers find themselves in circumstances beyond their control, and must use their wits to survive.

Stars: Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Deborah Ann Woll, Tyler Labine, Nik Dodani, Jay Ellis

Director: Adam Robitel

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  It’s the time of year when we are past the season to be jolly and across the Oscar hopeful finish line of prestige pictures trying to make their end of the year release date cutoff.  Now we’re into January, a month commonly known in Hollywood when studios will push their less than desirable products into theaters either hoping they will go away quietly or praying for a small miracle and have them catch fire with audiences and make them a buck or two.  Over the last few years the films that tend to do the best are low impact horror thrillers that are good for a jolt or two and quickly forgotten.

So it’s indeed a perfect time for Sony to release Escape Room, their modestly budgeted and mostly forgettable time waster thriller.  Though it boasts a good director that has shown he knows a thing or two around this genre and a concept filled with intriguing opportunities, it winds up being a strictly mediocre effort that sacrifices early hints of creativity for a messy finale that fails to deliver. It’s not that good but if I’m being totally honest it’s also not that bad.

Opening with my least favorite plot device, introducing a character in a dire situation and then flashing back “three days earlier”, Escape Room gathers six disparate strangers vying to win $10,000 if they can solve a new escape room that’s come to Chicago.  Though it appears they have nothing in common, over the next 100 minutes we’ll learn why they were chosen and how it came to be they are involved in a game that gets more deadly the deeper they go into the labyrinthine rooms.  Their weaknesses become their strengths and their paranoias become their downfall as each one faces their fears that pop up in a variety of ways.

Those familiar with the Saw series or the cult classic Cube will find a lot of common threads here and Escape Room starts to feel like a Frankenstein monster of better movies the longer it goes on.  Those movies at least had a concept that had an endgame, though, and it becomes clear around the halfway mark that screenwriters Bragi Schut and Maria Melnik may have had a beginning and end sketched out but failed to come up with enough twists and turns to keep the audience off balance.  I kept waiting for the film to take a different path than what was expected but it kept motoring on with no surprises along the way.  Even the escape rooms themselves start out with interesting clues to solve but gradually get less and less creative as the group moves forward and their numbers start to dwindle.

Director Adam Robitel gave us The Taking of Deborah Logan, one of my absolute favorite horror films of the last ten years as well as last January’s Insidious: The Last Key.  It’s clear he possesses a style that works well in this genre but there’s less focus here on the substance to go with that polish.  There’s also an extreme problem with the likability of the cast.  Aside from Taylor Russell as a mousy brainiac and Deborah Ann Woll’s (Ruby Sparks) haunted veteran, none of the other cast members seem worth keeping around, especially annoying grocery store burnout Logan Miller (Love, Simon)

Yet the movie moves swiftly without wasting unnecessary time in one location for too long.  This notorious watch checker was surprised to see the first time he looked at his timepiece was 90 minutes into the film.  Unfortunately, that’s when the film lost me in a major way with a bizarre denouement and even stranger stinger that didn’t feel like it matched up with the rest of the action.  It felt like a studio mandated add-on to keep the door open for future sequels.  Up until that point the movie had played mostly by the rules but then it seemed to toss out logic and reason in favor of extending the story past the closing credits.  I wish the filmmakers had spent more time rounding out the rough edges of this movie before laying the groundwork for another.

With movies like Aquaman, Mary Poppins Returns, and Bumblebee still easily occupying the top slots at the box office, Sony is hoping Escape Room might find a foothold with audiences that just want to sit back and not have to think too hard over what’s passing in front of their eyes on screen.  Escape Room fits that bill and should easily make its money back in its first weekend.  I’d say it’s one that you could hold off on catching in theaters, though, and put on your list for a rainy day at-home selection.

31 Days to Scare ~ Escape Room (2019) – Trailer

Synopsis: Six strangers find themselves in circumstances beyond their control, and must use their wits to survive.

Release Date: January 4, 2019

Thoughts: Even if Escape Room has a concept that feels like a less extreme version of what was first cooked up in the Saw films, I have to say this teaser trailer definitely has me intrigued.  Over the past few years escape rooms have popped up all over the country to growing popularity so it seems natural that sooner or later someone would play off of the confusion and frustration of these diabolical rooms.  I’ve been in several and if there was a horror movie made of my experience it would just be 60 minutes of me growing frustrated while trying to unlock a safe that has nothing in it.  I have confidence in director Adam Robitel who gave us the freaky gift The Taking of Deborah Logan and helmed Insidious: The Last Key, and Escape Room feels like it could be the jumping off point for a clever new franchise.

31 Days to Scare ~ Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Tucker & Dale are on vacation at their dilapidated mountain cabin when they are attacked by a group of preppy college kids.

Stars: Tyler Labine, Alan Tudyk, Katrina Bowden, Jesse Moss, Philip Granger, Brandon Jay McLaren

Director: Eli Craig

Rated: R

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Check out the list of any of the “best of” horror films in the last five years and Tucker and Dale vs. Evil will likely be on all of them…with good reason. Effectively lampooning every aspect of the slasher film genre of the last 40 years, this is awesomely funny in addition to being rapturously gory. It’s perfectly cast and earns every laugh and groan along the way. So if you’re looking to go light on the scares but not venture into stupid or too family-friendly territory, fire up Tucker and Dale vs. Evil for an assured good time.

31 Days to Scare – Last Minute Ideas

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Boy, where did the time go?  October just flew by and, though I went a bit AWOL toward the end, I hope you’ve found your way to one or two new movies to add to your horror watchlist.  Until next year, I leave you with some last minute ideas if you’re looking for something different.

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The Woods

The Facts:

Synopsis: Set in 1965 New England, a troubled girl encounters mysterious happenings in the woods surrounding an isolated girls school that she was sent to by her estranged parents.

Stars: Agnes Bruckner, Patricia Clarkson, Rachel Nichols, Bruce Campbell, Marcia Bennett, Emma Campbell

Director: Lucky McKee

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: The Woods didn’t get much attention when it was released back in 2006, bypassing a wide release and arriving for home consumption with little fanfare. Pity. It’s quite a good little scare show with some nicely creepy moments. The performances are on target (notably Patricia Clarkson, an expert at mellow menace) and I loved how the forest elements made their way into the school corridors and even the wardrobe of the increasingly tightly wired staff. Though it gets a tad overstuffed toward the end and betrays a bit of its ‘girl power’ intentions, it’s an overall taut watch.

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Killer Party

The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of friends get trapped at a baby shower when a mysterious outbreak starts turning people into homicidal maniacs.

Stars: Drew Benda, Stephanie Beran, John Brody

Director: Alex Drummond

Rated: NR

Running Length: 80 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I’m not too keen on films that deal with mass hysteria surrounding the population turning into raging monsters but there’s something fun just on the edges of Killer Party that keeps things interesting. This low-budget effort earns high marks for its appealing cast and its attempts to both poke fun at the genre while making a not totally unsuccessful attempt at breaking some new ground. There’s a bevy of uber fake blood and guts and at 80 minutes feels too long, but the unexpected moments of humor and the feeling that everyone in front of behind the scenes are pals makes me look forward to the next film from these guys.

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 The Conspiracy

The Facts:

Synopsis: A documentary about conspiracy theories takes a horrific turn after the filmmakers uncover an ancient and dangerous secret society.

Stars: Aaron Poole, James Gilbert, Ian Anderson, Alan C. Peterson, Julian Richings

Director: Christopher MacBride

Rated: NR

Running Length: 84 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Please don’t run away when you hear the word found footage, ok? If you pass up The Conspiracy you’re missing a golden opportunity to take in a most surprising descent into the secret society the filmmakers discover. Most effective in its final act, the buildup may feel like it’s taking too long but the ultimate pay-off is worth the wait. This one gave me some good chills!

 

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Clown

The Facts:

Synopsis: A loving father finds a clown suit for his son’s birthday party, only to realize the suit is part of an evil curse that turns its wearer into a killer.

Stars: Andy Powers, Laura Allen, Peter Stormare, Elizabeth Whitmere, Christian Distefano

Director: Jon Watts

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Those with even the slightest fear of clowns likely recoiled at the above poster so let me make this clear…if the sight of Bozo or Ronald McDonald gives you the slightest bit of the heebie jeebies, steer clear of Clown. Though it feels like it should have been shorter and part of an anthology package, Clown gets it right most of the time by not being afraid to go to some dark places. Well designed with solid gore and splatter effects, this one sat on the shelf for a bit before being released but it’s well worth a watch. Just make sure anyone with coulrophobia isn’t anywhere near the vicinity.

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Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil

The Facts:

Synopsis: Tucker & Dale are on vacation at their dilapidated mountain cabin when they are attacked by a group of preppy college kids.

Stars: Tyler Labine, Alan Tudyk, Katrina Bowden, Jesse Moss, Philip Granger, Brandon Jay McLaren

Director: Eli Craig

Rated: R

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Check out the list of any of the “best of” horror films in the last five years and Tucker and Dale vs. Evil will likely be on all of them…with good reason. Effectively lampooning every aspect of the slasher film genre of the last 40 years, this is awesomely funny in addition to being rapturously gory. It’s perfectly cast and earns every laugh and groan along the way. So if you’re looking to go light on the scares but not venture into stupid or too family-friendly territory, fire up Tucker and Dale vs. Evil for an assured good time.

Movie Review ~ The Boss

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A titan of industry is sent to prison after she’s caught for insider trading. When she emerges ready to rebrand herself as America’s latest sweetheart, not everyone she screwed over is so quick to forgive and forget.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Bell, Peter Dinklage, Kathy Bates, Ella Anderson, Tyler Labine, Cecily Strong, Timothy Simons

Director: Ben Falcone

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I think I’ve finally figured out what makes a Melissa McCarthy movie good…humanity. After grimacing through The Heat and fighting the urge to flee from Tammy, I started coming around to McCarthy again in 2015’s Spy. Now comes The Boss and though early previews were, I admit, fairly entertaining with some laughs on a level that few trailers can drum up, I was still mighty suspicious. McCarthy was re-teaming with her husband, Ben Falcone, who would direct her in a film from a script the two of them wrote with Steve Mallory. Could it be another Tammy waiting to happen?

Thankfully, it’s not and it’s largely because, like Spy, McCarthy’s isn’t playing a dim-wit monster that growls and gnaws her way through the film. No, she’s playing an actual human being that’s drawn with some fairly nuanced broad strokes. Though it’s far from being the kind of solid material that earned her an Oscar nomination in Bridesmaids, The Boss finds McCarthy continuing her ascent into figuring out what kind of roles she not only succeeds with, but that audiences respond favorably to. As in Tammy, she’s playing a fairly irksome character, but it’s one grounded in a kind of savvy reality that Tammy never could capture.

Abandoned at birth and by several adoptive families along the way, Michelle Darnell (McCarthy) has risen to the top as a motivational guru that prides herself on empowering women to take what they want without apologizing for it. Her past disappointments in people have kept her cold though, and she’s brazenly rough with anyone that tries to get close. Her long-suffering assistant Claire (Kristen Bell, Frozen) is tired of her antics but as a single mom she needs the job, no matter how frustrating her employer is.

When an old-flame now business rival of Michelle’s (Peter Dinklage, Pixels) turns her over to the government for insider trading, Michelle loses everything as she spends six months in jail for her crimes. After she gets out, she moves-in with Claire and her young daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson) and before long has started her own empire to rival a Girl Scout-like troupe.

Performance wise, as I said before McCarthy resists the urge to snarl her way through the movie in favor of showing that Darnell’s nastiness comes from a place of personal protection…if she makes sure people know she doesn’t give two hoots, then they can’t hurt her.  As is typical, McCarthy isn’t afraid to throw herself into the physical comedy bits, which means that Darnell trips and crashes down stairs, gets tossed into a wall by a sleeper sofa, and brawls with a gaggle of young girls and their mothers.

Bell does exasperated well and plays nicely as second banana and straight woman to McCarthy.  The actresses have a nice rapport and during the gag reel at the end of the movie they seem like they genuinely like each other as well.  There’s nice supporting turns from Anderson as one of the rare child actors that can actually act without being obnoxiously precocious and Tyler Labine (Monsters University) makes for a nice romantic interest for Bell, though the film really doesn’t need the extra distraction.  Kathy Bates (Titanic) shared the best scene with McCarthy in Tammy and parlays that into a brief but memorable cameo as a former mentor of Darnell’s. I feel like there was more of Bates performance left on the cutting room floor, but I guess we’ll have to wait for some deleted scenes to see if it was wise to excise them.

I’m going to go on record now and say that I do not now and have not ever liked Dinklage.  His mock seriousness only goes so far and while I gave him some slack in Pixels, he’s easily the worst thing about The Boss.  Playing a mix of Derek Zoolander and Dr. Evil, Dinklage is in a totally different movie and doesn’t seem to care. Seeing the impish Dinklage fawning over the large and in charge McCarthy is more of a sight gag than anything else and it’s one that wears off almost immediately.

Though the film doesn’t overstay it’s welcome, it could be 15 minutes shorter and exist as a much tighter comedy…but too often McCarthy, Falcone, and Mallory don’t know when to quit or cut as gags go on too long and some conflated dramatic tension is introduced for no real reason other than because the Screenwriting 101 book must have said so. When the film hits its target, it’s a solid bullseye for laughs but when it misses it’s mark it starts to be the worst thing a comedy can be…boring.

The Boss isn’t as fun as Spy but it does have its moments where the time spent feels worth it. If anything, it shows that McCarthy is capable of writing herself a character that’s from planet earth.  It’s silly entertainment…but it’s entertainment all the same.

The Silver Bullet ~ Rapture-Palooza

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Synopsis: Two teens battle their way through a religious apocalypse on a mission to defeat the Antichrist

Release Date:  June 7, 2013

Thoughts: Silly…that’s the first thing that comes to mind when viewing the trailer for Rapture-Palooza.  Though Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect) and Craig Robison (starring in another apocalypse comedy this summer, This Is the End) are appealing stars, I’m worried that the film will be too goofy for even the most die-hard comedy fans.  However, with a script from Craig Matheson who gave us the Bill and Ted movies there might be the tiny chance this could be a harmless winner…but I’m not holding out too much hope.

Movie Review ~ Monsters University

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A look at the relationship between Mike and Sulley during their days at Monsters University — when they weren’t necessarily the best of friends.

Stars: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, Alfred Molina, Dave Foley, Sean P. Hayes, Joel Murray, Peter Sohn, Charlie Day, Nathan Fillion, Bobby Moynihan, Julia Sweeney, Aubrey Plaza, Tyler Labine, John Krasinski, Bonnie Hunt, Beth Behrs, John Ratzenberger

Director: Dan Scanlon

Rated: G

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Back in 2001 when Monsters Inc. was released Disney/Pixar was riding high off of the boffo success of Toy Story 2 and looking for another megahit.  While Monsters Inc. lined the pockets of all involved, for me it was one of the lesser Pixar films (though I’d still rank it above Cars, Cars 2, A Bugs Life, and Ratatouille) and its not one I’ve revisited much in the following twelve years.

In the last decade Disney/Pixar has matured as a production company, creating and developing moving movies with a purpose and a richly beating heart that it proudly wears on its sleeve.  With films like Up, Wall*E, and Toy Story 3 the animators took just as much pride in tugging at our heartstrings as they did in tickling our funny bone.  2012 saw the release of Brave and though it went on to win the Oscar (somewhat surprisingly) for Best Animated Feature some naysayers felt that film was not so much a step back in progress but a standing of ground with forward motion.

It’s a year later and the next Disney/Pixar film is upon us and it wasn’t a film I was particularly chomping at the bit to see.  In the realm of sequels to their films I would have preferred a sequel to The Incredibles or Finding Nemo (I’ll get my wish in 2015 when Finding Dory arrives) over another visit with the scare makers who work at Monsters Inc.  I just didn’t think it was a film that was needed now.

Well it turns out I was wrong because instead of an outright sequel the filmmakers have made a prequel, following Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) in their college years as they experience a monster of a college life at Monsters University.  The uptight, studious Mike clashes with the laid-back slacker Sulley and it’s only when their future in school is threatened that the two bond together to show what they’re really made of.  Working with a fraternity of misfit outcasts, can Mike and Sulley get back into the Scare Program at school by winning the annual Scare Games?

Monsters University finds the creative minds at Disney/Pixar firing on all cylinders as they bring to life the college experience with an explosion of colors, ideas, and comedic bits that nearly all land exactly where they’re supposed to.  Taking the awkward freshman process to new heights, director Dan Scanlan works with co-screenwriters Robert L. Baird and Daniel Gerson to create a fully developed array of characters that interact with our two lovable leads in a series of honestly hysterical situation.  Everything on screen looks unique and thought-out…carefully planned for maximum effect.

For fans of the original film there’s a lot of nicely placed foreshadowing in place and certain major players from the first movie pop up here and there as secondary characters.  I wished I had watched the first film again before seeing this because I feel I’d have found several more of these moments that hint at what’s to come.

Returning voice talents Crystal (Parental Guidance) and Goodman (Argo, Flight, Arachnophobia) are top notch here, conveying a youthful exuberance without sacrificing the wise charm that made them such a good team in Monsters Inc.  Oscar winner Helen Mirren (Hitchcock, The Door) is pitch perfect as the imposing dean of Monsters University that takes a dislike to Mike and Sulley and others such as Aubrey Plaza (Safety Not Guaranteed, The To-Do List), John Krasinski (Promised Land) and Steve Buscemi (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) have solid contributions.

What I’ve always appreciated about Disney/Pixar films are how economical they are…there’s rarely something on screen that isn’t engaging or interesting and when the film needs to make a point or highlight a lesson all of that extra business is pulled back to let the story shine through.  This is a film filled with larger than life characters and big laughs…a high water mark for all involved.  I found it better than the original because it makes more of an emotional connection to the audience with its themes of acceptance and finding value in others.

In the rash of summer movies that are about to be unleashed, Monsters University was nowhere near the top of my list of anticipated flicks.  Like a recurring theme in the film though, it’s important that I acknowledge that I was wrong and to say that I was surprised that the film surprised me as much as it did.  It’s a winning combination of creativity and talent that’s certain to entertain.  Enroll in Monsters University pronto and experience college life at its funniest finest.