REVIEW: “Escape Room”

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Hollywood has discovered a goldmine in modestly budgeted yet surprisingly lucrative horror-thrillers. Production companies such as Blumhouse can churn these films out at little cost and make a ton of money in return. These movies never end up among the highest grossing films, but they draw a big enough audience to earn substantial profits.

“Escape Room” is one of 2019’s addition to this popular sub-genre. With $155 million earned against a meager $9 million budget, it’s not only considered a box office success, but you can be sure that a sequel is already in the works. Whether that’s a good thing…we’ll get to that later.

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On sheer concept alone it’s hard to avoid instant comparisons to the “Saw” franchise. “Escape Room” isn’t as gruesome or grisly and it’s distinctly aimed at the PG-13 crowd. But its basic idea must have been inspired in some degree by the eight-film (so far) “Saw” series.

In Chicago six total strangers from various walks of life each receive a mysterious puzzle box. Inside is an invitation to an Escape Room challenge where the winner will receive $10,000. College student Zoey (Taylor Russell), daytrader Jason (Jay Ellis), stockboy Ben (Logan Miller), truck driver Mike (Tyler Labine), Army vet Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), and video-gamer Danny (Nik Dodani) all arrive at the address provided and are ushered into a waiting room. And wouldn’t you know it, the waiting room is actually the start of the game.

Basically it works like this, each booby-trapped room features a host of hidden clues that reveal how to escape to the next room. Oh, and failure to do so within the set amount of time has fatal results. Along the way we learn the strangers were chosen for a reason and they share a rather unique bond. But as more of their individual personalities surface, teamwork turns into survival of the fittest.

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There really isn’t much more to “Escape Room” than that. Yes, each room becomes more challenging (and more deadly). Yes, a little more is revealed about the characters and the thread that binds them. Yes, some rooms are clever and visually captivating and director Adam Robitel does some interesting stuff with his camera particularly in playing with perspective. But the movie eventually runs out of ideas and ends up beating the same drum as it hops from one room to the next.

And then you get to the final act where the whole thing flies completely off the rails. You learn early on to switch your brain off, but even that can’t cover the ludicrous finale. Things get so ridiculous and we’re asked to buy into the wackiest ending and sequel setup. If you don’t think about “Escape Room” you could probably find some decent throwaway entertainment. But once you look even an inch below the surface, the whole thing comes unglued.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

 

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REVIEW: “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile”

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No movie title could better describe Theadore Robert Bundy, a brutal American serial killer and rapist whose vicious crimes spanned seven states throughout the 1970’s. His victims of choice, young females who were drawn to his charisma and good looks. He would eventually confess to thirty murders but the true number could be even higher. The title is a quote from Judge Edward Cowart (portrayed here by John Malkovich) who stated it while sentencing Bundy to death.

Director Joe Berlinger and screenwriter Michael Werwie base their film on The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy, the memoir of Bundy’s former girlfriend and fiancé Elizabeth Kendall (played by Lily Collins). It’s set up to be told from Kendall’s perspective and early on the film does a good job of that. But she’s all but lost in the second half, tossed aside as Berlinger’s documentarian roots take over. The finale tries to justify her absence by giving her a ‘moment’, but it’s a little too late.

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Zac Efron as Bundy was an inspired choice and he manages to deliver a career-best turn. He’s both charming and chilling but the effectiveness of the performance may depend on how much you already know about Ted Bundy. Why do I say that? The film doesn’t dig deep into his crimes like you would expect. With the exception of one quick scene at the end, we never experience the violence. Instead the bulk of the story deals with the accusations, arrests, and courtroom drama. If you know nothing about Ted Bundy it would be easy to see the film as slightly sympathetic in its portrayal.

But that perspective changes if you know the true story of Bundy’s vile, deranged, and grotesque madness. That’s when Efron’s performance shines brightest. He exudes the manipulative charms that attracted young women who would soon be his prey. And it’s those same charms that kept a nation fixated on their television newscasts. And knowing the seductive nature of those charms is what makes Efron (like Bundy) so chilling. It’s only later that the film conveys the true depths of his delusion.

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Bundy spent years denying the mounting evidence as a fascinated country watched through an equally obsessed news media. A huge part of the film is Bundy’s constant declarations of his innocence and his quest to win the court of public opinion. He frequently uses his law student savvy to dig himself out of holes with authorities and with Liz. And speaking of Liz, one thing this film does well is showing her as a lost victim of Bundy’s crimes. As news breaks her world is shattered resulting in a descent into alcoholism and depression. It’s a compelling story which is why it’s such a shame when she takes such a noticeable back seat.

This is Joe Berlinger’s second Ted Bundy related project for Netflix this year. The first was the exceptional 4-episode docu-series “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes”. Do yourself a favor and see it before watching “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile”. It will give you the important perspective the latter film has a hard time establishing. And when you have that perspective “Extremely Wicked” is a pretty chilling experience. But without it, I can see people being left scratching their heads.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

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REVIEW: “Eighth Grade” (2018)

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As I prepared to see “Eighth Grade” a sense of terror coursed throughout my body. I was genuinely excited to see the widely adored teen drama while at the same time dreading the very thought. Why all the tension you ask? I’m a father of a wonderful young daughter who is about to enter…you guessed it…the eighth grade. And if the testimonies of the film’s bruising authenticity were true, I knew it would hit close to home.

This is the first feature film for writer-director Bo Burnham. At the risk of exposing my glaring ignorance of modern pop media, I had to do a search to find out more about him. Turns out Burnham has had an interesting rise to fame. He first “went viral” on YouTube in 2006 and his popularity quickly skyrocketed. Now in addition to being a musician, comedian, and actor, Burnham is an intriguing young filmmaker worth keeping your eye on.

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“Eighth Grade” is a striking debut that reveals an astute perspective on middle school life. It’s a movie that I can see speaking to different people in a variety of ways. I can see it profoundly effecting those who find themselves in the lead character’s shoes. I can see it enlightening other groups to the struggles of fellow students. I can see it opening the eyes of parents to the complexities of their kid’s point of view while also giving kids a window into the heartfelt struggles of their parents.

The beating heart at the center of “Eighth Grade” is 15-year-old actress Elsie Fisher. While she did voice work in the first two “Despicable Me” movies, this is Fisher’s first big role but you would never guess it. She tailors a performance that is true and organic in every detail. Each insecurity and anxiety feels strikingly authentic. She’s truly a marvel, even a bit daring in her unflinching commitment to the role.

Fisher plays Kayla Day, a young teen navigating the final week of eighth grade. Middle school was tough, not near what she hoped it would be, but with a timid optimism she looks forward to the next stage in her life. Much to the chagrin of her patient and well-meaning single father (played by Josh Hamilton in just the right key), Kayla soaks her herself and her problems in the world of social media. She fills her follower-less YouTube channel with self-help advice videos in part because of her inherent kindness but also as a subconscious means of self-motivation.

Burnham keenly has his finger on the pulse of the weird middle school years where teens see everything changing both inside and out. It’s even tougher for a kid like Kayla who doesn’t fit neatly within the crude and often ugly social structure we have allowed and have often reinforced. She consistently rejects her own advice to “just be yourself” with awkward attempts to buddy up with the popular crowd. We know it won’t go well. On the flip-side is her relationship with her hapless father, unshakably loving but ill-equipped to handle his daughter’s swirl of emotions. The father/daughter tensions are portrayed with a clear-eyed honesty.

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I was also drawn to Burnham’s use of perspective. You could be tempted to see his camera as mean-spirited and unsympathetic. It routinely highlights the droop of Kayla’s shoulders, the small rolls around her belly, her scattered acne which clashes with the pristine complexions of the in-girls. But that’s not what’s happening here. The bulk of the film is seen through Kayla’s eyes and often reflects how she sees herself as well as others. Take when she gets an adoring ‘puppy love’ glimpse of the class bad boy (Luke Prael). A hysterical bang of musical chords accompanies his studly slow motion strut across camera. But as with many things, that perspective changes over time.

“Eighth Grade” doesn’t pave an easy path for its lead character. Kayla’s struggles are realistic, relatable and heartbreaking. You could almost call it relentless if not for the welcomed moments of levity strategically sprinkled throughout. At the same time, Burnham offers an insightful critique of social media and internet identity, the very thing that launched his career. Yet beyond the slew of Snapchat and selfies is a strong message about believing in yourself and moving forward. That’s something I think we all need to hear.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Edge of Seventeen”

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I can’t help but have a cautious approach to any movie described as “a high school coming-of-age story”. Just think of the stale, uninspired sludge Hollywood has churned out that fits that billing. “The Edge of Seventeen” from first time writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig is a welcomed antithesis to the conventional norm. It’s a clear-eyed movie that looks at teen anxiety without an ounce of glamour and with a refreshing bite to it.

The film stars Hailee Steinfeld, a young talent I’ve admired since her Oscar-nominated debut in the Coen brothers western remake “True Grit”. The story opens with her character, a frantic 17 year-old Nadine, bursting into her history teacher Mr. Bruner’s classroom and proclaiming she is going to kill herself. It’s a startling statement met with an even more startling response from her teacher (played by a snarky deadpan Woody Harrelson).

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The film takes a few steps back to show what brought Nadine to this point. You have her contentious relationship with her disconnected mother (Kyra Sedgwick). Then you have her animosity towards her brother Darian (Blake Jenner), a super popular jock at school and a mama’s boy at home. But at least she has her one true friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), a fellow outsider and her emotional outlet. But even that sacred relationship runs into its own bit of trouble.

At first glance Nadine’s situation seems obvious – she’s surrounded by uncaring people who are consumed with their own perfect lives. But Craig’s screenplay isn’t that transparent. Through a handful of clever and subtle changes of perspective we begin to see some things differently. Nadine’s self-loathing comes more into focus and its effects on her relationships becomes more profound.

Through all of this Craig shows off a biting sense of humor. Some of the very best scenes are the empty classroom sessions between Steinfeld and Harrelson. They are often uncomfortably funny and I say that as a compliment. Mr. Bruner comes across as dismissive and insulting, at one point calling her the worst dressed student in the school and sometimes worse. Nadine keeps engaging him because he legitimizes her low opinions of herself. Their darkly funny back-and-forths highlight a keen acidic wit that fits wonderfully with their chemistry.

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There are a couple of other performances I need to mention. Blake Jenner (who also starred in 2016’s “Everybody Wants Some”) is very good playing different shades of the Darian character. And I really liked Hayden Szeto who plays Nadine’s equally awkward love-struck classmate Erwin. This is Szeto’s film debut and he has a fairly small part, but he is such a fresh and funny presence.

There are a handful of moments where it’s too easy for us to get ahead of the story. These few predictable scenes are some of the biggest turning points in the story. But they are small blemishes on an otherwise refreshing take on teen life. “The Edge of Seventeen” isn’t some cliched nostalgic trip down memory lane. Instead it reminds us that for some kids high school wasn’t parties and pageantry. It’s also a great showcase for Hailee Steinfeld and a wonderful introduction to Kelly Fremon Craig, an exciting young cinematic voice.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Everest”

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I said this during a recent review – I have a real weak spot for good, thrilling disaster/survival movies. For decades it has been a genre that has constantly found a place for itself on big screens. No catastrophe is too big and no disaster is beyond cinematic creativity. Now of course some of these films have been nothing short of disasters themselves, but still I often find myself captivated by the melding of large-scale peril with human emotion and survival instinct.

Enter “Everest”, the new movie from Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur based on the true story of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster. Mount Everest is the world’s highest mountain, ominously standing among Nepal’s Himalayas and armed with some of the most treacherous climbing conditions on planet earth. There is an almost mystic allure that surrounds Mount Everest and it has attracted climbers for years. Documented expeditions dating as far back as 1921 have helped to discover climbing routes as well as shed light on the mountain’s many dangers. Some have resulted in successful summits, but others have ended with disastrous loss of life.

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“Everest” assembles a stellar cast to tell the story of two expedition groups and their attempts to conquer and eventually survive Mount Everest in May, 1996. Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) is an expedition guide for Adventure Consultants. Among his clients are a lively Texan named Beck (Josh Brolin), a meek and timid mailman Doug (John Hawkes), and an experienced Japanese climber named Tasuko (Naoko Mori). They arrive at the base camp where they meet Rob’s team.

Also at base camp is the spirited Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), a friendly rival of Rob’s who is there to guide a group for Mountain Madness. As conditions deteriorate and the window to ascend to the summit grows smaller, Rob and Scott agree to team up to try and get their groups to the top. But quickly complications mount as the mountain’s wealth of dangers hit the groups head-on. It turns into a man-versus-nature struggle where sheer survival becomes the ultimate goal.

“Everest” is a unique movie with a firm focus. It isn’t a film interested in serving up deep, fully developed characters. Nor is it interested in building layers of drama between its characters. It could be said that this is a weakness. Actually the film does give us tidbits that open up several of the characters albeit ever so slightly. We learn quite a lot about Rob through his reputation and interactions with his clients, co-workers, and especially his wife Jan (Kiera Knightley). There are also interesting glimpses into Beck and Doug’s backstories that help shape how we look at them.

But to my point, none of that is the prime focus of “Everest”. The film sets its sights on the climb. It grants insight into its characters but just enough to help frame its main focus – man versus mountain. The meat and potatoes of “Everest” is strength, endurance, and the human will to live violently clashing with the captivating, beautiful, yet deadly force of nature. Characters talk of accomplishment and fulfillment, but it all ultimately comes down to this conflict. That is what grabbed me and never let me go.

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And perhaps most impressive is the sting of realism we get throughout the story. It doesn’t bomb us with big money moments or action-based contrivances. Everything that happens in preparing and especially during the climb feels organic. At times it is slow and methodical. Other times it is stressful and chaotic. And it is all captured with breathtaking awe. The visuals in “Everest” are stunning with several scenes literally causing me to exhale a deserved “wow”. Whether it’s the sheer beauty of the surroundings or capturing the climb itself, cinematographer Salvatore Totino’s mixture of CGI and on location filming is a sight to behold.

In the end “Everest” felt considerably different than I expected. It isn’t a brash, bombastic popcorn flick. It isn’t a by-the-books ‘real events’ movie. Sure, it has its big name ensemble cast and its share of visual ‘wow’ moments. But at the same time it felt small, concise, and restrained. The performances are exceptional throughout with actors filling in the character gaps and never allowing us to forget the human element. It’s harrowing, tragic, thrilling, and exhilarating. It could have easily been yet another disaster flick. For me “Everest” was much, much more.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

An examination of Fellini’s “8 1/2”

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Director Federico Fellini has long been one of Italy’s most important gifts to the world of cinema. A daring and proficient filmmaker, Fellini had a career that featured various stages of evolution. Most notably was his turn from popular Italian neorealism to an almost surreal fantasy mode of cinematic storytelling. There are some who have viewed Fellini’s shift in style and approach as a turn in the wrong direction and a small handful of his later films may support that view. But I can’t go along with that, especially when said style shift gave us treasures like “La Dolce Vita” and “8 1/2”.

“8 1/2” is a semi-autobiographical film that gets its name from the eight and a half feature films and shorts Fellini had made up to that point. For the first time in his life Fellini was experiencing a creative stall. His struggles with director’s block inspired him to start over and make a film about a prominent Italian director laboring through the same creative pains. Trusted actor and friend Marcello Mastroianni would play the lead role of Guido Anselmi who is an undeniable reflection of Fellini with a few added dramatic twists.

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At first glance it may be easy to dismiss “8 1/2” as a malaise of off-beat dream sequences and surreal imagery. But as with every great cinematic work, there are layers of creativity and ambition that one can’t appreciate with a single viewing. There is no doubting that at that point in his career Fellini was a visual storyteller and his images play a pivotal part in “8 1/2”. But they aren’t images just for the sake of images. Fellini has specific things in mind and it takes some digging to find their meaning.

Take his dream sequences as an example. Each of the film’s dream sequences serve as an escape for Guido – a refuge from the anxiety and stresses of his real life. But each dream also feeds us information about who Guido really is. Some are simply memories taken from his past. Some are past memories heightened with hyperbolic flare. Others are full blown dreams emphasizing Guido’s perspectives, his fantasies, or his different states of mind. In other words the dream sequences in “8 1/2” aren’t simply indulgences or vain attempts at masking Fellini’s uncertainties.

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While the movie isn’t thick with plot, it paints a mesmerizing portrait. Its story resides within the Guido character and the absorbing performance from Mastroianni. We get an idea of who Guido is through the film’s unforgettable opening scene. While caught up in a massive traffic jam smoke filters from the vents of his car filling the cab. Desperate for help he pounds the windows, but everyone around him simply stares. He manages to escape and makes an angelic-like ascension. But while in the air and getting a small taste of freedom, he feels the tug from a rope that is tied around his leg. On the other end of the rope is a member of his production team who represents the maddening life he can’t seem to escape.

Guido is surrounded by chaos. He is a respected director working on a big budget science fiction picture, but his deadline to begin filming has come and gone. A huge hunk of “8 1/2” takes place at a fancy Italian resort where his cast and crew have gathered to begin working on the film. The problem is Guido has hit a creative wall and his apathy is frustrating everyone involved. He is bombarded with pressure from his short-tempered producer, his misanthropic lead writer, a high-maintenance French actress, and several others from his production crew. Guido has no defined plan for his movie and we slowly witness the emotional toll it is taking on him.

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There is another contributor to Guido’s melancholy. It’s his messy, complicated web of relationships which includes his wife and mistress. The alluring Anouk Aimée plays Guido’s wife Luisa, a smart and elegant woman frustrated by her husband’s indifference. Carla (Sandra Milo), his mistress, is a chintzy, nagging starlet who irritates as much as excites. It appears as if Guido juggles these relationships without an ounce of thought. At one point in the film he has both women at the resort at the same time. But is this simply a mismanagement of his mangled love life or is it an intentional move by a man desperate for some form of resolution? As with most of “8 1/2” there is more to it than what we see on the surface.

Guido’s perception of women, love, and romance is skewed. We see this in the film’s famous harem dream sequence which features all of the women in Guido’s life embodying various fulfillments of his imagination. While it does reveal his warped perspectives, the dream also visualizes the internal conflict that’s fueling Guido’s deteriorating state of mind. In essence Guido can’t escape the turmoil in his dreams or his reality. To combat this mental and emotional back-and-forth Guido loses himself in reoccurring visions of the “perfect” woman. The stunning Claudia Cardinale represents his ultimate fantasy. She is his symbol of purity, spontaneity, and innocence. She is always dressed in white and she appears with a ghostly elegance and grace. She is his dream girl.

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But as with everything else in Guido’s life, reality offers a much different perspective than his fantasies. That gets to the greater point of “8 1/2” – dealing with reality instead of fleeing from it and finding genuine inner happiness. At the same time and more directly Fellini examines the pains and pressures that accompany creativity – the inspirations and expectations filmmakers struggle with during the creative process. Roger Ebert called this the best film ever made about filmmaking. It’s hard to argue with him.

“8 1/2” is a movie that marches to its own beat and it doesn’t follow any established formula or convention. It is free of any and all caution and hesitation. It is a film that will undoubtedly still have detractors who won’t completely respond to its unbridled vision. But it could be said that the true beauty of “8 1/2” is found in its confusion. It’s found in the physical and psychological mayhem. It’s found in Fellini’s unique film language and audacious visual approach. And the most amazing thing about “8 1/2”? It found its genesis and inspiration in the mind of a struggling, burdened auteur. It just goes to show that true cinematic art, much like the life we choose to live, originates within us and not in some polished and meticulously detailed script.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS