REVIEW: “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” (2021)

2019‘s “Escape Room” was a movie built on a catchy premise but that eventually ran out of gas and ended with one of the most absurd and hard-to-swallow cliffhangers I’ve seen. But with a $9 million budget next to a $156 million box office take, it’s safe to say that green-lighting a sequel was a pretty easy call for Sony Pictures. This time around the budget gets bumped up to $15 million which the movie could reasonably make back during its opening week. Then again, once people get wind of how bad of a follow-up this is, all bets are off.

“Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” was one of the many movies delayed during the COVID-19 pandemic. It finally comes out at a near perfect time; after anticipated blockbusters like “A Quiet Place Part II”, “Fast & Furious 9”, and “Black Widow” have eased many anxious moviegoers back into theaters. Obviously the “Escape Room” movies don’t have the pull of those big-budget franchise films, but you still expect decent numbers. But then I saw the movie.

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Its laughably bad title aside, “Tournament of Champions” didn’t set especially high expectations. The trailers advertised more of the same which would probably be enough to entice fans of the first movie. But where the 2019 film at least kept your interest most of the way, it’s sequel had me restless by the 15-minute mark and ready to check out at 30. That’s because this thing is inferior to the first film in every way imaginable which is stunning considering it didn’t have a particularly high bar to reach.

Something you’ll quickly notice is the shockingly shallow story that pretends to be interested in the cliffhanger ending of its predecessor but then completely tosses it aside within the first few minutes. We get a brief reintroduction to Zoe (played by the super soft-spoken Taylor Russell) who’s in therapy following the events of the first movie and is still determined to take down Minos, the shadowy corporation revealed to be behind the escape rooms. In case you need a refresher, Minos creates these elaborate (and potentially lethal) puzzle rooms and fills them with unsuspecting victims all for the viewing pleasure of their high-paying clients.

Considering that was the big reveal from the 2019 flick, you would expect the sequel to pick up that plot line and expand on it. Instead the filmmakers are content with just rehashing the previous film’s blueprint – toss people into a new escape room, watch them frantically try to solve a puzzle that opens the exit, someone probably dies, then it’s off to the next room, rinse-and-repeat. That’s this movie in its entirety. Zoe and her manic tag-along friend and fellow survivor Ben (Logan Miller) drive from Chicago to Manhattan to gather proof of Minos’ existence. But within minutes they find themselves lured back into the game, this time with new and far more deadly puzzles.

There are a few new characters who join Zoe and Ben, all previous escape room survivors. There’s a travel blogger, an alcoholic priest, a meathead, and a woman who can’t feel physical pain. Don’t worry about their names because they’re only characters in the literal sense. Nothing about any of them is remotely interesting. There’s no charisma, no discernible personalities, no depth. They just panic, scream at each other, and somehow still manage to solve these convoluted puzzles just in the nick of time. Sure some will die, but their deaths have no impact whatsoever. In fact, some are so freaking annoying I found myself rooting for their demise (sorry Ben).

Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures

One of the only genuine surprises with “Tournament of Champions” is that it actually has four screenwriting credits. That’s pretty amazing considering how little there is in terms of story. Even worse, it doesn’t move anything forward. No big revelations, not even new information worth noting. Just more escape rooms, this time with FAR less compelling players. Sure, the rooms are bigger and more intricate and the production design is pretty impressive. We get an electrified subway car, an Art Deco bank with a deadly laser grid, a miniature beach, etc. But with more complex rooms comes more complex solutions and the amount of conveniences and wild pin-point guesswork used to solve them is unintentionally hilarious (my favorite may be when one character enters a new room for the first time and states “There’s a refrigerator. I bet it’s our exit.”).

If you’re okay with watching a bland group of strangers run around and solve puzzles with some dying in various unimaginative ways, then “Tournament of Champions” may have enough to keep your attention. If you’re looking for a good story, compelling characters, or any reason to care, then you’re probably not going to find it here. Not even a ludicrous plot twist (if that’s what you want to call it) can add a charge to the mostly lifeless story. And that gets back to the biggest frustration. These movies have hinted at a deeper conspiracy and a potentially broader threat. That could be interesting. But at some point you have to start answering the many questions you raise. Then again, another $150 million at the box office could easily prove otherwise. “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” is now showing in theaters.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Evil Eye” (2020)

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My long overdue third taste of “Welcome to Blumhouse”, Amazon’s eight film collaboration with horror producer Jason Blum, is “Evil Eye” from co-directors Elan and Rajeev Dassani. Once again exploring the shared theme of “family and love as a redemptive or destructive force”, this film shows off some good ideas which separate it from the others (so far). At the same time it’s hurt by a paper-thin story that stretches about 45 minutes worth of material into a 90 minutes feature film.

At the heart of “Evil Eye” is a mother/daughter relationship that will undoubtedly resonate with many woman (it did with my wife). Pallavi (Sunita Mani) is a 28-year-old woman living in New Orleans. Her mother Usha (Sarita Choudhury) still lives in New Delhi, India. The two are very close and talk on the phone nearly everyday. The film does a good job developing their relationship through these across-the-world conversations. It also makes sense narratively considering the movie is an adaptation of playwright Madhuri Shekar’s Audible audio drama (Shekar also wrote the film’s screenplay).

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Usha first comes across as a bossy meddling mom especially as she lovingly hounds her daughter about getting married. So you would think she would be happy when Pallavi meets her Mr. Perfect, a handsome young entrepreneur named Sandeep (Omar Maskati). Instead she’s quickly suspicious of her daughter’s new beau and his motivations. Her forbearing husband Krishnan (Bernard White) tries to dissuade her from ruining their daughter’s newfound happiness. But Usha grows increasingly convinced that there are some really bad vibes surrounding Sandeep.

A frustrated Pallavi first chalks it up to her mom’s silly superstition. But when Usha shares that she believes Sandeep is some supernatural evil from her past, her sanity is brought into question and her relationship with Pallavi reaches it breaking point. The whole mother/daughter dynamic is the film’s biggest strength, with both Choudhury and Mani maneuvering the emotional complexities with a relatable and heartfelt authenticity.

Unfortunately there’s still a lot of space to fill and sadly it’s not nearly as satisfying. The romance between Pallavi and Sandeep is sweet but soapy and sometimes bogged down by made-for-TV melodrama. Some scenes work but others fall flat, failing to meaningfully move the romance forward. More of the running time could have been spent digging into the characters and building more than just a surface level attraction. Or more time could have been spent on Usha’s past trauma, something that ends up playing a significant part in the story. Instead we get most of it through brief flashbacks that piques our interest only to have it deflated by a rather unremarkable reveal.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon Studios

And couldn’t more be done with the New Orleans setting? Not only is it a place full of its own rich personality, but it too has a wealth of superstitions and spiritual folklore. Instead it’s given no attention whatsoever. In fact you would never guess the location if its name wasn’t stamped on the screen during the opening. Contrast that with the images of Delhi which capture its cultural significance to the story. Perhaps it’s not a big deal, but when a movie struggles to fill its running time, you can’t help but notice the missed opportunities.

Still, there are things to admire about “Evil Eye” – its attention to diversity, how it taps into Indian culture and tradition, Choudhury and Mani’s strong mother/daughter chemistry. At the same time its flaws are equally noticeable, most notably its lack of 90 minutes worth of story. To the filmmakers credit they stretch it as far as they can. But I found my mind wandering as I waited for the inevitable twist. You know, the ones that have come with every “Welcome to Blumhouse” film so far. “Evil Eye” is streaming now on Amazon Prime.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Every Breath You Take” (2021)

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Casey Affleck stars as a psychiatrist protecting his family from the unhinged brother of a patient in the new thriller “Every Breath You Take”. It’s directed by Vaughn Stein who did last year’s relatively fun but wacky “Inheritance”. This time Stein doesn’t have that kind of outlandish plot angle to play around with. Instead he’s handed an idea that plays like a watered down “Cape Fear” laced with a Lifetime Original. You know, a ticked-off charmer with a grudge seeks revenge by secretly seducing a man’s wife and daughter. That’s this story in a nutshell.

Affleck plays Dr. Phillip Clark, the quintessential movie shrink. He has all the markings – a bookish look, a soft tone, and a notebook full of handwritten doctor scribble. Phillip has a pretty good gig in upstate Washington, working out of his stylishly modernist home while teaching a few university classes on the side. But personally things aren’t so sunny. A devastating family trauma has left Phillip, his wife Grace (Michelle Monaghan), and his daughter Lucy (India Eisley) splintered and individually coping with the tragedy on their own. It’s clearly not going well. Phillip submerges himself in his work, a detached Grace furiously swims laps in their pool as her lone release, and Lucy has been kicked out of boarding school for doing a line of cocaine in the science lab.

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Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

As a therapist you would think Phillip would recognize the harm it’s having on his family. But his own emotional repression keeps him focused everywhere but inward. Then we get to sit in on one of his sessions with a young woman named Daphne (Emily Alyn Lind). She has a history of mental illness and suicide attempts but she seems better than she’s been in years thanks to some unorthodox experimental treatment. But then Phillip gets the chilling news that Daphne has taken her own life.

Enter the hunky Sam Claflin who plays Daphne’s grieving brother James. He shows up at Phillip’s house to return a book Daphne borrowed and is invited to stay for dinner by a sympathetic Grace. At the table James wins over Grace with his humble charm while stealthily wooing a clearly smitten Lucy with subtle looks and flirty grins. On the way out to his car he tells Phillip “You’re a lucky man. Family is all there is, and you have a great one.” It doesn’t take a flashing neon sign for us to realize the creepy James is up to no good.

Phillip suspects something too but not before James has found emotional cracks to slither into. And driving a wedge between family members proves to be a lot easier when there’s already no communication between them. So the bulk of the story follows James as he tries to shatter a family one member at a time while Phillip comes to grips with his past in order to save his present and future. We’re treated to several scenes of palpable tension and genuine discomfort. At the same time it’s hampered by characters making some really bad decisions – the kind that will have you slapping your forehead and yelling at your screen.

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Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Claflin makes a dandy psycho despite having a character who is woefully underwritten. The movie uses his disarming good looks and genteel manner to make him believably deceptive. On the other hand he never really gets to explore the personal anguish or rage that supposedly drives his character’s actions towards Phillip and his family. All we get is a muttered quote he takes from his sister, “The deepest hurt I’ve ever felt was when I tried to do good and was shamed for it.” Its repeated several times and I’m still not sure what it means within the context of the movie.

The movie attempts to rectify this and other issues in the final act, but the rushed out-of-left-field ending and inevitable ‘big twist’ hurts more than helps. The performances are solid, the film musters a little tension, and the Pacific Northwest (shot in Vancouver) makes for a good setting and is nicely captured through Stein’s lens. But as a whole the story is more frustrating than satisfying. It’s a psychological thriller that leaves most of the psychology buried and unexplored. So we’re left with undercooked characters, thinly sketched motivations and a story begging for more attention and detail. “Every Breath You Take” opens today (April 2nd) in select theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

SUNDANCE REVIEW: “Eight for Silver” (2021)

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One of the biggest surprises coming out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival has been “Eight for Silver”, a gory old-fashioned horror movie that offers a fresh spin on the age-old werewolf story. The film comes from British writer-director Sean Ellis who is no stranger to debuting his films at Sundance. His latest film looks at the werewolf idea not so much as an individual curse but as a communal one. This novel perspective opens the door for Ellis to get into some meaty themes while still enjoying the sub-genre’s nuances.

The film opens on a World War I battlefield where French soldiers prepare to leave their trenches to storm a German fortification amid a hail of gunfire and mustard gas. Within seconds we’re moved to a medical tent where a surgeon removes lead from a wounded soldier’s abdomen. As the bloody extracted bullets clang into a pan, a final one looks much different than the others. “This isn’t a German bullet,” he says of the large pure silver slug gripped by his forceps. Oh how right he is.

From there Ellis travels back 35 years to the late 1800’s. He sets his story in Victorian England in the middle of a cholera pandemic, a little detail that fits the kind of atmosphere he’s going for. Seamus Laurent (Alister Petrie) owns a lavish country manor where he lives with his emotionally detached wife Isabelle (Kelly Reilly), their daughter Charlotte (Amelia Crouch) and their son Edward (Max Mackintosh). The wealthy and powerful Seamus is the leader of a group of property owners who have gobbled up most of the land in the area. It quickly becomes evident that Seamus is far more interested in tending to business matters than being a husband and father to his family.

One of the film’s more stinging themes considers the abuse of the lower class by the powerful and more directly colonialism, ethnic cleansing, and the mistreatment of indigenous groups. This comes to light after a caravan of gypsies set up camp on a patch of Seamus’ land. The Romani clan make a legitimate claim as the land’s original settlers and rightful owners. But Seamus and the other property barons will have none of it. They hire a group of mercenaries to intimidate the gypsies into leaving the area, but the confrontation turns violent. The impending savagery is captured in one of the film’s best shots. The static camera sits at a distance watching the twenty or so horseback riders approach the gypsy camp. It doesn’t move until the entire camp is ablaze.

Afterwards the mercenaries gather up the stragglers, executing them for their own amusement. Included in the barbaric purge is woman who uses her dying breath to place a curse the land. Days pass but then local children begin having the same nightmare, one that draws them to a grotesque scarecrow in the very field of the slaughter. Things get more disturbing from there. A child’s mangled body is discovered and Seamus’ son Edward is bitten by what’s believed to be the same ravenous creature. That same evening Edward begins having violent reactions before vanishing into the night.

All of that uncoils in the first thirty minutes or so and serves as a nice setup for Boyd Holbrook. The Kentucky-born actor sets aside his American accent for a well-tuned British one playing John McBride, a traveling pathologist who takes a personal interest in the strange goings-on around the area. Seamus calls on him to help find his son and track down who or what is responsible. McBride agrees but is soon butting heads with Seamus and other members of the local hierarchy over what’s really terrorizing their land.

From its earliest frames you can tell “Eight for Silver” is handsomely shot. It impresses both as a lush period piece and as gruesome gothic horror. Ellis serves as his own cinematographer and his camera plays an essential part in setting the film’s mood and creating its dread-soaked atmosphere. From his fog-cloaked exterior compositions to the cramped hallways of Laurent Manor. And Ellis makes a number of visual choices that payoff – his crafty his crafty use of light (or lack of it), his cold four color palette, the use of (mostly) practical effects.

When questioned about his qualifications by a skeptical landowner McBride explains “Our bodies speak even after death. I listen.” With “Eight for Silver” Sean Ellis gives him plenty to listen to. The movie has a good time tinkering with the werewolf mythos, changing it up in some cool and interesting ways while still embracing the gory goodness utilized in films like “An American Werewolf in London” and “The Howling”. And if you remember anything about this review  let it be ‘AUTOPSY SCENE’. It’s unforgettable and I’ll leave it at that.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Eternal Beauty” (2020)

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The sophomore writing and directing effort from Craig Roberts sets up quite the challenge for itself. Simply making a movie about mental illness brings with it a number of thorny obstacles to maneuver. Turning it into an eccentric black comedy about depression and schizophrenia adds even more mines to the proverbial minefield. Yet that’s what we get with “Eternal Beauty”.

This strangely brewed concoction of off-kilter humor and personal drama builds itself on a relatively simple premise. It’s about a woman named Jane (an intensely committed Sally Hawkins) with a deeply troubled past living day-to-day with schizophrenia. The catch is Roberts looks at everything through Jane’s eyes which opens the doors to a much more visual form of storytelling.

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Photo Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

Roberts unpacks Jane’s past through a series of flashbacks that play mostly like brief reflections. We see glimpses of young Jane (played by Morfydd Clark), one of three sisters living under the iron fist of their domineering mother (Penelope Wilton). We see the happiest moment of her life instantly shattered when she is stood up on her wedding day. We see her fall into depression before being diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Flashes to stays in mental institutions add to the heartbreak.

Now Jane lives alone in a low-income apartment managing her illness with pills prescribed by her doctor who constantly scolds her for saying she’s “fine“. He wants to hear “better” from his patient as if uttering the words would somehow validate hit treatments. Yet despite the physical, economical and psychological hurdles, Hawkins brings out Jane’s warmth and resilience. You can’t help but root for her. By being in her head we aren’t always sure of what we’re seeing or hearing. It becomes even more challenging once Jane quits taking her meds.

Perhaps the most vivid display of Jane’s emotions and psyche comes in the film’s use of color. Take Jane and her sisters who are represented by colors – Alice (Alice Lowe) in red, Nicola (Billie Piper) in green, and young Jane in blue. But after her heartbreak at the altar, Jane lost her hue. Now her apartment, her hair, her frumpy wardrobe – it’s all bland and colorless. But a chance meeting with an old acquaintance (David Thewlis) in a waiting room livens things up.

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Photo Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

So where is the comedy you ask? Most of the above story beats have scenes of straight-faced and at times almost wacky humor. To be fair several are quite funny. But they do make for this odd tonal mish-mash that’s understandable coming from Jane’s perspective but a bit jarring when it comes to movie watching. It also gets a little bogged down narratively when trying to visualize Jane’s headspace. It snaps out of it with a moving third act where some pent-up family drama finally comes to a head. And it finishes with a final shot that injects the entire story with some welcomed hope.

“Eternal Beauty” is an odd and audacious package built on the back of yet another terrific Sally Hawkins performance. Even when the movie loses its way a bit she maintains a strong and emotionally honest character presence. It walks that tightrope of empathy and real-life experience, never exploiting mental illness or taking it lightly. Still it wasn’t an easy movie for me to connect with. That is until the final 15 minutes or so where the movie’s payoff makes the entire 95 minutes worthwhile. “Eternal Beauty” is now available on VOD.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

REVIEW: “Enola Holmes” (2020)

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Full disclosure, I had never heard of Enola Holmes prior to seeing the recent Netflix trailer. It’s a little embarrassing to be honest. How could I not know the teenaged sister of the world’s renowned detective Sherlock Holmes? To answer that blatantly rhetorical question, Enola was created by American author Nancy Springer and was the protagonist in her popular young adult novel series. In my defense YA books aren’t exactly in my wheelhouse.

Nonetheless a big screen adaptation simply titled “Enola Holmes” was greenlit, headed by director Harry Bradbeer of “Fleabag” fame and written by Jack Thorne. Then COVID-19 hit, forcing theaters to close and putting the movie’s release on hold. Enter Netflix who had already worked closely with the film’s star Millie Bobby Brown on their hit series “Stranger Things”. The streaming giant acquired the distribution rights from Legendary Pictures with thoughts of a possible franchise in mind. After seeing “Enola Holmes” I would follow the spirited young sleuth on another adventure in a heartbeat. This is a great way to start a potential series.

Brown is the heart and soul of “Enola Holmes”, playing the title character with boundless energy and just as much grit. Her performance is delightfully charismatic and captures everything from Enola’s playful charm to her rebellious spirit. It should also be mentioned that Brown is really funny, constantly breaking the fourth wall with snarky sentiments, exasperated glances, and chipper narration that feels as though she’s talking with a close friend rather than some nameless audience. This truly is an eye-opening performance, highlighting Brown’s keen handling of dialogue, a surprising physicality, and sharp comic timing that’s rare for her age.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

The movie begins with Enola setting up her own story. She tells us how she lost her father at an early age and her two older brothers, Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft (Sam Claflin) left home shortly after. That left young Enola and her mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter). The two were extremely close, spending nearly every waking hour together. Instead of sending her daughter to school Eudoria taught Enola herself, bypassing the stuffy traditional lessons for raising a ‘proper lady’. “I was taught to watch, to listen,” Enola explains. “I was taught to fight.

But on the morning of her 16th birthday Enola wakes up to find her mother missing. Her two brothers are summoned back to the Holmes estate. Mycroft, the cantankerous eldest brother is a bit of a villain in his own right. A slave to an archaic male-dominated way of thinking, Mycroft determines Enola needs a “proper” education. “We need to break her and then build her up,” he barks. “We’ll make her acceptable for society.”

Sherlock, the powerless middle child in the established family hierarchy, sees more in Enola. And while he too is a product of the boys club society, he didn’t become the world’s greatest detective by denying what’s right in front of his eyes. “It’s always there, the truth. You just need to look for it.” And the truth is their backwards-thinking patriarchal world is changing and Sherlock slowly begins to realize his smart and determined sister is an embodiment of that truth. Plus he actually cares for Enola. But Sherlock Holmes doesn’t show emotion, right? Doing so could compromise his reputation or prompt a lawsuit from the Conan Doyle Estate.

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Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Enola will have none of it. She sneaks off on her own, utilizing her own detective skills in hopes of finding her mother. Her adventure takes her to London, crossing paths with a fellow runaway named Tewksbury (Louis Partridge) who has his own family baggage to deal with. Meanwhile Enola’s brothers are hot on her trail, looking for their sister but for much different reasons. It all makes for an immensely entertaining high-energy story told mostly through a strong and distinctly female lens.

I’ve praised Millie Bobby Brown and rightfully so, but we also get terrific turns from Cavill and Claflin. Much like Brown, both are given well-written characters who are great straight-faced foils for Brown’s irresistible exuberance. Cavill is particularly good. Not especially known for playing high-emotion characters, he’s a good fit for Sherlock. But he also brings a surprising nuance to a character we’ve seen done multiple times over.

By the end “Enola Holmes” had delivered exactly what I had hoped for. It’s a fun, vibrant, personality-rich adventure soaked in themes of womanhood, self-discovery, and finding your way in the world. Enjoy it for the smattering of action-packed thrills, its sharp sense of humor, the terrific Daniel Pemberton score, and a full cast of top-notch performances. This was a great get for Netflix and here’s hoping we get more Enola adventures in the future. “Enola Holmes” premieres September 23rd on Netflix.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars