Escape Room (2019)
★★ / ★★★★
The problem with “Escape Room,” written by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik, is that its core premise—ordinary people being stuck in a place and are tasked to extricate themselves out of life-or-death situations—has been executed in better, more potent horror-mystery-thrillers (“Cube,” “Saw” series). In the middle of it, one is forced to wonder why the filmmakers felt the need to deliver a more dilute product, one that is clearly made for viewers whose brains have been groomed to go on autopilot right from the opening sequence. For the most part, I found it as dull as tap water with occasional glimmers of curious ideas never expounded upon.
Its idea of entertainment is capturing its characters in panic mode as they attempt to gather clues so they could open a door that leads to the next room. Naturally, more cryptic riddles await. Challenges range from performing under extreme temperatures (would you rather die from heatstroke or hypothermia?) to maintaining focus as perceptions are altered, but it is strange that, from the moviegoing point of view, it never feels like a psychological thriller.
A superficial entertainment is created because not once are we made to understand each character, whether it be how they think, what makes them special subjects, the ways in which they are able to provide results that the Game Masters do not expect. We are given flashbacks designed to underline the connection of the players but these come across as an easy way out, if you will, because the final fifteen minutes is so rushed, interesting ideas are not given a chance to grow and flourish. Sharper writers would have recognized that is correct to end the game about halfway through the material and the other half dedicated to exploring why the so-called game is occurring and who is, or are, in control of it—a standard premise followed by ideas unique to the picture. You see, originality doesn’t always mean having to be distinctive from start to finish.
The actors do a capable job in embodying archetypes, from Jay Ellis who plays a highly confident day trader to Taylor Russell as a timid physics student (Logan Miller, Tyler Labine, Deborah Ann Woll, and Nik Dodani round up the main cast). However, because most of us have an idea of such archetypes and so, from the way the script is written, we know precisely who will make it to the very end. On this level, it is less exciting; as characters begin to drop like flies, only a minimal tension is delivered because we already have an idea that our suspected central protagonist will be safe. The only question is whether the final ten seconds of the picture would kill off the main character. You know how many of these generic horror-thrillers go; for a material that demands imagination, it is astounding how it lacks this very thing.
I enjoyed each room from the perspective of design (the “upside down” room stands out). Each one is distinct from the other and requires a different way of thinking. Had the writing been wiser, it would have allowed for the characters to grow with each challenge. Instead, they almost always end up in a state of panic—cue yelling and screaming—and so each room is a case of déjà vu. The formula is so crippling, tedious at times, that I imagined the ways I could escape from a room where this particular movie was playing.
Good Neighbor, The (2016)
★ / ★★★★
“The Good Neighbor” manages to end strong but the journey there is a challenge to sit through, filled with seemingly interminable and boring images of characters staring at computer monitors where not much interesting happens. It is unfortunate because the writers, Mark Bianculli and Jeff Richard, clearly wish to comment on our culture today with respect to how many are so willing commit moral and ethical transgressions for the sake of direct or indirect approval via social media. Although I understand exactly what the picture is going for, the execution leaves a lot to be desired.
Inspired by a social experiment done in England, Ethan (Logan Miller) and Sean (Keir Gilchrist) decide to break into the house of an old man (James Caan) while he goes on his weekly shopping to install cameras and other gadgetries. The cameras are meant to record Harold’s reactions while the various electronics can be controlled to trigger a reaction. You see, the high school seniors who reckon themselves brilliant for coming up with the idea wish to convince the man across the street that his house is haunted. They call their new hobby an experiment but others might simply call it a crime. They hope that their project will gain them popularity once they release their findings to the world.
Although a dramatic thriller at its core, it is a mistake that the tone and atmosphere liken that of horror films. Too much effort is put into the camera looking at monitors rather than the material looking deeply into the hearts and minds of its subjects: the minors who fail to think things through before eventually crossing the line. Scenes where Ethan and Sean are away from their computers simply interacting with one another or spending time with their peers are a lot more informative than yet another night of sitting front of a screen waiting to see what would happen, if anything at all.
The two young men are not written as sharply or as interesting as they should have been in order to hold the entire film in place. Although Ethan is supposed to be the one who came up with the idea of committing the prank and Sean is supposed to have been the provider of brains and money, the screenplay proves to be consistently simplistic in that both are outcasts on some level with something to prove. The approach is a bore, Screenwriting 101, not at all worthy of our attention because the writers failed to create human characters that ring true.
Caan plays the tormented old man but even his caliber of talent fails to elevate such limp material. When closeups are employed, there is life and experience behind those aged eyes. However, due to the material’s dearth of complexity, specific details and emotions are missing. Eventually, hackneyed flashbacks are thrown on our laps and we are supposed to feel something because of there are sad images but without the necessary background information and specific details. It attempts to trick us to care beyond its superficiality.
Directed by Kasra Farahani, “The Good Neighbor” is a timely picture, but this trait is exactly the reason why I believe we deserve much better. It would be interesting to see a different interpretation of this picture after having gone a few more rewrites in addition to having another director who embraces the dark corners of humanity, especially from the mindset of teenagers today, born and raised in the culture of social media, who believe they have the right to mistreat others because it seems fun or because it is “just a prank.”
Take Me to the River (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★
At least once we have all been in a situation where we realize suddenly that we are in the middle of something that can go very wrong at any second. Feelings of anxiety and dread soon follow. They attempt to overwhelm the body, but the mind insists to run as far away—and as quickly—as possible. “Take Me to the River,” written and directed by Matt Sobel, perfectly captures this quandary. Although it is a drama in its core, the film stands strong alongside the best suspense pictures of any year.
The plot is deceptively simple but effective. A family of three from California drive to Nebraska for a family reunion. Their conversation in the car point to a possible source of conflict between city and country; Ryder (Logan Miller) is gay and he wishes to make minimal effort in hiding who he is around his relatives despite his parents (Robin Weigert, Richard Schiff) imploring him to consider otherwise. The expectation of the seventeen-year-old receiving condemnation for his sexuality is a constant source of tension. This piece supports that movies containing a similar plot are not only consistently not fresh, when faced with it we have been conditioned to go on autopilot.
Here is a film that upends expectations. We believe it is about one thing but maybe it is about another, or even several things altogether. To cast a relative unknown like Miller is a great decision because many of us are not yet familiar with how the performer conveys his character’s thoughts and emotions. This is absolutely not the kind of role for someone who is exceedingly good-looking or extremely quirky. It is for someone who looks sort of ordinary but one who nonetheless commands a high level of control: convey subtlety but not so subtle that the protagonist ends up boring or one-dimensional.
Certain images are downright sinister—and without context they are peaceful, alluring. For example, as Ryder is on a horse among a field of yellow flowers dancing along the wind, we suspect violence to exacted somehow. As he sleeps in an isolated barn at night, anybody can so easily sneak up on him, beat him, kill him. Even a quiet river poses a threat. We look at the trees, shrubs, and shadowy areas nearby. Is anybody hiding there?
Sobel creates a magnetic rhythm that keeps us off-balance for the entire duration of the picture—quite a feat because many filmmakers do not even bother to take their time to establish or create meaningful, rich context for whatever it is they wish to communicate let alone to make sure there is music during unbearable silences.
The picture is clearly for viewers who like to search the screen for the minute details, to dig deep, to consider challenging implications when certain actions are undertaken, like characters looking at one another in a certain tension-filled way, or when they touch, or the manner in which certain phrases are expressed in order to inflict as much psychological damage as possible. Sometimes horror comes in the form of us simply thinking of the possibility that another person knows what they should not and suspecting that they are threatening surreptitiously to unveil it.
Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015)
★★ / ★★★★
“Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse,” written by Carrie Lee Wilson, Emi Mochizuki and Christopher Landon, is a horror-comedy that so desperately wants to share the same royal bloodline as Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead” but ends up becoming a weak knock-off, its bastard. Although it offers a few chuckle-worthy moments, not one attempt to make us laugh is particularly clever or memorable whether in terms of its dialogue or its images. The picture will not be remembered twenty years from now.
Part of the problem is it wants to have the cake and eat it, too. It tries real hard to appeal to the masses with its elementary-level comprehension of the undead and in between moments of sickeningly ordinary splatter-fest are naughty jokes that we’ve all seen and heard of during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Thus, the writing here is not only superficial but also dated.
The plot revolves around three high school students (Tye Sheridan, Logan Miller, Joey Morgan), rejected by their peers because they are scouts, who wish to have chance at being cool. Their skills just might separate them from the pack, however, when an infection begins in a research facility and quickly spreads around their hometown. Although the premise sounds promising, it is clear that the writers have no idea about—or have since lost track of—how it is like being an outcast, especially in high school.
The three protagonists are cardboard cutouts with nothing interesting to say or do. The emotions they express are false, only reaching highs and lows when the plot requires them to become less static. We are given no understanding as to why the three are friends in the first place other than they shared a childhood interesting in scouting. We never shake off the feeling that we are watching three actors reciting lines.
The zombies look convincing and it is a good decision to make them move fast because it injects some adrenaline in a film that has otherwise flatlined. Some amusement can be taken out of the extras clearly having fun with all the crazy makeup and simply being a part of a movie. I felt more freshness from looking at the background than I did looking at the foreground—an observation that occurred to me once I was convinced that the picture would offer no redeeming value.
Directed by Christopher Landon, “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse” will charm some due to its spirited nature and willingness to impress. But more observant and experienced viewers will notice its over reliance on CGI—which takes away the requisite edge a movie of this type ought to have—and its negative view of women, with the exception of a character named Denise (Sarah Dumont). Watching her put a smile on my face because I felt as though she is a close cousin of one of the tough, trash-talking women from Quentin Tarantino’s highly underrated but supremely entertaining “Death Proof.”