This Is a Movie Review: ‘Escape Room’ Makes Immersive Puzzles Fun and Unsettling

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CREDIT: David Bloomer/Sony Pictures Entertainment

This review was originally published on News Cult in January 2019.

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

Director: Adam Robitel

Running Time: 109 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Disorientingly Perilous Action, Traumatic Flashbacks, and Inadvertent Drug Use

Release Date: January 4, 2019

Depending on where you’re coming from, Escape Room is arriving either ten years too late or right on schedule. The real-life escape room craze is still going strong, if TV shows as diverse as Conan and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are to be believed. From that perspective, Escape Room the film is cannily capitalizing on a current trend. But considered from a cinematic context, the Saw series already set the template a decade ago (and now even exists in its own escape room form). But that is not exactly the highest standard. Thus, Escape Room, which renders immersive puzzle spaces actually deadly, has plenty of space to make its mark as a solid piece of entertainment for those who do not have the stomach for torture porn.

That is not to say that Escape Room is a pleasant watch, especially for anyone claustrophobic enough to find the entire concept of escape rooms frightening enough in the first place. It has a cruel streak, though it is tempered by a consistent preference for hope (or at least the illusion of it). Where Saw was often gross and off-putting while occasionally trying to say something about human nature, Escape Room is tightly engineered but also unsettling in just how random it ultimately is. The six people who have been chosen for this challenge all have a past as the lone survivors of deadly accidents, including drunk driving, an IED blast, and carbon monoxide poisoning. While the escape room has been designed with their histories in mind, that concept may have everything or nothing to do with who makes it out alive. The (possibly sequel teeing-up) ending is effective as a gut punch saying that this whole game is actually a “no escape” room. But the whole movie has a feeling of meaninglessness that is somewhat frightening but also the sign of a screenplay with limited subtext.

That said, while Escape Room‘s themes and motivations are never fully clear, it was successful at holding my attention, and I suspect that many audiences will feel the same. The designs of each section of the escape room are ingenious feats of engineering, from a lobby that turns into an oven to an upside-down pool bar. It also helps that each of the characters generally act to the top of their intelligences, making this an engaging battle of wits. We also get at least two different kinds of comic relief, with Tyler Labine as the goofy uncle type and Nik Dodani (best known as Murphy Brown’s new social media director) as the escape room enthusiast who realizes too late how real the threat is. The whole thing is fluffy, but enough to make you think twice about playing any more interactive games.

Escape Room is Recommended If You Like: Actual escape rooms probably, plus the Saw and Final Destination series

Grade: 3 out of 5 Unlocked Doors

 

This Is a Movie Review: If ‘Groundhog Day’ Wasn’t Emo Enough for You, Try ‘Before I Fall’

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before-i-fall

This review was originally published on News Cult in March 2017.

Starring: Zoey Deutch, Halston Sage, Logan Miller, Diego Bonita, Jennifer Beals

Director: Ry Russo-Young

Running Time: 99 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Teenagers Screaming at Each Other and Fatal Driving Habits

Release Date: March 3, 2017

Before I Fall is basically Groundhog Day for the YA set, which begs the question: what takes the place of “I Got You Babe.” Instead of Bill Murray being eternally roused by Sonny, Cher, and some hacky small town DJ’s, we now have Zoey Deutch (Everybody Wants Some!!Why Him?) staring into space to the strains of Big Data ft. Joywave’s “Dangerous,” which serves as her phone alarm. It’s a great song – a giddy, pounding, kind of sensual dance number (I ranked it the 13th best of 2014), but in the context of the scene, it lacks personality. Presumably Deutch’s Samantha Kingston likes this song, whereas “Babe” was a constant bugaboo reminding Murray’s Phil Connors of his eternal prison. “Dangerous” may signal the same for Sam, but it lacks punch for her to fight against.

This is such a downbeat, unspectacular route for Before to go in, especially compared to its buoyant predecessor. But perhaps that is the point. Sam has a perfectly pleasant high school senior existence, but it could all be masking how dead she is inside. And it is not repeating the same day over and over that makes her so, though she may not realize it at first. The only problem here is that the film fails to signal its purpose until about halfway through. Before that, it’s just a bunch of basic teenagers hanging out, partying, and giving each other roses on “Cupid Day.”

The challenge that Before I Fall presents to its audience boils down to: can Deutch win us over by the end, after a first act in which she participates in a hellish display of mean girlhood? To be real, though, this is not a tall order, as this viciousness is alarmingly unnatural. These girls could not possibly be that terrible to each other, could they? A major message of the movie is how adolescence can lead us profoundly away from our true identities. And Deutch’s true colors, which she generously displays, are quite charming. The movie she is in, however, lacks the small-town specificity that makes Groundhog Day a classic, but it genuinely explores the emotional truth of young adulthood.

Before I Fall is Recommended If You Like: The Groundhog Days scenes where the old man dies, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Grade: 3 out of 5 Nth Chances