Horror Film Review: Escape Room (dir by Adam Robitel)


Does everyone here remember Escape Room?

Though it may be hard to believe now, Escape Room was actually the first surprise hit of 2019.  When the film was first released on January 4th, nobody expected much from it.  January, of course, is when the year’s worst movies are usually released.  The studios figure that they can get rid of their disasters while everyone’s busy trying to predict the Oscar nominees and usually, the studios are correct.  The ad campaign for Escape Room made it look like just another slasher movie, the mainstream reviewers were, as they tend to be with January horror movies, unimpressed and I don’t think anyone expected the film to make a dent in the box office.

And yet, in the end, Escape Room did pretty well for itself at the box office.  Not only did it open stronger than expected but it remained fairly strong (at least by the standards set by previous January horror films) during its second week of release.  The film managed to hold its own opposite Aquaman, which had pretty much drowned every other competitor.  A sequel was quickly greenlit.

What drew people to Escape Room?  I think it was the title.  For a while, people were genuinely obsessed with the idea of escape rooms.  For those who have a life outside of the internet, an escape room is a game in which a group of people are locked in a room and have to figure out how to get the door unlocked.  This usually involves searching the room, gathering clues, and figuring out a password or something similar.  Personally, I’ve never done the whole escape room thing and, being that I’m rather claustrophobic, I doubt that I ever will.  Add to that, I absolutely suck at solving puzzles so I imagine that I would be trapped in that room for a long time!  However, there are other people who absolutely love escape rooms and I imagine that every single one of them went to see this movie.

Escape Room is about a group of people who all receive a mysterious imitation, inviting them to an escape room and promising $10,000 to whomever wins.  Among those involved, there’s Zoey (Taylor Russell), who is a college student.  She’s studying physics so we automatically know that she’s going to be our hero.  Ben (Logan Miller) is a stockboy and is just bland enough to be a potential romantic interest for Zoey.  Mike (Tyler Labine) drives a truck.  Jason (Jay Ellis) is rich and, therefore, evil.  Danny (Nik Dodani) is the geeky escape room expert.  And Amanda (special guest Deborah Ann Woll) is the Iraq war veteran.  They’re a group of smart people but it apparently didn’t occur to anyone to just stay home for the weekend.  I mean, $10,000 is not that much.

Anyway, it turns out that the escape room isn’t just one room.  Instead, it’s several rooms and each room requires the group to solve a different puzzle.  Each room is also designed to potentially kill.  One heats up like an oven.  Another features a frozen pond, specifically designed to allow a player to fall through the ice.  Another room looks like an operating room from Hell.  My favorite room was the upside down pool hall with the floor/ceiling that started to break up as soon as the group entered.  That was fun.

Of course, it turns out that everyone playing the game has a secret in their past and each room has been designed to force them to confront those secrets.  Eventually, it’s revealed who is behind all of this and it’s not a shock at all.  In fact, Escape Room‘s final scenes are probably the film’s worst because the movie doesn’t really have a conclusion.  Instead, the filmmakers might as have just slapped a big “To Be Continued” across the screen.

Oh well!  Flaws and predictability aside, Escape Room is actually kind of fun.  The characters are all pretty much disposable but the actors all do their best with the material that they’ve been given.  Of course, the film’s main attraction is the chance to see all the various rooms and discovering how they’ve been booby trapped.  Fortunately, each room is fascinating in its own individual way and the puzzles are genuinely challenging.  (I would have totally died if I was in this movie.)

Escape Room is a decent enough way to spend 100 minutes.

A Movie A Day #225: Behind The Camera: The Unauthorized Story of Mork & Mindy (2005, directed by Neil Fearnley)


The year is 1978.  A television producer named Garry Marshall (Daniel Roebuck) teaches America how to laugh again by casting Pam Dawber (Erinn Hayes) and a hyperactive stand-up comedian named Robin Williams (Chris Diamantopoulos) in a sitcom about an alien struggling to understand humanity.  Despite constant network interference, the show makes Robin a star but, with stardom, comes all the usual temptations: lust, gluttony, greed, pride, envy, wrath, and John Belushi.

The Behind The Camera films, which all dramatized the behind the scenes drama of old television shows, were briefly a big thing in the mid-aughts.  Because they were lousy, they never got good reviews but they did get good ratings from nostalgia-starved baby boomers and gen xers.  I think The Unauthorized Mork & Mindy Story was the last one produced.  It probably would have been better if there had been any sort of drama going on behind-the-scenes of Mork & Mindy but, according to this movie, everyone got along swimmingly.  Williams may get hooked on cocaine but the film squarely puts the blame for that on John Belushi.  The script, which was obviously written with one eye on avoiding getting sued, is sanitized of anything that could have reflected badly on anyone who was still alive when the movie aired.

Stuck with unenviable task of having to play one of the most famous people in the world, Chris Diamantopoulos was not terrible as Robin Williams.  Considering how sanitized the script was, not terrible is probably the best that could be hoped for.  There was not much of a physical resemblance but Diamantopoulos nailed the voice and some of the mannerisms.  Erinn Hayes looks like Pam Dawber but, just as in the actual show, the movie gives her the short end of the stick and focuses on Williams.

For aficionados of bad television, this is mostly memorable for Daniel Roebuck’s absolutely terrible performance as Garry Marshall and a scene in which Williams is heckled in a comedy club but an overweight man who steps out of the shadows and announces that he’s John Belushi!  Roebuck’s performance as Garry Marshall begins and end with his attempt to impersonate Marshall’s familiar voice.  He was much better cast as Jay Leno in The Night Shift.  As for Belushi , since he was not around to sue or otherwise defend himself, the movie goes all out to portray Belushi (who was played by Tyler Labine) as being an almost demonic influence on Williams.   The film’s portrayal of Belushi is even worse and probably more inaccurate than Wired and that’s saying something!

To quote Mork himself: Shazbot!  This movie is full of it.

Quickie Review: Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (dir. by Eli Craig)


One thing I like about genre films is the fact that, whether they’re good or bad, they mostly accomplish the part about entertaining it’s audience. For the good to great ones they don’t just entertain but raise the genre to new heights. For the bad ones they seem to entertain in unexpected ways. How often have one watched a bad genre film, realize it’s bad and still just roll with it, laughing at it becoming part of it’s appeal. We wouldn’t have gotten years and years of Rifftrax and MST3K without enjoying the badness of awful genre films. Then there are genre films which takes the very well-worn tropes of the genre. The very things we as an audience groan and snicker at and manages to turn it into a love-letter to the very thing they’re making fun of.

The horror-comedy Tucker & Dale vs. Evil takes the backwoods horror which has been a major staple of the slasher subgenre for over a quarter-century and tips it on it’s head to create a horror comedy that never runs out of laughs and still manages to show cringe-inducing death scenes. It stars Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine in the roles of Tucker and Dale. We have two well-meaning “hillbillies” from the backwoods of West Virginia on their way to Tucker’s recently bought “fixer-upper” of a vacation home who come across a group of obnoxious college kids looking to spend the weekend on the shore of the very lake our two intrepid heroes’ vacation also sits off of. Through some misunderstanding between the very sweet-natured Dale who tries to befriend one of the pretty college girls in the group we see the beginning of events that will see death and mayhem visited upon both groups throughout the film.

We get the mandatory story telling us about how twenty years ago during Memorial Day a group of similar college kids were massacred by a couple of hillbillies on the very shores of the lake with only one survivor to tell the tale. This tale becomes the reason why the college kids start trying to “defend” themselves from Tucker and Dale who they thought kidnapped one of the girls in their group when in fact they had just rescued her from drowning. One by one each college kid dies in horrible fashion in their attempt to take on the oblivious Tucker and Dale who begin to think the group were on a suicide pact and means to take them down as well.

The film really does a great job of playing on the well-worn conventions of slasher films and making each such scenario play out in a way that if someone caught the scene a few seconds after it had already started they would think Tucker and Dale were trying to kill these kids. Each kill have just enough gore to satisfy horror fans so used to slasher films, but also funny enough every cringe was followed up by laughs.

One thing the film also had going for it was the chemistry between Tudyk and Labine as Tucker and Dale. They play off each other quite naturally that it’s not a stretch to believe these two were truly life-long friends who would brave the rush of misguided college kids to save each other. Even the college girl with the heart of gold, Allie (played by Katrina Bowden), adds to the film’s good-natured fun as she tries to explain to her friends that everything which has been going on (all the death and destruction) was all just a misunderstanding. Another thing which helps make the two leads in the film quite sympathetic has to be how obnoxious the kids really were who look down on the so-called “mountain folk” of the region because of their appearance thus their lack of education.

Eli Craig took three years to make Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, but the end result was all worth the wait. The film follows in the great traditions of horror-comedies of the past by never winking cynically at the audience at how smart it is, but letting the basic premise of the story play out as simply as possible. It helps to have a great duo in Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine in the roles of the Tucker and Dale. This film may not make many critics running to proclaim it as a milestone in the genre but it does succeed in entertaining it’s audience and just ending up being one hilarious 90 minutes of campy horror.

Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (dir. by Rupert Wyatt)


In 2001, Tim Burton released his highly-anticipated remake of the classic 1968 film adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s sci-fi novel which would ultimately be called, Planet of the Apes. Fans of the series were excited to see what idiosyncrasies Burton would add to the series which had petered out decades before. What people were hoping for and what they ended up getting were polar opposites. The film in of itself wasn’t an awful film, but it wasn’t a good one and many saw it as average at best and bad at it’s worst. Any plans to sequelize this remake fell by the wayside. It took almost a decade until a decision was made to continue the series in a different direction.

British filmmaker and writer Rupert Wyatt would be given the task to rejuvenate for a second time the Planet of the Apes franchise. He would be working with a screenplay written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver which would take the 4th film in the series, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and rework it for a much more current setting. The film was to be called Rise of the Apes and would star James Franco, John Lithgow and Frieda Pinto. As time went by the film would be renamed Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Despite having such an awkward sounding titles the film would end up to be one of the best films of the summer of 2011, if not one of the best of the year.

The film begins with a harrowing sequence in the jungles of Central Africa as poachers capture several chimpanzees to be sold as medical test subjects. Some of these chimps end up at a genetics research lab outside of San Francisco where one Will Rodman (James Franco) is working to find a cure to Alzheimer. He sees the encouraging result in one chimp he has named “Bright Eyes” (due to the side-effect to the test subject’s eyes taking on green flecks to their irises) and pushes for the next step and that’s human testing. The ensuing pitch to the company’s board of directors doesn’t go as planned as Bright Eyes goes on a violent rampage leading to her being put down and the project shelved. Her reaction they soon find out has less to do with the breakthrough treatment and more of a maternal instinct to protect her baby she secretly gave birth to. Will takes the baby chimp home in secret temporarily, but soon becomes attached to it as does his Alzheimer stricken father (John Lithgow) who names it Caesar.

The first third of the film sees Caesar showing an inherited hyper-intelligence from his genetically-treated mother. Caesar becomes an integral part of the Rodman household even to the point that Will has taught Caesar to call him father. It’s a family dynamic which would help mold Caesar into something more than just a wild animal. He begins to show signs of humanity which would become bedrock of his decision later in the film to turn become the revolutionary that the film has been leading up to the moment Caesar gets sent to a primate sanctuary after a violent encounter with a boorish neighbor to end the first reel of the film.

It’s during the second reel which sees Caesar realize that while he may as smart (maybe even smarter) than the humans he would never be a part of that world. In the sanctuary he learns that his very uniqueness has set him apart from the other primates. He sees the abuse inflicted on his fellow primates and longing to be back to his “home” with Will turns to a focus need to free himself and his people. He does this in the only fashion he knows would succeed. With the help from a couple canisters containing the aerosol-based treatment which increased his mother’s intelligence, Caesar frees everyone from the sanctuary and takes the fight to the humans as they make for the wilds of the Muir Redwood Forest north of San Francisco.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes might look to be an action-packed film from how the trailers and tv spots has been pushing the film, but it actually only has three major action sequences and they’re integral to each third of the film in helping advance the story. These were not action for the sake of having action on the screen. Writers Jaffa and Silver do a great job in figuring out that the real strength of the film would be Caesar’s journey from precocious ape child, rebellious teen and then his final unveiling as the leader of a people who have shaken off the shackles of medical research and their forced sacrifice for the greater good.

The film was never about the humans played by Franco, Pinto and Lithgow. It was always about Caesar and the film hinged on the audience believing Caesar as a character. In that regard, the work by WETA Digital should be commended as should Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar. Serkis’ motion capture performance goes beyond just mimicking the movement of an ape. His own acting as Caesar comes through in even in the digital form of Caesar. In fact, the film never had a real ape used during filming. From Caesar right up to the scarred ape Koba every ape in the film was the work of WETA Digital’s furthering the motion capture work they had done in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and James Cameron’s Avatar. Never once during the two hour running time of the film did I ever not believe I was watching apes on the screen. Every emotion Caesar goes through during the film was able to show through facial expressions and body language.

It’s the strength of Serkis’ mo-cap work and the overall execution of Caesar’s character by WETA which also highlighted the one major weakness of the film through it’s underdeveloped human characters. Whether it was Franco’s benevolent Dr. Frankenstein-like Will Rodman right up to his greedy, amoral boss in the company (played by David Oyelowo), all the human’s in the film were very one-note and mostly served to propel Caesar’s story forward. At times, Franco actually seemed to be just as he was during his hosting gig during the Academy Awards earlier in the year. These were not bad performances by the actors involved. They were just there and part of it was due to how underwritten their characters were.

To help balance out this flaw in the film’s non-ape character would be the beautiful work by the film’s cinematographer in Andrew Lesnie. He has always been well-known for beautiful, majestic panoramic shot of the world as he had demonstrated in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. He does the same for this film as we see some beautiful shots of the Muir Redwood forest, of San Francisco’s skyline and in the climactic battle on the Golden Gate Bridge. The city of San Francisco and it’s iconic red-hued bridge and the surrounding area has never been shot as gorgeous as Lesnie has done with his DP work on this film.

Even with some of the characters in the film being underwritten the film succeeds through Rupert Wyatt’s direction which keeps the film moving efficiently, but also bringing out the emotional content of the film’s script in an organic way. Film has always been about manipulating the audience’s  emotions. It’s when a director does so and make it seem normal is when such manipulation doesn’t come through for those watching to feel. Then add to this Serkis’ exceptional work as Caesar with some major digital artistry from the folks over at WETA Digital and Rise of the Planet of the Apes does rise above it’s B-movie foundation into something that should live beyond the summer and for years to come.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes does a great job and a long way towards wiping off the bad taste left behind by Tim Burton’s failed attempt to remake the franchise. We didn’t need something exotic and idiosyncratic to give the franchise a fresh breath of life. It seems all it needed was a very good story, some exceptional work from Andy Serkis and WETA Digital and a filmmaker knowing how to tell the story in a natural fashion and not fall into the temptation to go into shock and awe to tell it. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a film that could stand-alone, but it does something that many trying to create film franchises never seem to do right: it makes people want to see what happens next in the lives of Caesar and his apes.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Trailer


The franchise which seemed to have been left for dead by Tim Burton’s attempt to reboot it in 2001 looks to try and make another go at it again ten years later. Tim Burton will not be anywhere near this reboot and instead will be in the hands of British newcomer Rupert Wyatt.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (originally called Rise of the Apes which I actually prefer) looks to reboot the franchise by taking the origjnal Conquest of the Planet of the Apes ffrom 1972 and using that as the foundation for this reboot’s plot. It will star his Highness himself, James Franco, with Peter Jackson-regular Andy Serkis playing the role of ape leader, Caesar.

This film seems to have the full backing of Jackson’s WETA Digital to create all the apes in the film digitally. There won’t be any prosthetics and make-up work with this film unlike the previous ones. While some may think this is a bad idea I actually think WETA Digital’s work in creating total CG-characters in the past pretty much heads above other FX-shops (and I include Industrial Light & Magic). From the trailer the apes look quite realistic and even Caesar himself look very real.

Time and the film’s release will tell if this reboot will have a better reception than Tim Burton’s film. I, myself, am looking forward to it since of all the Apes film of the past it was always Conquest that remained my favorite of all of them.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is set for an August 5, 2011 release.