There have been a number of recent titles that managed to sneak their way past our usual schedule of reviews, so instead of leaving them untouched, we figured it would be a good idea to cover them in our reoccurring segment, the Review Round-Up.
Escape Room: Tournament of Champions
The sequel to the 2019 sleeper hit Escape Room is on par with its predecessor in that this is another slickly produced, impeccably braindead thriller that makes so little sense, the second you attempt to put logic behind any of the plot mechanics, it all falls apart. Picking up just a few days after the first film ended with our heroes Zoey (Taylor Russell) and Ben (Logan Miller) surviving the treacherous escape rooms set up by the evil Minos corporation. When Zoey and Ben decide to travel to the headquarters of the shady organization, they find themselves thrust into yet another round of dangerous escape rooms, this time, the other contestants are former champions.
Returning director Adam Robitel crafts a number of exciting set-pieces with some inventive puzzles, unfortunately the vast majority of the rooms are so overtly convoluted, it’s hard to get invested with what’s going on. The new characters are given little to no development, so when cast members start getting picked off, their deaths mean absolutely nothing. While a few moments involving a room full of lazars and acid rain provide some thrills, a majority of the rooms consist of the cast yelling convoluted plot details at one another with no suspense. Not to mention the bloodless PG-13 rating takes away from any edge the film might have. Escape Room: Tournament of Champions may position itself as a more puzzle-based, teen-friendly equivalent to the Saw franchise, but in just the second film in the series, there’s not enough fun or wit to keep any further interest.
A bonkers and candy-coated exercise in world-building and comics-inspired action spectacle, Gunpowder Milkshake is refreshingly simple in its aspirations, and works largely because of it. Karen Gillan stars as Sam, an elite assassin working for the same mysterious agency that employed her mother, Scarlet (Lena Headey), who abandoned her a young child. Betrayed by her longtime boss, Nathan (Paul Giamatti), Sam finds herself on the run alongside a young girl (Chloe Coleman), dodging fellow assassins, henchmen, and a rival mobster (Ralph Ineson) who has it out for Sam after the death of his son. Sam unites with her mother’s sidekicks, and fellow badasses Madeleine (Carla Gugino), Florence (Michelle Yeoh) and Anna May (Angela Bassett) to lead the ultimate strike against the patriarchy.
Director Navot Papushado (Big Bad Wolves) crafts a fun and diabolical thrill ride that knows exactly how to deliver. The impeccable stunt work and inventive action sequences are further elevated by some unique, postmodern production design and striking cinematography by Michael Seresin. The cast is having a ball with Karen Gillan finding the perfect balance of pathos with dark, sardonic humor and the physicality of a true-born action star. A particular close quarters fight sequence in which Gillan has her arm temporarily paralyzed feels like something directly ripped from an early Jackie Chan film.
Gunpowder Milkshake is not a very demanding film, but it excels in what it strives to achieve. If Michelle Yeoh brandishing an M16 or Carla Gugino dual-wielding claw hammers sounds enticing, you’ll definitely find enough to like here.
A Classic Horror Story
Heavily inspired by the classics of the genre, A Classic Horror Story is a neat little idea of a movie that, while a brutal and often thrilling experience, lays its cards all out on the table, giving away all its tricks right before the final reel. Led by Revenge star Matilda Lutz, A Classic Horror Story follows a group of carpoolers travelling through southern Italy, where they become stranded in the woods after a car accident. The group quickly find themselves prey to a group of mysterious cloaked figures that resemble an old folktale.
Directing duo Roberto de Feo and Paolo Strippoli have a clear knowledge of the inner workings of the genre, something they quite literally lay out in front of the audience with very little subtlety. Everything from the classic Italian subgenres, to the slasher films of the 70’s and 80’s, to the meta-nature of the 90’s and the grisliness of the 2000’s are all effectively paid homage to. The directing duo also serve up an array of frightening imagery that lingers after the film is over. However, its when the filmmakers decide to show their hand in the final act where A Classic Horror Story begins to topple over itself. The clumsy messaging and ham-fisted allegory feels lecturing and stops most any enjoyment to be had. It’s a shame these filmmakers feel the need to spell out their thesis because up until that point, A Classic Horror Story works pretty damn well as a self-referential slice of genre cinema.
1st Year Checking
Michael Messner’s personal and engaging documentary, 1st Year Checking, serves as both an interesting look behind the scenes of adolescent sports, and an often damning critique of the enforcing system behind it. In the world of hockey, the “PeeWee” class, consisting of players ages 11-13, is the first year where checking is introduced. With those ages being the most crucial years in a child’s development, Messner’s film looks at the effects of introducing the violent act into a youth league through the eyes of his young son, Grayson. Grayson, who’s significantly smaller than most of the kids in his age group, is our conduit into the rough-and-tumble world of youth hockey, which consists of some fairly profound moments of the physical and emotional toll the sport takes on such a young player.
Messner explores to ramifications of checking at such a young age with interviews from experts, doctors, physicians, all with largely contradicting opinions. Some of the interviewees raise the statistics that players are three times more likely to suffer a concussion in their first year of hockey, which, at such a ripe young age, can prove devastating; others suggest lowering the age of introducing hockey into later teen years — the “Bantam” class that consists of players ages 14-17 — would prove to be more destructive. Messner allows the opinions and facts to speak for themselves, rather than spell things out didactyly.
While 1st Year Checking is a bit rough around the edges, and the narrative can be unfocused when it comes to some issues raised, this is still an engaging and informative sports doc that has the ability to raise some tough questions.
The Forever Purge
The Purge franchise has become the leading example of pulpy exploitation cinema done on a studio level. It’s high-concept (that being a 12-hour stretch where all crime, including murder, is legal) allows plenty of room to not only deliver the goods in a genre movie sense, but on a sociopolitical one. The Forever Purge, the supposed final installment in the franchise, takes the formula into newer, fresher territory, one that’s both hauntingly familiar, and effective as ever.
The Forever Purge follows Adela (Ana de la Reguera) and Juan (Tenoch Huerta), a couple who recently immigrated to the U.S. and are now working for a local family ranch. On the night of the annual murderous holiday, in a nice plot subversion, all of our protagonists manage to survive the night and precede to go back to their ordinary lives the next day. However, a rising group decides one night is not enough, raising a call to arms for a never-ending Purge. Franchise creator/producer/writer James DeMonaco wisely finds an interesting new perspective to carry on the series. Director Everardo Gout crafts a tight, pulpy slice of modern exploitation that does a fine job of giving its typical audience the thrills they hope for, while also directly holding up a mirror to our society.
The Purge films are some of the only mainstream horror films to use its subtext as actual text, and not since Romero has it been angrier. There’s a true apocalyptic sense of dread that lingers throughout the film, making the journey that much more effective and haunting. As we live in a post-insurrection society, The Forever Purge serves as an eerie reminder that we’re not as far off from the insanity presented in the film as we’d like to admit.