Review: ‘Escape Room: Tournament of Champions,’ starring Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Indya Moore, Holland Roden, Thomas Cocuerel and Carlito Olivero

July 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Holland Roden, Indya Moore and Thomas Cocquerel in “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures)

“Escape Room: Tournament of Champions”

Directed by Adam Robitel

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the horror film “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” features a mostly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Six people are trapped by diabololical forces in an elaborate escape room, where they are forced to solve different puzzles in a limited time, or else they might die.

Culture Audience: “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” will appeal primarily to people who saw 2019’s “Escape Room” and to people who don’t mind watching silly horror movies that have nonsensical plots.

Holland Roden, Carlito Olivero, Thomas Cocquerel, Indya Moore, Taylor Russell and Logan Miller in “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures)

What’s really escaped from “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” is good filmmaking. Viewers will feel trapped in this badly made horror sequel, which consists mostly of idiotic scenes of people yelling at each other while they unrealistically solve convoluted puzzles in a very short period of time or else they could die. In real life, people who are panicking this much wouldn’t be able to have the near-psychic powers that these trapped characters seem to have when they quickly make over-the-top, elaborate deductions. The so-called “problem solving” in the movie doesn’t feel earned, because it looks exactly like what it is: overly staged nonsense from a poorly written screenplay.

“Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” is the sequel to 2019’s “Escape Room,” both directed by Adam Robitel. “Escape Room” had two screenwriters (Bragi Schut and Maria Melnik), while “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” has four: Melnik, Will Honley, Daniel Tuch and Oren Uziel. It could be a case of “too many cooks in the kitchen.” Just like most movie sequels, “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” is inferior to the original.

In “Escape Room,” six strangers were unwittingly chosen by a mysterious and sinister group called Minos to be in a life-or-death escape room. If you don’t know what happened at the end of “Escape Room,” you’ll be forced to know this spoiler information when watching “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions.” Two people who survived at the end of “Escape Room” are physics student Zoey Davis (played by Taylor Russell) and grocery store stocker Ben Miller (played by Logan Miller), who became friends after their traumatic ordeal.

“Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” begins with Zoey and Ben, who have traveled by plane to New York City, trying to find the unlisted building in Manhattan that Zoey thinks could be the headquarters of Minos. It’s a clue that she found at the very end of “Escape Room.” “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” wastes time in the beginning with a terror scene of Ben being trapped somewhere, but it turns out to be a nightmare. This “it was only a nightmare” trick is used in a lot of horror movies as a way to fill up the time when the writers can’t think of anything else to further the plot.

It isn’t long before Zoey and Ben arrrive at the abandoned building that they’re sure can give them answers to who’s behind the escape room that they endured. Inside the building is a scruffy-looking guy (played by Matt Esof), who appears to be a homeless junkie. He claims to know nothing about the escape room. But he’s observant enough to see the pocket watch that Zoey has, so he lightly cuts her with a knife and steals the watch.

Zoey and Ben chase after this thief, but he’s able to escape. Out of breath and feeling defeated, Zoey and Ben go on a subway train to figure out what to do next. And this is the part of the movie where you know the “escape room” antics will start and that the other people in the same subway car will be trapped in the game too.

Sure enough, the subway car starts rocking like it’s been hit by an earthquake. There’s no train conductor in sight. And in a dumb movie like this one, the subway conveniently doesn’t have emergency brakes or a way to call for emergency services. The subway car detaches from the rest of the train, as it hurtles off the train tracks.

The six people trapped in this subway car are:

  • Zoey, the smartest one in the group who’s the most likely to figure out solutions to the puzzles.
  • Ben, a somewhat passive follower who keeps reminding everyone that Zoey saved his life.
  • Theo (played by Carlito Olivero), the loudest and most panic-stricken person in the group.
  • Rachel Ellis (played by Holland Roden), who’s very sarcastic and the one most likely to tell the terrible jokes that fall flat in the movie.
  • Brianna Collier (played by Indya Moore), the one most likely to run into a booby trap so that she can predictably scream and wail.
  • Nathan (played by Thomas Cocquerel), an alcoholic who seems to have given up on life until he has to fight for his life in this new escape room scenario.

Theo is an athletic-looking guy who tries to pound and kick his way out of the subway car, to no avail. He’s upset because he tells everyone that today is his wife’s birthday, and there’s no way he’s going to miss celebrating her birthday with her. It doesn’t take long for these six people trapped in the subway car to figure out that they were brought together for a reason: They all survived previous escape rooms that were masterminded by Minos. And if the reason for this gathering of survivors isn’t clear enough to viewers (because the filmmakers must think everyone watching is as dumb as this movie), Rachel announces that this must be the “tournament of champions.”

Suddenly, it looks like an electrical storm has appeared in the subway car. It’s a race against time to figure out the puzzle or else they’ll die. Underneath a seat, a purse is found with a pedal that the trapped people use for purposes that won’t be revealed in this review. The subway car’s overhead electronic announcement sign gives ominous messages with clues on how to solve the life-or-death puzzle in a very limited of time.

These clues are extremely and unnecessarily complicated to stretch out each scene into a tangled web of people shouting out theories that they think will solve the puzzle. They see an announcement that says “Beware of False Advertising.” Zoey immediately figures out that means they should look for misspelling on the ads in the subway car. Somehow, these missing letters are linked to obsolete subway tokens that mysteriously show up and have to correspond with the number of passenger handles located on the upper rails in the subway car.

Zoey has quickly figured out that there are 26 of these passenger handles in the subway car, so of course they correspond with the 26 letters of the English alphabet. One of the passenger handles has a green stripe and another handle at the opposite end of the car has a red stripe. In lightning-quick speed, Zoey deduces that the green-striped handle stands for the letter “a,” and the red-striped handle stands for the letter “z.”

And so, when certain misspelled or missing letters are found on the subway ads, there’s a mad dash to find the passenger handles that correspond with that letter of the alphabet. When these handles are pulled, they reveal tokens that have to be put in a token slot box before time runs out. They’re supposed to do all of this in about 10 minutes, which is a ridiculously short amount of time for even the most logical, genius-level person to figure out while tapped in a subway car filled with electrical lightning that could kill anyone at any moment.

Conveniently, the subway car has a trap door that opens if they figure out the puzzle in time. And you know that this puzzle will be solved, because if it wasn’t solved, “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” would be a very short movie. Other puzzle scenarios in “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” include figuring out elaborate codes in a deserted bank with deadly security lasers; trying not to get trapped in quicksand on an idyllic-looking beach; and figuring out how to get protection when stuck out on a street where it’s literally pouring acidic rain.

“Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” has a semi-obsession with burning or electrocuting the people who are trapped in this moronic game. And the movie has moments that are unintentionally funny because they’re so badly written. None of the acting in this movie is outstanding. It’s all very formulaic.

And forget about getting to know the characters in the movie, because they’re as hollow as hollow can be. Except for Zoey and Ben, none of the characters has a significant backstory. People who saw the first “Escape Room” movie will learn nothing new about Zoey and Ben in this sequel.

It’s mentioned that Brianna is a travel vlogger, but she’s such a stereotypical screaming ninny in a horror movie that she couldn’t find her way out of a paper bag. Carlito is a lunkhead who foolishly thinks he can strong-arm his way out of the escape room. Nathan has a vaguely mentioned troubled past that he’d like to forget, while Rachel is just forgettable.

Instead of having actual personalities, the characters in “Escape Room” are just lines of horribly written dialogue and just spend a lot of time shouting at each other about what they think they should do next. Because they don’t always agree, the bickering wastes even more time. And there’s always one second left in the countdown when anyone survives in time to go on to the next puzzle. It all becomes so tedious and predictable after a while.

Perhaps the most awful part of “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” is that it tells viewers that any death that happens in this movie series might not be a real death. One of the people who “died” in the first “Escape Room” movie suddenly shows up to help in “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions.” Because this is such a terrible movie, there’s no logical reason given for why or how this person survived, even though the death was clearly shown in the first “Escape Room” movie.

Zoey and Ben are shocked to see this person, who has this vapid explanation when Zoey and Ben ask why this person isn’t dead: “If you didn’t see it, it didn’t happen.” In other words, more mindless excuses to have plot holes. And that means more ridiculousness if the “Escape Room” movie series continues. The dimwitted end of “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” makes it clear that the filmmakers want to dump more “Escape Room” movies into the world. That’s a trap that fans of good horror movies can avoid.

Columbia Pictures will release “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” in U.S. cinemas on July 16, 2021.

Review: ‘Shithouse,’ starring Cooper Raiff and Dylan Gelula

October 16, 2020

by Carla Hay

Dylan Gelula and Cooper Raiff in “Shithouse” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Shithouse”

Directed by Cooper Raiff

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Los Angeles, the romantic drama “Shithouse” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A lonely college student has an up-and-down relationship with his dorm’s resident assistant.

Culture Audience: “Shithouse” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in low-key, low-budget, talkative movies about young people who fall in love.

Dylan Gelula and Cooper Raiff in “Shithouse” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The first thing that people should know about the drama “Shithouse” is that even though the title of the movie is about a party fraternity house on a college campus in this fictional story, this movie isn’t going to be like “Animal House.” In fact, “Shithouse” isn’t really about partying or decadent antics of college students. It’s an earnestly depicted story about a couple of students who have a romance that they don’t know quite what to do with when one person in the relationship wants more of a commitment than the other.

Cooper Raiff is the writer, director, editor and co-star of “Shithouse,” which takes place mostly at an unnamed college in Los Angeles, where Raiff’s Alex Malmquist character has moved from Texas and is enrolled as a freshman student. It’s the first time that Alex has ever lived away from home, and he’s had a hard time making friends at college. Alex is very close to his immediate family, which includes his widowed mother (played by Amy Landecker), who doesn’t have a name in the story, and Alex’s 15-year-old sister Jess (played by Olivia Welch).

It would be an understatement to say that Alex misses his family. He cries on the phone when he talks to them and seems to be experiencing separation anxiety. He’s so close to his mother that he could easily be described as a “mama’s boy.” Alex is beginning to wonder if he made the right decision to go to a college so far away from his hometown, but his mother encourages him to stick with his choice and try to make friends.

Alex has a stoner roommate named Sam (played by Logan Miller), who has a completely different social life from Alex. One day, while they’re both hanging out in their dorm room, Alex asks Sam if there are any parties going on that night. Sam replies that the only party he knows about is at Shithouse. Alex and Sam make plans to go to this party.

Meanwhile, the movie conveys that Alex is so lonely, he imagines that his stuffed toy dog, which he keeps on his bed, is talking to him. The dog’s “dialogue” with Alex is shown as subtitles on the screen. This stuffed dog is snarkier and more confident than Alex is in real life.

The conversations that Alex has in his head with the dog are obviously meant to show what the dog “says” is actually a projection of what Alex wishes he could say but he doesn’t have the courage to say it. Fortunately, the imaginary dialogue that Alex has with this stuffed toy is not in the movie for long, or else it would be a really insufferable gimmick.

The stuffed animal on the bed and the bouts of crying that Alex has when he talks to his mother indicate that he’s definitely a “man child” who hasn’t fully matured. What makes “Shithouse” different from most other movies that are centered on college life is that the “man child” protagonist isn’t all about sex, partying and causing mischief. It’s rare to see a movie depict a male college student have this type of homesickness and emotional vulnerability about being away from his family for the first time.

At best, Alex could be considered endearingly sensitive. At worst, he could be considered a privileged whiner who needs to grow up and understand that his problems are nothing compared to other people’s problems. The way that Raiff portrays Alex is as someone who is so sheltered that he isn’t even aware of a lot of serious issues in the world, not because he doesn’t care but because he just wasn’t raised that way.

Is Alex even mature enough to handle a relationship outside of his family? He’s about to find out when he accidentally locks himself out of his room when he takes a shower in the hallway bathroom, and he has to ask the dorm’s residential assistant, Maggie Hill (played by Dylan Gelula), to let him back into his room with her spare key. It’s a “meet cute” moment that practically screams, “The rest of the movie will be about this relationship!”

Maggie (who is an aspiring actress) is smart with a sarcastic sense of humor. She’s also a lot more self-assured than shy and hesitant Alex, who is immediately attracted to her. Alex and Maggie see each other again at the Shithouse party, where she just happens to be standing next to him in the coincidental way that telegraphs that they will eventually get together. Their first hookup is awkward because Alex has “performance issues,” but she invites him to stay overnight with her, and they spend the rest of the night talking and cuddling.

Alex is infatuated, but Maggie isn’t quite ready to jump into a serious relationship with anyone. Later in the movie, she opens up to Alex about how her parents’ divorce and her estranged relationship with her father has affected her outlook on love and romance. The rest of the movie is an emotional “push and pull” that Alex and Maggie have over their relationship.

Along the way, they join a casual team of softball players who like to play the game at night, there’s some minor drama over Maggie’s dead turtle, and the movie has very long stretches where Maggie and Alex talk a lot about random things, both deep and superficial. All of the supporting characters on this college campus really don’t do much but appear in and out of these conversations. There is no intrusive best friend, no demanding professor, no third person who causes a love triangle. “Shithouse” pretty much makes this movie all about Alex and Maggie.

The movie’s humor is very low-key and grounded in realism, which is refreshing when so many other movies with this subject matter would go for a lot of slapstick scenarios and/or a steady stream of jokes. And although there’s some “tit for tat” rapport between Alex and Maggie, the conversations sound authentic, not overly contrived. The dialogue is not on the same quality level as the 1995 talkative romance classic “Before Sunrise,” starring Ethan Hawke and July Delpy, because Alex is a lot more insecure and less sophisticated than Hawke’s “Before Sunrise” character.

However, Alex and Maggie’s relationship is more relatable than the one in “Before Sunrise.” That’s because people who’ve had college romances are more likely to have one that looks like Alex and Maggie’s relationship, compared to the relationship in “Before Sunrise,” which had the would-be couple first meeting while they’re traveling in Europe. Instead of having gorgeous backdrops during a train ride though Vienna, the relationship between Alex and Maggie plays out in cramped dorm rooms and during walks at night on a non-descript college campus.

“Shithouse” is by no means a groundbreaking movie. But it does present a gender role reversal of what’s usually in movies about romances between men and women. In “Shithouse,” the woman is the dominant person in the relationship who’s wary of commitment, while the man is the emotionally needy one who wants a commitment. Usually, romantic dramas are about the woman being clingy and wanting the relationship to go to the next level.

“Shithouse” is Raiff’s feature-film debut, and he admirably keeps a consistent tone throughout the film as a director, writer and editor. Raiff and Gelula give very good (but not outstanding) performances in portraying this seemingly mismatched couple who are at different emotional maturity levels. However, what’s interesting about “Shithouse” is that the movie doesn’t present in absolutes who might be “right” and who might be “wrong” in the relationship.

On the one hand, Alex is very unsophisticated about life, but he doesn’t play “hard to get” like Maggie tends to do. On the other hand, Maggie is a commitment-phobe, but she’s honest about why she’s got commitment issues. In some ways, Alex is more in touch with his feelings than Maggie is with hers. But in other ways, Maggie is more in touch with her feelings than Alex is with his. The question is if they can find enough common ground as a foundation to build their relationship, wherever it takes them.

“Shithouse” might not appeal to people who are expecting the usual hijinks that are in movies about college romances. This “slice of life” film realistically portrays that the college experience isn’t just one big party but it’s often when people start to find their identity and what they want out of life. The movie’s concept isn’t very original, but there’s enough authenticity in how this story is depicted that it can strike an emotional chord with people.

IFC Films released “Shithouse” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on October 16, 2020.