Quick Reviews: 'The Card Counter' | 'Escape Room: Tournament Of Champions'
THE CARD COUNTER
Hope you did all your math homework 'cause we're doing a bunch of counting today. Old-timer director and writer Paul Schrader sets the table with The Card Counter, a neat and tidy crime thriller that struggles to get a winning hand, no matter how weird the camera lenses get as it goes on. Oscar Isaac stars as William Tell, current day gambler circling east coast casinos, and former day military man who served a prison sentence for his part in torturing detainees at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, following instructions of superior Gordo (Willem Dafoe) who wasn't caught. William gets approached at a casino by a young man named Cirk (Tye Sheridan) and the two start touring together after learning that Cirk's life was also impacted by Gordo. They are then joined by La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a gambler-manager-of-sorts who is able to get financial backers for William's games.
You probably wouldn't be too far off from the truth if you thought that the film exists just for cool locations to shoot in with action that is provided by poker and other gambling games. Acting is terribly fine all things considered, though Haddish brings just the right amount of grace and confidence to otherwise middling character shapes that are the main trio. There are cool shots of casino tables and inviting narration by Isaac but it does feel like Schrader is running on empty, especially what seems to have happened in post-production. Him and editor Benjamin Rodriguez Jr. are stuck in the mud which keeps sequences going on and on with no end in sight. Things don't improve with the score led by Robert Levon Been and vocals and instrumentation by others as the music seems to be in constant shootout with the editing, leaving only one survivor each time. Even smaller things like editing of ADR sounded really wrong for the environments, noticeably in a scene at a garden with elaborate lighting designs. It's almost like as the main plot about revenge got less exciting, so did cinematic nature of the movie.
Smileys: Tone, Tiffany Haddish
Frowneys: Pacing, score, sound editing
ESCAPE ROOM: TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS
[Note: Both the theatrical cut and alternate extended cut were watched, this review is mainly for the alternate cut as that was deemed to be better.]
It was rather obvious to notice what kind of franchise potential 2019's 'Escape Room' had considering its low-risk, high box office approach as PG-13 horror. Naturally, sequel Escape Room: Tournament Of Champions doesn't try to change the foundation too much other than having two different cuts of the film that build completely different worlds outside the main characters Zoey (Taylor Russell) and Ben (Logan Miller). No big deal, right? Theatrical cut basically sacrifices all the stakes and effects just to bring back a character for no reason so we're just gonna move on and talk about the alternate cut. After a prologue which finally tells you something about the big bad company Minos, Zoey and Logan eventually are tricked into another series of escape rooms with a new group: Nathan (Thomas Cocquerel), Brianna (Indya Moore), Rachel (Holland Roden) and Theo (Carlito Olivero), all also winners of their previous escape room groups.
Least surprising thing about the sequel perhaps is that once again production design is the best part about it, courtesy of Edward Thomas who returns from the first one. With what seems like larger budget this time around, there's a lot more VFX and SFX work combined with all set pieces which makes the situations feel slightly more threatening. Russell and Miller both do a solid job leading the way but unfortunately for director Adam Robitel, the script (which credits four people, plus another two for story) isn't doing him any favours as everything is just about pointing things out and explaining every single one of those things. You'd hope at this point that the filmmakers would realise that part of the fun is for the audience also figure things out, sometimes before or along with the characters. Now you're just listening to a lecture, really.
That world-building in this alternate cut that was mentioned earlier features solid ideas and they're well-shot and directed too, instead of what feels like fan service with new scenes in the theatrical version. Time will tell if the franchise wants to rehash the formula or does it want to shake things up by introducing new players to the game.
Smileys: Production design
Frowneys: Screenplay, dialogue