People may be about to slam in Space Jam, but there’s also plenty of other options available, streaming or otherwise, as well. This set of write-ups includes a horror sequel, a female-led assassin tale, a serious Nicolas Cage thriller, a shark movie, a violent riff on Romeo & Juliet, and a spoken word musical. The following features reviews for the Escape Room: Tournament of Champions, Gunpowder Milkshake, Pig, Great White, Die In A Gunfight, and Summertime.
The Setup: Zoey (Taylor Russell) and Ben (Logan Miller) survived a series of deadly escape rooms only to find themselves unwittingly locked in another series of escape rooms, only to learn that their teammates are all survivors of similarly fatal rooms. They’ll have to work together to once again get through a gauntlet of elaborate death traps.
Review: I suppose director Adam Robitel’s 2019 film, Escape Room, was a sleeper hit. We have a sequel, so obviously, it was successful, but beyond the box office, what could have been a throwaway gimmick used for a standard, poorly handled January horror release turned out to be quite clever. Of course, the central conceit was the highlight, but it was the effort to build a film based around trauma and teamwork that helped it stand out. The audience wanted to see escape rooms turned into death traps, but they were also encouraged to root for the characters.
Tournament of Champions is a direct sequel, and it’s more or less of the same quality. I once again found myself enjoying the actual escape rooms while still feeling merely fine with the bookends surrounding them. That said, this is an 88-minute movie, and the non-room-focused aspects only take up so much time. The fun really begins once our heroes and a new set of supporting players find themselves in another escape room. This time around, the games begin in a subway car that is slowly becoming more and more electrified. Neat!
Other rooms include a bank equipped with laser security and a quicksand-filled beach getaway. These are fabulous ideas. I can’t say any of these tops the upside-down billiards bar from the first film, but the creative forces are clearly still at play. The film does have a bit of a problem with telegraphing some clues early, where the joy of seeing these escape rooms in action should rely on discovering clues and solving problems at the same time as the characters. That’s not to say this Escape Room sequel feels rushed, but in an effort to never let up on the pacing, it does feel like the foot needed to come off the gas at a few points and give us some breathing room.
Quibbles aside, for a horror series relying on killer games, I do like how the Escape Room films play a bit fairer than their more adult counterparts like the Saw series or the Final Destination films. Russell and Miller are a strong enough duo to root for as well. The overarching story may dictate that there’s more to come (depending on this film’s box office results), but if the series can continue to deliver on clever room concepts, I’ll be happy to keep playing along.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters on July 16, 2021.
The Setup: A cold-blooded assassin (Karen Gillan) finds herself in the middle of a gang war, ultimately leading her back to her mother (Lena Headey), also an assassin, and fellow hitwomen (Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh, and Carla Gugino), who know how to handle themselves in a fight.
Review: The eye-catching title did plenty to raise attention for this film, but the presence of this female-dominated cast clues the viewer in on what’s coming. Fortunately, the film is not simply attempting to pose as a female Expendables. Instead, director Navot Papushado delivers a highly stylized action-thriller (with plenty of dark humor) that largely works.
As the lead, Gillan can deliver on the action, albeit with a comedic bent. Already hip to the scene thanks to the Guardians of the Galaxy and Jumanji films, this goes a more violent route that would call to mind John Wick if the choreography was better filmed. That said, there are many well-done fights in this film that range from hand-to-hand combat to major gun battles, generally relying more on creative ways to improvise during these fights.
Of course, this is the kind of film where it’s “the more, the merrier,” as the early introduction of the other actresses means the film will inevitably involve them in some major action sequence. While there’s an enjoyable enough gangster/mother-daughter story fueling the film’s core, it really does come down to the big battle where all of these performers get to show off their fighting skills.
Adding a welcome and very over-the-top Paul Giamatti is never a bad thing either. These sort of quirks allow many of Gunpowder Milkshake’s shortcomings to be washed over thanks to the level of spirit that keeps the energy high. There are enough stylized elements to show the film’s efforts to be more than what it boils down to, plus the fun sense of comradery shared between these performers goes a long way. The tone could have been a bit more consistent, but hey, we even get to see real milkshakes on screen.
Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Netflix.
The Setup: Living alone in the Oregon wilderness, a truffle hunter (Nicolas Cage) returns to Portland to find the person who stole his beloved pig.
Review: At some point, years from now, people who don’t already understand this will learn that Cage is an actor who gave it his all and was genuinely successful. That doesn’t mean all the films were hits, but he doesn’t pick projects just to lazily walk through them. In recent years, while many Cage films simply don’t work, some of them have really resonated. Mandy is definitely one of them. Color out of Space is another. Pig easily joins the ranks as well.
While a more commercially-inclined movie and lesser filmmakers would take this premise as an opportunity to deliver a Taken-style thriller for Cage (with people forgetting Cage has already been an action star), director/writer Michael Sarnoski has far more on his mind with Pig. This is an introspective character study serving as a meditation on loss and grief. It finds characters at their lowest point and takes them on a journey through the underworld to ideally find a resolution.
The filmmaking has a lot more in common with Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, if anything, but even the violent/thriller aspects are more subdued than some may expect. This is a quiet and contemplative film with occasional bursts of energy. In both modes, Cage is as good as he’s ever been. That effort means really understanding why this premise never comes across as silly. Taking something from a man who cherishes very little means attacking their soul. Pig is about finding that part of one’s life again, and it’s a very effective portrayal of how one does this.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters on July 16, 2021.
The Setup: A blissful tourist trip turns into a nightmare when five seaplane passengers are stranded miles from shore. In a desperate bid for survival, the group try to make it to land before they either run out of supplies or are taken by a menacing terror lurking just beneath the surface.
Review: This is a shark movie. Sometimes I write these summaries, and other times, it’s just the outline given to everyone. I’m not beating around the bush by calling any threat a “terror,” Great White is about a great white shark terrorizing people in a raft. With that in mind, the film is not as exciting as director Martin Wilson wants it to be.
Part of it shouldn’t come down to what I’m about to say, but honestly, sharks don’t act like this. So, this is one pissed-off shark. A cold open has it attacking two innocents. The next time the shark arrives, it destroys a seaplane. Forever reason after that, the shark decides to continually track the large raft in the water – likely as a revenge mission to get back at humans for making so many subpar shark thrillers.
I shouldn’t care too much about the behavior of sharks, but I was the most interested in its story. Most of the other characters are blandly likable. You have the struggling couple (Katrina Bowden and Aaron Jakubenko) responsible for guiding the trip. The other couple features Tim Kano as the one jerk in this movie. There’s also Te Kohe Tuhaka as a member of the charter crew and the most enjoyable character, but there’s only so much for any of these people to do.
With shark movies, especially ones as limited as this, one can hope for good underwater filming and maybe elaborate thrill sequences. As it stands, the CGI is decent at points, the kills are pretty predictable, and the justification for the premise barely holds water. I don’t ask for too much in these kinds of movies, but in terms of sink or swim, Great White hits the ocean floor.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters, on VOD, and digital on July 16, 2021.
The Setup: Mary (Alexandra Daddario) and Ben (Diego Boneta) are the star-crossed black sheep of two powerful families engaged in a centuries-long feud – and they’re about to reignite an affair after many years apart. Their forbidden love will trigger the dominoes that will draw in Mukul (Wade Allain-Marcus), Ben’s best friend, who owes him a life debt; Terrence (Justin Chatwin), Mary’s would-be protector-turned-stalker; Wayne (Travis Fimmel), an Aussie hitman with an open mind and a code of ethics; and his free-spirited girlfriend, Barbie (Emmanuelle Chriqui). As fists and bullets fly, it becomes clear that violent delights will have violent ends.
Review: As you can see, there’s a lot of moving parts in director Collin Schiffli’s Die In A Gunfight, a stylized modern update of Romeo & Juliet. Don’t take that inspiration to heart, as this isn’t a direct adaptation, and characters certainly are not speaking in verse. The bare minimum of elements are retained for this quick-paced, occasionally violent romance. With all of that in mind, whether or not it needed more of the Bard’s words to hold together, I couldn’t get on board with what was presented.
I’m aware this film went through quite the journey to be made, as the screenplay has been on the Black List, and various notable actors were attached at different points in time. Even the list of executive producers shows how much of an effort it was to put all of this together. If only I could have attached myself to anything that was taking place. Whether it’s an aesthetic aspect, or a few of the performances not hitting me the right way, Die in a Gunfight not only felt messy but gave off an overconfident vibe that just didn’t click with me.
It doesn’t help to see Boneta playing a character who just wasn’t all that likable. Beyond being our default hero, I found it hard to root for him, and, while colorful, the world he moved through was not endearing me any closer to the life he was a part of. The core romance shared between him and Daddario is fine, but, again, anchoring so much of this film on a violent set of circumstances wasn’t helping me find myself attached to much of what was happening. There’s a way to make this work. I’ve seen so many hitman comedies that I know it’s possible. However, Die in a Gunfight seems to be content with touting its coolness without actually delivering on it.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters and on VOD on July 16, 2021.
The Setup: Over the course of a hot summer day in Los Angeles, the lives of 27 young Angelinos intersect. A skating guitarist, a tagger, two wannabe rappers, an exasperated fast-food worker, a limo driver—they all weave in and out of each other’s stories.
Review: I remember hearing about this film back in January 2020, during the Sundance Film Festival, before the world changed. As a huge fan of director Carlos López Estrada’s first film, Blindspotting, I was curious what other cinematic ventures from him would be like. He has since gone on to co-direct Raya and the Last Dragon but knowing he had this arthouse poetry film waiting to be released, I hoped his ambitious visual flair would allow for something interesting. The results are decent enough, but I can’t fault the ambition.
There are plenty of “long day” films set during hot summer days or notable times in the lives of young people – think Do the Right Thing or Dazed and Confused. I couldn’t help but think of another Linklater film, Slacker. That film had no real narrative but managed to weave through the lives of many in intriguing ways. The structure of Summertime is more deliberate. We watch various young people deliver spoken word poetry to address the circumstances they run into, whether it’s the change in a restaurant’s menu, an encounter on a bus, or a testimony regarding one’s mother.
There’s no lack of creativity on display, though the film has to balance its level of relatability against a level of obnoxiousness that comes from the nature of delivery. Sections of the film find the appropriate rhythm, and there are clear highlights. Other moments find the performers putting their all into what feels like overwrought angst. It’s not enough to derail the project, especially with the one rapping duo serving as a fun running joke to carry us through the day, but the areas that engage can only go so far with a combination of so many styles.
Where To Watch: Available in select theaters now, expanding on July 16, 2021.