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Films I Neglected To Review: The Not-So-Hot Box
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes," "Escape Room" and "State Like Sleep."

There is no question that the late Roger Ailes was some kind of monster--a gun-toting rage-fueled and literally thin-skinned maniac who managed to spread his own paranoid fears and delusions throughout the country and infect the political process thanks to his mastery of media manipulation before his career went down in flames amidst a series of horrific sexual harassment charges. At the same time, however, the man had an uncanny mastery of the media--particularly the astonishing power of television to shape and direct opinion--and used that knowledge to fundamentally change the world of politics in ways that truly made him a pioneer in his chosen field. The good thing about the new documentary ''Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes'' is that director Alexis Bloom gives equal weight to both of these viewpoints and the result is a film that, ironically, is genuinely fair and balanced and fascinating to watch. Granted, as the film chronicles Ailes as he goes from being a producer on Mike Douglas's talkshow to a media advisor for political campaigns (whose efforts are often cited as a key reason for Richard Nixon's victory in 1968) to developing and running the Fox News Channel, there is never any question of mistaking it for a hagiography as a long litany of people he burned in the past comment on his vast array of misdeeds over the years. Nevertheless, Bloom does demonstrate a grudging fascination with how Ailes saw a vacuum and managed to fill it by virtually inventing an entire industry (before his work with Nixon, there really was not such thing as a ''media advisor'' in politics) and amassing an astounding amount of power and influence as a result. The film gets a little slow and repetitive towards the end as the focus shifts to the sexual harassment charges that saw him being deposed from his position at Fox at practically the same moment that Donald Trump (himself a sexual harasser whose political ambitions would be practically unthinkable without the backing of an entity like Fox) was accepting the GOP nomination for the presidency--this is important material, to be sure, but it is the part of the story that virtually everyone knows in depth going in and is slightly less intriguing as a result. Beyond that, ''Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes,'' while perhaps not the ideal film for anyone looking for a movie to take their minds off of current events, is a smart, incisive and sometimes scary look at how we got to this particular place in our history.

In recent years, it has become an unofficial tradition that the first new movies released during the calendar year tend to be dopey horror movies out there in the hopes of scoring a few quick bucks from bored teenagers over the final weekend of winter break before returning to school. That is certainly the case with this year’s lead-off film, ''Escape Room,'' a throughly inane ''Saw'' knockoff with bits of ''Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory'' and ''The Belko Experiment'' thrown in for good/bad measure. In it, six different types--a shy brainiac (Taylor Russell), a drunken slacker working at a loading dock (Logan Miller), a cutthroat business type (Jay Ellis), an army veteran (Deborah Ann Woll), an amiably goofy trucker (Tyler Labine) and an obnoxious gamer (Nik Dodani)--are all summoned to a remote building complex outside of Chicago to participate in a mysterious and elaborate escape room, one of those deals where a bunch of strangers are locked into some kind of themed room and pool their wits together to solve puzzles and uncover clues that will eventually allow them to find the key to freedom. For some people, the notion of participating in such a thing would be horrifying enough under normal circumstances but this one ups the ante by quickly revealing that the puzzles are more homicidal in nature than usual and as the gradually reduced group moves from one to the next, each one filled with clues hinting at past traumas in their lives, they not only have to figure out how to solve the problems but also figure out who brought them there and why?

To be fair, once ''Escape Room'' gets done setting up its premise and introducing just enough details regarding the main characters to establish that they meet the legal standards of humanity, the movie has a certain slick style to it that allows it to pass the time in an amiably junky manner and contains one sequence, involving a room designed as an upisde-down barroom, that comes perilously close to being genuinely entertaining, the kind of thing you would like to see in the hands of a legitimately inspired filmmaker and not the auteur of ''Insidious: The Last Key.'' At a certain point, however, the screenplay by Bragi Schut and Maria Melnik finds itself in the position of trying to explain the identities and aims of those behind the escape room and it is precisely there that the film goes all to hell with an explanation so inanely preposterous that it would have been much better off if it had not bothered with an explanation at all. (Suffice it to say, if it had ended by stealing a page from the end of the classic cartoon ''Duck Amuck'' and having Bugs Bunny turn to the camera and say “Ain't I a stinker?,” that would have made infinitely more sense that what is offered up here.) If that weren’t bad enough--and this final sequence goes on forever and only gets stupider as it proceeds—it is then followed by a sequel-setting epilogue that is so moronic that it almost makes what preceded it seem plausible and carefully planned out by comparison. (Seriously, the last 20 minutes of the film feel as if they were written and shot in a blind panic after receiving suggestions from an especially moronic focus group.) On the bright side, unless ''Saw'' nostalgia proves to be an actual thing this year--in which case I demand an immediate do-over--allowing ''Escape Room'' to lead the 2019 cinematic pack al least means that things can only get better from this point on.

Although the ads for ''State Like Sleep'' make it sound like a sexy mystery-thriller, it is actually more of an intense mood piece that is far more interested in establishing and sustaining the kind of dreamlike atmosphere suggested by the title than in telling a conventional story. As it opens, photographer Katherine (Katherine Towne) is still reeling from the mysterious death of her movie star husband (Michiel Huisman) a year earlier--a death ruled a suicide but containing enough loose ends to make one wonder--when she is forced to return to Brussels to finally bring her business affairs stemming from the marriage to an end at the insistence of her former mother-in-law. When a minor stroke suffered by her own mother (Mary Kay Place) prevents her from leaving, Katherine begins to investigate some of the odder aspects of her husband’s death and uncovers some inexplicable goings-on that seem to be connected to a weirdo sex club run by a creep (Luke Evans) who claims to have been one of her husband’s best friends. While trying to get some kind of closure on her life and caring for her mother when she takes a turn for the worse, Katherine’s life gets even more complicated when she begins to develop a relationship of sorts with the guy in the hotel room next to hers, the similarly uprooted and adrift American Edward (Michael Shannon), who could be the ticket out of her persistent state of ennui or just another meaningless distraction to keep her from getting her life back on track.

As someone who prefers mysteries that are focused more on mood and character than in the simple machinations of the plot, I did find the early scenes sort of intriguing in the way that writer-director Meredith Danluck establishes her central character and the zoned-out state that is her current existence as she drifts about in her half-hearted attempt to try to finally come to terms with what happened to her husband. The trouble with the film is that after setting that mood, Danluck doesn't have any idea of what to do with it or what she is trying to say about it. As a result, the film feels as aimless and adrift as its heroine and matters aren’t helped much by the way that she piles on the subplots and extraneous characters to help fill the time. Maybe it might have worked better if there had been a more charismatic personality at its center to help give it some focus but Towne comes across as being as vague and diffuse as the film itself--Shannon does a little better at capturing attention but even he comes off as a little too subdues for his own good. ''State Like Sleep'' is certainly a little more interesting than the cookie-cutter thriller that the ads suggest but it is more likely to put most viewers into a state like sleep themselves.

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originally posted: 01/05/19 03:29:19
last updated: 01/05/19 05:04:56
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