Thursday 22 October 2020

Tesla girl: "Max Winslow and the House of Secrets"

Of all the things to try and revive in 2020: the early 2010s YA screenfiller. (Too soon!, implore some. Justice for Percy Jackson!, comes a countercry.) Max Winslow and the House of Secrets could do with a bit more oomph, all told. Featuring special guest stars Chad Michael Murray (as a mysterious tech billionaire) and Marina Sirtis (as the voice of his super-computer), Sean Olson's film resembles the first draft of a project the studio system might once have picked up, punched up and spun into box-office gold. Still, it hangs together for a while, developing its workable pitch - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as rewired by Elon Musk - with a measure of old-school charm money would probably build over. A quintet of students - our sciencey heroine, born Maxine (Sydne Mikelle), her floppy-fringed, lacrosse-playing sweetheart Connor (Tanner Buchanan), seasoned gamer Benny (Jason Genao), truculent bully Aiden (Emery Kelly), plus a beret-sporting wannabe influencer who's called Sophia Peach but should really be called Violet Selfregard (Jade Chynoweth) - are plucked from their teched-up high school for a one-night-only shot at winning the vacant mansion of the school's richest alumnus Atticus Virtue (Murray). While solving a succession of escape room-like puzzles, Max and Connor are given pause to wonder whether Mr. Virtue, who somehow has the means to hack the school's broadcasting system, may not entirely be the spotless, aspirational figure his name makes him out to be. 
It diverts so long as we remain inside the eponymous house, where the art department have made reasonably merry with the funds available from the Arkansas Film Commission. If the energy lags a little in shuttling these kids from one challenge to the next - we could do with a Richard O'Brien or Ayoade to perk everyone up - there are fun asides early on: Max and Connor build a pillow fort to shield themselves from the surveillance cameras, while our wannabe Kylie Jenner is tormented in the bathroom mirror by a reflection of her online persona ("Don't you ever try and block me like that again!"). But - oh dear - it takes a turn around the halfway mark, or rather writer Jeff Wild runs out of novelty and reverts to an afterschool-special template. Now the puzzles are geared towards resolving Real World Issues, which prompts a lot of moping around anonymous sidestreets to the accompaniment of dreadfully earnest, sub-OneRepublic music cues. Turns out the bully - giant yawn, possibly the biggest yawn known to man - just needed to toss a baseball around with his dad for a bit. Zero requirement for sequels: lock up Atticus Virtue, and chuck all the kids in the chocolate river.

Max Winslow and the House of Secrets opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow

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