Tuesday, January 31, 2017

#2,299. Frozen (2010)

Directed By: Adam Green

Starring: Shawn Ashmore, Emma Bell, Kevin Zegers

Tag line: "Fight to Survive"

Trivia: Twisted Sister's Dee Snider is the voice from the top of the mountain who announces "Last chair is through."

It is a horrifying scenario: stuck in a ski lift for the better part of a whole week, in freezing cold temperatures, a hundred or so feet above the ground.

What would you do?

The characters in Adam Green’s Frozen find themselves in this very situation, and will try several things over the course of the movie to keep from freezing to death.  Yet the most frightening aspect of this very tense film is the fact they’re in this predicament in the first place. As nerve-racking as Frozen can be at times, nothing quite compares to the terrifying notion that something like this could happen to any one of us.

College students Dan (Kevin Zegers) and Joe (Shawn Ashmore) have been friends since they were kids. Occasionally, the two spend a Sunday afternoon at the local ski resort, where, aside from hitting the slopes, they check out a few of the area’s more attractive snow bunnies. 

On this particular Sunday, however, Dan has invited his girlfriend Parker (Emma Bell) along, and seeing as she’s not an experienced skier, the trio will spend most of the day on the beginner’s course. 

As evening approaches, Joe complains that they haven’t yet made a full run. So, to appease his friend, Dan has Parker flirt with the lift operator, hoping he’ll allow them to ride to the top without a daily pass (which they couldn’t afford). The operator reluctantly agrees, and the three enjoy the last few hours skiing down the mountain.

Once darkness sets in, the majority of the resort’s guests head for home. But instead of calling it a day, Dan, Joe, and Parker decide to make one final run. Unfortunately, the lift stalls before they reach the top. Joe and Dan try their best to calm a frightened Parker, telling her this happens all the time, but when the lights suddenly go black, the three realize they’ve been forgotten, and are now stranded in mid-air!

With the resort shut down for the next 5 days and nighttime temperatures that drop well below freezing, Dan, Joe and Parker know they’ll have to do something drastic to escape this deadly dilemma. But with each new option potentially more dangerous than the last, they can’t help but wonder if they’ll die before they ever get off the mountain.

The three main characters in Frozen are your typical cinematic college kids, and as a result aren’t very interesting at first. That changes, however, once their life or death struggle begins, at which point we start to learn a little more about each of them. 

Still, it’s not the characters that make Frozen an unforgettable motion picture; it’s the seemingly real-life horror story that plays out over the course of its run time. Though Frozen is not based on an actual event, you can see this happening, and the movie is all the more chilling for it (2003’s Open Water, about two divers who are stranded in the middle of the ocean when their chartered boat leaves them behind, is thematically similar to Frozen, and that film was inspired by a true story).

Even with the majority of it set in a single location, director Adam Green manages to generate plenty of tension throughout Frozen, keeping us poised on the edge of our seats. And while the film does have a few shocks and surprises hidden up its sleeve, as well as a moment or two that are tough to watch (what happens to one character’s hand will have you wincing in pain), it’s the possibility of such a thing occurring in real life that makes this 2010 thriller an unnerving experience.

Friday, January 27, 2017

#2,298. Bloodstone: Subspecies 2 (1993)

Directed By: Ted Nicolaou

Starring: Anders Hove, Denice Duff, Kevin Spirtas

Tag line: "Some things are better left Undead"

Trivia: Was originally set in the Chinatown district of San Francisco

As much as I enjoyed 1991’s Subspecies, I have to say that it’s sequel, Bloodstone: Subspecies 2, is the better movie. Along with a few minor tweaks in its cast, this follow-up puts the focus squarely on Anders Hove’s Radu, and while he certainly played a major part in the success of the first film, Bloodstone: Subspecies 2 proves Mr. Hove is even more effective when he has the spotlight all to himself.

Picking up where Subspecies left off, the evil vampire Radu (Hove), who was defeated by his brother Stefan, is “re-assembled” by his minions (the "subspecies") and brought back to life. After driving a stake through a sleeping Stefan’s heart, the now-invigorated Radu turns his attention to Michelle (played this time around by Denice Duff), who, after being bitten by Stefan in the previous movie, is slowly becoming a vampire herself. Only the sunrise prevents Radu from finishing Michelle off, and later that day, when the sun sets again, a frightened Michelle takes the Bloodstone (an ancient stone that can feed a vampire for all eternity) from Stefan’s coffin and flees the castle.

Making her way to Bucharest, Michelle places a frantic call to her sister Becky (Melanie Shatner), who agrees to meet her there. Meanwhile, Radu, who followed Michelle to the city, pays a visit to his sorceress mother (Pamela Gordon), who he hasn’t seen in hundreds of years, and tells her all about the Bloodstone. With his mother clamoring for the centuries-old trinket, Radu promises to retrieve the Bloodstone and turn it over to her, but refuses to kill Michelle in the process, saying instead that he wants to make the unsuspecting beauty his mate!

The next day, when Becky arrives in Bucharest, she learns that Michelle has disappeared, and with the help of U.S. Embassy Agent Mel Thompson (Kevin Spirtas), as well as Professor Popescu (Michael Denish), who specializes in local folklore, Becky goes looking for her lost sister, with no inkling of the horror that awaits her.

While I thought Michelle and her two friends were a weakness in 1991’s Subspecies, I liked Denice Duff’s take on the character, and found her much more interesting. Also strong is Melanie Shatner (yes, she’s William Shatner’s daughter) as Michelle’s concerned sister, and the addition of Radu’s ugly, malevolent mom, played with plenty of gusto by Pamela Gordon, was a nice touch. Even the Bloodstone is different, going from a small stone (as seen in Subspecies) to a relic of a bygone era (with a casing and everything). As for the special effects, they’re every bit as good as they were in Subspecies (the opening scene, where Radu is resurrected, is particularly impressive), and the decision to once again shoot on-location in Romania brought the same old-world feel to this sequel as it did the first movie.

But like Subspecies, it Is Anders Hove’s Radu that makes Bloodstone: Subspecies 2 such a memorable horror film, and with more of him this time around, part 2 is a much creepier flick than part one. With his gravelly voice and penchant for evil, Radu is a force to be reckoned with, and we can’t help but pity Michelle throughout the picture, at first because she cannot escape Radu (the shadows he casts while chasing her through the streets of Bucharest are spooky in and of themselves), and later because she seems destined to become his eternal girlfriend.

Setting romantic subplots aside to instead concentrate on pure terror, Bloodstone: Subspecies 2 is that rare sequel that actually improves upon the original.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

#2,297. They're Watching (2016)

Directed By: Jay Lender, Micah Wright

Starring: Mia Marcon, Kris Lemche, David Alpay

Tag line: "Which House? Witch House"

Trivia: The writers describe this film as "a workplace comedy that goes horribly wrong" not a horror movie

A 2016 found footage style horror / comedy, They’re Watching is, at times, a very funny movie. Which makes sense, I suppose, when you consider that Jay Lender, one of the creative minds behind SpongeBob Squarepants, helped write and direct it. But a quick note to all you horror fans out there: don’t let this film’s humor scare you away, because when the chips are down, They’re Watching is as tense and frightening as it is hilarious.

The crew of Home Hunters Global, an American-based reality show that helps people find their dream house, travels to a small village in the Eastern European country of Moldova to follow up on Becky (Brigid Brannagh), an artist who, in a previous episode, left the comforts of Los Angeles behind to live in this isolated corner of the world. The three-person camera crew, Greg (David Alpay), Alex (Kris Lemche), and newcomer Sarah (Mia Faith), are met at the hotel by the show’s ill-tempered host Kate (Carrie Genzel) and Vladimir (Dimitri Diatchenko), a Moldavian real estate agent who helped broker the original deal for Becky’s new home.

Unfortunately, the locals in this tiny hamlet are none too happy to have the Home Hunters team around, and warn them to leave the area as quickly as possible. Vladimir tells his new American friends not to worry; the villagers are overly-superstitious, and still believe in things like witches and black magic, making them immediately wary of foreigners. But when the group finally arrives at Becky’s house, they find themselves mired in a situation much more deadly than any of them anticipated.

The opening sequence of They’re Watching, which presents the original episode where Becky moved to Moldova, has its share of funny moments, some involving Becky’s arrogant boyfriend Goran (Cristian Balint), who isn’t very bright. But the majority of the movie’s humor comes courtesy of its three leads, David Alpay, Kris Lemche and Mia Marcon, who take great pleasure in poking fun at one another and the seemingly backward Moldavian population. Lemche’s Alex is particularly quick-witted, needling Sarah for being related to the show’s producer and her recent graduation from film school, though his sharpest comments are reserved for the locals (his “observations” while driving through town are positively hysterical). Carrie Genzel’s Kate made me chuckle a few times as well (mostly because she was such an incredible bitch), but it is Lemche and his two cohorts who keep the laughter flowing.

That said, They’re Watching is not all fun and games. For one, the filmmakers decision to set the movie in Eastern Europe was itself enough to put me on edge; thanks to all the vampire flicks I’ve seen over the years (from Nosferatu to Subspecies), I think I’d rather visit a Cannibal settlement in South America than I would Moldova or any place like it. In addition, the characters have some spooky run-ins with the Moldavians (a misunderstanding at a small church leads to a dangerous showdown), yet the true horror comes once the Home Hunters team arrives at Becky’s house, which is situated in the middle of a deep, dark forest. While the film is definitely funny early on, these later moments (including one very disturbing twist in the story) are no laughing matter.

Along with being a bit goofy, the movie’s finale is CGI-heavy (making it seem more comedic than the filmmakers might have intended), but is not nearly cartoonish enough to spoil what went before it. Delivering chills and laughs in equal doses, They’re Watching is an absolute blast.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

#2,296. Bad Channels (1992)

Directed By: Ted Nicolaou

Starring: Robert Factor, Martha Quinn, Aaron Lustig

Tag line: "In space, no one is safe from rock 'n' roll"

Trivia: Dollman appears briefly in a stinger at the end of the credits

As I mentioned in my write-up of Pure ‘80s, MTv, a cable network that once played music videos 24-7, was a formidable force in my younger years, and I spent many hours watching it. Of the initial MTv “VeeJays” (on-screen personalities who introduced the videos and occasionally read music-related news), my favorite was Martha Quinn; whether she chose them or not, the videos that played during her segments were usually among my favorites, and to see her in Full Moon’s’ 1992 sci-fi / comedy Bad Channels, which also features rock songs performed by a variety of bands, was, for me, like a walk down memory lane.

KDUL, a polka-only radio station out of Pahoota, California, discovers that it can transmit coast-to-coast (due to the fact it operates on 666 MHz, a bad-luck number that the other stations in America avoid like the plague). So, to lure in new listeners, the owner of KDUL, Vernon Lockout (Aaron Lustig), hires notorious DJ Dangerous Dan O’Dare (Paul Hipp), whose exploits have gotten him banned from most other U.S. stations. After a blatant publicity stunt, Dangerous Dan changes KDUL’s format from Polka to Rock and Roll, and with that his nationwide broadcast is off and running.

Lisa Cummings (Quinn), a reporter for the World Cable News Network, is sent to Pahoota to cover Dan’s first night on the job, and finds his blatant self-promotion distasteful, to say the least. Then, something amazing happens; while talking to Dan, Lisa spots a mysterious light in the sky that seemingly descends to earth, and, believing she’s just witnessed a UFO landing, races off to cover the story. While she and the town’s sheriff (Victor Rogers) are investigating this phenomenon, the KDUL studio is invaded by a real, honest-to-goodness alien being, which seals the broadcast booth off from the outside world and starts to use KDUL’s radio signal for its own nefarious purposes. Only this alien isn’t interested in conquering earth; instead, it wants to capture a few of Pahoota’s more attractive female citizens, shrink them down to miniature size, and store them in jars for the journey back to its home world!

With the help of his engineer Corky (Michael Huddleston), Dangerous Dan tries to warn his listeners about the alien invasion, only to find that nobody believes him! Can Dan convince the American public that he’s telling the truth, or will the alien get what it’s after and disappear before anyone realizes what’s happened?

Though more comedic in tone than some of their other offerings (Dollman, Castle Freak, Subspecies), Bad Channels still features all the fun and excitement you expect to find in a Full Moon-produced motion picture. Sure, the make-up and monster effects may not be the best (the alien is basically a puppet, or at least looks as if it is), but this doesn’t detract one iota from the movie as a whole. In fact, the scenes in which Dangerous Dan faces off against his unwanted “visitor” are among the film’s most entertaining. 

But the real strength of Bad Channels is its musical sequences (the alien uses rock and roll to pinpoint potential babes). With in-person performances by Blue Öyster Cult, Sykotik Sinfoney and D.M.T., which director Ted Nicolaou shoots in such a way that they actually look like ‘80s-style music videos, Bad Channels will have you tapping your feet in-between the laughter.

Paul Hipp does a good job as Dangerous Dan, a so-called “shock jock” whose penchant for publicity stunts causes most listeners to dismiss his alien “story” (a few even call in, complementing Dan for his “funny” show, all as the poor DJ cowers in the corner, begging local officials to come rescue him). But for me, the real casting coup in Bad Channels was Martha Quinn. She may not remind anyone of Meryl Streep, but as a fan of MTv in the ‘80s, I absolutely loved seeing her in this movie.

Monday, January 23, 2017

#2,295. Entrails of a Virgin (1986)

Directed By: Kazuo 'Gaira' Komizu

Starring: Saeko Kizuki, Naomi Hagio, Megumi Kawashima

Tag line: "It Will Tear Your Insides Out!"

Trivia: This movie was the first in a series of three made by the same director

Director Kazuo 'Gaira' Komizu’s Entrails of a Virgin may fall a bit short in the horror department, but fans of Japanese Pink films will surely like what they see.

While driving back from an outdoor photo shoot, a photographer (Daiki Katô), his assistant (Hideki Takahashi) and their boss (Osamu Tsuruoka), along with models Kei (Megumi Kawashima) and Kazuyo (Naomi Hagio) and make-up girl Rei (Saeko Kizuki), are forced to seek shelter when a dense fog rolls into the area. Stopping at the first house they find (an abandoned home under construction), the group heads inside, eager to enjoy some dinner and, if the guys get lucky, an evening of romance with their attractive cohorts. But their night of debauchery is cut short when a mysterious killer (Kazuhiko Goda), lurking in the surrounding woods, crashes the party, and takes his frustrations out on the unsuspecting crew.

Entrails of a Virgin combines the erotica of Japanese Pink with the violence of an ‘80s slasher film, and like most Pink movies, there’s plenty of nudity and sex. Right out of the gate, quick-cut images of a sexual encounter between the photographer and Kei are inserted into the opening sequence (interspersed with Kei posing for sexy pictures in the great outdoors). Once the group reaches the house, their sexual escapades become more intense, and even the (well-endowed) killer gets in on the action, having his way with some of the girls before attempting to murder them.

Entrails of a Virgin shares a few similarities with your standard ‘80s slasher movie, from its killer’s inventive style (using a variety of weapons) to its blood and gore (one scene in particular will prove troublesome for the ladies who brave this film). There’s even a “final girl” (though what happens to her is as horrific as anything that went before), as well as a handful of POV shots of the killer watching from the woods. 

Still, I’m fairly certain the movie’s horror elements were of secondary concern. As with most Pink films, Entrails of a Virgin is all about the sex.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

#2,294. Microwave Massacre (1983)

Directed By: Wayne Berwick

Starring: Jackie Vernon, Loren Schein, Al Troupe

Tag line: "They Came For Dinner ... To Find They Were It!!"

Trivia: Rodney Dangerfield was considered for the role of Donald, but his asking salary was too high

Most people know comedian Jackie Vernon as the voice of Frosty the Snowman in the Christmas special of the same name. So to see him… or maybe I should say hear him… in Microwave Massacre, an ‘80s exploitation comedy about an everyman who kills his wife and cooks her for dinner, will surely come as a shock to those who love the classic Rankin-Bass holiday cartoon.

Donald (Vernon) is a regular guy, a construction worker who frequents the neighborhood bar and enjoys the occasional baloney and cheese sandwich. Unfortunately, his shrew of a wife May (Claire Ginsberg) fancies herself a gourmet chef, and with the help of her trusty new microwave concocts a variety of near-inedible dishes that poor Donald can barely even pronounce. 

One night, when he’s pushed too far, Donald beats May to death with a wooden salt dispenser, then chops her up, wraps the pieces in aluminum foil, and puts her in the freezer. 

Time passes, and an absolutely famished Donald decides to cook May’s hand for dinner. To his surprise, he finds he enjoys the taste of human flesh! 

After he’s worked his way through May’s tastier remains, Donald begins to lure young girls to his house, where, after having sex with them, he kills them, carves them up, and stores their bodies for later consumption.

The whole time I was watching Microwave Massacre, I couldn’t get Frosty out of my head. Whenever Donald cracks a joke about his wife’s cooking or sweet-talks a hooker into going home with him, he sounds exactly like the famous snowman! It was a distraction at first, but eventually I found myself laughing and genuinely enjoying the film. 

Microwave Massacre is about as dark a comedy as you can get, and features both nudity (in the opening scene, a curvaceous blonde played by Marla Simon “accidentally” shoves her bare breasts through an enormous hole in a plywood wall) and gore (though, to be honest, neither the blood nor the severed body parts are the least bit convincing). But it’s also a lot of fun, and Jackie Vernon is a big reason why (the jokes he makes while choking down May’s gourmet meals are damn funny).

Directed by Wayne Berwick, Microwave Massacre is an ultra-low budget film, and it shows; aside from the special effects (or lack thereof), the movie looks as if it was shot in someone’s house, and I’m fairly certain none of the actors (Vernon included) won any awards for their work here. But as dark comedies that center on cannibalism go, Microwave Massacre ranks right up there with Eating Raoul as one of the most entertaining. 

Saturday, January 21, 2017

#2,293. Creatures the World Forgot (1971) - Spotlight on England

Directed By: Don Chaffey

Starring: Julie Ege, Tony Bonner, Robin John

Tag line: "Survival against all odds!"

Trivia: All of the exterior sequences were shot in Namibia and South Africa

As they did with 1966’s One Million Years B.C., Hammer studios travels to the distant past in director Don Chaffey’s Creatures the World Forgot, only this time with decidedly mixed results.

When a volcanic eruption destroys their village, a prehistoric tribe, led by a newly appointed chief (Brian O’Shaughnessy), heads off in search of a place to live. Along the way, they meet a fair-haired tribe, and, following a bizarre ritual, the chief is given a blonde maiden (Sue Wilson) to be his mate. She eventually gives birth to twin boys, both of whom will spend their formidable years vying for their father’s attention. Even as adults, the two sons: one blonde (Tony Bonner), the other dark-haired (Robin John), remain adversaries, yet continue to live with their father in the tribal village.

After a fierce battle with a warrior clan, the blonde son takes a new woman (Julie Ege) as his mate, something that doesn’t sit well with his brother, who grows more hostile every day. When the chief is killed in a freak accident, the brothers fight each other for the right to be named the tribe’s new leader. But when the victor chooses instead to take his followers and leave the area, it sets off a war between the siblings, and only one will come out of it alive.

Unlike One Million Years B.C. there are no Ray Harryhausen dinosaurs in Creatures the World Forgot, with the characters instead facing off against warthogs, gazelles, porcupines, scorpions, and, in one unintentionally hilarious sequence, a bear (played by a guy in a suit). In addition, Creatures the World Forgot features no dialogue whatsoever (much like 1981’s Quest for Fire); not even a narration track , and while this does add to the realism of it all, I admit I had a hard time figuring out who was who In the early scenes.

Shot on-location in Namibia and South Africa, Creatures the World Forgot looks like it takes place in prehistoric times, and the actors do a fine job in their respective roles (especially when you consider they had to do it all without speaking). Alas, the movie just isn’t engaging; there are a few thrilling fight scenes (the battle against the warrior tribe is a highlight), and the eruption that sets the story in motion has its share of excitement as well (though it’s over-reliance on rear projection is unfortunate). And like One Million Years B.C., most of the women in Creatures the World Forgot are both beautiful and scantily-clad. But there’s simply not enough going on here, and there are stretches of the film that drag as a result.

As a curiosity, Creatures the World Forgot has its charms, but if you’re only going to watch one Hammer caveman film, I’d recommend you make it One Million Years B.C. It may not be as accurate a portrayal of the time period as this movie, but it’s definitely more interesting.

Friday, January 20, 2017

#2,292. The Running Man (1987)

Directed By: Paul Michael Glaser

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Maria Conchita Alonso, Yaphet Kotto

Tag line: "The year is 2019. The finest men in America don't run for President. They run for their lives"

Trivia: When Rob Cohen purchased the rights to the Richard Bachman novella 'The Running Man', he had no idea that Bachman was actually a pseudonym for Stephen King

Before I get into my write-up of The Running Man, I want to take a moment to relate the unfortunate events that surrounded my first viewing of this film. 

It was in the fall of 1987. My brother and I, along with two of my friends, went to a local multiplex to see The Running Man. My buddies, Chris and John, had been with me when I saw Predator (released a few months earlier), which we caught down at the Jersey shore.  Needless to say, we all loved it, and because my brother had yet to experience a Schwarzenegger film, we figured he was in for a treat.

But we ran into a problem; when we went to buy our tickets, the woman behind the counter, a middle-aged lady we had never seen before, wouldn’t sell my brother (16 at the time) a ticket because The Running Man was rated “R”! 

We told her John was 19, and therefore an “accompanying adult”, but still she refused (I know... you have to be 21, but we tried, and we had never run into this problem before at that theater). More than a little pissed, we got out of line to decide what we were going to do. Chris suggested we instead see the PG-13 rated Dirty Dancing, which was also playing. 

My immediate response was “Bullshit!” 

No way would I settle for Dirty Dancing when I was all hyped up to see Schwarzenegger kick some ass. So, we split into two groups; John and I bought tickets for The Running Man, and Chris and my brother paid for Dirty Dancing.

And that woman watched us like a hawk, making sure my brother didn’t sneak into the theater with us. Clearly, she was on some sort of a crusade; my brother told me that, before Dirty Dancing started, she did a walk-through and told anyone under 13 to get out!

Set in the futuristic world of 2017 (yeah, yeah.. I know), when America is controlled by a totalitarian regime that regulates everything from the food you eat to what you watch on TV, The Running Man opens with army pilot Ben Richards (Schwarzenegger) refusing to fire on a group of civilians, who are rioting in the streets below. 

As a result of this "insubordination", Richards is arrested on trumped-up charges and sent to a labor camp, where, after a year or so, he and fellow prisoners William Laughlin (Yaphet Kotto) and Harold Weiss (Marvin J. McIntyre) stage a mass breakout. 

On the run from the cops, Richards hides out in his brother’s apartment, only to find his brother was evicted a month earlier, and that musician Amber Mendez (Maria Conchita Alonso) now lives there. Using her ID, Richards buys 2 airline tickets to Hawaii and forces Amber to accompany him, but at the airport she turns him in before they board the plane.

Meanwhile, Damon Killian (Richard Dawson), host of the incredibly popular game show The Running Man, is looking for a new contestant. A reality-based program, The Running Man pits lowlifes and prisoners against professional assassins, known as “Stalkers”. Each “contestant” is set loose in a quarantined section of Los Angeles, and if they can survive for three hours,  they win both the game and their freedom. But it won’t be easy; the heavily-armed Stalkers might be lurking around any corner, ready to slaughter them without a moment’s notice.

Impressed with the surveillance footage of his prison escape, Killian recruits Richards to be his next contestant, and to make it more interesting sends both Laughlin and Weiss into the “game” with him. As the three battle against stalkers such as Sub-Zero (Professor Toru Tanaka), Buzzsaw (Gus Rethwisch), and Dynamo (Erland van Lidth), Amber begins to question whether or not she did the right thing turning Richards in, and secretly starts digging into his past, only to be discovered and sent into the game area herself!

With three people to look after now, Richards takes the fight to the Stalkers, embarrassing both Killian and the network when he manages to defeat a few. With a live studio audience - and millions of people at home - watching their every move, Richards and the others look for a way to gain control of the satellite feed, to show the world what both Killian and the government have been doing behind the scenes. But will they survive long enough to spread the word?

Based on a novel by Stephen King (written under his pseudonym Richard Bachman), The Running Man is an entertaining sci-fi / action hybrid, with great set designs and a cool-as-hell story that centers on an ultra-violent, government-sponsored TV show. In addition, the movie has Arnold Schwarzenegger, on the brink of becoming a major box-office draw and doing what he did best. The early scene where Richards and his cohorts escape from prison is definitely exciting, but is nothing compared to what they go through while running for their lives in the “game”.

Each of the Stalkers has their weapon of choice; Subzero’s hockey stick has an actual blade built into it, while Buzzsaw uses a chainsaw that can cut steel. They also dress as if they were on their way to a Halloween party (Domino's full-body armor has hundreds of little lights attached to it). But despite their spotless record (we’re led to believe no Stalker has ever been so much as injured in the line of duty), these guys are in for the fight of their lives against Richards. Whenever he subdues a Stalker, Arnold delivers one of his patented one-liners, a few of which are real groaners (“Hey Killian! Subzero... now plain zero!”), but throughout The Running Man Schwarzenegger shows us time and again why, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, he was the biggest action star around (his battle against Fireball, a Stalker played by Jim Brown, is bad-ass).

Yet as good as Arnold is, Richard Dawson somehow manages to steal The Running Man right out from under him. Having spent years as the host of the popular game show Family Feud, Dawson was the perfect choice to portray the egotistical Killian, a guy who is more concerned with ratings than he is justice, or even human life. We see early on just how much of a bastard he is; while walking through the network’s main lobby, an elderly janitor accidentally runs a mop over Killian’s shoes. As the poor guy is apologizing, Killian turns on the charm, telling him not to worry about it, and that he’s doing a great job. But once in the elevator, Killian turns to his assistant Brenda (Karen Leigh Hopkins) and says “If that asshole is still mopping the floor tomorrow, you’ll be doing it the rest of the week”. Whether coercing Richards into being his next contestant or working his studio audience into a frenzy, Killian is a creep of the highest order, and Dawson plays him to perfection.

It wasn’t until almost 15 years later that I finally saw Dirty Dancing, and I was glad I made the decision I did back in 1987. Dirty Dancing may be a halfway decent musical / romance, but it isn’t nearly as much fun as The Running Man!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

#2,291. Big Wednesday (1978)

Directed By: John Milius

Starring: Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt, Gary Busey

Tag line: "Three friends. Twelve Turbulent Years. And One Day We All Must Face"

Trivia: Director John Milius appears briefly as a marijuana peddling drug dealer on the streets of Tijuana

On the surface, Big Wednesday may look like a surfing movie about a group of buddies who spend their days catching waves and going to parties. But it’s something much more substantial than that: it’s a well-realized coming-of-age tale set against the backdrop of the turbulent 1960’s, and its story of friendship remains as poignant today as it was in 1978.

Big Wednesday follows three surfers: Matt Johnson (Jan-Michael Vincent), Jack Barlow (William Katt), and Leroy Smith (Gary Busey), throughout the 1960s and into the ‘70s, when their carefree lives were turned upside-down by war and the inevitability of growing older. Yet no matter what direction life pulled them in, they always had the ocean and their surfboards to bring them together again.

Writer / director John Milius was himself a surfer (Big Wednesday is semi-autobiographical in nature), and because it’s such a vital component of the story, the film’s surfing sequences have an almost epic feel to them. Several times during the course of the movie, a narrator (looking back from an unknown point in the future) reviews the various big swells that hit the area over the years, talking about each one with a sort of reverence, as if he was a poet describing some great event. These scenes are punctuated by Basil Poledouris’s often majestic score, and most of the surf footage comes courtesy of filmmaker Greg MacGillivray, who in the past few decades has produced a number of award-winning IMAX documentaries (The Living Sea, Coral Reef Adventure).

In addition, the character of Bear, played by Sam Melville, is treated like a beachfront guru, telling grand stories about the ocean that make surfing sound like a religious experience. He is someone the others admire, and even when life slaps him down (a failed business, etc), Bear never loses the younger generation’s respect. For him and everyone else in Big Wednesday, surfing is much more than a sport; it’s a way of life, a state of mind, and the force that keeps their relationships strong.

Yet as integral as surfing is to Big Wednesday, what you will remember are its characters, and how their friendship survived the test of time. Played by Jan-Michael Vincent, Matt Johnson is, at the start of the film, a surf legend, the guy the kids all look up to. But he’s also an alcoholic. Not even marriage to his longtime girlfriend Peggy (Lee Purcell) nor the birth of his daughter can straighten him out. Then, one afternoon, his carelessness causes a bad accident on the highway, and only then does he begin to realize how self-destructive he’s become.

William Katt’s Jack also has his share of life experiences, including a long-term relationship with Sally (Patti D’Arbanville), a waitress at the local diner; and a tour of duty in Vietnam. As for Leroy (the always fun Gary Busey), whose nickname is “The Masochist”, he remains crazy through much of the movie (it was Leroy who devised the plan that kept him and Matt out of the army, and their antics at the induction center are a definite highlight). But of the three, it’s Matt who undergoes the biggest change, and even though he’s a different person at the end of the film than he was at the beginning, the bond between him and his two best friends seldom wavers.

It’s unfortunate that Big Wednesday failed so miserably at the box office (after bringing in a meager $4 million or so, it disappeared from theaters). It’s a remarkably touching film about a bygone era, featuring a trio of buddies who saw the best and worst of what the ‘60s had to offer, and came through it together.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

#2,290. Die Another Day (2002)

Directed By: Lee Tamahori

Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Halle Berry, Rosamund Pike

Tag line: "Events don't get any bigger than..."

Trivia: Roger Moore actively voiced his displeasure with the film, citing the invisible car and the weak CGI as being a low for the series

The first time I saw Die Another Day, the 20th entry in the James Bond franchise and the last to feature Pierce Brosnan, was on its opening night back in November of 2002. And I hated it. Absolutely hated it. To me, it was less like the Bond pictures I knew and loved and more like a modern action film, with a stylistic flair that felt entirely out of place. In fact, on a list I kept back in 2002 of the movies I saw theatrically that year. Die Another Day was at the very bottom, the worst of the bunch.

After this most recent viewing, I’d say that ranking was a bit harsh; Die Another Day is not a terrible movie. But compared to the rest of the series, it definitely misses the mark.

While on a mission in North Korea to assassinate Col. Moon (Will Yun Lee), a military leader with a keen interest in illegal South African diamonds, James Bond (Pierce Brosnan), despite using an assumed name, is identified as an enemy agent and thrown into prison. After 14 months of intense interrogation, Bond is released as part of a prisoner exchange, swapped for a man named Zao (Rick Yune), who had been Col. Moon’s closest advisor. 

Part of the reason for the exchange is that the Americans, namely the NSA under the command of Damian Falco (Michael Madsen), are convinced Bond was passing information to the North (the top U.S. agent in North Korea was recently killed, and they believe Bond may have revealed his identity while being tortured). Pending an investigation, Bond’s 00-status is temporarily suspended by M (Judi Dench), but even she knows that won’t stop her top agent from trying to find out who was actually responsible for the info leak.

Ignoring his suspension, Bond hops on a plane bound for Havana, Cuba, where, according to his sources, Zao is trying to alter his appearance. Once there, 007 tracks down Zao, who manages to slip away and avoid capture. Fortunately, Bond also discovers, by way of specially marked diamonds, that Zao is somehow connected to Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens), a wealthy jewel merchant / adventurer who was recently knighted by the queen. 

Aided by American agent Jinx Johnson (Halle Berry) and Miranda Frost (Rosamund Pike), an MI6 operative working undercover (she's posing as Graves’ personal assistant), Bond heads to Iceland, where Graves is about to unveil his pet project: a satellite that can harness the sun’s powerful rays and turn them into a weapon of mass destruction. 

How does Zao fit in with Graves? More importantly, who is the traitor from the west passing secrets to North Korea? As usual, 007 has very little time to answer these questions, but with the safety of the free world once again hanging in the balance, you can rest assured that James Bond is the right man for the job!

Though very few people would rank his four movies among the series’ best, Pierce Brosnan was terrific as Bond, and his performance in Die Another Day proves how well he had settled into the role, balancing humor with the character’s rugged determination while also handling the action scenes like a pro. Equally as good are Halle Berry and Rosamund Pike as the ladies in Bond’s life (Berry’s first appearance on-screen was clearly an homage to Ursula Andress and Dr. No). 

As for the villains, Gustav Graves is a dashing, yet quite insane adversary, and Rick Yune’s Zao (whose previous encounter with Bond left him with several diamonds lodged in the right side of his face) is no slouch himself, crafty enough to escape capture and strong enough to put up a hell of a fight when needed. In addition, Judi Dench continues to impress as the often-humorless M, and John Cleese’s brief return as Q results in a few hearty laughs.

As for its story, I give the filmmakers credit for keeping things simple; after the complicated plotlines that plagued the series ever since Timothy’s Dalton’s debut in The Living Daylights, Die Another Day is refreshingly basic. I also liked the pre-title sequence (the mission that led to Bond’s capture and imprisonment); the exotic locales (especially the scenes set in Cuba); and, of course, the gadgets (Bond’s vehicle du jour, though admittedly a bit over-the-top, has one very cool feature). Even the theme song, sung by Madonna, has grown on me (there was a time when I despised it)!

Alas, what keeps Die Another Day from becoming a top-tier Bond picture is its general style. For one, it is very loud, with the sound cranked up as high as it can get in some scenes, and the film’s over-reliance on slow-motion (inserted at random moments throughout) is almost laughable. This, plus the quick cuts used to “spice up” several sequences, made it look as if director Lee Tamahori and his team were trying to emulate the action movies of that period (Vin Diesel’s xXx was a box-office hit that same year, and utilized many of the cinematic bells and whistles present in Die Another Day). As a result, what should have been some of the movie’s most exciting scenes (like the chase on the ice lake) were confusing and, even worse, kinda dull.

Sure, previous entries in the 007 franchise have relied on what at the time were state-of-the-art effects, stylistic tropes, and even the world’s political climate to “update” the series for a modern audience. But seeing as the standard look and feel of many action films in the early 2000’s annoyed the hell out of me, I was sad to see Die Another Day go down this same road.

Still, much like my recent experiences with The Man with the Golden Gun and Moonraker, Die Another Day is a better movie than I remember it being. With so many great elements in place, though, it should rank among the series’ best.

And it doesn’t. Not by a longshot.

Monday, January 16, 2017

#2,289. Scavenger Hunt (1979)

Directed By: Michael Schultz

Starring: Richard Benjamin, James Coco, Scatman Crothers

Tag line: "Winner takes all!"

Trivia: Filming took place in and around San Diego, California, incorporating local landmarks such as Balboa Park and the Centre City Building

I was a little apprehensive about re-watching 1979’s Scavenger Hunt, a wild and crazy film that I hadn’t seen in about 35 years. It was a cable favorite back in the early ‘80s, but even then I realized the comedy was extremely broad, so there was a strong possibility the movie wouldn’t hold up. 

But with its impressive cast and a number of high-profile cameos, I figured Scavenger Hunt might just be worth the risk.

Millionaire gaming tycoon Milton Parker (Vincent Price) has died, but instead of splitting his estate between his various next-of-kin, he sends all of the would-be heirs off on a scavenger hunt, the winner of which will receive his entire fortune. 

In all, five separate teams take part in the contest: 

1. Parker’s sister Mildred Carruthers (Cloris Leachman), who is joined by her attorney Stewart Sellsome (Richard Benjamin), and her son Georgie (Richard Mazur) 

2. Nephews Jeff (Dirk Benedict) and Kenny (Willie Aames), who are assisted by Mildred’s kindly stepdaughter Lisa (Maureen Teefy) 

3. Son-in-law Henry Motler (Tony Randall) and his four young kids (Julie Anne Haddock, David Hollander, Shane Sinutko and Missy Francis) 

4. Parker’s most trusted servants: valet Jenkins (Roddy McDowell), limo driver Jackson (Cleavon Little), cook Henri (James Coco) and maid Babbette (Stephanie Faracy)


5. Marvin Dummittz (Richard Mulligan), a feeble-minded taxi driver who once did Parker a favor.

Each group is given a list of identical items to retrieve, and has until 5 p.m. to collect as many as they can, by any means necessary (short of actually buying them). With Parker’s lawyer Charles Bernstein (Robert Morley) officiating, the teams set off on their quest, and with $200 million on the line, you can bet that nothing - not even the law - will stand in their way!

Directed by Michael Schultz, Scavenger Hunt follows the same basic formula as 1963’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World: assemble a collection of well-known comic actors and put them in situations where their characters' greed pushes them to do outlandish things. Some of the “hunters” are more interesting than others; Dirk Benedict’s group has a few humorous scenes, as does Tony Randall and his 4 kids, but both are overshadowed by the remaining three teams, my favorite being the servants, who get into the zaniest predicaments (their attempt to steal a cash register from a convenience store is particularly funny).

And like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, there are some great star cameos throughout Scavenger Hunt, including rocker Meat Loaf (as the leader of a biker gang), Ruth Gordon (a sweet old lady who just happens to own a bullet-proof vest, a grenade, and brass knuckles), Avery Schrieber (a zoo keeper with a pronounced lisp), Scatman Crothers (a security guard who teams up with Dummittz), the legendary Vincent Price (as the deceased, Milton Parker) and even Arnold Schwarzenegger, a few years before he became one of the cinema’s biggest box-office draws (playing Lars, the lead trainer at a local gym).

Scavenger Hunt is, for the most part, a very silly film: there’s a lot of physical humor (everything from slapstick to car chases) and the characters are exaggerated and over-the-top (especially Cloris Leachman as Parker’s loudmouth sister and Richard Mazur as her dim-witted son). But if you’re a fan of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, odds are you’ll have a good time watching this movie as well.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

#2,288. I Am Not a Serial Killer (2016)

Directed By: Billy O'Brien

Starring: Christopher Lloyd, Laura Fraser, Max Records

Tag line: "Every Town Has Its Monsters"

Trivia: Based on the young adult novel series of the same name

2016 was a great year for horror films; instead of a top 10, I have a top 16, and some movies that might have made my list in previous years (Lights Out, Viral) didn’t make the cut. There were simply too many good ones to choose from, and among 2016’s most pleasant surprises was director Billy O’Brien’s I Am Not a Serial Killer, the gripping, disturbing, and genuinely frightening tale of a troubled teen who after witnessing a murder decides to take matters into his own hands.

John (Max Records) is not your typical teenager. For one, he spends a good deal of his spare time at the funeral home his mother (Laura Fraser) and Aunt operate, and even helps them out occasionally with the embalmings. And aside from his buddy Max (Raymond Brandstrom), John doesn’t have any friends, choosing instead to pal around with his elderly neighbor Mr. Crowley (Christopher Lloyd). 

In addition to all this, John is a diagnosed sociopath, and he and his therapist Dr. Neblin (Karl Geary) have discussed at length how John possesses many of the characteristics found in your average serial killer. But when his small Midwestern town is rocked by several brutal murders, a fascinated John launches his own investigation into the killings, and in the process uncovers an evil that is more dangerous than he ever imagined.

The last time I saw Max Records, he was getting into sod fights with Carol, Judith, and all the other oversized monsters in director Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, and back then I felt, based on his performance in that 2009 movie, the young man showed great potential. With his turn in I Am Not a Serial Killer, Records proves his earlier success was no fluke, and here creates a character who garners our sympathy one minute, then scares us the next (the scene at a school dance between John and local bully Rob, played by Vincent Risso, will send a shiver up your spine). Later on, as he is stalking his town’s resident killer, we get the distinct feeling that John is learning more about himself than he ever did during his sessions with Dr. Neblin, and the various sequences in which he actually gets involved (trying to prevent further murders) are among the film’s most intense.

Christopher Lloyd is predictably strong as the neighbor Mr. Crowley, as is Laura Fraser, who brings a vulnerability to the role of John’s mother, a feeling of helplessness as she tries to understand her son’s behavior but is unable to do so. Set during late fall / early winter, I Am Not a Serial Killer also takes advantage of its snowy landscape (it was shot on-location in Minnesota), enhancing the isolation that its lead character experiences through most of the movie (the film’s pivotal moment occurs on a frozen lake).

Truth be told, I’d love to discuss this movie in greater detail, but to do so would run the risk of spoiling many of its best surprises, and while the CGI-heavy ending was a slight disappointment, I Am Not a Serial Killer still impressed the hell out of me. I’ve seen it twice now, and I intend to watch it again as soon as I can.

Friday, January 13, 2017

#2,287. 31 (2016)

Directed By: Rob Zombie

Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Richard Brake, Jeff Daniel Phillips

Tag line: "Welcome To Hell"

Trivia: Sheri Moon Zombie was in the middle of quitting smoking during filming, which she said added to the misery of her character

Rob Zombie may not be every horror aficionado’s cup of tea, but I’m an unapologetic fan of his films. His first two efforts, House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects, were tremendous (I watch both every single October), and while his Halloween updates had their problems, they were, in the end, decent slasher flicks. Even Lords of Salem featured a handful of creepy moments, and I’m hoping I get a chance to revisit this 2012 movie in the near future

Unfortunately, the writer / director’s newest film, 2016’s 31, was a major disappointment, and is, to date, the worst he’s made.

October 31st, 1976. Five carnival workers: Charly (Sheri Moon Zombie), Roscoe (Jeff Daniel Phillips), Panda (Laurence Hilton-Jacobs), Venus (Meg Foster) and Levon (Kevin Jackson), are abducted and taken to a remote warehouse, where they’re forced to participate in a life-or-death contest known as “31”. With Father Murder (Malcolm McDowell) acting as emcee, the five are released inside the warehouse and hunted by a variety of maniacal killers, all wearing clown make-up. In 12 hours, those left alive will be set free, but with the homicidal Doom Head (Richard Brake) hot on their trail, the odds aren’t looking good that Charly or any of her friends will survive this terrifying ordeal.

31 is, in every way, a Rob Zombie horror film (foul-mouthed characters, a ‘70s setting, and good period music such as Steven Tyler’s "Dream On" and "California Dreamin’" by the Mamas and the Papas), and I really liked the opening scene (a priest, played by Daniel Roebuck, is tied to a chair, and is taunted by Doom Head). Mind you, it’s not the best pre-title sequence Zombie ever created (he has a long way to go to top the intro to House of 1,000 Corpses), but it definitely piqued my interest, leaving me anxious to see where the movie would go from there. 31 also has a terrific cast, including Laurence Hilton-Jacobs (whose "Boom-Boom" Washington was my 2nd favorite Sweathog in the ‘70s show Welcome Back Kotter, just behind Ron Palillo’s Horseshack) and Meg Foster (the gorgeous, blue-eyed bombshell of They Live and Carny fame).

And while a good many people have taken issue with it, I have no problem whatsoever with Zombie casting his wife, Shari Moon-Zombie, as the lead in his films; cinema’s long, rich history is full of such actress – director relationships (Marlene Dietrich and Josef Von Sternberg; Greta Garbo and Clarence Brown), and Moon-Zombie does a fine enough job in 31 to justify her inclusion. In addition, Richard Brake gives a magnetic performance as Doom Head, who, despite being a typical Rob Zombie character, still had a few surprises hidden up his sleeve. That said, 31 should be the last time that Zombie and Malcolm McDowell collaborate on a movie, because the pairing is not working for either one of them (McDowell was ineffective in both Halloweens, and brings nothing at all to this film).

But truth be told, neither Moon-Zombie nor McDowell, or indeed any of the actors, are the weakest link in this particular movie.

The issue here is that, for a “stalk and slash” motion picture, 31 generates zero tension throughout. I mean none. There wasn’t a moment during the entire film when I was on the edge of my seat (instead of keeping us in suspense, Zombie simply parades out a new killer every few scenes and turns them loose on his main characters).

Also, aside from Doom Head, the collection of killers was pretty weak (Sick Head, a Nazi midget portrayed by Pancho Moler. was interesting at first, but ultimately talked a better game than he played). Even more disheartening was that, unlike Zombie’s earlier films, 31 was, at times, kinda predictable (I, and I’m sure a good many others, knew what the payoff of the dinner scene was going to be well before it was over).

Though I was disappointed with 31, I still want Rob Zombie to continue making horror movies; all things considered, his track record in the genre remains impressive. I just hope he gives us something better next time out.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

#2,286. The Good Neighbor (2016)

Directed By: Kasra Farahani

Starring: James Caan, Logan Miller, Keir Gilchrist

Tag line: "You never know who's watching"

Trivia: The film was screened at the South by Southwest Film Festival under the title The Waiting

Some of the best horror movies of 2016 centered on home invasions, but with a twist. Both Don’t Breathe and Intruders show what happens when the “victim” of a break-in becomes the aggressor, while the excellent Hush gives us a lead character with a disability (she's deaf) trying to fend off a would-be killer lurking outside her house.

Directed by Kasra Farahani, The Good Neighbor features an invasion of another kind: an invasion of privacy, during which a pair of teenagers try to convince an old man that his house is haunted. Tense, fascinating, and ultimately very surprising, The Good Neighbor kinda blew me away.

With surveillance cameras and mechanized gizmos in tow, wannabe filmmaker Ethan (Logan Miller) and his tech-savvy friend Sean (Keir Gilchrist) sneak into the home of Ethan’s elderly neighbor, Harold Grainey (James Cann) and rig it for what they hope will be a grand experiment. In short, they want to persuade Grainey that he is living in a haunted house. Using three monitors set up in Ethan’s bedroom, the pals watch as Grainey reacts to each new “event” they subject him to; flickering lights, cold spots, and a screen door that opens and closes by itself. Thier initial intention was to simply scare Grainey, but as the days stretch into weeks, the old man’s behavior becomes frighteningly erratic, suggesting this “experiment” may reveal more about their neighbor that even they anticipated.

In movies like The Godfather and Rollerball, James Caan established himself as one of the most reliable actors of the 1970s. With The Good Neighbor he shows that, all these years later, he hasn’t lost a step. Early on, Ethan, having just told a group of his friends about the “experiment”, describes Mr. Grainey as a “creepy psycho hermit” who, rumor has it, may have had a hand in his wife’s death. At first glance, Ethan's description of Grainey seems to fit. Right at the outset, the old man insults a police officer and threatens to kill a neighbor’s dog for pissing on his lawn. Yet neither of these are as troubling as what he eventually does to the screen door that won’t stay closed. Yet, as we’ll eventually learn, there’s more to Grainey than meets the eye, and Caan does a masterful job bringing the character's complexities to the surface.

Throughout its runtime, The Good Neighbor blends the present with scenes from both the past (flashbacks of Grainey and his wife, played by Laura Innes, that offer glimpses into the old man’s personal life) and the future (a court case, dealing with the events that occurred during the teens’ “experiment”, suggesting it ended badly). Yet, even with glimpses into the future, the film manages to sustain its central mystery, keeping us guessing right up to the very end.

With intriguing sequences from three different timelines and a strong performance by James Caan, The Good Neighbor is a thriller of the highest order, and one of the finest horror films of the year.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

#2,285. Sucker Punch (2011)

Directed By: Zack Snyder

Starring: Emily Browning, Vanessa Hudgens, Abbie Cornish

Tag line: "You Will Be Unprepared"

Trivia: Despite playing the lead character, Emily Browning does not have a line of dialogue until about 18 minutes into the film

I remember the first time I saw Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, I was blown away by the visuals, many of which were truly astounding. 

A few days later, though, what I didn’t remember was anything at all about the story. 

As a smorgasbord of special effects wizardry, Sucker Punch is an impressive piece of work, but in the end Mr. Snyder and company would have been better served leaving some of the razzle-dazzle on the cutting room floor, and dedicating at least a portion of the film’s $82 million dollar budget to building a more engaging narrative.

Sucker Punch conjures up a number of amazing worlds during its almost two-hour runtime, all of which center on 20-year-old Baby Doll (Emily Browning), who, shortly after the death of her mother, was committed to an insane asylum by her evil stepfather (Gerard Plunkett). 

Once there, Baby Doll imagines that she and her fellow inmates -  Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung) - are dancers / call girls working for a posh pimp named Blue (Oscar Isaac). With the friendly but naïve Madame Gorski (Carla Gugino) watching over them, the girls continually practice their individual dance moves, which they use to impress Blue’s wealthy clientele.

As for Baby Doll, she is reserved for a “High Roller”, who will pay top dollar for her. But Baby Doll is quite the dancer herself; in fact, she's so good that no man can look away as she’s strutting her stuff. 

While Baby Doll’s body is busy dancing, however, her mind is always off in another place, creating a series of alternate realities in which she and the other dancers are soldiers, battling monsters and mechanized enemies as “The Wise Man” (Scott Glenn) advises them every step of the way.

Realizing time is running out, and that the "High Roller" is coming for her, Baby Doll comes up with a plan for all of them to escape from Blue and his high-class brothel. But does she and the others have what it takes to see this daring scheme through to the end?

Sucker Punch reveals both its strengths and weaknesses in its very first scene, a highly stylized film noir-esque sequence that sets up Baby Doll’s backstory (her mother’s death, her stepfather’s greed, and her eventual trip to the asylum). Utilizing dark colors and lots of slow motion - all set to a cover version of The Eurythmics ‘80s hit "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" (performed by Emily Browning) - this opening is striking, and features plenty of special effects eye candy, but never once was I drawn into the story. The effects kept me at a distance, admiring from afar, and as a result I felt no sympathy for the lead as she suffered through one terrible ordeal after another.

This unfortunate marriage of visual splendor and emotional disconnect continues throughout the entirety of Sucker Punch, and while some of the later combat scenes are, indeed, exciting (my favorite is the WWII-inspired battle against a fire-breathing dragon), we simply don't care enough about anyone or anything to give a damn how these fights turn out. 

The expression “Style over Substance” has become a tired cliché, used more often in movie reviews than is probably necessary. Had anyone who ever relied on that phrase known about Sucker Punch, they would have surely saved it for their write-up of this beautiful but ultimately vacuous bit of cinematic sugar.