Aug 31 2015

Stay Alive (2006)

stayaliveI realize the lack of originality in referring to Stay Alive as Stay Awake, but hell, does it ever fit! Beyond being free of original thought, this film makes its own case as the dumbest teen-slasher pic to emerge from a major studio in the post-Scream era. In a world of I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, Disturbing Behavior and Wes Craven’s Cursed, that’s really saying something.

Directed and co-written by The Devil Insider William Brent Bell, Stay Alive borrows the chief conceit of A Nightmare on Elm Street — die in a dream, you die in real life — and replaces “dream” with “video game.” Not Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, but the titular “underground” and unreleased game, which pits players’ avatars against 16th-century blood countess Elizabeth Bathory in a spooky mansion. Die during gameplay and you … well, we’ve covered that.

stayalive2When that happens to his best friend, young Hutch (Jon Foster, 2013’s Mr. Jones) gathers his fellow gamers for a LAN party to see what’s what. This is where Stay Alive immediately goes off the pixelated rails, as you won’t care about any of his utterly vapid pals and their utterly stupid names — not his brooding girlfriend, October (Sophia Bush, 2007’s The Hitcher); not Swink (Frankie Muniz, TV’s Malcolm in the Middle), who wears a poker visor sideways and upside down because he’s “cool”; and especially not October’s über-annoying sibling, Phineus (Jimmi Simpson, Zodiac), he of the “Who Farted?” T-shirt and mannerisms that suggest a neglected prescription refill for Ritalin. (Upon its release, this film served as my introduction to Simpson, and it made me hate him. I’ve since seen him do great work several times over, but it demonstrates the danger of being saddled with thankless douchebag roles.)

The screenplay by Bell and writing/producing partner Matthew Peterman (Wer) is as predictable as a preschooler’s connect-the-dots worksheet. Every insipid move is a given; every inevitable kill is heralded in advance, like the midnight ride of Paul Revere. At least one of the de rigueur death sequences generates a doozy of a line, delivered in earnest grief: “Hutch, somebody ran my brother down in a horse-drawn carriage. I’m gonna find whoever did it and hurt them.” Neigh. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Aug 29 2015

Reading Material: The Best TV Shows That Never Were / Television Fast Forward / Unsold Television Pilots: 1955-1989

besttvshowsneverAbout a decade ago, while folding laundry, I watched a fun primetime special about TV shows that, for one reason or another (but mostly because they were bad), never made it past the pilot stage. What I didn’t know at the time was that hour-long special was based on a book! While that 1991 edition is now out-of-print, it has been revived, revised and republished as The Best TV Shows That Never Were by author Lee Goldberg under his aptly named Adventures in Television banner. (He simultaneously released two companion volumes, but we’ll get to those. Patience, my dear.)

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Aug 28 2015

Surrogates (2009)

surrogatesIn the future, you can live out your life through a replica while you lie in comfort, manipulating it via mere thought — seeing what it sees, feeling what it feels. Yes, that’s James Cameron’s Avatar. But it’s also Jonathan Mostow’s Surrogates, a Bruce Willis vehicle that’s not another Die Hard sequel.

Based on the excellent 2006 graphic novel by Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, Surrogates imagines that mass-produced robot stand-ins have caught on so well, violent crime has plunged 99 percent. That 1 percent takes a terrifying turn when two surrogates are murdered in an act that also offs their owners, reclining supposedly safely at home.

FBI agents Greer (Willis) and Peters (Radha Mitchell, Silent Hill) are called in to investigate, and to be honest, the trail isn’t exactly cold, given that there’s a crazed anti-surrogate movement headed by a dreadlocked, compound-residing man who calls himself Prophet (Ving Rhames, Piranha 3D).

Despite the core similarity to the aforementioned Avatar, the movie Surrogates really reminds one of is I, Robot, once the murder mystery gets going. Hell, both even feature James Cromwell in virtually the same role! But whereas that Will Smith blockbuster was dreadful in everything but effects, Surrogates musters enough pizazz in a lean, mean 89 minutes — with credits — that it merits a recommendation.

It’s not action on a grand scale, but it sure delivers the goods greater than Mostow’s most high-profile time at bat, with 2003’s disappointing Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. His stylistic changes in bringing the book to life are interesting. For example, whereas Venditti and Weldele’s work was almost monochromatic, there isn’t a color on the palette Mostow doesn’t use, and candy-coated at that.

That’s reflective of society’s superficial nature, which — after technology — is the movie’s true target. With that comes the decision to cast surrogates in plastic, Barbie-like features. In the graphic novel, you couldn’t tell the difference between humans and surrogates, but here, it’s obvious at every turn, which dilutes some of the suspense. Still, the fact that there’s at least some there makes the flick fun for an overnight rental. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Aug 27 2015

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

baskerville59Too bad 1959’s The Hound of the Baskervilles marked Peter Cushing’s one and only time to play Sherlock Holmes on the big screen, because he does a great job at it. And too bad Hound is the only Holmes adaptation undertaken by Hammer Films, because this had franchise potential written all over it.

After a 10-minute prologue that doesn’t even involve Holmes or Dr. Watson, detailing the curse of the well-to-do Baskerville family, the movie gets going with the plot, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle originally presented it: With Sir Charles Baskerville dead of fright, his nephew, Henry (Christopher Lee), inherits his estate on the moors, and Holmes and Watson (André Morell, The Mummy’s Shroud) suspect he may suffer the same fate as his uncle.

baskerville591They have good reason to suspect as much, because out of his boot pops a big ol’ tarantula that immediately starts making its way toward a frozen-in-shock Henry’s face. Watson accompanies Henry to Baskerville Hall, where the sounds of the hound — a beast rumored to have killed many a man over the decades — pervade the night sky.

Not a believer in the supernatural, Holmes aims to get to the bottom of it, and naturally, he does. Only this time, Doyle’s story comes infused with spiders, scorpions, sacrifices and a suspenseful third-act descent into a dangerous mine shaft. Although the film by Hammer regular Terence Fisher (Horror of Dracula) is overly talky at times, it’s well-made in that unmistakable Hammer tradition, brimming with color and Gothic atmosphere, even on obvious sets. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Aug 26 2015

Seven Golden Men (1965)

7goldenmen Seven Golden Men is the rare heist film that opens with the heist. Heck, its entire first half is the heist. There’s no planning, no telegraphing of what the caper entails; we learn what happens as it happens, and our enjoyment is heightened all the more because of it.

Masterminded by the erudite Professor (Philippe Leroy, La Femme Nikita), said heist is of a Swiss bank containing the world’s only electronic-controlled vault with an electromagnetic locking device. It’s said to be physically impenetrable, but the Professor’s team of six men prove that wrong by tunneling their way in underground — kinda like in Roger Donaldson’s The Bank Job — right outside on the street, through the water mane and then straight up into the neatly stacked loot of 24-karat gold bars. Providing distraction on the street and elsewhere is the Professor’s gal pal (the stunning Rossana Podestà, 1983’s Hercules), making umpteen costume changes — including one memorable see-through bodysuit — during the whole charade.

7goldenmen1What the second half entails, I leave for you to discover. Suffice to say, it’s as frivolously paced as the first, full of comic flourishes, only-in-the-movies gadgetry and, like all Italian genre films of its era, themes that slide smoothly into the ear canal and stay there. Directed and co-written by The Sensual Man’s Marco Vicario, then married to Podestà, this Golden pic is as light as a serving of cotton candy tied to four dozen helium balloons — in other words, pure pop-cinema pleasure.

One year later, the Seven Golden Men struck again in Seven Golden Men Strike Again. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.