The Direct to Video Connoisseur

I'm a huge fan of action, horror, sci-fi, and comedy, especially of the Direct to Video variety. In this blog I review some of my favorites and not so favorites, and encourage people to comment and add to the discussion. If you click on an image, it will take you to that post's image page, which includes many more pics from the film and other goodies I couldn't fit in the actual review. For announcements and updates, don't forget to Follow us on Twitter and Like our Facebook page. If you're the director, producer, distributor, etc. of a low-budget feature length film and you'd like to send me a copy to review, you can contact me at dtvconnoisseur[at]yahoo.com. I'd love to check out what you got.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012)

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When last we left this franchise, I was less than stoked with the Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme bait-and-switch that I felt had been perpetrated on me.  Okay, that's not entirely true, we were looking at the two made-for-TV sequels, but when we last left this franchise with Dolph and Van Damme, that's where we were.  I went into this new one more okay with the potential for a bait-and-switch, and I was hoping the addition of Scott Adkins would mitigate any issues I might have with said bait-and-switch.  Then there was the near 2-hour running time: that was a little daunting, but as the DTVC, I was ready to climb that mountain.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning stars Scott Adkins as a family man whose home is invaded by Van Damme and some thugs, and his wife and daughter brutally murdered in front of him.  After recovering from a coma, an FBI agent tells him who Van Damme is, and he searches him out for revenge.  At the same time, Van Damme and Dolph have teamed up, and are recruiting other government universal soldiers to their cause.  What is their goal?  Who knows, but somehow Mr. Adkins and they are on a collision course to wackiness.

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So yes, we again had limited scenes with Dolph and Van Damme, but Adkins as the lead more than mitigated that issue.  In the behind the scenes extras, director and writer John Hyams said he understood that the film hinged on who they cast for that part, and he was right, because without Adkins I think I'm here again complaining that there wasn't enough Dolph and Van Damme.  Beyond getting past the bait-and-switch, I can say we also had an all around better picture than the one before it.  The fight scenes were excellent, including one between Adkins and Andrei The Pitbull Arlovski in a sporting goods shop that was what I've been looking for from the 21st century DTV action flick, totally inspired and next level.  Also, we had a great Noir-ish amnesiac storyline featuring Adkins that really kept me wanting to figure out what was going to happen next, which, again, wasn't anywhere in the previous film.  Also, this was a lot darker, but not in a faux-edge grafted in torture scene kind of way.  The whole thing was macabre, bloody, and violent, and it all worked for me, even as squeamish as I am, because it was always there.  Hyams hits a home run here, he gets it right everywhere, which is refreshing and exciting considering what we usually see in the modern DTV action world.

While Dolph only has, as far as I can tell, three scenes, they're all great.  (Also, in the commentary he does with John Hyams, we find out there was another scene that was cut.)  His first one involves a great fight with Arlovski, which looks spectacular between the set, Dolph's wardrobe, and the way he and Arlovski get after it.  Then he has a speech to the other universal soldiers in the "can you dig it?" mold that only he could've pulled off, and he does.  Then there's his fight with Adkins, which is equal parts awesome and Dolph providing comic relief.  If you check out the extras it gets even better.  In one, the director tells him that his image on screen will become Van Damme's, and he says "I turn into Jean-Claude?  Then you'll have to move the camera down here."  We also get to see his process in making fight scenes.  The guy's muscle memory is so acute, he picks up the choreography quickly, which allows them to go that next level with his scenes.  Again, just proving why he's the Babe Ruth of DTV.  (And if you watch the film with he and Hyams doing commentary, while he says at the beginning he's only going to be there for the first 30 minutes, he actually stays for the whole thing, and he's great.)

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I'm going to save my paragraph on the film's other Hall of Famer, Van Damme, for the seventh paragraph, because it contains spoilers, but if you're curious and haven't seen this yet, he was great as well, and well worth watching this film for. Let's look at Scott Adkins though.  With so many of our big action names in their 50s and 60s, there's been a push to get to the next generation.  While Adkins doesn't have a name from a previous career that DTV distributors like to throw on the covers of their films to sell them, for us cats who know and buy this stuff, he's as good as it gets right now, and we're all excited to see what he has coming next.  His fight with Arlovski was, as I said above, next level stuff; his fights with Dolph and Van Damme more than fulfilled my expectations; and then his big one where he's taking out a bunch of universal soldiers was fantastic too.  We found out in the extras that he did this on a torn ACL-- that includes a sweet frankensteiner!  Maybe he doesn't have a name from a previous career, but he's building a great current one for himself, and this one performance was a really solid addition to his CV.

Arlovski was a house as well-- as you may have noticed when I brought him up in two separate fight scenes above.  I don't think he has any dialog, which might make him all the more imposing.  On top of the scenes I mentioned, he does one with Roy Jones Jr.-- yes, that Roy Jones Jr.-- which was really cool, with Roy delivering some nice punches.  In the extras, they talked about how Arlovski was up for anything, and while I don't know if he can carry a film on his own the way Adkins can, as a baddie like this, he's great.  A few other things from the extras: the director was afraid to ask Roy Jones Jr. to do the scene, because it would be his only one and he just gets his ass kicked, but he was all about it, even driving from Pensacola, FL to Baton Rouge to do it; and our friend Simon at Explosive Action (who was lucky enough to see a big screen screening of this!) said this was edited for the US market, and I couldn't believe him because it was pretty bloody to begin with, but in the extras we see an effect where a dummy Arlovski is smashed in the head with a baseball bat by Adkins, and the head explodes-- that was cut in the version I saw.

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SPOILER ALERT!!!!   SPOILER ALERT!!!!   SPOILER ALERT!!!!   SPOILER ALERT !!!!
I know with that picture above, you're expecting a great comedic paragraph on how Van Damme was auditioning to Lucas to be Lucas-ed in as Anakin Skywalker in the next Return of the Jedi re-edit; but that can only go too far, and I wanted to address how Van Damme goes out in this flick.  They go with a Heart of Darkness approach, where Van Damme channels his inner Brando, and after a fight, gives up and allows Adkins to kill him.  According to Hyams, Van Damme made him rewrite it multiple times.  One could make the argument that he didn't want to go out in a way that makes it look like he got beaten because he's an egomaniac; but I think that Van Damme has earned the right to lose the way he wants to lose in a movie like this, and it fits with his character that he'd have been sick of being a universal soldier, and needed Adkins to give him the warrior's death that he deserved.  The whole thing worked for me, and I have no complaints.
END SPOILER!!!!  END SPOILER!!!!  END SPOILER!!!!  END SPOILER!!!!

Let's wrap this up, because this has become a big post.  As you've probably figured out, I'm exceedingly happy with this movie.  Yes, it was a little gorier than I like, but it was a gory that worked, along with everything else.  The actors, the direction, the cinematography-- none of that gimmicky shaky cam--, the fights, the story, it was all great.  If more DTV actioners could get it half as right as this did, I think we'd all be a lot happier.

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1659343/

Monday, February 11, 2013

Maximum Conviction (2012)

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I saw this on Netflix Watch Instantly, and I obviously couldn't ignore it.  The Steven Seagal factor alone makes it a must watch-- this will get us back to having his complete DTV catalog reviewed here at the DTVC.  Throw in Stone Cold Steve Austin, and, good or bad, this was a must, so I got after it.  Let's see how it went.

Maximum Conviction has Seagal and Austin as mercs or something that are called in to "mothball" a military prison.  Of course, as is usually the case with these things, something goes wrong, and that wrong involves a female prisoner who was brought in the night before that may or may not be Johnny Mnemonic-ing data for the CIA.  Throw in Michael Paré as the baddie looking to get her and her Mnemonic-ed info, some jumpy cinematography, and a severed finger for faux-edge, and you have yourself a modern DTV schlock actioner.

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On Twitter while watching this, I opined that these films were just done better in the 80s and 90s.  I know, we say that all the time, but it's true, isn't it?  What is wrong with these modern DTV actioners then that they can't recapture what those were?  Seriously, is anyone doubting that a 1992 PM Entertainment flick based on a similar premise starring Wings Hauser and Kathleen Kinmont wouldn't have been amazing?  Is it the jumpy cam?  The fact that we have Seagal and Austin set up like pretty much omnipotent forces so there is zero tension or suspense?  Or maybe that things happen so fast we can't focus on them for more than a half-a-second?  Beyond all of that, whether this was made in 1992 or 2012, we still had a lack of action, particularly bad in Austin's case, because the man is just crying out for good fight scenes, and we know from his wrestling career that he can excel at them and make them entertaining.  Guys walking around with guns raised does not an action film make, and in a prison setting, we could've had some really inspired ones.  This is more missed opportunity than anything, which makes it all the more frustrating that it didn't work.

In the spirit of being solutions oriented as opposed to just saying something sucks for the sake of saying it sucks, I've decided to use the remaining paragraphs to come up with the different movie this could've been, and should've been.  I'm talking a women in prison-style action film, in the Die Hard paradigm, with only Seagal and Austin as our good guys, going to save the girl with the Mnemonic-ed info in her.  Let's start with Seagal in this, as the film's one resident Hall of Famer.  What is the deal with that Louisiana accent Mr. Seagal?  Where is the man we once knew who said "I"m gonna take you to the bank, Senator Trent-- the blood bank."  We loved that man.  There's something about this man that's kinda silly, right-- and I'll be honest, less friendly bloggers than me might be a little more harsh on him, and have been.  Let's take this guy he was in this film-- because he wasn't that bad--, give him Seagal's old voice, and send him into the women's prison with Stone Cold Steve Austin and have them take out myriad stuntmen dressed like guards.  To hell with all this backstory and use of military or police terms.  I want Under Siege in a women's prison, how hard is that?

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We have yet to see a Stone Cold Steve Austin film that gives us the best of what he brought to the WWE.  The Rock had The Rundown, but with Austin, the part is either too serious, too earnest, or here, just not enough.  Part of the problem was Austin and Seagal lead a team of mercs.  No team, Austin and Seagal are enough; and you give me Austin mowing down guards, flirting with female prisoners, finding the beer in the kitchen, drinking it while taking out more guards.  This is what we want.  Where is this movie?  I want some Stone Cold Stunners.  One thing Maximum Conviction did do well was give Austin a little room to use his sense of humor.  Yes!  But we need more.  Seriously, him fixing a trash compactor or studying a mined doorway is time that we don't have him kicking ass, taking names, and drinking beers, and that's bad.

Every women in prison film needs a great evil warden, and we could've had him in Paré.  Instead he's like some US Marshal/head of the bad guys' team or something.  Man, imagine him as the evil warden.  He finds out one of the prisoners has Mnemonic-ed information-- maybe we introduce a secondary baddie that offers to pay Paré for her, and there's some kind of tension between baddies kind of thing.  Of course he's also got to be running a forced prostitution ring among the inmates, so maybe this is where the tension is, because the woman is really hot and could make him a lot of money, so he doesn't want to give her up.  Imagine him in some kind of like pseudo-Nazi uniform, it's just perfect.  He was made to be the evil warden, and he could've been it here.

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We had two great women too to play our heroine and female baddie.  The baddie was played by Aliyah O'Brien, and she acquitted herself really well in this film in that role, but in a women in prison film, that character could've been so much more.  Imagine somebody that wants the Mnemonic-ed information on the other woman plants her in the prison, and she fights her way out, earns the trust of the other woman, only to discover she's bad.  And the woman with the Mnemonic-ed information was played by Steph Song, and she was fantastic for the woman who's thrust into the women's prison and isn't meant for that world-- the problem was, while her character was perfect for that part, that wasn't the movie her character was in.  They even had a scene at the beginning that was like a partial flashback where we kind of see her in an exchange gone wrong, but it's so disjointed and carved up.  This should've been a whole fleshed out scene.  We always need to see the women in prison heroine in her life before these horrible events have brought her to hell on earth, and this scene would've been perfect for that.

Unfortunately, that's not what this movie was, it was a schlock actioner that didn't have enough good action and enough good use of it's talent.  Too much of Seagal and Austin walking around with guns raised, and too little of them getting after it.  Gun fights that were almost perfunctory in an environment that should've been more inspired.  And all of that faux-edge that attempts to make it better than the 90s actioner, but instead makes it worse.  I want my action movie back, and I don't think I'm alone in that.

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2119474/

Thursday, February 7, 2013

FDR: American Badass! (2012)

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After the 90-minute awesomefest that was Poolboy: Drowning out the Fury, this was highly anticipated.  It had a short theatrical run in the fall, and then was released on Netflix Instant, where I eventually put it down. I was ready for Barry Bostwick as FDR to destroy me with his wheelchair of death.

FDR: American Badass! has Bostwick as one of our greatest presidents ever, FDR, who is bitten in the leg by a werewolf and contracts polio, which confines him to a wheelchair.  He then wins the presidency, only to discover that the dictators Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito, are plotting to spread werewolf-ism throughout the globe, and they know FDR is the only man that's badass enough to stop them.  The question is, can he do it?

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Is there any question?  This movie is what you want from a Ross Patterson flick.  It has all the dirty jokes and bad action spoofs we loved in Poolboy, only it's frickin' FDR doing this stuff.  And the idea of werewolves as the Axis Powers is genius.  If I'm comparing the two, I'd give the edge to Poolboy, but it's not FDR's fault Poolboy was the greatest film since Citizen Kane.  FDR still has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and more than gives you your money's worth.  This is American history done right.

The key to this film is how well the actors play it straight, especially with Barry Bostwick in the lead.  Yes, he's definitely having fun, but he also never betrays his part and always plays it seriously, even when he's delivering some absolutely ridiculous lines.  He buys into what FDR is all about, and by doing that, he gives us the movie we want when we see that title.  And from there, it's as if everyone else follows his lead and does the same thing, which makes this whole thing work.  They create a world where the silliness of FDR makes sense to them, which makes it all the funnier to us.

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Keven Sorbo should be up for a best supporting actor nod for his cameo as Abe Lincoln.  He's so fantastic, and I love seeing him in Patterson's films.  Speaking of Patterson, he plays a senator from Georgia, and his accent makes everything he says funny.  I have no idea how anyone can act opposite him and give a good take, because I know I couldn't keep a straight face.  Bruce McGill, who played Dalton in MacGyver, is essentially Bostwick's straightman as Louis, FDR's personal bodyguard, and he's great in that role.  Eleanor was played by Lin Shaye, and what was funny about her, was she was the only one who wasn't an anachronism.  It was almost as if she was taken from the 30s and dumped into the 2010s.  I loved veteran character actor Paul Ben-Victor as the Mussolini werewolf, he's always great to see.  Finally, Patterson's character's wife was played by Keri Lynn Pratt, who, according to her imdb bio, is from Concord, NH.  Nice to see the Granite State get some shine in FDR: American Badass!

I left Ray Wise as Douglas MacArthur for this paragraph, because I've noticed that Twin Peaks is really popular on Tumblr, at least among the blogs I follow.  And this isn't people my age or older who remember when Twin Peaks first aired, these are kids who were barely alive and have found it on Netflix or DVD.  Yes, I was only 12 when it first came out, so it's not like I could've been a good judge of what would still be relevant 20 years later, but out of everything that was on TV then, Twin Peaks would've been at the bottom of the list.  Anyway, the question now is, who is more likely to bring the Tumblr kids in to watch FDR: Bostwick and his Rocky Horror fame, or Ray Wise and his Twin Peaks fame?  And why can't it be Sorbo and his Hercules fame.

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Last summer, I visited the JFK Presidential Library in Boston.  It was a really cool experience, and made me want to visit some of the others.  The next closest to where I live of course would be FDR's in Hyde Park, NY.  After seeing this movie though, I feel like maybe we should organize a DTVC field trip down there-- or up there, depending on where you're from.  I don't want to sound like Mitchell, but does anyone living in New York have a sofa I could stretch out on?

All right, before we go way off the tracks, let's wrap this up.  If you haven't seen Poolboy yet, stop reading this immediately and go watch it.  Then, finish this review, and go check out FDR: American Badass!  Ross Patterson/Saint James St. James strikes again.  If history had been this cool in high school, I might have actually wanted to get up in the morning and go.

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1811315/

Sunday, February 3, 2013

One in the Chamber (2012)

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 Like any huge Dolph Lundgren fan, when I first got word that this flick was on the horizon, I got stoked.  Dolph and Cuba Gooding Jr.?  It just sounds fantastic, right?  But how many times have we been burned before?  How many times have we thought we had a sure thing, something even the worst DTV film maker couldn't screw up, only to have said DTV film maker screw it up.  All we can do is cross our fingers, and hope this lived up to its billing. One in the Chamber stars Gooding as Ray Carver, one of the greatest short story writers-- oh wait, sorry, wrong Ray Carver, this one is a mob assassin working in Prague.  He tries to off Russian mobster Louis Mandylor, but the bastard uses a woman as a human shield and escapes.  Now it's on, there's an all-out mob war, and competing Russian assassin Dolph Lundgren is called in to clean up the job Gooding left unfinished, while Gooding is killing his old employers for Mandylor.  If it sounds like a collision course to wackiness, it is, plus there's a subplot about a cute cafe owner who inevitably finds herself a damsel in distress.

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This is what I was looking for.  Gooding was solid, and Dolph was fantastic.  The plot was pretty run-of-the-mill Eastern European schlock-fest, but it never tried too hard to force its way out of that, which I appreciated.  We've seen too many try too hard for credibility, and go off the rails with a gross torture scene, or too much character exposition.  Beyond a few scenes with the mob bosses that didn't have either Gooding or Dolph that I could've done without, this kept a pretty decent pace and gave us DTV action fans what we wanted.  An all around great time. Like I said the Dolph in here is fantastic.  It's as if this guy knows what we like from him, and knows how to deliver, and he's only gotten better as he's gone along.  He plays this fantastic character called "The Wolf"-- a name which he of course doesn't like because he thinks it's cliche-- who wears bad Hawaiian shirts and listens to Frank Sinatra music.  His first scene is so amazing, and it just gets better as he goes along.  So many times when an actor gives us the wink-wink nudge-nudge, he ruins the part because he's too in on the joke.  Not true here.  Dolph tells us he's having as much fun playing this part as we are watching him, and it makes it all the more enjoyable.  A definite add to your next Dolph Fest.

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I must confess I have fallen a bit behind on Mr. Gooding Jr.'s DTV oeuvre, so I can't say for sure if this is his best DTV effort, but it feels like it.  He fits in the role well, there's nothing about it that feels forced or fatuous, and while that gives me less here to make fun of, it's a lot of fun to watch.  And while he and Dolph don't have many scenes on-screen together, the ones they do have are great.  While in the past we joked about Cuba Gooding Jr.'s stay in the DTV Hotel, I'm beginning to think this might be the best place for him to be the actor he wants to be.  Hey, Daddy Day Camp and Snow Dogs were released in the theater, and I can't imagine he's prouder of those than he is this here, or some of his other recent DTV work. Rounding out the cast, we had the aforementioned Mandylor, affecting a funny Russian accent.  I think if we're talking Mandylor brothers, I'm more of a Costas guy, but really, who's counting?  Cuba's assassin handler was played by veteran Brit actor Billy Murray, and he's plenty sleazy with a nice ponytail to boot.  The female lead was played by Claudia Bassols, who has had the pleasure of playing Rob Schneider's wife in his short-lived eponymous sitcom.  I wonder why that one didn't work, wasn't there room for another bad comedy about a gross guy and his hot wife?  I didn't think we had enough of those.

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I have recently entered into the world of the smartphone.  I know, welcome to the 21st century Matt.  This film takes great advantage of the smartphone, where our characters have apps on their phones that allow them to set off car bombs and look through surveillance cameras they set up in betting houses they planned to hit.  At the same time though, they went low-tech with Gooding's apartment, with some vintage accoutrements, like an old radio.  Being a set designer for a one of these Eastern European flicks must be a lot of fun, with the great combination of old and new around-- though I'm sure there's a lot of emphasis on getting things done quick and cheap, so maybe it sucks.

 What doesn't suck is One in the Chamber.  It's fantastic, and well worth your time.  As of this posting, it isn't available on Netflix Instant, but you can rent it, or, if you're a huge Dolph fan like me, I'd buy it.  This is definitely that one that lived up to its billing, and you'll want in your collection.

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1881024/