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.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Machete Kills (2013)

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This is one I've been meaning to do for a while, and on some levels wished I'd seen in the theater, because I enjoyed Machete so much.  Alas, I often don't get to the theater at all for any movies, so why would this film be an exception.  When I mentioned it to Jamie, her response was a little tepid, and I found out after it was because many people didn't like this at all.  I had no idea there was this kind of vitriol targeted at the film-- I guess I've been living under a rock for too long.  Two guys that haven't been living under a rock and who have also looked at this are Fred from Full Moon Reviews and Mitch from The Video Vacuum, so you can go there and see what they both thought.  They're both great friends of the blog and former guests on the podcast.

Machete Kills picks up where the first one left off.  Jessica Alba is killed, which leaves our eponymous hero, played again by Danny Trejo, upset and ready to take it out on some people.  Our President, played by Charlie Sheen (Estevez), allows Mr. Trejo that chance, by having him take out a Mexican separatist who has a nuclear bomb aimed at the White House.  But things aren't as they seem-- as they never are-- and Mel Gibson is involved, which makes things worse.

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I really enjoyed this movie, as did Jamie.  I'm not sure why this was so vituperated against then; I don't know if it was the inclusion of Lady Gaga as an assassin, or Sophia Vergara as a screaming woman, or maybe the fact that Robert Rodriguez stuck it to the fan boys by distorting the image when Amber Heard had her love scene with Trejo, thus preventing them from seeing anything good.  For me, this was a great action-fest with all the fun of the previous one.  Maybe that's it, people were like "I've seen this before" or, "I liked it better when it was called Machete."  Either way, it worked for us.

Let's start with Mr. Trejo.  He gets this part and gets what he's supposed to do with it.  That's why it works so well.  He never overdoes it, yet he's never not believable.  We've done over 20 Trejo films here at the DTVC, and the vast majority of them are him playing small parts or even just one scene cameos-- the best small part of which by far is when he gave Jean-Claude Van Damme a foot massage in Desert Heat-- but when he gets a good look at the lead with a good story and a lot of fun action, he nails it, which is great to see.

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I wanted to go next to Mr. Sheen aka Mr. Estevez, as he takes on the role his father once held so well in The West Wing.  Again, he gets what's required of him here and he plays the part perfectly.  I was trying to think, of all the Presidents we've seen here, who is the best.  We have Jerry Springer in the Dolph film The Defender.  We also had DTVC Hall of Famer Rutger Hauer in the film Scorcher.  One thing that's great about both of those is that neither man was born in the US.  I think Sheen should go right in there with them as some of the best we've seen here at the DTVC.  Also, special mention needs to go to the late Roy Scheider, who has played the president here a couple times, including another Dolph film, The Peacekeeper.

This film is rife with cameos and guest spots.  Of course, we had Michelle Rodriguez reprising her role from the first one, which was great to see.  Amber Heard, who we have seen here before in And Soon the Darkness.  Antonio Banderas was also here, and we've seen him before in The Big Bang.  Finally, from last week's film The Frozen Ground, we had Vanessa Hudgens, an actress I thought we'd never see here who's been great in both films.  A lot of DTVC alums.  One who wasn't an alum, and someone who had the distinction of being the most problematic member of the cast, was Mel Gibson as the baddie.  It was a weird thing, because on the one hand I'm seeing everything we loved about him as one of the top leading men in the 80s and 90s, and part of me was enjoying that; but on the other hand, it's just Mel Gibson with all his anti-Semitic grossness on full display, and the problem with him being a baddie is he gets to retain that grossness, which doesn't help.  I guess I'm torn on which way to go on that.

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For my third picture on the post I had a lot of places I could go.  With only three pictures on the main review page per post and the others relegated to the image page; and a film like this with so many names, it's hard to narrow it down.  We knew Trejo would be one; and then I liked the idea of doing a paragraph on Presidents in DTVC films, so that was 2; but for three, it could have been anyone.  I decided to go with Cuba Gooding Jr., because this is a guy we've been seeing here at the DTVC for some time getting after it in the DTV world because he can't get the parts he wants in Hollywood anymore despite being an Oscar winning actor.  It would have been a crime to not recognize him here.  The crime might have been that he had such a small part, as I would have liked to have seen him do more; but overall it was good to see him in this flick.

So that wraps things up.  This is a yes for Jamie and me.  Fun, all the action of the original, and a slew of cameos.  Sign me up for number three-- just not in the theater, I'll wait till it's on Netflix Instant.  You can always check Jamie and I out live every Wednesday from 8-9 EDT at www.mixlr.com/2nd-unit, and can download the podcasts after on the archive page here on the site; or on iTunes, just type in DTVC Podcast and subscribe.

For the Machete Kills episode, right click here and select "Save link as".

For more information: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2002718/

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Frozen Ground (2013)

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This is one I noticed on Instant a while back and really wanted to check out, especially because it has Nicolas Cage and John Cusack.  What happened though was Jamie and I had done Killing Season for the pod, and we both felt we needed a break from "90s-00s big name star does DTV".  So we took about eight weeks and looked at some other films-- plus I got married-- and then came back to it.  Let's see how it went.

The Frozen Ground is based on the true story of Alaskan serial killer Robert Hansen (Cusack).  In it we follow the story of Cindy Paulson (played by Vanessa Hudgens), and Det. Jack Halcolme (Cage).  Cage is trying to crack the case of this serial killer, and Hudgens is the one woman who got away from the serial killer, making her the key to bringing him down.  It's a race against time as Cage tries to lock him up before he kills again.

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We both enjoyed this one, and it worked on a lot of levels.  First, it's not your usual serial killer film that tells the story from serial killer's point of view.  In fact, Hansen's part in the film is smaller, and it's a credit to Cusack that he does so well with that small part to make it seem bigger.  Second, speaking of Cusack, he, Cage, and Hudgens all turn in great performances which makes the film work that much more.  Without good performances we might as well watch the Robert Hansen hour-long bio on the ID channel, and this film and these actors give us a reason to watch this instead.  Finally, it has a lot of great supporting characters played by myriad character actors that we saw throughout the 90s and 2000s that really gave the film a feel like it was a Hollywood flick made in 2001 instead of DTV in 2013, among them Michael McGrady, Kevin Dunn, and Kurt Fuller.  My one complaint was that we had some deal with 50 Cent as a pimp that felt grafted in and bogged the film down for me, but Jamie wasn't as annoyed by it as I was, so maybe that's just me and my "anything over 90 minutes is bad" issues.

Let's start with Mr. Cage.  We joke about him often, and he's become sort of an Internet meme and butt of jokes, but this film really took me back to that late 90s/early 2000s Cage who was at the top of his game and the king of Hollywood.  From the moment it starts he gives us a guy we can root for and want to see win.  There's nothing gimmicky or quirky about this character, and he never goes off the rails, he just gives a solid, earnest performance, and the film is better for it.  I don't know where this Cage has been, and I'm not saying I don't love the quirky or over-the-top Cage, it's just good to have this mixed in every once in a while.

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As I said above, Cusack is also great as the serial killer.  He has this way in his limited screen time of giving us the three sides of all serial killers: innocuous, popular local man whom no one would ever suspect; sick fiend who craves power and dominance over women to the point of committing these heinous crimes; and then cowering wimp who can't handle when the power dynamic has changed and Cage as the police detective is in control.  Cusack gives us all so effortlessly and naturally, it's scary.  Unlike Cage, who probably would have done the part he had if this had been made in the 2000s, I don't know if Cusack's agent would have let him play the serial killer, because of the kind of role it was.

Let's get back to this idea of what the film would have been in 2000 versus 2013.  Overall this would have been a big screen Hollywood release that would have turned around and made huge money in DVD (and still VHS at that time as well) rentals and TV licensing.  By 2006 it would have been a TNT "New Classic", in heavy rotation with films like Kiss the GirlsUS Marshals, and Domestic Disturbance, and my mom would have passively left it on after a Law and Order episode on a lazy Saturday.  On the one hand, a 2000 theatrical release would have meant a longer runtime, more padding, and probably a larger focus on Cusack and Cage.  More cat and mouse, more thrill-- in short, not the movie we got here.  Maybe 2013 was the time to make this film, and we're lucky for that.

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Finally, we always talk about our morbid fascination with serial killers, and what I liked about this film is that it wasn't that.  One scene I really loved was when Cage has Hudgens stay at his home, and his wife, played by Radha Mitchell, is upset about that.  Later she comes around and realizes that was wrong of her, but it also illustrated a great point: we as a society can have a morbid fascination with serial killers because we have that luxury.  Like Radha Mitchell's character, we can shut our eyes and go back to our own lives, because serial killers happen out there to other people, and what Mitchell's character was upset about initially was that her husband was turning "other people" into "them".  What this film tells us is that there are people who don't have the luxury of going back to their own lives, who don't have the luxury of a morbid fascination with serial killers.  These people are their victims and the victim's families.  They don't get to just watch the show on ID, or post pics of John Wayne Gacy in a clown suit on Tumblr, then change the channel or close their browser and have everything be okay.  Radha Mitchell's character realizes also that her husband, due to the line of work he chose, also doesn't have the luxury of serial killers only happening to "other people", and without him doing his job a man like Hansen is never brought to justice.  The film finishes this thought off by giving us a picture of each victim in the credits, as opposed to showing Hansen.

Again, The Frozen Ground was a yes from both of us.  This is the Cage and Cusack you were accustomed to in the late-90s/early 2000s, only now it's without the bells and whistles of a big screen Hollywood production, which I think makes it that much better.  Definitely worth checking out while it's on Instant.  And you can always check Jamie and I out live every Wednesday from 8-9 EDT at www.mixlr.com/2nd-unit, and can download the podcasts after on the archive page here on the site; or on iTunes, just type in DTVC Podcast and subscribe.

For The Frozen Ground episode, right click here and select "save link as".

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2005374/

Monday, January 12, 2015

Sharknado 2: The Second One (2014)

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For our 25th DTVC Podcast, and our last one of 2014, Jamie and I decided to do Sharknado 2.  Jamie had already seen it, but I hadn't, and its inclusion on Instant came at a perfect time for this last podcast before our two-week holiday hiatus.  Among the many other blogs that have reviewed this film, we have ones from friends of the DTVC Fred the Ex-Ninja, TarsTarkas.net, and previous podcast guest Fred the Wolf at Full Moon Reviews, so check those out as well.

Sharknado 2: The Second One is an Asylum joint where Ian Ziering reprises his role from Sharknado, this time consolidating his empire as head of a Sharknado mob family.  Meanwhile, the story of Ziering's father from the old county, played by Robert De Niro, is told simultaneously, and we learn how he first started fighting Sharknados from a young age.  Okay, none of that happened, it was just a cameo-fest that was set in New York City with CGI sharks getting carved up all over the place.

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As is often the case with Jamie and me, we agreed on this one: great first 45 minutes, blah second 45 minutes.  Somehow the fun and campiness of that first 45 gives way to useless backstory and padding and less Sharknadoing.  Among the egregious mistakes, some unresolved love story between Ziering and Vivica A. Fox that was useless and unnecessary.  Not to mention, they try to use a slingshot to shoot homemade bombs into the Sharknado like Ziering did in the first one, and it takes 3 tries to figure out they need another plan.  What?  Two fewer tries with more Sharknadoing was what we needed.  Also, while some of the celebrity cameos were great, by that 45-minute mark we'd reached our saturation point with them.  Among the things I loved though: Ziering was great again; the use of the Today Show and Matt Lauer and Al Roker was fantastic, also Stephanie Abrams and the Weather Channel; and I loved some of the landmarks like the Mets stadium and the Staten Island Ferry.  I watched the first 45 minutes of this film with my wife, and then she wasn't able to watch the second half.  I think she may have played it perfectly.

Let's start with Ian Ziering as Fin, because it really is his film.  While he definitely had fun with it, the whole backstory and building his history thing was a waste.  All it did was pad the film.  If they needed backstory with him, maybe play up the Steve Sanders thing.  We never had any 90210 jokes, at least not any I can remember as I write this review.  There was a reference to Ziering and Mark McGrath (who played his old buddy and brother in-law) being trouble makers in school.  Why not have fun with that?  "Fin, remember how you got that bottle of champagne for prom and our friend Donna got drunk and almost couldn't go to graduation?"  "I do man, that was bad."  "Yeah, only you fixed it by organizing that protest and convincing the school board to change their minds and let her graduate." [Sugar Ray puts hand on Fin's shoulder]  "You know how to fix things when they're wrong Fin, you always have.  Now we need you to fix this Sharknado thing."

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This is the film of a thousand cameos, and if I put them all in here that's all the review would be, so I just included a few.  As I mentioned above, I really liked the Today Show thing.  They also did The Weather Channel and Stephanie Abrams, and Live with Kelly and Michael.  What would've been great is if they did Hardball with Chris Matthews or something like that, and had a Democrat and Republican argue who was responsible for the Sharknado: Global Warming or Obama?  I think if you need to pad the film, goofiness like that works over bad backstory every time.  Among the others I liked: Judd Hirsch as the taxi driver, and Robert Hays as the plane captain.

Jamie and I discussed what we thought were the best sequels when we looked at the film for the podcast.  In my mind it's The Godfather II, with maybe House Party 2 a close second.  We also talked about best sequel names, and we agreed that Electric Boogaloo is far and away the top, with everyone else coming in a distant second.  I think where this movie failed the Asylum, is that it rushed it out there, and maybe didn't proofread that second script enough.  I think they also probably got a bump from the premier on SyFy with the Twitterati watching it well-sauced by that 45-minute mark (which is more like the hour mark on TV with the commercials), so they weren't going to pick up on the second-half short comings.  I know Jamie talked about that, how she read all these great Twitter comments the night before, then watched it the next day and couldn't understand where that came from.  We'll see what happens in part 3, maybe they'll get back after it.  Jamie and I noted though that very few franchises get better with the third film, Nightmare on Elm Street 3 being one of the few exceptions.

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Finally, if you'll allow me, I need to exorcise some demons here.  Let me take you back to 1986, a seven-year-old Direct to Video Connoisseur, excitedly following his Boston Red Sox as they made an impossible comeback in the ALCS against the California Angels, then getting all the way to Game 6 and 3 outs away from winning the World Series against the Mets.  Then the wheels came off, culminating in the ball going through Buckner's legs.  Even now, almost 30 years, three Sox World Series Titles, and the Mets playing in a new stadium in abject mediocrity later, I still had trouble when I saw the Mets.  When I took Jen to the Fenway Park tour in November of 2013, I was able to exorcise some of those demons by looking at the display the Red Sox had up for it, but I needed Sharknado 2 to show me that I was truly over it.  Thank you Asylum, I really appreciate it.

Like the ninth inning in Game 6, this review has truly gone off the rails, so let's wrap it up before the ball goes through Buckner's legs again.  The best way to do this is with a good amount of booze, so that you're well-inebriated by the time the film loses steam at the 45-minute mark.  The first 45 are a lot of fun, but the second 45 not-so-much.  You can always check Jamie and I out live every Wednesday from 8-9 EDT at www.mixlr.com/2nd-unit, and can download the podcasts after on the archive page here on the site; or on iTunes, just type in DTVC Podcast and subscribe.

For the podcast of Sharknado 2, right click here, and click "save link as".

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3062074/

Monday, January 5, 2015

Killing Season (2013)

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Back in July of 2014, Jamie and I looked at this one for the DTVC Podcast.  The fact that it had Robert De Niro and John Travolta made it high on my priority list, and with the DTVC Podcast still new and trying to find its voice, I figured it would be an easy one for Jamie and I to fill an hour of conversation with.  Unfortunately the written blog post got lost in the shuffle between work and the holidays, but here it is now.

Killing Season stars De Niro as a former veteran of the Bosnian War who is hunted down by another veteran, John Travolta, in the Appalachian woods where De Niro lives a secluded life.  The catch: Travolta is a Serb, complete with the accent.  As these two bitter rivals face off in a deadly game of cat and cat, who will come out victorious?

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Jamie and I both came to the same conclusion here: a fun movie, and fun to watch De Niro and Travolta in a small scale DTV flick.  It's not perfect by any means, and the cat and cat game starts to run its course around the hour mark, but what's great is we're treated to about 10 minutes of credits, so as things wind down around the 65 minutes in, we only need to slog through 15 more, and that slog is helped along by the fact that it's Travolta and De Niro-- plus that amazing Appalachian scenery, which is what we're treated to for the ten-minute credit sequence.  For 80 minutes on Instant with De Niro and Travolta, you could do much worse.

I watched this with my wife, and she's someone who has loved seeing De Niro over the years in films like Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and Cape Fear.  It was the last film of that list that especially made her take notice, considering the degree to which De Niro mailed in his Southern accent in Killing Season, because we'd seen him do it so much better before in Cape Fear and we know he's capable of it.  There is a definite feel of mailing it in here with De Niro, and I guess if anyone has earned the right to mail it in with DTV flicks at the end of his career, it's him.  His rap sheet is pretty prodigious: two Oscar wins, five more nominations, plus five of his films were among AFI's 100 films 100 years list, he's created some of the most iconic characters in film history, and is maybe the best actor of his generation.  When he acts opposite the guy playing his son, even as he's mailing it in, you can see just how much better he is, and I guess maybe as fans we can't expect him to give us Travis Bickle or Vito Corelone every time-- but we can still joke about it when watching the newer stuff.

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Let's get all the Travolta affecting a Serbian accent jokes out of the way right now.  Also the beard.  It's as silly as you like, though I will say he does pretty well with the accent.  In fact, overall I think he brings it more than De Niro does, but also this is his first time acting opposite De Niro, so I think he was excited for the opportunity.  Maybe it wasn't the film or the time in his career he expected, but when the moment came he took it, and I think you have to applaud him for that.  It'll be interesting to see where his career goes from here, because, unlike De Niro, this is his first dip into the DTV pool (almost DTV: the film did gross $27,000 in the theater), and the sense is he only did it to act opposite De Niro.  Will he join his fellow big screen acting brethren like Cage, Cusack, and Willis?  Only time will tell.

At the DTVC we've seen many of these Dangerous Game type/humans hunting humans kind of deals, and this one, like all the others, suffers the same fate of trying to keep up the momentum.  This is especially true of one like this where you only have two players, and they take turns being the hunter and hunted (which is why I called it "cat and cat" instead of "cat and mouse").  How many times can one get the upper hand on the other, only to have the other turn the tables?  As much as film makers like to think they can keep the suspense up, when we're only 30 minutes in, we know the story isn't going to end when one guy catches the other.  This film seemed to mitigate this problem the best way that I've seen, and that was by rolling the credits early over a backdrop of the Appalachian wilderness.  The reality is, unless you do a film like The Warriors where there are many hunters and each are unique, or you do like The Running Man and you make it more of a real game, this kind of story is only good for a 42-minute episode of a drama, and it will always lose momentum.

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Speaking of stories, I thought I'd post a little book porn for you.  As far as best cameo of a Hemingway book in a film, this doesn't touch A Farewell to Arms in Evil Dead 2, but it's still nice to see.  While none of the books I own and have read are in perfect condition, I have to admit I cringed a bit seeing De Niro dog-ear the corner instead of use a bookmark.  It made me wonder though: was that his decision or was it in the script?  Because De Niro's character was definitely a dog-ear the corners kind of guy, and if it was his idea, it was another example of how great an actor he is, even if he felt like maybe he was mailing in the rest of the role.

Overall, this isn't a bad time, and again, with its availability on Instant and short runtime, it's a great time killer.  Travolta definitely wants to take advantage of his opportunity to work opposite De Niro, and De Niro, while not Vito Corelone, does well enough to make the film fun.  You can always check Jamie and I out live every Wednesday from 8-9 EDT at www.mixlr.com/2nd-unit, and can download the podcasts after on the archive page here on the site; or on iTunes, just type in DTVC Podcast and subscribe.

For the Killing Season episode, right click here and select "save link as".

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1480295/