Wednesday, September 17, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: MERCENARIES (2014); PALO ALTO (2014); and SWELTER (2014)

(US - 2014)

One of the very few titles from The Asylum to actually be released in theaters (not counting one-off crowd-participation SHARKNADO screenings for people who think SHARKNADO is a cult movie), MERCENARIES is a little more straight-faced than the typical pre-fab cult movie nonsense to roll off the company's mockbuster assembly line. Whether it's cheesy monster movies along the lines of the SHARKNADO phenomenon, MEGA SHARK VS. GIANT OCTOPUS and MEGA PYTHON VS. GATOROID, or shameless no-budget knockoffs like I AM OMEGA, TRANSMORPHERS, SUNDAY SCHOOL MUSICAL, STREET RACER, and TITANIC II, The Asylum has become synonymous with self-aware shittiness. MERCENARIES is their EXPENDABLES mockbuster, given a limited release on a handful of screens and VOD a week before THE EXPENDABLES 3, and the twist is that the heroes are all ass-kicking women in a bid to beat Sylvester Stallone's proposed EXPENDABELLES spinoff to screens (which probably isn't going to happen anyway). MERCENARIES has what probably passes for witty, self-referential dialogue, at least as much as screenwriter Edward DeRuiter is capable of pulling off, but it generally plays it straight and keeps the winking snark to a minimum. It's obvious The Asylum was taking this one a little more seriously than most of their productions and were using it to see if they could compete with the big dogs at the multiplex.  Alas, they can't. The opening credits are video-burned and the explosions all look like they were done with the Action Movie FX app on director Christopher Douglas-Olen Ray's iPhone. Ray is the son of veteran hack Fred Olen Ray, who's cranked out around 150 action and exploitation films under various names since the late '70s. The elder Ray almost had a real career at one point in the late '80s when he was giving prominent roles to aging, past-their-prime actors years before Quentin Tarantino made it trendy, but now he and Jim Wynorski pretty much have the market cornered on helming the kind of no-budget Skinemax films that run on cable at 3:00 am or terrible kiddie movies that have their world premieres on Netflix Instant. Christopher proves that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, as he's found consistent work as one of the in-house Asylum guys, and there's a few fleeting moments where MERCENARIES looks like a perfectly acceptable DTV-level actioner like his old man used to make, at least until the crappy CGI and digital blood start derailing it. MERCENARIES' biggest sin is that it's just boring, with an endless, talky mid-section that brings the whole thing to a standstill.

The film has a game cast, headed by DEATH PROOF's Zoe Bell, TERMINATOR 3 star and Uwe Boll regular Kristanna Loken, KILL BILL star-turned-TV fixture Vivica A. Fox, and BRING IT ON's Nicole Bilderback as a team of disgraced military and CIA washouts sprung from prison by NSA head Kendall ('90s DTV action star Cynthia Rothrock) when the President's daughter (Tiffany Panhilason) is abducted by international terrorist Ulrika (Stallone ex-wife and RED SONJA herself, Brigitte Nielsen). Their job: rescue the First Daughter and bring Ulrika in alive and get full pardons for their past offenses. Bell fares better here than in the unwatchable RAZE, and the others seem to be enjoying themselves, but MERCENARIES isn't nearly as fun as it should be. Some instances of ridiculous dialogue provide some occasional amusement--Rothrock describing Nielsen as "an Amazonian she-bitch in the backwoods of Shitholistan" and Fox declaring "Hell, I might even fuck George Clooney...with a strap-on!"--and segues between scenes being depicted as comic book panels show that Ray and The Asylum have the right idea, but MERCENARIES needs a better director, a better script, and a bigger budget. The action scenes are mostly competently-staged but unexciting and for every quotable zinger we get, there's ten than clang to the ground ("I don't know who's the bigger bitch...you or her" and Bell replying to "So what's the plan?" with "We go PMS From Hell on this place!"). The title quartet is fine, Rothrock is funny, and Nielsen attacks her role with gusto, so on one hand, being that it's an Asylum joint, MERCENARIES is marginally better than you might expect, but as far as theatrical releases go, they still aren't ready for the big leagues. The cast came ready to party--it's too bad the material didn't match their enthusiasm. (Unrated, 89 mins)

(US - 2014)

James Franco produced and co-stars in this adaptation of his short story collection Palo Alto Stories, a film that marks the writing and directing debut of Gia Coppola, granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola and niece of Sofia Coppola. Gia inspired and helped shape her grandfather's most recent film, the personal  TWIXT (2012), and the pair have always shared a special and tragic bond: Gia's father Gio Coppola was killed in a speedboat accident in 1986, seven months before she was born. There's no doubt Grandfather Francis takes extra pride in seeing Gia represent the next generation in the Coppola legacy.  PALO ALTO isn't a particularly distinguished debut--some good performances carry it through but the storylines have a too-familiar feel to them. We've seen too many films like this before and PALO ALTO has nothing new to say. Nevertheless, it's well-made and it's nice to see the sense of genuine love and support of Coppola family members putting in appearances in support of the first-time director. Franco's book and Coppola's film follow a loosely-connected narrative of teen angst and excess. Adults are difficult to find in this world, and the ones that are around are ineffective and irresponsible. Virginal nice-girl April (Emma Roberts) is on the soccer team and has a crush on affable stoner Teddy (a debuting Jack Kilmer, Val's lookalike son). Teddy constantly falls victim to the bad influence of his obnoxious buddy Fred (Nat Wolff of THE NAKED BROTHERS BAND), who's using April's promiscuous friend Emily (Zoe Levin). April also finds herself drawn to Mr. B (Franco), her soccer coach and a single dad who frequently has her babysit his young son. Not nearly as caustic and abrasive as Larry Clark's 1995 "wake-up call to the world" KIDS, PALO ALTO is cut from the same cloth as hard-R post-KIDS teen dramas like THIRTEEN (2003), HAVOC (2005) and TWELVE (2010), which also co-starred Roberts. It's perfectly watchable but fairly standard-issue and forgettable, though Roberts is good and young Kilmer shows promise. The large cast of familiar faces also includes Val Kilmer as April's stoner stepdad, Chris Messina, Colleen Camp, Marshall Bell, Janet Jones Gretzky, Don Novello, Margaret Qualley (THE LEFTOVERS), Christian Madsen (son of Michael), Ana Bogdanovich (Peter's sister), and Coppola family members Talia Shire, Jacqui Getty (Gia's mom), and the voice of Francis as a judge sentencing Teddy to community service after a DUI hit and run. (R, 100 mins)

(US - 2014)

Meeting a demand that doesn't exist, SWELTER arrives in 2014 looking and feeling a lot like any number of Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez knockoffs that were taking up space on video store shelves in the late 1990s. It's got a quartet of criminals in matching black suits to remind you of RESERVOIR DOGS. It's got a shitkicker bar to remind you of FROM DUSK TILL DAWN. It's got hip pop culture dissertations and references to people like Joey Bishop and Jayne Mansfield to remind you of other possible waiters and waitresses at Jack Rabbit Slim's in PULP FICTION. And it also wears its western influences--Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, in particular--on its sleeve. But writer/director Keith Parmer doesn't come close to emulating the style, pace, and filmmaking skills of Tarantino or an in-his-prime Rodriguez, and despite some potential and one standout supporting performance, SWELTER is a draggy, dreary, and dull endurance test of a thriller. After ten years in prison for a Vegas casino heist they pulled off while wearing Rat Pack masks that look nothing like the members of the Rat Pack, a crew of vengeful criminals have arrived in the "middle of fucking nowhere" Death Valley town of Baker in the midst of a record-shattering heat wave. There's leader Cole (Grant Bowler of the SyFy series DEFIANCE) and his psychotic younger brother Kane (co-producer Daniele Favilli), who are in no way characters influenced by the Gecko brothers in FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, along with hot-tempered Boyd (Josh Henderson) and the calm, reserved Stillman (Jean-Claude Van Damme in some offbeat and ultimately squandered casting). They're in Baker looking for Sheriff Bishop (busy TV actor Lennie James), who suffers from amnesia and can't remember the events that brought him to Baker a decade earlier. It turns out he used to be known as Pike (also, "Pike Bishop" being the name of William Holden's character in THE WILD BUNCH) and was the fifth member of Cole's Rat Pack crew. Bishop/Pike made off with the $10 million but suffered a head injury in the escape and can't remember what he did with the loot. That's not a good enough excuse for Cole, who wants his money and Bishop's girlfriend (MARIA FULL OF GRACE Oscar nominee Catalina Sandino Moreno)--his ex--back.

It's clear that Parmer is a fan of old westerns and running that through a late '90s indie crime thriller filter isn't a bad idea in theory, but nothing in SWELTER works. The pace is extremely slow, the characters are cardboard cutouts, and only a slumming Alfred Molina as the drunk town doc manages to hold your attention, but he's not in it nearly enough. It's nice to see British actor James getting the lead role in a feature, but he's been better-utilized elsewhere. Parmer's biggest blunder is wasting an opportunity to let Van Damme show his range. Van Damme appearing in character actor mode is a significant departure from the norm for him, so I'm utterly bewildered as to why he's saddled with the thankless role of Grant Bowler's sidekick. Bowler's OK in a third-string Sean Bean kind-of way, but not having Van Damme play the chief villain is an absolutely boneheaded decision on everyone's part. Subplots about Bishop's girlfriend's daughter (Freya Tingley) and the town preacher (Arie Verveen) only exist to pad the running time until the final showdown between Bishop and Cole, complete with a background windmill making the same creaking noise as the one in the opening sequence of a ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. The references are nice and Parmer is obviously a movie nerd who knows his shit, but you have to bring more to the table than that. Giving Van Damme a reason to be in the movie other than serving as the most prominently displayed cast member in the DVD cover art would've been a good first step. At one point, Van Damme groans "I'm getting too old for this shit." Indeed you are, sir. (R, 100 mins)

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