Scorched Earth


Unlike Jesse Ventura, Gina Carano has time to bleed.

(2018) Sci-Fi Action (Cinedigm) Gina Carano, John Hannah, Ryan Robbins, Stephanie Bennett, Dean S. Jagger, Patrick Gilmore, Luvia Petersen, Patrick Sabongui, Nathan Mitchell, Alisha Newton, Daniel Bacon, Sarah Troyer, Bart Anderson, Kailey Spear. Directed by Peter Howitt

 

I’m all for B-movies, so long as they’re reasonably entertaining and have at least a scrap of originality or at least some imagination to them. Scorched Earth, a post-apocalyptic ecological action western (that’s a mouthful) probably doesn’t qualify for either and if it does only barely but I found myself giving it a fairly mixed review.

Bounty hunter Attica Gage (Carano) wanders the wasteland following a global ecological disaster (take that, climate change deniers!) after an event known as Cloudfall permanently polluted the planet with toxic chemicals leading a need for re-breathing devices that use powdered silver to work properly and tiny chemical pellets that purify the polluted water. In her era it’s a capital crime to drive a fossil fuel-burning vehicle and she collects bounties on offenders of that law, for instance Chavo (Petersen) who wears a cowboy hat with a couple of aces in the hatband. That’s what passes for eccentricity among the mass murdering set in the future.

Gage is one of those bounty hunters who always gets her man (in that case, woman) but she has a run-in with the sheriff of New Montana (population 24) whose sheriff (Gilmore) has misplaced her bounty until Gage “finds” it for him. Her only friend is Doc (Hannah), the town medic and a former bounty hunter himself until a knee injury did his bounty hunting days in. He tells her of the biggest bounty ever offered for Thomas Jackson (Robbins), the mayor of the town of Defiance – wait, wasn’t that the name of the town in a SyFy post-apocalyptic Western? – and warns her she won’t be able to collect it by herself as Jackson has a crew of ruthless killers. Of course she sets out on her own after him, confident she can impersonate Chavo by wearing her hat. Of course nobody really sees anybody’s face that often due to the re-breathers which are taken off regularly.

Anywho, it turns out that Gage has a personal connection to Jackson as well as his bar chanteuse and occasional plaything Melena (Bennett) who bears a passing resemblance to Gage’s dead sister Beatrice (Newton) who was kidnapped by Jackson years earlier. Jackson and his flunky Lear (Jagger) have plans to work an abandoned silver mine near Defiance but needs manpower to do it; what better way to get manpower than to kidnap slave labor from surrounding towns and caravans passing through? You know all this is going to lead to a reckoning between Gage and Jackson and let the best man – or woman – win.

It’s hard to believe that Howitt also directed the superb Sliding Doors but he did; this is definitely not his finest hour. The script is loaded with elements borrowed from other films and has little originality in that regard. That would be okay if the elements were handled in an original way but they’re not. You’ve seen this movie before kids, even if you haven’t seen it yet.

Carano was at one time thought to be a rising star in the action field in Haywire never really fulfilled the promise she displayed in that movie (which was not as good a movie as most people at the time thought) despite a couple of high-profile roles. Direct to home video seems the next step for her; I can’t imagine that this film will get her decent roles in future films. It’s not that she’s bad, she just has cringe-inducing dialogue to recite and most of her hand-to-hand combat is done with guns which is a failure to utilize her skills properly. At one point she tells Melena “Head to New Montana; it’s a better way of life” which sounds more like a slogan the Montana tourism board might utilize than something an actual human being might say.

For some reason Howitt has chosen to stop everything dead in its tracks by having Melena sing the blues in his saloon every so often. The music isn’t really all that scintillating and the tone is jarring enough that it takes the viewer out of the film. Worse still, the singer – who is obviously not Bennett – doesn’t lip-synch very well to the actress, or vice versa.

 However, Howitt does handle the action sequences with aplomb and they flow nicely. Also the deadly cloud effects with plenty of CGI swirlies and lightning are pretty cool in and of themselves. Those however don’t a great movie make and quite frankly watching Gage get up and walk away after being thrown over a cliff in a coffin that’s been nailed shut is the kind of taking-leave-of-their-senses logic that the screenwriters display all too often in this mildly entertaining but ultimately not really worth seeing film.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are handled pretty nicely. The cloud and storm effects are also pretty nifty.
REASONS TO STAY: The musical interludes are jarring and disruptive. This film has a definite case of the indestructible heroes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, adult themes and profanity herein
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gage was initially written as a male character with Sean Bean being considered for the lead; when that fell through, the part was re-written for a female character and Carano was eventually cast for the role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/2/18: 13% positive reviews: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Book of Eli
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Above & Beyond Acoustic: Giving Up the Day Job

Empire of Silver (Baiyin diguo)


Clear-eyed man looking ahead, supportive but clingy woman - stereotypes anyone?

Clear-eyed man looking ahead, supportive but clingy woman – stereotypes anyone?

(2009) Drama (NeoClassic) Aaron Kwok, Tie Lin Zhang, Hao Lei, Jennifer Tilly, Lan Tian Chang, Zhi Cheng Ding, Jonathan Kos-Read, Zhen Yu Lei, Zhong Lu, John Paisley, Shih Chieh King, Niu Tien, Deshun Wang. Directed by Christina Yao

Offshoring

 

Money is a great corrupter. As China entered the 20th century and looked to enter the world as well after centuries of isolationism, the Shangxi province became a financial center since there was no central currency at the time. Merchants in Shangxi and banks, hoarding silver, became the economic power in China.

Third Master (Kwok) has distanced himself from his family. His father (Zhang) is aging and wants to hand off his banking empire to one of his sons, but his two other sons are clearly unsuitable. Third Master is the brightest and most promising of the lot, but he has had a huge rift with his father since dear old dad married the love of his life – that is the love of Third Master’s life.

He still has feelings for Madame Kang (Lei) which she secretly returns. She has developed a close friendship – a kind of sisterhood in fact – with Mrs. Landdeck (Tilly), the wife of the pastor (Kos-Read) who has a similarly troubled marriage.

As Third Master prepares to take the reins of his father’s bank, he has to fight off the wolves of China’s Wall Street as well as actual wolves. If China is ever to become a world power, it must first enter the world century and the feudalistic culture both politically and economically isn’t disposed towards the radical changes necessary. Something has to give.

Yao is a first-time director who has a visionary eye. She also has a sprawling, epic story to tell and while there are elements of Wall Street as well as Hero in it, there are times that I get the sense that she isn’t sure exactly what kind of film she intends to make. My best guess is that she’s trying to do something unique which is bloody ambitious for a first time out.

Kwok, not terribly well-known in the US although he’s a big pop star and actor in China, is a compelling lead. Brooding and grave at times, you get the sense of Third Master’s inner conflict even if you don’t understand the language. There’s some impressive acting and screen presence going on here.

Considering the world’s economic problems and China’s own position in the world these days, this is one of those rare occasions where a period piece is timely viewing. I can forgive the script’s occasional forays into confusion particularly since the images we’re shown are so compelling. If a picture is worth a thousand words, these pictures are worth millions.

WHY RENT THIS: Kwok is a terrific lead. Explores a lot of different elements. Gorgeous cinematography.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Meanders a bit plot-wise. May be trying to do too much.

FAMILY VALUES: Some violence, brief nudity and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Based on the historical novel Valley of Silver by Cheng Yi, who is himself descended from actual Shangxi merchants as seen in the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $19,036 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: House of Flying Daggers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring 2014 continues!

The Lone Ranger (2013)


Armie Hammer isn't quite sure how to tell Johnny Depp he has a dead bird on his head.

Armie Hammer isn’t quite sure how to tell Johnny Depp he has a dead bird on his head.

(2013) Western (Disney) Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner, Helena Bonham Carter, Ruth Wilson, Barry Pepper, James Badge Dale, Bryant Prince, Leon Rippy, Stephen Root, Rance Howard, JD Cullum, Saginaw Grant, Mason Elston Cook, Harry Treadaway, James Frain, Joaquin Cosio, Damon Herriman, Freda Foh Shen. Directed by Gore Verbinski

John Reid, the Lone Ranger, has been an iconic American character in nearly every medium that a character can come to life in, be it comic strips, radio, television or the movies. However as Westerns fell out of favor, so too did the masked Texas Ranger who rode his white horse Silver like the wind, accompanied by his faithful Native American sidekick Tonto.

Now Jerry Bruckheimer, Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp who together made the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise the most profitable in Disney history (at least until another couple of Marvel movies and the next Star Wars trilogy fatten their coffers) are back with a reboot of the great American hero. Is the 21st century ready for him?

Reid (Hammer) is an Eastern-educated lawyer returning home to his native Colby, Texas as the county’s new Assistant District Attorney. There he will meet his brother Dan (Dale), a well-respected Texas Ranger who has always overshadowed young John. Dan even got the girl that John wanted, Rebecca (Wilson).

However also on the train west is notorious outlaw Butch Cavendish (Fichtner) who eats human flesh and has a pretty sadistic streak in him – and is on his way to a hanging (his own) – and a Comanche known as Tonto (Depp) who has a dead crow on his head and perhaps a few loose neurons rattling around between his ears. Of course, you just know that Cavendish is going to be broken out of jail or in this case, train. You also know that Reid and Tonto are going to be at odds and not think too terribly high of each other.

Faster than you can say plot complication, John joins his brother Dan on a posse to collect Cavendish so he can be properly hung Texas-style (methinks Rick Perry might be a descendant) and faster than you can say “I saw that coming” the Rangers are massacred by the outlaws and Butch chows down on Dan. John is left for dead.

Tonto wanders upon the scene and buries the dead, including John who, it turns out, isn’t quite dead yet. Tonto identifies him as a spirit walker, one who has come back from the Other Side…and a white spirit horse that John eventually names Silver agrees with him. Silver is probably the smartest character in the movie, possibly in ANY movie. Okay, I made that last part up.

Anyway John has his mad on and he wants to get his hands on Cavendish in the worst way and as it turns out, Tonto has plenty of reason to want to stomp a mudhole in Cavendish as well. However as it turns out Cavendish is working for someone, someone quite powerful who has interest in the Transcontinental Railroad making its way to Utah to be completed. Someone who will change the course of the United States in his greed and lust for power.

This is definitely a much more modern retelling of the tale of the Lone Ranger. While there are elements that tie this film to the illustrious past of the character – the soul-stirring swell of the ”William Tell Overture,” Tonto’s laconic nickname for his partner kemosabe and the silver bullet, this isn’t retro in the least. One element I really like about it is that the story is told by Tonto to a young boy in San Francisco in 1933, some 60 years after the events took place (which if Tonto is Depp’s age in the movie in 1868 makes him a centenarian). This makes it clear from the get-go that this really isn’t John Reid’s story as much as it is Tonto’s and I like the change of viewpoint very much.

The Natives aren’t treated like cannon fodder as they were in most Westerns of the era but are given a surprising amount of respect and deference, although Depp’s Tonto can be Looney Tunes from time to time. That’s a nice touch.

Depp is of course the star and like Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies takes center stage not because of his bravery or heroism but more because of his quirkiness, albeit a different kind of quirky. Think of it as the difference between using peyote and getting rip-roaring drunk on grog. But even the best quirkiness can get a little grating after awhile.

Hammer is an able heroic sort in a gee-whiz kind of way and while on the surface seems well-suited for this sort of role, I don’t think that at the end of the day he’s memorable enough in it. Don’t get me wrong – he does as good a job as you can ask for but his character is made to be an imbecile at times and Hammer is much too intelligent a guy to believe as an idiot for even a second.

There are some fine supporting turns by Carter as a one-legged prostitute and Wilkinson as a railroad baron but they are largely wasted in a movie that is too long in a big way. So much of the middle third is unnecessary and slow that by the time the movie’s climactic scenes roll around you might be checking your watch which is a shame because the action sequences that begin and end the film are spectacular indeed and are worth the price of admission alone.

There are a lot of good ideas in this movie and also a few bad ones. Trimming the movie down to a more manageable two hours might have been more advisable but for whatever reason there is a trend this summer for longer running time which might well thrill consumers who are getting more bang for their buck but has to disappoint exhibitors who have fewer screenings to bring customers into their theaters.

REASONS TO GO: Even Depp’s missteps are entertaining. Some pretty nifty action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. A little silly in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are plenty of Western action sequences, some of them intense and some suggestive material.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first version in any medium that the actor playing Tonto gets top billing over the actor playing the Ranger.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100; it’s pretty obvious the critics hated it.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rango

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Divide

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter


Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Axe not what your country can do for you…

(2012) Horror Action (20th Century Fox) Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, Jimmi Simpson, Robin McLeavy, Alan Tudyk, Marton Csokas, Joseph Mawle, Erin Wasson, John Rothman, Cameron M. Brown, Frank Brennan, Jaqueline Fleming. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov

 

Our nation’s 16th president is widely beloved, considered our most courageous and visionary president and for good reason. He led our nation through its darkest hour, freed the slaves and in general kept the nation together even as it was coming apart. He also rid the country of vampires. Yeah, that was him.

Of course, you might not be familiar with that last part but don’t worry. This isn’t a history lesson. It’s rip-roaring bloodsucking entertainment from the man who directed Night Shift and the man who wrote the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Abraham Lincoln (Walker) watches as his mother (McLeavy) is murdered by Jack Barts (Csokas), whom Abe’s father (Mawle) crossed when he protected his impetuous son from stopping Barts from whipping an African-American boy. Young Abraham wants revenge but his more level-headed dad makes him swear not to do anything foolish which Honest Abe does…until his father passes away.

Going to a bar to gather some liquid courage, Abe runs into Henry Sturgess (Cooper). Eventually, Abe discovers that Barts is a vampire and his guns are ineffective against him. Lincoln is saved by the intervention of Henry, but not before permanently scarring Barts by leaving the ball of his pistol in his eye.

Sturgess heals Abe’s wounds and tells him that the vampires have mostly been hiding out in the South as plantation owners, using the slaves as a food supply. Abe, studying for the law, is also trained by Henry in the fine (or not-so-fine) art of vampire hunting – and not a Scooby in sight (obligatory Buffy reference considering the subject matter). Having had a bad experience with guns, Abe prefers the silver-coated axe as his weapon of choice.

Sturgess sends the newly martial arts-trained Abe to Springfield to practice law. There he meets shopkeeper Joshua Speed (Simpson), who hires the young man and allows him to stay in a room above the store. The two become fast friends but coming back into Abe’s life is Will Johnson (Mackie), the young boy Abe saved from whipping years ago. Also in his life; Mary Todd (Winstead), the fiancée of rising political star Stephen Douglas (Tudyk).

By night, Abe kills local vampires and chafes for the chance to get his hands on Barts. Finally, when Sturgess finds out that Abe has been making friends and fallen in love, he warns him that he’s making a horrible mistake – these people will be endangered by the things Abe does at night. And that’s just what happens. Once Abe finally gets his hands on Jack Barts, people – okay, vampires – take notice. In particular, Adam (Sewell) who is the leader of the vampires here in the States, a creature who has lived since the days of the pharaohs and who is eager to establish a nation of his own for his kind – the Confederate States of America, for one.

He and his sister/enforcer Vadoma (Wasson) hatch a plan to bring Lincoln to them, kidnapping Will and bringing him to their New Orleans plantation. Abe and Speed rescue him by the skin of their teeth, but Abe determines to fight Adam in a less direct way – through politics. Abe’s determination and vision leads him to the White House.

However, Adam has been busy as well, allying with Jefferson Davis (Rothman) to supply vampiric troops to overcome the numeric superiority of the North as well as their armament. With unkillable soldiers, Adam and the Southern generals decide to put an end to the war by invading, leading to a place called Gettysburg. Realizing that the only hope of defeating the army of the undead is to arm his own troops with silver ordinance, Abe, Will and Joshua set out on a desperate train ride from Washington to Pennsylvania. The entire nation’s future hangs in the balance but Adam knows he’s coming.

This is an idea that does tend to stretch one’s tolerance for fantasy. That it has been largely unsuccessful at the box office speaks more about the imagination of the moviegoing public than that of the specific filmmakers here. The movie is certainly filmed in dark tones with bright moonlight. There is certainly a gothic feel to the film but with more of an action sensibility than, say, Dark Shadows.

The special effects are okay, though not ground-breaking in most senses. However, there are a couple of scenes which are done rather badly – the scene where Lincoln chases Barts through stampeding horses – where the horses look like something out of a computer game, complete with a dun-colored sky. It looks fake and pulls the audience right out of the reality of the film.

I have no problems with fudging with history to suit the needs of the story, although here some of it was, I thought, unnecessary. Making Will Johnson a lifelong friend instead of someone he met in Springfield (which is, as I understand it, what actually happened) or having Joshua Speed as part of Lincoln’s inner circle in Washington (in reality he declined to leave Springfield and sent his brother James whom Lincoln liked less in his stead) doesn’t really make the story any easier – it’s just simpler to write it that way.

Mackie is a fine actor who brings some gravitas to the role of Johnson. Simpson as well, who is channeling Christian Slater to my mind, gives Joshua Speed a fairly ambiguous role which aids the story nicely in the last reel. Winstead is an underrated actress who has done admirably well in a bunch of movies that haven’t been as good as her performances. It’s no different here; hopefully she’ll be cast in a movie that’s worthy of her talents soon.

The main problem here is Walker. He might be a fine, capable actor but this is a part that is almost impossible to pull off to begin with – Abe Lincoln as an action hero? Doing Matrix-like moves while wielding an axe like something out of a Tsui Hark movie? Uhhhhh…it’s kind of entertaining, I have to admit, while you’re watching it. Thinking about it now, reading it on paper…sounds kind of dumb. The other issue is that Walker has moments where he really carries the essence of the Great Emancipator. At others though, he seems to be floundering, not quite sure how to capture Lincoln’s natural self-effacing demeanor and homespun humor.

This is entertainment, pure and simple. There is no moral message, and if you take this as a history lesson you’re clearly insane. This is meant to keep you on the edge of your seat for a couple of hours. Nothing more, nothing less. The movie isn’t always successful at it but it succeeds more than it fails. If you’re willing to give the concept a shot and throw logic and history out the door for two hours while you’re in the air-conditioned cinema, then you might actually be surprised at how good this is.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of action and some nifty effects. Mackie, Cooper and Winstead are all solid.
REASONS TO STAY: Walker’s performance is a bit inconsistent. Too many liberties with history and facts. Some of the CGI is surprisingly poor.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of violence as well as a hint of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The man in the film’s final scene who is approached in a similar manner as Abe was recruited was played by book and screenplay author Seth Grahame-Smith.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100. The reviews were mostly bad.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Near Dark
GETTYSBURG ADDRESS LOVERS: Walker recites the speech here in a re-creation of the address.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The American Experience series begins