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

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Blair Witch


Don't go into the woods; you'd think they'd have learned that by now.

Don’t go into the woods; you’d think they’d have learned that by now.

(2016) Horror (Lionsgate) James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott, Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry. Directed by Adam Wingard

 

After a sixteen year absence in the franchise, we return to Burkittsville to further explore the secrets of the legendary Blair Witch in this follow-up to the original Blair Witch Project which somewhat tellingly ignores the events of Blair Witch 2: Book of Secrets. The filmmakers were so determined to keep this sequel a secret that they didn’t reveal the title of the film until the San Diego Comic Con, just two months before it was to be released. Like the original, that was genius marketing but would that translate to a good movie?

James Donahue (McCune), the little brother of the Project’s Heather, is in a bit of a tizzy. Some footage discovered in the woods near Burkittsville has yielded an image that might just be his long lost sister. With a trio of friends – Lisa (Hernandez), Peter (Scott) and Ashley (Reid) in tow, he heads out to Maryland to talk to the two bloggers who found the footage – high-strung Lane (Robinson) and super-cool Talia (Curry). The bloggers agree to lead James and his filmmaking crew to the spot where the footage was found.

Of course, immediately they get lost. Their GPS becomes unreliable. Their drone begins to function erratically. The four filmmakers know very little about woodcraft and they bicker with the locals who are only slightly more experienced. Then some strange figures made of sticks start appearing in their camps and as things become more and more twisted, time itself becomes something that can’t be counted on.

As people start disappearing, it becomes clear that something malevolent is at work in the Maryland woods and that the mysterious building that doesn’t show up on Google Earth that appears suddenly out of the rain has something to do with it. But is this the home of the notorious Blair Witch or part of something even more sinister?

All the ingredients were here for something special; a talented up-and-coming horror director, a legendary franchise and a studio eager for a hit to re-launch that franchise. Certainly the way Lionsgate has handled the marketing for the film has been innovative and respectable. They’ve gone the minimal “less is more” path in order to generate interest while giving the project an air of mystery.

Sadly, the movie doesn’t live up to the marketing. There’s a lot of inconsistency regarding the found footage trope; at times that’s what Wingard seems to be going for but then at others we get what is clearly standard filmmaking with all of the characters in camera view. It’s annoying as all get-out as the point of view changes constantly and without warning. There are also plenty of the kind of horror cliches that drive me bonkers about horror movies – namely a bunch of young people in a scary situation doing things rational human beings would never do. Of course, frightened people can do irrational things, but even people who are terrified might not necessarily do the things the kids do here.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t some genuinely creepy moments. Wingard manages to generate an atmosphere that is ripe for some really spooky stuff and we occasionally get them. Kudos also go to the audio crew who generated an awful lot of legitimate scares solely with sound. Sound can be even scarier than sight upon occasion.

The acting is okay, albeit not stirring. The characters however are written mainly as archetypes rather than real people. James comes closest to being relatable but at times he can be a real schmuck. I will say that this could be the ultimate millennial horror – being lost in the woods with failing tech. Horrors!

The movie’s ending also purports to reveal some insight into the nature of the Blair Witch but as it’s meant to generate more questions than answers, it ends up being kind of maddening to say the least. We do at least get to find out why the characters at the end of the original were facing the corner. There is clearly room for a sequel, albeit one with any members of the Donahue family likely to be involved…unless there are cousins waiting to search for Heather and James.

REASONS TO GO: There are some freaky scary moments.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s a bit of a yawner most of the time.
FAMILY VALUES:  The atmosphere is plenty spooky, there is a fair amount of profanity and some of the images are disturbing to say the least.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Filming was done in British Columbia rather than in the original Burkittsville, Maryland location in order to keep it quiet that a sequel to The Blair Witch Project was being filmed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The People Garden
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Snowden

Paris


Paris

Romain Duris contemplates his mortality.

(2008) Romantic Drama (IFC) Juliette Binoche, Romain Duris, Fabrice Luchini, Albert Dupontel, Francois Cluzet, Karin Viard, Melanie Laurent, Gilles Lellouche, Julie Ferrier. Directed by Cedric Klapish

The heartbeat of a city is often inaudible to those who live in it and are caught up in the dull roar of their daily lives. Those who are able to hear it often bestow a love upon their city that nothing can shake.

Director Cedric Klapish is one of the lucky ones who know the rhythms of Paris intimately. Renowned for such films as L’auberge espagnol, Klapish is a master of finding the intricacies of life and breaking them down into simple stories.

Pierre (Duris) is dying. He is a dancer whose heart is giving out. Without a transplant, he will inevitably die. His sister Elise (Binoche) who has just endured a heartrending divorce, moves in with him along with her two children so that she can better care for her brother who grows weak easily.

Mostly he stares down at the city from his apartment balcony, observing the comings and goings in the neighborhood with the immense Rungis open-air food market, or in the many cafes that serve as the living rooms of Paris. And there are so many stories to tell, like the middle aged professor of history (Luchini) who falls deeply for one of his students (Laurent), sending her anonymous text messages worthy of de Bergerac (if Cyrano were alive today, do you think he would text fair Roxanne?) while navigating a difficult relationship with his brother Philippe (Cluzet), who being married with children and with a successful business seems to have much more than the professor does, even though he is hosting a television program on the history of the city.

There’s also a highly opinionated baker (Viand) who against her better judgment hires a West African worker who turns out to be much more than she bargained for. There’s a very civilized divorced couple whose lives are drifting apart, and who, they find, are terrified of the prospect.

If an American director had been given this material to direct, he would have intersected these lives, making sure they all interrelated because that is all the style these days. Klapish ignores the temptation in favor of making their lives parallel. The only time they come close to interacting is during one of the final scenes when one of the characters is being driven down a road in a taxi and passes them all along the way at various points in his route. It is a marvelous scene in which Klapish seems to be commenting about the fragile connections we have.

The cast is marvelous, all of them well-known in France. Binoche is in my mind the epitome of the French woman; smart, sexy and compassionate with a wonderful sense of irony. It is my studied opinion that as French women become older, they become more alluring. That is the opposite of Hollywood’s way of thinking; as American women get older they become disposable and marginalized. She is wonderful here, not one of her greatest performances but definitely a good one.

Duris also lends dignity to the role of the dying dancer. He’s not well-known in the U.S. but he’s a marvelous actor who has worked with Klapish throughout his professional life. He doesn’t reveal a lot going on with Pierre, but neither does he milk the pathos. He just hits all the right notes and gives the character dignity without relying too much on sympathy.

Klapish uses Paris as a backdrop and rather than dwell on the familiar sites, or go to grandiose with the imagery, he prefers to show the human side of Paris, allowing us to see the everyday lives of Parisians with an insider’s eye. There is a beauty to the look of the movie that is much more subtle, like an impressionist portrait in many ways.

Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips compared this to Love, Actually and he’s right on the money, although it’s a subtle comparison – the central theme in that film is love and here it is life, although a true Parisian would argue they are one and the same. Here, one sees the heart of Paris through the eyes of someone who loves the City of Light very much – and instills in those who watch the same feelings.

WHY RENT THIS: The central story is riveting and this slice of Parisian life is worth consuming. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many threads, not all of them absolutely necessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some rough language and sexuality here, and some thematic issues that are a little bit heavy.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Romain Duris’ sister is noted pianist Caroline Duris.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $23.3M on an unreported production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Dear John