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Blu Tuesday: Transcendence, Sabotage and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Transcendence”

WHAT: When anti-technology extremists assassinate Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) – a renowned scientist in the field of artificial intelligence – as part of a series of synchronized attacks, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) uploads his consciousness to a supercomputer. But once Will achieves transcendence, he proves to be far more dangerous than those trying to stop him.

WHY: It’s difficult to pinpoint where “Transcendence” went so horribly wrong, because it’s a colossal mess of a movie that is neither entertaining nor inspires the kind of thought-provoking discussion that it likely intended. Though Jack Paglen’s screenplay topped the 2012 edition of the Black List (an annual survey of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood), whatever made people so excited about it must have been lost in translation. That blames mostly falls on Wally Pfister, who doesn’t seem to have a very good grasp on what to do with Paglen’s sophisticated premise. Pfister may be one of the best cinematographers in the game, but he probably should have chosen something a little less ambitious for his directorial debut, because he bit off more than he could chew with this high-concept techno-thriller, which moves like molasses and isn’t terribly engaging. Maybe he thought that assembling an impressive ensemble cast would be enough to hide the film’s narrative flaws, but the performances are just as poor, especially Johnny Depp, who phones in his performance as the ghost in the machine. “Transcendence” certainly had the makings of an excellent cerebral thriller, but instead, it will only give you a headache thinking about all the wasted potential.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a quartet of mini-featurettes on things like Wally Pfister’s creative process and the potential of artificial intelligence, as well as some viral videos from the film’s marketing campaign.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Sabotage”

WHAT: An elite DEA task force steals $10 million during a drug raid on a cartel safe house, but when they go back to retrieve the hidden money, they discover that it’s missing. As members of the team start to get picked off in brutal fashion, their leader John “Breacher” Wharton (Arnold Schwarzenegger) joins up with a homicide detective to track down the people responsible, with the surviving agents suspecting it could be someone from within their own ranks.

WHY: Arnold Schwarzenegger has been hard at work since his return from retirement, but he’s still yet to make a film that measures up to his more iconic roles. “Sabotage” certainly had the potential to be that movie, but this modern-day twist on Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians” is just another disappointing genre flick. More of a slow-burning crime thriller than the action-packed film the trailers suggested, “Sabotage” represents an interesting change of pace for Schwarzenegger. This is the most subdued that the actor has ever been, but he’s just not as entertaining without his larger-than-life charisma to fall back on, with his co-stars constantly upstaging him. In fact, the movie’s best moments come from the frat-like camaraderie between the task force members, so when they start dropping like flies, so does the enthusiasm earned from the high-octane set piece that opens the film, eventually devolving into a dull whodunit. The route that David Ayer and Skip Woods’ script takes wouldn’t feel so anticlimactic if it weren’t lacking so badly in any sort of tension, because there’s nothing about “Sabotage” that’s even remotely surprising, except perhaps for the fact that a movie with such a cool premise and awesome cast could be this boring.

EXTRAS: There’s a short making-of featurette, a pair of alternate endings and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Dom Hemingway”

WHAT: Dom Hemingway (Jude Law) is an expert safecracker who has just spent the last 12 years serving a prison sentence after refusing to rat out his boss (Demian Bichir). But after a weird chain of events leaves Dom penniless mere hours after he’s gifted a small fortune for his loyalty, he heads back to London in an attempt to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Emilia Clarke), who wants nothing to do with him.

WHY: Jude Law is one of the most underrated actors in the business, and though it’s been awhile since he’s had a part to really sink his teeth into, he may have found the role of a lifetime with Dom Hemingway – a crude and bombastic hothead who sensationalizes everything with such flair that you’d think he was reciting Shakespeare. Unfortunately, while Richard Shepard’s script is packed with some hilariously colorful dialogue, it lacks anything resembling a plot. The film is basically just a series of misadventures designed to showcase its motor-mouthed antihero doing what he does best: behaving badly. But even that starts to get repetitive by the hour mark, at which point not even Law can save the movie from its own aimlessness. Part of the problem is that there’s not much to appreciate beyond the actor’s performance. While Richard E. Grant earns some laughs as Dom’s trusty friend, the rest of the cast is wasted, particularly Emilia Clarke, who doesn’t get a chance to do very much with her character. The whole daughter subplot feels like it’s been tacked on to prevent Dom from coming across like a complete prick, but Shepard shouldn’t need to apologize for what makes the character so entertaining, because without him (and Law in the role), “Dom Hemingway” would be as forgettable as it is flawed.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray includes an audio commentary by director Richard Shepard, some promotional featurettes and the looped footage of topless girls playing ping-pong from the movie.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Blue Ruin”

WHAT: When the man responsible for murdering his parents is released from prison after 20 years, soft-spoken outsider Dwight (Macon Blair) takes it upon himself to seek revenge, setting into motion a series of events that puts his own alienated family in danger.

WHY: There’s something to be said about the quality of films coming out of Hollywood when a tiny indie without any recognizable stars (unless you count Jan from “The Brady Bunch” and Buzz from “Home Alone”) is the best new release this week. Of course, that shouldn’t take anything away from what writer/director Jeremy Saulner has accomplished with “Blue Ruin,” a good old fashioned revenge thriller with a solid lead performance by Macon Blair. The actor may not have very much dialogue, but what he manages to convey with expressions alone is pretty remarkable, allowing the audience draw their own conclusions instead of having everything spoon-fed to them. He’s not your typical hero, especially when so little is known about him and the details surrounding his morally gray vendetta, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone that isn’t rooting for him from the first frame to the last. The film is a really slow burn at only 90 minutes, but it’s an engrossing, sometimes violent look at the lengths we’ll go to in order to protect the ones we love, even if that means destroying yourself in the process.

EXTRAS: In addition to a commentary by writer/director Jeremy Saulnier and star Macon Blair, there’s a making-of featurette, deleted scenes and camera test footage.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Insomnia”

WHAT: A Swedish detective named Jonas Engström (Stellan Skarsgard) travels to a small town in northern Norway to investigate the murder of a teenage girl. But after he makes a mistake while chasing down the lead suspect, Jonas must face his own demons as the 24-hour daylight cycle cause him to become increasingly more sleep deprived.

WHY: Any time a movie gets remade, it’s always ideal to watch the original first, especially one that relies so heavily on its sense of mystery and suspense like Erik Skjoldbjærg’s “Insomnia.” But that’s not always possible, and although knowing the story’s outcome won’t necessarily ruin your enjoyment of the film, it’s hard to imagine not liking it more without having already seen Christopher Nolan’s adaptation all those years ago. Just from watching the 1997 Norwegian version, however, it’s pretty apparent what Nolan saw in the movie that made him want to stage a remake for his Hollywood debut. Both films follow the same basic beats, but each one is superior in its own way. For instance, Stellan Skarsgard makes for a more interesting lead than Al Pacino, and it’s much better paced at 97 minutes, but the rest of the characters aren’t as well developed, particularly when you compare the female detective played by Gisken Armand and Hilary Swank, respectively. It’s very rare for a remake to be so close in quality to the original, but then again, it’s not every day that a filmmaker of Nolan’s ability remakes a film. Both movies are worth seeing, but the 2002 update just barely edges it thanks to the striking cinematography by Wally Pfister.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes a brand new conversation between director Erik Skjoldbjærg and actor Stellan Skarsgard, a pair of Skjoldbjærg’s earlier short films and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Jonathan Romney.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

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