At this point in the movie he’s just Han. But we know he’ll acquire the last name sometime soon. In a tight spot in a galaxy far, far away, Han glances at a billboard-sized recruitment video for the Empire, a laughably macho commercial for future pilots. Beneath the come-on, we can hear the unmistakable swagger of John Williams’ Darth Vader music—a great winking touch. The Few, the Proud, the Dark Side.
As you would expect, there are many in-jokes in Solo: A Star Wars Story, and this is one of the best.
Transcendence(Warner, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, Cable VOD) marks the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, Oscar-winning cinematographer to Christopher Nolan. His visual intelligence, however, doesn’t transcend the dead weight passing as a script in this confused science fiction thriller starring Johnny Depp as a computer science genius whose mind is uploaded to an experimental computer program with the potential capabilities of artificial intelligence. Sure enough, once the program loads, the intelligence is off and running through the interwebs, escaping the lab and making a fortune in the markets, enough to fund a secret site in the middle of the desert where… well, this is, after all, a film that opens with the end of the world as we know it, a technology dead zone where the human race becomes squatters in the husks of desolate cities, and flashes back to the events that brought us to this point.
Rebecca Hall stars as Depp’s nearly-as-brilliant but more socially-adept wife who embraces the cyber-Depp, whose voice seeps out of every corner of the wired world and whose digitized face emerges from screen, as if Depp 2.0 is still her husband but in digital form, not really taking over the world, just trying to fix it up to make her dreams of a better world come true. If that’s the case, you gotta give the guy points for going the distance to impress a girl. But the film itself isn’t so much ambiguous on the AI’s real’s identity and motivation as simply sloppy and lazy, straddling flat cliché and unconvincing sentiment without making either convincing. This virtual being of seeming unlimited power, which can sends bazillions of nanobots into the atmosphere and pull the strings on dozens of enhanced human soldiers in a guerrilla war, is faced with a dilemma that confirms that the screenwriter ran out of ideas early on in the screenwriting process. Pfister provides some really arresting imagery as the revolution is fought with nanobots and human drones and technology so advanced that it looks like magic to us, yet fails to make any of it interesting, let alone compelling. Even a solid cast – Paul Bettany as the best friend and nominal point-of-view figure, Kate Mara as the possibly mad anti-technology terrorist, Morgan Freeman as the Morgan Freeman character – can’t make us care what happens to anyone here. Suddenly, the idea of just shutting it all down and starting all over again doesn’t sound so bad.
Blu-ray and DVD, with the featurettes “What is Transcendence?” and “Wally Pfister: A Singular Vision.” The Blu-ray Combo Pack adds two addition featurettes (“Guarding the Threat” and “The Promise of A.I.”) and three viral videos, and includes bonus DVD and UltraViolet digital copies. Also available on Digital and VOD.
Sabotage (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, Cable VOD) is strange creature, a violent cop thriller from David Ayer that combines the gritty urban sensibility and revenge-movie doom of Ayer’s excellent End of Watch with a high-concept corruption plot and a clumsy star-vehicle lead by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is tasked with playing a papa bear leader to a team of adrenaline-junkie specialists in a DEA tactical unit with military skills and firepower. Their discipline ends when the mission is over, which makes them dangerous and unpredictable. And not particularly likable either, though Mireille Enos is awfully fun to watch as the team’s sole female warrior and most out-of-control element. The rest of the team members are less memorable despite the casting of such genre veterans as Sam Worthington, Joe Manganiello, Josh Holloway, Terrence Howard and Max Martini, and they are certainly less memorable as characters than murder victims.
The film opens with them making off with a drug lord’s fortune during an official police raid and soon afterwards the money disappears and the team members get hunted down and murdered in splattery fashion. This isn’t the spectacular, oversized kind of violence of “Red,” where everything is just a little tongue-in-cheek or at least comic-book unreal. This is all about the meat left behind a death-by-train, the spatter of a bullet wound, and the spewing exit viscera of a head shot, all of it photographed in dripping detail. It all gets pretty numbing, just like Schwarzenegger’s one-dimensional performance. And that love scene with Olivia Williams? I hope she got hazard pay for it.
Blu-ray and DVD with a short, promotional-style “Making Sabotage” featurette, deleted scenes, and two alternate endings. The Blu-ray also includes bonus DVD and UltraViolet digital copies. Also available on Digital and VOD.
Inside Transcendence is a 1950s B-movie, desperately trying to get out. A tale of a scientist poisoned by radiation, his brilliant mind passed on to survive after his death? That could easily be the plot of an atomic-era cheapie.
This movie, however, is distinctly of the 21st century. And expensive. The scientist is Will Caster (Johnny Depp), and he’s been working on a way to upload the human brain into a computer system. With the help of his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and friend (Paul Bettany), both scientists themselves, he achieves this goal. Because of the terminal illness, the experiment turns to Caster’s own brain.
The film makes a stab at big subjects: There’s a “neo-Luddite” group running around trying to stop technology, and a giant complex out in the desert for the machines needed to handle cyber-Caster’s new artificial intelligence. Can this entity become a new god on the Earth, capable of healing the sick and joining together all life at the cellular level? And can it do anything about the cable-TV monopolies?
Alas, these questions are less enthralling than they might sound.
Margin Call (Lionsgate) accomplishes something that Oliver Stone failed to show in his “Wall Street” sequel: it explains how and why the market crash happened, not just in terms of economics but in the culture of Wall Street and the justifications that individuals tell themselves in order to follow the company line.
Written and directed by J.C. Chandor, whose fictional portrait echoes the real-life activities of Leman Brothers in 2008, “Margin Call” is not played for tension, tragedy or melodrama. This is not “Glengarry Glen Ross,” with venal salesman and savage banter. Chandor is more interested in the banality of greed and opportunism and the ease in which principled employees are swayed to engage in unprincipled acts. If they don’t do it, someone else will.
The film has been criticized as an apology for the people behind the market crash, but I don’t see Chandor’s sympathy for the various individuals on display — notably Kevin Spacey as a career company man disgusted by the corporate behavior — as any kind of apology. I see it more as a social study, a kind of fictional ethnographic profile of the corporate culture, with characters more suggested than fully fleshed out. It’s to the credit of the actors, from Spacey and Zachary Quinto (as the young risk management officer who finally figures out the Achilles heel of their highly-leveraged position) to Paul Bettany, Simon Baker, Demi Moore and Stanley Tucci as the corporate professionals who put the company — and, ultimately, the entire American financial system — on the precipice.
Chandor underplays the human drama and the anonymity of the Wall Street office building so much it risks slipping into doldrums, but the stakes are too great and the actors too sharp to let that happen. Along the way, Chandor shows us not just how it happened, but why it’s destined to repeat itself. Quietly, without editorializing, he reveals an increasingly familiar pattern: the people who had nothing to do with the crisis, and even those who predicted it and were ignored, are fired after it comes crashing down, while the folks who let it happen are kept on to see how they can turn this crisis into profit.
The DVD and Blu-ray both feature commentary by writer/director J. C. Chandor and producer Neal Dodson, two deleted scenes with optional commentary and the brief featurettes “Revolving Door: Making Margin Call” and “Missed Calls: Moments With Cast and Crew.” Also on Digital Download and On Demand.