The Keeping Room has large things to say about war, and how war fosters rape and dehumanization. This timely message is wielded in a blunt-force manner—so blunt that the idea becomes unintentionally sensationalized. We are in the South in 1865, as General Sherman scorches the surviving landscapes of the Civil War. Two sisters, Augusta (Brit Marling) and Louise (Hailee Steinfeld, from True Grit), remain at an isolated farmhouse—not a plantation, but not a shack, either—along with a woman they formerly treated as property, Mad (Muna Otaru). Like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, they wear their now-shabby dresses and till the soil. The crux of the movie is what happens when two moonshine-swilling Union soldiers (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller) arrive, with rape and murder on their animalistic minds.
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.
If movies indeed tap into the zeitgeist, Terminator Salvation, director McG’s grim reboot of the 25-year-old man vs. machine franchise, speaks to a demographic in awfully low spirits. Will this relentless, episodic slog through post-apocalyptic drear, punched up by paroxysms of extreme violence, deliver at the box office and resurrect the Terminator series (sequels are already in the works)?
Set in 2018, after nuclear Judgment Day, Salvation‘s ruined world has been leached of all color and signs of life. The days are steeped in sickly beige-brown, the noirish nights drenched in rain. Hunted down by machines of assorted shapes and sizes, the few remaining humans, always starkly lighted, resemble gaunted concentration-camp survivors stripped of any expression but a reflexive hunger to stay alive. (“We’re in the cattle car now,” despairs a fellow picked by an Ã¼ber-machina transporter.)
Lock-jawed Christian Bale plays grizzled resistance messiah John Connor as if programmed to project nothing but single-minded rage laced with unstoppable courage. Happily, Connor’s unlikely brother-in-arms (Aussie newcomer Sam Worthington, soon to star in James Cameron’s Avatar), a convicted killer reformatted by Cyberdyne, occasionally permits himself a welcome break from the stoic mode. On screen more and longer than Bale, permitted to act human once in a while, Worthington, like homeboy Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, steals the film away from Bale. Call it minimalist charisma.
So here’s the rub: if you’re making a film about a cosmic struggle between men and machines for dominion of the earth, the question of what makes human beings valuable, special, worth saving, is crucial. In Salvation, there’s no punch–no flesh and blood–to that question. ClichÃ©s like “We bury our dead” are trotted out, but Salvation never jacks us into the psyches of the non-machines we should be rooting for. The film’s emotional oxygen is so thin that the protagonists don’t seem wholly there; they’re “types” cloned from the headier worlds of Cameron’s two Terminators, Mad Max, the Aliens franchise, Battlestar Galactica, and even TV’s The Sarah Connor Chronicles.