On DVD & Blu-Ray: July 22, 2014


The typical appeal of a Johnny Depp film is to see what strange, odd or just downright weird concoction of a character the actor has come up with, but in Transcendence the appeal for me has always been to see what Depp does when asked to play an average joe. He's done it before, this is nothing new, but he doesn't do it often and the fact his role (in a physical sense anyway) seemed limited to a short amount of the overall running time was intriguing. Depp is still within his wheelhouse in terms of the type of person he enjoys playing even if the exterior is much more tame than the route he'd typically take. As Dr. Will Caster, Depp is a man of extreme intelligence and someone not looking to necessarily change the world as he likes to remind people, but instead always be discovering it, attempting to figure it all out. Despite this positioning Depp as the seemingly obvious star of the film, this is a movie that really belongs to Rebecca Hall. Depp is an influential presence and his character dictates the events in which Transcendence documents and even more he creates many of the questions the film intends to pose to the audience, but in terms of taking this as a piece of entertainment and in evaluating the performances of the actors involved this is Hall's film and it is her emotional investment in the plot that makes this as compelling as it can be. The issue here though is that there isn't a clear line of thought in terms of emotional connection to the audience despite one of the major themes of the film being whether or not technology can develop affection, fear, etc. or if the thought of artificial intelligence will remain only that: a database of intelligence and nothing more, nothing trying to imitate the inherent nature of primitive life. Though this is somewhat ironic it is hard to fault the film for trying, for so deeply wanting to be something more, something thought-provoking. That is what I found to appreciate in Transcendence (though many didn't find much at all). Full review here. C

I'm always hesitant to walk into a film that is willing to unabashedly push an obvious message on its viewers; one that is clearly being used to promote a specific or biased opinion, basically propaganda, and unfortunately that has been the case with many a "Christian-themed" films over the past few years. Message movies are a difficult thing to pull off in the first place because they can indeed seem so obvious or come off as overly-hokey or sentimental that, when all rolled into one, are the kinds of movies you typically find on something like the Hallmark channel. When it comes to faith-based films specifically I have a tendency to shy away from them because I've always been of the mind that each person is entitled to believe what they want to believe and though I certainly support learning as much about religious culture and the numerous incarnations of faith that cover our world it has to be of that persons own accord; they have to want it otherwise forcing someone into a situation further than an introduction will always make a future decision to believe, get baptized, pray, put trust in a higher power, etc. to be nothing if not insincere. That probably seems a little harsh, but faith is such a personal thing that I have to believe someone has to come to really believe in a God on their own and not be coaxed into it by others. This isn't an essay about religion and faith though, but a review of the latest in a string of faith-based films that opened in the early months of 2014 to strong reception from an audience that has not necessarily ignored, but never as outright addressed as they have been lately. It is hard to consider myself part of a group because I like to stay open to different ideas and different interpretations from all points of view, but I do believe in God (even if that belief sways toward more metaphorical than literal interpretations when it comes to the Bible and could apply to the concept of heaven as well). I enjoy a good religious debate and interesting conversation about the reaches of space, other life and how it correlates to the existence of a God or creationism vs. evolution. I've been rooting for a film that comes to the forefront of these faith-based pieces of entertainment and doesn't try to push an agenda on an audience, but simply tell them a story from the point of view of honest believers and I think Heaven is for Real is the closest thing we're likely get. Full review here. B-

First and foremost, I really wanted to love Sabotage. Like, I was totally up for it and was ready to have just a ridiculous amount of mind-numbing fun and by all accounts audiences had every right to expect the same thing. Thinking about it in terms of director David Ayer coming off one of his better written films with easily his best directing job to date and stacked with a cast as lumbering and raucous as that of Arnie's Expendables co-horts with names just slightly less major, but even more credible I really imagined this had a shot to turn out to be something quietly major. If not initially attractive at least a slight cultural mainstay that would fester on the minds of cinephiles over the years and become regarded as a well-loved box office flop that found its following long after it left the theaters. There were glimmers of hope on the horizon when the first action-packed trailer premiered. There is an interesting film somewhere in here and as I look through my notes I jotted down while watching the film, I keep coming across pieces where I remember wanting so much for this to become that something better, that kind of retrospective Arnold Schwarzenegger film that did as much to entertain us in the moment while also giving us a look at how a man in his late 60's finds himself slipping in terms of esteem and credibility while having to come to terms with his physical limitations. In a sense, I wanted a large metaphorical action drama that mirrored the life of our star, but instead, Sabotage is as well thought out as the plan at the heart of the plot. It feels quickly shot, rushed through editing with a soundtrack that couldn't sound more generic and a group of supporting actors that almost make this feel like someones first student film. It is hard to take a film seriously when it tries so hard to be exactly that, but by the time the smoke from the opening sequence has dispersed and we begin to get to know the characters involved and are forced to listen to their incessant cussing to the point it actually begins to insult their own intelligence we no longer buy that these people could do these jobs effectively. The curtain is pulled back and we realize what we're actually seeing is a mess of a flick in perfectly positioned B-movie clothing. Full review here. D

When Diego Luna's second directorial effort opened quietly back in April I was quick to associate it with another recent biopic of an important historical figure that floated under the radar last awards season and never picked up the steam to garner the recognition I felt it deserved. I, more than most, truly enjoyed Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and the fully invested performance of Idris Elba that turned the film into a powerful statement showing that while working with a bigger life than a single film could capture that it is still possible to capture the intended scope and impression the subject leaves behind. I knew little of Mandela before seeing the film besides his stint in prison and the same could be said about Cesar Chavez whose name I only associated with his hunger strike that I'd read and learned about so long ago I couldn't tell you who taught it to me. Luna's film, simply titled Cesar Chavez, attempts to do very much the same things as Justin Chadwick's take on the South African President and while the struggles they fight for are both radically different and virtually the same in terms of human rights, the films seem to follow the same rules in how they mean to convey all of the necessary information to create a coherent and compelling narrative within the time span of two hours. This similarity from a standpoint of storytelling makes Chavez's plight no less admirable in the context of the film. Luna is still somewhat of a novice filmmaker though in the sense that his material here, while no doubt a passion of his and a subject he is well educated on, can still be overwhelming which becomes clear as the way in which the movie is set-up and the story told feels all too safe and well-constructed to be about a man who took the necessary risks and was an intelligent strategist. Chavez knew how to outwit his opponents in the games of pride he often found himself playing, but the film does little to integrate this quality into the spirit of the film. There is of course the obvious fact that because the plight of Chavez is interesting and compelling on a basic level the movie will inherently share some of these elements and while it is also clear the film comes from a place of good intentions with true heart behind it that unfortunately can't always make up for the simple lack of insight and freshness that feels sorely lacking in this telling. Full review here. C-

Sometimes, knowing someone and their aptitude for integrating themselves (no matter with good or bad results, as both can be equally entertaining) into society and the world around them is an exhilarating and interesting enough reason to hang out with them, to spend time with them. Despite the fact these tendencies may or may not become annoying or too much to look past when actually having to deal with the repercussions these actions provide they almost always give way to a few good stories to tell your actual set of friends when you sit down to share a drink and a meal with them where that time spent together is about the conversation and not about the presumed antics you'll encounter because of the domineering traits that make each encounter an adventure with the friend of another set. Some will classify this as simply being two different kinds of people: the thinkers and the doers. The thinkers sitting around watching, speculating while the actions of the doers provide content for those conversations. Much of watching film and critiquing or dissecting it makes the world feel like it squarely fits into these categories, but there are no absolutes and every person, no matter their domineering traits or tendencies will always have experiences in both of these types of situations and yet with Dom Hemingway we get as close as we probably ever will to both processing the antics of our titular character as we take them in while also feeling a part of the excursion because of how much was clearly put into the development of the titular character. As far as development goes I mean this not only in the script and the way he was written, but of course and likely more critically in the way he was brought to life by Jude Law. Law, as the boozed out, drug-addled Englishman has seemingly subdued his classic good looks in every possible way to bring as much grit and grime to the presence of Hemingway to the point we don't doubt the man has dirt under his nails that's been there the entire time he kept his mouth shut in prison. It is a shame the actual film can't keep up with the character, because the energy that flows through Law's blood-shot eyes and out of his saliva-slinging mouth is pure electric. Full review here. B-

There is a stillness to Jeremy Saulnier's Blue Ruin that is inescapable and transfixing from its opening shots. There is a sense of calculation, of very precise intention in its tone and color palette that lure you in with their solemnity and then blow your expectations out of the water with its blunt violence. It is a technique that is tough to put ones finger on in terms of how exactly we become so intrigued in a story we know very little about. We meet Dwight (Macon Blair) as he sits bathing in a tub, but stumbles out and through a window when he hears noise from outside. We pick up on clues that are dropped in each moment and we begin to piece together who this man is and how he came to be at this point in his life. His appearance suggests a large amount of mystery and misery. He is brought into the police station by a sweet-natured female officer who informs him of news that likely floods his minds with endless possibilities and scenarios, but all we hear are the words of the officer assuring Dwight that he will be fine. They are words he doesn't hear and that he doesn't intend to try and uphold. From the outset of this vague premise we follow Dwight as he more or less sets out on a revenge-fueled mission that can only end a number of ways, none of which are particularly promising for our protagonist. What I enjoyed about Blue Ruin though is not that it both elicits thought and tension as well as it does pure entertainment (though these aren't bad reasons to enjoy it at all), but that it gains these qualities and moves with its ever-increasing momentum because of the directorial choices being made. Saulnier makes very determined decisions in his shot selection and environments to both imbue his film with a strong sense of style and also tell a rather simple and cliched story in a way that feels fresh. Full review here. B+