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The Shelf: TRANSCENDENCE, GINGER SNAPS, BLUE RUIN

This week, we have a couple of movies that didn’t make a big splash at the box office, some classics getting the Blu-ray upgrade, and some newer movies you absolutely need to check out. It’s the Shelf, yo; everything’s legal here.

Transcendence

The directorial debut from powerhouse cinematographer Wally Pfister, Transcendence, played to the thoughtful science fiction tone that he took when working with Christopher Nolan, with a screenplay by Jack Paglen that had appeared on the Hollywood Black List. The film stars Johnny Depp as a genius scientist working on a sentient computer system (always a good idea) who is shot by an extremist anti-technology group with an irradiated bullet, giving him cancer that spreads rabidly. His wife, played by Rebecca Hall, tries to save his consciousness into a massive quantum computer but his best friend, played by Paul Bettany, questions the morality of this decision. Eventually, the computer does indeed become sentient and has Depp’s mind, but does that mean it has him?

The movie didn’t make much of a splash with critics nor audiences, but Nerdist’s Witney Seibold called it “full of enough intriguing ideas about the future and humanity’s relationship with technology to overlook some of the film’s tonal and narrative hiccups.” Read Witney’s full review of Transcendence here.

Ginger Snaps
Werewolf movies tend not to be particularly great on the whole. Once you get past things like An American Werewolf in London, parts of The Howling, and later outings like Dog Soldiers, the quality tends to go way down hill. One entry that is right up at the top of the list of good ones, though, is a low budget darkly comedic teen horror film from Canada which didn’t make much of splash in anybody’s box office but which became a staple of HBO in the year 2000. Now approaching its 15th anniversary, John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps is getting a fancy Blu-ray edition from Scream Factory.

Following sisters Brigitte (Emily Perkins) and Ginger (Katharine Isabelle), two outcast, death-obsessed teenagers in the suburbs, the movie becomes an allegory for late-blooming sexuality and the changing of a young girl’s body into adulthood when Ginger is attacked by a lycanthrope and begins sprouting weird hair and growing a tail. As much about being an awkward teenager as about werewolfism, the movie is nevertheless full of bloody gore and pitch-black comedy which any horror fan will enjoy, especially those of the Scream generation.

The Blu-ray has an hour long retrospective, a roundtable discussion about the connection of puberty and horror films, and quite a lot more. To read my full review of the Ginger Snaps Blu-ray, click this link.

Blue Ruin
The revenge movie has been a staple of American cinema for decades. Many of these choose to address the topic of cold blooded vengeance in a way as to glorify and badassify the perpetrator of this action, in a Charles Bronson-y figure of capital might. However, on occasion, this is explored as the intense, violent, and largely outdated pursuit it is. Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin lands firmly in the second category, choosing to look at revenge as a compulsion and a truly last resort effort more than any kind of righteous hand of retribution. Even when its character is justified (which is kind of throughout), it’s never given as the best option.

The film follows Dwight (Macon Blair), a Virginia man who at the beginning of the film is seen living in his rundown Oldsmobile in the middle of a field. He’s hairy and bearded and breaks into people’s homes to bathe and finds food in carnival trashcans and the like. This changes when he is brought into the police station and informed that the man who is in prison for killing his parents many years ago is getting released. We quickly find out that the man’s family is a notoriously violent and criminal one. Dwight then embarks on a quest to murder this newly freed man, balancing the books as it were, but once he gets to the point of no return, he makes a critical mistake and has to reconnect with his estranged sister and her two young children to keep them safe.

Blue Ruin shows us a very cold and methodical man who has made a decision and is sticking to it even if that decision isn’t the smartest or most prudent. It’s a movie where there’s no fist pump or one-liner involved in the violence; it’s merely a thing this man has to do. He HAS to. It’s something he’s wanted for many years and there isn’t a question of his heart not being in it or his life possibly being taken away.

This is one of the tensest and most gripping portraits of a man pushed to the brink I’ve seen in a long while and I definitely recommend checking this movie out as soon as possible. It’s wonderful; more American movies need to be made like this.

Sabotage
From Witney Seibold’s review: [Director David] Ayer has now returned with Sabotage, the latest Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, which is – naturally – another violent, action-packed drama about corrupt cops. In terms of production values, star power, and down-to-earth professionalism, this is a step up for Ayer; Sabotage feels less filthy and haphazard that his earlier films. Sadly, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily coherent. Sabotage is a mess of untied plot threads, random acts of violence, and ineffable character motivations. Trying to suss out the plans of the (eventually revealed) bad guy(s) is a near-impossible task, and the final scenes reveal certain things about Schwarzenegger’s character that only kind of make sense in the context of the movie.

To read Witney’s full review, click on this link.

Witness for the Prosecution
Billy Wilder’s 1957 adaptation of an Agatha Christie play is one of his more thrilling films. A courtroom drama set around an old, curmudgeonly barrister (Charles Laughton) who is hired to defend a man (Tyrone Power) accused of murdering an elderly acquaintance for seemingly no reason. Lots of secrets come to the surface during the testimony of various people from the man’s life, including his mysterious German wife (Marlene Dietrich). The movie plays much the way a Matlock or Perry Mason episode might, but with Wilder’s added wit, charm, and attention to detail. Laughton gives a fantastic performance and though he’s third billed in the cast, the movie is his the second he takes the screen.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
Wilder’s 1970 film is an affectionate, if slightly irreverent take on the famous characters who reside at 221b Baker Street. Robert Stephens plays Holmes and Colin Blakely plays Watson and the movie, also written by Wilder and one of his longtime collaborators I.A.L. Diamond, attempts to separate the “real” figure of Sherlock Holmes from the one in Watson’s popular stories. The film was initially much longer but two whole storylines were removed before release. The best part of this movie, other than the sparky dialogue, is that Christopher Lee plays Mycroft Holmes. If you’re a Sherlock devotee, this will be a very different look at the characters, but it’s good fun if you’re into revisionism.

Sabata
One of my very favorite non-Leone, non-Corbucci spaghetti westerns, simply because of the sheer off-the-wallishness of it. The narrow-eyed Lee Van Cleef plays the titular marksman and gambler who comes to a town in Texas to foil a bank robbery and learns that the heist was planned by the leaders of the town, who all want to sell the town to the railroad at the expense of all the peaceful people living there. Sabata decides he wants to blackmail them and the top man in town, Stengal, hires a number of mercenaries and bounty hunters to kill Sabata, including the thoughtful outlaw Banjo (William Berger), named that because he has a rifle hidden inside his precious banjo. Sabata uses a number of different specialty weapons and keeps the company of a stoic Native American who can literally leap on top of tall buildings in a single bound, and a fat alcoholic Civil War vet who throws knives insanely accurately through all the booze. It’s just such a fun and weird movie. And perhaps my favorite part is the Italian title is Ehi amico … c’è Sabata, hai chiuso!, which roughly translates to “Hey buddy… That’s Sabata, you’re finished!” How bizarre.

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