Thursday, March 3, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: TERMINUS (2016); NARCOPOLIS (2015); and RATTER (2016)

(Australia - 2016)

Produced by Shane Abbess, director of the awful INFINI, TERMINUS is another Australian genre outing trying to pass itself off as American but succeeding marginally better than most. Set in the US midwest, TERMINUS is a low-key and slowly-paced sci-fi drama that's perhaps aiming for more targets than it can handle. Director/co-writer Marc Furmie liberally borrows elements from beloved sci-fi films of the past while making points about US military operations in the Middle East and blending it all into a pre-apocalyptic end-of-the-world saga that seems to be advocating nuking the planet to oblivion and starting over from scratch. There's some potential for some scathing insight and abrasive dark humor here, but Furmie's almost mumblecore approach doesn't really mesh with the message he's trying to send, and the film is ultimately too dour and sluggish for its own good. TERMINUS stars Jai Koutrae as David, a widower mechanic in a small, blue collar town. Still mourning the loss of his wife, who died when her body rejected the kidney he donated, David wallows in an alcoholic stupor and because he forgot to pay the tuition, his daughter Annabelle (Kendra Appleton) has just been bounced out of college and moves back home to get him back on his feet again. David witnesses a meteor crashing in the woods near his house and the next thing he remembers after a vision of his late wife is waking up in the hospital. Medical personnel are shocked to see that his donated kidney has regenerated itself, and after he takes his Iraq War vet buddy Zach (Todd Lasance) to move the meteor to his barn, Zach's amputated leg, blown off in combat, starts growing back. Meanwhile, shady and increasingly unhinged government agent Stipe (Bren Foster) has gone rogue and is on the trail of David's meteor and others like it, convinced that they the ability to end America's involvement in the concept of war. He's really out to harness the healing power of the meteor--not to end war, but to use it on injured soldiers to expedite their return to battle.

Furmie could've made a blistering critique of the idea of the endless war, but since he doesn't, one almost wonders what his point was in setting it in America, unless it was simply for export value. Everybody does a decent job with their American accents, with the exception of one actor playing a sheriff's deputy who inexplicably sounds like the world's worst Crocodile Dundee impersonator at open mic night at your city's shittiest comedy club. Instead, the filmmakers seem more interested in seeing how many past sci-fi films that can reference, whether it's CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (David's obsession with the meteor and his insane idea to build a shelter to harness the meteor's power and protect them all from the oncoming apocalypse), COCOON (the healing power), INTERSTELLAR (communication across planes of being and a fractured father/daughter relationship), and FIRE IN THE SKY (with an alien force invading a tightly-knit town of hardworking everymen). Boasting some very welcome practical effects, TERMINUS is a thoughtful and ambitious film that admirably swings for the fences but whiffs too often to be completely successful. Though it has its moments, and Koutrae and Appleton are good, it doesn't really have the courage of its convictions and ends up feeling derivative and utterly ordinary by the time it's all over. A nice try, but file this one away as a noble, well-intentioned misfire. (R, 94 mins)

(UK - 2015)

This low-budget, partially Kickstarter-funded British dystopian sci-fi thriller isn't shy about openly cribbing from legendary cinema of the past. It's got the future-noir cityscapes of BLADE RUNNER and the time travel elements of THE TERMINATOR and 12 MONKEYS, but what it lacks is an interesting story and any sense of momentum or pacing whatsoever. It looks great and it works wonders with not very much money at its disposal, but ambitious director Justin Trefgame is constantly thwarted by the tired cliches and predictable twists utilized by screenwriter Justin Trefgame. Opening in 2044 but set mostly in 2024, NARCOPOLIS takes place in a future where all drugs were made legal in 2019 and an industry monopoly is held by the immensely powerful AmbroCorp, a pharmaceutical empire overseen by Todd Ambro (James Callis). By 2044, AmbroCorp essentially controls the world, but back in 2024, Ambro's power over the newly-legalized drug traffic is just beginning to take hold. Enter loner detective Frank Grieves (Elliot Cowan), a recovering "dreck" (addict) who somehow managed to hold on to his job after botching a bust and shooting his boss Nolan (Robert Bathurst) in the face. Nolan survived and a recovering Grieves is still a cop, though he's separated from his wife (Molly Gaisford) and son (Louis Trefgame, the writer/director's son). Grieves finds himself in a convoluted mystery when an unidentifiable body turns up just before time-travelling Eva (Elodie Yung of Netflix's DAREDEVIL) arrives from 2044, hellbent on preventing Ambro from building his globally dominant empire. Grieves' investigation is thwarted at every turn by Ambro goons as well as Nolan and the irate police chief (Nicky Henson), who runs the police force as little more than an extension of AmbroCorp.

Drab, downbeat, and dull, NARCOPOLIS gets the quintessentially bleak and rainy dystopia look down cold, but that's really all it has going for it. Trefgame's script is unfocused and confusing, and you'll see it all coming together (who's the guy with Eva in the 2044 prologue? Who's the dead guy Grieves finds in 2024?) long before Grieves does. As Grieves, Cowan has a vaguely Stathamian physical presence with his receding hairline and the appropriate thickness of the stubble but with none of the engaging personality or gruff charm. In what's probably a nod to BRAZIL and perhaps the minor British cult movie SHOPPING (there's a bit of an early Paul W.S. Anderson vibe to this as well), Jonathan Pryce has little to but collect a paycheck in a small role as a renegade scientist who helps Grieves in his investigation. In the end, NARCOPOLIS is an effective-looking but generally pointless retread with monotonous techno music and simplistic metaphors about the rich and powerful controlling the poor and weak-willed masses. Trefgame's got potential from a style standpoint, but someone else should write his next screenplay. (R, 96 mins, also streaming on Netflix).

(US - 2016)

RATTER is a not always probable tech-paranoia thriller that frequently overcomes its gimmickry and produces more than a few genuinely chilling and unsettling moments until it's done in by what might be the least satisfying ending in recent memory. Grad student Emma (Ashley Benson of PRETTY LITTLE LIARS and SPRING BREAKERS) has just arrived from Wisconsin to attend NYU and settles into a small Brooklyn apartment. Just out of a bad relationship and looking to spend some time on her own, she lives a generally quiet life and hangs out with her friend Nicole (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and eventually begins dating Michael (Matt McGorry of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK), a nice guy from one of her classes. Unbeknownst to Emma, all of her web devices--laptop, tablet, phone--have fallen victim to a "ratter," one who hacks into and gains control of such a device. Before long, photos start disappearing from her laptop, important phone messages are deleted, she's receiving hardcore porn from Michael's e-mail address, and the unseen ratter watches Emma at all times through her devices, whether she's on Skype with her mom, playing video games, practicing ballet, shaving her legs, or masturbating. A camera has also been planted in her living room, and while she sleeps, a dark figure enters and exits the apartment, sometimes watching her but also opening her music box in the other room and letting it play.

Red herrings abound--is it Michael? Her ex Alex, who still calls her from Wisconsin and isn't over getting dumped? Michael's dudebro roommate Kent (John Anderson)?--and throughout Benson does a credible job of playing an already stressed person pushed to a point beyond frazzled. Writer/director Branden Kramer, expanding on his 2012 short WEBCAM, borrows from other cyberstalker thrillers like ALONE WITH HER and THE DEN, but he does a very effective job of creating a doomy unease and discomfort throughout, and his decision to shoot everything from the POV of Emma's electronic devices and the hidden camera in her apartment sounds tired and hackneyed, but it works and contributes significantly to the sense of helplessness and claustrophobia. But RATTER is a film that implodes in its final seconds, and while I get what Kramer was going for and how it drives home the point that you never know who's watching you or how open you've left yourself, it doesn't make for anything resembling what an audience might consider a good ending. On one hand, I admire the audacity of going for an ending that's only going to succeed in pissing off everyone who watches the film, but from a commercial thriller angle, you probably want a better finish than what RATTER offers. There's a debate to be had about the closing scene of RATTER, but the film was dumped on DVD just three weeks after a very limited theatrical run (I'm surprised this didn't open wide), so nobody's seen it. It's tough to say whether it's a bad ending or if it's just the ending audiences don't want. Regardless, RATTER succeeds for 98% of its running time as a nailbiter that grows more tense and invasive with each passing scene, and Kramer deserves some credit for taking some found-footage/faux-doc techniques and making such played-out crutches work as well as they do here. Like last year's UNFRIENDED, RATTER is far more accomplished and compelling than it has any business being, but I'm still undecided on that ending. (R, 80 mins)

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