Monday, January 9, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE MONSTER (2016); EQUITY (2016); and KILL COMMAND (2016)

(US/Canada - 2016)

Similar to THE BABADOOK in that its title figure should be wearing a bright neon sign flashing "Metaphor!," THE MONSTER is an intermittently effective horror film that works better in the buildup that it does in the follow-through. It gets a lot from a pair of terrific performances by Zoe Kazan and young Ella Ballentine (also excellent in the little-seen STANDOFF) as a dysfunctional mother and daughter who stop fighting with one another when a car accident on a dark and desolate road makes a bad night even worse. Divorced Kathy (Kazan) is, to put it mildly, a trainwreck. A verbally and physically abusive alcoholic, Kathy drinks herself to sleep every night, usually leaving her ten-year-old daughter Lizzie (Ballentine) to be the responsible party in the relationship. Getting a nearly nine-hour late start to a road trip after hungover Kathy decides to sleep the day away, Lizzie demands they drive straight through for a planned visitation with her father for which she doesn't plan on returning, which keeps them on the road past midnight. Kathy crashes the car after hitting a wolf in a torrential downpour. An ambulance is running late, but a wrecker arrives and the driver (Aaron Douglas) is killed by a reptilian creature that looks like the result of a drunken hook-up between THE INCUBUS and a komodo dragon. After the ambulance arrives and the EMTs meet a similar fate, Kathy and Lizzie must figure out how to evade the monster and get off the road to safety.

Written and directed by Bryan Bertino (THE STRANGERS), THE MONSTER has a few genuinely terrifying scenes, with the director just showing brief flashes of the creature materializing in the background through sheets of rain. Kathy and Lizzie are stuck in what's essentially a CUJO situation, with their dysfunctional backstory being played out in periodic cutaway flashbacks. It's pretty easy to read the Monster itself as symbolic of Kathy's alcoholism and substance abuse (it's hinted that she's a recovering drug addict as well), with Lizzie determined to defeat it and emerge victorious. It's not quite as deep and disturbing as THE BABADOOK's representation of mental illness and the execution at times feels like an idea Bertino concocted in a high school creative writing class and didn't really expand upon over the years. It's sincere and well-made (and a huge improvement over Bertino's terrible MOCKINGBIRD), and the Monster is a nice old-school, practical man-in-a-suit for the most part, but the tension starts deflating in the third act (of course, once they get out of the car) and the film limps to a shrug of a finish, leaving all sorts of questions unanswered--things like "If Dad is the responsible parent, why is Lizzie is the custody of grossly neglectful Kathy and her succession of dirtbag boyfriends?" and "Why isn't anyone concerned about the ambulance that went out after midnight and still hasn't returned by daybreak?" (R, 91 mins)

(US - 2016)

The indie financial drama EQUITY had a chance to make a powerful statement about Wall Street wheeling and dealing from a woman's perspective, but it's almost completely sunk by two things. First is the obvious symbolism of a smug financial titan having an increasingly precarious Jenga tower on his desk. I wonder if that will coming crashing down by the end? The second is a throwaway bit late in the film where the main character is in the midst of watching the IPO she shepherded crash and burn and she loses her shit over being handed a chocolate chip cookie with only "THREE! MOTHER! FUCKING! CHIPS!" in it. And this film wants to be taken seriously? Not only does her utter shrieking hysteria come off as a negative stereotype considering EQUITY's POV, but it's overplayed to the point where it doesn't ring true in any way at all. And it was a lot better when Robert De Niro bitched in an equally insane but much quieter way about the blueberry muffins in CASINO over 20 years ago. Anna Gunn, a TV and stage veteran who stayed busy for years before breaking out and winning two Emmys as Skyler White on BREAKING BAD, stars as Paige Bishop, a powerful investment banker with a proven track record who's nonetheless being pilloried in the press over a recent IPO that performed far below expectations. She's about to rebound with Cachet, a new privacy company that's going public. When she isn't being treated condescendingly by Cachet's douchebag CEO (Samuel Roukin), she's being prodded about a promotion by her assistant and VP Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas) and hounded by Samantha Ryan (Alysia Reiner of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK), an old college friend who's now a fed working with the white collar crime unit. Samantha is after Michael Connor (James Purefoy, who still hasn't wiped the smirk off his face from THE FOLLOWING), who's at the same firm as Paige and is suspected in insider trading with his asshole buddy Benji Akers (Craig Bierko), who runs a rival firm. Paige is romantically involved with Connor, which complicates things, and it only gets worse after a Cachet coder (Sophie von Haselberg, Bette Midler's lookalike daughter) informs Paige--in a clandestine meeting in a poorly-lit parking garage, of course--that there's several security issues with Cachet. It soon becomes apparent that someone is trying to sabotage the Cachet IPO and make Paige the scapegoat for its failure.

EQUITY occasionally works in fits and starts. Samantha's investigation generates some MARGIN CALL-like suspense, and Gunn is good until the third act, when director Meera Menon has her shouting every line. EQUITY was written, produced, and directed by women (Thomas and Reiner co-produced and have story credits) and it seems to think it can coast by just on that. It has some valid points about the struggle of women trying to make it in a boys club, especially in the way Paige is repeatedly passed over for consideration of her outgoing boss' (Lee Tergesen) job because she "ruffles some feathers" and "rubs people the wrong way," and how when Erin finally gets her overdue promotion not because of performance but because a coasting, borderline incompetent underling made a call to his uncle, who's a higher-up at the firm. But for every astute observation it makes, there's that Jenga tower and the chocolate chip cookie, and another ridiculous scene where pregnant Erin is getting her first ultrasound and can't be bothered to look at the screen because she's too busy taking an urgent call about Cachet. In the middle of an ultrasound. EQUITY may have noble intentions, but it's too forced and too melodramatic, and with the cast almost completely coming from television, it plays a lot like a pilot for an FX series that never got picked up. (R, 100 mins)

(UK - 2016)

It offers little in the way of innovation, but KILL COMMAND is a not-bad B-movie that wears its '80s influences on its sleeve in a straightforward and dignified fashion. While its ideas echo classics like ALIENS and PREDATOR, it's really more like a sci-fi DOG SOLDIERS with a dreary, dystopian production design that Blockbuster Video regulars of a certain age will recall from 1990s straight-to-VHS Vidmark Entertainment fare like CYBORG 2 and DEATH MACHINE. Set in the near-future, KILL COMMAND has cyborg scientist Mills (THE CROWN's Vanessa Kirby) being sent by her employers at Harbinger to accompany a group of hard-ass US Marines on a routine training exercise on a remote island. Harbinger deals in weapons manufacturing and combat technology (and, judging from its name, pure evil), and Mills is their top programmer. She recognized a flaw in the code of their soon-to-be-rolled-out line of robot soldiers and is to observe the Marines in their mock combat with the robots on the island to see how the machines respond. After some extended set-up involving a lot of macho ballbusting and the establishing of everyone's mistrust of Mills, from no-nonsense Capt. Bukes (FLAME AND CITRON's Thure Lindhardt) on down, differences are set aside when Mills figures out one of the robots has gone HAL 9000. It's now capable of making its own decisions, programming the rest to mimic the battle action of the Marines and using the military's own techniques against them but with live ammo. After several are killed in the initial skirmish, Mills and the remaining survivors make their way to an abandoned compound for your standard-issue RIO BRAVO/John Carpenter scenario, with a small band of heroes fighting off the onslaught of sentient robots trying to get inside.

Little more than a pastiche of other movies' concepts, KILL COMMAND is pretty minor-league stuff but writer/director Steve Gomez, a veteran visual effects tech making his feature filmmaking debut, keeps things moving at a brisk pace once it gets going and works wonders with a small budget. Shot in 2014 and kept on the shelf for a couple of years, KILL COMMAND is a British production pretending to be American, so some of the American accents are a little off and the line delivery stilted (though Kirby and the Danish Lindhardt do alright), none more so than Mike Noble as the nervous Goodwin, with the actor's overbaked southern drawl constantly slipping into his own accent like some unholy fusion of Tennessee Williams and Guy Ritchie. It's ultimately slight and forgettable, but if approached with minimal expectations, KILL COMMAND provides atmosphere, action, and some solid effects on a low budget and ends up a reasonably entertaining 100 minutes for '80s and '90s genre fans in the mood for something directed by a second-string Neil Marshall. (Unrated, 100 mins)

No comments:

Post a Comment