(US/Canada - 2016)
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)
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)