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The Lady Astonishes 

Satanists and evangelists crash and burn

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GONE GIRL is one of the best-made movies this year. Its screenplay (which Gillian Flynn adapted from her own juggernaut novel) remains taut, and concise over two and half hours. The convincingly drawn characters are fully realized by a top-notch cast. David Fincher's (Se7en, The Social Network) direction creates a tense, mesmerizing atmosphere, thanks largely to director of photography Jeff Cronenweth, a frequent collaborator. There isn't a frame out of place, and its composure and concision projects menace and disarray.

Nick Dunne's (Ben Affleck) wife goes missing on their fifth wedding anniversary. He is a frustrated writer brought back to his Missouri hometown by his mother's illness and eventual death. His wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), is a New York society girl who inspired the children's books that made her parents rich. Flashbacks show their honeymoon period, then the trying early years of marriage. The recession costs them both jobs, and Amy bails out her flailing parents with her trust fund. Real life strains their bond in ways neither imagined.

As the search for Amy builds into a cause, events turn public perception against Nick. From the get-go, he's a suspect in Detective Rhonda Boney's (Kim Dickens) investigation, but his indignant defense seems legitimate. Despite his adamant denials, evidence stacks up, and eventually Nick is tried in the court of public opinion by national "news" personalities. Then Act II rolls around and the whole story takes on a new life. It's impossible to say more without wrecking the effect.

Starting from a "ripped from the headlines" missing spouse premise, Gone Girl builds into a unique neo-noir psychodrama. There are pulp elements in the central conceit and execution, but Flynn and Fincher don't get caught up in it. Instead, they create a vivid, intensely airless world of ambiguity and limited options. The camerawork is full of wide-open compositions and rich light, but to terrifyingly claustrophobic effect. That atmosphere is ripe for nearly perfect acting performances. Affleck finds the humor, horror and frustration in Nick, making it look easy. Dickens is utterly convincing as a detective too smart for her small town, and maybe herself. Tyler Perry does an unexpectedly dynamic turn as Nick's celebrity defense attorney Tanner Bolt. Neil Patrick Harris, as Amy's damaged ex Desi, plumbs the depths and comes up with an ideal combination of smugness, insecurity and pathos. The most enjoyable surprise, though, has to be Pike as Amy. In the past, I've dismissed her as vacant and acting at one remove from the emotions at hand. Here, she gives a dark, layered, memorable performance as a troubled woman with a lot going on below the surface.

Gone Girl is probably a perfect movie in terms of its mission. The story is original and fully fleshed-out, the technical and visual aspects of the filmmaking are stunning without being showy and the ensemble acting is nearly flawless. In spite of Fincher's fastidiousness and control, the movie doesn't feel overly composed or antiseptic. It's big and streamlined, but messy when it needs to be, as in the short, jarring, hypnotic scene late in the movie upon which the whole thing turns. Gone Girl is an heir to Alfred Hitchcock's legacy — an engaging, entertaining thriller unique to its place and time, but timeless. It may not hold, for me, the silly, visceral thrill of Fincher's Fight Club or Se7en, but it is a more complex, evolved kind of a movie. Even if I don't need to see it annually, it will stay with me (particularly the scene referenced above; you'll know it when you see it). R. 149m.

ANNABELLE, on the other hand, I consider a throwaway. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed The Conjuring, to which this is a prequel, and Rosemary's Baby, from which this draws most of its design and pacing. But I'd rather watch either of those any day.

In brief, a young husband gives his pregnant wife a demonic doll. They are coincidentally attacked by Manson-Family-style Satanists. Then they are haunted by the doll. The few cheap scares are founded on stabs of string music, slamming doors and the like, and it lacks the atmosphere and emotion that made The Conjuring so effective. R. 98m.

John J. Bennett

LEFT BEHIND. As an un-ironic Nicolas Cage-ophile, I admit to enjoying the twisting of peoples' faces when I proselytize for St. Nic. He's moving or manically menacing or both in some of my favorite movies.

And then there's Left Behind.

Heavy-handed neo-Christianity neuters any tension in this re-boot of a Kirk Cameron movie based on a popular YA novel series, but it's incongruous, as the filmmakers are more interested in featuring an Australian bikini model's bosom than saying anything meaningful about faith or humanity.

Left Behind announces its mission in the opening scene, when a woman's plea for piety is casually dismissed by young lovers at an airport. Jet-setting investigative reporter Buck Williams (Chad Michael Murray) is instantly taken by outspoken girl-next-door Chloe Steele's (Cassi Thompson) verbal takedown of the god-fearing stranger.

Chloe's visiting her own devout mother and her pilot father (Cage), who is fed up with his wife's newfound faith and ditching the family for a weekend in London with a buxom flight attendant. That's as deep as the characters get. The rest of the film jump cuts between Chloe wandering through apocalyptic scenes filmed on a repurposed Desperate Housewives set and Captain Steele trying to steer a mid-Atlantic flight full of panicked passengers to safety. At one point, Cage seems about to break into his fevered insanity, but he shrinks back as if drugged. The acting and special effects in Airplane! are better.

Seemingly scored with Casio keyboard samples, the film takes two hours to get to what should have been the opening act, and director Vic Armstrong (known for his stunt work in Indiana Jones movies) is bludgeoningly unsubtle with this self-indulgent and sanctimonious I-told-you-so fantasy. With boobs. PG13. 110m.

— Grant Scott-Goforth


ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY. A luckless kid helps his family through their own comic rough patch. With Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner. PG. 81m.

DRACULA UNTOLD. Luke Evans armed to the teeth in this origin story for the legendary bloodsucker. PG13. 92m.

THE JUDGE. Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. face off as a judge and the estranged son who must defend him against a murder charge. R. 142m.

MEET THE MORMONS. Not to be confused with The Book of Mormon, this globe-trotting documentary seeks to dispel stereotypes. PG. 80m.

MY OLD LADY. Maggie Smith takes Parisian squatter's rights to a new level. PG13. 107m.

SKELETON TWINS. Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader play eccentric, estranged twins who reunite when both their lives are in tumult. R. 93m.


THE BOXTROLLS. This visuals in this creepy-cute stop-motion feature about a boy and his troll family make up for a story that could be stronger. PG. 97m.

THE EQUALIZER. Denzel Washington plays a trained killer out of retirement to champion a working girl in this pacey, atmospheric and inventive action movie. R. 132m.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. Unlikely heroes save the galaxy from boredom in this clever, edgy and dazzling sci-fi blockbuster. PG13. 121m.

LET'S BE COPS. Two dolts impersonate cops to get free stuff and become popular. R. 103m.

THE MAZE RUNNER. A tightly paced sci-fi/horror flick for the tween set that loses the thrill in the end. Spoiler: There's no cheese. PG13. 113m.

THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU. Tina Fey and Jason Bateman save a pile-up of family clichés with comic chops and sibling chemistry. R. 103m.

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill and Grant Scott-Goforth


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