Oculus (2014)

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Dario Argento might like a shot near the end of Oculus, in which we see a close-up of a woman’s face as she’s impaled against the demon mirror that’s been plaguing the characters for the previous hour and a half. That shot has a primal quality, not to mention an irrational poetic grandeur, that’s missing from the rest of the film. Director Mike Flanagan isn’t wanting for ambition, but he doesn’t yet have the formal chops to realize what he’s attempting, which is a phantasmagoria in which past and present blend together as a single ineffable organism. Flanagan bogs down in exposition, literal-mindedly alternating between dual chronologies and squandering the menace that he effectively builds in the first act, particularly in a nifty Val Lewton-style gag involving objects covered in sheets. Still, it’s likeable, moody, and eventually even poignant. You could do worse. Argento certainly has, as of late, alas. ... continued

Gone Girl (2014)

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Director David Fincher fashions Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel into one of his symphonies of cruelty, contrasting his commandingly chilly prestige auburn-colored aesthetic with the author’s purplish pop prose, and the joke is that the prose doesn't hide anything. The big twist was surprising in the book, but in the film the culprit is pitifully, satirically obvious. “Whodunnit” is beside the fact; the real takeaway is that the characters, male and female alike, live in a bubble of enclosed, suffocating fear, disconnected from the ever-meaningless words they speak and write, which are filtered through various realms of social media to serve whatever purpose anyone needs them to serve. Every element of life is theater; especially the domestic life in which people model their suburban comings and goings after the comings and goings of their parents, their friends, their favorite TV shows. The villain in this film is a wraith of pragmatism, ... continued

The Equalizer (2014)

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This film is too busy offering testament to actor Denzel Washington’s virility to function properly as a thriller, which conventionally depends on the hero’s vulnerability. Russian goons, the usual tatted, muscled-up monsters, come after Washington’s McCall, who dispatches them with a saintly ease that would be offensive if it weren’t deeply ludicrous and, eventually, dull. Even Marton Csokas, as the film’s proper big bad, is unable to land any blow to McCall apart from the passing, inadvertent stray bullet that yields nothing, of course, but a flesh wound. The Equalizer has two shrewd touches: It’s extraordinarily violent for our hypocritically bloodless faux-R-rating times; and it occasionally suggests that it correctly understands McCall to be every bit as insane and sadistic as any of the villains. The first act implies that McCall takes it upon himself to save Chloë Grace Moretz because he’s OCD and sexually stifled, at the mercy of ... continued

A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)

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It’s intensely pleasurable watching Liam Neeson walk the city streets while propping up his coat collar against the merciless wind. The actor, who has refined his wounded, brooding, yet ultimately kindly macho aura over the course of his recent string of action pictures, is ideal for Lawrence Block’s popular detective, Matthew Scudder. Writer-director Scott Frank gets the gray, foreboding, disenfranchised NYC mood just right, but that’s all he gets. The film is fatally lacking in texture: in the racial/sexual/political specificity that’s common to Block’s work. Scott’s too busy setting up scenes to find their soul; and the result is a placeholder film that feels too much like a pilot for a crime show that might be pretty good by the second season. The kind of self-consciously “old school” genre film that you feel guilty for not liking more; and it occasionally appears to be actively counting on that sentiment from ... continued