THE CONJURING ***1/2 (112 minutes) MA
As much as we regard with suspicion anyone who claims to have experienced the paranormal, there's always that little part of us that desperately wants to believe that there is life beyond this one. Australian director James Wan (Saw; Insidious) plays on that tension between the rational and the irrational with great skill in his nerve-jangling "true-life" telling of a family terrorised by the spirits inhabiting a house in the early 1970s.
Based on what is claimed to be a real case of a haunting, legendary paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (played earnestly by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) examine the family home of Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor), which seems to be occupied by ghosts who are able to move things around, stop clocks, make things go bump in the night and drag children across the floor.
It's a very effectively mounted frightfest, played extremely straight, with very good performances (especially from Taylor as the harried mother) and with all due emphasis on the religious side of the Warrens, who also investigated the infamous case that resulted in those awful Amityville Horror films.
As with many horror films involving exorcism and demons, there is an underlying reinforcement here of the power of faith, a sense that the Warrens are doing God's work. The question remains, of course, as to whether their investigations were motivated by real spooks or by a desire to promote the presence of an evil that only God could remove.
That's hinted at but not harped on in The Conjuring. The main drive here is very clear: to deliver a very solid, very good genre piece. And a decent amount of jolting scares.
THIS IS THE END *** (107 minutes) MA
In this enjoyable, time-killing piece of throwaway Friday-night pap, a group of actors playing caricatured versions of themselves give us a new definition of stoner comedy. Seth Rogen (Knocked Up; Green Hornet) is visited by LA-hating mate Jay Baruchel. After a major dope-smoking session, they head off to a star-crammed party at James Franco's house. Then the power goes out, the ground opens up and the apocalypse hits, forcing them all to stay indoors where they yell at each other, make video confessionals, yell at each other some more, argue over rations, then try to figure out what is going on. It's broad, stupid fun that, against all odds, ends up coagulating into an actual story with a point. Emma Watson (Hermione from Harry Potter) has a terrific bit part here, and Jonah Hill (21 Jump Street; Moneyball) seems to have the most fun sending himself up, with Franco coming in second.
BEFORE MIDNIGHT *** (109 minutes) MA
The final half-hour of the final part of Before Midnight is not only the best thing in the film, it's the best thing in the mega-talky trilogy of romantic dramas that started with Before Sunrise (1995), continued with Before Sunset (2004) and that could possibly - but hopefully doesn't - end here.
Directed by Richard Linklater (Waking Life; School of Rock) and co-written with his leads Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, the two earlier films have gained a small but loyal following as zeitgeist-capturing, Gen-Y classics that somehow captured the vapourous nature of modern love in all its flighty complexity as Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) engage in lengthy gabfests about relationships.
The trouble with those first two film was their souffle-light scenarios, with nothing much really being at stake as the two walk and talk.
Here, however, things are much juicier as infidelity, commitment, divorce, resentment and all the other soul-sapping things that clock in when you hit your 40s come into play. You really feel something in the film's final stretch that we just didn't get in the first two films, namely, a sense of real consequence to the barbed words the pair exchange as their complicated relationship gets even more so.
It definitely makes the film worth seeing, and actually makes you pine for another film - provided, of course, that there's not another nine-year hiatus.
ONLY GOD FORGIVES *** (90 minutes) MA
Some films seem designed to polarise audiences, and this edgy, minimalist exercise in excess is one of them. Set in the sweaty squalor of neon-tinged Bangkok - do good things ever happen in this city? - Director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive; the Pusher trilogy) presides over a feverish blend of ultra-violence, corruption, bad mothering and karaoke. In a wonderfully foul-mouthed performance, the normally classy Kristin Scott Thomas arrives in town as an angry criminal matriarch to command her taciturn criminal son (Ryan Gosling from Drive) to exact revenge for the murder of his brother. He's reluctant to do so, though, on moral grounds, which displeases her. Simultaneously seedy and artsy, the film has a jagged stop-start pace that will mesmerise some, bore others and confound those left over. But if your hunger for something different has been sharpened by all the prequels, sequels, remakes and reboots around at the moment, this weird, twisted, bloody film is bound to satisfy.