updated 07/19/2013 AT 2:00 PM ET
•originally published 07/19/2013 AT 3:00 PM ET
The Conjuring is terrific terror, but PEOPLE’s critic says it’s The Act of Killing that will really scare you.
Here’s hoping you’re still on good terms with your horror-movie buddy, because you’re going to need a hand to hold, shoulder to cry on and/or lap to jump into for The Conjuring.
The scariest piece of psychological terror to hit big screens in years, The Conjuring follows the travails of the Perron family, plagued by a demonic presence in their Rhode Island farmhouse. Before Carolyn (Lili Taylor), Roger (Ron Livingston) and their five daughters can unpack, there are signs that all is not right in their new home. First of all, the dog won’t even set a paw in the place. (Note: Always listen to the dog – unless the dog can actually talk, in which case, slowly back away from the dog.)
It isn’t long before Carolyn wakes up to unexplained bruises and horrible smells, while something in the house joins in the girls’ games of “Hide and Clap,” disembodied hands smacking together seemingly from nowhere. If all that sounds suspiciously like The Amityville Horror, that’s in part because director James Wan (Saw) borrows liberally from terror classics, including The Exorcist and Poltergeist, while supplying his own clever shots and brilliant pacing.
But The Conjuring also shares something else with Amityville: Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga). Years before the real-life paranormalists became famous for their work in the Amityville house, spawning a cottage industry of books and movies, they took on the Perrons’ case. Wilson and Farmiga are just as affecting as Taylor and Livingston, and while the Warrens are just as scared as the Perrons, it’s because they know what they’re up against.
Wan puts all the bumps and jumps in just the right places to terrify viewers, even when we know what’s coming. The saving grace is that the film is virtually bloodless, missing the gore and grossness of his Saw franchise, not to mention much of the other schlock that passes for horror nowadays. These are old-school scares, the kind that get in your head and rearrange the mental furniture just in time for your nightmares. So look out for strange bruises, because you’ll be tripping over The Conjuring for days.
Only God Forgives
Reunited, and it feels so off. Ryan Gosling re-teams with director Nicolas Winding Refn, but the results are nowhere near as thrilling as their widely lauded previous effort Drive.
While the earlier film explored love and violence using silence as a powerfully restrained form of expression, Only God Forgives is just gruesome and inert. That the love seems to be missing is, curiously enough, the point of the film.
Gosling plays Julian, the lesser son in a drug-dealing family in Thailand, left short-handed when his big brother is slaughtered by a samurai sword-wielding police officer (Vithaya Pansringarm). Julian is prepared to let it go – his brother was a maggot, after all – but his mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), won’t hear of it. She wants revenge, the bloodier the better.
Thomas is by far the best thing in the film, with her Real Housewives aesthetic (long blonde weave, dragon-lady nails) and Livia Soprano maternal instinct. She’s in stark contrast to Gosling, who turns in a rare misfire of a performance, his eyes as blank as his dialogue.
Still, no one can compete with the film’s real star, the sword, as it hacks and slices its way through the Thai underworld, human viscera laid out for plain view. So if all you’re in the mood for are severed limbs and gushing wounds, then by all means, go with God. I found it unforgivable.
But catch these jaw-dropping documentaries:
You’ll never look at SeaWorld this same way after watching this expose on Tilikum, the theme-park orca who killed expert trainer Dawn Brancheau three years ago. Taken from his pod of killer whales as an infant, Tilikum was already implicated in two other deaths before he savaged Brancheau in an incident that led to significant changes in the way orcas and trainers interact in the parks. Blackfish puts the blame squarely on SeaWorld, maintaining that those deaths were neither surprising nor the animal’s fault. It’s a tough film to watch, at once sobering and infuriating.
Speaking of rage, let me warn you that you’ll need to vent yours after seeing this extraordinary and controversial film.
Documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer went to Indonesia with the intent of interviewing leaders of the death squads responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of accused communists and ethnic Chinese in 1965. He asked them to tell their story in whatever way they wished. They chose to re-enact their gruesome crimes by filming a Hollywood-style gangster movie, starring themselves and the descendants of some of their own victims.
The result is a movie that will bifurcate your brain. On one hand, there is the comically bad gangster-film-within-the-film, complete with atrocious acting, amateurish makeup and a script that might as well have been written in crayon. It would be hilarious if it weren’t stomach-churning. Because the rest of the doc features the executioners, chief among them a man named Anwar Congo, blithely detailing the methods of their madness, freely – sometimes laughingly – admitting to the slaughter of innocents.
That the film takes place against the backdrop of incredible corruption in Indonesia gives it some context. (Even politicians embrace the executioners, or “gangsters,” as necessary to the function of society.) But it shouldn’t give these monsters a pass. Let’s hope The Act of Killing provides the International Criminal Court with a working document for bringing war crimes charges against Congo and his cohorts. At the very least, the film puts a horrendous period in history into agonizingly sharp focus.
And see this if you’re just looking for a silly good time:
Playing up its comic-book origins even more than the 2010 original, Red 2 goes for bigger laughs, more stars and wilder plots. It doesn’t all come together quite as planned, though, making for a comedy that squeaks by as just amusing enough.
Retired CIA agents Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) and Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich, extra dotty this go-around) re-team to find a doomsday weapon hidden by scientist Edward Bailey (Anthony Hopkins) during the Cold War. Only this time they’re toting Frank’s ditzy wannabe spy girlfriend, Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), with them.
The jokes are hit or miss, though Malkovich has a fun running gag of advising Frank on his relationship issues at the most inappropriate times. But the film gets most of its zing from its high-wattage stars, including the always-badass Helen Mirren, returning as ex-MI6 agent Victoria, and Catherine Zeta-Jones giving Sarah palpitations as a rival for Frank’s affections.
Red 2 may not be perfect, but it does have its charms. It’s also one of the few films catering to an older audience this summer, so if you’re a fan of movies for grown-ups, then I invite you to vote with your wallet.