This week, we begin in Rhode Island:
The Conjuring (***) This fright-filled horror tale generously dips into the standard trickery of the genre, but does it with enough verve to elevate it above more mundane tales of possession.
Here, however, the object of possession is a creepy old house. Understand, it’s possessed, not haunted, and it’s based on a true story (yeah, yeah, sure).
In 1971 Harrisville, R.I., Roger and Carolyn Perron (Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor) move into a remote house with their five young daughters. Of course, strange happenings begin almost immediately, forcing the family to seek a remedy from renowned demonologist Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) and his clairvoyant wife, Lorraine (Vera Farmiga).
An examination of the house’s sordid history reveals who now haunts it and why. All parties must then gather to rid the house of its evil spirits, a task that proves both difficult and entertaining.
Director James Wan deftly orchestrates his scenes of terror, never hesitating to mix the unexpected, along with some of the expected tropes of the genre — doors slamming on their own, walls shaking, and objects (and people) flying through the air. A professional, adult cast plays it straight, adding to the overall seriousness that helps the film stay in character and retain some creepiness despite the plot’s familiarity.
Rated R, 112 minutes. Available Tuesday on DVD and Blu-ray and in various download formats.
The film is available in various combo packs. Supplements include the seven-minute featurette, “Face to Face With Terror,” an extended conversation with spirit guru Carolyn Buchanan. Plus, the seven-minute study “A Life in Demonology.” Finally, there’s a look at some of the film’s special effects and “making of” elements in the eight-minute “Scaring the ‘@$*%’ Out of You.”
The Heat (**1/2) Sandra Bullock has the Oscar, but it’s the constantly unplugged Melissa McCarthy who dominates her every minute on screen in this week’s guilty pleasure, directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) and written by Kate Dippold (Parks and Recreation).
The standard, boiler-plate story revolves around a tightly wound FBI agent, Sarah Ashburn (Bullock), being forced to team up with an unhinged, foul-mouthed Boston police detective, Shannon Mullins (McCarthy), in order to bust a local drug kingpin.
Not much unusual happens while the two feuding partners nab the bad guys and get to know each other through a string of Odd Couple situations. To his credit, Feig adds several nuanced director touches that have nothing to do with his two stars.
Reliable comedic actors add flavor in supporting roles: Jane Curtin, Marlon Wayans, Nate Corddry, Tony Hale and Dan Bakkedahl as an albino Drug Enforcement Administration agent.
The Heat arrives in both R-rated (117 minutes) and unrated (120 minutes) versions. It comes in all formats, downloads and combo packs. Extras include commentaries, a 20-minute “making of” featurette, 10 minutes of deleted scenes, 16 minutes of “Von Bloopers,” five other featurettes running around eight minutes on various topics, and more.
Just Like a Woman (**1/2) Two other mismatched women — a latter-day Thelma and Louise — team up and take to the road in this unlikely road-trip saga that chronicles the pair’s symbiotic bonding.
Sienna Miller plays the woefully forlorn Marilyn. She experiences the near-simultaneous loss of her dead-end, but necessary, job and the incessant philandering of her husband.
She finds refuge in her belly-dancing classes, a talent at which she seems to excel. At the class, she meets Mona (Golshifteh Farahani), a North African immigrant who lives with her strict husband and his abusive mother. When Mona accidentally kills her mother-in-law, she and Marilyn hit the road, heading toward a dance competition in New Mexico.
Along the way, they share various adventures while unbelievably making money belly-dancing. The film’s contrivances and improbabilities mar director and co-writer Rachid Bouchareb’s attempt to raise his material above sluggish melodrama. Rated R, 88 minutes.
Midnight’s Children (***) The line on Salman Rushdie’s dense novels has always been that they are “unfilmable.” And of all of his prolific output, this lively 1981 work should have proven that theory. But director Deepa Mehta, whose Fire, Earth and Water trilogy showed a mastery of the medium, again shows her deft touch, keeping the film engaging even through its slow patches.
Mehta and Rushdie collaborated on the screenplay from a story that sprawls through almost all of the 20th century. After filling in the story of two families, the film then centers on two boys born at midnight Aug. 14, 1947, the precise moment India gained its independence from Great Britain. A meddling nurse switches the baby boys, Saleem and Shiva (maybe because she’s read Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper).
Consequently, the obvious happens: The son of the rich family grows up in poverty, while the other matures with all the benefits of wealth. But throughout their lives, they find themselves intertwined with each other, bringing a sort of mystical sense to their very beings.
Not all of Rushdie’s lyrical prose, and convoluted story, could make it to the screen, but Mehta renders an engaging tale with what she has. Not rated, 146 minutes.
And, finally, from this week’s TV offerings:
Primeval: New World — The Complete Series This spin-off from a British TV series played here on the Syfy channel. The wild adventures fill 13 episodes, with a team of intrepid scientists, animal trainers and experts, inventors and general adventurers fighting an incessant horde of monsters both from the future and the past. In a way, dinosaurs mix with aliens. Sort of.
Niall Matter plays team leader Evan Cross, joined by Sara Canning as Dylan Weir. With Miranda Frigon, Crystal Lowe and Amanda Crew.
Not rated, 572 minutes. The collection comes on three discs and includes brief behind-the-scenes featurettes on every episode, as well as cast interviews in the segment “Inside the Tank.”
Also available Tuesday on DVD: Before Midnight, The Internship, Only God Forgives, The Uninvited, The Way, Way Back.