Saturday, April 30, 2016

The 10 Best Movies of the Year (so far)

This is my ranking after the first third of the year. So far, I’ve seen no films in 2016 that I would rate with either five or four-and-a-half stars. But, then, the better films usually come out near the end of the year.

1. The Witch ****
2. Zootopia ***½
3. The Jungle Book ***½
4. 10 Cloverfield Lane ***½
5. Midnight Special ***½
6. Eye in the Sky ***½
7. Hail Caesar ***½
8. Kung Fu Panda 3 ***
9. Deadpool ***
10. The Finest Hours **½

Friday, April 29, 2016

A few personal observations about Blackie Sherrod

When I taught journalism at El Centro College I discovered I was instructing a group of semi-eager students many of whom had never written anything before, let alone a news story. I realized the most difficult challenge for me was getting them to overcome their fear of the blank page. The first thing I told them to do was read, read, read. Read anything they could get their hands on. It didn’t necessarily have to be the local newspaper, although that was a good start. But if they would rather read a trashy mystery, then read that. If they liked reading the Bible, then read that. Then I told them to start keeping some form of a diary and enter something into it every night before they turned off the bedroom light. I didn’t care what they wrote in that diary, whether it was they did that day or what was on their mind at that given moment. Just write it. I told them the more they read and the more they wrote in the diary, the easier the task of writing would become.

I also told them to borrow freely from the styles of whatever they read. Steal something from this writer, steal something else from that writer and eventually your writing style would be the amalgamation of everyone you stole from, but it would be your own. I admitted freely I stole from other writers, specifically I told my students, from Blackie Sherrod.

"In fact," I told my students, "I don’t know of a single writer in Texas and a lot of other places that hasn’t, whether it was consciously or subconsciously, stolen from Blackie Sherrod at one time or another."

When I was working in with the New York World Journal Tribune in the late 1960s I was on a staff with some great writers — Jimmy Breslin, who I was fortunate enough to call a good friend at that time; sports writer emeritus Red Smith; the great humorist Art Buchwald. But, to me, Blackie was the best of them all.

In the mid-1970s I was writing about rock music for The Dallas Morning News, which, back then, was considered covering a subject that was, to put it mildly, outside the North Central Texas mainstream. One evening I joined John Anders, another superb writer and the gentleman who coaxed me to come to the News, at a bar on Lemmon Avenue that was known to be a hangout for writers. As soon has I walked in, I couldn’t help but spot Blackie sitting at the bar chatting to about three other gentleman. John asked me if I had ever met Blackie and when I told him I hadn’t, he said "Let me introduce you." I protested. "No, I don’t want to bother him," I told John. I mean, you just don’t walk up to the Pope and stick out your hand. There are protocols to be followed when you’re in the company of greatness. But John insisted, so hesitantly and quite timidly I walked over to where Blackie was sitting. John immediately struck up a conversation with him and ultimately said he was with someone Blackie should meet. Blackie looked at me and I just said, "Hello, I’m Pete Oppel." Blackie said "Pete Oppel, I read every word you write."

To this day, I have never received a greater honor.

A living legend left this world yesterday when Blackie died. He was 96 and he was, quite simply, the finest newspaperman I ever knew.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Cuban is right, but he’s wrong

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was absolutely correct when he said the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook was not a "superstar." He isn’t one. But Cuban was incorrect when he said Westbrook’s teammate, Kevin Durant, as well as Dirk Nowitzki, the greatest Maverick ever, were superstars. The NBA has only three — count ‘em, three — superstars among its ranks.

It should be realized here that "superstardom" has absolutely nothing to do with talent and ability and everything to do with economics. Do people shell out money to see this performer do his or her thing?

Back in what Hollywood likes to refer to as its glory days, when the big motion picture studios controlled everything, it was all about creating and maintaining superstars. It didn’t matter if the movie was good, bad or indifferent, if Bette Davis was in it, or if Marilyn Monroe was in it, or if Frank Sinatra was in it, if it starred Astaire-Rogers, the ticket buyers would shell out the money to see it. That all changed when Hollywood slowly evolved from being star-driven to actor/director-driven. But I still have friends back in my home in New York City who will be at the theater on opening day to see the latest Woody Allen film, no matter what.

I will admit talent helps one become a superstar, but all one has to do is survey the state of today’s most popular concert performers to realize that is not the overriding criterion. A simple poster, not her acting ability, made Farrah Fawcett a superstar in the 1970s. Of the NBA’s three current superstars — two of the them are incredibly talented and the third used to be. I’m talking about Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors, LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers.

If you have just a passing interest in pro basketball, live within the radius of an NBA city and your team is hosting the Warriors, you’re going to want to go, not to see the Warriors necessarily, but to see Steph Curry. Fans not only show up to see him play, they know enough to get to the arena early to witness his pre-game warmup routine. No one went out of their way to see the Cleveland Cavaliers before LeBron James played on the team (either time), but the Cavs regularly sell out visiting NBA arenas today, as he did when he played with the Miami Heat. But those people come to see LeBron do his thing, not to see the Cavs. I remember distinctly at Mavericks-Lakers games at the old Reunion arena that more people at those contests wore Kobe Bryant jerseys than were wearing Mavericks gear,

That’s what defines a superstar.

How many youngsters outside the state of Oklahoma do you imagine have Russell Westbrook posters on their bedroom walls? I’m betting a significantly greater number have posters of Steph, LeBron and Kobe.

And that’s another measure of superstardom. I don’t even have to mention their last names, but you know whom I am talking about.

Finally, check out this: the best selling NBA jerseys. The top three are 1. Steph Curry; 2. LeBron James; 3. Kobe Bryant. That’s how you define a superstar.

Incidentally, without looking, try to guess who is No. 4 on the jersey list. I’m betting you won’t get it. But it indicates that media exposure, more than talent and ability, drives superstardom.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Happy 74th, Bobby

This gives me the opportunity to ask myself a question that, quite frankly, I had not lost any sleep over trying to answer and that is "Was the movie Bye Bye Birdie really Bye Bye Bobby?". The reality is Bobby Rydell never had another major hit single after the film came out.

I never really understood why, but for two years, 1959 and 1960, Rydell was really a major star in the rock ‘n’ roll firmament, one of those "safe" vocalists like Frankie Avalon and Fabian that Dick Clark manufactured after Elvis was drafted in Clark’s blatant attempt to kill, or at least emasculate and domesticate, teen music tastes at that time.

He had a handful of hits, with Wild One, the song featured above as the one that ascended the highest on the charts, all the way to No. 2. Film producer Fred Kohlmar was so taken with Rydell and not only signed him to play Hugo, Ann Margret’s boyfriend, in the film musical Bye Bye Birdie but had the part completely rewritten from the stage version just for Rydell (on stage, the character of Hugo is not a speaking part).

So what did happen to Rydell? Like many other faded singers of the ‘50s and ‘60s (although it is worth noting here that the Rydell High School featured in both the stage and filmed versions of Grease is named after Bobby Rydell), he kept his career alive somewhat by performing in supper clubs and nightclubs, particularly in and around Las Vegas. He also maintains a high level of popularity in Australia. Don’t ask me why.

Unfortunately, health has become a problem for Rydell of late. He cancelled a planned Australian tour four years ago and in July 2012 he had double organ transplant surgery, having his liver and kidneys replaced. He did, however, play a three-night sold-out gig in Vegas in January 2013 and made good on his Australian tour in 2014.

Hope everything is well with you on the health front now, Bobby, and happy 74th birthday.

Monday, April 25, 2016

This week's DVD releases

***** A classic. Should be a part of any serious film lover’s permanent library.
**** Excellent with only a few minor flaws.
*** Worthy of renting or streaming.
** Below average, but mght have limited appeal to some tastes.
* Should be avoided at all costs.
No stars All copies should be confiscated and destroyed for humanity’s sake.

Click on title to see the film’s trailer.

Son of Saul **** Directed by Lazslo Nemes. In the horror of 1944 Auschwitz, a prisoner forced to burn the corpses of his own people finds moral survival upon trying to salvage from the flames the body of a boy he takes for his son. Offers a crushing view of humanity at its most desperate, and a view of one man's fevered efforts to find grace and dignity amid the horror. There's nothing trivial about this Hungarian masterwork from first-time director Nemes. You don't merely witness horror, you feel it in your bones.

Phoenix **** Directed by Christian Petzold. A disfigured Holocaust survivor (Nina Hoss) sets out to determine if the man she loved (Ronald Zehrfeld) betrayed her trust. The movie isn’t a thriller, but it still generates a strange sort of emotional suspense — an incredibly intense drama that makes you hold your breath, and it builds toward a total knockout of a final scene in which the story is resolved with hardly a word.

The Last Man on the Moon ***½ Directed by Mark Craig. When Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan stepped off the moon in December 1972 he left his footprints and his daughter's initials in the lunar dust. Now, more than 40 years later, he is ready to share his epic but deeply personal story of fulfillment, love, and loss. Using a rich trove of archival footage and interviews with Cernan, members of his family, other former astronauts and key Apollo mission figures, Craig charts the flight path of Cernan’s life. Cernan is proud of what he accomplished, calling himself the luckiest man in the world for all that he got to see. But he also expresses regret at having done it at the expense of his family.

Krampus ** Directed by Michael Dougherty. A boy (Emjay Anthony) who has a bad Christmas ends up accidentally summoning a Christmas demon to his family home. Occasionally funny, intermittently scary, but mostly hectic and sloppy, this tries very hard to be a different kind of Christmas movie.

Jane Got a Gun ** Directed by Gavin O’Connor. A woman (Natalie Portman) asks her ex-lover (Joel Edgerton) for help in order to save her outlaw husband from a gang out to kill him. The film just feels too much like an obligation, as though everyone involved had spent too much time and money to back out, so they forced themselves to grit their teeth and get on with it. You may feel the same.

Backtrack ** Directed by Michael Petroni. Psychologist Peter Bower's (Adrien Brody) life is thrown into turmoil when he discovers a strange secret about his patients. Eventually moves beyond its shamelessly borrowed set-up to create a few chills of its own.

Ride Along 2Directed by Tim Story. As his wedding day approaches, Ben (Kevin Hart) heads to Miami with his soon-to-be brother-in-law James (Ice Cube) to bring down a drug dealer who's supplying the dealers of Atlanta with product. One of the loudest laughs arrives when we get to enjoy a scowling James re-imagined as a game character. Points for greater diversity in the cast as well, but, if there is a second sequel in the offing, please allow the women to be more than the sum of their body parts.

Happy 76th, Al

I only have a few problems with this list. First and foremost, I am not that big a fan of Pacino’s Oscar-winning role in Scent of a Woman. I think he won that award because (1) the Academy felt he was long overdue for an Oscar (it marked the 20th anniversary of his first nomination), (2) it was considered a major departure from his usual roles and (3) to be honest, the competition was not all that strong that year. But what I always admired about Pacino on screen is that he seemed to actually be the characters he was portraying, which, to me, is the hallmark of great acting. In Scent of a Woman, he was clearly acting the role. I would have substituted Pacino’s performance as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Too many filmgoers ignore the realization that Pacino is one of the finest interpreters of Shakespeare currently working today.

I would also put his Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon as No. 1 on my list and then thrown the collective Godfather series together for No. 2. Pacino’s scene with Diane Keaton at the wedding that opens the original The Godfather is as fine a piece of acting as anything in the second installment. I mean, c’mon, how can you really separate them?

At any rate, today is Al Pacino’s 76th birthday.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Happy 74th, Barbra

I was a huge Barbra Streisand at this point in her career -- 1963.  I played her first four albums, the aptly named The Barbra Streisand Album and The Second Barbra Streisand Album as well as People and My Name Is Barbra, constantly. I was living in San Diego, Calif., at the time. By 1965 I had moved to New York City where Barbra had the city in the palm of her hand as the star of Funny Girl on Broadway. I looked upon the Winter Garden Theater, where the musical was being staged, as a shrine and many was the night I found myself at the stage door just watching as Streisand emerged. I saw the production at least eight times (which, incidentally, is nowhere close to as many times as I have seen Les Miserables.)

Three years later, I saw the film version and absolutely hated it. Mainly, I hated it because Omar Sharif was so badly miscast as Nicky Arnstein, who, as you can tell by this picture, looked nothing like Omar Sharif. But there was also something "off" about Barbra. She came across to me as no longer "a singer"; instead, she had become  "a star".

In the more than half-century since I purchased those first four Barbra Streisand albums, I have only bought two others, Stony End in 1971 The Broadway Album in 1985.

But there was one other memorable Streisand moment during these intervening years. It occurred in, of all places, Tempe, Ariz., during the filming of a misguided remake of A Star Is Born.  There is a sequence in the movie in which Streisand's character is on a concert tour and there are shots of concert goers giving her this incredibly wild reception. The filmmakers managed to get that crowd reaction by staging a rock concert at Sun Devil football stadium in Temple featuring Peter Frampton and Santana. In order to make sure the concert was a sellout, tickets were sold for $1.25. Because a lot of filming for the movie was taking place during the all-day concert, there were several delays between acts. During one of the more lengthy of these delays, Streisand, who had not performed live in several years, walked out on the stage and, with only a piano accompanying her, sang four songs. And she nailed it. She completely captivated the thousands of rockers who had come to see Santana and Frampton. She was spellbinding.

The day after the concert was set aside for us working journalist types to interview the principals involved in the film and during my interview with Streisand I asked her if the reception she had received from that audience had convinced her she might want to resume performing live. She looked at me as though I was crazy, then shrugged and said "Not so much."

Anyway, today Barbra Streisand celebrates her 74th birthday.

Happy Passover

A British Jew is waiting in line to be knighted by the Queen. He is to kneel in front of her and recite a sentence in Latin when she taps him on the shoulders with her sword. However, when his turn comes, he panics in the excitement of the moment and forgets the Latin. Then, thinking fast, he recites the only other sentence he knows in a foreign language, which he remembers from the Passover seder.

"Ma nishtana ha layla ha zeh mi kol ha laylot."

Puzzled, Her Majesty turns to her advisor and whispers, "Why is this knight different from all other knights?"

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Happy 79th birthday, Lee Majors

I will always associate Lee Majors with his 6 Million Dollar Man television series and for temporarily providing Farrah Fawcett with a third name. For some reason I never think about him in connection with The Big Valley or The Fall Guy and I definitely didn't know, until I saw this interview, that he was up for the role of Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy.

Do you have a problem with this plot

The film Passengers will open Dec. 21 of this year which means its studio is banking on this picture to be an awards contender. But I have a problem with its plot line and I wonder if anyone else shares ths concern.

The film is about a spaceship carrying 5,259 passengers on a 120-year trip to some colony in outer space. For obvious reasons, the 5,259 have been placed in a state of hibernation. However, 30 years into the trip there’s a malfunction with one of the hibernation chambers and the pod opens early. Out pops a character played by Chris Pratt.

OK, here’s the question I’m going to pose. What would you do in the unlikely situation you were faced with spending possibly 90 years as the only person among 5,259 who is awake? Now let’s say you were a 36-year-old guy with a 36-year-old guy’s sex drive who is the only person among 5,259 who is awake. Would you be so selfish as to awake and essentially sacrifice the life of another passenger, especially one who looked like Jennifer Lawrence, just so you wouldn’t have to face the rest of your life alone and also have someone to satisfy certain gratifications?

Think about it.

Best films of the second decade … so far

In his excellent and informative blog Hollywood Elsewhere, film critic Jeffrey Wells listed 54 films he called "really, really good" that have opened since 2010. Interesting list, but I think he may have been a tad too generous. Here are the films I rated either five-star or four-and-a-half-star films in that same period.

2016: None so far (Wells already has six, but some of them haven’t opened in Central Texas yet)

2015: Carol, Inside Out, 45 Years, Spotlight, Mad Max: Fury Road (5; Wells listed twice as many)

2014: Boyhood (1; Wells had 7)

2013: 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, Before Midnight, Inside Llewyn Davis, American Hustle, Her (6; Wells had 8)

2012: Zero Dark Thirty, Armour (2; Wells had 7)

2011: A Separation (1: Wells had 6)

2010: The Social Network, Toy Story 3, Winter’s Bone (3; Wells had 10)

So I have 18 films so far this decade that have received one of my two top ratings which is exactly a third the number Wells lists. Now, this list includes only those films I saw the first time in a theater and there were many more worthy films I only had the opportunity to view on DVD that made Wells’s list, such as The Tillman Story and A Prophet. But, still, I’m sticking by these choices.

Monday, April 18, 2016

This week's DVD releases


***** A classic. Should be a part of any serious film lover’s permanent library.
**** Excellent with only a few minor flaws.
*** Worthy of renting or streaming.
** Below average, but mght have limited appeal to some tastes.
* Should be avoided at all costs.
No stars All copies should be confiscated and destroyed for humanity’s sake.

Click on title to see the film’s trailer.
The Revenant ***½ Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. A frontiersman (Leonardo DiCaprio) on a fur trading expedition in the 1820s fights for survival after being mauled by a bear and left for dead by members of his own hunting team. Gorgeously shot by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Iñárritu’s savage endurance test of a film almost works better as a series of stunning images and surreal sequences than as an emotionally satisfying story. There’s a sense that the whole doesn’t quite equal the sum of the parts, no matter how spectacular some of them are.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon ***½ Directed by Douglas Tirola. A look at the history of the American comedy publication and production company from its beginning in the 1970s to 2010, featuring rare and never-before-seen footage. Tirola threads his way through a minefield of egos and grudges in his interviews and does some interesting stuff with animation in his presentation of some of the magazine pieces. Ultimately, what makes this documentary valuable is the sense it provides of how savage and uncompromising the National Lampoon was in its heyday.

The Lady in the Van ***½ Directed by Nicholas Hytner. A man (Alex Jennings) forms an unexpected bond with a transient woman (Maggie Smith) living in her van that's parked in his driveway. This is about a talented young writer still wrestling with how to draw upon his own experiences without exploiting others and it’s about the boundless talents of Smith, sometimes chewing up the screen, sometimes saying volumes simply by sitting very, very still, with a perfectly perfect expression on her face.

Sembene! *** Directed by Jason Silverman, Samba Gadjigo. A documentary that profiles one of Africa's most influential authors and filmmakers, Ousmane Sembène, who made his first film in 1963 and was a tireless advocate for the dispossessed in his native Senegal and throughout the continent. Sembène was an inspiration; thiis film is something less than that, petering out as it goes on, but at least offering a fair-minded tribute to a master.

Ip Man 3 **½ Directed by Wilson Yip. Ip Man (Donnie Yen) squares off against an unscrupulous property developer (Mike Tyson) and his gang of vicious thugs when they attempt to take over the city. Less offensively nationalistic than the second installment but falling short of the glowing humanity, genial Cantonese humor and visual flair of the first, the film is somewhat tarnished by its pedestrian plot and limp characterization.

All Mistakes Buried **½ Directed by Tim McCann. A struggling addict (Sam Trammell) takes on a dangerous underground criminal ring in his small Southern town to retrieve a stolen pendant he believes will save his marriage. Trammell’s drug-induced stammers and tics don’t by themselves add up to a compelling portrayal, nor is this drama of the down and out all that gripping.

Fifty Shades of Black * Directed by Michael Tiddes. An inexperienced college student meets a wealthy businessman whose sexual practices put a strain on their relationship. The funniest bit in the entire movie involves a particularly sadistic brand of torture inflicted on the heroine who quite rightly screams in protest, as should anyone forced to watch this DVD.

Misconduct * Directed by Shintaro Simosawa. When an ambitious young lawyer (Josh Duhamel) takes on a big case against a powerful and ruthless executive (Anthony Hopkins) of a large pharmaceutical company, he soon finds himself involved in a case of blackmail and corruption. Some handsome location shooting in New Orleans doesn’t make up for Hopkins’s relentless hamming and a plot that twists way beyond credibility.

Norm of the North * Directed by Trevor Wall. Accompanied by his three lemming friends, a playful polar bear named Norm sets off on a journey from the Arctic to New York City in an attempt to save his homeland from a greedy land developer. This is a bland, nearly incompetent animated movie. My 10-year-old granddaughter could craft a richer, more exciting polar bear adventure using nothing but Klondike bar wrappers and the power of her imagination.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The 100 Best Films of the Last 10 Years

This list consists only of films I saw for the first time in a theater.
1. Boyhood (2014)
2. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
3. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
4. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (2008)
5. Gravity (2013)
6. Ratatouille (2007)
7. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
8. Carol (2015)
9. The Social Network (2010)
10. A Separation (2011)
11. Inside Out (2015)
12. Amour (2012)
13. Before Midnight (2013)
14. Wall-E (2008)
15. 45 Years (2015)
16. The Hurt Locker (2009)
17. Spotlight (2015)
18. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
19. Toy Story 3 (2010)
20. There Will Be Blood (2007)
21. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)
22. The Queen (2006)
23. No Country for Old Men (2007)
24. American Hustle (2013)
25. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
26. Her (2013)
27. United 93 (2006)
28. Winter’s Bone (2010)
29. Persepolis (2007)
30. Selma (2014)
31. The Artist (2011)
32. The Lives of Others (2006)
33. Borat (2006)
34. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
35. Whiplash (2014)
36. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
37. Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
38. Anomalisa (2015)
39. The King’s Speech (2010)
40. Away from Her (2007)
41. Up (2009)
42. Once (2007)
43. All Is Lost (2013)
44. Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)
45. Brooklyn (2015)
46. Moneyball (2011)
47. Nebraska (2013)
48. Argo (2012)
49. Lincoln (2012)
50. Room (2015)
51. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
52. The Master (2012)
53. The Departed (2006)
54. The Kids Are All Right (2010)
55. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
56. The Babadook (2014)
57. Ponyo (2009)
58. Fruitvale Station (2013)
59. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
60. The Tree of Life (2011)
61. Knocked Up (2007)
62. The Savagaes (2007)
63. The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
64. The Host (2007)
65. Atonement (2007)
66. An Education (2009)
67. Take Shelter (2011)
68. Half Nelson (2006)
69. Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
70. Looper (2012)
71. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
72. The Descendants (2011)
73. Milk (2008)
74. Children of Men (2006)
75. Volver (2006)
76. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
77. Snowpiercer (2014)
78. Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)
79. Captain Phillips (2013)
80. The Lego Movie (2014)
81. Hugo (2011)
82. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
83. It Follows (2015)
84. Up in the Air (2009)
85. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
86. Avatar (2009)
87. Crazy Heart (2009)
88. Drag Me to Hell (2009)
89. Star Trek (2009)
90. Steve Jobs (2015)
91. The Spectacular Now (2013)
92. 127 Hours (2010)
93. Michael Clayton (2007)
94. Creed (2015)
95. The Dark Knight (2008)
96. Eastern Promises (2007)
97. Rachel Getting Married (2008)
98. Let the Right One In (2008)
99. Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens (2015)
100. Bridge of Spies (2015)

Monday, April 11, 2016

This week's (dismal) DVD releases


***** A classic. Should be a part of any serious film lover’s permanent library.
**** Excellent with only a few minor flaws.
*** Worthy of renting or streaming.
** Below average, but mght have limited appeal to some tastes.
* Should be avoided at all costs.
No stars All copies should be confiscated and destroyed for humanity’s sake.

Click on title to see the film’s trailer.
StandoffDirected by Adam Alleca. Carter (Thomas Jane), a troubled veteran, gets a chance at redemption by protecting a 12 year-old girl from an assassin (Laurence Fishburne) after she witnesses a murder. Writer-director Alleca is better at the keyboard, cooking up chewy tough talk, than behind the camera. The shootout stuff is only passably staged, and the blood-bursts (not entirely his fault) look digitally added, in some places.

The ForestDirected by Jason Zada. A woman (Natalie Dormer) goes into Japan's Suicide Forest to find her twin sister. The ever-game Dormer and that lovely green forest — which is, according to the press notes, played by a photogenic woodland in Serbia — deserve better.

Monday, April 4, 2016

This week's DVD releases

***** A classic. Should be a part of any serious film lover’s permanent library.
**** Excellent with only a few minor flaws.
*** Worthy of renting or streaming.
** Below average, but mght have limited appeal to some tastes.
* Should be avoided at all costs.
No stars All copies should be confiscated and destroyed for humanity’s sake.

Click on title to see the film’s trailer.
Of Men and War **** Directed by Laurent Becue-Renard. Documentary profiling a group of U.S. veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as they struggle to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder. A work of astounding sensitivity and precision, it argues for emotional honesty as a moral and psychic imperative. The access that Bécue-Renard got, reportedly after five months of being there without a camera, is remarkable.

Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens **** Directed by J.J. Abrams. Three decades after the defeat of the Galactic Empire, a new threat arises. The First Order attempts to rule the galaxy and only a ragtag group of heroes can stop them, along with the help of the Resistance. The action, from lightsaber duels to X-wing dogfights with TIE Fighters, is explosive and buoyed by John Williams’ exultant score. And the movie is also funny as hell. Abrams knows how to build a laugh and fill the emotional spaces between words. Abrams understands what George Lucas never quite figured out: that we’re less interested in the science fiction future than we are in revisiting the past. We don’t really want to see what happens next in that galaxy far, far away. We want to recapture what it felt like the first time we arrived, in 1977, with a movie called Star Wars. We want to go home. This film takes us there. The ending Abrams’s come up with feels so perfect it’s hard to imagine it any other way. In an age when we’ve all become binge watchers, we feel as if it’s become our right to immediately roll right into the next episode, the next sequel. And when this film ends, it’s bittersweet because you so badly want to head right into the next chapter.

How to Change the World ***½ Directed by Jerry Rothwell. Spanning the years 1971-79, this documentary chronicles the birth of Greenpeace, which quickly became a media-savvy organization that used the power of images as a mechanism for environmental change. Whatever you think of Greenpeace’s less well-considered antics over the years, this is a compelling story of one environmentalist’s remarkable combination of prescience, grit and timing.

The Hallow *** Directed by Corin Hardy. Soon after a London conservationist (Joseph Mawie) and his family arrive at their new home — a secluded millhouse in Ireland — he discovers that the land he’s been sent to survey is populated by demonic creatures who prey on children. In a departure from the sexually active teens of most slasher movies, this film plays on more grown-up fears: keeping your family safe and steering clear of a vengeful Mother Nature.

Bad Hurt *** Directed by Mark Kemble. With one son battling post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his combat experiences and a special-needs adult daughter to care for, beleaguered parents Elaine (Karen Allen)and Ed Kendall (Michael Harney) find themselves stretched to their emotional limits. Kemble takes great care to construct a tough Staten Island-raised, Irish-American history so each personal struggle depicted can be traced back and rendered authentic.

Tumbledown *** Directed by Sean Mewshaw. A young woman (Rebecca Hall) struggles to move on with her life after the death of her husband, an acclaimed folk singer. That it sort of works in spite of all its clichés is a testament to the gifts of its lead actors.

Dixieland ** Directed by Hank Bedford. Fresh out of jail, Kermit (Chris Zylka) returns home vowing to stay on the straight and narrow. But after falling for the pretty girl next door, Kermit finds himself agreeing to pull off one last job. Bedford delivers some tactile, human details. But the film is slow and often agonizingly predictable.

Prescription Thugs ** Directed by Chris Bell, Greg Young, Josh Alexander. Surveying the surge of prescription drug abuse in the United States, this documentary questions the motives and ethics of pharmaceutical manufacturers that earn huge profits from promoting dangerously addictive products. Even before a "do as I say, not as I do" twist costs all of its credibility, this is a not very good documentary about a very important subject.

#Horror ** Directed by Tara Subkoff. Follows a group of preteens as they become increasingly involved in an intriguing online game that leads them to a threshold of real-life horror. Viewers, given not an ounce of human warmth nor one person to care about, finally have no choice but to cheer for the anonymous cyberbully who wants them all dead.

Mojave ** Directed by William Monahan. A suicidal artist (Garrett Hedlund) goes into the desert, where he finds a homicidal drifter (Oscar Isaac). In a simpler form, the movie might have been a gripping if minor genre film. Instead, it’s undone by the sort of pretentious overwriting that might have seemed impressive in the ‘70s but now comes across as merely forced.

The Masked Saint * Directed by Warren P. Sonoda. Former professional wrestler Chris Samuels (Brett Granstaff) becomes a small-town Baptist pastor who, in addition to performing his ecclesiastical duties, doubles as a masked vigilante prepared to violently protect his flock from marauding criminals. Veering from broad small-town comedy to heavy-handed vigilante dramatics, and marbled with the sort of spiritual epiphanies typically mastered in Sunday school rather than seminary, this Canadian indie seems unlikely to galvanize the faithful.