Thursday, October 27, 2016

My Top 25 College Football Teams (after week 8)

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Alabama 8-0 (1)
2.  Michigan 7-0 (2)
3.  Clemson 7-0 (4)
4.  Ohio State 6-1 (3)
5.  Washington 7-0 (6)
6.  Louisville 6-1 (7)
7.  Texas A&M 6-1 (5)
8.  West Virginia 6-0 (11)
9.  Western Michigan 8-0 (8)
10. Auburn 5-2 (16)
11. Boise State 7-0 (15)
12. Wisconsin 5-2 (12)
13. Nebraska 7-0 (9)
14. Tennessee 5-2 (14)
15. Colorado 6-2 (20)
16. Florida State 5-2 (10)
17. Baylor 6-0 (21)
18. LSU 5-2 (23)
19. Florida 5-1 (19)
20. Washington State 5-2 (18)
21. Penn State 5-2 (NR)
22. Oklahoma 5-2 (17)
23. Utah 7-1 (NR)
24. Virginia Tech 5-2 (NR)
25. USC 4-3 (NR)
Dropped out: Houston, Arkansas, Mississippi, Stanford

Monday, October 24, 2016

Forced to amend my Oscar predictions

With today’s announcement that Viola Davis will compete for a best supporting actress Oscar that means I have to change my forecast I posted a week ago in which I had her listed as a favorite to win a best actress nomination for her role in Fences.

Viola Davis in Fences
This decision of Davis’s to move into supporting also means that Emma Stone has all but locked up this year’s best actress trophy. Davis was the only actress that could give Stone any competition. Now Stone’s main competition will come from Natalie Portman, but I don’t think Academy voters will find the depth in Portman’s performance that is so central in Stone’s.

It also means Aja Naomie King must move from my list of predicted nominees for best supporting actress to a "possible" designation. It also means I must rethink my position that Michelle Williams was the sure thing for the supporting actress Oscar.

This week's DVD releases

Captain Fantastic ***

Bucking the seasonal movie empty spectacle approach, Captain Fantastic is about something. Despite the title, which might stir images of a superhero story, this is a human drama about the bonds that hold and sever families and the conflict between two very different philosophies surrounding how to raise children in today’s world. Matt Ross’ screenplay occasionally stumbles (especially late in the proceedings) and the ending opts for a too-facile resolution but the director/writer offers moments of genuine power and pathos that make it easy to forgive the missteps.

Ben (Viggo Mortensen) has taken a back-to-nature lifestyle to an extreme. He and his wife, Leslie (Trin Miller), have moved to an isolated Pacific Northwest homestead to raise their six children: Bo (George MacKay), Keilyr (Samantha Isler), Vespyr (Annalise Basso), Reillian (Nicholas Hamilton), Zaja (Shree Crooks), and Nai (Charlie Shotwell). When Leslie is admitted to a hospital for treatment, the task of raising the children falls on Ben’s shoulders. The daily regimen includes not only the intensive studying of literature, mathematics, science, and history but a full diet of physically taxing activities and chores. When Leslie takes her own life, Ben is faced with the difficulty of re-entering society (if only temporarily) with his children to attend the funeral. There, he encounters well-meaning relatives (Kathryn Hahn, Steve Zahn) who view his parenting choices with skepticism, and Leslie’s wealthy and influential father, Jack (Frank Langella), who is determined to take his grandchildren away from their father.

Although Captain Fantastic sides with Ben’s parenting techniques from an emotional perspective, Ross’s script shows the pros and cons of his approach as contrasted with the more conventional philosophy espoused by Jack. For most of the film, it remains an open question whether the children — bright, independent, articulate, and socially awkward — are better served by being separated from society or whether they would benefit from being integrated. The film’s resolution is too pat and pushes aside the idea that the back-to-nature style might not only be detrimental to the children’s social and emotional well-being but could be physically damaging as well.

Captain Fantastic’s most potent scenes focus on how the family copes with Leslie’s death. Although we see her only in flashbacks, her importance to everything is evident and the hole left by her departure is profound. This is most clearly shown by the reactions of the two youngest children (played perfectly by Crooks and Shotwell), who have trouble coping with the thought of never seeing their mother again. The need for closure forces Ben to re-enter society and, although this leads to a few quasi-humorous fish-out-of-water scenarios (including Bo’s first kiss), there are also some painful situations. Jack, although presented as an antagonist, is effectively humanized. He is motivated not by malice but by a genuine belief that Ben is dangerous and deranged.

The performances are strong across-the-board, with all of the child actors providing fully realized interpretations of their characters. Hahn and Zahn, better known for comedy, are effective in small (but important) roles. Langella, as always, captivates with a ferocious portrayal. Mortensen, so far distanced from his career-defining role as Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, displays tremendous range as the film’s foundation; his scenes with Langella are riveting. (He also provides some full frontal nudity.)

Captain Fantastic stands as a testimony to the difficulty of raising children in an unconventional way, especially when the fabric of the family is torn asunder by grief and the inevitable need for independence exhibited by the older offspring. Although the film contains enough comedy to prevent it from becoming maudlin, this is primarily a dramatic story and its most potent and memorable scenes are aspects of the central conflict — a refreshing change-of-pace in one of Hollywood’s most emotionally inert years in recent memory.

Lights Out **
Fear of the dark — few phobias are more common across the spectrum of modern society. Horror, in all its shapes, sizes, and forms, often works by exploiting this. It’s an underpinning of vampire stories and almost all horror films save their goriest scenes for the night. By taking this to a literal extreme, Lights Out would seem to have uncovered a foolproof path to frightening audience members. Unfortunately, the film stumbles, offering too few legitimate scares and displaying an overreliance on traditional horror movie clichés. Is the PG-13 rating a problem? Possibly — it’s tough to generate the level of psychological intensity necessary for true terror when constrained by a kid-friendly rating. Is it a deficiency in director David F. Sandberg’s approach? Again, possibly, although he found success in the 2013 three-minute short upon which this feature length version is based. Or is it that the story isn’t as compelling as the concept?

The premise of Lights Out is something we all accept as children but lose sight of as we grow older: monsters only come out when it’s dark. In this movie’s realm, the rule applies concretely. As long as there’s a light source, the demon/ghost/supernatural presence is constrained. But once the sun has set and the lights are out, it has free rein. In order to make this work, Sandberg must employ an army of contrivances to explain why lights are always going out, flashlights are failing, and candle flames are flickering. He also occasionally cheats. The creature can reside in a lighted area as long as it’s in shadow. And, in true horror movie tradition, all the characters make inexplicably stupid decisions.

Although the film boasts a few solid jump-scare "boo!" moments, it proves unable to sustain suspense over its relatively short 81 minutes. The camerawork is unremarkable (consider how James Wan used viewpoint in The Conjuring 2 to amplify tension) and the characters are thinly drawn. Lights Out also spends an inordinate amount of time providing a backstory for the creature and explaining its nature and purpose. All this exposition violates the key horror movie precept of "less is more." Unexplained monsters are always more frightening than ones that arrive with a resume. (Sandberg’s muddled attempts to connect the monster’s existence with the psychosis of a human character is less-than-satisfying and never seems to make much sense.)

Lights Out starts as a conventional "child in danger" story. Elementary schooler Martin (Gabriel Bateman), who has recently lost his father (Billy Burke) in what we know to be a supernatural mauling, lives under the care of his deranged mother, Sophie (Maria Bello). Sophie is prone to erratic behavior, talking to herself, and engaging in congress with something unpleasant that hides in the shadows. Unable to sleep and fearing for his sanity, Martin approaches his grown-up sister, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), for a place to stay. Eventually, Rebecca, Martin, and Rebecca’s boyfriend, Bret (Alexander DiPersia), venture into Sophie’s haunted house, which comes complete with unreliable lighting and a ghost with a bad attitude.

For those who like scary movies, there are few things more viscerally satisfying than ghost tales that deliver. Those films aren’t about a coherent narrative or an airtight story. Their goal, quite simply, is to freak viewers out. To do that, all they have to do is create sympathetic characters, put those characters in harm’s way, and (most importantly) generate a suffocatingly ominous atmosphere, pregnant with tension and punctuated by moments of extreme terror. Although Lights Out does an adequate job with the characters, it fails to elevate its tone and style above those of any generic PG-13 horror movie. It’s a shame to see a clever premise developed in such an underwhelming fashion but that’s too often been the fate of horror concepts since Hollywood decided to tailor a lion’s share of the genre for pre-teens and young teenagers.

Nerve **
Pretending to warn us of online dangers, Nerve succeeds mainly in showing us how exhilarating it can be to embrace them. Adapting Jeanne Ryan’s 2012 young-adult novel of the same name, the directors, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, return to the topic that provoked their 2010 documentary, Catfish: the seductiveness and malleability of internet identity.

For Vee (Emma Roberts), a shy high-school senior longing to escape her Staten Island home, a livelier, bolder self seems just the ticket. So when a friend introduces her to a real-time game app in which Players accept dares from Watchers to win cash, Vee is soon on board. It helps that her first task is to kiss a stranger, and that he’s played by Dave Franco.

The Watchers love them, offering dares of increasing recklessness and remuneration until the two realize they are trapped. The details of this are sketchy — apparently, people who can anonymously fill your bank account can also drain it — but the larger problem is a screenplay that amounts to little more than a string of flashy stunts before fizzling to a contrived close.

For all its hints at imminent catastrophe, Nerve feels surprisingly tame. Juliette Lewis appears briefly as Vee’s spectacularly clueless mother, and the endearing young actor Miles Heizer (so perfectly awkward in NBC’s Parenthood) is forced to play Vee’s best friend mostly from inside a car.

Internet personalities, like the Instagram comic Josh Ostrovsky, fail to fill in the blanks where real actors should be, but an unusually wide-ranging soundtrack — Wu-Tang Clan and Benny Mardones! — offers spot-that-tune distraction. Nerve might have nothing novel to say about the internet, but if it spikes downloads of Roy Orbison’s You Got It, who can complain?

This week’s other DVD releases
The Apostate **½ Finds humor in unusual images or situations, few resounding with lasting impact.
Zoom ** There is an interesting film buried in Zoom, and it’s one to seek out if you’re a fan of more daring visual choices in film. It’s just a shame that the script couldn’t have matched the direction and visuals in its intriguing approach to world building.
Skiptrace ** The film's bloated action-comedy machinery prevents any real chemistry from forming between Jackie Chan and Johnny Knoxville.
Mr. Church * A small, unflashy, borderline incompetent movie like this one is certainly another sign that Eddie Murphy does what he wants. Maybe this guarded performance in a lousy movie is a sign of him wanting to do something better.
Papa: Hemingway in Cuba * The film manages to be exceedingly dull, perhaps because it's too enamored of its own design, concept and location to bother with a captivating story.

**** Excellent.
*** Good.
** Fair
* Poor
No stars Abysmal

Thursday, October 20, 2016

My Top 25 College Football Teams (after week 7)

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Alabama 7-0 (2)
2.  Michigan 6-0 (1)
3.  Ohio State 6-0 (4)
4.  Clemson 7-0 (3)
5.  Texas A&M 6-0 (5)
6.  Washington 6-0 (6)
7.  Louisville 5-1 (7)
8.  Western Michigan 7-0 (16)
9.  Nebraska 6-0 (15)
10. Florida State 5-2 (10)
11. West Virginia 5-0 (19)
12. Wisconsin 4-2 (9)
13. Houston 6-1 (12)
14. Tennessee 5-2 (8)
15. Boise State 6-0 (13)
16. Auburn 4-2 (17)
17. Oklahoma 4-2 (25)
18. Washington State 4-2 (23)
19. Florida 5-1 (21)
20. Colorado 5-2 (NR)
21. Baylor 6-0 (20)
22. Arkansas 5-2 (NR)
23. Mississippi 3-3 (14)
24. LSU 4-2 (24)
25. USC 4-3 (NR)
Dropped out: Virginia Tech; Miami, Fla.; Stanford

Monday, October 17, 2016

This week's DVD releases

Café Society **½

Café Society, Woody Allen’s latest movie, comes wrapped in a double layer of nostalgia. Set in the 1930s, partly in Los Angeles, its script compulsively mentions Hollywood stars of the era. Joan Blondell! Robert Taylor! Barbara Stanwyck! Cagney and Crawford! Astaire and Rogers! Their names ring out like answers to trivia questions nobody had thought to ask.

When I saw this at a theater in Austin, one fellow a few rows behind me chuckled at every name. I don’t think because the allusions were especially funny — the sentence "Adolphe Menjou is threatening to walk off the set" is not exactly a gut-buster, even in context — but because they signified a cultural awareness that the laugher in the dark wanted the rest of us to know he shared. And also perhaps because the dropped names stood in for jokes that the modern audience is too ignorant to get and that Allen has grown too lazy to make. He can gaze back fondly at the fast-receding golden age of Depression-era popular culture, and the rest of us can wistfully recall a time when he was able to spin those memories into better films than this one.

There’s no point in growing misty-eyed. Café Society is not Radio Days or Bullets Over Broadway. We can live with that. I’m happy to report that it’s not The Curse of the Jade Scorpion or Magic in the Moonlight, either. Which is to say that it’s neither another example of bad, late Woody Allen nor much in the way of a return to form. It is, overall, an amusing little picture, with some inspired moments and some sour notes, a handful of interesting performances and the hint, now and then, of an idea.

Like most of Allen’s recent work, this movie takes place within the hermetically enclosed universe of its maker’s long-established preoccupations. Rather than find fresh themes or problems, he likes to rearrange the old ones into a newish pattern, emphasizing some elements and letting others drift into the background. Here the dominant conceit is Allen’s well-documented ambivalence about California and the industry that has often seemed ambivalent about him. He loves movies, but Hollywood, with its shallowness and gossip, has always repelled him.

But with the help of his gifted collaborators, the production designer Santo Loquasto and the cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, he bathes "the film colony" in golden light and swathes its denizens in lovely period clothes. He sends an ambitious Bronx boy, Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), out West to seek his fortune. At first cold-shouldered by his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a powerful agent, Bobby is eventually taken under Phil’s wing and plunged into a swirl of parties and power lunches. He’s suitably intoxicated by his new surroundings.

"I’ve never mixed Champagne with bagels and lox," he says.

"Welcome to Hollywood," someone replies.

That’s not a bad line, and there are some other pretty good ones sprinkled throughout the sprawling script. Bobby’s bickering parents, played by Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott, supply a few Yiddish-inflected laughs, as well as the requisite touch of metaphysical fatalism. ("I accept death, but under protest," Dad says. "Protest to who?" Mom responds. Also not a bad line.) The ensemble is larger and the story looser than in Allen’s last few movies, making room for Corey Stoll’s relaxed turn as Bobby’s charismatic gangster brother and Parker Posey and Paul Schneider’s intriguing double act as a cynical and apparently happily married pair of bicoastal sophisticates.

The axis on which everything turns is an old-fashioned love triangle that includes, of course, the passion of an older man for a younger woman. It turns out that Bobby and Phil are both in love with a transplanted Nebraskan called Vonnie (short for Veronica), who is Phil’s secretary. Kristen Stewart’s performance in the role, which blends gravity and lightness, glamour and its opposite, is certainly the best part of Café Society, but it also exposes just how thin and tired the rest of the movie is.

Allen’s literal voice, which supplies narration, sounds unusually sluggish and weary. The same is true of his voice as a writer and director. For every snappy scene or exchange there are three or four that feel baggy and half-written. We are treated to one survey of the clientele at the swanky Manhattan nightclub that is Bobby’s post-Hollywood professional perch and then, a while later, to another. We wander into jazz clubs and dining rooms and seem unsure of why we’ve come. Blake Lively, wandering into the movie’s second half as a second Veronica, seems to feel the same way. The movie seems much longer than its 96 minutes.

Every once in a while we hear or see something that makes us cringe a little: a harsh, unfunny encounter between Bobby and a prostitute shortly after his arrival in Los Angeles; an anecdote about Errol Flynn’s sexual interest in underage girls. It’s hard to say if Allen is testing the audience’s tolerance or trolling our sensitivities, or for that matter if he’s just blithely carrying on as he always has, oblivious to changing mores or the vicissitudes of his own reputation.. It doesn’t really matter because Café Society ultimately poses no interesting questions about its maker or its characters. The movie most closely resembles the kind of Hollywood product for which its deepest nostalgia is reserved. It’s a pop-culture throwaway, a charming bit of trivia, the punch line to a half-forgotten joke.

Our Kind of Traitor **
For John le Carré, the Manichaeism of the Cold War allowed for a free play of moral ambiguities in spy novels such as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a quality shared by their TV and movie adaptations. But with such ideological absolutes gone, espionage has lost the moral and ethical certainties that encourage irony, cynicism, and tragedy. At least in Susanna White and screenwriter Hossein Amini’s adaptation of Le Carrés 2010 novel Our Kind of Traitor, what remains are the familiar platitudes of heroism and family values.

And why not — if you overlook his Russian mafia tattoos and a career of corruption, extortion, and murder, Dima (an overly bearish Stellan Skarsgård) is just a family guy at heart. As a kid he witnessed his mother being raped by a KGB agent. He took the guy’s gun and shot him. "It was my mother," he explains to Perry (Ewan McGregor), the mild British literature professor he buttonholes at a party. "I’m sentimental."

The party is a decadent oligarchical bash in Marrakech where Perry, like the reluctant heroes in Hitchcock’s two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much, is an unwitting vacationer who finds himself the bearer of a life or death message. Dima is the odd man out in a mob power shift. To save his skin — and, more importantly, to save his big, spoiled family — he is trying to arrange a deal with British intelligence using Perry as a go-between.

Despite the fact that Perry is at odds with his wife (Naomie Harris) for sleeping with a student, Dima sees him as a "gentleman," loyal to family and willing to take foolhardy risks for the sake of honor. Eventually, that’s how Perry sees himself also.

Perhaps Perry’s self discovery occurs while he lectures to a class about T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, explaining how that poem’s description of a world that has lost its values is now more valid than ever. Whatever the turning point, his transformation from feckless academic to stalwart knight occurs too easily. It should be the heart of the story, but instead is just a troublesome detail in a hollow movie.

Alice Through the Looking Glass *
Alice Through the Looking Glass is a movie for anyone who ever skimmed a passage of Lewis Carroll and thought, "This is great, but it could use a bit more Terminator."

In Disney’s crass, pointless sequel to its similarly crass, pointless Alice in Wonderland (2010), our heroine doesn’t just tumble down a rabbit hole or step through a magic mirror. Availing herself of an early DeLorean prototype called the Chronosphere, Alice (played again by Mia Wasikowska) goes careening back and forth through time, embarking on a frenzied quest to save her friend the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) by plumbing his messy family history and correcting the mistakes of the past.

It’s a pity she doesn’t set the device for 2007: Perhaps she might have retroactively persuaded the director Tim Burton and the decision-makers at Disney to spare us the further desecration of a literary classic. Their live-action Alice in Wonderland was less an adaptation of its source material — which included both Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) — than an exercise in what the Mock Turtle memorably termed "Uglification." A gloppy-looking 3-D eyesore weighed down by noisy action sequences and other soul-deadening focus-group notions of what kids want from their fantasy entertainment, the movie reproduced none of Carroll’s cleverness, imagination or mastery of language, or even the easygoing charm of Disney’s 1951 animated version.

Still, it was enough of a box-office hit to garner a follow-up, this time under the direction of James Bobin (who directed the two most recent Muppets movies). Burton's devotees will be relieved to learn that, even in his absence, Alice Through the Looking Glass is a feast of garishly overwrought, effects-encrusted production design. Meanwhile, the returning screenwriter Linda Woolverton (best remembered for Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King) has again plundered elements from Carroll’s books and reshuffled them into a pedestrian narrative, replacing his sui generis nonsense with her own strenuously unimaginative and literal-minded storytelling.

Picking up more or less where its predecessor left off — and no, I couldn’t remember where, either — the film begins with Alice on the high seas, captaining her late father’s ship, the Wonder, through perilous waters in search of trade routes to China (reintroducing a perhaps unintended metaphor for the global challenges presently facing the movie industry). As played by Wasikowska with grown-up, no-nonsense seriousness, Alice is a trailblazing explorer and a Victorian-era role model: Decked out in the latest in 19th century Sino chic, she is beset on all sides by sneering men who want to either marry her or see her fail.

From there, the story quickly whisks Alice through the proverbial looking glass and back to Wonderland — or Underland, as it is inconsistently referred to here. Before long she is reunited with the ethereally ditzy White Queen (Anne Hathaway), the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) and the imperious butterfly Absolem (occasioning a few poignant final line readings from Alan Rickman). Her old friends are happy to see her, as it seems only Alice can cure the Mad Hatter of his recent descent into catatonic depression.

As a rule, unless you’re Spike Jonze adapting Maurice Sendak, it’s not a great idea to turn your fantasy-world characters into moody therapy cases. Alice Through the Looking Glass is rarely more tiresome than when it’s probing the Hatter’s deep-seated daddy issues, which can’t help but feel like a tired holdover from familiar Burtonian territory (see, if you must: Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Depp, again sporting multihued makeup and a Carrot Top wig, isn't playing Mad so much as Morose as he tries — with simpering, sometimes nauseating results — to unlock the tragic clown within.

The Hatter isn’t the only one suffering the effects of some distant family trauma. There’s also the head-hungry Red Queen, played once more by Helena Bonham Carter with a witchy cackle and a severe case of computer-generated macrocephaly. We learn exactly how she and her younger sister, the White Queen, became lifelong enemies, in flashbacks to their checkered past that play like outtakes from What Ever Happened to Baby Queen? Of all the ways to bring Carroll’s characters to life on screen, is there anything more tedious one could do than try to explain them — to subject them to the tenets of modern-day psychoanalysis? What’s next? Humpty-Dumpty’s secret history of sexual deviance? Tweedledum and Tweedledee: A Study in Codependency?

The inconvenient truth of the original books is that they have never been particularly well suited to cinematic adaptation. As anyone who has spent hours poring over Martin Gardner’s marvelous The Annotated Alice knows, the two-part Alice narrative is less a traditional story than a brainy free-associative labyrinth — densely packed with puns, poems, parodies, allusions and riddles, and assembled with an almost architectural rigor and complexity (Carroll was, among other things, an accomplished mathematician).

Understandably, filmmakers have tended to seize on the fabulous images offered up by the author’s work, but the truest version of Alice would be a verbal achievement first and foremost, not a visual one. But even allowing for a less faithful, more free-form adaptation, Alice Through the Looking Glass, like Alice in Wonderland before it, represents a profound failure of imagination and a betrayal of the material’s spirit.

At every turn the filmmakers have simplified, banalized and sentimentalized Alice and her psychological landscape in ways that reek of ignorance at best and cynicism at worst. Watching these movies, you would never guess the Jabberwocky was the subject of one of the most linguistically inventive poems ever written; he’s just another forgettable, fire-breathing CGI beastie. And while it’s never unpleasant to spend time in Wasikowska’s company, the actress doesn’t seem to be playing a strong fantasy heroine so much as some vague, derivative concept of what a strong fantasy heroine should be.

As Alice flies between past and present, her chief nemesis — and eventually, her ally — is Time itself, played here as a sort of tyrannical, Teutonic-accented man-clock by Sacha Baron Cohen (who previously worked with Bobin on Da Ali G Show). The jab at German efficiency elicits a small chuckle, and your jaw might drop at the sight of Time’s castle — a massive mechanical enclave that brings the gears and pulleys of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo to mind and serves as a nicely gothic contrast to the film’s bright, gaudy colors. For a brief moment, time really does seem to stand still, and you may stop begrudging this misbegotten movie for wasting yours.

Independence Day: Resurgence *
The aliens are back, and they want more of the same thing they wanted before, maybe?

Not that it matters, really. Independence Day: Resurgence, the sequel you probably didn’t want or need to the 1996 smash-hit blockbuster Independence Day, is all about the spectacle. And yes, all massive seasonal disaster pictures are like that — especially when they come from director Roland Emmerich, returning from the original Independence Day. Shock and awe are his bread and butter.

But Resurgence — which, surprisingly, isn’t the title of a fourth Divergent movie — feels even more shiny and empty than most of these kinds of films. It’s not completely terrible. It’s just dull and hollow — a massive waste of time and money. The characters are flimsy, the dialogue is stilted and the amount of destruction is ridiculous, even if that’s all pretty typical for the brand of blockbusters inspired by Emmerich's 1996 hit.

You go see a movie like Independence Day for the visceral thrills, but here, they’re in woefully short supply. Because so many movies have come along in the past two decades featuring this kind of high-tech annihilation, Resurgence feels like a glossy copy of the sort of blockbuster we’ve watched countless times before. Entire cities get sucked up into the sky and dropped back down again. Fighter jets engage in dizzying dogfights with speedy alien aircraft. Major global landmarks get blowed up real good. There is exactly one scene toward the end, featuring a big reveal of the real enemy, that offers the sort of excitement and stakes you’re hoping to see. But man, is it a slog to get there.

Will Smith wisely opted out of the sequel, although the original Independence Day is the movie that made him a superstar. Several actors do return, however, to establish some vague sense of continuity. They include Bill Pullman as the former President of the United States, Jeff Goldblum as the voice-of-reason alien defense expert and Judd Hirsch as Goldblum’s father, who ostensibly exists to provide comic relief but merely functions once again as a lame stereotype of an elderly Jewish man from Brooklyn. (The screenplay, which bafflingly took five people to write, allows him to say the words "schmuck" AND "putz.")

Added to the mix this time is a multicultural array of young actors who do little more than run, look pretty and exchange green laser fire with aliens. Liam Hemsworth, who apparently was told that he’s starring in a Top Gun remake, plays Jake, a hotshot fighter pilot who swaggers, preens and exchanges wisecracking banter with his partner/Goose figure, Charlie (Travis Tope). He’s engaged to Patricia (Maika Monroe), who’s the daughter of Pullman’s former President Whitmore and a speechwriter for the current president (Sela Ward). And Jake’s best-friend-turned-enemy just happens to be Dylan (Jessie T. Usher), the son of Smith’s heroic character. (Handsome as he is, Usher doesn’t have a smidgen of the screen presence Smith did; then again, who does? Even Hemsworth doesn’t get much of a chance to show any real charisma here.)

There’s also William Fichtner who, surprisingly, doesn’t turn out to be a secret villain for once as the commanding general; model/actress Angelababy, who basically exists to serve as eye candy and appeal to coveted Chinese moviegoers; and, in the strangest bit of casting of all, Charlotte Gainsbourg as a psychiatrist studying people who’ve come into contact with aliens.

And — what are the odds? — the aliens have come back, exactly 20 years later in a flair for the dramatic, to make contact again. Only this time, they’re in a spaceship that’s 3,000 miles wide. ("How the hell did we miss this?," Goldblum’s David Levinson wonders aloud.) They use it to latch onto Earth in order to drill into its core and steal our resources. Or something. Only a giant, talking orb — smooth, shiny, white and full of crucial intergalactic information, like the latest must-have device to roll off the Apple assembly line — can stop the obliteration of humanity.

You could look at it as a satirical metaphor for the growing sense of xenophobia and isolation that plagues places throughout the globe: "These invaders are coming here illegally to take from us and wreak havoc. We have to keep them out. We have to make Earth great again." But that would require thinking.

Emmerich crosscuts between all these various characters and storylines with little sense of pacing or coherence. Just as something "important" is happening, he’ll jump over to something else, mixing suspense, seriousness and silliness in a way that’s jarring. Whereas the attempts at humor in the midst of great peril often worked in the original Independence Day — because it was a movie that was self-aware without teetering into parody — here, they’re consistently clunky.

And because so much of the action takes place in various bunkers full of enormous monitors and anxious, uniformed people barking orders, it’s hard to tell who’s where. Washington D.C.? Area 51? The moon? They all look exactly the same.

They will all look exactly the same again — at least to the aliens — when the inevitable third Independence Day movie comes out, as it’s suggested in the film’s final moments. This time, you’ve been warned.

Other new DVD releases this week:
What We Become **½ It’s the same low-budget horror flick you’ve seen many times before, but it’s nice to see some local variants on a familiar theme.
Front Cover ** A movie weighed down by heavy-handed dialogue and a melodramatic score.
Spaceman * Throughout the film, the wrong characters are in focus, inexplicable close-ups abound, and director Brett Rapkin’s got the camera on rails, moving and panning for seemingly no reason.
The Good Neighbor * A film that — from its basic set-up to its dearth of tension — plays like the tedious inverse of Don't Breathe.
Ghost Team ½* Neither scary nor funny.
God’s Not Dead 2 ½* This is a much better movie than God’s Not Dead, but that’s a bit like saying a glass of milk left on the table hasn’t curdled and is merely sour.

**** Excellent.
*** Good.
** Fair
* Poor
No stars Abysmal

Sunday, October 16, 2016

October's predictions for 2016 major category Oscar nominations

(Listed alphabetically)

Billy Lynn's Long Halftme Walk
La La Land
Manchester By the Sea
Other possible nominees: Arrival, Silence

Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Ang Lee, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester By the Sea
Martin Scorsese, Silence
Denzel Washington, Fences
Other possible nominees: Barry Jenkins, Moonlight; Jeff Nichols, Loving

Annette Bening, 20th Century Woman
Viola Davis, Fences
Ruth Negga, Loving
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Emma Stone, La La Land
Other possible nominee: Amy Adams, Arrival

Casey Affleck, Manchester By the Sea
Joel Edgerton, Loving
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Dev Patel, Lion
Denzel Washington, Fences
Other possible nominees: Tom Hanks, Sully; Michael Keaton, The Founder

Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Nicole Kidman, Lion
Aja Naomie King, The Birth of a Nation
Kristen Stewart, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
Michelle Williams, Manchester By the Sea

Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges, Manchester By the Sea
Liam Neeson, Silence
Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals
Other possible nominees: Hugh Grant, Florence Foster Jenkins; Steve Martin, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Monday, October 10, 2016

My Top 25 College Football Teams After Week 6

Last week's rank in parenthesis
1.  Michigan 6-0 (1)
2.  Alabama 6-0 (2)
3.  Clemson 6-0 (4)
4.  Ohio State 5-0 (3)
5.  Texas A&M 6-0 (5)
6.  Washington 6-0 (7)
7.  Louisville 4-1 (9)
8.  Tennessee 5-1 (8)
9.  Wisconsin 4-1 (11)
10. Florida State 4-2 (16)
11. Houston 5-1 (6)
12. Virginia Tech 4-1 (21)
13. Boise State 5-0 (18)
14. Mississippi 3-2 (14)
15. Nebraska 5-0 (15)
16. Western Michigan 6-0 (13)
17. Auburn 4-2 (24)
18. Miami, Fla. 4-1 (10)
19. West Virginia 4-0 (17)
20. Baylor 5-0 (20)
21. Florida 4-1 (22)
22. Stanford 3-2 (12)
23. Washington State 3-2 (NR)
24. LSU 3-2 (NR)
25. Oklahoma 3-2 (23)
Dropped out: North Carolina, Arkansas

This Week's DVD Releases

The Infiltrator **½

It's hard not to think of Breaking Bad while watching The Infiltrator. And not just because Bryan Cranston stars in both — as Walter White, the chemistry teacher-turned-mad-meth-king in the groundbreaking series, of course, and as Robert Mazur, an undercover G-man who burrows deeply, dirtily, into the world of drug cartels and international money-laundering in Brad Furman's true-crime picture.

Cranston was iconic, a walking tornado of moral crisis, in the former. And he's pretty convincing, too, in The Infiltrator, based on the book by a U.S. Customs agent who rubs up so close to Colombian cocaine kings and corrupt bank barons that when the epic bust finally happens, he feels almost like a traitor.

But the real reason to hold Breaking Bad and The Infiltrator side by side is to consider how much more satisfying the latter might have been as a multipart TV piece.

Teeming with colorful, cutthroat, complex characters — thugs and sophisticates, killers and con artists, straight-arrow feds and shiftless informants, and a hero who jeopardizes his real life (and wife, and kid) as he digs himself deeper into the deception — this is a story that needs time to unfold.

Within the confines of a two-hour feature, elaborate dramas are reduced to rapid-fire sketches. Real people become generic thumbnails — especially when they start hanging out at strip clubs. (Is it possible to make a movie set in the world of drugs and big stacks of cash without the obligatory lap dance scene? Probably not.)

Furman, who directed the hugely enjoyable The Lincoln Lawyer, in which Cranston and his Infiltrator partner John Leguizamo also appeared, replicates Reagan-era South Florida with convincing flair here. There are tracking shots that bring to mind Brian De Palma — specifically the over-the-top Miami mayhem of De Palma's 1983 coke-and-carnage epic, Scarface.

Cranston's Mazur — alias Bob Musella, a name he finds on a gravestone — starts climbing the ladder that he hopes will lead to the inner circle of the Medellín Cartel and the banks that handle its millions. He confabs with mobsters and money men. He's vetted by a voodoo shaman. And he's partnered with a newbie agent, Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), who volunteers to pose as Bob's fiancée.

The pair insinuate themselves into the world of Pablo Escobar lieutenant Roberto Alcaino (a gentlemanly Benjamin Bratt), gaining his trust, his friendship, seats at the family table, on his private jet.

Blood and brains get splattered along the way. There are setbacks, betrayals, panicky moments when a slip of the tongue or a faulty attaché case snap (concealing a tape recorder) could blow the whole operation. An anniversary dinner with his real wife (Juliet Aubrey) turns into a nightmare improvisation for Mazur when a gangland contact comes over to say hello.

"That was the most degrading, vicious, and disgusting thing I've ever seen," his wife tells him, driving home in the miserable aftermath. Caught in the headlights ahead: a vision of their marriage falling apart.

True to its "based on a true story" source material, The Infiltrator's end credits run head shots of the real bankers and drug czars and undercover narcs portrayed in the film, with accompanying prison sentences and career updates. But as solid as Cranston, Leguizamo, Kruger, Bratt, and all the rest are, the built-in constraints of the movie format don't do their real-life counterparts full justice.

Even when justice was served.

Ghostbusters **½

Let me begin this review of the 2016 Ghostbusters remake by pretending there was no 1984 iteration. How enjoyable would the film be if it didn’t have such enormous baggage, if it didn’t emerge under the long shadow of a beloved predecessor? The answer to that hypothetical is disappointingly prosaic: this is a mediocre horror/comedy that deserves neither high praise nor disparagement.

Ghostbusters is pretty much what you would expect from a collaboration between several ex-SNL comedians and the director of Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy. It’s fitfully amusing, features decent chemistry among the leads, enjoys two richly comedic performances (from Chris Hemsworth and Kate McKinnon), and is dragged down by an overreliance on special effects and some boring action scenes. Perhaps the thing that hurts Ghostbusters the most isn’t the recasting of the leads but Paul Feig’s decision to spend so much of his budget (and screen time) on battles between the Ghostbusters and their supernatural foes. Because there’s too little humor and even less excitement in those scenes, they offer little more than eye candy and that stuff gets old fast.

Did I laugh during the film? Yes. Chris Hemsworth is hilarious — not exactly what one would expect from an actor known for playing hunky roles like Thor and The Huntsman. Kate McKinnon has her moments; her weirdness is occasionally irritating but, more often than not, it adds a spark. (Oddly, the two "big" names, Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig, are almost understated.) The script isn’t as clever as it could have been but it delivers enough laughs to make things palatable.

For some reason, however, the filmmakers believe that we as viewers will be excited/astounded by the Ghostbuster-on-ghost action. But 2016 is long past the time when even the most impressive special effects can inspire awe. We expect them. As a result, the lovingly crafted sequences of ghost mayhem in New York City provoke no more than a shrug. And, when it comes to battles, we yawn. It’s not as if we believe any of characters are in danger or that the world might actually end. So why spend so much time and money on the disaster film material? Because they can? Because it’s expected in a seasonal blockbuster? It drags out the running length and distracts from those aspects of Ghostbusters that work.

That brings us to the road-block likely to keep many potential viewers from enjoying anything this film has to offer. This is an unnecessary remake. It’s not the first or last of those. They come along as frequently as falling nuts in the autumn. In this case, however, the filmmakers have (possibly inadvertently) desecrated what some consider to be sacred ground. For me, the 1984 film was nothing more than an enjoyable diversion but, for some of my generation, it’s a seminal movie — a classic that should be approached with care and consideration. Neither of these qualities is evident in this treatment. No one set out to offend fans — in fact, many of the players involved in the original movie are back in one capacity or another. Ivan Reitman is the co-producer and Dan Aykroyd has an Executive Producer credit. Akyroyd, Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, and Annie Potts make cameos (along with a bust of Harold Ramis and Ramis’ son, Daniel). The movie tries hard to provide as many call-backs as possible, including homages to some of the original spirits and a nod to the Marshmallow Man.

It’s curious why the decision was to make Ghostbusters a "re-imagining" with all-new characters rather than a soft reboot with new characters coming in alongside (to eventually replace) the old ones. As we saw with The Force Awakens, that’s the way to extend a franchise because it excites the fan base rather than alienating them. In a tone-deaf publicity move, certain members of the cast and crew rebutted this hostility by playing the "misogyny" card (and making disparaging remarks about nerds still living in their parents’ basements). Although it’s true that a minority of those lambasting the movie sight-unseen are offended by the gender change of the leads, most are angered for one simple reason: their Ghostbusters are nowhere to be found. The newcomers could have been all male or all marsupial and the reaction would have been as virulent. You’d think people in Hollywood would understand that the best way to inflate the box office isn’t to insult a portion of the potential audience. It’s such a head-scratchingly dumb move that it’s hard to believe it happened.

All of this unpleasantness could have been avoided with a more clever script. The leads could have still been McCarthy, Wiig, McKinnon, and Leslie Jones, except now fans would have been able to enjoy the limited appearances of Aykroyd, Murray, and Hudson as "mentors" (and maybe participants in the final battle). No need to change much. So why wasn’t it done this way? Who knows. Hindsight is 20/20 and maybe enough people will be interested in the concept of an all-female Ghostbusters quartet to put aside any reservations they may have.

One last note… I agree that the new cover of the Ghostbusters theme song is an atrocity. However, its use in the movie is limited. The original Ghostbusters song has at least as much screen time, being utilized for both the opening and end credits. The movie has endeavored to placate both those who love Ray Parker Jr.’s (or, as some might argue, Huey Lewis’) ‘80s version as well as those who prefer a "modernization."

I wish I could say the resultant product was a home run that will make all the concerns invalid. It isn’t. But it’s not terrible and shouldn’t be avoided just because it isn’t a continuation of an old franchise. Reboots happen all the time and, compared to some, this one is relatively successful. The new Ghostbusters work well together. They have a strong rapport and exhibit no difficulty commanding the screen for about two hours. The movie is too long and not funny enough but that puts it in the same category as many recent comedies.

My advice is that if you hate the idea of a Ghostbusters remake, don’t rent or stream this. There’s no reason to endure a movie you’re predestined to dislike. If, however, you have no investment in the original, Ghostbusters will provide what most of this year’s other seasonal movies have delivered: sporadic entertainment followed by a vaguely hollow feeling that it could have and should have been better.

The Legend of Tarzan *½

Like its titular character, trying to reconcile being both the fifth Earl of Greystoke and the once and future King of the Jungle, The Legend of Tarzan wants to be both modern and traditional, hip and classic. It’s a tough balance to strike, and this film can’t manage it.

Which is too bad, because actor Alexander Skarsgard, the latest iteration of the Edgar Rice Burroughs character filmed dozens of times since Elmo Lincoln donned the loincloth in 1918, turns out to be an exemplary Tarzan. It’s a given in this age of intense training regimens for actors that Skarsgard has the physique for the part, looking lean and sinewy enough to actually do the breathtaking vine swinging that is in fact accomplished by a CGI character modeled on a Cirque du Soleil trapeze artist. Even better, however, is that the actor, best known for HBO’s True Blood, has the fine-boned features that enable him to project a quite gratifying air of dignity, stillness, even repose, making him the very model of an unflappable jungle monarch.

Having David Yates, the director of the final four Harry Potter epics, in charge here no doubt helped with this picture’s large-scale action sequences. But even his skill and that of Potter collaborators like production designer Stuart Craig, editor Mark Day and visual effects supervisor Tim Burke can’t heal this film’s split personality.

As written by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, The Legend of Tarzan alternates between a brazenly contemporary sensibility and quietly time-honored events. Unfortunately, almost all of the former are awkward while the latter still ring true. A few of Cozad and Brewer’s ideas are interesting, like referencing Belgium’s King Leopold II, whose exploitative personal ownership destroyed the Congo that was the King of the Jungles home. Also, this iteration of Tarzan begins some years after the man in question has married Jane (Margot Robbie) and left Africa for London, where as John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, he apparently divides his time between serving in the House of Lords and hybridizing coconuts.

Meanwhile, back in Africa, we meet King Leopold’s worse-than-evil envoy Leon Rom (the always villainous Christoph Waltz), who does things with a rosary the church never taught and has made a devil’s bargain with Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), chief of the powerful and sinister Mbolonga tribe. This worthy adversary, who controls some fabulously wealthy diamond mines, has been nursing a grudge against the erstwhile vine swinger, and he tells Rom that if he produces Tarzan he can have all the gems he and Belgium’s greedy king desire. John Clayton, knowing none of this, allows himself to be convinced to return to Africa, and when wife Jane demands to go along, he takes her with him. Big mistake.

All this sounds promising enough for a Saturday matinee movie, and in fact the parts of The Legend of Tarzan that work best are the flashbacks to Tarzan's well-known jungle origins and his bonding with the fierce Mangani gorillas he thinks of as family.

But this film yearns to be contemporary, which means, among other things, hollow and out of place 21st century dialogue lines like "how do you want to play this" and "tell me something I don't know," as well as what the MPAA rating guidelines accurately describe as "brief rude dialogue."

Even less satisfactory, Tarzan excepted, are the characters who speak this language. Actress Robbie tries hard as Jane but she is too ostentatiously modern and feisty to be at all convincing. Faring even worse is Samuel J. Jackson, who plays George Washington Williams, a swashbuckling American who convinces John Clayton to take him along when he reveals himself to be a secret anti-slavery crusader. Part comic relief, part valued ally, Williams is an altogether puzzling script component, and Jackson's habit of sounding like he just stepped out of Pulp Fiction does not help things.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of The Legend of Tarzan is that though it is chock-a-block with jungle animals, all of whom seem to know Tarzan personally, they are exclusively created via CGI effects. Some of these moments are quite effective, but quitting while it’s ahead is not something that’s in this film’s vocabulary.

Other DVD releases this week
Sherpa **** Jennifer Peedom’s film is stunningly photographed (how could it not be?) and brilliantly sly: she gives the tour guides and their rich, self-absorbed charges just enough rope to hang themselves, and they duly oblige. But it’s also a heartfelt tribute to the resilience of a people.
Life Animated *** It wonderfully explains elements of life with autism, offering a primer for the uninitiated, while profiling a family that was rewarded for its willingness to approach an obstacle with patience and love.
Breaking a Monster *** What makes Luke Meyer’s documentary interesting isn’t so much the music or even the incipient stardom, but rather the push-pull between high-stakes music business pressure and subjects who — being 13 years old or so — hardly have the attention spans for the drudgery and minutiae a "career" requires.
Blood Father **½ Operating for much of its running time with an equal balance between guilty pleasure grittiness and decent father/daughter drama, the film’s conclusion tips toward the latter in an unconvincing shift toward sentimentality and Life Lessons that not only is out of place, but betrays the father’s own code of stoic endurance.
Len & Company **½ The film proves more than its conventional story presumes. We’ve seen its depiction of mid-life and quarter-life crises — many times with the music industry at its back — but this newest iteration possesses an authenticity rendering it worthwhile nonetheless.
Approaching the Uknown ** Too high-minded to ever stoop to suspense or fun, Approaching The Unknown is almost completely interiorized, unspooling in voice-over narration that sounds like a writing exercise that got out of control.
Ice Age: Collision Course * Overstuffed with meandering, unnecessary micro-storylines, far too many new characters, and an obvious lack of focus, none of which should impact the movie’s target demographic, kids under 10.
Hilary’s America (no stars) As a documentary determined to damn the Democratic Party, Hillary’s America is a profound failure of unprecedented proportions, an embarrassment for Republicans, Americans and pretty much the rest of humankind. As a parody of right-wing conspiracy theorists, this knotted spiderweb of ideological garbage is practically Citizen Kane.

**** Excellent.
*** Good.
** Fair
* Poor
No stars Abysmal

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

My brief take on last night’s VP debate

Pence won on style, Kaine won on substance, but overall, Pence was the big winner of the two. The big loser was Texas Senator Ted Cruz, because the debate positioned Pence as the new darling of GOP conservatives and the early front-runner for the 2020 GOP nomination. This is a bigger deal than might be thought of now because if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency this year, as expected, it’s almost a rock-solid certainty she will be a one-term President.

My Top 25 College Football Teams

Last week's ranking in parenthesis
1.  Michigan 5-0 (3)
2.  Alabama 5-0 (2)
3.  Ohio State 4-0 (1)
4.  Clemson 5-0 (4)
5.  Texas A&M 5-0 (8)
6.  Houston 5-0 (7)
7.  Washington 5-0 (12)
8.  Tennessee 5-0 (9)
9.  Louisville 4-1 (5)
10. Miami, Fla. 4-0 (14)
11. Wisconsin 4-1 (10)
12. Stanford 3-1 (6)
13. Western Michigan 5-0 (23)
14. Nebraska 5-0 (13)
15. Mississippi 3-2 (16)
16. Florida State 3-2 (11)
17. West Virginia 4-0 (18)
18. Boise State 4-0 (17)
19. North Carolina 4-1 (NR)
20. Baylor 5-0 (15)
21. Virginia Tech 3-1 (20)
22. Florida 4-1 (24)
23. Oklahoma 2-2 (21)
24. Auburn 3-2 (NR)
25. Arkansas 4-1 (19)
Dropped out: Utah, Arizona State

Monday, October 3, 2016

Swiss Army Man **½

At the Sundance Film Festival this year, Swiss Army Man earned a nickname: "the farting-corpse movie." I heard that crowds were iffy on the comic drama, which is by turns bizarre, sweet and unsettling, but it won the festival’s directing award for first-time feature filmmakers Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who are collectively billed as the Daniels.

One thing everyone can agree on is that it may be the strangest, most inventive movie of the year.

Paul Dano plays Hank, a man stuck on a desert island. He’s preparing to hang himself when he notices something in the distance: a dead body that has washed up onshore. On further investigation, Hank realizes that the corpse (played by Daniel Radcliffe) is extremely gassy. His flatulence is so powerful, the marooned man manages to ride the body, like a Jet Ski, off the island.

It’s a shame that Swiss Army Man begins in a way that might immediately inspire DVD removals, because the rest of the movie doesn’t seem nearly as juvenile as those first few minutes.

After Hank and his makeshift watercraft land on another remote beach, the corpse begins to re-animate. He is barely able to move on his own, but he can speak. His name is Manny, he says, and he has many powers beyond the Jet Ski trick. Hank loads Manny’s mouth with projectiles, turning him into a gun, and hits Manny’s arm in a certain way so that it doubles as an axe. Hank even alleviates his dehydration by using the drowned man’s waterlogged lungs as a drinking fountain. It may not be entirely hygienic — or plausible — but it works.

Manny has few memories, so Hank spends much of the movie explaining the strange ways of the world. He describes love and city buses and sex, explaining why Manny has started to feel a strange sensation below his belt when he finds a discarded copy of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue. (The erection, conveniently, doubles as a compass.)

Filmmakers Kwan and Scheinert reveal the beauty and strangeness of the human experience, but also the solipsism. For all its body-centric gags, the movie sneaks up on you, offering the chance to examine the way we live instead of wandering around on autopilot.

The directors’ methods aren’t always as inspired as their story. In the forest, on their way back to civilization, Hank uses shadow-puppet re-enactments of famous movies — and staged scenes from his own past — to explain life to Manny. The do-it-yourself aesthetic sometimes feels like a knockoff of such Michel Gondry movies as The Science of Sleep and Be Kind Rewind. Swiss Army Man is also somewhat undermined by a late twist that takes a turn for the creepy.

That won’t be the only thing that turns people off about the film, which, it’s safe to say, isn’t for everyone. But the story is astoundingly original. During these months, when rental and streaming options are mostly occupied by superheroes and sequels, that’s something worth celebrating.

The Purge: Election Year **
Can you make a film that criticizes gun violence in America while also reveling in a relentless, gory orgy of gun violence, knife violence, chain-saw violence, and ax violence? That's the plight of the Purge franchise, an auteurish series of hyper-violent, dystopian thrillers from writer-director James DeMonaco ( The Negotiator, Skinwalkers) now in its third installment with The Purge: Election Year.

The premise and the basic story line are familiar: Set in the near future, the Purge movies concern an America where once a year, for 12 hours, citizens get to let off steam by committing any crime — including murder — without fear of prosecution. It's a nifty little law that saves the nation health-care and welfare costs: Since rich folks can protect themselves, the victims tend to be the poor, the weak, and the marginalized.

Each film stages a gladiatorial battle pitting a ragtag group of working-class characters, usually of color, against the gray white men who run the country. It's not the most sophisticated social satire, but the movies do tap into the growing discontent over the income gap and the prevailing sense that the rich play by a different set of rules.

Frank Grillo returns as Leo Barnes, a former police officer who saved a band of folks from predators in the second film. Barnes has landed a job as the security chief for U.S. senator and presidential candidate Charlene Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), the only politician in America who wants the purge law to be repealed. Needless to say, her opponent, Minister Edwidge Owens (Kyle Secor) has hatched a plan to assassinate her on purge night.

The film co-stars Mykelti Williamson as Joe Dixon, a struggling deli owner who teams up with friend and employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria) to defend his business from the hordes. Betty Gabriel plays a neighborhood activist who uses a makeshift ambulance to help the injured.

The Purge: Election Year tries to show that what counts isn't firepower but compassion, not egoism but community. But frankly, it can't help but shoot itself in the foot: The violence is too tantalizing, too stylized, too fetishistic — the film features killers dressed in fanciful Halloween costumes who dance and sing as they dismember people. That's what wins out in the end.

X-Men: Apocalypse **
The stakes in the boringly apocalyptic X-Men: Apocalypse couldn’t be higher. Its long-entombed, ready-to-party mutant god, played by Oscar Isaac is both invincible and immortal, and he wants to control every single mind in every single human on Earth. The world’s nukes are unleashed willy-nilly, though that part works out fine. It's a "just kidding!" moment of imminent global destruction.

Then the movie levels the entire city of Cairo, leaving (presumably) many millions dead and injured. Well, you can't worry about everyone all the time. The film leaves the grieving and anger about collateral damage to this year's major rival superhero franchise installments Batman v Superman (the bad one) and Captain America: Civil War (the good one).

This one's "the OK one."

I can’t recommend much about this latest X-Men picture without getting into problematic and somewhat embarrassing territory. For example, Olivia Munn. She’s barely in it, and she’s barely wearing much of barely anything, yet I spent much of Bryan Singer’s earnest, competently crafted slog texting notes to myself regarding a petition I’d like to circulate that launches Munn’s telepathic ninja warrior mutant Psylocke into her own franchise. She's one of A-pock’s "four horsemen," the woman with the devil in her eyes brandishing a digital lightsaber-y lasso. X-Men: Apocalypse invests heavily in the moist-eyed emoting going on in the neighborhood of James McAvoy (Professor X, the one with the fancy boarding school for the specially gifted). The storyline requires Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence (the conflicted Magneto and the conflicted Raven, respectively) to try their damndest not to look as bored as they likely are with these roles, better for their income than their craft. Munn's a different, livelier story. She's stoked.

After an ancient Egyptian prologue, we’re plunked down into 1983. Apocalypse comes back to life, looks around, and calls for a cleansing of the planet’s debris and weakness, like a mutant villain version of Travis Bickle. Screenwriter Simon Kinberg lumbers through the conflicts, pitting McAvoy’s man of reason and hope against his old pal Magneto’s darker impulses. Like Batman v Superman and Civil War it’s superhero vs. superhero in Apocalypse; the ensemble members have no choice but to turn on each other.

Director Singer handles the traffic earnestly and well, with a modicum of snark and 1.5 teaspoons of levity. There’s a joke at the expense of the long-ago, far-away third X-Men picture, the lousy one directed by Brett Ratner. But this one’s no gem. It’s simply large, and long (two-and-a-half hours, the usual length lately with these products). I remain unpersuaded and slightly galled by the attempts to interpolate the history, locale and tragic meaning of Auschwitz into what used to be known as popcorn movies. The dialogue has a metallic, tinny ring (where’s Magneto when you need him?). At one point Rose Byrne’s intelligence agent speculates, in her exquisitely underplayed way, on the intentions of their chief adversary. This surly, pushy Egyptian mutant god routine might well "end in disaster … some kind of … apocalypse." Pause. Then McAvoy puts on his best Serious Actor face and solemnly adds: "Mmm. The end of the world." John Dykstra supervised the visual effects, which are relentless and routine. Like I said: I've seen worse this year. And better.

Other DVD release this week
Chevalier *** There are laughs and uncomfortable observations throughout, but Director Athina Rachel Tsangari never lays on too heavy a hand. One is free to contemplate the allegorical and satirical implications, but also free to enjoy the spectacle of self-imposed insecurity that plays out among these characters.
Microbe and Gasoline *** A quirky and unique coming-of-age story.
Joshy **½ Doesn’t provide any new revelations about the transition into adulthood, but, with an amusing ensemble, you could be stuck with a much worse group of guys.
Complete Unknown **½ Something’s missing in this picture, and it’s a spiritual issue. The problem is that for this situation, the unlikely reunion, a natural approach restricts any and all sensationalism, which is why the ending neither bruises nor squeezes — it just lingers.
Into the Forest ** At its core, this s a simple and triumphant tale of sisterhood, but with so much ladled on top of it it begins to feel as though it’s grasping for a grandeur it doesn’t need. Sometimes, even the most intense emotions can benefit from a light touch.
Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV * It quickly becomes apparent that the narrative content of this film is a barely coherent muddle.

**** Excellent.
*** Good.
** Fair
* Poor
No stars Abysmal