In the Valley of Violence (Ti West, 2016). As an enthusiastic fan of Ti West’s early excursions into affectionately knowing spins on the horror genre, I had high hopes for his stab at the Western, the most venerable of Hollywood genres. In the Valley of Violence is serviceable, but it lacks the spark of vitality required to give it a true reason for being. Part of the problem is the hoariness of the premise, which West never manages to transcend with either reinvention of panache. A wandering, wounded soul (Ethan Hawke) seeks revenge in a dusty town presided over by a Marshal (John Travolta) with a streak of malevolent control. There’s no real zing to the movie, though West deserves credit for both giving Travolta one of his better parts in recent years and helping him to a performance that perfect balances brio and restraint.
X-Men: Apocalypse (Bryan Singer, 2016). Months before Logan and Legion demonstrated that Marvel movie mutant-verse is ready for jolts of original creative thinking, Bryan Singer’s fourth directorial dance with this corner of the comic publisher’s empire of characters implicitly made the argument that the basic methodology previously in place is damnably empty. Extending the First Class iteration of the movie X-Men into the early nineteen-eighties, the film engages in some bland period tomfoolery, but mostly drags its way through a nearly indecipherable plot involving the reemergence of an ancient megalomaniacal mutant named En Sabah Nur (played with no distinction whatsoever by Oscar Isaac). Arguably the only interesting element of the film is trying to spot the moments when talented actors such as Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence slip into a mode of near-total disengagement.
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (Nicholas Stoller, 2016). The first Neighbors was fitfully funny, but also marred by usual haphazard storytelling of modern comedies, especially those that have creative personnel who have origins in the Apatow orbit. Though most os the same creators are back in place for the sequel — including director Nicholas Stoller — the result is more solid, engaging, and — to my happy disbelief — even occasionally downright winning. The first film’s new parents (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) see their attempt to sell their college town home threatened by the hard-partying sorority that’s moved in next door. Turning the adversaries from boys to girls could have been the height of laziness, but the big batch of credited screenwriters (including Rogen and his primary partner, Evan Goldberg) actually have some insightful things to say about gender inequity and the destructive nature of competitive youth culture. Though I’m skeptical about the longterm prospects for this career path, Zac Efron, returning as frat revelry master Teddy Sanders, has developed an endearing, funny screen presence as a sweetly dim beefcake.
Deluge (Felix E. Feist, 1933). The early portions of Deluge serve up one of the earliest Hollywood disaster films. As an unexplained swell of storms lays waste to the cities of the word. In an extended sequences that gives the explosive mayhem a run for its box office dollars, skyscrapers tremble and crumble as screaming people run wild through the streets. That gives way to a reasonably astute exploration of how society would splinter apart and then be slowly bound back together, with treacherous splinters digging deep into the muscle along the way. The melodrama doesn’t always convince, but enough of the details are weighted with wisdom to make the film consistently compelling.
The Duff (Ari Sandel, 2015). Based on a young adult novel by Kody Keplinger, the film casts Mae Whitman as Bianca Piper, the high school student saddled with the uncomplimentary nickname of the title, which stands for “Designated Ugly Fat Friend.” Ari Sandel makes his feature directorial debut and handles the comedy deftly, although the script’s penchant to swerve into fantasy occasionally upsets his balance. The film starts no revolutions with its focus on a teen-aged underdog, but Whitman is a flinty marvel. She has star power, acting chops, and pinpoint comic timing.