⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rating: R for language and some sexual content.
Theater: Lagoon.

Zach Braff follows his hit directing/screenwriting debut "Garden State" with a sit-commy misfire. Braff stars as Aidan Bloom, a struggling actor frustrated by strained finances, family responsibilities, a distant father and an even more distant God. When his ailing dad no longer can pay the tuition at their yeshiva, Aidan tries his inexpert hand at home-schooling his kids.

The film features winning performances from Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad and Braff himself, but his screenplay saddles the cast with syrupy material and pointless fantasy special effects. There's a valid comedy-drama in the story of a man who can't tell if his lifelong ambition is a true passion or a pipe dream, but Braff prefers facile life lessons and slow-motion hugging to tough questions.

⋆⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Unrated: nudity. In subtitled French.
Theater: Edina.

Like "Carnage," "The Pianist," "Rosemary's Baby" and more, Roman Polanski's latest is a creepy exploration of claustrophobia and perversity that should not be missed. His psychological horror-comedy is set in a deserted Paris theater during a wild thunderstorm. Vanda, a trashy actress (Mrs. Polanski, Emmanuelle Segnier) auditions for a stage version of the 19th-century novel that put masochism on the map. Her director, Thomas (the superb French actor Mathieu Amalric), is a pretentious fusspot who may identify with the story's submissive protagonist a bit too closely. The try-out gradually shades into a power struggle with each party jockeying to assert control.

Polanski sees the eternal battle of the sexes as a cosmic joke of unfathomable cruelty. Amalric, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the director in his younger days, is the jest's walking punchline, a puffed-up snob who can't imagine himself being outmaneuvered by a brassy actress.

Segnier, whose character is much more than she seems, plays on several levels at once, shifting smoothly from unforced naturalism to wild histrionics. She keeps viewers guessing. Is she an aspiring bit player, a private investigator, a Roman goddess crossing the centuries for revenge? The film handles its dark themes with lighthearted ease, and Polanski uses the theater's confines to establish his own world and rhythms.

⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Rating: R for strong disturbing violence, language.

American gun culture meets social Darwinism with the Purge, an anarchic annual holiday that sanctions any act of aggression "up to murder." In his sequel to last year's surprise hit, returning writer/director James DeMonaco combines potent action, sledgehammer political allegory and eerie paranoia in an entertaining B movie.

Aggressive types save up for fancy firearms and take to the streets. Most of the people stay home and close their shutters like Transylvanian villagers. An unlucky few — here a white couple, Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez, and black mother-daughter Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul — find themselves in the crossfire. They're reluctantly aided by stubbly, bicep-y Frank Grillo, prowling the streets in a Mad Max muscle car on a mission of personal vengeance.

DeMonaco gives us the expected street gangs and wealthy psycho dilettantes who prefer to shoot fish in deluxe barrels. But he also boomerangs us with outbursts that hit from unexpected angles. The suspense keeps you hunkered down in your seat. "The Wire's" Michael K. Williams plays a militant whose followers fight back, though their counterattack feels like a Purge wearing a fig leaf of justice. In the film's mythology, the Purges have been going on for nine years, and the sequels promise to last about as long.

⋆⋆ out of four stars
Unrated: Violence and for language.

Aaron Paul and Juliette Lewis are the nominal stars of Kat Candler's gritty indie drama, but the best moments belong to 14-year-old newcomer Josh Wiggins. He plays the troubled son of Paul's character, a single dad construction worker whose efforts to build a better life routinely collapse. Wiggins plays angry, rebellious and emotionally closed-off very well. The boy throws himself into violent, meaningless physical activity to work out his resentful impulses, and he's getting into serious scrapes with the law. He's got talent as a motocross rider, and he dreams of graduating from the amateur circuit. His skills are wobbly, though, and the pack of little hooligans he hangs with are an anvil tied to his ambitions. Wiggins gives the boy's struggles a raw realism, but it's not enough to shore up this slackly paced slice of sunbaked Texas miserabilism.

⋆ out of four stars
Rating: PG-13 for violence and thematic elements.

"Persecuted" is a confused and confusing thriller about a TV preacher ruined by a sinister government plot. Written and directed by Daniel Lusko, who has Christian documentaries among his credits, and having ex-Sen. Fred Dalton Thompson, R-Tenn., and Fox News personality Gretchen Carlson in its cast, you can guess its politics.

John Luther (James Remar), is an ex-drug addict who now leads a Christian crusade. Sinister Sen. Donald Harrison (Bruce Davison) is pressuring Luther to endorse the Faith and Fairness Act, which seems to be some sort of religious tolerance / equality law that will give all religions equal standing and all religions equal access to adherents to other faiths. Luther isn't having it. But he's been warned. Luther is forced to go on the lam.

There's no urgency to the performances, no ticking clock to Luther's desperate bid to clear his name. Remar, a fine character actor, is utterly miscast as a preacher. He doesn't have the pulpit presence. This slapdash script fails to articulate its basic complaint or identify who, exactly, is persecuting them. Government? The culture? Liberals? Humanists? Jews? U2's Bono?
ROGER MOORE, McClatchy News Service