7.25.2014

JUSTICE LEAGUE: AXIS OF VILLAINS

What happens when you combine some of DC's biggest heroes and a siege game?  In this case you get Justice League: Axis of Villains, which fails to capture the spirit or uniqueness of the characters.

Players can be Batman, Superman, Green Lantern or the Flash.  They're on the Justice League Satellite, which is surrounded by eight sides.  Each hero has five Arch Villains.  If the players clear the board of all villains, they win!  If the villains destroy the four parts of the Satellite, the players lose.

Gameplay is very similar to Castle Panic.  Each turn a player rolls a 6-sided die (Control Die) and an 8-sided die (Number Die).  Some rolls move the villains on the section indicated on the Control Die one or two spaces closer to the Satellite.  (If a villain lands on a Hot Spot, they flip a Villain Card, which can do anything from bring defeated villains back to bringing out an Ultra Villain.)  Some put an Arch Villain into play at the section of the Control Die.  If a villain makes it to the Satellite, they destroy a section, and if all four sections are destroyed the game ends; if a Ultra Villain makes it to the Satellite the players lose immediately.  And if the JL symbol comes up, the players cam move their hero that many spaces -- usually to battle the villains!
Combat is pretty simple.   A hero can play a Power Card before combat to use a power or get an advantage.  Then the player rolls two 10-sided dice against their own Arch Villains, or one 10-sided die against another villain; if another hero is on the same space, they can roll dice as well.  If the dice results are higher than the villain's points, the heroes win and remove the villain from the board (plus get a Power card); if it's a tie, nothing happens; and if the results are less than the villain, the hero(es) get moved to the Satellite.


Justice League: Axis of Villains is disappointing.  The heroes' powers aren't that impressive (usually involving moving around the board), and since they need Power Cards to use, they can't be used that much.  The game doesn't even try to balance the difference in power between Batman's villains and the others (Superman has problems defeating Two-Face?  Really?) and it can be frustrating to roll the dice over and over and over before finally being able to move one's hero.  There are several good superhero-based games out there, but I can't add Justice League: Axis of Villains to that fun group.

Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch

7.17.2014

SEX TAPE

 If the movie Sex Tape had been made in the 1980s, the stars would be scrambling to retrieve a raunchy vhs tape they accidentally sent to the wrong place and people.  Since it's 2014, this movie has the stars racing to destroy iPads and dealing with the Cloud and YouPorn, but still getting into lots of wacky hijinks.  Well, maybe not that wacky...

Annie (Cameron Diaz) and Jay (Jason Segel) are a happily married couple who wonder what happened to their sex life.  In flashbacks, we see that they couldn't keep their hands (or other body parts) off each other.  But following pregnancy, marriage, and then a second child, they can't even manage to schedule intimacy.  Things are otherwise good -- one child is graduating from 5th grade soon, Annie is on the verge of selling her Mommy blog to a family-friendly company, and Jay is a radio or music producer who is so successful he gives away his old iPads t friends -- but they wonder what happened to their wild younger selves.  One night when the kids are at Annie's mother's overnight, Annie has an idea (along with lots of tequila): They'll film themselves performing every position featured in The Joy of Sex!

 The next morning, Annie asks Jay to delete their sex "tape."  Jay keeps forgetting -- and when he uses a syncing app to send out his playlists, he accidentally sends their sex video to everyone with his old iPads.  Annie is worried that Hank (Rob Lowe), the wholesome president of the company, might not buy her blog if he sees the video.  Jay wonders who sent the mysterious tweet about their video.  And married friends Robby (Rob Corddry) and Tess (Elle Kemper) wing up tagging along on the quest to get back and destroy the iPads with the video.  Unless it wound up on YouPorn...
Apart from a lot of cursing, Sex Tape isn't nearly as wild or insane as it should have been to be a really funny comedy.  Instead of running all over to get the offending iPads back, almost all the action happens in Hank's mansion.  It's funny to see that the straight-laced Hank has a private wild side, but it's a single joke that gets old pretty fast.  Jason Segel feels like he's mugging for the camera more than acting, Cameron Diaz isn't that funny (except when hyper from cocaine), and Rob Corddry is pretty much wasted.  The movie isn't daring enough when it comes to porn or adult entertainment (even with a cameo by Jack Black as the owner of YouPorn), it doesn't make a lot of sense plotwise (from bringing the kids on their search to a premature balcony dive), and it's not that funny.

Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch

7.15.2014

"Weird Al" Yankovic, MANDATORY FUN

Have you imagined Lorde singing about tinfoil, or Pharrell listing ways to be obnoxious?  Probably not -- but "Weird Al" Yankovic has, and he offers up his traditional mix of song parodies and original comedy on his new album Mandatory Fun.  And, also traditional for "Weird Al," it's funny as hell.

While "Weird Al" is best known for parody, he does terrific original creations about half the time, and that's true on Mandatory Fun.  "Sports Song" is every sports fan's us-versus-them anthem (literally, since it never specified the team -- or even the sport -- being discussed).  "Lame Claim to Fame" is a listing of pathetic encounters with celebrities, while "Mine Own Eyes" are bizarre things the singer has seen.  "Mission Statement" puts together enough corporate jargon for a year of Dilbert strips in one upbeat pop song.  "First World Problems" has people who have it really well finding things to complain about (and sounds remarkably like the Pixies). " And the album ends with the pseudo-epic romance tune "Jackson Park Express," where people sitting across from each other on a bus try to read each other's facial expressions.  ("I arched my eyebrow ever-so-slightly, which was my way of asking/'Do you want my old Hewlett-Packard printer?'")  While some of these were one-joke lists, most of these songs are pretty amusing.

And "Weird Al" really excels at mimicking and twisting popular songs.  He turns Iggy Azalea's "Fancy" into a home-fixing song ("Handy"), makes Imagine Dragon's "Radioactive" into the lazy "Inactive" ("I'm waking up in Cheeto dust/my belly's covered with pizza crust"), and Robin Thicke's raunchy "Blurred Lines" into a critique of grammar and spelling (shown below).  And numerous current songs get polka-ized into the "NOW That's What I Call Polka" medley.  These really sound close to the originals, while making them so amusing it's impossible to listen to the original songs the same ways again.

Mandatory Fun may not be mandatory, but it sure is fun.  This album is pretty consistent and quite amusing too.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

7.13.2014

CTHULHU!!! HASTUR LA VISTA, BABY!

So, what happens when you mix the sanity-blasting horrors of H.P. Lovecraft with the rules of Twilight Creations' long-running Zombies!!! game?  You get Cthulhu!!! Hastur la Vista, Baby!  Sadly, the game has less of the Evil Dead-type attitude you'd expect from the title and more of the problems from its progenitor game.

Cthulhu!!! is a competitive-cooperative game set in Kingsport, Massachusetts, where the players control heroes trying to stop the cultists and byakhee from summoning the King in Yellow.  Each turn players do the following: play an Automatic event card (if they have one); draw and place a map tile (stocking it with, as appropriate, bullets, hearts, cultists, and byakhee); fighting any cultists or byakhee on their space; draw back up to three event cards; roll a die and move that many spaces plus their health; roll a die and move that many cultists two spaces each; move all byakhee to an adjacent tile; and discard one event card if they want.  Players can also play one event card each turn.

Players win mainly through combat.  Players start with three hearts, three bullets, and five sanity.  When a player meets a cultist, the player has to roll a 4-6 to defeat them.  If the player wins, they get a random relic card.  If the player loses, they can spend bullets to increase their roll, or lose a health and roll again, or run away.  The monstrous byakhee are a bit different.  When a player encounters one, the player has to roll 3-6 or lose one sanity.  To defeat a byakhee, a player needs to roll 5-6 -- but if the player wins, they get two relics!  And if a player loses all their health or sanity, they start over with one less sanity than they had before; and if their starting sanity is zero, they're out of the game.

 There's also a new way to win (and lose) in Cthulhu!!! : sanctifying Ritual Sites.  When these tiles are drawn, they have eight cultists and one byakhee on them (and these foes can never leave the tile).  If a player kills the last cultist/byakhee on the tile and discards one of each of the five relics (Amulet, Dagger, Idol, Space Mead, Tome) , that player scores the Ritual Site; and if three Ritual Sites are sanctified, the players win!  Each player then scores points for the relics they have (double the number for each type, then subtract one), plus 12 points for each Ritual Site.  But if a player loses all their health on a Ritual Site, it goes to the enemies; and if three Ritual Sites are lost, the cultists have summoned the King in Yellow and the winner is then the hero to die last.
There is plenty to like and dislike in Cthulhu!!!  The game does work sanity checks into the mix somewhat well, the event cards have an appropriate amount of over-the-top horror to them, and the goal of using relics to stop evil fits the theme better than the run-to-the-helicopter goal of Zombies!!! would.  Unfortunately, like Zombies!!! the action in Cthulhu!!! can get repetitive very quickly, and once a lot of tiles are on the board it's easy to keep moving the cultists along the same unused tiles (forming what a player called "the cultist conga line").  Cthulhu!!! Hastur La Vista, Baby! is a decent entry into the Lovecraft-inspired game genre, but it's only decent.

Overall grade: C+
Reviewed by James Lynch

7.11.2014

RIFFTRAX: SHARKNADO

The Rifftrax trio of Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett seem to do their best with the worst -- cracking their best jokes and making their oddest observations when given truly terrible movies -- and Sharknado provides them with plenty of comedy fodder.  Rifftrax Live!: Sharknado has the MST3K veterans tackling last year's biggest "so bad it's good" Syfy Channel original movie -- with terrific results.
Before jumping into the fun of killer sharks thrown about by a killer tornado, the evening featured the short "Springs" (where a man's wish summons a springy demon who makes life hell by removing all springs from the universe), a preview of the next Rifftrax Live! event: 1998's Godzilla, and some pre-movie fake items (MOVIE MISTAKES: Megan Fox as April O'Neil) and songs about sharks.  And after that fun, we got to all enjoy some comedy professionals mocking a movie with washed-up actors (plenty of jokes about Ian Ziering's Beverly Hills 90210 days and Tara Reid's, well, everything), horrible editing (rainy to sunny changes all the time, and different beaches treated like they're one place), and idiotic plot (not the least of which is stopping a tornado by throwing explosives into it).
Someone thought riffing on Sharknado was too easy -- but that's part of the fun!  The stars didn't have as much to do with Night of the Living Dead because that movie is so good, but an abundance of quality slowing them down wasn't a factor here.  There's an Australian-sounding Tasmanian, characters who forget characters killed in front of them seconds later, bizarre writing (when Ian shouts at someone in the middle of the ocean "Get out of the water!" the Riffers add, "Levitate or something!"), and Tara Reid's attempts at... acting?   Sure, some of the jokes can be juvenile, but Rifftrax Live! Sharknado made something good out of a Syfy Channel original movie -- and that's not something you can say too often.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

6.30.2014

MUNCHKIN LEGENDS

The Munchkin line of games began as a spoof of spoof of power gamers and the sword and sorcery/D&D genre.  Since then, Steve Jackson Games has expanded the line to cover different genres, along with expansions for most of these games.  So which genre to go with for retail stores?  The well known, apparently: Munchkin Legends utilizes well-known characters and items from ancient mythology and current urban legends -- and returns to the sword and sorcery genre in the process.

Originally released exclusively to Target (disclaimer: I work for Target -- even on hot days), Munchkin Legends wraps the old in their new.  The rules are the same as the original Munchkin: Players equip themselves with various items (with a limit of one set of headgear, two hands' worth of Items, one set of armor, one set of footgear), become different classes (Cleric, Fighter, Thief, Wizard) and races (Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, or the default of Human), and kick down doors to fight monsters, get hit by Curses, or collect cards.  Killing monsters gives players levels and treasures if the player wins; if the monster wins, players run away or suffer Bad Stuff, ranging from losing items to dying.  Other players can interfere with combat, help someone win combat (usually if offered some of the treasure in return; and with only one player able to help, bidding frequently happens), or interfere and then offer to help!  And whoever reaches level 10 first wins!

I wasn't thrilled that Munchkin Legends has the same rules and classes as the original Munchkin.   Fortunately, Munchkin Legends has the same terrific sense of humor as the best of the Munchkin games.  While other games have included Loki, Minotaur and the Kraken, it's safe to say that none have a Boogie Man that's a werewolf in disco clothing.  Or Bermuda Shorts of Invulnerability, a Viking Duck, Achilles' Heels, Johnny Zucchiniseed, Flying Monkeys (wearing helmets and jet packs), or a card that makes players shout "Ra!  Ra!  Ra!"  And more current legends are here as well, like Bloody Mary, Slender Man, and Candy and Cola.


Munchkin Legends could have used more originality with the rules, but those rules work well -- and the game's extremely funny.  This game has moved fro a Target exclusive to the friendly local gaming store (FLGS), and Munchkin Legends will appeal to fans of ancient and current mythologies.  Or those who just want to laugh while screwing over their friends on the way to level 10.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

6.25.2014

SENTINELS OF THE MULTIVERSE

For some reason, superheroes and gaming often have problems working together.  Numerous Marvel and DC games have come and gone, never quite working.  Sentinels of the Multiverse from Greater than Games manages to succeed by adapting some comic book archetypes and cooperative play into a fun-filled card battle of good versus dastardly evil.

In Sentinels of the Multiverse, players select their heroes (each with hit points, a power and deck of cards), villain (with hit points, special victory conditions and deck of cards), and environment (deck of cards).  The players win by reducing the villain down to zero hit points, while the villain can win by either fulfilling their specific victory conditions or reducing all heroes to zero hit points.

Gameplay consists of the Villain Turn, Hero Turns, and Environment turn.  During the Villain Turn any card effects that happen at the start of the villain turn are resolved.  Next, the top card of the villain deck is played (one-shots occur and then go in the discard pile, while ongoing and equipment cards stay in play).  Finally anything that happens at the end of the villain turn occurs.

 If the villain hasn't won. it's time for the Hero Turns!  Each hero can play a card (like the villains, a one-shot, ongoing, or equipment card), use a power (either on their character card or from a card in play), and then draw a card.  If a hero doesn't use any powers, they can draw two cards.   And when the heroes are done, it's the Environment Turn, when an environment card is drawn and played,then all environment cards are resolved (usually affecting hero and villain cards together).  Then the turn cycle begins again.

Sentinels of the  Multiverse does just about everything right.  First, the core game comes with tremendous variety: Players can select from ten heroes, four villains, and four environments.  (The box is also big enough to hold this set and two expansions.)  While the heroes aren't original -- scientist with super speed?  Not the Flash, but Tachyon; finding a staff that gives the powers of a god?  Not Thor, but Ra; -- they each have their own unique abilities that make them useful in different ways.  And when a hero is eliminated, on their turns they can use one of their three powers on the back of their hero card, so a player who would otherwise be out of the game is still playing -- and contributing to victory.

The villains are also archetypes, but with their own challenges.  Players can battle the deranged scientist Baron Blade, the conquering alien Grand Warlorl Voss, the "superhumans first!" leader Citizen Dawn, or the self-aware robot Omnitron.  And most villains gain a new ability when reduced to zero hit points.  For example, Baron Blade starts as the "Terralunar Impulsion Beam Inventor," and if he gets 15 cards in his discard pile he's crashed the moon into the Earth, winning the game!  (It doesn't help that he also starts with the Mobile Defense Platform, which must be destroyed before Baron Blade can take damage.)  If he's defeated, Baron Blade's card flips: Now he's the "Vengeful Mad Scientist" blasting the hero with the highest hit points each villain turn!

There's also substantial strategy involved in each game.  Players have to deal with the main villain, their villain cards (that almost always damage the hero), and those environment cards (deciding whether they should be gotten rid of so they don't damage the heroes, or kept around so the villain cards take damage).  Many cards let heroes protect their comrades, but sometimes damaging themselves in the process.  And it can be tough deciding whether to deal with the main villain or their villain cards -- and the wrong choice can lead to defeat.

Finally, Sentinels of the Multiverse looks and feels like a comic book.  Not only does that artwork feel like it's from a comic, but the cards have flavor text from fictional comic books, like Freedom Five Annual #5, Baptism by Fire #1, and Science and Progress One-Shot.  There are also brief biographies for all the heroes and villains too!

Sentinels of the Multiverse is very challenging, and it's also very fun.  This is a terrific game for players who want to feel what it's like as superheroes, working together against a very difficult enemy.  To victory!

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch

6.17.2014

Tim Hanley, WONDER WOMAN UNBOUND

Wonder Woman occupies a unique place in the comic book universe.  She is one of D.C. Comics' "Big Three" characters (along with Batman and Superman), instantly recognizable, and a unique character (as opposed to a female version of a male character).  At the same time, her comic and character have struggled in a male-dominated genre, there is a definite kinky aspect to her character, and she's undergone numerous changed through the years.  Tim Hanley examines Wonder Woman, the world's influence on her, and her influence on the world in his book Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World's Most Famous Heroine.

Hanley examines Wonder Woman through the Golden, Silver, and Modern Ages of comic books.  For the Golden Age, he focuses on William Moulton Marston, a psychologist who envisioned Wonder Woman as inspiring young girls, as well as a way of "preparing" the world for a matriarchy based on female superiority; he also worked some of his bondage fantasies into the character as well.  The Silver Age saw Marston's successor Robert Kanigher taking the character in a more sexist direction,  Wonder Woman lose her powers to become a "mod" woman of the 1960s, and then regain her abilities in no small part to Gloria Steinem.  And the modern era was largely a muddled mess of different tries at increasing her popularity and sales.

Wonder Woman Unbound is an excellent history of Wonder Woman because it goes beyond the character to look at the world around the character -- from other comic books to World War II to the rise of feminism -- and how those affected the character.  Hanley provides a combination of facts (often supplemented by bar graphs showing various percentages that illustrate his point), opinion (his section on the recent Wonder Woman is called "the Mundane Modern Age"), small but effective humor, and a very good ability to relate the times and the character together.  There were a few times I disagreed with his downplaying evidence that went against his conclusions, but Wonder Woman Unbound is a fascinating and intelligent examination of Wonder Woman -- how she affected the world that affected her.

Overall grade: A+
Reviewed by James Lynch

6.12.2014

THE WIL WHEATON PROJECT

The Wil Wheaton Project proves that geek snark is still snark.  This show on the Syfy Channel tries to capitalize on the big interest in geek culture but only succeeds in being obnoxious.
Wil Wheaton has been made himself an unofficial ambassador for geek culture, from his role on Star Trek: The Next Generation to his gaming playing-review show TableTop.  On the Wil Wheaton Project, though, Wheaton is closed to his self-parodying villain on The Big Bang Theory, as he looks smug while making bad puns and insulting jokes about whatever's big in sci-fi and fantasy from the week before.  There are also "sketches" (that are would-be comic voiceovers played over clips of the originals) and guest stars, like Chris Hardwick and Felecia Day.


The Wil Wheaton Project isn't the most insulting approach to covering the world we nerds love, but it could be the laziest, as it goes for nothing beyond cheap laughs.  With a host who tries way too hard at putting himself above the world that makes him famous, and jokes that are little more than smart-ass comments, this show is one people inside and outside the geek world would do well to avoid.

Overall grade: D-
Reviewed by James Lynch

6.08.2014

COSMIC ENCOUNTER: COSMIC STORM

The game Cosmic Encounter has had several expansions over the years.  Cosmic Storm is the latest one, and it lacks the consistency of the previous expansions.

While the previous expansions added new colors and ships to increase the number of potential players, Cosmic Storm consists of two things: Space Stations and aliens.  When playing with the Space Stations, each player puts a Space Station on one of their planets, and they get the Station's ability as long as they have a colony on that planet.  (Variant rules let someone conquering the planet with a Space Station to take control of the Station.)  Space Stations don't add much to the basic game: While they have different abilities, they become an immediate target for all other players, who have no reason not to try and neutralize (or control) them.

That leaves the 25 new aliens in Cosmic Storm.  While this is more than the previous expansions (which had 20 each), the quality of these new aliens is variable.  There are several good ones, such as: the "dangerously adorable" Squee, who can make an attacker either concede or lose three ships to Warp; the Phantasm, who draws a card from the deck after encounter cards are revealed, and if an encounter card is drawn, replaces one of the played card; the Sneak, who dealt with losing a colony by gaining a colony on one of the attacker's planet; and the Outlaw, who as a main player draws a card at random from each opponent and opponent's ally.

Then there are the aliens that are either too weak, too powerful, or too familiar.  The Neighbor's power only gives a slight advantage if defending someone else's colony where they already have one.  The Brute forces a player on the other side to either show their hand and give the Brute a card, or lose three ships to the Warp -- and the Brute can do this as a main player or ally.  The Roach's extra ships feel a lot like the Symbiote, while Sycophant is similar to Tik-Tok.


Cosmic Storm is a hit-or-miss expansion for a terrific game.  There are plenty of fun aliens that will be enjoyed and used well -- and others that will disappoint.  The next expansion, Cosmic Dominion, will be a fan-created series of aliens; lets hope they are more consistent.
Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

6.05.2014

SEX CRIMINALS vol.1 ONE WEIRD TRICK

It's a real thrill to find a comic book that's funny, dramatic, real, fantasy-filled, and thoroughly original.  It's also about sex.  Sex Criminals vol. 1: One Weird Trick collects the first five issues of this terrific series.  And like Y: The Last Man, it's a premise that sounds like a porno but is actually very adult -- er, mature -- er, well done.

Written by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Chip Zdarsky, Sex Criminals opens in the middle of Suzie and Jon in trouble in a bank.  Suzie then narrates their story in a series of flashbacks.  Suzie had a rough childhood: Her father was killed at a bank, her mother was distant from her, and she was ostracized at school.  When she has her first sexual experience (alone, in a bathtub), time seems to stop and the world seems to be full of psychedelic lights.  And in her case it's literally true: For a while after she climaxes, time freezes for everyone around her, everything goes quiet, and she can interact with the frozen people and things around her.

Suzie tries to learn about this, but she hits a virtual brick wall of lack of information.  The "bad" girls at school tell her a variety of bizarre and humorous sexual positions, her doctor is no help, and her mother calls her a whore.  She winds up at a library, which inspires her to become a librarian.  Unfortonately, her library is about to be foreclosed on by the bank.


 At a library fundraiser, Suzie meets Jon.  He's funny, intelligent (quoting Lolita when they meet), handsome, and he wants to be an actor but is a secretary.  And when they wind up in bed, afterwards they're both amazed that the other isn't frozen in time:
 It turns out that Jon has the same power as Suzie.  His backstory is similar to Suzie's, but with several differences that highlight the differences between men and women.  While Suzie tried to figure out what was going on, Jon used his ability to pillage his local porn store.  ("I literally must have stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars of porn from this place over the years."  "Boy.  That's gotta be like... seventeen pornos at these prices.")  While Suzie calls the frozen-time experience "the Quiet," he calls it "Cumworld," after the name of the aforementioned porn store.  But despite their differences, Suzie and Jon are thrilled with each other and to have found someone like themselves.
 Jon also has a plan to save the library: They use their power to enter the Quiet/Cumworld, rob some banks, and donate the money anonymously to the library.  Suzie isn't sure about this, while Jon seems a little too eager: "It's less than one thousandth of a percent of their annual budget on fucking lobby pens, Suze."  This leads to helping the library, but also to Suzie learning some unpleasant things about Jon as well.

Oh, there's also a trio of people in white who call themselves the Sex Police who seen determined to stop Suzie and Jon.



There is so very much I like about Sex Criminals.  While the idea of an orgasm-fueled superpower may seem crazy (even for comic books), it's treated initially as a typical adolescent discovery and exploration of sexuality, whether not finding information or overindulging in the discovery.  There's plenty of humor here, from the numerous details of Jon's porno store ("OBAMACORE: Medical/socialist themed," "MEN FUCKING LESBIANS: Everyone's Having a Horrible Time!") to a musical number where the comic book folks couldn't get the rights to print the song lyrics.  The relationship between Suzie and Jon also rings very true, from the initial infatuation and euphoria to the concerns when learning more about each other may be worrisome and troubling.  And the big bank robbery leads to more action and complications -- plus a cliffhanger that has me eagerly waiting for the second volume.  Sex Criminals is certainly for adults only, and it shows just how much comic books can offer adults. (The trade paperback has quite a few extras: a photoshopped ad, the alternate covers, and their full list of "ultimate sex moves" that did and didn't make it into the comic.)
Overall grade: A+
Reviewed by James Lynch

6.04.2014

A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST

Seth MacFarlane found fame in television, and in writing, directing, and starring in A Million Ways to Die in the West his tv roots show through a bit too much.  While the film's R rating gives him more opportunities for cursing and gross-out gags, it still feels like an extended episode.
Albert (Seth MacFarlane) lives in the small town of Old Stump, Arizona 1882 -- and he couldn't be in a worse place or time.  While everyone around him is violent and too ready for a gunfight, Albert is both intelligent and cowardly, preferring to negotiate and joke instead of kill.  As he puts it, "I'm not the hero; I'm the guy in the crowd making fun of the hero's shirt."  He's a sheep farmer -- and a bad one -- and his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) just left him for rich moustache merchant Foy (Neil Patrick Harris).  Albert's only friends are nervous virgin Edward (Giovanno Ribisi) and his busy prostitute fiancee Ruth (Sarah Silverman), who's screwing virtually everyone but Edward.  Albert gets some help from Anna (Charlize Theron), a beauty and killer shot who agrees to help Albert win Louise back.
But there's violence on the way.  Albert foolishly challenges Foy to a duel, leading to several training montages as Anna teaches Albert how to shoot.  Also, violent and abusive gunslinger-thief Clinch (Liam Neeson) is working his way to Old Stump -- where he sent his wife, Anna, earlier.  What happens next is, well, what you'd expect from both the romance and action angles.

There are some funny moments and performances through A Million Ways to Die in the West -- but there's far too much of MacFarlane's usual jokes.  There are tons of gross-out gags (from urinating animals to Ruth's messy profession), celebrity cameos (the best of which was revealed in several trailers), casual racism and sexism, and musical numbers scattered through the movie.  There aren't any real surprises in the movie, and the laughs are inconsistent.  MacFarlane is decent but not outstanding in the lead, Neil Patrick Harris is quite good as the pompous villain; and while Charlize Theron does well as a stronger woman, Amanda Seyfried is there to look pretty and be disliked.  And the Edward-Ruth storyline could be put anywhere in the movie, or removed entirely, without affecting the main story.
A Million Ways to Die in the West is full of curses, violence, and scatalogical humor.  It could have used more laughs -- and more than its R rating to differentiate it from MacFarlane's television cartoons.

Overall grade: C
Reviewed by James Lynch

5.31.2014

MALEFICENT

Many movies and books take a "sympathy for the devil" position, transforming the villain into the protagonist, or at least giving them more understanding and sympathy.  Maleficent takes this for the classic Disney cartoon Sleeping Beauty -- and creates something new and magical.
There are two neighboring kindgoms: the Moors, filled with magic creatures, peace, and equality; and the human kingdom, filled with greed and fears.  At the start of the film the 12-year-old human thief Stefan (Michael Higgins) intrudes in the Moors and is rescued by the young fairy Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy).  The two seem to be in love, but that is certainly not the case: Years later, when the human king is humiliated by the fully-grown Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), he offers his kingdom to whoever kills her -- and while Stefan (Sharlto Copley) can't bring himself to kill his former love, he does cut off her wings and offer them as a trophy, gaining his kingship in the process.  This drives Maleficent evil and vengeful, as she becomes the feared queen of the Moors.  She also recruits the crow Diaval (Sam Riley) to be her spy, transforming him into whatever animal she needs.

When Stefan and his queen have a daughter, Aurora, Maleficent crashes the celebration and offers a "gift:" When the girl turns sixteen, she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel spindle and fall into a sleep like death, only to be woken by true love's kiss.  Stefan tries to prevent the curse by not only having all spindles destroyed, but also by having Aurora hidden in the woods and raised by three fairies in human form.  Maleficent finds them easily enough - calling the child "beastie," and winds up saving Aurora from the dangers of her unqualified pretend parents.  When Aurora (Elle Fanning) is sixteen, she assumed Maleficent is her fairy godmother (since Maleficent had been saving her from danger) -- and Maleficent begins to regret her curse.  And Stefan becomes more and more paranoid and obsessed with killing Maleficent...

I was pretty impressed with Maleficent.  The movie manages to follow most of the story of Sleeping Beauty closely, while providing a different perspective on why the villain became the villain.  Angelina Jolie is terrific as the title character, a woman whose role shifts from protector to avenger, and then back as she grows and feels.  Elle Fanning is decent as the almost too-goody goody role of Aurora, while Sharlto Copley is one-dimensional as the movie's true villain.  The visual effects are stunning -- from enchanting creatures to Maleficent casually casting spells and making folks drift through the air -- and the movie approaches its fairy tale roots with reverence instead of irony or sarcasm.  Maleficent isn't perfect, but it is an enjoyable modern-day fairy with a wonderful main character.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

5.30.2014

MAXIM Hot 100 2014

Summer is a time for pools and beaches, barbecues and heat waves, and lots and lots of beautiful celebrities wearing next to nothing.  Yes, the Maxim Hot 100 2014 has come out, and while there are a few changes from last year, it's the same basic, beautiful format as last year.

The Maxim Hot 100 is voted on by Maxim readers, then published in the summer.  Unlike past years, this time around the Hot 100 isn't a separate part of the magazine, but the first half of the month's issue.  As with past years, each winner gets a photo (from a page shared with several others to a two-page spread), brief paragraph about them, and the occasional quote.  ("Trying too hard to be sexy is the worst thing you can do.  Sexiness should be effortless.")  The list is full of singers, actors, models (from the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue and Victoria's Secret), and other celebrities.
 Of course, popularity waxes and wanes, and the Maxim Hot 100 reflects these changes.  Last year four of the top 10 -- including the #1 winner, Miley Cyrus -- were former Disney stars; this year, none of them made the top 10 -- possibly because Spring Breakers isn't as fresh in people's minds -- and Miley drops down to #25.  There are some of the nigh-perpetual selections -- Beyonce, Mila Kunis, Rihanna, Katy Perry -- and no joke entries this time around.  (Sorry, Stephen Colbert.)


The Maxim Hot 100 is beautiful and exciting to its fans, and sexist and superficial to its detractors.  I definitely fall into the former camp.  It's a chance for Maxim fans to voice who they find hot, and to get all the results featured over half the magazine.  Woot!

Written by James Lynch

All hail Maxim's number one: Candice Swanepoel!