8.24.2016

RIFFTRAX LIVE: MOTHRA

Japanese kaiju movies, featuring giant (and fake-looking) monsters, are ripe for both joking and mockery.   So it's natural that the Rifftrax folks (Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, Bill Corbett) would take on this genre.  They joked about Godzilla and Gamera back on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and they take on what should be the least-threatening giant monster in Rifftrax Live: Mothra.

After the opening fake humorous slides ("Please.  Call me Larry." -- Lawrence of Arabia) and riffing on the short "Soapy the Germ Fighter," the host trio tackle Mothra.  And this movie has plenty of kaiju elements that make good fodder for jokes: a radioactive island, tiny singing women, a bumbling reporter, and the destruction of obviously fake sets an towns.  ("If you're a matchbox collector, this is like a snuff film.")  It also doesn't help that moths aren't inherently scary, the title monster doesn't appear until after 1/3 of the film is done, and when she finally appears she's a giant grub.
While there were a few slight lulls of joking during the movie, Rifftrax Live: Mothra was a lot of fun.   There were plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, and anyone who thought moths were scary would be hard pressed to defend that position after seeing this.  I'm not a fan of kaiju, but I remain a strong fan of Rifftrax!
 Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch


8.21.2016

EVIL DEAD 2: DEAD BY DAWN dvd

"There's something out there..."  This line from Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn may be one of horror cinema's biggest understatements.  This movie -- possibly the greatest B-movie of all time -- throws everything it can imagine into the setting of the abandoned cabin deep in the woods.

At the start of the movie, Ashley "Ash" Williams (Bruce Campbell) and his girlfriend Linda (Denise Bixler) crash a seemingly abandoned cabin deep in the woods for a romantic weekend.  Unfortunately, Ash finds a tape recorder that has a professor reading from the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis (the Book of the Dead).  The words summon an unseen creature, Linda gets possessed, and Ash's nightmare (sometimes literal) begins.
On the outskirts of the forest, Annie (Sarah Berry) has just arrived with her -- research partner?  boyfriend?  fiancee? -- Ed (Richard Dormeier) and several pages from the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis to translate.  With the help of redneck couple Jake (Dan Hicks) and Bobby Joe (Kassie Wesley DePaiva), they all make their way to the cabin.

Writer-director Sam Raimi throws everything he has into Evil Dead 2,   There are Deadites, Candarian demons, assorted characters getting possessed, an animated hand, something in the fruit cellar, one of the most fun arming sequences around, and so, so much blood and fluids spewing all over the place.  In the middle of this is also plenty of comedy: It's not hard to see the influence of the Three Stooges throughout the movie, and there are numerous quotable lines spread through the movie.  There's also the transformation of Ash from egotistical Romeo to somewhat insane action hero.
There are some flaws in the movie -- shooting inconsistencies, the stop-motion animation -- but they wind up adding to the feel that this could be a fun-but-flawed movie that could have been enjoyed at a drive-in movie theater.  Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn is a tremendously fun roller coaster ride of a horror movie.  (Extras on this DVD include a making-of feature ("The Gore the Merrier"), commentaries by Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, movie stills, and a few assorted other items.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

8.15.2016

THE MUSIC OF DC COMICS: VOLUME 2

With several decades of superhero shows, movies, and novelty songs, The Music of DC Comics: 75th Anniversary Edition barely scratched the surface of what's out there.  So now there's The Music of DC Comics: Volume 2, a 29-track collection that both covers new material not on the first volume and sometimes feels like it's going for secondary choices.

The Music of DC Comics: Volume 2 has music from a wide variety of times.  There are samples from new live shows (Gotham, Supergirl, The Flash), cartoons (the Superman and Batman cartoons, DC Comics Supergirls), movies (Man of Steel, Batman V Superman) and even video games.  There are funky novelty songs from the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.  And yes, the theme from Challenge of the Superfriends made it onto this collection.  Several of the songs are quite silly (The Adventures of Superpup, The Theme of the Justice League of America) but even they represent a more bombastic, often groovy time.  And the instrumentals are almost all pretty exciting and very effective.
The weakness of Volume 2 comes from the times when it tries to follow the "good" stuff on Volume 1.  Since Volume 1 has John Williams' iconic theme from Superman, Volume 2 settles for "The Flying Sequence" and "Lex Luthor's Lair" from the movie.  Volume 1 has the theme from the Batman TV show; Volume 2 has a cover of the theme.  Volume 1 got the original theme song from Wonder Woman; Volume 2 had the theme song from its last season.

Even with the limits from following the first collection, The Music of DC Comics: Volume 2 is still pretty good.  The songs here are a nice mix through the decades, and several songs will be new to even the most devoted superhero fan.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch


LOST IN R'LYEH

H.P. Lovecraft's story "The Call of Cthulhu" begins with an accidental discovery and ends with a monstrous entity and inevitable doom.  Lost in R'lyeh from Atlas Games puts the players into this story, working to get rid of all their cards so everyone but one person can win -- or, as the rules put it, "You cannot win in Lost in R'lyeh.  But one player will lose -- the last player remaining when all the others have gotten rid of their cards and made good their escape."

At the start of the game, each player gets a face-down hand of cards, then five face-up cards (called Escape cards).  The player then picks a card from their hand and puts it face down next to the Escape card; this is the Ultimate Escape card and will be the last card played.
On each player's turn they can play either Horror cards or an Event card to a stack at the center of play.  Horror cards are numbered 1-10 and can only be played if their number if equal to or greater than the top Horror card on the stack.  (The exception is ark Cult's Voodoo Rite, which requires the next Horror card be lower than a certain number.)  A player can play multiple copies of the same numbered card at once, and they can have special effects (like taking another turn or Banishing (removing from the game) the stack).  Event cards are played one at a time and can always be played.  After a player plays their cards, they draw back up from the Draw Pile of cards to the starting hand size.  If a player can't play any cards, they have to take all the cards from the stack into their hand.  While this seems bad (giving a player more cards to get rid of), it can be beneficial by giving a player numerous multiple copies of Horror cards.

When the Draw pile is empty, players try to play all the cards from their hand.  When those cards are gone, a player takes one face-up Escape card into their hand and plays it.  And when those are all gone, the player puts their Ultimate Escape card in their hand -- and if they can play it and not get more cards, they've escaped and won (or at least not lost).  And the last player with cards is the game's loser.

Lost in R'lyeh is fairly simple and pretty enjoyable.  The gameplay is both simple and complex, as players try to jettison their cards while sometimes grabbing the stack to get a lot more cards and a lot more options.  The card names and art reflect "The Call of Cthulhu" well -- you get a good feel for the story if you read the Horror cards from 1-10 -- and the game plays pretty quickly, as cards are played and removed from the game.  And the metal tin is a nice touch!  There's a lot to like when getting Lost in R'lyeh.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

8.12.2016

SAUSAGE PARTY

If you go by the movie Sausage Party, eating meat is murder, eating vegetables is murder, and sometimes using objects is murder -- so I suppose there's not much for humans to do.  In any event, this raunchy comedy takes the animation trope of inanimate objects coming to life and has a bizarre, sometimes cruel, and often stereotypical take on it.

At Shopwell's Supermarket, all the food (and many of the other products) are alive, talking (usually cursing) and moving when no humans are around.  The food stays in its packaging, hoping the Gods (humans) will purchase the food, taking it to the Great Beyond (outside the store) for an eternity of bliss.  A sausage named Frank (Seth Rogen) and his hot dog bun girlfriend Brenda Bunson (Kristen Wiig) look forward to when they can be together out of their wrapping, with some not-so-subtle sexual suggestions.
A cart crash (and Saving Private Ryan parody) leaves Frank and Brenda stranded in the store.  They try to make their way with the help of: Teresa del Taco (Salma Hayek), who has more than a passing interest in Brenda; Sammy Bagel Jr. (Edward Norton), who sounds and acts like Woody Allen; and Kareem Abdul Lavash (David Krumholtz), who sounds and acts like a stereotypical Arab.  For a villain, there's a literal Douche (Nick Kroll) out to get Frank and Brenda -- and who compensated for a leak by cannibalizing liquids from other products in the store.  Frank learns what happens to food from an Indian bottle of liquor named Firewater (Bill Hader), while Frank's slightly shorter sausage friend Barry (Michael Cera) finds out the hard way the torture and brutality of cooking.
It's... kind of hard to know what to think about Sausage Party.  There are a lot of funny voices in the cast, especially Nick Kroll's obnoxious villain.  ("Come at me, bro!")  The movie also has some fun with animation tropes, whether how food and Gods/humans can communicate or the final showdown.  And this is one movie that isn't afraid to go offensive.  (If you think a sex scene between a sausage and a bun is wild, that's nothing compared to what happens at the end of the movie.)  But the movie also goes for a lot of easy food puns, and it's very hard to ignore that virtually every foodstuff is an ethnic caricature: the potato is Irish, tequila is Mexican, the Jewish and Arabic foods argue and fight about control of their aisle, and so on.  And the end of the movie tries to be meta but pretty much fizzles out.  I laughed and chuckled during Sausage Party, but it feels like it's trying too hard to be crude and politically incorrect, which sometimes feels like it's trying to shock more than entertain.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

8.06.2016

SUICIDE SQUAD

Well, that was a hot mess.  Suicide Squad is DC Comics' latest attempt to create their cinematic universe -- plus tap into the antihero trend -- but it winds up as a grim, unfocused disaster.

Following the events of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, government officials are worried about both the absence of Superman and the possibility a powerful metahuman may not be as good-willed as the Man of Steel.  Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has an... unusual plan.  She wants to take some convicted criminals -- both skilled and metahuman -- and make them Task Force X, a group who'll be forced to carry out government assignments, with blackmail and/or death the penalty for refusing to follow orders.  This group would be led on the ground by Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), who's backed up by Katana (Karen Fukuhara).
 For those keeping track, Task Force X is composed of: Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), the Enchantress (Cara Delevigne), and Slipknot (Adam Beach).  But if the idea of letting homicidal folks loose seems like a bad idea, it's quickly proven to be a bad idea: The Enchantress escapes and starts a world-ending plan with her mystical brother Incubus (Alain Chanoine), the group is given the assignment to extract one person from Midway City.  And the Joker (Jared Leto) has decided he wants Harley Quinn back.
There is so, so much wrong with Suicide Squad.  The movie takes far too long introducing the characters and is fairly fuzzy on their missions through the film.  As with many group movies, the characters have minimal personalities and more abilities/powers.  While the movie tries to make its cast likable and friends, they're still mostly selfish, homicidal, and sometimes sociopaths; the movie tries to make Will Smith's character sympathetic because he has a daughter -- which apparently makes up for his killing people for money.  The direction is disjointed and hyperactive, the action is muddled, and the result is a huge disappointment.  Skip Suicide Squad.

Overall grade: D-
Reviewed by James Lynch

7.31.2016

KNIGHTS OF THE DINNER TABLE: 20 YEARS OF COVERS

It's said that the cover of a comic book is very important, as it catches a potential reader's eye and may entice them into buying the book.  Knights of the Dinner Table celebrated its first two decades of publication with Knights of the Dinner Table: 20 Years of Covers, a coffee table book that features all the covers of the comic -- plus additional material.

Knights of the Dinner Table follows the misadventures of the Knights of the Dinner Table -- B.A., Bob, Dave, Sarah, and Brian -- a role-playing group in Muncie, Indiana who mainly play Hackmaster, a thinly-veiled version of Dungeons & Dragons.  Over the years the comic has expanded its scope, introducing other gaming groups (most often the Black Hands), the employees of Hard Eight Enterprises (who produce Hackmaster), the annual GaryCon conventions, and more.  Throughout the years and changes, the focus of the comic has always been gaming -- and that focus is reflected in the book's covers.

The early covers focused mainly on the Knights, either showing all of them together or the four players with gamemaster B.A. appearing in the background somehow.  Over time the other characters and groups made their way to the covers: the Black Hands would be tormenting the Knights, individual characters would get the focus, the annual GaryCon shows would pop up, there was a tribute to Gary Gygax, etc.  Knowing that many of the readers were gamers and/or geeks, the characters would appear in parodies of movies, TV series, other comic books, and even original D&D sourcebooks.  And there were many guest artists, providing different (and, frankly, sometimes better) artwork than inside the comic book.

In addition to the covers, KODT: 20 Years of Covers also has an introduction by the series' creator Jolly Bkackburn.  There are also summaries of all the stories in every issue, plus the occasional panel or artwork from the issues, which elevates this collection from just artwork to a pretty good guide to the stories appearing in every single issue featured in this collection.

Unfortunately, the production of KODT: 20 Years of Covers was part of the disastrous KODT Live Action Series Kickstarter campaign.  The online store Noble Knight Games generously provided copies of the book to those Kickstarter backers who never got their book; unfortunately, they sent out all the copies they had (and I got the last one!).  Fortunately, Kenzer & Company has made KODT: 20 Years of Covers available as a downloadable PDF ; and the hope remains that more physical copies of the book will eventually be produced.

I've been a fan of Knights of the Dinner Table since 1998, and Knights of the Dinner Table: 20 Years of Covers is a terrific collection of the series' amusing and pretty original covers (which almost never have anything to do with the issue's stories).  This book may not be for everyone, but it's terrific for fans of the series, gamers, and geeks in general.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch







7.29.2016

BAD MOMS

Okay, so they're really not that bad.  Bad Moms is a light, predictable, profanity-filled comedy where overworked, overstressed mothers get to be "bad" by taking a break from duties and responsibilities.

Amy (Mike Kunis) seems like she has it all: a husband and two young kids, a part-time job, and an active role in her kids' PTA.  But it doesn't take much to see that she's full of stress: Her husband hangs around the house, making her feel like she's a third kid.  She does everything for her kids -- doing her son's projects, scheduling her daughter's soccer -- and they "thank" her by being embarrassed by her.  Her young boss at work keeps dumping more work on her without making her full time.  And the PTA is ruled by Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate), who rules with an iron fist and is always followed around by her supporters Stacy (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Vicky (Annie Mumolo).  When Amy kicks her husband after discovering his online affair, she's now handling all the family chores and activities (including her dog's vertigo) -- leading her to tell off Gwnedolyn at a PTA meeting and saying she's tired of working so hard to be a perfect mom.
Amy's outburst earns her the attention of two new friends: Kiki (Kristen Bell), a shy and awkward mother of four desperate for any sort of friendship; and Carla (Kathryn Hahn), a single mom who's hypersexual and outspoken.  Together they decide to be "bad moms" by doing things like partying in a supermarket, getting drunk, and being more relaxed with their kids.  Since the movie needs conflict to move the plot along, Amy decides to run against Gwendolyn for the position of PTA president.  And you don't have to be psychic to know what'll happen with the handsome widower-single dad.
Bad Moms isn't as wild as the title suggests (except for the near-continual cursing), but it is fun fluff.   While the movie is predictable and ends with a everyone-is-happy-and-friends sentimentality, it does have plenty of funny moments: Numerous slow-motion shots of the three friends partying, the catharsis its target audience would feel about cutting loose and partying, and one scene where Kiki is used to demonstrate how to handle an uncircumcised penis.  While the cast is good, Kristen Bell and Kathryn Hahn stand out as polar opposite personality types who somehow become close friends.  Bad Moms is another decent, very straightforward summer comedy.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

7.27.2016

LIGHTS OUT

Be afraid of the thing that goes bump in the night.  This is the pretty simple concept behind Lights Out, a pretty mediocre and very routine horror movie.

This movie opens with Paul (Billy Burke) working in a factory late at night, when he's attacked and killed by a figure who only appears in the dark.

We then jump past the opening credits to get further into the story.  Martin (Gabriel Bateman) is a kid who's been falling asleep a lot in school.  His mother Sophie (Maria Bello) -- who's Paul's widow -- has been having mental problems and may have stopped taking her medication.  She also talks to someone named Diana when no one else is in the house.  And Martin's been seeing a shadowy figure in the dark parts of the house.
Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) is a young woman who's estranged from her mother (Sophie) and is Martin's half-sister.  Rebecca is dealing with her commitment-focused boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia) but gets involved with helping Martin.  Rebecca starts investigating her mother's relationship with Diana, and what Martin describes sounds a lot like what Rebecca experienced as a young girl.  And pretty soon that shadowy figure starts popping up in almost every shadow and closet in the movie.
Lights Out is almost absolutely routine.  The characters (none of whom stand out) hear mysterious noises and see doors slamming shut.  Once they figure out that Diana can't stand the light there's a scramble to provide continual illumination -- but that's doesn't create tension.  Most of the movie is the creature popping out of the dark or appearing when the lights inevitably flicker and go out, and while the monster is obscured by the dark it's sudden appearances and charging at characters gets repetitive quickly.  For a movie mostly revolving around darkness, Lights Out gives the horror fan what they've seen many times before.

Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch

7.23.2016

STAR TREK BEYOND

Time to head back to space.  Star Trek Beyond is the most original of the rebooted universe, and while it's heavy on action it also gives the characters a chance to shine.

As the movie opens, the Enterprise is three years into its mission of exploration, stopping at the starbase Yorktown, and weariness is overtaking some of the crew.  Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is now older than his father was when he died, and Kirk is considering settling down at the Yorktown and promoting Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) to captain.  Spock, meanwhile, is upset that his alternate-timeline self has died, and Spock has broken up with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) over helping the Vulcan race.  The rest of the crew is their reliable selves: Leonard "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban), Montgomery "Scotty" Scott (Simon Pegg, who co-wrote the movie), Sulu (John Cho) and Chekhov (Anton Yelchin).
The Enterprise gets sent on a rescue mission in an uncharted nebula -- but the Enterprise is attacked by massive swarms of ships led by Krall (Idris Elba), an alien who absorbs the lifeforce of others and seems to have a particular hatred of the Federation.  With the Enterprise literally torn to pieces, the crew winds up in different groups on a nearby planet.  Kirk and Chekhov work on rescuing the remained of the crew in the wreck of the Enterprise.  Bones is assisting the wounded Spock.  Sulu and Uhura interact with Krall.  And Scotty meets Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a martial artist and engineer who helps him in exchange for his help getting her off the planet.  There's also an ancient starship, a mysterious artifact, a motorcycle, and music from the Beastie Boys.
Director Justin Lin has also directed several movies in the Fast & the Furious series, so it's no surprise that Star Trek Beyond is heavy on action: fast-paced space battles, numerous slugfests on the ground, and that motorcycle turning up in the far future.  But the cast has settled into these near-iconic roles quite nicely, the different groups hearken back to the landing parties of the original series, there are a few surprised with Krall, and Jaylah is a spirited and interesting character.  Star Trek Beyond is another enjoyable movie for the summer.
Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

7.17.2016

GHOSTBUSTERS

It's summer, which means movies that hope to entertain with big stars, big budgets, and often fairly little plot.  This applies to the new Ghostbusters movie, a simplebut enjoyable reboot of the 1980s movie.
Erin Gilbert (Kristin Wiig) is on the verge of getting tenure from a prestigious university -- until she discovers that a book she co-wrote with Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), promoting the existence of ghosts, is still around.  Erin confronts Abby (working at a small college), who's still trying to prove the existence of ghosts, along with the ever-smiling, possibly insane engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon).   Erin gets sucked back into the world of ghost-hunting, and when the trio all get fired from their jobs, they wind up starting their own business and focused on proving the existence of ghosts.

They soon get two new members: Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), a subway worker who knows NYC and has read massive amounts of nonfiction -- and who becomes the fourth Ghostbuster.  Then there's Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), the world's worst receptionist and a pretty dim bulb in general, but the only one who applied for the receptionist job (and who Erin has massive hots for).
But it's not easy hunting ghosts.  A nerdy little man named Rowan (Neil Casey) has been leaving small machines designed to amplify paranormal activity -- and to break down the barriers between this world and the next one.  There's also lots of skepticism about the Ghostbusters' finds, as well as a city hall that knows the paranormal is real but wants that information kept quiet so homeland security can handle it.
Ghostbusters works pretty well.  While the movie is a bit light on story, the lead actors are all terrific in their roles (especially Kate McKinnon's mad scientist) and the movie has a nice amount of action, from numerous ghosts to a haunted NYC parade to the final giant creature.  There are numerous tributes to the original movie, from appearances from both creatures and almost every star from the original (including a tribute to the late Harold Ramis) to a post-credits scene laying the groundwork for a sequel.  This is a terrific movie for the summer: light, funny and entertaining.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

7.16.2016

DUDES & DRAGONS dvd

Blame Kickstarter for this one.  Dudes & Dragons is a almost non-budget comedy that attempts to spoof Dungeons & Dragons but fails on pretty much every level: humor, action, special effects, and storytelling.

Dudes & Dragons has basically two plots that merge into one.  Archer Camilan (Maclain Nelson) is in love with and engaged to the elvish princess Larec (Claire Niederpruem).  However, his parents are opposed to the match; and if they marry his family will lose its lands and castle (for reasons that are never explained).  So Camilan sets off with his friend/henchman Samton (Jake Van Wagoner) to ask a favor of his brother Ramicus (Adam Johnson).  If Ramicus gets married, the family can keep their lands.  But Ramicus is a happy bachelor, looking down on being tied down and happy working as a bounty hunter -- and hanging out with his orc roommate Shokdor (Erik Denton, who spends the whole movie grunting and wearing a rubber mask).

Enter storyline #2.  The kingdom lives in terror of a dragon who attacks people in love.  (Seriously.)  This is because it is controlled by the necromancer Lord Tensley (James Marsters), who wants to destroy all love in the kingdom unless the captive Ennogard (Kaitlin Doubleday) marries him -- which she doesn't want to do, since he's both evil and her cousin.  (Again: Seriously.)  So she sends out a distress message (parodying Star Wars: A New Hope), promising her lands, her soul, and her body to whoever rescues her.  Oh, and the dragon attacks and injures Larec, and the magical healer conveniently needs a talon from the dragon to heal her; and it has to be within a certain timeframe, setting up the movie's ticking clock.

And there's a pre-credits appearance by Luke Perry.

I don't know if there's a decent sword and sorcery parody or comedy out there, but Dudes & Dragons sure ain't it.  The movie is painfully unfunny, whether it's a goblin in drag, parodies of 300 and Titanic, or yet even more slow motion scenes.  The acting is quite bad throughout the movie (what are you doing in this, James Marsters?) and all of the special effects -- from the monsters to the backgrounds -- are so terrible I had to check to make sure this wasn't made by the Asylum.  You'd be better off making your own filk songs than sitting through the drek that is Dudes & Dragons.  (DVD extras are pretty standard: deleted scenes, behind the scenes features, etc.)

Overall grade: F
Reviewed by James Lynch