2.08.2016

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS dvd

Vampires have inspired numerous interpretations -- horrific creatures, romantic figures, angst-driven souls -- but what if, in modern times, they tried to live in the modern world?  This is the basis for What We Do in the Shadows, a mockumentary about what can happen when the traditional vampire comes face to face with the modern world.

What We Do in the Shadows begins with four centuries-old vampires living as flatmates in Wellington, New Zealand.  Viago (Taiki Waititi) is a bit of a dandy who laments his lost love -- and tries to get his flatmates to follow through on their responsibilities on the chore wheel.  Vladislav (Jermaine Clement) has a hypnotic gaze and considers himself dangerous; he also obsesses over his losing battles with a supernatural entity called the Beast.  Deacon (Jonny Brugh) considers himself the cool one in the group; he also has a human familiar: Jackie (Jackie van Beek), a bored housewife who serves Deacon in the hopes he'll someday turn her into a vampire.  Finally there's Petyr (Ben Fransham), the oldest vampire; he resembles the creature from Nosferatu and rarely leaves his stone coffin in the basement.

The vampires have invited two cameramen to film them at their daily activities, whether wandering around town looking for victims, entertaining themselves in their flat, looking for a fight with werewolves ("We're werewolves, not swear-wolves"), or preparing for the Unholy Masquerade ball for supernatural beings.  Changes start when their victim Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Maceur) becomes a vampire and starts bringing them into the modern age -- as well as telling everyone that he's a vampire.  ("Twilight!")  There's also Stu (Stu Rutherford), a friend of Nick's who quickly becomes more popular with the vampires than Nick, and who they all agree not to eat.
 What We Do in the Shadows is quite a funny take on the vampire genre.  All the standards of vampirism are there -- killing for blood, bursting into flame in sunlight, hypnotism, flying, turning into bats, needing to be invited someplace, not having a reflection -- but they all become part of the vampires' almost mundane existence in their home and about town.  There are lots of funny lines, and stars Taiki and Jermaine also direct the film with a simple and straightforward touch that makes the situations even funnier.  What We Do in the Shadows is a light comedy (about inhuman killers) that's quite enjoyable.  (Sadly and surprisingly, there are no extras on the dvd.)
Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

2.06.2016

HAIL, CAESAR!

Nostalgia can be both good and bad, bringing folks back to a seemingly better time while often tempting folks to just live in the past instead of doing something great for the present.  The latter is, alas, the trap Joel and Ethan Coen fall into with their new film Hail Caesar!

It's the 1950s, and Eddie Manniz (Josh Brolin) is an executive fixes at Capitol Studios.  His job, which extends into all hours of the day and night, is to oversee the studio's assorted films and to fix the problems the actors get into.
And there are plenty of problems.  Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is starring in the studio's big religious picture Hail, Caesar! but he has an older scandal hanging over his head; he also gets kidnapped by a group called the Future.  Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is a Western movie star whose country accent is terrible in his high society movie, driving director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) crazy.  DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) faces the scandal of being a single mother, leading to the solution of having her adopt her own baby.  Mannix also has a possibly better job offer from a military company, and his battle with smoking leads him to confession every day.  There are also cameos by Channing Tatum as a musical's star singer-dancer Burt Gurney, Jonah Hill as studio legal patsy Joseph Silverman, and Tilda Swinton as identical twin gossip reporters Thora and Thessaly Thacker.

The Coen brothers have a great reverence for the 1950s movies, whether it's the snippets of the fake movies or the chain-smoking tough guy Mannix doing what he has to in order to keeps the wheels of the studio running.  Unfortunately, there's not more to Hail, Caesar! beyond this superficial adoration of the time period.  The truly stellar cast isn't given any real depth for any characters, and there aren't enough laughs or amusing scenarios to make this an effective comedy.  There are potentially interesting threads (the religious imagery and themes alongside the Communists) but they're given zero development.  Hail, Caesar! is ultimately nice to look at but not much more.

Overall grade: C
Reviewed by James Lynch

1.29.2016

I LOST IT AT THE VIDEO STORE by Tom Roston

For those of us old enough, there was a time when physically traveling to a video store was just about the only way to find and watch movies that weren't in the movie theaters.  Blockbuster had walls of the newest releases, small stores had almost-random assortments of titles, independent stores often had obscure and foreign films, and "be kind -- rewind" was a well-known instruction.  But how did these stores affect filmmakers?  What did they mean for the movie industry, what led to their disappearances, and is there absence a good or bad thing?  Tom Roston assembled over twenty people involved in the film industry and spliced together their interviews in I Lost It at the Video Store: A Filmmakers' Oral History of a Vanished Era.

This book has Roston's interview subjects chatting about their experiences clerking in video stores, explaining the business side of the direct-to-video market, sharing stories about their favorite video stores, exploring how watching movies on VHS enabled and affected their own films, and what ultimately killed the video store -- and what followed after its demise.  While a few chapters are monopolized by their subject -- one is nothing but Kevin Smith, another is all about Reservoir Dogs -- most of the book consists of a few sentences or paragraphs from the interview subjects, put together in a semblance of a conversation.

There are times I Lost It at the Video Store would have benefited from simply letting its subjects talk uninterrupted instead of mixing their thoughts together.  That said, I really enjoyed this book.  It supplies a first-hand look back at a now-vanished, once-dominant place that had its own culture and impact on many greats in cinema, as well as thoughtful disagreement on whether its vanishing is for better or worse.  This is an informative and entertaining look back at the virtually extinct place that was the video store.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

1.27.2016

MADNESS ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

Trains are not the most common or practical means of travel, but they are an interesting setting for horror: Characters are effectively trapped on the train between stops, they can meet interesting travelers (and dangerous creatures), and there are the possibilities of the mystery and intrigue of foreign cities when the train is the famous Orient Express.  Madness on the Orient Express, edited and introduced by James Lowder, is a successful Kickstarter Chaosium, Inc. collection of sixteen Lovecraftian tales which all involve, in some manner, the Orient Express.

While it would be simple for all the authors to have the protagonists run into creatures and cultists on the Orient Express, there are quite a few different takes for this location.  "The God beneath the Mountain" is concerned with creating routes for the Orient Express.  A few stories cast the Orient Express as the simple conveyance to a destination, such as "There Is a Book" and "La Musique de L'ennui" (which is more concerned with The Phantom of the Opera than the famous train).  Harry Houdini is the protagonist of "Bound for Home," while competitive cooks face a grisly turn in "A Great and Terrible Hunger."  And the Orient Express has a faded grandeur while taking a tired woman on a journey in "Daddy, Daddy."

Then there are the stories where the Orient Express is key.  In "Engineered" the train tracks -- of this and all trains -- have an ominous hidden pattern.  A battle between cosmic factions is played out on the train in "Inscrutable."  The past and present come together oddly in "A Finger's Worth of Coal," and the collection ends with the surreal "Stained Windows."

I never ran or played a Call of Cthulhu adventure set on a train, but now I'm considering it.  The stories here are mostly of pretty good quality, and the variety they bring into the same famous setting keeps the book quite diverse.  Madness on the Orient Express is a nice, horrific series of trips on the world's most famous train.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

1.25.2016

THE BOY

Some dolls are downright creepy, with their fixed expressions, ever-staring eyes, and complete lack of reaction to anything that happens.  In the horror movie The Boy, there may be a lot more to one particular doll.

Greta Evans (Lauren Cohan) is an American nanny who left America -- and an abusive relationship with a man named Cole -- for a seeming ideal position in England.  The elderly Heelshires (Jim Norton, Diana Hardcastle) are going on holiday for several months, and they want a nanny to watch over their 8-year-old son, Brahms (as well as live in their large, isolated mansion).
 It's a simple assignment -- until Greta discovers that Brahms is a life-sized porcelain doll that the Heelshires treat like an actual child (complete with a schedule of activities for him).  The grocer/potential love interest Malcolm (Rupert Evans) explains that the real Brahms died in a fire twenty years ago, and shortly afterwards the Heelshires got the doll and used it to cope.  He also shares that Mr. Heelshire worried that Brahms was "odd," and there were rumors that Brahms killed a little girl before he died in the fire.
Greta's assignment begins fine -- calls with her sister in America, watching the house, putting Brahms away from her -- but then weird things start happening.  Greta's clothes start vanishing or getting spread out, she gets mysterious calls and thinks she hears a child sobbing, and Brahms seems to have moved when left alone.  Is Brahms' ghost or spirit animating the doll?  Is there someone in the mansion with Greta? Or is she hallucinating what's been happening?

The Boy is a pretty by-the-numbers horror movie.  Lead actress with a troubled past and personal connection to her new situation?  Check.  Large mansion with creepy elements and poor lighting?  Check.  Mysterious events that could be supernatural or hallucinations?  Check.  Resolution that may be setting things up for a horror franchise?  Check.  Lauren Cohan is decent in the main role, but despite a few quick shock-scares the movie doesn't do anything really new; and the ending isn't fully satisfying and goes on a little too long.  The Boy is alright, but Brahms won't be the new Chucky.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

1.23.2016

THE BLOODY INN

Running an inn can be tough  -- and in the game The Bloody Inn from Pearl Games, players supplement their income by murdering the inn's guests, burying them, and taking the money from their corpses.

Set in France in 1831, The Bloody Inn lets 1-4 players act as murderous innkeepers.  Each player gets a color, five francs on the game board, a Check for 10 francs, one room key (which goes on the board), two Peasant Cards, and one Player Aid card (which also functions as a rank-2 annex).  A number of neutral room keys are placed on the game board (based on the number of players), a number of Guest cards are discarded (based on the number of players and whether everyone wants a short or long game), and the game begins!

At the start of each round (Welcome Travelers -- Evening), the first player draws Guest cards from the deck and places them in each room, one at a time.  Each Guest card has a type and color (merchant -- blue; artisan -- red; police -- grey; religious -- purple; and nobles -- green; and Peasants -- yellow), a rank (from 0-3), money, sometimes an annex, and sometimes an aptitude.  After the Guests are placed comes the next phase (Player Actions -- Night), when each player (starting with the first player and going clockwise) takes an action, then after everyone went takes a second action.
There are five possible actions.  To Bribe a Guest, a player "spends" cards from their hand equal to the Guest's rank.  The bribed Guest goes into the player's hand; cards with the Bribery icon are also returned to the player's hand, while all other cards are discarded.  (Discarded Peasants go to the Bistro, while all other Guests go to the Exit Stack at the end of the board.)  To Build an Annex, a player "spends" cards equal to the rank of a Guest in their hand with an Annex at the bottom of the card; cards with the trowel icon are returned to the player's hand, while the others are discarded; there may be immediate or long-term benefits from the Annex.  To Kill a Guest, a player targets a Guest in a room (or Peasant in the Bistro) and spends a number of cards equal to the Guest's rank; cards with the gun icon are returned to the player's hand, while all other cards are discarded; and the guest is flipped over (becoming a corpse) and placed in front of the player.  To Bury a Corpse, a player discards cards equal to the corpse's rank (getting back those with a coffin symbol back and discarding the rest) and places the corpse under an Annex with space (an Annex can hold a number of bodies equal to its rank).  If a player Buries a Corpse in their own Annex, they get all the francs on the corpse; if they bury it in another player's Annex they split the francs with that player.  And if a player passes, they either do nothing or exchange 10 franc amounts from the game board for 10-franc Checks.
After each player has their two actions, the final phase (End of Round -- Morning) happens.  If there are any police cards in a room, the investigate!  If a player has an unburied corpse, the player has to pay the gravedigger 10 francs (either by Check or off the board) for each body, which is they discarded without earning the player any money.  After that, the Guests leave, earning a player with a Guest in their room (indicated by their color key in front of the room) one franc; Peasants go to the Bistro and all other Guests go to the Exit Stack.  Finally, each player pays 1 franc for each accomplice/card in their hand; they don't take Checks, and if a player goes down to zero francs they discard any cards they can't pay for.

The next player clockwise becomes the new First Player, and new Guests are drawn from the deck and placed in rooms.  If the deck is out of cards, the discarded Guests at the Exit Stack are shuffled and become the new deck.  The second time the deck is emptied, the game ends, Checks are cashed in and become francs, and whoever has the most francs wins!

The Bloody Inn is a morbidly cheerful strategy game, revolving around murder, bribery, building, and burial.  There's a good deal of planning involved, whether it's selecting which Annexes to build, placing Guests so they'll leave your room in Morning and not be in opponents' rooms then, making sure your created corpses won't go to the gravedigger, or opting to murder low-rank Guests (easy to do, but little reward) or higher-rank Guests (who require a lot more cards but pay a lot more),  Also, having a lot of cards gives you more options for future turns -- but costs you a lot in paying accomplices.  While there's no humor per se in the game, the artwork has a slight edge to it that suits the feel of the game.  The Bloody Inn is an enjoyable, thoughtful, and challenging game for anyone with a slightly dark side.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

1.16.2016

TRAINWRECK dvd

When a stand-up comedian makes the leap to the big screen, they often bring transfer their on-stage persona to their cinema character.  This is certainly the case with Trainwreck, a romantic comedy written by and starring Amy Schumer and directed by Judd Apatow.

As a little kid, Amy Townsend was told by her father Gordon (Colin Quinn) that "monogamy isn't realistic."  She took that message to heart, and the adult Amy (Amy Schumer) dates muscular, possibly-closeted Steven (John Cena) while also having lots of one-night stands, with her golden rule being never spending the night.  The rest of her life is equally self-serving, as she drinks and does drugs with almost impressive frequency.  And her relationships tend to consist of making snarky comments about others, whether giving her sister Kim (Brie Larson) grief about her nerdy stepson or gossiping at a Maxim-type magazine called S'Nuff with her friend Nikki (Vanessa Bayer).

Amy gets a job assignment from her steamroller of a boss Dianna (Tilda Swinton) to do an article on sports doctor Aaron Conners (Will Forte).  She's picked to do the article because she knows nothing about sports except that she thinks it's stupid.  But Aaron is almost the polar opposite of Amy: He's selfless (works for Doctors without Borders), believes sports builds a sense of community (and allows for cameos by assorted sports stars, notably and amusingly LeBron James), and is pretty square (listening to Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl" during surgery.).


This movie being a rom-com, Amy and Aaron wind up in bed together pretty quickly.  But she's not ready for things when he says he wants a relationship and treats her well.  And he may not be ready for all her selfishness, sexual history, and attempts to end the relationship.  And for drama, there's a subplot about  Amy and Kim dealing with their father's MS and putting him in an assisted living home.

 Much as I liked the cast of Trainwreck, it's very familiar terrain for a rom-com.  Amy Schumer plays the same character she's made for herself doing stand up -- fairly selfish, racist, party girl, and substance abuser -- and at least one joke was moved straight from her routine into the movie.  Bill Hader is good as an almost-too-nice guy, and the two leads have good chemistry.  Unfortunately there's nothing new here, and director Judd Apatow doesn't elevate the material past a typical romantic comedy.  Trainwreck is cute in a frequently offensive way, and there are plenty of chuckles through the movie, but the end result is neither original nor hysterical.  (DVD extras are plenty, including interviews, deleted scenes, and a gag reel.)

Overall grade: C+
Reviewed by James Lynch

1.10.2016

KINGDOM BUILDER

There are numerous board games where players battle each other to control territories -- but what happens when the vie for geography without any battling?  Kingdom Builder from Queen Games is a strategic, fun board game for 2-4 players with no combat and lots of planning.

The goal of Kingdom Builder is to earn the most gold through settlement placement.  Each player has 40 settlements and a marker to keep track of the score.  First, players create the board by putting four sectors together.  Each sector has terrain hexes where players can place settlements (grass, canyon, desert, flower field, and forest), terrain where settlements can't be built (water, mountain), one Castle, and two identical locations.  Players also place three of the 10 Kingdom Builder cards on the side of the board; these give all conditions for earning gold at the end of the game, like the Fisherman giving players one gold for each settlement next to a water hex, or the Knights giving players 2 gold for each settlement on their longest horizontal line of settlements.

Players start with a terrain card matching one of the five terrains where settlements can be built.   On a player's turn, they reveal their terrain card and build three settlements on that type of terrain.  Settlements have to be adjacent to other settlements on the same type of terrain, if possible; if not, settlements go on that terrain type anywhere on the board.  (If every terrain hex of that type is occupied, the terrain card is removed from the game and a new terrain card is drawn.)  Settlements cannot be placed on occupied hexes.  And after settlements are placed, the terrain card is discarded and a new terrain card is drawn.  Then the next player clockwise goes.
Then there are the castles and locations.  At the end of the game, a player gets three gold for every castle adjacent to one of their settlements.  As for locations, each location has two tiles that give an in-game benefit; for example, the Tower lets you build one settlement on the edge of the game board, while the Harbor lets you move a placed settlement onto a water hex.  If you build a settlement adjacent to a location, you get that location tile and can use its ability once per turn on the turns following its acquisitions.  (You can't get both location tiles from the same location, but you can get one from any locations in the game -- unless the other players got both tiles before you could.)
When a player places their last settlement, the game ends.  Players then earn gold from the three Kingdom Builder cards, plus three gold for each castle adjacent to one or more of their settlements.  Whoever has the most gold wins!

Kingdom Builder is a straightforward and enjoyable game of strategy.  Apart from terrain cards and which four locations come up when the board is made, there are no random elements in the game.  It's strange playing this sort of board game with no combat, but this places a greater emphasis on strategy: Whether to block other players, which locations to go for, and where to place settlements with the frequent limitation of having to place them adjacent to your existing settlements.  This makes Kingdom Builder a competition of placement rather than battles -- and a calmer, intellectual, fun game about controlling territories to earn gold and victory.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

1.08.2016

THE FOREST

Forests are a potentially rich setting for horror: They offer primal terrors, isolation, lack of technology, and the possibility of getting lost and dying in the elements.  The new horror movie The Forest adds a new element to the mix: supernatural trickery.

Sara (Natalie Dormer) has a sense that her twin sister Jess (also played by Dormer) is in serious trouble.  Sara travels to Japan, where the last time anyone saw Jess, she was walking into the Aokigahara Forest.
 This forest is a source of fear and superstition for the locals.  Many people enter the forest to commit suicide.  Additionally, people believe that angry spirits inhabit the forest, using illusions and deception to drive people with sadness in their hearts to kill themselves.  Few will enter there at night, and Sara is warned not to leave the path.
Sara enters the forest with two guides: Aiden (Taylor Kinney), a travel reporter; and Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), a local ranger.  When night falls, Michi leaves, but Sara and Aiden stay in the hopes that Jess will return to her campsite.  But there are lots of scary sounds, things seem to change all the time, and a Japanese schoolgirl warns Sara, "Don't trust him."

The Forest is a very routine, typical horror movie.  Most of the scares come from a jolt of music and something popping into view/at the camera.  The characters are paper thin, and Sara shows an amazing lack of preparation for someone trying to find someone in a forest.  (For example, she uses her cell phone for illumination instead of bringing a single flashlight.)  Instead of tapping into the rich potential of the unexplored forest, The Forest settles for mediocrity and basic scares.

Overall grade: C
Reviewed by James Lynch

1.05.2016

THE HATEFUL EIGHT

There are two things Quentin Tarantino loves to have in his movies: characters talking and lots of violence.  He gets to indulge both in The Hateful Eight, a combination western and mystery.

Shortly after the end of the Civil War, bounty hunter John "the Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell) is outracing a blizzard in the mountains on Wyoming.  He's captured Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and is bringing her by stagecoach to the town of Red Rock, where he'll collect a $10,000 bounty and she'll be tried and hung.  He's also not above beating her to keep her quiet.
 Along the way, Ruth reluctantly picks up two passengers.  Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) is a fellow bounty hunter, bringing three bounty corpses worth $8,000 total.  Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins) is a former Confederate who claims to be the new sheriff of Red Rock.
 The travelers can't outrun the blizzard, so stagecoach driver O.B. Jackson (James Parks) stops at an outpost called Minnie's Haberdashery to wait out the storm.  There's they find an array of assorted characters.  Senor Bob (Demian Bichir) is a Mexican feller left in charge when Minnie went over the mountain.  Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) is a British gentleman who's a professional hangman, who'd hang Daisy.  Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) is a cowboy planning on visiting his mother.  And General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern) is an elderly former Confederate leader.  The group are stuck together until the storm passes; but Ruth is convinved that one or more of them aren't what they seem, and that they're working with Daisy to free her -- even if that means killing everyone else there.
The Hateful Eight feels like two separate movies.  For the first three quarters of the movie, Tarantino (who wrote and directed the movies) is content for the movie to meander, as characters engage in long conversations with each other.  Then at the end, the screen turns into a splatterhouse, and violence and gore pretty much engulf all the characters.  There's an artificial feel to the dialogue (which goes on and on, leading to the movie's excessive running time) and the excess of violence at the end (and often directed at the film's main female character) feels self-indulgent.

That's not to say there aren't some good parts to this movie.  There's a stellar cast assembled, and if Tarantino doesn't always get the best of them here, the talent still shines through (especially from Jennifer Jason Leigh, late in the movie).  The gallows, crude, and racist humor sometimes works, though it can be off-putting as well.

The Hateful Eight isn't a terrible movie, but it is a terribly flawed film.

Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch

12.31.2015

LLOYD THE CONQUEROR dvd

With geek culture becoming more and more mainstream, there are two typical approaches to it: celebration and mockery.  Lloyd the Conqueror takes the latter approach, spending most of its ludicrous time making fun of live-action role playing, or LARPing.

Community college students and good buddies Lloyd (Evan Williams), Patrick (Jesse Reid), and Oswald (Scott Patey) got distracted playing video games, gave the worst oral report on Beowulf ever, and will be kicked out of their apartment with their failing grade.  Fortunately for them, their teacher Derek (Mike Smith) is obsessed with winning the Demons & Dwarves LARP for the dark side, and he needs teams to beat.  So Derek tells the three he'll give them a C if they sign up for the LARP -- and if the three somehow win, Derek will give them an A+.

The trio wind up joining up with Andy (Brian Posehn), a game store owner and self-proclaimed "level 80 wizard" who thinks Derek is taking all the fun out of Demons & Dwarves.  He decides to train the full-of-snide-comments trio.  And since Lloyd has a crush on Cassandra (Tegan Moss), a violent "self defense for women" instructor, she winds up on their team as well.

 If this sounds silly, it gets worse.  There are goofy attempts at bribery, coercion, and cheating  to win.  There are pathetic training montages involving throwing tinfoil balls and chucking away rulebooks.  There are ridiculous LARPers, a romance that is thrown in for its own sake, lots of cursing and cheap jokes at the expense of the characters, and a predictable move of the main characters going from making fun of LARPing to embracing it.
What's missing from Lloyd the Conqueror is laughter.  The jokes are very obvious and more painful than funny.  The only amusing actor here is Brian Posehn, though he may have lost some geek cred by appearing in this movie.
Lloyd the Conqueror feels more like an extended bad sketch from a comedy show than an amusing take on geek culture.  Skip it.  (For those who'll still watch it, DVD extras include the making of the movie, a PSA for Demons & Dwarves, and making the music for the movie.)

Overall grade: D-
Reviewed by James Lynch

THE BIG SHORT

So, can a movie about economics and investments be entertaining?  It can with a great cast, a very good director, and some quality source material.  The Big Short, based on the book by Michael Lewis, explores the build-up and burst of the housing bubble just a few short years ago.

The Big Short follows three different groups, all trying to profit from the unimaginable.  Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a socially awkward and brilliant hedge fund manager, sees what he believes is an imminent collapse on the housing market based on subprime loans (mortgages made to people who can't pay them back).  He creates a credit default swap, where he pays money if the loans are secure but profits if they collapse.
Sleazy investor (and narrator of the movie) Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) learns of Burry's plan and decides to jump on board, to make as much money as possible.  Trader Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), a man with a conscience, haunted past, and a nose for smelling scams, winds up potentially working with Vennett and exploring America with his team to find out what's behind these failing mortgages.

Meanwhile, young investors Charlie Gellar (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) get word of this idea and work with retired and paranoid former investor Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to start buying up as many credit default swaps as they can.

The result of this is the revelation of a presumed safe and secure housing market that's amazingly precarious, run by people interested in short-term profits ("I don't get it.  Why are they confessing?"  "They're not confessing."  "They're bragging.") and organizations that keep saying everything is fine even when the collapse has begun.

Director Adam McKay recognizes that talking about finances can be dry and potentially boring, so he has several characters break the fourth wall to talk directly to the audience.  He also brings in Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, and Selena Gomez as themselves to explain the financial concepts.  These feel gimmicky and may provide a little levity but could have been left out.

What works is the rest of the movie.  McKay gets the best from his actors, and everyone delivers a terrific performance.  Having Baum exploring the real world for the background to this crisis (and barely suppressing his rage and frustration at what he finds) brings the movie from abstract banking discussions to the real-world ambitions, greed, and stupidity that led the economy over a cliff.  And as the audience gets into the feel of the financial shenanigans happening, we are drawn into the outrage of a self-perpetuating system of unfettered greed and self-enforcing cover-ups that continually say everything is fine.

The Big Short isn't perfect, but it gets a lot of entertainment from a global shell game of the housing market.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

12.26.2015

A HARD DAY

There are times when nothing seems to go right -- but that is upped several levels in A Hard Day, a South Korean modern film noir (with a slightly misleading title) where problem builds on problem, sometimes with deadly results.

Things start badly for Go Geon-Soo (Sun-kyun Lee), a detective with the South Korean police department.  He's driving home from his mother's funeral, where he'd been drinking, and is pestered on the phone by his sister to bring back a chocolate cake.  His colleagues at the police department warn him that Internal Affairs is raiding their office, where Geon-Soo has bribes from small businessmen in his desk.

With all this going on, Geon-Soo still manages to swerve his car to avoid a small dog in the road.  Unfortunately, while looking back at the dog  he hits and kills someone who ran into the road.  The detective panics, dumping the body in his trunk -- and almost immediately gets stopped at a drunk driving checkpoint.
 Impressively, from there things get worse.  Geon-Soo has to control his temper long enough to get rid of the body (for which he has a novel solution involving balloons and a toy army man), deal with his sister and son, fix the damage to his car, and handle Internal Affairs.  But then the precinct gets word that the man Geon-Soo is wanted for murder, and everyone's trying to find him (while Geon-Soo is frantically trying to cover his tracks).  And then Geon-Soo gets mysterious phone calls from someone who claims he saw what the detective did -- and who wants the body.
A Hard Day is straightforward, and it's also well done.  Sun-kyun Lee is very good in the main role, as his corrupt cop who's used to getting away with anything by flashing his badge keeps falling deeper and deeper in trouble and complications.  Man-sik Jeong is suitably crafty and violent as the blackmailer ready to turn Geon-Soo in (or worse) if he doesn't go along, and the action ranges from desperate planning to an almost primal physical battle at the end.  A Hard Day may begin at night and take place over several days, but it's certainly engaging.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

PLAYBOY: End of an Era

When Playboy announced back in October that its namesake magazine would no rather feature nudity but rather go the PG-13 route, numerous questions arose: Would the magazine survive without one of its most iconic features?  How will men react if forced to read Playboy for the articles?  And what would the final issue with nudity be like?  The latter question was answered this month, as the January/February 2016 Playboy issue ends the magazine's tradition.

It makes sense that their cover star would be the woman who's been on the cover more times than anyone else: Pamela Anderson.  She also not only posed in a revealing photo shoot, but was also interviewed by James Franco.  There are also two monthly centerfolds (since this issue covers two months), an overview of all the Playmates in 2015 (they're nude here but the winner won't be in 2016; go figure), and some naughty images in their "Year in Sex" review.

For those who want to get ahead on focusing on the other parts of the magazine, this Playboy features its usual cartoons (love Gahan Wilson!) and page of jokes.  There are also interviews with Samantha Bee, Ron Howard, and the Duplass Brothers (plus the aforementioned interview with Pamela Anderson).
At the end of the issue, instead of the usual preview for the next issue this Playboy simply professes, "The Icon Evolves..."  I suspect this more modest move is less evolution and more of a last-ditch attempt to survive an environment where print magazines are struggling and nudity (and more) is readily available online.  Still, Pamela Anderson was a perfect choice to wrap up this part of history, and this Playboy wrapped up with a, er, visual bang.

Written by James Lynch

12.21.2015

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

When Star Wars: A New Hope premiered, it brought a sense of adventure, fun, and amazing special effects to the world of science fiction.  Several decades (and franchise movies of varying quality) later, a new writer-director (J.J. Abrams) brings back that original sense of wonder -- and several plot and thematic elements from the original movies -- with Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
After the events of Return of the Jedi, the galaxy has once again fallen into chaos and danger.  A military force called the First Order has risen to take the place of the Empire, and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is a Sith out to find the vanished Luke Skywalker.  A group called the Resistance has come about to oppose the First Order, and Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) has information on Skywalker's location, which he hides in the round droid BB-8.  But on the desert planet Jakka Dameron is captured and BB-8 is sent off into the desert.
Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) has a change of heart after seeing Kylo Ren massacre a town, so he helps Poe escape in the hopes of them getting far away from the First Order -- only to crash on the planet Jakka.  Meanwhile, scavenger and pilot Rey (Daisy Ridley) has found BB-8 and decides to help the little droid -- and then runs into Finn, who pretends to be part of the Resistance.  The trio wind up escaping in the Millennium Falcon -- which leads them running into Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).
We then have Finn as the reluctant hero, Rey discovering her connection to the Force, battles between the First Order and the Resistance, an evil weapon capable of destroying planets, issues between parents and their son, cameos from several characters (and ships) from the first movies, and of course Lightsaber battles.

The Force Awakens recaptures what make us love the Star Wars movies in the first place.  Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley are talented young blood to the movies, proving enjoyable heroes who will have a large part in this trilogy.  There are plenty of references to and items from the earlier movies, but they don't feel forced or out of place.  The action is exciting, there are several surprises along the way, and J.J. Abrams more than makes up for the flaws of the prequels.  The Force Awakens is an absolutely terrific adventure in space; and I look forward to the next two movies.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch