6.19.2016

MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: 20th Anniversary Edition

Mystery Science Theater 3000 has been around long enough for several anniversaries.  Naturally, before there was the 25th Anniversary Edition, there was the 20th Anniversary Edition.  While this doesn't have quite as many extras and movies as the later anniversary edition, this is still a quality collection of movies lacking in quality -- with two very nice extras.

As with most MST3K collections, the 20th Anniversary Edition has four episodes of MST3K.  This time around, viewers will join the folks on the Satellite of Love as they watch First Spaceship on Venus (the only episode here with Joel Hodgson), Laserblast (the final MST3K episode on Comedy Central), Werewolf (one of my favorite episodes ever) and Future War (which has forced-perspective dinosaurs, a cheap Jean-Claude Van Damme copy, and an odd amount of theology).  This is a fine collection of episodes, and the jokes are flung at and inspired by these movies with great results.
As for extras, there are two big ones here.  "The Oral History of MST3K" is a series of interviews, spread over three of the DVDs, with most of the actors, writers, and producers from the show.  This covers everything from the very first episodes through the end of the run.  Then there's the 2008 Comic-Con MST3K Reunion Panel, which has most of the actors and some producers and writers discussing the show -- with Patton Oswalt hosting.  "Variations on a Theme Song" is a lesser but nice extra, featuring all the different openings and theme songs from MST3K's entire run.
While the 20th Anniversary Edition doesn't have as many episodes as the 25th Anniversary Edition, it does have four terrific episodes and two very good bonus features.  Mystery Science Theater 3000: 20th Anniversary Edition is another collection that should make any MST3K fan very happy.  (Folks can also shell out more money for a set in a tin box with a toy Crow.)

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch




6.18.2016

CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE

Buddy comedies usually rely on opposites working together -- and it's hard to picture two more physically opposite actors than Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson and Kevin Hart.  The two actors are brought together for a light, dopey, but enjoyable little comedy: Central Intelligence.

The movie opens at a high school in 1996, where Calvin "the Golden Jet" Joyner is speaking at a student assembly.  He seems to have it all: popularity, grades, ambition, hot girlfriend Maggie.  When some bullies humiliate "Fat Robbie," Calvin is the only one who helps him.

Jump ahead 20 years, and Calvin (Hart) is unhappy.  He's an accountant, good at his job but passed over for promotion and surrounded by idiots.  He's still married to Maggie (Danielle Nicolet), but she wants them to attend their 20th high school reunion and Calvin feels like a loser who peaked back in high school.  Then a Facebook invite changes everything.

Calvin runs into Robbie, who's now Bob Stone (Johnson), a fairly nerdy guy who's incredibly enthusiastic, an instant friend to Calvin, and a buff guy who beats up bullies with ease.  When Bob asks Calvin for a little help with his online payroll account, things get complicated.

Bob says he's actually a C.I.A. agent, out to retrieve some stolen satellite codes and find a rogue agent called the Black Badger -- who killed Bob's partner Phil (Aaron Paul).  But C.I.A. Agent Pamela Harris (Amy Ryan) is convinced that Bob is the Black Badger and a dangerous psychopath -- and she wants Calvin to help bring him in.  What follows is a lot of shooting with very few deaths, a predictable storyline, and no real surprises.

Despite that, Central Intelligence has plenty of enjoyable moments.  Dwayne Johnson plays up the giant lovable goofball from start to finish, and he does it very well.  Kevin Hart manages his yelling and frantic delivery pretty well, as the nervous everyman suddenly thrust into the middle of gunfire and international espionage.  Central Intelligence is pretty much pure fluff, but it still manages to be funny.

Overall grade: C+
Reviewed by James Lynch

6.10.2016

THE CONJURING 2

Few phrases make me more skeptical in a movie than "based on a true story."  When that "true story" is a controversial and disputed case of paranormal activity, I become even more doubtful.  But despite that element, The Conjuring 2 is an effective and thoughtful delve into the horror genre.

When the movie opens, Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) are investigating the events at the house in Amityville.  This case gives the couple fame as paranormal investigators -- and criticism as promoting frauds and fakes.  In addition, Lorraine has visions of a demonic being dressed as a nun, and of Ed being killed, so she wants them to stop investigating supernatural cases.
Meanwhile in Enfield, England, the Hodgson family (a now-sing mother and four young kids) are encountering unnerving events in their small two-story home.  At first these seem like small events -- such as noises in the middle of the night, furniture moving, and toys rolling around on their own -- but soon the events become more extreme and violent.  Worse, 11-year-old Janet Hodgson (Madison Wolfe) is walking in her sleep, seemingly talking to someone who isn't there, and seems to be the focus of the events.  The Warrens are called in, er, over to investigate and to determine whether the church should get involved with the case.
Director James Wan, who also directed The Conjuring, continues to combine the procedural drama with the supernatural.  The signs of the haunting might otherwise be a cliche of horror, but here they feel more real as the family struggled and wearies, while the Warrens try to balance their work, their family (the daughter seems to have similar visions to her mother), and their religious faith with what could be a hoax or could be something out to destroy a family.  The Conjuring 2 isn't quite as tight and focused as its predecessor, but it's still an intelligent and fairly spooky trip.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

6.08.2016

YOU'RE ALL JUST JEALOUS OF MY JETPACK by Tom Gauld

British cartoonist Tom Gauld has a deceptively simple, quietly quirky style that manages to convey a lot in a few panels.  You're All Just Jealous of My Jetpack is a collection of Gauld's cartoons from the Guardian newspaper -- and it's quite satisfying.

Gault draws his figures as either slightly developed stick figures or inanimate objects given life with eyes and small arms.  His subjects aren't current events or observational comedy, but rather takes on different genres (the title of this book refers to several strips where "serious" genres look down on science fiction), inserting unusual elements into common ideas (Charles Dickens as a superhero!), or numerous lists and aspects of one thing.
You're All Just Jealous of My Jetpack showcases Gauld's quietly bizarre humor very well.   The cartoons here are all amusing and cover a nicely wide range of topics.  His simple drawing style suits the variety of strips here, and these strips are quirky in a pretty unique way.  You're All Just Jealous of My Jetpack is a pretty funny and definitely different cartoon collection.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch





6.04.2016

POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING

Between comedy sketches and their band the Lonely Island, Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone have plenty of experience with both humor and music.  That should have made Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping a funny take on the narcissism of celebrities in the music industry.   But...

Popstar is a fake documentary about the predictable rise and fall of a self-involved, self-aggrandizing star.  Friends Conner (Samberg), Lawrence (Schaffer) and Owen (Taccone) achieved fame early with a gangsta-boy band combination called the Style Boyz.  As Conner became more famous, the band felt stresses and conflict: Owen left to work on a farm, while Conner kept Lawrence on to produce the music for his shows (which is run through an iPod).  The movie begins weeks before the release of Conner's second solo album, plus his ever-more-ridiculously-elaborate tour.  There are also Conner's enabling manager Harry (Tim Meadows) and publicist Paula (Sarah Silverman) along for the ride, plus Hunter the Hunter (Chris Redd) as Conner's opening act whose popularity keeps growing.  And numerous real-life musicians pop up to talk about how much they loved the Style Boyz and reflect on Conner's decline.

Popstar is far, far, far from This Is Spinal Tap -- or the music of the Lonely Island, for that matter.  The movie makes Conner a ridiculous character, and takes his one-note selfishness and runs with it for almost all of the movie.  There are some slightly funny moments, but they're offset by the predictability of the story and focusing on the silly main character instead of the music industry and famous lifestyle.  Popstar could have been so much more...

Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch

5.28.2016

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE

The X-Men have often used their mutants for an allegory for racism or sexism -- but in X-Men: Apocalypse this is mostly cast aside for introducing large numbers of characters and having the good guys and bad guys fight.

It's 1983, and the characters from X-Men: Days of Future Past have been busy.  Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) has his School for Gifted Youngsters, teaching mutants and humans alike along with Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult); two of their new teenage students are Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner).  Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) has become a hero to mutants, and while she resists that title she helps other imutants -- most recently Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee).  Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) has created a family life for himself, until tragedy takes it away.  And Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne) has been investigating a group that seem to worship an ancient, almost all-powerful mutant,
The latter is Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), a mutant who was imprisoned in a pyramid in ancient Egypt but has returned to the modern world.  He has numerous powers, including the ability to transfer his mind to another body (and gain that being's powers) and enhance the powers of other mutants.  He uses these to make his "four horsemen": Storm (Alexandra Shipp), who can control the weather; Psylocke (Olivia Munn), who wields an energy beam; Angel (Ben Hardy), whose metallic wings let him both fly and shoot metal spikes; and Magneto, whose grief turns to the need for revenge.  Apocalypse plans to use his four followers to almost destroy the world, with any survivors following Aoocalypse in his new world.
There are also numerous other characters introduced, whether it's Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Magneto's son and a super-speedster, not one but two nigh-obligatory cameos, or Jubilee (Lana Condor), who seems to be there solely to show off her '80s fashion.


Unfortunately, there's nothing really different in X-Men: Apocalypse that we haven't seen in other movies: Professor X wants everyone to get along and for the strong to protect the weak, Magneto's suffering makes him believe humans and mutants, and the villains wants to conquer the world.  Most of the far too numerous characters have powers instead of personalities (even the usually terrific Jenifer Lawrence feels flat here), and the movie is far too long (especially with a tangential trip to a military base that seems to be solely for a character cameo).  This movie may be setting up future films with teenage versions of the X-Men, but on its own X-Men: Apocalypse is mediocre.

Overall grade: C
Reviewed by James Lynch

5.22.2016

NEIGHBORS 2: SORORITY RISING

A sequel has to balance the line between continuing what people loved about its predecessor and providing something new to as not to appear to be a simple redoing of the saem formula.  Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising makes some superficial changes -- last time it was a fraternity next door, now it's a sorority! -- but settles for some borderline slapstick comedy.

Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) seem to be growing up.  With their daughter growing and Kelly pregnant, they've sold their home and used the money to buy a new home in the suburbs.  However, their home sale is in escrow, meaning the buyers have 30 days to back out if they don't like anything about the house -- or its neighbors.
So of course there's a problem.  College freshman Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz) is disappointed that sororities don't throw parties or allow weed to be smoked; she's also less than thrilled that fraternity parties are at best sexist and at worst rape-y.  So with friends Beth (Kiersey Clemons) and Nora (Beanie Feldstein), Shelby decided to create Kappa Nu, a sorority where women can be themselves and party like they want.  And of course, Shelby (somehow) gets the house next to the Radners for her sorority.  Worse, Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron), the fraternity nemesis from the last movie, is stuck in the past and decides to help Kappa Nu make money to pay the rent and to throw epic parties -- until they kick him out, at which point he switches sides.

None of this makes any sense -- Who'd sell a house to a college freshman with no money or job?  How do a bunch of middle-aged folks infiltrate a college tailgate party, including someone dressed as a clown? Why would anyone think they could bribe someone with pocket change? -- but Neighbors 2 doesn't care about or bother with any of that.  While the movie theoretically concerns itself with sexism (sororities aren't allowed to do what fraternities are) and ageism (Zac Efron is lumped in with the "old people"), it's really concerned with cheap laughs.  There's drug humor, physical comedy, gross-out humor (a running joke about the Radners' daughter playing with mommy's dildo is one of the tamer jokes), reverse racism, Jewish jokes, both sides sabotaging the other, a gay wedding, and out-of-nowhere sentimentality and a feel-good ending,

To their credit, the cast does manage to get a decent amount of humor out of the situations so broadly laid out here.  Seth Rogen is his usual stoner self, Zac Efron spoofs himself as a loser who refuses to grow up, and Chloe Grace Moretz  balances being an independent girl on her own for the first time with being the scary menace next door.  But the movie is borderline sketch comedy, which tends to fall apart when you stop to think about it.  (Cameos by Selena Gomez, Kelsey Grammer, and Lisa Kudrow are pretty much unnecessary.)   Neighbors 2 can be funny, but it's also consistently stupid.

Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch

5.21.2016

XCon World 9

It's May in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, which means it's getting hot, it's getting humid, and XCon World is back!  The annual convention, for all things wonderfully geeky, returned for its ninth annual appearance.

As with previous years, XCon World 9 has its share of positives and negatives.  As shown by the photos here, there were numerous cosplayers, covering characters from comic books (Harley Quinn and Deadpool were the most popular characters), movies and television shows, anime, television shows, post-apocalyptic mutants, video games, Pokemon, and more.  (A robotic Dalek and R2-D2 could also be seen zipping around the convention floor.)

The general area was expanded since I was last there, and that provided plenty of opportunities for both shopping and browsing.  Lots of artists and authors were selling and promoting their own works.  Local stores and groups were present, offering everything from toys from the 1980s and 1990s to posters, comics, t-shirts, jewelry, and medieval weaponry.

There were celebrities there as well.  While South Carolina may not attract the biggest names, XCon World 9 had former Power Ranger Michael Copon, Brian Krause (from Charmed and Mad Men), and several supporting actors.

As with previous years, though, there were problems.  The convention lacked private areas for lectures or events, so all held events had to compete with the substantial noise pollution through the convention.  The scheduled events were fairly light in both number and tone, making most of them pretty easy to ignore.  And without more events, making the rounds of the convention floor only took an hour or two before repetition set in.
 XCon World 9 is enjoyable, but down in South Carolina it's almost a default event due to the general lack of other science fiction and fantasy conventions.  I'll be going next year -- and I'll be hoping it improves.
 Written By James Lynch









5.15.2016

THE DARKNESS

It's time for some boringly routine horror once again.  The Darkness shifts locations early but goes over some very familiar terrain.

The Darkness opens with the Taylor family vacationing at the Grand Canyon.  While parents Peter (Kevin Bacon) and Bronny (Radha Mitchell) are haning out with another couple, teen daughter Stephanie (Lucy Fry) and autistic boy Michael (David Mazouz) are exploring some trails with a friend.
Michael falls through a thin patch in the ground, leading to some underground tunnels.  These lead to a cave where Michael finds five oval stones with symbols etched on them -- and behind them five animal-human hybrids are painted on the wall.  Stephanie and Michael rejoin their parents, and it's back to the suburbs.
Back at their home, weird (but predictable, if you've ever seen a horror movie) things start happening.   Faucets start running uncontrollably.  Wild animals appear in the house (and the dog next door won't stop barking).  Black handprints show up on walls and people.  And while the rest of the family has their own problems -- Peter might be having another affair, Bronny struggles with alcoholism, Stephanie deals with anorexia -- Michael claims his invisible friend Jenny is doing everything he's blamed for.
Not familiar enough?  How about objects flying around, people having nightmares relating to the plot, and the elderly foreign woman (and her teenage daughter) who try and dispel the spirits?  These are all here.  What's not here is anything new.  While the cast is okay, there's not much in either scares or human interest -- and I've seldom seen a horror movie where the ending fizzles out so much.  The Darkness may not be Mystery Science Theater 3000-level bad, but it is boring, predictable, and tedious -- three things you don't want in any movie.

Overall grade: D
Reviewed by James Lynch

5.12.2016

CODENAMES

How do two vying secret agencies turn locating their agents into a party game?  By making it a party game involving clues to identify words!  Codenames is a pretty fun, simple game about pressing your luck and carefully identifying your agents while avoiding the opponent's agents, the innocent bystanders, and the dreaded assassin.

The players in Codenames are split into two teams: red and blue.  One spymaster for each team sit at the same side of a table, with the rest of the team sitting at the other side of the table.  Twenty-five cards with words on them are laid out in a five-by-five grid on the table.  These cards have the same word facing two directions, so the word can be read by the spymasters and teammates on opposite sides of a table.  (The cards also have different words on their back, so after a game the cards can be flipped over for a new game instead of immediately being discarded.)
The spymasters get to see the key, which shows which spaces on the table are agents belong to each team.  There are nine agents for the team that goes first, eight agents for the other team, seven innocent bystanders (colored white or beige), and one assassin (colored black).

Each turn, the spymaster gives a clue to their team to identify their agents.  The clue is a single word (which cannot match a word on the cable) and a number (matching the possible cards the clue relates to).  So if a team's agents include bark, oak, and branch, a spymaster could give the clue "tree-3."

After the spymaster gives the clue, their team gets to guess, choosing a word they all agree matches the clue.  If they pick one of their agents, the spymaster covers the word with their agent card and the team can guess again (up to the number the spymaster selected, plus one; after that, their turn ends).  If they pick an innocent bystander, their team's turn ends and the other spymaster goes.  And if they pick the assassin, their team immediately loses.   If the assassin isn't selected, the first team to identify all their agents wins!

I really enjoy Codenames.  While this has a certain simplicity common to party games, it also has some very nice touches.  The team that has the benefit of going first also has the drawback of one additional agent than the other team.  The presence of the assassin, who means instant loss for a team, keeps the spymaster very careful with their clue and the rest of the team wary of guessing blindly.  And as agents are guessed their cards are covered up, making it easy to tell what words are left and how close a team is to victory.  Codenames is a nice and elegant take on the word-guessing game,

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

5.07.2016

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR

Marvel superheroes usually focus on the good guys fighting the bad guys, but in Captain America: Civil War a new element is added to that formula: the question of responsibility and the issue of guilt.  This elevates this superhero movie from a simple black vs. white situation to a philosophical disagreement -- that leads to hero battling hero.

Following the events of The Avengers: Age of Ultron, the Avengers have been busy battling evil, both in America and abroad.  However, when their latest battle results in collateral damage and civilian casualties, the team comes under much stricter government scrutiny.  U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) informs the team that the U.N. is about to pass the Sokovia Accords, which will create a governing body to determine when the Avengers can and can't act in the signing countries.

The team is divided about signing on with these accords.  Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is against them, believing that such regulation could prevent the team from acting when it should.  On the other side, Iron Man /Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is in favor of signing, thinking that the team can guide the process from there -- and if they're not accountable, the heroes are no better than the bad guys.
In the midst of this, Colonel Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) is manipulating almost everyone involved; he also seems focused on obtaining information about a Hydra mission, conducted back in 1991 by the brainwashed Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan).  When the Winter Soldier is implicated in a bombing in Vienna that disrupts the Sokovia Accords signing, Captain America becomes a criminal by focusing on helping his friend.  Sides are drawn, and soon the heroes are divided against each other.  And the Black Panther/T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) wants to kill the Winter Soldier, since T'Challa's father was killed in the explosion.
Captain America: Civil War manages to blend action, plotting, humor, and debates/discussions very well.  All of the main characters from previous Avengers movies are here (except Thor and the Hulk), and this movie adds Ant-Man/Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) and introduces a teenage Spider-Man/Peter Parker (Tom Holland) to the mix.  The movie is a little bit long, and the ultimate evil plot seems more than a bit convoluted, but this is another Marvel movie that is quite thrilling -- with added consideration about the consequences of one's actions, intended and unintended.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

4.28.2016

OBJECTS OF DESIRE by Rita Catinella Orrell and Jason Scuderi

Sometimes two things are combined that had never been put together before but seem like a perfect match in retrospect.  The latest example of this: sex toys and the coffee table book.  Objects of Desire: A Showcase of Modern Erotic Products and the Creative Minds Behind Them, written by Rita Catinella Orrell and designed by Jason Scuderi, provides a visual and written journey through the current world of a very wide range of sexual items.

The subjects of Objects of Desire are beautifully photographed: often on a solid background, sometimes partially or fully submerged for waterproof goods, infrequently worn by a model.  These objects are usually showcased over two or four pages and include the date they were made/released, what they're made of, the manufacture's website, and several paragraphs describing their origin, use, and appeal.  Categories for the book's subjects include Remote- and App-Controlled Toys, Kegel Exercises, Vibrators, Fashion and Jewelry, Cock Rings & Anal Toys, Male Strokers, Dildos and Harnesses, Light BDSM, and In a Category of Their Own.

The items featured in Objects of Desire are impressively varied.  For every item whose sexual purpose is glaringly obvious, there's another that can be "hidden in plain sight" as artwork or jewelry.   There are things made of hand-carved wood and technical marvels that include wireless connectivity, data storage, and even artificial intelligence.  While this book isn't a historical trip or comprehensive guide to this ever-growing area, it certainly showcases the beauty, functionality, and artistry of these devices.
But there's more than just item descriptions.  Scattered through Objects of Desire are interviews with sex toy designers, company business owners, artists, and several sex bloggers (which is my new dream job).  These folks talk about their favorite and least favorite items (toxic materials and crude designs are almost universally hated), customer/reader inquiries, sources of inspirations, trends, and more.  There are also a "foreplay" (forewords), preface,and introduction -- plus where to get (most of) the objects in the book, along with other resources for learning more about this area.
Sex toys have evolved from crude novelty gifts and basic devices.  Objects of Desire highlights the results of this evolution, and the material here -- whether terrific photography or informative descriptions and discussions -- makes for a wonderful treat.
Overall grade: A+
Reviewed by James Lynch