12.10.2014

VICTORIA'S SECRET FASHION SHOW 2014

There are many ways to celebrate the December holidays, but scantily-clad supermodels walking down a runway gets my vote for the best tradition.  The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show 2014 is the latest hour-long commercial for the nation's largest lingerie company -- and it's as, er, entertaining as ever.

For this show,Victoria's Secret got 47 of their models - including Adriana Lima, Alessandra Ambrosio, Karlie Kloss, Joan Smalls, Lindsay Ellingson, Shanina Shaik, Doutzen Kroes, Candice Swanepoel, and Behati Prinsloo -- and flew them to London to display the latest in lingerie, haute couture, the Pink line of, er, college-aimed lingerie, and lots and lots of wings.  There were also short features (like an interview with photographer Russell James and the making of all those wings), the multimillion-dollar fantasy bra, and musical performances by Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Ed Sheeran, and Hozier.

Except for the LED catwalk showing plenty of images to match the show's segments, not much has changed with the shows.  The models and outfits/costumes look spectacular, the music is a club-type mix of assorted current popular songs, and mishaps have been edited out (like Ariana Grande getting knocked down by some angel wings).  Oh, and during the commercial breaks there are commercials for Victoria's Secret: They're like the fashion show, but with products you can buy in the stores.

Yes, it's that special December magic that has Angels dressing as angels, a Fantasy Bra that costs $2 million, and Taylor Swift in not one, but two sexy outfits:

Life... is good.


Written by James Lynch







12.09.2014

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, CHEEK TO CHEEK (deluxe version)

I suppose if you shock long enough, you can eventually shock by not shocking.  Lady Gaga has supplemented her music with bizarre costumes, provocative music videos, and outrageous stage performances.  So it's surprising that for her latest music project, she skipped controversy for classics of big band and jazz -- and teamed up with Tony Bennett to do it!  Cheek to Cheek (deluxe version) is the result, and it's a very satisfying collaboration.

Cheek to Cheek has the duo singing well-known songs from such artists as George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter.  The two mostly sing together (though each have two songs they sing by themselves), backed by the Tony Bennett Orchestra.  It's no surprise that Tony Bennett excels at this sort of music: He's been singing it for decades.  But Lady Gaga is a revelation here.  She manages to keep up with Tony Bennett in almost every song, managing longing love songs and up-tempo jazz riffing with equal skill.  She also does well singing by herself on "Lush Life" and "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered."

I'm normally not a fan of jazz, but Cheek to Cheek was quite enjoyable.  It's as good hearing Tony Bennett in his comfortable genre as hearing Lady Gaga switch out pop for jazz and do it with passion and style.  And the Target deluxe version (disclaimer: I work for Target; even more close to Christmas) has two extra songs for jazz fans.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

12.08.2014

U2: Songs of Innocence

U2 has been one of those bands with staying power that has gone on for decades.  Since their first album, "Boy," in 1980, they have evolved with the times, with their own unique sound.  At least in my mind, their best work was the albums "Achtung Baby," "The Joshua Tree," and "Rattle and Hum."One could argue they went off the rails a little bit (that may be an understatement) with their technopop sound in the 90's, but they worked their way back to their original sound.

That brings us to their current album, "Songs of Innocence."  Up front, two things made this album already revolutionary: the first is that it was released 5 years after their last album, and the second is that it was released on iTunes- for free.

12.05.2014

RIFFTRAX LIVE: SANTA CLAUS

Christmas is a season that, for many children has come to incorporate  Santa, toys, family, and cheer and good wishes for all.  It's also led to Christmas movies that vary from timeless classics to terrible ones.  And then there's the 1959 movie Santa Claus -- a truly awful one that, among other things is a poorly dubbed Mexican with mixed mythologies and a surprisingly racist opening.  In other words, it's perfect fodder for making fun of -- at Rifftrax Live: Santa Claus delivers.

For this holiday movie special, Mike Nelsion, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett (dressed as an elf, or "North Pole Person") have plenty to work with.  Following the fake preview items ("You sold your ears to get me these slippers?  I sold my feet to get you these earrings!" -- Eli Roth's Gift of the Magi) and a short about making Chrismtas ornaments out of sugar, they dive into Santa Claus.  This movie has Santa and his multi-ethnic and stereotypical workshop of children, plus Merlin and a shirtless blacksmith.  On the other side, there's Pitch, Satan or a demon or a devil or something out to destroy Santa and therefore Christmas (and dance awkwardly).  There's a girl who wants a doll, a rich kid who wants a brother, artificial reindeer who'll disintegrate in the sun, and Satna's tendency to gas people.


As often the jokes come fast and furious, whether it's pop culture references (from The Honeymooners to Inception), calling the movie out on its stereotypes, or referencing the deity "Craig."  (The latter makes sense in the movie.)  There are numerous laughs, and it's a nice contrast to the usual Christmas sentimentality; and if you're tired of Christmas songs and specials, the source material will make anything look good by contrast.  Rifftrax Life: Santa Claus is another funny celebration of a terrible movie -- this time, with curly shoes!

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch


12.02.2014

Taylor Swift vs. Spotify

Taylor Swift is one of the biggest music performers today, and is currently touring -- but is she big enough to defeat a musical streaming service?  She recently opted to pull her music from the Spotify service, and she hasn't held back about why.

In Time and The Wall Street Journal, Swift has argued that artists should value their art and be certain that people are paying enough for it -- and she doesn't see that happening through Spotify.  According to Swift, Spotify lacks any settings or qualifications for who can get what music, which for Swift means anyone there can get her music without paying for it.  Swift still has her music available for purchase through many other avenues: iTunes, Beats Music, Rhapsody, even physical cds, such as the Target exclusive version of 1989 with bonus songs and material.

But can Taylor Swift have a substantial impact on Spotify -- and other music suppliers -- all by herself?  Quite possibly.  As I said at the start, she is one of the biggest musicians out right now.  Her album 1989 sold over a million copies in its first week, and her fans have followed her almost without question as she moved from country to crossover to pop.  And if they'll follow her wherever she goes, many of them will avoid what she says to avoid.  I don't think Taylor Swift will cause Spotify to immediately collapse -- but I wouldn't bet against her, or her massive fan base, either.

Written by James Lynch



11.28.2014

LIFE AFTER BETH dvd

Young romance can be tough to navigate -- especially when one of them is undead.  Life after Beth takes on the tribulations of a rocky relationship, tossing in zombies just for fun.

When we meet Zach (Dane DeHaan), he's in mourning.  His girlfriend Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza) had been hiking alone when Zach didn't want to go with her, and she got bitten by a snake and died.  Zack's gloom isn't helped by his parents or militaristic brother Kyle (Matthew Gray Gubler), so he spends more and more time hanging out with Beth's parents.  Geenie Slocum (Molly Shannon) is generally positive, while Maury Slocum (John C. Reilly) plays chess and shared weed with Zach.  When Zach confides that he and Beth were having problems, Maury advises him to focus on the good, not the ending.

Zach is surprised when Maury and Geenie stop taking his calls.  Investigating, Zach is more surprised to find... Beth!  At first Zach assumes that her family faked her death, but the truth is stranger:A few days after her funeral, Beth dug her way out of her grave and returned home.  Zach is concerned that Beth might be a zombie, but Maury is thrilled that she's been resurrected ("Like Jesus!") and wants to keep her hidden,
Eventually Zach comes around, seeing this as a chance to do everything with Beth that he didn't do before.  Soon, he's trying to get her out of the house, while Maury is becoming the overprotective dad who only wants his daughter doing things at night.  As for Beth, she's changing: She forgets a lot of things, she gets jealous and violent, and she's super-strong and impervious to pain.  Soon Zach starts experiencing the same problems he and Beth had before -- plus wondering if she's going to eat him.  Also, other people start turning up and acting like Beth...
Life after Beth is an interesting little idea that isn't really explored.  While Aubrey Plaza is suitably weird as the ex-girlfriend whose return is full of pitfalls, the movie starts too slowly and Dane DeHaan isn't that funny.  John C. Reilly does a good turn as the overprotective father, but Molly Shannon doesn't have much to do.  There are some funny moments through the later parts of the movie, but it doesn't go beyond the basic joke of what it's like to be dating a zombie.  I liked Life after Beth sometimes, but it doesn't come close to Shaun of the Dead as a brilliant zombie comedy.  (Dvd extras include deleted scenes and commentary.)

Overall grade: C+
Reviewed by James Lynch

11.19.2014

BIG HERO 6

With so many superhero movies aimed at adult fans of comic books, it's refreshing to have one made pretty much for little kids.  Big Hero 6, inspired by a Marvel comic book and made by Walt Disney Studios, is entertaining, if a little simple for the older viewer.
Sometime in the slightly futuristic city of San Fransokyo, robotics prodigy Hiro (Ryan Potter) is a teenager making money and getting in trouble by entering robot fighting games.  His older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) wants Hiro to do more, which Hiro resists until Tadashi brings him to his university.  Hiro loves the advanced technology, likes Tadashi's scientist friends -- burnout Fred (T.J. Miller), happy Wasabi (Daymon Wayans Jr.), flower power-type Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodrigues), edgy cool chick Go Go (Jamie Chung) -- plus robotics legend Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell).  Hiro also likes Tadashi's creation Baymax (Scott Adsit), an inflatable medical robot (that, for comedic purposes, sounds and acts drunk when its battery is low).

Hiro's application project for the school is microbots, small robots that all combine together and are controlled by a headband.  Everyone loves it; businessman Alistair Krei (Alan Tudyk) wants to buy them, but Hiro passes.  Hiro's accepted, but before he can celebrate the school burns down, killing Tadashi and Robert, plus destroying all of Hiro's microbots.

Or did it?  Weeks later, as Hiro is moping and Baymax tries to help him, Hiro finds a microbot -- and it's pulling towards others.  That leads Hiro and Baymax to a villain in a kabuki mask controlling massive numbers of microbots -- that he uses to try and kill Hiro!
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Hiro decides that "Kabuki Man" stole his microbots and set the fire that killed Tasashi and John to cover it up.  Since the police don't believe him, Hiro decides it's up to him to find and capture the villain.  He upgrades Baymax with everything from kung-fu skills to battle armor with jets and a rocket fist.  He also talks Fred, Wasabi, Honey Lemon and Go Go to help, making them armors that match their interests and personalities.  And then they're off to find and expose Kabuki Man -- while unraveling a mystery about a bird logo.


Big Hero 6 is both fun and basic.  The animation is nice, and the action sequences are well done.  But this is fairly typical superhero origin story material -- loss, anger, redemption -- and the movie only has two sequences with the six heroes together.  Big Hero 6 is likable, but definitely more for kids than grown-up superhero fans.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

11.16.2014

BIRDMAN

 Here's an unusual mix of a movie.  Birdman: or, (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is part comedy, part drama, part roman a clef, part theater, part satire, and part insanity -- overlaid with a jazzy drumbeat.

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, who's something of a dark parody of Keaton.  Riggan had been a blockbuster movie star playing Birdman in three movies over two decades ago.  Now he's a washed-up actor, staking everything -- his reputation, his finances, even his sanity -- on a Broadway production of  theRaymond Carver short story "What We Talk About When We Talk about Love"  that Riggan adapted, directs, produces, and stars in.
 Naturally, the play -- still in previews -- seems to have nothing but problems.  Riggan's lawyer and friend Jake (Zack Galifanakis) is working to keep everything working together.  Riggan's cynical daughter Sam (Emma Stone) is fresh out of rehab and wandering around as an assistant.  Laura (Andrea Riseborough) is one of the plays' stars, and tells Riggan that she's having their baby.  When a stage accident takes out an actor, Broadway newcomer Leslie (Naomi Watts) brings in her boyfriend Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), who's box office and critical gold; he's also amazingly hard to work with.  Oh, and when he's alone Riggan hallucinates that he has superpowers and that Birdman is talking to him to get him to do more Birdman movies.
Birdman is a whole lot of things, as it meanders from comedy to introspection to fantasy to drama as much as the (seemingly) single camera shot that jumps from characters to characters for the whole movie.   While it works, it's also disjointed and somewhat disorienting.  The movie has terrific acting, and there are plenty of laughs (especially the Times Square walk) and moments of tenderness and discovery.  But it's hard to settle in and enjoy or appreciate one scene or tone before the movie jumps into a new one.  Birdman is definitely unique and enjoyable, but I wish it had come together or held together a little bit tighter.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch


11.12.2014

SPORTS ILLUSTRATED SWIMSUIT PORTFOLIO: IDYLLIC SHORES

When Sports Illustrated released its Idyllic Shores magazine special, it was a taste of what was coming.  Well, that day has arrived with the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Portfolio: Idyllic Shores -- and its very familiar to those who read the magazine special.

The Portfolio contains all the photographs of the models that were in the magazine special, plus the exact same introduction and comments that introduce each model's photographs.  So why go with the Portfolio instead or or in addition to the magazine special?  A couple of reasons, actually.

The Portfolio is a coffee table book, meaning the photos are larger -- and the beauty of the models and the locales are brought out more with the bigger area.  Also, there are additional photos for many of the models, giving something with the Portfolio that's not available in the magazine special.

The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Portfolio: Idyllic Shores might have been more exciting if so much of it wasn't already shown in its magazine preview.  But that's doesn't detract from the absolute beauty of these models and the locations -- or the extra photographs of this book.
Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch









11.09.2014

Taylor Swift, 1989 (deluxe version)

There's something refreshing about Taylor Swift finally ending her county-pop hybrid music albums and releasing a "pure" pop album.  1989 (deluxe version) has a dual significance to its name: It's the year she was born, and it also has the pop sound and sensibility of the 1980s.  And the deluxe version from Target (disclaimer: I work for Target, but not in their artificial intelligence division) has three extra songs and her notes/demo versions of three other songs.

lifIt's no surprise that almost all the songs on 1989 are about romance (except for the generational love/hate song "New Romantics") -- but there's a nice spectrum.  There are plenty of sappy, feel-good love songs, like "How You Get the Girl" and "You Are in Love."  There are also lost of post-romance tunes, from the longing "I Wish You Would" to the angry "Bad Blood" and the recovering romantic "Clean."

This time, though, Taylor is aware of her past/reputation and works that into the music.  Several of the songs, such as "Blank Slate" and "Wonderland,"  have her knowing that dating her will be both great and terrible ("life was never worse but never better").  "Shake It Off" is about Taylor's reputation for short-lived relationships; or her impromptu dancing; or dealing with bullies and criticism in general.

1989 (deluxe version) is an entertaining album.  Swift's voice hits the right notes for both bouncy fluff and tearjerker songs.  The songs are all solidly in the world of pop, but they all work in there (although I found "Bad Blood" to be a little too sing-song-y).  The bonus tracks are good (though I could take or leave the "songwriting voice memos" at the end) and this is very enjoyable to listen to multiple times.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch


11.03.2014

NIGHTCRAWLER

As the news becomes more violent and sensationalized, it makes sense that there are those ready to help with the exploitation for money and fame.  This is the world of Nightcrawler, a drama about one man who finds his calling filming and selling the worst Los Angeles has to offer.

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is odd.  When he talks, his speech is filled with self-empowerment phrases, business theories, and lots of ambition.  But he's unemployed, living in a tiny apartment, and a thief who's willing to get violent to get what he wants.  When Lou sees Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) arrive at an accident to film it and sell it to the news, Lou is hooked.

Lou pawns his latest theft to get a camcorder and police scanner, and then he's off at his new job: speeding through the L.A. streets to be the first to videotape and sell accidents.  He starts selling his footage to Nina (Renee Russo), the morning news director for a local tv station who explains that they don't just want blood and death, but material that makes their upscale viewers nervous: urban violence in suburban areas.  Lou also hires Rick (Riz Ahmed), a homeless and desperate kid whose only qualifications seem to be his ability to use a cell phone to guide Lou through the streets.  (Lou strings Rick along with promises of a potential raise at a future performance review.)  And Lou's off on his nighttime quest for murders, crashes, and other material he can shoot and sell.

Nightcrawler is a very good, one-person-focused drama.  While it's hardly a revelation that news is more interested in ratings and demographics than truth or information, this film shows what can happen to the audience (and the news field) when sensationalism takes over.  As for Gyllenhaal, it's on him to carry the movie -- and he does so quite well.  He makes Lou Bloom an enigma, someone who may be a sociopath, or just arrogant and humble at once, or just disconnected with the rest of humanity.  The movie might have worked better if the morally-questionable final scenes were introduced a little earlier in the movie, but Nightcrawler is entertaining and disquieting.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

10.31.2014

RIFFTRAX LIVE: ANACONDA

SNAAAAAKE!  Ahem.  I've been fortunate enough not have seen Anaconda, a giant snake horror movie that somehow managed to star Jon Voight, Jennifer Lopez, Ice Cube, and Owen Wilson.  That changed last night, thanks to the comic comments of the Rifftrax crew of Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett.  Rifftrax Live: Anaconda had lots of terrific comments on this terrible movie.
Before the feature, Rifftrax Live: Anaconda featured fake movie trivia and items, riffing on the Halloween short "Halloween Party," and a preview of the next Rifftrax takeover of the National Geographic channel.  After that, it was on to the wretched feature.  Most of the jokes centered on Jon Voight's inexplicable horrible accent and odd facial expression.  But there was plenty of other material to mock in the movie, from the cheap special effects of the snakes to the infamous "waterfall flowing up" to Ice Cube trying to sound and act tough in this movie.  The results were very good, as there were lots and lots of laugh-out-loud moments (not to mention frequent Owen Wilson impersonations).  Rifftrax Live: Anaconda shows that the Rifftrax trio can create so much fun with so much bad material.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

10.27.2014

Weezer, EVERYTHING WILL BE ALRIGHT IN THE END

Weezer is back!  The alternative rockers seem to be taking stock of themselves -- the music scene, a few disappointing albums, and growing up and growing old -- with their latest release Everything Will Be Alright in the End.

It's hard to separate the personal and professional on this album.  Is the lonely (but rockin') opening "Ain't Got Nobody" about a lack of romance  or a seemingly vanishing fan base?  )"Ain't got nobody/to really love me:)  What about "Foolish Father," which could be about making amends with a flawed parent ("forgive your foolish father/he did the best that he could do") or the flawed music scene music scene ("simple love songs/drenched in boring love songs/coming out a long song").

Of course, Weezer is aware of their growing history as a rock band, and the problems that come with it.  "Back to the Shack" has the band singing about returning to their roots, as well as society going back to music ("let's turn up the radio/let's turn off those stupid singing shows") while "Eulogy for a Rock Band" is an almost-touching goodbye to those bands we love and know are gone for good.  And it's hard to miss the frustration with the fans and audience in "I've Had It up to Here."

The lyrics, singing, and music all work well on Everything Will Be Alright in the End.  There's even a slick sense of humor, like having the unabashedly romantic "Da Vinci" followed by a song where the woman tells the man "Go away, go away" repeatedly.  I was disappointed with the songs "The British are Coming" and "Cleopatra," but the rest of the album works very well.  The album ends with "The Futurescape Trilogy," three songs (two instrumental) that suggest yes, things will be alright after all.  Let's hope that that's a sign Weezer isn't done with music, or us, yet.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

10.20.2014

FRIDAY THE 13TH: ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SCORE

Horror movies rely as much on their music as their monsters or gore to bring tension and fear to a movie.  While the Friday the 13th movies may be best known for its hockey-masked killer (at least from the third one onwards), Friday the 13th: Original Motion Picture Score demonstrates how Harry Manfredini's music helped propel these movies to their success.

Friday the 13th: Original Motion Picture Score manages to capture the slashing feel of the slasher flick with many sudden, jarring bursts of the violin.  The music draws out the tension with long notes, has the drama of the chase often, and its closing "The Boat in the Water/Jason in the Lake" reflects the serenity and sudden surprise that wraps up the movie.

This soundtrack does have its share of flaws.  Many of the songs borrow/steal from Bernard Herrmann's music from Psycho.  The non-horrific "Banjo Travelin'" and "Sail Away, Tiny Sparrow" feel out of place, not contrasting the horror of the other music but giving a jarring contrast.  And the movie's iconic chant "ki-ki-ki, ma-ma-ma" is used so often it quickly becomes, er, overkill.

Friday the 13th: Original Motion Picture Score manages to match the scares and slashes of its movie perfectly, and it works pretty well on its own.  While it's neither wholly original nor flawless, this is ideal mood music -- if you're in the mood for fear.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

10.14.2014

GONE GIRL

Marriage, media, and possible murder all combine and coalesce in the new film Gone Girl.  This movie is very dark, excellently acted, and wickedly funny.
Gone Girl opens with Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) returning to his Missouri home on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary to find his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) missing and signs of a violent struggle.  At first, Detective Rhoda Boney (Kim Dickens) isn't sure about what happened, and the community rallies together to find Amy (called "Awesome Amy" after the children's book character her parents based on her).  But Nick's poor appearances in the media make him the prime suspect; and his sister Margo (Carrie Coon) supports Nick but soon starts finding out Nick's numerous dirty secrets.


And Amy?  We see and learn about her through her journal entries -- and her marriage to Nick.  At first they were blissful, successful newlyweds living and working in Manhattan.  But when they were both laid off and money ran low, they moved to Nick's hometown.  Amy becomes more fearful of Nick's violent side, as their marital problems lead to hear fears that Nick could hurt her, or even kill her.  And then there's a big change...

Gone Girl is a combination murder mystery and social commentary.  The movie offers plenty of evidence that Nick might be innocent -- or that his secrets and demons could have destroyed his once-perfect marriage.  At the same time, everything plays out in the court of public opinion, whether it's the Nancy Grace-style reporter Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle) who spends all her time arguing that Nick is a guilty sociopath, or Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry), Nick's celebrity lawyer who's as focused on public perception as on the law.  And we get to see the pressures of marriage that certainly had an impact on both Nick and Amy.

This all works together thanks to some terrific actors, directed by David Fincher.  Ben Affleck, who's gained respect and success in recent years, plays Nick perfectly as the regular guy who could as easily be innocent as guilty.  Rosamund Pike is amazing as Amy, who paints a different picture of things than her husband does (and who also has a way of getting what she wants).  The supporting cast is terrific in their roles, and Fincher manages to bring a bleakness and darkness to the proceedings -- along with frequent blasts of dark humor.

Gone Girl is certainly grim, and it's also engaging and gives the viewer plenty to think about.  Just like a great movie should.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch