3.25.2013

SPRING BREAKERS

From the opening slow-motion shot of teens partying and drinking in the sun and sand in their swimwear, Spring Breakers might seem like a typical teen party movie -- or, with the women flashing their breasts, a Girls Gone Wild video.  But despite the repeated shots of spring break hedonism, and the notoriety of several ex-Disney stars as sexy bad girls, Spring Breakers proves to be a memorable, surprisingly moving film.
In a dreary unnaned college, everyone is dreaming of spring break.  For religions Faith (Selena Gomez), it's a chance for a change, to see and experience something new.  For her friends Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine), it seems to be a chance for more of the partying they enjoy in their dorms.  When the women don't have enough money for the trip Candy, Brit and Cotty rob a restaurant with mallets and spray-painted squirt guns.  Then it's on to Florida to party!

At first, spring break seems like a dream come true, from riding mopeds and hanging out to massive drinking and more drugs tna before (now it's not just weed -- it's coke). But a party the girls are at gets busted, and they wind up in jail.


Enter Alien (James Franco, unrecognizable with metal teeth, corn rows and tattoos), who bails the girls out.  Alien is seductive, dangerous presence in the vacation.  With a seductive southern drawl and careers as a rapper, DJ, and drug dealer, he seems to be the thrills and dangers the girls were after.  He describes himself as having the American Dream -- and having broken every law there is to get it.  His home is an extravagant mix of art, cash, drugs, and guns, and he seems to be living in a state of permanent vacation.  (Often through the movie his voiceover proclaims "Spring break... spring break forever.")  He even has a nemesis in Archie (Gucci Mane), a fellow drug dealer and former brother, current enemy.  What does he want with the girls -- and what do they want with him?

Spring Breakers is an unusual movie, with few long shots and many cuts of flashbacks, slow-motion, or other breaks from standard movies (or reality).  While sometimes the scenes are obvious (like the justaposition of teen hedonism with Faith's innocent description to her grandmother), others are original and striking, from the robbery shown from the point-of-view of the getaway car circling the building, to girls in pink ski masks and holding rifles to a piano version of a Britney Spears song.  Writer-director Harmony Korine has a created a vacation world that may appeal to thrill-seeking teens -- and which will terrify their parents.  The women all do well in their roles -- from innocent to wannabe gangsta to truly dangerous -- but Franco steals the show as the serpent in paradise, offering escape and pleasure and peril.

Spring Breakers may look like a typical beach movie at first, but once you get past the bikinis and partying it proves to be an original and pretty powerful movie.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

They Might Be Giants, NANOBOTS

It's time again for the two Johns to bring us some musical weirdness, as They Might Be Giants release their new album Nanobots.  This album is fairly typical for the band -- with maybe a fewer highlights than usual.

Nanobots offeres the usual mix of themes from They Might Be Giants.  There's odd romance ("Too Tall Girl"), odd sentimentality (mainly in an ode to eccentric genius Nikolai Tesla; also in "Sometimes a Lonely Way"), slightly menacing paranoia ("Stone Cold Coup D'etat"), and things that are just plain strange ("Circular Karate Chop," "Insect Hospital").  The singing is slightly nasal, and the music is fueled by synthesizers without being too upbeat or club-oriented.

While Nanobots can be entertaining at times, there aren't too many songs here that really stand out.  The music tends for more quirkiness and overly clever lyrics ("You say/stuff is way/way to go/go away"), leading to a less cohesive feel than one would like in an album.  (Scattering songs from 10-40 seconds in length through the album doesn't help either.)  They Might Be Giants have been making music since 1980, and they remain an unusual and interesting sound in today's musical landscape; but Nanobots isn't a fully satisfying release from them.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch



* * *

3.18.2013

THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE

 Professional magic is all about illusion, enchantment, and entertainment -- all of which are missing from the new movie The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.  Worse, this film is also pretty devoid of laughs, which is pretty bad for a comedy.

Friends since they were little kids, Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) seem to have it made as magicians, headlining together at Bally's Casino, making millions, and having their own room there.  But a decade later, their act hasn't changed, from the red velvet outfits to the corny jokes and dances.  What has is Burt: He treats Anton like garbage, lives for one-night stands with audience members and assistants (including Jane (Olivia Wilde), promoted on the spot), ignores every criticism of him, and considers himself, well, incredible.

But tastes change, and the public attention is caught by Steve Gray (Jim Carrey, doing a nice parody of Criss Angel).  Gray is almost unbalanced, doing "illusions" that seem to consist entirely of self-harm; he's also obnoxious, starring in a show called Brain Rapist, and thoroughly contemptuous of the classic magicians.  Casino owner Doug Munny (James Gandolfini) loves Gray and hates Burt's declining ticket sales.  In short order Burt ends his friendship with Anton, loses his job at Bally's, and has a cardboard cutout of himself in a cheap hotel room as he goes from one humiliating gig to another.


But there's hope in a contest for Doug's new casino (called "Doug") where the winner will get millions and a new ongoing act.  Will Burt rediscover the joy of magic?  Can he reconcile with Anton and strike up a romance with Jane?  And will the new act beat Steve Gray for the grand prize?

If this all sounds cliche, that's because it is.  Unfortunately, almost none of it is funny.  Carrell plays the same sort of oblivious clod he did in The Office, followed by a 180-degree change to the nice guy in the movie's second half.  Carrey is good with his looney facial expressions and obnoxious attitude, but it's a standard one-dimensional villain.  Buscemi is largely wasted here, and Wilde has little to do besides get exasperated with the males in the cast (and suffer through an unbelievable romantic subplot).  Alan Arkin has some fun as the cranky old magician who inspired Burt in the first place -- but the movie doesn't give him many opportunities to do anything.

As for humor and magic, they're both in short supply here.  After seeing this movie, I struggled to remember any funny lines or scenes; and there's little going on magically, especially a "big finale" that feels like a cheat, both comically and magically.  The only real magic in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is the transformation of a solid cast into a dull thud of a movie.

Overall grade: D
Reviewed by James Lynch


3.13.2013

OZ, THE GREAT AND POWERFUL

The Wizard of Oz was a groundbreaking movie in its time, from the visuals to the psychological elements.  Its prequel Oz the Great and Powerful feels much more traditional and familiar -- but it's still entertaining.
Like its predecessor, Oz the Great and Powerful begins in a black-and-white Kansas.  Oz (James Franco) is a circus magician with a flair for the theatric, an incredible cheapness, harsh treatment of his assistant Frank (Zach Braff), and a clear womanizer.  Oz dreams of greatness, and he seems to get the chance when an escape in a hot air balloon leads him to a twister -- and the magical, colorful, fanciful world of Oz.
Upon arriving, Oz is greeted by Theodora (Mila Kunis), who believes that Oz is the great and powerful wizard prophesized to free the kindgom  from the Wicked Witch.  Oz knows he's not a wizard, but the prospect of the massive fortune in the Emerald City tempts him too much, and he's soon promoting himself as the wizard who was foretold.  Royal advisor Evanora (Rachel Weisz) has her doubts about Oz's truthfulness, Theodora seems to have fallen for the rogue's romantic charms, and Glinda (Michelle Williams) knows Oz's flaws but still believes he can save the kingdom.  Oz also has traveling companions in his quest to steal the Wicked Witch's wand: Finley (Braff again), a winged monkey pledged to serve Oz; and China Girl (Joey King), a small-but-spunky child made of fragile China.
Oz the Great and Powerful has a mix of strengths and weaknesses.  The visuals are stunning, from the magical landscape to the unusual creatures (not to mention the new-but-familiar versions of the elements from the first film).  There are also some surprises in store, such as the identity of the Wicked Witch?  At the same time, there's a pretty one-dimensional side to the characters, and while they're all decent in their roles, there's also no real depth to any characters.

Still, Oz the Great and Powerful may not be a classic but it is an enjoyable (if slight) fantasy.  This is a movie that's easy to enjoy, if easy to forget afterwards.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

The Rise and Fall and Rise of Cheapass Games

Sure, gamers love games -- but what about their cost?  In the mid-1990s, James Ernest launched his own company: Cheapass Games, a company based on the idea that games should be both fun and inexpensive.

The company philosophy was stated clearly on the back of the boxes: "We here at Cheapass Games are aware of two basic facts about board games: they cost too much, and they are at some level all the same."  The company said "generic bits and pieces" like dice, tokens, and fake money "can account for as much as 75% of a game's production cost" and they offered a solution: "Cheapass Games come packaged with the bare essentials: boards, cards, and rulebooks."  Players provided everything else -- or bought them from Cheapass Games -- and as a result, the games cost less than $10.

And Cheapass Provided a large number of unusual, fun games.  Players could take on the role of dinosaurs in Bitin' Off Hedz, fake explorers in Captain Park's Imaginary Polar Expedition, bad actors in Deadwood, sous chefs scaling a building in Devil Bunny Needs a Ham, or grave-robbing economists in Parts Unknown.  Cheapass Games even released series of related games: Players could try to kill J. Robert Lucky in an English mansion in Kill Doctor Lucky, try to rescue him from the Titanic in the prequel Save Doctor Lucky, and then save him in the distant future in Save Doctor Lucky on Moon Base Copernicus.  And long before zombies had their current coolness, players could try to end their fast-food shifts in Give Me the Brain! , put together fast food meals in Lord of the Fries, and in the prequel The Great Brain Robbery the players were zombie cowboys raiding a train filled with human brains and government cheese.  These games offered lots of variety, tremendous replayability, and a lot of fun.  After all, where else but Unexploded Cow could you use mad cows to take care of unexploded mines?

Alas, some Cheapass games didn't catch on as much as they would have hoped (like Button Men and Diceland), and eventually the company went on hiatus.  The company returned with iPhone apps, and eventually they did a 180-degree change on their philosophy: Games like Kill Docotr Lucky and Give Me the Brain! appeared again -- but with new publishers, all the "generic bits and pieces" they once decried, and with a much larger price tag.  The company is now working with Kickstarter to redo some classic games (as shown on the video below).  I have mixed feelings on their new direction: While their deluxe versions go against the explicitly-stated company policy, I'm also glad to see some great Cheapass Games back in print.

Written by James Lynch


3.11.2013

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

Sometimes Hollywood gets it right, and they certainly did with Silver Linings Playbook.  This movie elegantly combines drama, comedy, and romance with a realistic treatment of mental illness.
Pat (Bradley Cooper) just got released from a Baltimore mental institution in Baltimore, and he's living at home with his parents Pat Senior (Robert DeNiro) and Dolores (Jacki Waver).  Pat is seeing his therapist, using motivational techniques ("excelsior!"), getting in shape, and trying to see the silver lining in everything.  Unfortunately, he's still not taking his medicine, he's still easily angered, and he's convinved that he can restart his marriage happily with Nikki -- even though her affair is what triggered his breakdown and she since got a restraining order against him.

Things change, maybe, when Pat meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a friend of a friend.  Tiffany has her own share of issues and problems, from her husband's recent death to her constant abrasiveness to a bout of workplace nymphomania.  Tiffany keeps bumping into Pat when he's out jogging, and eventually she makes him an offer: She'll get a letter to Nikki -- if Pat agrees to be her dance partner in an upcoming competition.  There's also Pat Senior's obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles, his job as a bookie, and his dream of opening a restaurant; Pat's friend Ronnie (John Ortiz), who seems to a great upwardly mobile life with a great house, big job, and beautiful wife Veronica (Julia Stiles) -- but who feels tremendous pressure and stress; and for comic relief there's Danny (Chris Tucker), a buddy of Pat's from the institute who keeps showing up and getting taken back to the institute.

Silver Linings Playbook works thanks to a variety of factors.  The cast is terrific all around.  It's easy to see why Jennifer Lawrence: She makes Tiffany confrontational, vulnerable, appealing, off-putting, and with possibly as many issues as Pat has.  Bradley Cooper shines as Pat, who's "undiagnosed bipolar disorder" is thoroughly believable, as his character's laser-like focus on restoring his marriage is self-delusional and leading him to ignore Tiffany (he leaves a dinner with her early to write a letter to his ex-wife).  And the supporting cast does very well too.

What may distinguish this movie from so many others is its quite realistic treatment of mental illness -- and its frequency.  While Pat may be the only one who was in a mental institution, mental problems abound.  Pat Sr. has OCD, believed his beloved Eagles win or lose based on who's watching the game and where they sit, and was banned from Eagles games for attacking a fan.  Tiffany seems like she needs help as much as anyone else, and even Ronnie --who is upwardly mobile, bragging about having an iPod dock in every room -- stresses out and has a unique way of releasing his anger and frustration.  It's all believable, accurate, and quite a revelation for a movie to tackle this sort of subject without either making it comic or quirky.

Silver Linings Playbook does take a slightly more traditional path with its happy ending (revolving around a parlay bet), but it's a small bit of cliche in a movie that achieves so much.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch

3.05.2013

Joseph Campbell, THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES

Heroes have existed in virtually every culture in the world, at every time in the world, in a diversity ranging from the warrior to the spiritual leader.    But what do they have in common?  What themes are shared by them -- and what do they tell us about ourselves?  In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell explores the heroic archetypes and messages through a variety of perspectives.

Campbell begins with the "monomyth" -- the common elements running through innumerable myths separated by geography and time -- and then analyzes what they share.  He explores a wide range of sources of myth, from the tales of King Arthur to Christian and Islamic beliefs to Irish folk tales to the Greek and Roman pantheons, by discussing them historically, psychologically (Freud and Jung were fairly new and very influential when this was first published), culturally, and philosophically.  In addition to the hero's journey (departure, initiation, return, resolution) Campbell also explores the beliefs on the nature of the universe -- from creation to purpose -- and how the hero shows us what the hero teaches us about, and affects, this all-encompassing force.

There are times when The Hero with a Thousand Faces can be a little dry, and there is much information to take in here.  But Campbell provides an amazing amount of source material to support his theories, and his analysis may not be agreed with by all (especially those who take their religion literally) but it is a fascinating look at the ideas that cultures return to time and again with their creation and treatment of their heroes.  The final section explores the impact (of lack thereof) of the hero in the modern, more secular, more individualistic culture; and this may make us sad for what has been lost in antiquity.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a fascinating, intelligent, and seminal exploration on what makes a hero -- and what that can tell us about us.  For anyone interested in mythology, anthropology, or what we have always sought, it's required reading.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch