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