6.11.2019

RIFFTRAX LIVE: STAR RAIDERS

"You know, the special effects for this movie aren't bad considering it came out in 1992."
"Um, this movie was released 18 months ago."
"WHAAAAAATTTT???"

Welcome to Rifftrax Live: Star Raiders: The Adventures of Saber Raine.  This is the sort of movie that's pretty much designed for much mockery from Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy: a former "star," amazingly bad special effects, and a nonsensical plot.
 For thos who want a plot to try and follow, here goes: Following a less-than-epic space battle, an obligatory hot female (with glowing red eyes) and her two followers (each of whom is wearing what looks like half a pair of sunglasses) land on a planet to rescue a prince and princess from an evil would-be ruler whose henchmen are immortal (sometimes) and whose head looks skinned from the top half up.  There's also a lizard-woman whose makeup doesn't cover her lower jaw.  ("She has two mouths.")  And then there's Saber Raine, the heroic rogue played by Casper Van Dien, whose only real claim to fame is having appeared in Starship Troopers.
Want more?  There's an obligatory traitor, parts of the planet don't let technology work, as the plot dictates, a sword-fighting scene is completely gratuitous, and the dialogue fails as consistently as the special effects.
Fortunately, the worse the movie is, the more of a source for comedy it provides for Mike, Bill, and Kevin.  They work hard mining humor from this awful movie (plus an old short about honesty and values that begins the evening) and the laughs come pretty consistently from start to finish.  While one may wonder how this movie got made so recently or mourn the career of Casper Van Diem, you'll also be laughing a lot during Rifftrax Live: Star Raiders: The Adventures of Saber Rain.  And if you figure out who or what the Star Raiders are, please let me know; the movie sure didn't.
Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

5.27.2019

BRIGHTBURN

D.C. Comics had a line of books called Elseworlds, where one change in a superhero's life would send them on a completely different trajectory.  This idea applies to Brightburn, a superhero horror movie that follows a simple idea: What if young Superman was evil?

In the small town of Brightburn, Kansas, farmers Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elizabeth Banks, David Denman) have been trying to have a child unsuccessfully when the answer literally falls out of the sky.  Twelve years later, their son Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) is going through puberty.  But it's very different for him.
Brandon's growing up is accompanies by super powers: super strength, toughness, flight, heat vision, super speed, and more.  Unfortunately, Brandon is hearing voices from the alien ship he arrived in; he wears a creepy homemade mask; and he feels no guilt when he hurts people -- and he does a lot more than just hurt anyone who he thinks is getting in his way.  When people start vanishing and dying, Kyle becomes very suspicious of his son; but his mother insists that Brandon is a good boy and that there's got to be some other explanation.
Produced by Peter Gunn, Brightburn really doesn't do anything interesting with its premise.  Jackson A. Dunn is suitably creepy as the sociopath with the power to do pretty much whatever he wants to anyone he wants -- but we don't get beneath his surface, except for seeing him as a literal alien invader.  Banks and Denman play the doting mother and stern father, parental archetypes often seen in movies.  And there are moments of brief but extreme gore, plus an ever-growing body count.  Brightburn is a superficial approach to a radical  change in an iconic superhero.

Overall grade: C+
Reviewed by James Lynch

5.11.2019

LONG SHOT

Politics makes strange bedfellows.  In the case of the movie Long Shot, one would wish it would have made for a movie with any sort of entertainment value.

Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) is smart, beautiful, and accomplished.  When idiot President Chambers (Bob Odenirk) tells her he wants to be a one-term president so he can transition to doing movies, she starts planning for a 2020 presidential run.  Her main platform is an environmental plan -- "trees, seas, and bees" -- and she needs to stay on Chambers' good side to get his endorsement.  She's also dodging meeting up with Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis), the movie's far-from-subtle caricature of Rupert Murdoch.
Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen) is an angry reporter who quits his job when his newspaper is bought out by Parker Wembley.  Fred knew Charlotte when they were in high school, and after a meeting at a gala Charlotte hires Fred to be her speechwriter.  The two start getting to know each other better, and soon they're romantically involved.  But while Fred's buddy Lance (O'Shea Jackon Jr.) encourages him, Charlotte's associate Maggie (June Diane Raphael) says the public won't accept a beautiful woman like her being with a rough-looking guy like him.  And Fred tries to keep Charlotte honest as more and more elements of her environmental get stripped away in the name of compromise.
Long Shot is part romantic comedy, part political drama -- and it fails on both levels.  There's no romantic chemistry between the two stars, and a few comedic set-ups fall flat, as do the one-liners tossed out here and there through the movie.  The political element is hardly realistic either, and even a blackmail story element doesn't work.  There are some very talented actors in Long Shot, but the material fails them badly.

Overall grade: D
Reviewed by James Lynch

5.01.2019

AVENGERS: ENDGAME

For years the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been teasing the awesome power of the Infinity Stones, the Infinity Gauntlet, and the mad titan Thanos' mission to wipe out half the life in the universe -- and seeing that happen in Avengers: Infinity War.  So what happens next?  The conclusion of this saga in the epic Avengers: Endgame.

Following the events of the last movie, the remaining Avengers quickly track down Thanos (Josh Brolin), only to discover that he's destroyed the Infinity Stones.  We then jump ahead five years.  Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is providing counseling to those who remain, while the Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is locked away trying to find a way to reverse Thanos' deed.  The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) has found a way to merge Bruce Banner's mind with his green-skinned ego, while Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has let himself go.  Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) has started a family with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), while Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) lost his whole family and takes his anger out by killing criminals.  Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) is working with just about everyone.  And Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) is helping other planets deal with the same thing that happened on Earth.

Then Ant-Man/Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) shows up.  He's been trapped in the quantum realm -- but while five years passed for the rest of the world, for him it's been five hours.  Time works differently there, so he and the Avengers make a plan: Use the realm to go back in time, get the Infinity Stones before they were destroyed, and reverse Thanos' mass genocide.  But they only have enough Pym particles for one trip to the past and back -- and tampering with time has unforseen consequences...
There's a lot Endgame tackles -- and it does it very well for the most part.  We get to see new sides of characters we've known for decades, and the time travel element allows us to go back to many of the earlier movies, from revisiting characters who've died to characters running into their past selves.  There's plenty of humor spread throughout the movie, but it doesn't diminish the high stakes of saving half the life in the universe.  And yes, there's an epic battle, final deaths, and saying goodbye to staples of the MCU.
While Avengers: Endgame isn't perfect -- there are at least two paradoxes that go unexplained -- it is a very satisfying wrap-up to the storylines of the MCU.  I can certainly understand why the audience cheered during the movie.  This movie is exciting, nostalgic, and very satisfying.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

4.19.2019

RIFFTRAX LIVE: OCTAMAN

Anyone who remembers the Syfy channel makeup competition show Face Off will know that there are important elements that go into making a memorable movie monster.  The movie Octaman goes in the opposite direction, being cheap and nonsensical at almost every turn -- and that's before the oddly environmental messages, the terrible acting, and the attempt to cover it all up by almost shooting the movie in the dark.  It's a terrible combination of elements -- but it supplies lots of comic material for Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett in Rifftrax Live: Octaman.

The evening's festivities begin with plenty of funny songs and fake movie facts.  Next comes a short where McGruff the Crime Dog teaches little kids about drugs (where we learn "poison is dangerous").

Then it's time for Octaman!  A bunch of scientists are exploring Mexico -- here a land of stock footage of animals -- and find the lakes are polluted with radiation and filled with small rubbery octopus-ish babies.   This attracts the fury of... the Octaman!
Let's get the Octaman out of the way.  Two arms work just fine, but the others just dangle there.  "Fortunately" the creature attacks by flailing to the left and right until it hits something.  Worse, the costume allows for no facial expressions: Its round mouth never moves, and it has no eyelids whatsoever.  As for being scary, it's accurately described as "having the agility and speed of Bernie Sanders."
Add to this lame monster an uninteresting mix of supporting characters and you have a movie so bad, for a brief time one of the three comedians quits Rifftrax over what's happening on the screen -- and it's hard to blame him.  But the comics all come together in the end -- and they have a pretty steady supply of jokes, culled from this sometimes-aquatic nightmare of a movie.  There are plenty of reasons Octaman isn't known among horror movie fans -- but Rifftrax Live: Octaman gives it life among fans of comedy.
Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

4.06.2019

SHAZAM!

While most DC superhero movies have gone the grim and gritty route, Shazam! is far more aimed at the brightness and magic that appeals to young kids.  And in this case, the change in tone works very well.

Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a 14-year-old kid who's been running away from foster homes to search for the mother who lost him as a young kid.  His latest foster home has him with five other kids, notably Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a handicapped kid obsessed with superheroes.

After Billy helps Freddy with some bullies and runs away, Billy is transported to a magic world.  The Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) explains that Billy was chosen to be the champion of good, protecting the world from the monstrous Seven Deadly Sins.  From then on, when Billy says the word "Shazam" a bolt of lightning strikes him and he transforms into, well, Shazam (Zachari Levi), an adult with a wide range of super powers; saying it again turns him back into Billy.  Freddy becomes Shazam's "manager," documenting his powers -- from super-strength and toughness to shooting lightning and flight -- and posting the videos online while Shazam becomes interested in popularity.
Of course there's a bad guy.  Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) had been summoned by the Wizard as a kid but deemed unworthy because he was tempted by the Seven Deadly Sins.  As an adult he found his way back to the magical world, leaving with assorted powers and the ability to summon the Seven Deadly Sins.  Sivana wants to claim Shazam's powers for his own.
Shazam! has a lot of what most of the DC movies have been missing up to this point:  fun.  Zachari Levi captures the wonder and enjoyment of a kid suddenly given amazing powers and adulthood (and there are several nods to the movie Big here), and Jack Dylan Grazer is a nice foil as the kid who sees what a superhero can and should be.  Mark Strong is a nicely menacing villain, but the movie is more about Billy Batson's growth from a self-interested kis with amazing powers to learning what it means to be a hero.  Even the Shazam costume is always bright and colorful, reflecting the positive nature of the film.  There's a lot of action at the end, but the comedy is what stands out here.  Shazam! is sometimes exciting, usually amazing and thoroughly entertaining movie.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

3.30.2019

UNSEEN ACADEMICALS by Terry Pratchett

The British love rugby.  To them, that version of "football" can inspire intense fandom, violence, and a mixture of the two.  Terry Pratchettputs a goofy spin on this love in Unseen Academicals, a Discworld novel about politics, athletics, romance, and hapless academics.

In the city of Ankh-Morpork, football is played in the streets to great enthusiasm and violence, with few rules and lots of competition.  This all changes when Lord Vetinari, the city's beloved ruling tyrant, makes the very strong suggestion to Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully that the wizards of Unseen University form a football team and play against others -- without using any magic -- or risk losing the funding for their nine meals a day.  And the wizards are not accustomed to any sort of physical activity, so their team -- the Unseen Academicals -- needs a lot of help.

The real focus, however, are some low-level workers at the Unseen University.  Trev makes candles for them, but he's the son of a famous football player who died playing -- and Trev promises his mum he'd never play football, despite being great at kicking a can around.  Nutt is a goblin who's well versed on just about everything -- and who harbors a dark secret.  Glenda Sugarbean makes delicious pies, reads romance novels, and watches out for the dim Juliet -- who's caught the romantic interest of Trev and the fashion world of dwarves.  And the four of them try to navigate this world where politics and football seem to be intertwined, dangerous thugs have their own agendas, and everyone in town is ready for the big match.
I liked Unseen Academicals, though I suspect I would have gotten a bigger kick out of it if I were a rugby fan.  There's a nice contrast between the out-of-touch professors of magic, the ever-scheming Vetinati, and the street-level quartet who are the main characters even though they're pretty low when it comes to status and authority.  The big game takes up surprisingly little of the novel, but Terry Pratchett's humorous turns-of-phrase and comic situations make getting there fun.  Unseen Academicals isn't my favorite Pratchett novel, but it is a nice one.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

3.25.2019

US

A good horror movie requires several elements, from scares and originality to consistency and following its own rules.  Us, the latest movie from writer-director Jordan Peele, manages the former pretty well but falls short of the latter.

Back in 1986, young Adelaide wandered away from her parents at a carnival in Santa Clara.  She wound up at a creepy, dimly-lit hall of mirrors ("find yourself") where she saw something that left her traumatized.

In the present, Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong'o) finds herself on vacation at a summer house in Santa Clara with her family: laid-back husband Gabe (Winston Duke), cell phone-focused teen daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and young son Jason (Evan Alex), obsessed with a magic trick and usually wearing a monster mask.  They meet up with friends and have a good time, but Adelaide feels like several coincidences are building up around them.
Things start to happen late at night when the Wilson family find themselves under siege by their doppelgangers.  Four people, dressed all in red and wielding extremely long scissors, are pursing the Wilson family -- and the duplicates are seemingly stronger, faster, and more twisted than the originals.  Red, Adelaide's duplicate and the only one who talks, explains that the copies are the Tethered and they want to kill the originals, or take their places, or... something.
Us has its scary moments, but the movie makes less sense the more one tries to think about it.  The motivations of the Tethered seem to switch from scene to scene, as are their abilities.  Some plot elements are forgotten about, while others seem to come and go as is convenient for a specific scene.  And there's one big plot twist that simply makes no sense.  The cast of the Wilson family do double duty as themselves and their evil counterparts, and Lupita Nyong'o has a lot of intensity as the mother fighting for her family, but Us is just uneven.

Overall grade: C+
Reviewed by James Lynch

3.17.2019

BAD MEDICINE

There is a type of game where players have to pitch an idea or product to the other players, getting them to select what they pitch as the best.  Bad Medicine from Formal Ferret Games is such a game, for 3-8 players, and it's all about promoting the best, funniest pharmaceuticals to one's opponents to score the most points.

The person who most recently swallowed a pill goes first.  Players get a hand of seven cards, and at the top of the card is a one- or two- syllable word.  Underneath that is the Descriptor, a generally positive word or phrase.  And underneath that is a Side Effect.  For the first turn, a random card is placed under a Malady card so the Side Effect is showing.  Side Effects can be devastating, bizarre and humorous -- conviction that wood tastes good, permanently crossed eyes, inability to turn left -- and this Malady is the problem each player is trying to cure with their drug.

Each player (or team of players, with 5-8 players) uses the cards in their had to create a wonder drug to cure the Malady.  Three cards are used simply to give the drug a pseudo-scientific name.  The player/team then uses two more cards' Descriptors, explaining to all the other players how those benefits will take care of the problem.  This is the really fun part of the game, as logic and reasoning is often stretched pretty far to explain the benefits of, say, enamel, nerve endings, or articulation.
But the turn isn't done yet.  After the pitch, every other player/team passes a card to the current player/team -- and that player/team has to incorporate the Side Effect from one of those cards into their pitch, usually minimizing its bad effects or even explaining why it's a good thing.  And the player/team whose Side Effect was used gets a point.

When the pitch is done, players draw back up to seven cards, the next player/team clockwise makes their pitch, and this repeats until everyone has gone.  Then everyone votes for their favorite drug -- they can't vote for their own -- earning two points for each vote.  The Side Effect for the winning drug becomes the new Malady (if two or more drugs tie, all their Side Effects are used) and the next turn begins.  After three turns, whoever has the most points wins!
Bad Medicine is a simple party game that's also a lot of fun.  Anyone who's dealt with numerous medicines can relate to the long, often nonsensical names players will come up with for their drugs.  (It is hard not to hear "Cthuh" and think of "Cthulhu" or "Nyuk" and be reminded of the Three Stooges.)  The different Side Effects are varied, weird, and funny, providing plenty of fodder for treatment.  And those treatments vary from the far-fetched to actually curing the Malady.

This game does require a certain charisma and persuasiveness among its players (one poor player had little energy and never scored a single point), and cutthroat players can keep track of points to not vote for whoever's ahead and deny them the win.  But for those who get in the spirit of the game, Bad Medicine will prove a lot of fun, with silliness and and a good deal of replayability.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

3.10.2019

CAPTAIN MARVEL

For Marvel's latest entry in their cinematic universe, Captain Marvel takes a trip to outer space -- and the 1990s -- to introduce their latest, possibly most powerful hero.

Vers (Brie Larson) is a Kree warrior.  Part of a military squad battling the green shape-changing Skrulls, she can project powerful energy beams from her hands.  She also has dreams and memories of a life that she can't quite identify -- and her squad leader Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) tells her she needs more focus.

When Vers is captured by the Skrulls, Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) scans Vers' mind and learns that Vers has a past with scientist Mar-Vell (Annette Bening), who developed a lightspeed drive on Earth.  And the Skrulls want it.
Vers escapes and makes her way to Earth, where she joins up with young secret agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, digitally de-aged).  Since the Skrulls are there as well, the two can only trust each other as they search for Mar-Vell -- and the truth behind Vers' past.  Yon-Rogg and his team are also making their way to Earth -- and trying to keep Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) from solving the Skrull infestation with a massive bombing.
Captain Marvel is a decent entry in the Marvel cinematic universe.  Brie Larson is solid as the lead, playing a super-powered Jason Bourne, and there are some impressive fighting sequences through the movie and cosmic effects at the end.  But the movie does slow down a lot in the middle during the investigation, and the movie does go a bit overboard with the '90s nostalgia.  There are some surprises along the way, and while Captain Marvel isn't the best Marvel movie, it is entertaining.
Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

2.17.2019

NEW YORK SLICE

Pizza and gaming go together constantly, so it's no surprise that someone made a game revolving around eating pizza.  New York Slice from Bezier Games lets 2-6 players compete in collecting and eating slices of pizza and gathering Specials to score the most points and win the game.

As one would expect, the main components are slices of pizza.  Each type of pizza has a point value on it that matches its toppings.  Some slices also have pepperoni (which can be eaten for points) and anchovies (which have a negative value).  There are also Today's Special cards, which give points for certain conditions -- and can even make anchovies valuable!
Each turn the Slicer selects eleven random slices of pizza, then divides them into a number of sections equal to the number of players; the Slicer also selects a Today's Special card and puts that with one section.  Starting with the player to the left of the Slicer and going clockwise, each player chooses all the slices in each section, plus the Today's Special card that's with a section.  After everyone's chosen their pizza, the next player clockwise becomes the new Slicer.
After all the pizza is gone, players add up their scores.  The player with the largest number of slices worth a certain point value get that many points; so having the most eight-point slices gets the player eight points.  If there's a tie, no one gets the points.  Players can eat slices with pepperoni, getting one point for each pepperoni on each slice -- but those slices can't be used for their point values.  And lots of Today's Specials give points (or cost other players points).  When all the points are added up, whoever has the most points wins.

New York Slice is simple and fun.  It's hard not getting hungry looking at the photograph-quality slices the players will be staring at, handling, and pretending to eat during the game.  Having the Slicer choose last adds an interesting strategy element, as everyone gets chance to collect the "good" combinations before the Slicer can get to them.  Specials add a random element that doesn't necessarily make or break the game, and it can be tricky to decide whether or not to chow down on the pepperoni slices or keep them for points.  New York Slice manages to make pizza even more of a game night.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

2.02.2019

CHAMPIONS: AARON ALLSTON'S STRIKE FORCE

The late Aaron Allston ran a Champions role-playing game (RPG) campaign that lasted for 20 years.  Set in Earth AU, this campaign had humble beginnings (one hero had to steal a bus to get to the first adventure) and grew to encompass three superhero-teams, a technologically advanced world and some literal world-rebuilding.  Strike Force provides the history and statistics for much of this extensive adventure -- but the main value comes from providing valuable information for the game master (GM) on how to run a campaign.

Yes, Strike Force has the details for the main heroes of the Strike Force team, plus villains, other important characters, and a timeline for the campaign.  But Allston provided more by letting know other GMs know what went into the behind-the-scenes preparation and work to make the game succeed.  It starts with such elements as: discussing with players what they want to get out of the game; the game world's attitude towards superheroes; and what role killing plays with the characters.  Blue books were used, often extensively, for players to figure out what their characters were up to that didn't quite fit in with the adventures.  Allason provides a nice 10-part list of ways to ruin a campaign.  And there's emulation of Hollywood and comic books in creating the world, plus change to keep things fresh and interesting for both the players and GM.  And there's a breakdown of the assorted types of players and what will make them happy.

The result is that Strike Force works as a guide not just for superhero RPGs but also for any GM hoping to provide a great campaign (or individual game, though there's a long view taken through much of this) for the players.  The strength of this work isn't in using the characters here or copying the twists and turns, but in GMs getting insight from their players and tailoring their campaign to make everybody happy and coming back for more.  With that in mind, Strike Force is a very valuable tool for the GM.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch