"Be careful about getting in over your head" is a simple message that's common in life, in movies, and certainly in The Counselor.  This drama has a terrific cast in a very formulaic story.
The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) seems to have it all: rich friends, extravagant lifestyle, and a beautiful girlfriend named Laura (Penelope Cruz), for whom he buys a very expensive diamond engagement ring.  But he's also getting involved with his friends -- the carefree Reiner (Javier Bardem) and the far more cautious Westray (Brad Pitt) -- with a huge deal involving a Mexican drug cartel and a cocaine shipment worth millions.  Despite Reiner and Westray trying to scare the Counselor with tales of how ruthless the cartel is, the Counselor is all in.  And Malkina (Cameron Diaz), Reiner's girlfriend from Barbados, is a sexual, amoral, greedy being who Reiner rightly fears is smarter than him.
Of course, the drug deal quickly goes south, as the shipment (hidden in an old sewage truck) keeps switching hands.  The Counselor panicks, as his confidence and friends quickly abandon him.  And those horror stories about the cartel weren't exaggerated...

The Counselor is a fairly ordinary movie.  With a screenplay from Cormac McCarthy (whose No Country for Old Men was far superior), we wind up with a protagonist who spends the whole movie running around not knowing what to do.  There are plenty of contrasts -- the innocent Laura and the scheming Malkina, the seemingly expensive world of the main characters and the dirty poverty of those handling the truck with its dangerous, expensive cargo -- but in the end it's watching someone dabbling in a dangerous world he's unprepared to handle.  The cast is very good, yet their roles are pretty one-dimensional.  And the movie's frequent departures into theories and philosophy (including a discussion with a cartel leader that's all about creating worlds) often feels quite artificial.  The Counselor has some interesting elements, such as the contrasts and often telling instead of showing what could happen, but it's still pretty routine.

Overall grade: C
Reviewed by James Lynch


Lou Reed 1942-2013

Lou Reed, the singer-songwriter-guitarist who influenced rock and roll for generations, passed away on October 27th.
Lou Reed rose to fame as the lead singer of the Velvet Underground, whose four albums -- The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico, White Light/White Heat, and Loaded -- were both poetic and gritty, dealing with everything from drug use ("I'm Waiting for the Man") to sado-masochism ("Venus in Furs") while still celebrating the simple joy of music ("Rock & Roll").  After leaving the band, Reed enjoyed substantial success as a solo artist, creating "Walk on the Wild Side" and "Perfect Day."

Lou Reed managed to elevate song lyrics into poetry while dealing with the weird, seedy, or dangerous elements of society in a very objective manner.  His music -- with the Velvet Underground and afterwards -- affected everything from glam rock to punk to alternative music.   Brian Eno said that while The Velvet Underground & Nico only sold 30,000 copies in its first years, "Everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band."  Lou Reed showed that the combination of writing, guitar, social awareness and distinctive vocals could accomplish.  He will be missed.

Jim Lynch
(who ranks The Velvet Underground & Nico as one of his top 10 albums)




The Rifftrax folks are wonderful at taking apart terrible movies -- but what happens when they Riff on one of the most iconic and beloved horror movies ever?  The results are pretty good, as Halloween comes early to movie theaters with Rifftrax: Night of the Living Dead.

Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy warm up with another installment of the Norman films (about the world's most pathetic sad sack), then they leap into their zombie classic.  While Night of the Living Dead deserves its reputation, they find plenty to make fun of: the slow start, Barbara's near-catatonia, Harry's dickishness, and the movie's relentless carpentry.  There are also pop culture references a-plenty, from Weekend at Bernie's to How I Met Your Mother to "Tori Amos has gone feral!"

If there's one complaint, it's that the source material is too good, giving the Rifftrax trio less terrible acting, effects, and story holes to play with.  Still, they found plenty of comedy here, and they manage to have fun with it (wisely skipping the enormously depressing ending) without reducing the quality of the original.
Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch


Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, UNVARNISHED (Best Buy Exclusive)

What happens when punk rockers get older?  Some shift to different sorts of music (like Elvis Costello), some continue with the same sort of music they always did (like the Ramones did and Green Day does), and some deal with different topics.  Unvarnished by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts continues the band's signature sound and mixes it with more mature topics.

This is not the Joan Jett who "don't give a damn 'bout my bad reputation."  Instead, Unvarnished has the rock singer pondering mortality ("Hard to Grow Up," "Fragile"), promoting individuality over bullying ("Different"), and complaining about oversharing on social media ("TMI") and the vapidity of reality television ("Reality Mentality").  The opening song "Any Weather," co-written with Dave Grolh, is a response to what happened with Hurricane Sandy.  There's no sex here, and the opposites-attract song "Bad as We Can Be" is offset by the love-ends musings of "Soulmates to Strangers."

Not that this shift is a bad thing.  While these songs lack a lot of the energy and rawness of Jett's early works (underscored by three of the four bonus tracks on the Best Buy exclusive being live versions of her early songs), Jett's voice and her band's music remain as strong as ever.  They can still rock hard, and if the lyrics are occasionally a bit too sentimental, Unvarnished is still a pretty solid album.  It may not quite have the energy of past albums, but it features a singer looking to the future instead of living in the past.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch



Sometimes a movie has a perfect storm of all the right elements coming together at once.  This happened in 1976 when an amazing cast and director Brian De Palma came together to adapt Stephen King's first novel for the movies.  The result was Carrie, a horror classic -- and the dvd release does it justice with its special features.

Somewhat prescient of both the impact of bullying and the dangers of school rampages, Carrie is the story of a high school outcast with a supernatural power.  Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is an introverted high school girl who gets no relief from either school at home.  When she gets her first period in the school shower, the other girls all taunt her and pelt her with tampons and towels.  At home, her mother Margaret White (Piper Laurie) is a religious fanatic who sees sin everywhere and locks Carrie in a dark closet to pray.  Carrie also has a power: When she gets emotional, she can move things with her mind.

Unfortunately, even the folks trying to help Carrie seem to hurt her.  Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) is the only teacher who wants to help Carrie, so she punishes the girls involved in the hazing.  Sue Snell (Amy Irving) feels bad for what she did, so she has her boyfriend Tommy (William Katt) ask Carrie to the prom.  By contrast, the girls' leader Chris (Nancy Allen) is banned from the prom, so she and her boyfriend Billy (John Travolta) plan their revenge against Carrie at the prom.  And with Carrie's ability manifesting itself when she's angry, things will not end well...

Carrie works on just about every level.  The acting is superb -- Spacek and Laurie got Academy Award nominations for this movie -- and the story moves at a quick pace, combining the humor and cruelty of high school and family.  Director Brian De Palma used many different ways of filming here -- split screen, slow motion -- and never overdoes any of them.  The dialogue is sharp and very quotable ("They're all going to laugh at you!") and this movie has numerous memorable scenes, from the prom inferno to the final dreamlike ending (which has been copied in most horror movies that followed).

For extras, the Carrie dvd did it right.  The director, screenwriter, and almost all of the movie's stars (except Travolta) are brought together to discuss everything from trying out for the movie (many auditioned for Carrie and Star Wars at the same time) to what it was like shooting the movie.  Betty Buckley also discusses her brief role in the the Broadway musical adaption.  There's also text from Stephen King about the movie; I'd have preferred it if he'd shown up to talk about the movie instead of just writing, but it's still informative.

Carrie is everything a horror movie should be: scary, funny, well acted, socially relevant, and memorable.

Overall grade: A+
Reviewed by James Lynch



The sentence "they picked the wrong person to mess with" is often the theme of movies with heroes or vigilantes.  It also applies to sociopaths in No One Lives, a throwback to the grindhouse movies of excess violence and gore.

A driver (Luke Evans) and his girlfriend Betty (Laura Ramsey) are driving.  He had to relocate, she's jealous of some unidentified woman, and they seem like a combination of affectionate and bitterness.

Unfortunately, the couple fall into the hands of a gang.  Flynn (Derek Magyar) has been in hot water with the gang's leader Hoag (Lee Tergesen) since Flynn shot and killed the family whose home the gang was robbing, forcing the gang to flee without the goods.  Flynn's new plan is simple: Kidnap the rich couple, and soon they'll give up their PIN codes, bank accounts, and everything else.

However, when the couple is captured and Flynn is going through their car, Flynn finds something unexpected: a person.  Emma (Adelaide Clemens) is an heiress who was kidnapped by the driver six months ago after he slaughtered seventeen of her classmates.  She believes that he thinks he's in love with her -- and he'll kill anyone who gets between them.  Sure enough, the driver easily kills the gang member who had been keeping him and Betty hostage -- and soon he's after the rest of them, with crossbow bolts, rifle blasts, and snare traps.  Soon the blood and guts are flowing freely, as one by one the deaths start coming.

Grindhouse films are known for their over-the-top elements, and No One Lives is no exception.  There's lots of violence and mayhem, torture and sadism.  Unfortunately, No One Lives also shares the genre's lack of real acting ability or decent scripting.  None of the characters are likable or sympathetic -- even the kidnapped Emma seems irritable and abrasive -- leaving the audience with no one to root for.  The script is very exploitative (even including a catfight and shower scenes) and the fight scenes are too perfectly choreographed to be believable.  (And the dvd extra is only one feature.)

No One Lives revels in its old-style gore and horror, but that's all it brings.  Horror needs more than that -- acting, creativity, even humor -- to be effective, and this movie just isn't.

Overall grade: D
Reviewed by James Lynch

Miley Cyrus, BANGERZ (deluxe version)

The Disney rebellion -- a former innocent Disney teen star leaves the Disney world and rebels with wild, sexual, atypical antics -- continues, as Miley Cyrus works hard to distance herself from her past persona with Bangerz (deluxe version).  And while her wild side is on display here, so is her vocal talent.

"I'm a female rebel, can't you tell?" Miley sings on "4*4" and there are plenty of songs where this is her aim.  The once-innocent singer is now cursing up a storm, singing about sex and drugs ("We Can't Stop" is an anthem for both young people's independence and partying), and leaving the pop sound of her last album behind for more hip hop, with plenty of guest appearances by rappers (plus Britney Spears, possibly the queen of going from Disney to sexy).

But rebellion only goes so far-- and Miley carries the album further by displaying her talent here.  There are several soaring ballads, from the opening love song "Adore You" to the end of the regular album "Someone Else."  She occasionally ventures into pop, and the three bonus songs on the deluxe version include funky 1970s-style empowerment ("On My Own") and a straightforward love song ("Rooting for My Baby").  And no matter the genre, her voice sounds strong, controlled, and impressive through the album.

There are times on Bangerz where Miley sounds like she's trying too hard to appeal to young people (the unnecessary hashtag before "Getitright," the abbreviations in "F U" that make it sound like the lyrics are a tweet) or to shock (so much cursing and sex).  But this album works very well, as Miley struts her stuff (also the meaning of "SMS") and delivers a good variety of entertaining music.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch



 The desert is vast, treacherous, and dangerous.  Fortunately it also contains a flying machine.  At least it does in Forbidden Desert, a cooperative semi-board game from Gamewright.  This game has the players planning and scrambling to survive the elements and escape.
Forbidden Desert uses similar layout and rules to Forbidden Island, also from Gamewright.  Forbidden Desert takes place on a 5*5 board of tiles, with a hole in the center (representing the Storm) and eight sand markers on the tile.  Each player gets four actions on their turns.  Actions include: moving one space horizontally or vertically; removing one sand marker from a tile; excavating (flipping over) a tile; or picking up a part of the flying machine that's been discovered.  In addition, each player has a role (Archeologist, Climber, Explorer, Meteorologist, Navigator, or Water Carrier) with its own abilities.

When revealed, tiles provide useful.  For each piece of the flying machine, there is a horizontal and vertical tile that, when both are revealed, place that piece on the board.  Players one one of the three water spaces get two water if they're on the tile when it's excavated.  (One water space is a mirage, which gives nothing.)  Several spaces give players Equipment cards, which are useful but one-use only.  Tunnels can bot be traveled between quickly and provide shelter from the sun.  And the Launch Pad is where players go when they have all four pieces, to assemble the flying machine and soar off to victory!

Unfortunately, after each player's turn they have to draw Sand Storm cards -- which are all bad.  Sun Beats Down makes every player lose 1 water, unless they're in a tunnel or have a Solar Shield.  Storm Picks Up increases Sand Storm Meter by 1 spot, which may increase the number of Sand Storm cards drawn.  And Wind Blows cards drag 1-3 tiles into the Storm (moving the Storm's location) and adding a sand marker to each tile moved.  If a tile has two or sand markers, it can't be passed until all but one sand marker are removed.  If any player loses all their water, they die and everyone loses.  If the Sand Storm Meter reaches the top, everyone loses.  And if you need to place a sand marker but none are available, everyone loses.

Forbidden Desert is a fun and challenging game of strategy and luck.  Teamwork is absolutely essential, as players have to both watch out for themselves (dying of thirst isn't fun), work to reveal and get the pieces of the Flying Machine, and removing sand markers so the supply doesn't run out.  The different roles all provide unique game elements with different bonuses (the Water Carrier is great for getting water to parched players, the Explorer gets around much faster, the Meteorologist can minimize the impact of Sand Storm cards, etc.) and there's no one combination that guarantees a victory or a defeat.  The ways of losing escalate quickly, ratcheting up the tension among the players as they have more and more dangers to deal with.  And there's a certain fun in assembling the toy-like flying machine.

Forbidden Desert is a good game that is easy to learn and challenging to beat.  The artwork on the tiles and cards is nice (though the players get basic pawns to move around), the idea behind the game is imaginative (you may not believe in solar-powered flying machines at the start of the game, but you better believe you need one to survive), and even games where the players lose still give them a good time.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch



So, what's dating like for guys in a world where they can get porn almost anywhere? And what are the other illusions affecting romance? These are some areas covered in Don Jon, written by, directed by, and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Don Martello (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a fairly typical 20-something New Jersey guy. He lifts weights, has dinner with his family, goes to church and confession every week, hangs out at clubs with his buddies Bobby (Rob Brown) and Danny (Jeremy Luke), and seems to have endless one-night stands. Don also loves porn. He watches it all the time (even after bedding his latest conquest, while she sleeps), has a very well-defined system for looking for the perfect clips, and even explains at length why handling himself to porn is better than sex with an actual woman.

Eventually Don decides to try getting with a woman as hot as the hottest women he's seen in porn. This would be Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a woman Jon describes as a ten but who shot him down. He decided to go for the long game with her, aiming for a long-term relationship instead of just sex. She is a sucker for romantic movies and relationships; she also uses her sex appeal to change Jon, from meeting his family and getting their friends together, to having Jon take a night course so he can become something more than a bartender. It's at the latter place that Jon meets Esther (Julianne Moore), a strange slightly older woman who may be sobbing one meeting, smoking week the next, and loaning Jon some "good" porn after she sees him watching some on his phone. And yes, even dating Barbara doesn't get Jon away from his beloved porn for long...

Don Jon is a intelligent, clever, modern take on what makes men men and women women -- complete with all their faults and agendas. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is wonderful in the title role, as he makes Jon both likeable and pathetic at the same time. Jon seems to want to go through life just having fun, while sounding like an addict when it comes to his porn; he keeps saying "I can stop anytime I want" while never stopping. Scarlett Johansson is very good as a woman who knows how to work her beauty to her advantage; I just wish the movie had more of her outside Jon, so we could learn more of what makes her tick. The supporting cast is very good (especially Tony Danza as Jon's foul-mouthed, football-addicted father, and Brie Larson as Don's sister who is almost always silently texting, whether at the dinner table or in church), and Julianne Moore gives another great performance as an atypical woman who is more vulnerable than the other characters in the movie. Don Jon won't settle the arguments about whether porn is good or bad (though the movie has plenty of examples of media's sex-filled images of women (and yes, that Carl's Jr. commercial in the movie is a real commercial)), but it does a very good job of entertaining while exploring what masculinity and feminity mean in the modern dating landscape. Overall grade: A- Reviewed by James Lynch


Horror movies can tend towards the simple slasher formula, so it's nice when a movie like Triangle aims for a more thoughtful approach. I just wish the movie did more than content itself with its own mind games.
Jess (Melissa George) is a waitress who drops her autistic son off at school before joining five acquaintances for a trip on their yacht, named the Triangle. Jess seems a bit dazed and keeps feeling deja vu -- but that won't stop her or the others from having a good time in the middle of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, the ship gets a mysterious distress call from someone who says that someone killed everyone. Then a massive storm strikes, destroying the Triangle and dragging one of the friends away. The five survivors seem lucky when they come across a giant ship that they can board. However, wehoever's on the new ship doesn't want to be seen -- and then a hooded figure starts killing the Triangle survivors one by one. And then things get really weird when Jess looks overboard...
Triangle has an interesting setup and some nice use of camera angles and touches (especially when multiple items start showing up) to show how the bizarre situation is possible. But the characters are paper-thin, and while Melissa George is solid in her role as the almost shell-shocked stranger who holds the key to what's going on, the rest of the cast is very generic as the friends-victims supporting the star. Triangle is an interesting viewing, but not more than its basic trick. (DVD extras are limited to cast and crew interviews.) Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch