The movie about the elaborate con is pretty routine in Hollywood, but American Hustle elevates this type of film with not only layer upon layer of deception and double-crosses, but also commentary on the corruption that comes with power.
Set in 1978 and loosely based on real events, American Hustle follows an unlikely collusion between confidence men and the U.S. government.  Irvin Rosenfelt (Christian Bale, unrecognizable with his extra weight and giant comb-over) runs all sorts of scams, from forged art to fictitious lines of credit for desperate people.  His partner and lover is Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a meticulous con artist who uses a British accent to add a foreign element to their schemes.  Irvin's biggest weakness is his wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a foul-mouthed and unstable woman who uses her sex appeal and her son, who Irvin adopted, as leverage to keep him with her.
Irvin and Sydney wind up busted by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious agent.  He initially agrees to let the two go after they help him make four busts with their cons.  But Richie's hopes grow -- along with Irvin's fears -- as a con involving a rich sheik and millions of dollars gets the interest of New Jersey Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner).  Polito wants to use the sheik's money to build up Atlantic City, and soon congressmen, senators, and even the mob are getting involved.  And as Irvin gets more and more nervous, no one is really sure who's using who. Is the tension between Irvin and Sydney real?  Is Sydney falling for Richie -- or just playing him?  And will Rosalyn make everything fall to pieces?

It's hard to think of any way that American Hustle could be any better.  The cast is stellar from top to bottom, and director David O. Russell brings out an intensity and realism from everyone that propels the film from start to finish.  While the movie is gripping and dramatic, there's also plenty of comedy, from the opening shot of Irvin putting together his elaborate comb-over to Louis C.K.'s role as Richie's boss whose concerns are ignored more and more at the prospect of big takedowns.  American Hustle is intelligent, entertaining, and a great example of what a movie can be.

Overall grade: A+
Reviewed by James Lynch


Superhero shows can be expensive to keep going, what with the cost of showing super-powers and fantasy battles, but superhero comedies are easier to do, as powers are rarely if ever used and most of the action is verbal instead of physical.  This is certainly the case with No Heroics, an acerbic and amusing British comedy about a world where super heroes (or "capes") are real and have to deal with mundane issues.

No Heroics revolves around four lesser superheroes, who usually hang out in a bar called the Fortress (whose rules are "No capes, no powers, no heroics.")  The Hotness/Alex (Nicholas Burns) has heat powers and wants to be a famous superhero, but he winds up either unknown or a laughingstock; he's also mocked by Excelsior/Devlin (Patrick Baladi), an arrogant, sexist jerk who gets all the fame, fortune, and women that elude the Hotness.  Electroclash/Sarah (Claire Keelan) can control machines with her voice, but she'd rather steal money from ATMs than help people; she also used to date the Hotness, though the two have trouble not insulting each other.  Timebomb/Don (James Lance) can see 60 seconds into the future and is an expert on torture, but he's an alcoholic and drug addict who has sex with strange men in public toilets.  She-Force/Jenny (Rebekah Staton) is "the third strongest female in the world" but is quite desperate for romance.  Oh, and the bounces at the Fortress is Thundermonkey/Simon (Jim Howick), who can summon and control monkeys -- but he has to wait for them to get to where he is, which usually takes 45 minutes.

There are a couple of comic book references here and there through the series -- drinks like "V for Vodka," the Paradise Island strip club where the women all wear Wonder Woman costumes -- but No Heroics revolves mainly around the four dysfunctional friends.  And the show manages to be damn funny with them, dealing with everything from cape-rape to pathetic fans (when one lonely guy tells Electroclash "You were seminal," she replies, "You smell seminal") to trading cards to superhero therapy (shown below).  There's even some pretty hilarious dark humor in the final episode, "Monkey Gone to Heaven."

No Heroics only has six episodes and wasn't released in the U.S. on dvd (though all the episodes are currently on YouTube) but it's definitely worth watching for any comic book fan with a slightly dark sense of humor.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch




They got the band, er, news team, back together!  Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues brings almost all of the original cast from the first movie -- and several of the jokes -- for more relentless stupidity that's often pretty funny.

Anchorman 2 is about the ups and downs of Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell), the dim-wittes, self-important television newsman, in 1980.  The movie stars with Ron in the dumps, as his wife Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) gets a lead anchor position while Ron gets fired; they also separate, with Veronica getting their 7-year-old son Walter (Judah Nelson).

Ron is down in the dumps until he gets an offer from producer Freddie Shapp (Dylan Baker) to join the new 24-hour news network GNN.  Ron agrees, reassembling his old news team: investigative reporter and would-be ladies' man Brian Fontana (Paul Rudd); sportscaster who knows nothing about sports and everything about racism Champ Kind (David Koechner); and thoroughly idiotic weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell, stealing every scene he's in just like in the first movie).  Together they plan to take cable news and New York by storm.
There are obstacles and new characters, of course.  Jack Lime (James Marsden) is the pretty-boy anchor who's an immediate rival to Ron.  Linda Jackson (Meagan Good) is Ron's new boss who is put off by his racism (when he first meets her he can't stop saying "black") but falls for him anyway.  Kench Allenby (Josh Lawson) is the Australian owner of GNN who wants to kill a story that could hurt his Koala Airlines.  And Chani (Kristen Wiig) is Brick's intellectual equal and love interest.  Along the way there's a bottle-fed baby shark, the world's worst blind man, a near-catfight, and the invention of the news people want to hear instead of the news they need to hear.

Anchorman 2 follows very closely in the footsteps of the original (and towards the end, the sequel has many of the same jokes as the original).  Will Ferrell's Ron Burgundy may make a journey of self-discovery, but he spends most of the movie blurting out inappropriate things, and occasionally making an accurate comment on how ridiculous something is.  The cast is good, but they haven't really changed anything since the first movie.  And even though the sequel moves the action from the 1970s to the 1980s, the only change in time is in the soundtrack music.  There are plenty of funny moments in Anchorman 2, from the big battle at the end to Ferrell's over-the-top character; but in the end, Anchorman 2 sticks a little too closely to the original.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch



Plenty of games have players building the most productive, mightiest empires -- but few do it with such deceptively simple rules mechanics and advanced planning as 7 Wonders.  This card game from Asmodee Games has players working against each other (while often helping each other) to pursue several paths to victory.
7 Wonders takes place over three ages.  In each age, each player has seven cards.  During each turn a player can buy a card (some are free, some cost gold, and some cost resources), sell a card for three gold, or build their empire's wonders, from left to right.  Cards can provide victory points (which ultimately determine the victor), resources (to buy more cards), scientific discoveries (which give victory points at the game's end), military strength (which give points at the end of each age), gold, letting them buy a building in the next age for free, or other benefits.  Players can also buy resources from the players to their left or right for two gold each -- and the other players can' refuse to sell them.  Each player's first and third wonder give victory points, while the middle wonder gives them a unique benefit, from building once per turn for free, to military strength, to even more victory points.

After each turn, players pass their remaining cards to the next player; clockwise during the first and third age, counter-clockwise during the second age.  When players have two cards left, they choose one to use and discard the final one.   And at the end of the third age, the victory points are totaled up and whoever has the highest score wins!
7 Wonders does numerous things very well.  First, the game is easy to learn (with only three options each turn) and very fast (average games are 30-40 minutes).  Second, there are several paths to victory: Players can focus solely on points, or scientific discoveries, or military strength, or getting enough resources that they don't have to buy from other players.  Third, passing cards around the table means players have to adjust their strategy on the fly: They can't focus on using several cards from their hand, since other players could wind up using the other card themselves.  In fact, a large part of the game's strategy is keeping adjacent players from getting the cards they need, while still getting the cards you need.  And fourth, the unique ability from everyone's second wonder adds to the game's diversity, as each player has their own unique edge they can pursue or ignore.  Finally, the third age has several special buildings that give points based on types of cards players have -- but these special buildings are picked at random, so you can't plan based on getting on, as it may not come into play (or another player could keep you from getting it).

I really enjoy playing 7 Wonders: It's easy to learn, teach, and play.  It keeps everyone involved.  There's no one path to victory.  The artwork on the cards is beautiful.  And you can play several times in a fairly short time.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch



December is a mix of the good and the bad.  Unfortunately, more and more radio stations get taken over by Christmas carols.  Fortunately, some of the most beautiful women in the world strut their stuff down a runway in lingerie.  The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show 2013 brings the annual 43-minute commercial back to television.  Life is good.

The show features the Victoria's Secret Angels modeling everything from lingerie to costumes to borderline haute couture, with a variety of themes (Birds of Paradise, Shipwrecked) and behind-the-scenes features (such as how they stay in shape, or the Angel who fell and hurt herself at last year's show).  The actual outfits worn aren't sold in the stores, but are often the inspiration for future clothing.

Music is prevalent through the special.  Live acts included Taylor Swift (shown below), Fall Out Boy, Neon Jungle, and A Great Big World.  Current pop, rock, and rap songs played in the background the rest of the show (which also had the weirdest censoring I've ever heard, as Miley Cyrus' song "FU" had the letters "f" and "u" bleeped out over two different lines).

Another tradition is the Fantasy Bra.  If you thought that Victoria's Secret merchandise is expensive, the Fantasy Bra is bejeweled and valued at millions.  This year's Fantasy Bra (shown belo) was modeled by Candice Swanepoel, made of diamonds and rubies, and costs $10 million.  If any readers get one for Christmas, kudos!

The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show 2013 continues this shamelessly commercial, prurient, and fun showing-off of amazing lingerie and the amazing models who get to wear it for us.  As long as they don't start playing Christmas carols in the background, I'll keep tuning in.

Written by James Lynch


Britney Spears, BRITNEY JEAN (deluxe version)

Britney Spears had states that her latest album would be her most personal -- but that must have been before the producers decided to go in a more club-oriented direction.  Britney Jean (deluxe version) feel like more of the same standard pop that Spears had been delivering for years.
Britney Jean seems to start off more personally, as the song "Alien" has Spears talking about her isolation ("there was a time/I was one of a kind/lost in the world of me, myself and I") and finding companionship.  But then the electronics and beats kick in, whether making working hard a club anthem ("Work B**ch") or synthesizing her voice until it's almost unrecognizable ("It Should Be Easy").  After that, the songs fall into the usual Spears topics: sex ("Tik Tik Boom"0, partying ("Body Ache," "Chillin'"), breakups ("'Til It's Gone," "Don't Cry") and romance ("Brightest Morning Star").  The overproduction removes most of the emotion or uniqueness from the songs; and as for the lyrics, well, did we really need Britney Spears telling us "I'm gonna mark my territory"?  It's with perfume, but still...

The bonus track "Now That I Found You" has a fun, bouncy guitar riff that didn't get overdone, and "Work B**ch" is a catchy guilty pleasure.  Overall, though, Britney Jean (deluxe version) feels like it lost Spears' appeal in far too much studio production, getting away from letting her do her thing.

Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch


There are plenty of holiday classic movies that warm the heart and remind us of the true meaning of Christmas.  Then there's the amazingly low-budget one about Martians kidnapping Santa Claus and a couple of kids.  The latter may be thoroughly awful -- but it's perfect comic fodder for Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett in Rifftrax Live: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.
 This latest Rifftrax feature has the trio taking on an awful movie that they first tack\led back on Mystery Science Theater 3000.  And there's plenty to make fun of here, from the aliens' cheap helmets (or are they their heads?) to the "comic" relief of the lasziest Martian to the stock footage of the military to Alex Trebek's funeral march.  Sometimes the jokes can be a little juvenile -- one villain's bushy mustache leads to numerous There Will Be Blood quotes -- but there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments.  And before the feature there are funny movie cards (such as Rejected Christmas Gifts, which include "Blitzen Scat" and "Google Plus Account") and the equally-bad short Santa Claus and the Fairy Snow Queen.

Christmas may not be about green men with plumbing on their heads (as least not the last time I checked), but it's the perfect time of year for Rifftrax Live: Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch



What if monsters were actually lovable, harmless, and fun?  You'd have Hotel Transylvania, a movie with classic monsters aimed squarely at little kids.

Dracula (Adam Sandler, doing a continual Bela Lugosi imitation) built the Hotel Transylvania as a refuge for monsters to come out of the darkness, relax, and hang out.  He also built it keep his daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) safe, after her mother was killed by humans.  Mavis wants to explore the world, but Dracula wants to keep her safe from humans; he even creates a fake village to scare her from leaving.

To celebrate Mavis' 118th birthday (the monster equivalent of turning 18, apparently), Dracula has all of their monster friends over to celebrate: Frankenstein and his wife Eunice (Kevin James and Fran Drescher), the wolfman Wayne and his wife Wanda (Steve Buscemi and Molly Shannon), Murray the mummy (CeeLo Green), and Griffin the invisible man (David Spade).

Then there's the uninvited guest: Jonathan (Andy Samberg), a young man who loves to travel and who stumbled across the hotel by accident.  Dracula wants him gone, both to keep him from scaring the monstrous guests and for his safety ("Are these monsters gonna kill me?"  "Not as long as they think you're a monster."  "That's kinda racist.") but every time Johnathan tries to leave, something brings him back.  He also has an instant romantic connection with Mavis, and everyone but Dracula love his free-spirited approach to holding a party.

With all these classic movie monsters, I wish Hotel Transylvania had a bit more humor for adults.  There are some jabs at Twilight and a few jokes blue enough to move the movie from G to PG, but the monsters are basically silly, probably to keep from scaring the kids.  The actors all do decently with their voices (though Samberg stands out as the surfer dude-type who just wants to have fun), but the story is a pretty straightforward one about a parent learning to stop controlling/protecting his daughter.  There are plenty of cute moments through the movie -- and a creative chase involving flying tables -- but this doesn't succeed in appealing to grown-ups as much as to the kids.  (Dvd extras include a mini-movie, some storyboards of deleted scenes, and interviews).

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch