Many movies and books take a "sympathy for the devil" position, transforming the villain into the protagonist, or at least giving them more understanding and sympathy.  Maleficent takes this for the classic Disney cartoon Sleeping Beauty -- and creates something new and magical.
There are two neighboring kindgoms: the Moors, filled with magic creatures, peace, and equality; and the human kingdom, filled with greed and fears.  At the start of the film the 12-year-old human thief Stefan (Michael Higgins) intrudes in the Moors and is rescued by the young fairy Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy).  The two seem to be in love, but that is certainly not the case: Years later, when the human king is humiliated by the fully-grown Maleficent (Angelina Jolie), he offers his kingdom to whoever kills her -- and while Stefan (Sharlto Copley) can't bring himself to kill his former love, he does cut off her wings and offer them as a trophy, gaining his kingship in the process.  This drives Maleficent evil and vengeful, as she becomes the feared queen of the Moors.  She also recruits the crow Diaval (Sam Riley) to be her spy, transforming him into whatever animal she needs.

When Stefan and his queen have a daughter, Aurora, Maleficent crashes the celebration and offers a "gift:" When the girl turns sixteen, she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel spindle and fall into a sleep like death, only to be woken by true love's kiss.  Stefan tries to prevent the curse by not only having all spindles destroyed, but also by having Aurora hidden in the woods and raised by three fairies in human form.  Maleficent finds them easily enough - calling the child "beastie," and winds up saving Aurora from the dangers of her unqualified pretend parents.  When Aurora (Elle Fanning) is sixteen, she assumed Maleficent is her fairy godmother (since Maleficent had been saving her from danger) -- and Maleficent begins to regret her curse.  And Stefan becomes more and more paranoid and obsessed with killing Maleficent...

I was pretty impressed with Maleficent.  The movie manages to follow most of the story of Sleeping Beauty closely, while providing a different perspective on why the villain became the villain.  Angelina Jolie is terrific as the title character, a woman whose role shifts from protector to avenger, and then back as she grows and feels.  Elle Fanning is decent as the almost too-goody goody role of Aurora, while Sharlto Copley is one-dimensional as the movie's true villain.  The visual effects are stunning -- from enchanting creatures to Maleficent casually casting spells and making folks drift through the air -- and the movie approaches its fairy tale roots with reverence instead of irony or sarcasm.  Maleficent isn't perfect, but it is an enjoyable modern-day fairy with a wonderful main character.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch


MAXIM Hot 100 2014

Summer is a time for pools and beaches, barbecues and heat waves, and lots and lots of beautiful celebrities wearing next to nothing.  Yes, the Maxim Hot 100 2014 has come out, and while there are a few changes from last year, it's the same basic, beautiful format as last year.

The Maxim Hot 100 is voted on by Maxim readers, then published in the summer.  Unlike past years, this time around the Hot 100 isn't a separate part of the magazine, but the first half of the month's issue.  As with past years, each winner gets a photo (from a page shared with several others to a two-page spread), brief paragraph about them, and the occasional quote.  ("Trying too hard to be sexy is the worst thing you can do.  Sexiness should be effortless.")  The list is full of singers, actors, models (from the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue and Victoria's Secret), and other celebrities.
 Of course, popularity waxes and wanes, and the Maxim Hot 100 reflects these changes.  Last year four of the top 10 -- including the #1 winner, Miley Cyrus -- were former Disney stars; this year, none of them made the top 10 -- possibly because Spring Breakers isn't as fresh in people's minds -- and Miley drops down to #25.  There are some of the nigh-perpetual selections -- Beyonce, Mila Kunis, Rihanna, Katy Perry -- and no joke entries this time around.  (Sorry, Stephen Colbert.)

The Maxim Hot 100 is beautiful and exciting to its fans, and sexist and superficial to its detractors.  I definitely fall into the former camp.  It's a chance for Maxim fans to voice who they find hot, and to get all the results featured over half the magazine.  Woot!

Written by James Lynch

All hail Maxim's number one: Candice Swanepoel!



For those of us still upset that R.E.M. broke up in 2011, here's a nice blast from the past: a double-disc set that collects all of R.E.M.'s two unplugged appearances on MTV.  R.E.M. Unplugged 1991/2001: The Complete Sessions shows the band experimenting a bit, as well as where they were in two different decades of their career.

MTV's Unplugged series allowed bands to experiment a little (not to mention prove that they weren't all electronics and production), and R.E.M. certainly rose to the challenge.  For the 1991 session, the full band was there (Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, Michael Stipe); by 2001 Bill Berry had left.  In both sessions, R.E.M. focused a lot on their then-current album (1991: Out of Time; 2001: Reveal), with a handful of older tracks covered for good measure.

The main difference between the sessions isn't Berry's absence (sorry Bill), but their "current" albums.  Out of Time already had a sparse, nearly-acoustic feel to it (plus the mandolin), so it transitioned easily into the unplugged format (even with questionable experimental songs like "Below" and "Endgame."  Reveal was a more standard-sounding album, so it didn't always work as well unplugged; it also wasn't one of R.E.M.'s best albums either; if only they'd done more than the one song from Automatic for the People in the 2001 session...

Overall, though, R.E.M. plays and sings very well with their R.E.M. Unplugged sessions.  Stipe's voice shines as much when unplugged as with the originals, and most of the songs work quite well unplugged (except for the disappointing version of "The One I Love," where the screaming chorus "Fire!" is simply stated).  R.E.M. Unplugged is a chance to enjoy anew a lot of great songs from R.E.M., in a different format than their usual style.  And, for the most part, it works.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch


Jones Beach Air Show 2014

For the 2014 Jones Beach Air Show, I headed over to Republic Airport.  The last few times I have been there for the takeoff of the Blue Angels.  This year, I got there later, and got to see the landing.  There were all sorts of folks lined up along the fence around the airport, and the planes came right over my head.  They were moving fast, and trying to get them in the shutter was the usual action photography challenge.  What was also cool is how they came in for the landing right over Route 110.  The yellow caution sign that says "Low Flying Planes" seen in the 3rd image from the bottom was definitely true today!




Back in 1981, the X-Men two-issue storyline Days of Future Past gave comic book readers a bleak future where everything was bleak, their favorite characters could die, and it could all be fixed with time travel.  This story gets expanded on, and ties the previous X-Men films together, with X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Days of Future Past opens in a bleak year 2023 (in which apparently black and gray are the standard colors for, well everything).  Sentinels -- giant robots that can adapt to almost anything -- have killed or enslaved both humans and mutants.  A bunch of mutants -- including Charles Xavier/Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Erik Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen), and Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) -- have been surviving by having Kitty Pryde send a mutant's mind back to before any Sentinel attack, allowing that mutant to warn the others and avoid the attack before it happens.  This gives the others an idea to stop the war.
According to the survivors, things went downhill in 1973 when Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, whose critical and popular success guarantee Rebecca Rominj won't be taking over the role she originated) killed Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), creator of the Sentinels.  Trask's death led the public to support the Sentinel program; and somehow Raven/Mystique's blood led to their adaptive abilities that made them so dangerous.  They decide to send the mind of Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to 1973, to stop Mystique -- and to unite the younger Charles and Erik to help him do it.  But the future mutants have to do this before the Sentinels catch up to them -- and Logan has to stay calm to maintain the link.
Unfortunately, when Logan gets to 1973 things are pretty bad.  The younger Charles (James McAvoy) is a broken man.  He's lost all faith in his mission since losing a lot of mutant teachers and students to the Vietman war (plus the ones Trask tortured and killed in developing the Sentinels); he's also been drinking heavily and using a drug that lets him walk but suppresses his powers.  His student Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) also uses the drug to keep from transforming into a blue, furry creature.  Erik (Michael Fassbender) has been imprisoned for having a role in the Kennedy assassination, while Raven/Mystique seems more focused on killing Trask for what he's done to her fellow mutants.  And while the Sentinels provide a ticking clock in the future, the past has twists and betrayals of its own...
Days of Future Past is both a solid and flawed movie.  While the story in 1973 works well by focusing just on Charles, Erik, Logan and Mystique (plus a nice role by Evan Peters as Pietro/Quicksilver, the speedster who helps free Erik -- and whose character will be in The Avengers: Age of Ultron), the future has a large number of mutants who are defined by their powers and in the movie to make fans of the comics happy ("There's Colossus!  There's Blink!  There's Bishop!") and provide some action.  The conflict between young Charles and Erik is good (Charles blames Erik for killing to advance his cause; Erik blames Charles for hiding while Trask destroyed mutants), there are some nice bits of humor (a young Logan surprised he doesn't set off a metal detector, Quicksilver's super-speed scene set to the song "Time in a Bottle"), and most of the acting is quite good.  The future scenes often felt excessively violent -- including some deaths that could have been Fatalities out of Mortal Kombat -- and plenty of cameos were done to tie the movies together instead of adding to the story.  The acting is good, and the resolution revolves around ideas and hope more than using powers to attack each other.

X-Men: Days of Future Past ends with a potential reboot of the X-Men movie franchise.  While this movie had as many problems as strengths, I am curious to see what happens next.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch


Every fan of a cancelled television show likes to imagine what would happen if the show went on -- what would happen to the characters next?  Thanks to an extremely successful Kickstarter project, the three-season television show Veronica Mars got a new life with the full-length movie Veronica Mars.

Nine years after the end of the tv series, Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) has created a new, better life for herself.  She left her hated hometown of Neptune, California for New York City.  She's in a loving, stable relationship with Stoch "Piz" Piznarksi (Chris Lowell), she's about to take the bar exam, and she's on the verge of getting a lucrative job offer from a big firm.  Then the past comes calling.

Veronica's bad-box ex-boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring) has made national headlines when he's accused of murdering his famous pop-singer girlfriend -- and he wants Veronica's help.  At first, Veronica only agrees to help him choose a lawyer.  But then clues start surfacing, and before you know it Veronica is digging out her taser, pepper spray, and camera with telephoto lens to find out how a mystery from years ago is related to Logan's case.  There's also the police corruption and racial tension of Neptune, her high school reunion, her old friends Wallace (Percy Daggs III) and "Mac" (Tina Majorino), and her dad Keith (Enrico Colantoni) who's still a low-end P.I. and who's worried about Veronica avoiding her New York future to help Logan.
Veronica Mars is a nice return to the characters and world of the tv series -- but it suffers from not going beyond what the episodes of the series did.  There are Veronica's voice-overs and phone identities popping up on the screen, plus a reunion that is there to give the audience a "Where are they now?" answer to the characters from the show.  The movie can get self-referential (such as talking about a Kickstarter project or someone thanking someone else for "keeping it PG-13" -- the movie's rating) and shows how a place that's hated can still suck an intelligent, independent woman back to it.  Veronica Mars will certainly give the fans what they wanted -- or as close to what they wanted without a whole new series -- but it can't escape the feel of being a slightly longer episode of the show.  (The dvd extra is a making-of that talks a lot about the Kickstarter experience.)
Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch


XCon World VII

This May brought two things to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: lots of motorcycle riders for Biker Week, and lots of fans of comics, sci-fi, fantasy, zombies, and more for XCon World VII.  Since I'm a huge geek (who's also terrified of riding a motorcycle), I spent the past three days immersed in the area's annual slice of fandom delights.
XCon World VII was set up largely as the past few conventions were.  Almost everything happened in the central area, with an screening room off the main room for movies and a tent outside for panels.  There were lots of booths for comic books, statues, stores (like Medieval Times, MagiQuest, and the Hard Rock Cafe), artists, costumers, and more.  A semi-local gaming group had a table and ran demos through the convention.  There were celebrities, such as: Richard Hatch, from Battlestar Galactica; Ming Chen, Michael Zapcic and Bryan Johnson, from Comic Book Men; Sam J. Jones, star of 1980's Flash Gordon; Olivia Olson and Jessica DiCicco, who do voices on Adventure Time; and Soni Aralynn, a costumer and cosplayer who posed with me:
There were other attractions as well.  Little kids could play in a Bouncy Castle, while bigger kids could thrill at seeing full-size versions of the Ecto-1 from Ghostbusters, the Mystery Machine from Scooby Doo, a Dalek rolling around the convention, and the Batmobile from the 1960s tv show Batman.

There were lots of panels and interactive events happening through the convention.  Panels included a Zombie Apocalypse Prep Class, getting an independent comic book made through Kickstarter, a Wrestling Q&A, and even some Nerd Church on Sunday morning.  People could also participate in the Geek Dating Game, the Nerd Trivia Game (I won against my two opponents!), or battling with foam weapons or medieval weaponry.

Geeks have been dominating movies and television, and it's no surprise that pop culture affected a lot of fan costuming.  There were numerous characters based on Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Frozen, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2.  Classic characters like Wonder Woman, Catwoman, and different versions of the Doctor mingled with folks from Teen Titans Go!, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead.  And since Deathstroke has been the main villain on Arrow, it's no surprise that multiple versions of him were at XCon World VII.

Change is inevitable from year to year at the convention -- this year there were a lot fewer t-shirt sellers and a lot more vendors with bootleg dvds -- but, alas, some of the problems with XCon World remained.  There were no classrooms or sealed areas for panels, resulting in a lot of noise pollution either from being surrounded up on the main stage, or from passing traffic in the outside tent.  With only two areas for panels, there wasn't that much offered, resulting in a lot less time picking where to go and a lot more time circling the convention floor.  Instead of spending the whole day there, you could pick one or two panels of interest, go around the convention area once or twice, and be done for the day in just a few hours.

But even with those flaws, XCon World VII was still pretty fun.  I talked to a lot of interesting people, I loved the costumes (not to mention that this was the first time I saw people dressed as Jesus and a piece of watermelon), and I look forward to going there next year.  Probably not on a motorcycle, though...

Written by James Lynch



It's not easy getting older -- especially when a reminder of youth moves in next door.  This is the central idea, and source of conflict, with Neighbors, a comedy that's alternating thoughtful and juvenile.

Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne) are a married couple who are reluctant to grow up.  They're the first of their friends to have a house and a kid (six-month-old daughter Stella), they miss going out, and they consider taking Stella to a rave when they can't get a babysitter.  Their pride is their new house, which they sunk all their money into, and they hope to get a cool gay couple as neighbors.  What they get instead is a fraternity next door.
Teddy (Zac Efron) is the president of Delta Psi, and he and his second in command Pete (Dave Franco) are determined to make it onto their wall of fame with a legendary party.  Mac and Kelly and Teddy try bonding -- Mac and Kelly want to seem cool so Teddy will "keep it down" if things get too loud, Teddy thinks if they're friends early the frat can get away with more stuff later -- but after some hurt feelings (Teddy doesn't keep it down, so Mac calls the cops) they wind up in a virtual war.  Mac and Kelly want to get Delta Psi its three strikes so it's shut down, while Teddy and his friends work at making things miserable for Mac and Kelly while building to their epic party.

Neighbors is a mostly familiar and often funny take on opposites going against each other.  Seth Rogen gets to do his usual stoner humor, but Rose Bryne is terrific as the warring mother who doesn't want to be the responsible one and who can be just as juvenile and wily as her husband.  Zac Efron does well, although I suspect he was cast as much for his near-perfect body as for his comic timing.  The movie has plenty of gross-out gags (a dildo fight, a found condom), but there's also a generational issue: Mac and Kelly want to feel young even while needing a good night's sleep, while Teddy sees getting on his fraternity's wall as a lifetime achievement, even though Pete reminds him that they're graduating in a few weeks and it'll all be behind them.

Neighbors isn't consistently funny, but i\t has more than enough laughs to be entertaining.  And the generational issues and comic opportunities for Rose Byrne make it a little better than the average comedy.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch



Many books about pornography tend to be either cautionary tales about how the industry destroys people, or shameless self-promotion.  The title Insatiable: Porn -- A Love Story should tell you which direction Asa Akira's biography leans, but this atypical book manages to be a honest, unapologetic look at one star's life, highs and lows together.

Insatiable isn't organized chronologically (except for one chapter that's Asa's journal entries for a year) or by subject.  Instead, the book bounces around like Asa's randomly remembering things and chatting about them.  There's plenty of discussion of sex -- from what she enjoys personally and professionally, common tricks and signifiers of the adult industry (baby wipes are a giveaway), and her brief jobs as a hooker and dominatrix -- but there's also what she does outside the bedroom or studio.  The chapter "Craigslist" is more about the death of an ex-boyfriend than answering an ad of Craigslist, "Food Porn" is actually about breaking a diet with pizza, and high school stories involve drugs and shoplifting.  And the sexual and non-sexual sides come together often, such as when Asa learns an ex-boyfriend is shooting gay porn in the studio next to hers, or her letter to a future child that is both empowering and graphically describes the threesome where she met her child's father. And there are haikus too!

Insatiable: Porn -- A Love Story is a different sort of read.  Asa is likable -- often funny, usually explicit, and sometimes sad -- and passionate about her life and career.  The book's lack of organization does prevent it from building momentum or direction, but the stories are interesting and show a life that's far from perfect but perfect for her.  Asa Akira provides readers with a blunt, positive look at the life of a woman in the adult entertainment industry, and Insatiable is worth checking out.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch



What could be more foolhardy than a sword and sorcery dungeon crawl, where adventurers wander through an unexplored dungeon fighting monsters?  How about reckless boasts beforehand?  Gauntlet of Fools, from Indie Board and Cards, uses this element of deliberate foolishness to change the typical dungeon crawl -- only the change isn't that much.

The players in Gauntlet of Fools are adventurers out to get the most gold from killing dungeon monsters before dying.  At the start of the game, Heroes (made of pairs of Class and Weapon cards) are laid out, equal to the number of players.  Class cards have a character's name, Defense, Class Ability (which is either automatic or requires discarding a Class Token to use), and Class Tokens.  Weapon cards have the weapon's name, # of Attack Dice (rolled each combat), Weapon Ability (which is either automatic or requires discarding a Weapon Token to use).  These Class and Weapon cards are considered linked and can't be rearranged.

Players then choose their Heroes -- but they can also boast!  Boasts (shown below) are disadvantages each Hero has, from Hopping on One Leg to suffering from a Hangover.  Why boast?  Because after you choose a Hero, another player can steal that Hero from you if they add a new Boast to it.  So a player can select an unmodified Hero and risk having it stolen, or give it a Boast to make it less likely to be stolen (but also weakening it).  After all Heroes are chosen, it's off to the Dungeon!

In the Dungeon, the Encounter deck is flipped over one card at a time.  Most cards are Monsters, and each player is considered to be fighting the monster individually.  Monsters have an Attack Strength, Defense, Damage, Treasure, and sometimes Special Damage or Special Treasure.  Players roll their Attack Dice (and decide whether or not to use Attack or Character tokens) and compare the results with the monster.  If the player's Attack Dice (modified by any Boasts, bonuses, or penalties) equal or are greater than the Monster's Defense, the player kills the monster and gets its treasure (usually Gold); if not, the player gets nothing.  At the same time, the Monster's attack value is compared to the player's Defense (with any modification).  If the Monster's value is higher, the Hero suffers damage (usually one Wound); if the Hero's defense is higher, they Dodged the monster and take no damage.

After each encounter, players check their Wounds.  A Hero with four or more Wounds is dead and done adventuring -- but not necessarily the loser!  When all Heroes have died, the players compare their gold and the player with the most gold wins!
I like Gauntlet of Fools, but the Boasting mechanic isn't quite what I thought it would be.  While the Boasts are nicely goofy, the Heroes aren't so different that players will get into a "Boasting War" to keep stealing a desired Character-Weapon combo from each other.  And with that out of the way, the mechanics work as a fairly routine dungeon crawl (although knowing when to spend Character or Weapon tokens can make the difference between living and dying -- or, more importantly, getting gold or getting nothing).  Gauntlet of Fools is a decent game that's fun for a quick run-through before a bigger game.  It's just not much to, er, boast about.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch



Fans of the band Old 97's may feel a little old knowing that the band's been making music for 20 years now, but that hasn't slowed Old 97s down at all.  Most Messed Up is a high-energy blast of their country-rock sound filled with joy, regret, booze, pills, profanity, and wry humor -- and it's their best album since Too Far to Care.

Most Messed Up opens with "Longer Than You've Been Alive," a rambling look at the band's history ("most of our shows have been triumphs of rock/although some night I might have been checking the clock").  From there it's on to the women who got away ("Give It Time," "Guadalahara"), the women who stayed ("Wheels Off") and the mix of women and booze ("Let's Get Drunk and Get It On," "Wasted").  There are songs about our common experiences ("This Is the Ballad") and the title track and album closer, "Most Messed Up," a curse-filled bad-boy track which proudly and drunkenly proclaims "I'm so far gone, I can't ever get down/I am the most messed up motherfucker in this town."

Most Messed Up skips any slow or sentimental songs, going always for volume and bar songs instead.  Rhett Miller's almost-breaking voice fits these tunes perfectly, whether sounding joyful or on the edge of passing about.  The band's twanging guitar and bass all work well together, and the results are a great almost-mess of life in bars and with the wrong women and the right booze.  Most Messed Up is a terrific album, back to the basics of what made Old 97's such a great sound from the start.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch