What would a desperate man do for money?  This is hardly a new theme for movies, but it's tackled with brutal simplicity in Cheap Thrills, a brutal, often funny movie about those need money playing games to entertain those who have it.

Craig Daniels (Pat Healy) is a family man -- wife, young daughter -- who wanted to be a writer but would up as an auto mechanic.  Craig and his family are facing eviction, but while he's hoping to get a raise, he winds up downsized instead.  Craig heads out to a bar to drown his sorrows, and he runs into Vince (Ethan Embry), an old friend Craig hasn't seen in five years.  Vince works as the muscle for bookies and knows something about violence and people who are desperate.

Their salvation or damnation comes from Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton), a married couple out celebrating Violet's birthday.  Colin is a loud, obnoxious hedonist, snorting coke and doing whatever he wants; Violet is withdrawn, barely noticing anything except when she's taking pictures of whatever interests her.  And while they're making bets with each other, they quickly decide to include Craig and Vince in their games.  The bets start relatively small, but soon grow into hundreds or even thousands of dollars.  They also grow more disgusting and dangerous, illegal and violent.  And as the night becomes morning and the booze and drugs flow, things between Craig and Vince become more strained and they compete for the money they both urgently need.

Cheap Thrills could almost be a play, with its focus almost entirely on the four main characters.  It could also have wound up as a simplified "the rich are bad, the struggling are good" polemic.  Instead, the movie occupies the space between horror and drama as we see two different people in need gradually devolving as they start turning on each other as they keep doing whatever they have to for that money Colin casually tosses around as his whims hit him.  The cast is quite good (especially Koechner, stepping out of his usual comic roles to deliver some real menace), the action remains tight, and the movie manages to be suspenseful and entertaining.  Cheap Thrills doesn't have the most original premise, but it delivers its good with some bloody gut-punches.  (DVD extras include commentaries and making-of features.)

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch


Nick Cutter, THE TROOP

Mix isolation, paranoia, storms, inhuman creatures, desperation, and lots of gore, and you have The Troop by Nick Cutter.  This novel combines all of the aforementioned elements of horror into a pretty effective tale of survival and breaking down.

The setup is pretty straightforward.  Scoutmaster Tim Riggs has brought five teen Venture Scouts -- Kent, Max, Ephraim, Newton, and Shelley -- to an isolated island for the weekend.  The only way to communicate with the mainland is through a radio, and even with a storm approaching Tim doesn't anticipate and problems and looks forward to a calm weekend, followed by their pickup by boat Monday morning.

Enter the mysterious, deadly stranger.  The mysterious man is perpetually hungry (in a pre-story tabloid article, he's described as devouring four Hungry Man Breakfast platters -- and the napkins), amazingly emaciated, and suffering from a disease that "If this gets out, it'll make Typhoid Mary look like Mary Poppins."  Soon everyone is trapped on the island with no way to communicate with the mainland, the disease (and its gruesome cause) is spreading, and order is breaking down.

And there's a reason Cutter included a quote from The Lord of the Flies in the novel's opening: The kids all have their issues.  Kent is a bully who pretty much dominates and challenges everything because of his size.  Max is thoughtful and friends with Ephraim, but Ephraim has trouble controlling his rage.  Newton is an overweight nerd who's very smart and a magnet for the other boys' abuse.  And Shelley seems quiet and withdrawn at first, but it's soon apparent he's a sadistic sociopath who sees their dire situation as an opportunity for cruel and deadly fun with his Scoutmaster and fellow Scouts.  And as adult control soon vanishes and the boys become more scared and desperate, rules of society and the Venture Scouts soon fray and vanish.

The Troop is pretty effective.  While the scenario is like a "create the ideal situation for isolation" exercise,
Cutter does a good job drawing out the characters' personalities and weaknesses; this lets us follow their progress and the situation worsens.  Cutter also interrupts the action on the island with fake items -- from interviews with the disease's creator to a GQ article about what happened on the island -- that do everything from give us disgusting examples of what the disease did to test animals to foreshadow how many people survived on the island.  And while there are plenty of gruesome events (including one near the end that seems to violate the rules the novel set up for the disease), the most harrowing moment is a seemingly small event that reminds us that these Scouts are still just kids.

The Troop can revel in its shock factor somewhat often, but it is still pretty suspenseful and scary.  Just don't read it too soon before or after eating.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch



What happens when you combine some of DC's biggest heroes and a siege game?  In this case you get Justice League: Axis of Villains, which fails to capture the spirit or uniqueness of the characters.

Players can be Batman, Superman, Green Lantern or the Flash.  They're on the Justice League Satellite, which is surrounded by eight sides.  Each hero has five Arch Villains.  If the players clear the board of all villains, they win!  If the villains destroy the four parts of the Satellite, the players lose.

Gameplay is very similar to Castle Panic.  Each turn a player rolls a 6-sided die (Control Die) and an 8-sided die (Number Die).  Some rolls move the villains on the section indicated on the Control Die one or two spaces closer to the Satellite.  (If a villain lands on a Hot Spot, they flip a Villain Card, which can do anything from bring defeated villains back to bringing out an Ultra Villain.)  Some put an Arch Villain into play at the section of the Control Die.  If a villain makes it to the Satellite, they destroy a section, and if all four sections are destroyed the game ends; if a Ultra Villain makes it to the Satellite the players lose immediately.  And if the JL symbol comes up, the players cam move their hero that many spaces -- usually to battle the villains!
Combat is pretty simple.   A hero can play a Power Card before combat to use a power or get an advantage.  Then the player rolls two 10-sided dice against their own Arch Villains, or one 10-sided die against another villain; if another hero is on the same space, they can roll dice as well.  If the dice results are higher than the villain's points, the heroes win and remove the villain from the board (plus get a Power card); if it's a tie, nothing happens; and if the results are less than the villain, the hero(es) get moved to the Satellite.

Justice League: Axis of Villains is disappointing.  The heroes' powers aren't that impressive (usually involving moving around the board), and since they need Power Cards to use, they can't be used that much.  The game doesn't even try to balance the difference in power between Batman's villains and the others (Superman has problems defeating Two-Face?  Really?) and it can be frustrating to roll the dice over and over and over before finally being able to move one's hero.  There are several good superhero-based games out there, but I can't add Justice League: Axis of Villains to that fun group.

Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch



 If the movie Sex Tape had been made in the 1980s, the stars would be scrambling to retrieve a raunchy vhs tape they accidentally sent to the wrong place and people.  Since it's 2014, this movie has the stars racing to destroy iPads and dealing with the Cloud and YouPorn, but still getting into lots of wacky hijinks.  Well, maybe not that wacky...

Annie (Cameron Diaz) and Jay (Jason Segel) are a happily married couple who wonder what happened to their sex life.  In flashbacks, we see that they couldn't keep their hands (or other body parts) off each other.  But following pregnancy, marriage, and then a second child, they can't even manage to schedule intimacy.  Things are otherwise good -- one child is graduating from 5th grade soon, Annie is on the verge of selling her Mommy blog to a family-friendly company, and Jay is a radio or music producer who is so successful he gives away his old iPads t friends -- but they wonder what happened to their wild younger selves.  One night when the kids are at Annie's mother's overnight, Annie has an idea (along with lots of tequila): They'll film themselves performing every position featured in The Joy of Sex!

 The next morning, Annie asks Jay to delete their sex "tape."  Jay keeps forgetting -- and when he uses a syncing app to send out his playlists, he accidentally sends their sex video to everyone with his old iPads.  Annie is worried that Hank (Rob Lowe), the wholesome president of the company, might not buy her blog if he sees the video.  Jay wonders who sent the mysterious tweet about their video.  And married friends Robby (Rob Corddry) and Tess (Elle Kemper) wing up tagging along on the quest to get back and destroy the iPads with the video.  Unless it wound up on YouPorn...
Apart from a lot of cursing, Sex Tape isn't nearly as wild or insane as it should have been to be a really funny comedy.  Instead of running all over to get the offending iPads back, almost all the action happens in Hank's mansion.  It's funny to see that the straight-laced Hank has a private wild side, but it's a single joke that gets old pretty fast.  Jason Segel feels like he's mugging for the camera more than acting, Cameron Diaz isn't that funny (except when hyper from cocaine), and Rob Corddry is pretty much wasted.  The movie isn't daring enough when it comes to porn or adult entertainment (even with a cameo by Jack Black as the owner of YouPorn), it doesn't make a lot of sense plotwise (from bringing the kids on their search to a premature balcony dive), and it's not that funny.

Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch


"Weird Al" Yankovic, MANDATORY FUN

Have you imagined Lorde singing about tinfoil, or Pharrell listing ways to be obnoxious?  Probably not -- but "Weird Al" Yankovic has, and he offers up his traditional mix of song parodies and original comedy on his new album Mandatory Fun.  And, also traditional for "Weird Al," it's funny as hell.

While "Weird Al" is best known for parody, he does terrific original creations about half the time, and that's true on Mandatory Fun.  "Sports Song" is every sports fan's us-versus-them anthem (literally, since it never specified the team -- or even the sport -- being discussed).  "Lame Claim to Fame" is a listing of pathetic encounters with celebrities, while "Mine Own Eyes" are bizarre things the singer has seen.  "Mission Statement" puts together enough corporate jargon for a year of Dilbert strips in one upbeat pop song.  "First World Problems" has people who have it really well finding things to complain about (and sounds remarkably like the Pixies). " And the album ends with the pseudo-epic romance tune "Jackson Park Express," where people sitting across from each other on a bus try to read each other's facial expressions.  ("I arched my eyebrow ever-so-slightly, which was my way of asking/'Do you want my old Hewlett-Packard printer?'")  While some of these were one-joke lists, most of these songs are pretty amusing.

And "Weird Al" really excels at mimicking and twisting popular songs.  He turns Iggy Azalea's "Fancy" into a home-fixing song ("Handy"), makes Imagine Dragon's "Radioactive" into the lazy "Inactive" ("I'm waking up in Cheeto dust/my belly's covered with pizza crust"), and Robin Thicke's raunchy "Blurred Lines" into a critique of grammar and spelling (shown below).  And numerous current songs get polka-ized into the "NOW That's What I Call Polka" medley.  These really sound close to the originals, while making them so amusing it's impossible to listen to the original songs the same ways again.

Mandatory Fun may not be mandatory, but it sure is fun.  This album is pretty consistent and quite amusing too.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch



So, what happens when you mix the sanity-blasting horrors of H.P. Lovecraft with the rules of Twilight Creations' long-running Zombies!!! game?  You get Cthulhu!!! Hastur la Vista, Baby!  Sadly, the game has less of the Evil Dead-type attitude you'd expect from the title and more of the problems from its progenitor game.

Cthulhu!!! is a competitive-cooperative game set in Kingsport, Massachusetts, where the players control heroes trying to stop the cultists and byakhee from summoning the King in Yellow.  Each turn players do the following: play an Automatic event card (if they have one); draw and place a map tile (stocking it with, as appropriate, bullets, hearts, cultists, and byakhee); fighting any cultists or byakhee on their space; draw back up to three event cards; roll a die and move that many spaces plus their health; roll a die and move that many cultists two spaces each; move all byakhee to an adjacent tile; and discard one event card if they want.  Players can also play one event card each turn.

Players win mainly through combat.  Players start with three hearts, three bullets, and five sanity.  When a player meets a cultist, the player has to roll a 4-6 to defeat them.  If the player wins, they get a random relic card.  If the player loses, they can spend bullets to increase their roll, or lose a health and roll again, or run away.  The monstrous byakhee are a bit different.  When a player encounters one, the player has to roll 3-6 or lose one sanity.  To defeat a byakhee, a player needs to roll 5-6 -- but if the player wins, they get two relics!  And if a player loses all their health or sanity, they start over with one less sanity than they had before; and if their starting sanity is zero, they're out of the game.

 There's also a new way to win (and lose) in Cthulhu!!! : sanctifying Ritual Sites.  When these tiles are drawn, they have eight cultists and one byakhee on them (and these foes can never leave the tile).  If a player kills the last cultist/byakhee on the tile and discards one of each of the five relics (Amulet, Dagger, Idol, Space Mead, Tome) , that player scores the Ritual Site; and if three Ritual Sites are sanctified, the players win!  Each player then scores points for the relics they have (double the number for each type, then subtract one), plus 12 points for each Ritual Site.  But if a player loses all their health on a Ritual Site, it goes to the enemies; and if three Ritual Sites are lost, the cultists have summoned the King in Yellow and the winner is then the hero to die last.
There is plenty to like and dislike in Cthulhu!!!  The game does work sanity checks into the mix somewhat well, the event cards have an appropriate amount of over-the-top horror to them, and the goal of using relics to stop evil fits the theme better than the run-to-the-helicopter goal of Zombies!!! would.  Unfortunately, like Zombies!!! the action in Cthulhu!!! can get repetitive very quickly, and once a lot of tiles are on the board it's easy to keep moving the cultists along the same unused tiles (forming what a player called "the cultist conga line").  Cthulhu!!! Hastur La Vista, Baby! is a decent entry into the Lovecraft-inspired game genre, but it's only decent.

Overall grade: C+
Reviewed by James Lynch



The Rifftrax trio of Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett seem to do their best with the worst -- cracking their best jokes and making their oddest observations when given truly terrible movies -- and Sharknado provides them with plenty of comedy fodder.  Rifftrax Live!: Sharknado has the MST3K veterans tackling last year's biggest "so bad it's good" Syfy Channel original movie -- with terrific results.
Before jumping into the fun of killer sharks thrown about by a killer tornado, the evening featured the short "Springs" (where a man's wish summons a springy demon who makes life hell by removing all springs from the universe), a preview of the next Rifftrax Live! event: 1998's Godzilla, and some pre-movie fake items (MOVIE MISTAKES: Megan Fox as April O'Neil) and songs about sharks.  And after that fun, we got to all enjoy some comedy professionals mocking a movie with washed-up actors (plenty of jokes about Ian Ziering's Beverly Hills 90210 days and Tara Reid's, well, everything), horrible editing (rainy to sunny changes all the time, and different beaches treated like they're one place), and idiotic plot (not the least of which is stopping a tornado by throwing explosives into it).
Someone thought riffing on Sharknado was too easy -- but that's part of the fun!  The stars didn't have as much to do with Night of the Living Dead because that movie is so good, but an abundance of quality slowing them down wasn't a factor here.  There's an Australian-sounding Tasmanian, characters who forget characters killed in front of them seconds later, bizarre writing (when Ian shouts at someone in the middle of the ocean "Get out of the water!" the Riffers add, "Levitate or something!"), and Tara Reid's attempts at... acting?   Sure, some of the jokes can be juvenile, but Rifftrax Live! Sharknado made something good out of a Syfy Channel original movie -- and that's not something you can say too often.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch