With geek culture becoming more and more mainstream, there are two typical approaches to it: celebration and mockery.  Lloyd the Conqueror takes the latter approach, spending most of its ludicrous time making fun of live-action role playing, or LARPing.

Community college students and good buddies Lloyd (Evan Williams), Patrick (Jesse Reid), and Oswald (Scott Patey) got distracted playing video games, gave the worst oral report on Beowulf ever, and will be kicked out of their apartment with their failing grade.  Fortunately for them, their teacher Derek (Mike Smith) is obsessed with winning the Demons & Dwarves LARP for the dark side, and he needs teams to beat.  So Derek tells the three he'll give them a C if they sign up for the LARP -- and if the three somehow win, Derek will give them an A+.

The trio wind up joining up with Andy (Brian Posehn), a game store owner and self-proclaimed "level 80 wizard" who thinks Derek is taking all the fun out of Demons & Dwarves.  He decides to train the full-of-snide-comments trio.  And since Lloyd has a crush on Cassandra (Tegan Moss), a violent "self defense for women" instructor, she winds up on their team as well.

 If this sounds silly, it gets worse.  There are goofy attempts at bribery, coercion, and cheating  to win.  There are pathetic training montages involving throwing tinfoil balls and chucking away rulebooks.  There are ridiculous LARPers, a romance that is thrown in for its own sake, lots of cursing and cheap jokes at the expense of the characters, and a predictable move of the main characters going from making fun of LARPing to embracing it.
What's missing from Lloyd the Conqueror is laughter.  The jokes are very obvious and more painful than funny.  The only amusing actor here is Brian Posehn, though he may have lost some geek cred by appearing in this movie.
Lloyd the Conqueror feels more like an extended bad sketch from a comedy show than an amusing take on geek culture.  Skip it.  (For those who'll still watch it, DVD extras include the making of the movie, a PSA for Demons & Dwarves, and making the music for the movie.)

Overall grade: D-
Reviewed by James Lynch


So, can a movie about economics and investments be entertaining?  It can with a great cast, a very good director, and some quality source material.  The Big Short, based on the book by Michael Lewis, explores the build-up and burst of the housing bubble just a few short years ago.

The Big Short follows three different groups, all trying to profit from the unimaginable.  Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a socially awkward and brilliant hedge fund manager, sees what he believes is an imminent collapse on the housing market based on subprime loans (mortgages made to people who can't pay them back).  He creates a credit default swap, where he pays money if the loans are secure but profits if they collapse.
Sleazy investor (and narrator of the movie) Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) learns of Burry's plan and decides to jump on board, to make as much money as possible.  Trader Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), a man with a conscience, haunted past, and a nose for smelling scams, winds up potentially working with Vennett and exploring America with his team to find out what's behind these failing mortgages.

Meanwhile, young investors Charlie Gellar (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) get word of this idea and work with retired and paranoid former investor Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to start buying up as many credit default swaps as they can.

The result of this is the revelation of a presumed safe and secure housing market that's amazingly precarious, run by people interested in short-term profits ("I don't get it.  Why are they confessing?"  "They're not confessing."  "They're bragging.") and organizations that keep saying everything is fine even when the collapse has begun.

Director Adam McKay recognizes that talking about finances can be dry and potentially boring, so he has several characters break the fourth wall to talk directly to the audience.  He also brings in Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, and Selena Gomez as themselves to explain the financial concepts.  These feel gimmicky and may provide a little levity but could have been left out.

What works is the rest of the movie.  McKay gets the best from his actors, and everyone delivers a terrific performance.  Having Baum exploring the real world for the background to this crisis (and barely suppressing his rage and frustration at what he finds) brings the movie from abstract banking discussions to the real-world ambitions, greed, and stupidity that led the economy over a cliff.  And as the audience gets into the feel of the financial shenanigans happening, we are drawn into the outrage of a self-perpetuating system of unfettered greed and self-enforcing cover-ups that continually say everything is fine.

The Big Short isn't perfect, but it gets a lot of entertainment from a global shell game of the housing market.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch



There are times when nothing seems to go right -- but that is upped several levels in A Hard Day, a South Korean modern film noir (with a slightly misleading title) where problem builds on problem, sometimes with deadly results.

Things start badly for Go Geon-Soo (Sun-kyun Lee), a detective with the South Korean police department.  He's driving home from his mother's funeral, where he'd been drinking, and is pestered on the phone by his sister to bring back a chocolate cake.  His colleagues at the police department warn him that Internal Affairs is raiding their office, where Geon-Soo has bribes from small businessmen in his desk.

With all this going on, Geon-Soo still manages to swerve his car to avoid a small dog in the road.  Unfortunately, while looking back at the dog  he hits and kills someone who ran into the road.  The detective panics, dumping the body in his trunk -- and almost immediately gets stopped at a drunk driving checkpoint.
 Impressively, from there things get worse.  Geon-Soo has to control his temper long enough to get rid of the body (for which he has a novel solution involving balloons and a toy army man), deal with his sister and son, fix the damage to his car, and handle Internal Affairs.  But then the precinct gets word that the man Geon-Soo is wanted for murder, and everyone's trying to find him (while Geon-Soo is frantically trying to cover his tracks).  And then Geon-Soo gets mysterious phone calls from someone who claims he saw what the detective did -- and who wants the body.
A Hard Day is straightforward, and it's also well done.  Sun-kyun Lee is very good in the main role, as his corrupt cop who's used to getting away with anything by flashing his badge keeps falling deeper and deeper in trouble and complications.  Man-sik Jeong is suitably crafty and violent as the blackmailer ready to turn Geon-Soo in (or worse) if he doesn't go along, and the action ranges from desperate planning to an almost primal physical battle at the end.  A Hard Day may begin at night and take place over several days, but it's certainly engaging.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

PLAYBOY: End of an Era

When Playboy announced back in October that its namesake magazine would no longer feature nudity but rather go the PG-13 route, numerous questions arose: Would the magazine survive without one of its most iconic features?  How will men react if forced to read Playboy for the articles?  And what would the final issue with nudity be like?  The latter question was answered this month, as the January/February 2016 Playboy issue ends the magazine's tradition.

It makes sense that their cover star would be the woman who's been on the cover more times than anyone else: Pamela Anderson.  She also not only posed in a revealing photo shoot, but was also interviewed by James Franco.  There are also two monthly centerfolds (since this issue covers two months), an overview of all the Playmates in 2015 (they're nude here but the winner won't be in 2016; go figure), and some naughty images in their "Year in Sex" review.

For those who want to get ahead on focusing on the other parts of the magazine, this Playboy features its usual cartoons (love Gahan Wilson!) and page of jokes.  There are also interviews with Samantha Bee, Ron Howard, and the Duplass Brothers (plus the aforementioned interview with Pamela Anderson).
At the end of the issue, instead of the usual preview for the next issue this Playboy simply professes, "The Icon Evolves..."  I suspect this more modest move is less evolution and more of a last-ditch attempt to survive an environment where print magazines are struggling and nudity (and more) is readily available online.  Still, Pamela Anderson was a perfect choice to wrap up this part of history, and this Playboy wrapped up with a, er, visual bang.

Written by James Lynch



When Star Wars: A New Hope premiered, it brought a sense of adventure, fun, and amazing special effects to the world of science fiction.  Several decades (and franchise movies of varying quality) later, a new writer-director (J.J. Abrams) brings back that original sense of wonder -- and several plot and thematic elements from the original movies -- with Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
After the events of Return of the Jedi, the galaxy has once again fallen into chaos and danger.  A military force called the First Order has risen to take the place of the Empire, and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is a Sith out to find the vanished Luke Skywalker.  A group called the Resistance has come about to oppose the First Order, and Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) has information on Skywalker's location, which he hides in the round droid BB-8.  But on the desert planet Jakka Dameron is captured and BB-8 is sent off into the desert.
Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) has a change of heart after seeing Kylo Ren massacre a town, so he helps Poe escape in the hopes of them getting far away from the First Order -- only to crash on the planet Jakka.  Meanwhile, scavenger and pilot Rey (Daisy Ridley) has found BB-8 and decides to help the little droid -- and then runs into Finn, who pretends to be part of the Resistance.  The trio wind up escaping in the Millennium Falcon -- which leads them running into Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).
We then have Finn as the reluctant hero, Rey discovering her connection to the Force, battles between the First Order and the Resistance, an evil weapon capable of destroying planets, issues between parents and their son, cameos from several characters (and ships) from the first movies, and of course Lightsaber battles.

The Force Awakens recaptures what make us love the Star Wars movies in the first place.  Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley are talented young blood to the movies, proving enjoyable heroes who will have a large part in this trilogy.  There are plenty of references to and items from the earlier movies, but they don't feel forced or out of place.  The action is exciting, there are several surprises along the way, and J.J. Abrams more than makes up for the flaws of the prequels.  The Force Awakens is an absolutely terrific adventure in space; and I look forward to the next two movies.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch



There's something about the forced cheerfulness of Christmas that makes it ripe for ironically dark humor, or even horror.  Krampus is such an anti-holiday movie, using almost iconic holiday images and creatures for social commentary -- and to bring on the scares.

It's a miserable holiday for one family in suburbia.  Tom (Adam Scott) would rather work and drink than get in the holiday spirit.  His wife Sarah (Toni Collette) stresses over the perfect holiday dinner, and their teenage daughter Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) would rather be hanging out with her boyfriend, a few blocks away, than with her family.  Grandma Omi (Krista Sadler) is largely overlooked, leaving her to talk to herself in German.  Only young Max (Emjay Anthony) still has the Christmas spirit, working on his letter to Santa.
 Then the relatives arrive.  Linda (Allison Tolman) arrives, bringing her redneck husband Howard (David Koechner), three obnoxious young kids, a new baby, a bulldog, and the relentlessly insulting Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell).  After all the bickering, insults, and fighting, Max tearfully tears up his letter and throws it outside.

The town is immediately hit with a storm and blizzard that knocks out all power and communication.  The next morning, the streets are deserted and creepy snowmen are in front of every house.  Soon the family members start seeing weird things and begin getting picked off one by one; and a large horned figure with a sack wrapped in chains is leaping from roof to roof...
Krampus has some innovative creatures and pedestrian plotting.   There are horrific versions of familiar Christmas classics, from Krampus as a dark version of Santa Claus to elves with swords and wooden masks, a killer angel, and those horrific jack-in-the-boxes that contain nasty surprises.  But while the large cast means characters can get abducted almost at random -- no "the nice characters and main stars are around until the end" here -- the acting is pretty mediocre.  Furthermore, the commentary is heavy-handed, both in the message (be nice, or bad things will happen) and execution.  (How many times do we have to have cheerful Christmas music played ironically over the very bad things happening?)  It's nice to have a movie that's not relentless holiday schmaltz for the holiday, but Krampus is mediocre horror.

Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch



December is a time when the weather gets colder, so CBS has balancing that by heating things up by broadcasting sexy models walking forwards and back in skimpy lingerie.  Works for me: The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show 2015 continues this seasonal-but-not-official-holiday tradition.

This show follows the same formula as the previous shows.  Some of Victoria's Secret's biggest fashion models were here, from seasoned pros (Adriana LimaAlessandra AmbrosioBehati Prinsloo,  Candice SwanepoelLily Aldridge) to
 to first-time runway walkers  ( Elsa HoskJac JagaciakJasmine TookesKate GrigorievaLais RibeiroMartha HuntRomee StrijdSara SampaioStella MaxwellTaylor Hill ) and more.  All counted, there were 44 models taking the stage!  They were also joined by Kendall Jenner, who could certainly make a living with Victoria's Secret if her current celebrity fame career tapers out.
The outfits, which inspire the clothing sold in the stores, followed several themes -- winter, psychedelic, fireworks -- along with assorted capes, wings, footwear, etc.  Most outfits were beautiful, some were bizarre (there was actually an astronaut outfit!), and  all made for an over-the-top spectacle.  There were also featurettes on how big/what great shows these specials are, selfies and Instagram, casting the show, and celebrating Christmas.  And there were Victoria's Secret commercials between the actual show -- in case seeing these supermodels walking was so easy to forget.

 Music was a massive part of the Victoria's Secret Fashion 2015 Show, with lots of remixes (opening with Pat Benetar's "Heartbreaker"; didn't see that coming) and dance-pop songs from the current radio playlist.  There were also live performances from Selena Gomez (below), Ellie Goulding, and the Weeeknd.

 So to summarize: beautiful women, hot and revealing fashion, small features, music.  Woot!
 Written by James Lynch



The United States had a long and unofficial war with Communism -- but at what cost to the nation's beliefs and soul?  Trumbo is a look at that time's impact on a man and his friends and family -- and what he did to fight back.

In 1947, Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) was on the top of the world.  He was about to become Hollywood's biggest-paid screenwriter.  He had a beautiful wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and three young kids, plus lots of friends in Hollywood.  He even had a beautiful lakeside home in the California countryside.  Dalton was also a Communist, seeing that as simply wanting to share with those who had less.

Unfortunately for Dalton and his Communist (and even liberal) friends, the House Un-American Activities Committee was busy fanning the flames of anti-Communist paranoia, calling people before them to identify themselves as Communist, demanding those suspects name names of fellow Communists, and jailing those who refused to comply.  The Committee was also assisted by Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), a former actress-turned-gossip columnist who gladly threatened to boycott any studio who hired or worked with an identified Communist -- and to label anyone in Hollywood as a Communist sympathizer.

Dalton refused to cooperate with the Committee, leading to a prison term.  Possibly worse, when he was released he was on the Blacklist, a list of Communists whose hiring would be toxic to any movie studio.  But Dalton kept writing and working, whether writing for his friends and giving them the credit (his buddy Ian McLellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk) won an Oscar for Trumbo's screenplay for Roman Holiday) or churning out scripts and rewrites for sleazy movie producer Frank King (John Goodman).  And as Dalton keeps working in secret, he gets the chance to make a screenplay for a movie called Spartacus...

Trumbo is a film that is both inspiring and frightening.  Bryan Cranston makes Dalton Trumbo into a flawed hero, someone passionate about his beliefs, even when that impacts his family and friends.  More striking is the time -- from the 1940s well into the 1960s -- when anyone suspected of being a Communist or having even rumored ties to Communism could be prevented from working and publicaly shunned and hated or even imprisoned solely for their beliefs.  Trumbo has a terrific cast (including many actors playing, well, other actors, directors, and producers from the past) and manages to be at times amusing, sad, and tense -- all revolving around a man writing and writing.  Trumbo is a truly impressive film.

Overall grade: A+
Reviewed by James Lynch