REDSHIRTS by John Scalzi

It's somewhere between a joke and a cliche that on the original Star Trek series, a character wearing a red shirt is pretty much doomed when sent on an away mission.  This concept gets taken to a comedic and metafictional extreme in Redshirts, a novel by John Scalzi.

It's the year 2456, and Ensign Andrew Dahl has been assigned to the Intrepid, the flagship in the Universal Union (Double U).  He's become fast friends with some fellow new recruits -- Duvall, Hester, Hanson, Finn -- and is ready to explore the universe on an elite starship.

It's not long before Dalh starts to notice that things on board the Intrepid are more than a little odd.  There's a mysterious Box that can magically create the solution to any problem -- in a dramatic amount of time.  During certain events something called the Narrative takes over, making characters say and do things that make no sense.  Some of the more experienced crew members have not only noticed that new members die with alarming regularity, but also calculated the odds of dying based on which command staff are on the mission.  Astrogator Kerensky keeps getting sent on away missions, gets injured or diseased, and miraculously recovers -- until the next one.  And a crew member named Jenkins hides himself in the ship and has the crazy idea that all the strangeness is somehow related to an ancient television show called Star Trek...

John Scalzi wrote for Stargate: Universe and was president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, so he knows his sci-fi cliches, and has plenty of fun with them in Redshirts.  Where the novel becomes in danger is when it gets too meta, as Dahl and his friends get more than a little mixed up with science fiction television to try and gain control of their own destinies.  The characters are pretty thin (good luck getting a physical description of any of them) but that's balanced by some nicely dark humor ("but then he tripped and one of the land worms ate his face and he died anyway") and three post-novel codas that are surprisingly moving.  Redshirts is an uneven novel, but it still manages to supply plenty of chuckles for those familiar with the... excesses of Star Trek, and science fiction in general

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch



Plenty of adolescents become obsessed with "geeky" interests in high school, only to drift away from them when other interests and imperatives come about.  But what about returning to those interests -- or discovering how they've changes and what else is there?  Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks is the autobiographical journey of Ethan Gilsdorf as a once and possibly future geek.

As a teenager, Ethan got immersed in Dungeons & Dragons to match his interest in Tolkien and escape from his "Momster" (who became almost a monster after a brain aneurysm) but drifted away from that imaginary world when other things came about (like his first kiss).  Years later, he found himself wondering: With the rise and popularity of geek culture, what else is out there?  What are the geeks like now?  And would those worlds draw him back in?

His exploration of those questions became a quest not only of international travels but also a wide assortment of imaginary worlds.  Ethan explores electronic massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft, engages in live-action role playing (LARPing) in Forest of Doors, goes to the Society of Creative Anachronism (SCA) massive gathering at Pennsic, attends Dragon*Con and GenCon, helps build a real medieval castle in France, tours where the Lord of the Rings movies were filmed, and returns to D&D.  Along the way he chats with people about how their interests have affected their lives, searches for that elusive geek love, and wonders about the appeal of these imaginary lands -- and whether he'll return to them.

I wish I enjoyed Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks more than I did.  As a travelogue of the imaginary, Ethan does manage to cover a lot of ground (though skips the massive worlds of superheroes, Star Wars, and Star Trek), discovers a wide variety of fans, and keeps coming up with variants of "Ethan" to name his pretend characters.  However, Ethan's angst about whether or not to return to these imaginary world borders on existential angst and shirt-rending.  This book is of potential interest for people looking to learn about what's out there in the worlds of fantasy (and what the people who immerse themselves in them are like) but could have used a lighter, more objective tone at times.

Overall grade: C+
Reviewed by James Lynch



In colonial times, there was good reason to fear the wild, untamed forests -- and sometimes fanatical religious beliefs as well.  The Witch seeks to scare audiences with both of those elements, but...

In New England, 1630, a heavily religious family -- father William (Ralph Ineson), wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), teenage daughter Thomasin  (Anya Taylor-Joy), adolescent son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), young twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson) -- are cast out of a plantation, so William decides to start a farm.  A time later they have corn, goats, and a dog (and newborn son Samuel), but they are struggling -- with much of the corn being rotten -- leading William to go hunting for food with Caleb in the forbidden forest right behind the farm.
There are other tensions within the family.  Thomasin feels guilt when Samuel vanishes -- taken by the witch in the forest -- while Thomasin was playing peek-a-boo with him.  Caleb is unaccustomed to growing up -- and he keeps staring at Thomasin's breasts -- and feels guilty.  The twins are continually annoying, leading Thomasin to tell them she's a witch to scare them quiet.  William secretly sold his wife's silver cup, without telling her.  And with all this going on, other family members start vanishing, suffering, and begin to suspect each other of being in league with the devil.  And that witch is out in the forest...
While this setup has the potential for contrasts between civilization and wilderness, or faith and suspicion, The Witch falls apart in the execution.  The movie lacks any real tension, settling for blasting the soundtrack before big scenes and manages to be quite tedious in-between.  The movie mistakenly shows us the witch (removing the possibility that the evil is in the family's head and not an external force) and then gives us far more of an evil rabbit (serriously) and black goat than the evil creature.  And while the actors aren't bad, they're not given anything interesting to do or say through the movie.  The Witch is a complete dud of a horror movie, lacking both scares and interest.

Overall grade; F
Reviewed by James Lynch



With the immense popularity of Marvel and DC superhero movies, it was only a matter of time before there was a comedy take on the genre, aware of the genre's issues and silliness.  And while Kick-Ass existed in its self-contained, somewhat realistic universe, Deadpool is firmly set in the Marvel universe while happily breaking the fourth wall and making fun of itself.
Told in non-chronological order, Deadpool has what could be a fairly traditional origin story.  Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is a former special forces member turned mercenary, trying to help people while insisting he's not a good guy.  (Wade also never seems to stop making jokes and smart-ass comments.)  He winds up starting a romance with Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), a hooker with a heart of gold and a love of snark.  Their romance is interrupted by the discovery that Wade has stage four cancer that's spread all over his body.

Wade leaves Vanessa, wanting to spare her from his deterioration.  He winds up submitting to an experimental treatment from Ajax/Francis (Ed Skrein), who offers not just to heal Wade but also to give him superhuman abilities.  However, while the process works -- Wade gets the ability to heal from any injury or illness, including his cancer -- there are several catches.  The treatment is incredibly sadistic, and Ajax (who has his own superpowers: enhanced reflexes and inability to feel pain) plans to control his successful test subjects (including Wade) and sell them to the highest bidder.  Also, the treatment leaves Wade horribly disfigured, and while Ajax can cure that, he chooses not to.  Of course Wade escapes, taking on the identity of Deadpool and planning to track down Ajax (killing and torturing along the way to get information) and force him to fix his face; he also decides not to see Vanessa again until his face is fixed.

If this sounds like a typical superhero movie, that's because it doesn't include the humor (not to mention massive amounts of both violence and profanity) which starts with the opening credits and rarely lets up.  While there are plenty of comic book references, the scattershot jokes range from 1980s movies to 1990s singers to, yes, Ryan Reynolds and Hugh Jackman.  The X-Men's Colossus (a cgi character voiced by Stefan Kapicic) is a goody two-shoes, while his trainee Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) is a sullen teenager.  There's also plenty of comedy coming from Deadpool's bartender friend Weasel (T.J. Miller) and blind roommate Al (Leslie Uggams).  There's plenty of talking to the camera, referring to the movie itself (whether turning it into a franchise or not being able to afford more X-Men characters).

Deadpool is a mix of action and comedy, and both work pretty well.  Ryan Reynolds is perfectly cast as the merc with a mouth who never seems to stop joking or irritation those around him; however, virtually every other character is paper-thin, easily summarized in a single sentence (or sentence fragment).  But while the movie can be superficial, it's also pretty entertaining and funny.  Deadpool provides some nice escapism, mixed with lots of blood and cursing.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch



While I've never subscribed to the "so bad it's good" theory of movies that are so terrible they become enjoyable, I have seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show numerous times and enjoyed bad movies being mocked on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rifftrax.  But how does an awful film become a cult phenomenon -- and how does such a movie affect the people who were directly involved in it?  Best Worst Movie explores the second life of Troll 2 -- a 1990 horror movie that for a time occupied the very bottom spot on the IMDB -- as a cult phenomenon.

Directed by Michael Paul Stephenson (the child star of Troll 2), Best Worst Movie is an celebratory look at what happened with that wretched movie about 19 years after its release.  Much of the cast tried to distance themselves from the movie -- George Hardy became a dentist, while Connie Young left the movie off her resume -- and were surprised to discover that it had developed a cult following.  Midnight showings were held around America (often with The Rocky Horror Picture Show the next night) and the cast members soon found themselves invited to screenings of a movie they didn't understand while making it and might have happily forgotten.  But people seem to love it despite or because of its flaws ("We had a great time watching it" one fan exudes) -- and soon George Hardy is selling Troll 2 merchandise at conventions, showing up at screenings, and promoting the movie in his hometown.
While a few critics discuss the movie (excusing its flaws with the sincerity that went into making the film), most of Best Worst Movie centers on Troll 2's stars and fans.  George Hardy is relentlessly cheerful, smiling and laughing while promoting the movie as "the worst movie ever made."  Director Claudio Fragasso is thin-skinned to any criticisms of his movie, and actress Margo Prey seems unbalanced even before she sincerely compares Troll 2 to Casablanca.  As for the fans, they happily wear "Nilbog" t-shirts, cover themselves with green liquid, and praise the stars as they assemble for numerous viewings of their beloved awful film.
The lesson of Best Worst Movie seems to be that a cult classic has to happen organically.  Troll 2 took on new life in theaters thanks to word-of-mouth from fans, while George Hardy's attempts to promote Troll 2 merchandise at science fiction and horror conventions were disastrous.  Ultimately, Best Worst Movie doesn't attempt to salvage the reputation of Troll 2, but it does make the viewer understand why people still love to watch it.  (DVD extras include several extra scenes.)

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch



Vampires have inspired numerous interpretations -- horrific creatures, romantic figures, angst-driven souls -- but what if, in modern times, they tried to live in the modern world?  This is the basis for What We Do in the Shadows, a mockumentary about what can happen when the traditional vampire comes face to face with the modern world.

What We Do in the Shadows begins with four centuries-old vampires living as flatmates in Wellington, New Zealand.  Viago (Taiki Waititi) is a bit of a dandy who laments his lost love -- and tries to get his flatmates to follow through on their responsibilities on the chore wheel.  Vladislav (Jermaine Clement) has a hypnotic gaze and considers himself dangerous; he also obsesses over his losing battles with a supernatural entity called the Beast.  Deacon (Jonny Brugh) considers himself the cool one in the group; he also has a human familiar: Jackie (Jackie van Beek), a bored housewife who serves Deacon in the hopes he'll someday turn her into a vampire.  Finally there's Petyr (Ben Fransham), the oldest vampire; he resembles the creature from Nosferatu and rarely leaves his stone coffin in the basement.

The vampires have invited two cameramen to film them at their daily activities, whether wandering around town looking for victims, entertaining themselves in their flat, looking for a fight with werewolves ("We're werewolves, not swear-wolves"), or preparing for the Unholy Masquerade ball for supernatural beings.  Changes start when their victim Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Maceur) becomes a vampire and starts bringing them into the modern age -- as well as telling everyone that he's a vampire.  ("Twilight!")  There's also Stu (Stu Rutherford), a friend of Nick's who quickly becomes more popular with the vampires than Nick, and who they all agree not to eat.
 What We Do in the Shadows is quite a funny take on the vampire genre.  All the standards of vampirism are there -- killing for blood, bursting into flame in sunlight, hypnotism, flying, turning into bats, needing to be invited someplace, not having a reflection -- but they all become part of the vampires' almost mundane existence in their home and about town.  There are lots of funny lines, and stars Taiki and Jermaine also direct the film with a simple and straightforward touch that makes the situations even funnier.  What We Do in the Shadows is a light comedy (about inhuman killers) that's quite enjoyable.  (Sadly and surprisingly, there are no extras on the dvd.)
Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch



Nostalgia can be both good and bad, bringing folks back to a seemingly better time while often tempting folks to just live in the past instead of doing something great for the present.  The latter is, alas, the trap Joel and Ethan Coen fall into with their new film Hail Caesar!

It's the 1950s, and Eddie Manniz (Josh Brolin) is an executive fixes at Capitol Studios.  His job, which extends into all hours of the day and night, is to oversee the studio's assorted films and to fix the problems the actors get into.
And there are plenty of problems.  Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is starring in the studio's big religious picture Hail, Caesar! but he has an older scandal hanging over his head; he also gets kidnapped by a group called the Future.  Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is a Western movie star whose country accent is terrible in his high society movie, driving director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) crazy.  DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) faces the scandal of being a single mother, leading to the solution of having her adopt her own baby.  Mannix also has a possibly better job offer from a military company, and his battle with smoking leads him to confession every day.  There are also cameos by Channing Tatum as a musical's star singer-dancer Burt Gurney, Jonah Hill as studio legal patsy Joseph Silverman, and Tilda Swinton as identical twin gossip reporters Thora and Thessaly Thacker.

The Coen brothers have a great reverence for the 1950s movies, whether it's the snippets of the fake movies or the chain-smoking tough guy Mannix doing what he has to in order to keeps the wheels of the studio running.  Unfortunately, there's not more to Hail, Caesar! beyond this superficial adoration of the time period.  The truly stellar cast isn't given any real depth for any characters, and there aren't enough laughs or amusing scenarios to make this an effective comedy.  There are potentially interesting threads (the religious imagery and themes alongside the Communists) but they're given zero development.  Hail, Caesar! is ultimately nice to look at but not much more.

Overall grade: C
Reviewed by James Lynch