5.19.2018

DEADPOOL 2

The merc with a mouth is back.  Deadpool 2 brings Marvel;s wise-cracking, r-rated, third wall-breaking anti-hero to the big screen -- though this time there's a lot of drama and angst mixed in as well.  How do the comedy and tragedy blend together?  Well...

The movie starts with Deadpool/Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) facing a devastating loss: His girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) is killed by thugs out to get Deadpool.  This leads Deadpool to try and kill himself (doesn't work, even with lots of explosives), become an X-Man ("in training") get locked up in a jail for mutants, and form his own super team (with early, disastrous results).  And then there's Deadpool's stated new purpose in life.
There's an angry teenager named Russell (Julian Dennison), a mutant calling himself Fire Fists who can create and throw fire.  For reasons we learn later, Cable (John Brolin)m a cyborg from the future, is on a mission to kill Russell, and Deadpool decides that he needs to save Russell to find meaning in his life.  We also meet some new allies -- notably Domino (Zazie Beetz), an amazingly lucky mutant -- familiar faces from the first movie, a surprise super villain; and there are plenty of killings, cursing, and pop culture commentary right up until the post-credits scenes.
So how does it all work?  Ryan Reynolds has the Deadpool banter down pat, making him easily recognizable in a costume that shows nothing of his face.  The mix of drama and comedy is a bit iffy, as we're supposed to accept the snarky jokes about everything with Deadpool's angst about having lost his love and being unable to join her in the next world.  John Brolin plays Cable as a completely humorless near-Terminator, and the rest of the folks in the movie are enjoyable, if not memorable.  There's still plenty of like in Deadpool 2 -- lots of laughs along the way -- but it could have been more consistent.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

5.09.2018

TINY EPIC GALAXIES

There are lots of games where players explore and expand into space.  Tiny Epic Galaxies from Gamelyn Games lets 2-5 players utilize dice, develop or use planets, and advance their empire to score the most victory points and win the game.

Players begin with a Galaxy Mat (which keeps track of their Empire level, ships, dice, energy and culture points, plus the victory points from their Empire level), two ships, four dice, one culture, two energy, and choose one of two Secret Mission cards.  There are a number of Planet cards equal to the number of players plus two (except in a five-player game; that has six Planets).
On each player's turn, they begin by rolling all available dice.  A player can reroll any one unactivated die for free; others can be rerolled for one energy each.  A player can also use the converter to set aside two unactivated dice to turn another unactivated die into any die facing of their choice.

Die facings have several effects.  Move a Ship lets a player move a ship either onto or around an available Planet card.  Landing on a planet lets the player use the planet's ability.  Going in orbit around a planet puts the ship on the colony track.  Ships on the colony track can be advanced with either Diplomacy or Economy die results, depending on what the planet requires.  When a ship reaches the end of the colony track, the player gets the planet (and is the only person who can use its ability) and gets its victory points.  A new Planet card then replaces the taken one.
Energy and Culture results get a player one Energy or Culture for each planet that produces them, one per ship on and in orbit around that planet.  Players can't have more than seven Energy or seven Culture.  And a Colony roll lets a player either advance their Empire level (usually getting more ships, dice, or victory points) or use an ability from a planet the player has colonized.

Other players can get involved as well.  After each die is resolved, other players can copy that die's action by spending one Culture.  When a player uses their last die and other players have chosen whether or not to copy the die result, the dice are all removed and the next player's turn begins.

When a player gets 21 victory points, every other player takes a final turn.  After that, everyone checks their Secret Mission card to see if they earned the victory points from the card.  Whoever has the most victory points wins.

There's a lot to like in Tiny Epic Galaxies.  While players can't combat each other, the competition for planets can get pretty intense.  There are enough ways to change the dice to give players choices, while still having a large element of luck.  The Secret Missions add a nice element of mystery, and being able to copy a die by spending Culture keeps players involved when it's not their turn.  There's a lot of strategy and fun to be found in exploring the Tiny Epic Galaxies.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

5.03.2018

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

Marvel has been teasing the presence of Thanos and the Infinity Stones for several movies now -- and in Avengers: Infinity War, they all make their presence in a very big way.  This movie introduces the Marvel Universe's biggest villain yet, along with virtually all of its superheroes.

The mad titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) has decided that he wants all six Infinity Stones in his golden gauntlet.  That will give him infinite power, which he plans to use to wipe out half of all life throughout the universe, with a snap of his fingers.  Sometimes he sends his servants, the Children of Thanos, to obtain them, while other times he gets involved directly.  And since Thanos is able to beat up the Hulk fairly easily, he is quite a menace.
The heroes aren't going to ignore this threat -- especially since two of the Infinity Stones are related to them: as part of the Eye of Agamotta wielded by Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and a key part of the Vision (Paul Bettany).  Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Doctor Strange, and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) wind up battling the Children of Thanos in New York, then joining up with some of the Guardians of the Galaxy in space to take on Thanos.  Thor (Chris Hemsworth) goes on a quest with the other Guardians to create a new weapon capable of killing Thanos.  And the Vision is brought to Wakanda to have his Infinity Stone surgically removed; he's also protected by numerous other heroes, including the Avengers led by Captain America (Chris Evans) and the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman).
There's a lot going on with this movie (and there's a second part due out next year) and it manages to flow very well.  Even with all these characters, none of the heroes get short-changed when it comes to the storytelling or development.  Thanos is an almost sympathetic character (often calling other characters "my child") and the action scenes work extremely well.  I really enjoyed Avengers: Infinity War and look forward to seeing how its next part continues its cosmic cliffhanger.
Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch

4.23.2018

MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: THE RETURN

You can't keep a good riffing down.  After the television show Mystery Science Theater 3000 had been off the air for years, a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign and plenty of celebrity support led to Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return.  This is the 11th season of MST3K, now on Netflix, and it continues the tradition of cracking jokes at the expense of some amazingly terrible movies.

For those keeping track of the plot, space pilot Jonah Heston (Jonah Ray) was tricked into responding to a distress call on the dark side of the moon.  He was kidnapped by Kinga Forrester (Felicia Day), granddaughter of Clayton Forrester from the original show, and her sidekick Max, TV's Son of TV's Frank (Patton Oswald).  The two of them are recreating Clayton's original experiment -- forcing a test subject to watch cheesy movies while monitoring his mind -- with the goal of selling it to Disney for a billion dollars.


So Jonah is trapped on the Satellite of Love -- but he's got his robot friends.  Jonah is joined for all the movies by Tom Servo (Baron Vaughn) and Crow T. Robot (Hampton Yount), plus the occasional appearance by Gypsy (Rebecca Hanson) during the movies.  Plenty of celebrity guest stars stop by, from Neil Patrick Harris, Mark Hamill, and Jerry Seinfeld to members of the original MST3K, Jonah and his buddies start each episode with an invention exchange (prop comedy) with the mad scientists, and there are plenty of skits and musical numbers in-between the movie mockery.
 MST3K: The Return is a funny and worthy continuation of the classic TV series.  The movies here are quite varied -- giant monsters, sword & sorcery, time travel, avalanche -- but universally bad, providing plenty of fodder for jokes about them.  The new cast is quite funny and likable, whether mocking the latest awful movie of bouncing jokes off each other in sketches and the invention exchange.  MST3K: The Return is a terrific return of some big laughs.  (The DVD set also has a documentary on how this latest season came about.)
Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

4.20.2018

ISLE OF DOGS

Wes Anderson has always quietly reveled in the quirky, so it's no surprise that he'd step into stop-motion animation with Isle of Dogs, a weird and ultimately warm journey that's everything from an epic quest to a young boy's love for his dog.

Set 20 years in the future, Japan's corrupt Mayor Kobayishi (Kunichi Nomura) has a solution for the dog overpopulation and diseases: ship all dogs, from pets to strays, off to Trash Island.  The dogs there have a miserable existence, forming packs to survive and battling each other for scraps and trash they can eat.  The movie's main pack consists of Chief (Bryan Cranston), a stray who never had a master; Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), and Duke (Jeff Goldblum).
 The pack's world changes when a small plane crashes on Trash Isle, piloted by young boy Atari (Koyu Rankin).  He's come to the Isle in search of his guard dog Spots (Liev Schreiber), and the pack agrees to help him; Chief doesn't want to, but he's outvoted by the others.  Atari is also Mayor Kobayishi's nephew, and the corrupt mayor makes it look like Atari was kidnapped by the dogs.  Kobayishi also acts against his scientific political rival, keeping the cure for the dog problems under wraps while working on a final solution for the dogs.  And foreign exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) uses her school newspaper to investigate Atari's disappearance and the government corruption
There's a lot going on in Isle of Dogs -- and it pretty much all works.  While this movie can be darker than many cartoons for children, there are also some silly moments, from the robot dogs to the fights appearing in a cloud with limbs popping in and out.  The voice talent is very good -- especially Bryan Cranston's reluctant hero Chief -- and there's a look and feel to the movie that is pretty unique for movies today.  Isle of Dogs is an impressive and fairly unique movie experience.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

4.09.2018

MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO

Childhood can be a magical time -- and in the Studio Ghibli movie My Neighbor Totoro, this is literally true.  Enchanted creatures are all around, leading to adventures, discovery, and help for two little girls.  (This review refers to the 2005 Disney DVD version.)

Young sisters Satsuki (Dakota Fanning) and Mei (Elle Fanning) are excited to be living in a new house in the country.  Their father Professor Kusakabe (Tim Daly) moved them out there, presumably to be near their ailing mother (Lea Salonga) who's recovering in a nearby hospital.  The house is old but exciting, and there are lots of nice neighbors, including the elderly Granny (Pat Carroll). The kids have a great time, working on the house and going to school.

There are other things happening in and near the house.  At first the kids see "soot sprites," small balls of soot with eyes, in the house.  As the kids explore the giant tree near the house, Mei discovers some small creatures, then comes across Totoro, a giant cat-like spirit with a mighty roar, a big grin, and a pretty unusual way of fighting.  Satsuki soon comes across these creatures, and the grown-ups are surprisingly supportive of the kids' discovery, saying only little children can see these spirits.  And when trouble happens, the spirits turn up to help.

My Neighbor Totoro is a leisurely delight.  While the movie isn't packed with plot twists or developments, it captures the joy of being a young child.  There's a tremendous sense of fun, not only with the cute creatures but with the kids running through a field, exploring their new house, or doing some cleaning or chores.  The animation is very creative, and the voice talent does a good job for the loving family.  My Neighbor Totoro is quite delightful.
Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

4.08.2018

A QUIET PLACE

The monsters have arrived -- and the best protection against them is silence.  A Quiet Place is an effective, creepy horror movie.

When the movie opens, we see the Abbott family -- father Lee (John Krasinski), mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt), and little kids Regan (Millicent Simmons), Marcus (Noah Jupe), and Beau (Cade Woodward) silently going through a drugstore in an abandoned town for supplies.  They speak only in sign language and avoid any possible noises.  We soon find out why there's such a focus on silence: When Beau sneaks out a toy rocket, given to him by Regan, that makes sounds, we learn why they're so quiet: An insect-like creature appears out of nowhere and kills him.
 A year later, the remaining Abbotts are living on a farm.  Lee is taking care of his family, using a radio to try and find other survivors, and working on an earpiece to help his daughter Regan hear.  Evelyn is pregnant and getting ready for the birth of their newest child.  Regan is dealing with her guilt over the death of Beau, and Marcus is nervous about the ever-present possibility that the creatures will return.  While the family do certain normal things (like playing Monopoly with cloth pieces), they've also soundproofed their house and still live in fear.  And the creatures are still around -- and show up at almost any noise...
A Quiet Place works pretty well.  The movie (directed by star John Krasinski) wisely holds off showing most of the creatures until the end, giving us the knowledge that they're fast, deadly, and alien-appearing.  (We never find out where they came from.)  The cast does very well, showing a family trying to stay together in a world where sounds can lead to death.  And the presence of so much silence creates great tension, as actions we wouldn't normally think twice about can be a signal for the monsters to show up.  A Quiet Place is a solid horror movie.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

4.01.2018

MUSE

Lots of games have someone giving clues to their teammates, but none do it quite like Muse.  This game, from Quick Simple Fun Games and supporting almost any number of players, creates a unique challenge for someone to act as Muse for their fellow players.

Players divide themselves into teams; a team can have as few as two players, but I'd recommend at least three players on a team, to facilitate discussion.  A team wins by collecting five Masterpiece cards.  Each turn, a team selects one player to be the Muse.  The team to the Muse's left looks at six Masterpiece cards (with slightly surreal art, reminiscent of Dixit) and two Inspiration cards (which each have an instruction, like "Name a nonfictional body part" or "make a facial expression").  The team then picks one combination of Masterpiece and Inspiration card to give to the Muse, and the Muse gives a clue based on the Inspiration card that will lead the team to that Masterpiece card.
But it's not over yet.  After the Muse gives the clue, the other team shuffles the selected Masterpiece card with the other five Masterpiece cards, and all six are laid out for the Muse's team.  Using only the Muse's clue, the Muse's team has to try and pick the Muse's Masterpiece card.  If they pick the Muse's card, their team keeps it and it counts towards their score.  If they pick the wrong one, the team to the Muse's left gets to keep the Masterpiece card instead.  Then the next team in clockwise order selects a Muse, and the game continues.
Muse works extremely well.  The rules are extremely simple, which is key for a party game.  Players want to find the most incongruous mix of Masterpiece and Inspiration card, to make things hard for the opposing Muse.  Not being able to see the other Masterpiece cards also makes things challenging, as the Muse doesn't know how many cards their clue can apply to.  And there's quite a variety of possible clues with the Inspiration cards, which makes it very impressive when one team guesses a seemingly impossible Masterpiece card -- or seeing afterwards how the clue applied to a missed Masterpiece card.  Muse is simple to learn, challenging to play, and fun with its combinations.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

3.26.2018

UNSANE

Sometimes a skilled director can elevate material that would otherwise be routine.  This is not the case with Unsane, a movie directed by Steven Soderbergh that aims for psychological drama but is pretty superficial.

Sawyer (Claire Foy) is a young, independent woman with a good job in the city.  When she freaks out during a date, she looks up victims of stalking online and takes a trip to a mental institution.  She fills out some "standard" forms, talks to a therapist -- and finds herself involuntarily committed there for seven days.
Sawyer wants to get out as soon as possible, but her tendency to get in fights (sometimes physically) with the other patients and the staff makes this unlikely.  She befriends patient Nate (Jay Pharoah), who advises her to keep her head down and let the seven days pass quickly; he also has an illegal cell phone, which Sawyer uses to keep in tough with the outside world.
Sawyer really freaks out when she sees employee David Strine (Joshua Leonard), who Sawyer is convinced is her stalker, a man who traveled several states to follow her and kept harassing her at her work and home.  No one believes her, though, and she has no evidence that David is anything other than another worker at the mental institution.  Is Sawyer insane?  Is David playing a long and deadly game?  Does it matter that Unsane was shot entirely with an iPhone?  (The answer to the last question is no.)

Unsane is a disappointment.  While protagonists don't have to be perfect, Claire Foy doesn't give us much to make us root for Sawyer, even when everything seems to be stacked against her.  (Nate says she's in her situation because healthcare tricks patients into being committed for as long as their insurance will pay for it.)  The is-she-or-isn't-she-insane isn't that interesting, and it eventually degenerates into grindhouse-level luridness.  And Soderbergh can't do anything to improve any of this.  Unsane is a big disappointment.

Overall grade: D
Reviewed by James Lynch

3.21.2018

LOVE, SIMON

High school has seen plenty of improvements and still has its share of angst and navigation.  Love, Simon is a movie that explores this world through the eyes of someone's big secret.

Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) is a high school senior with a very typical life.  He has a good family with with his therapist mom (Jennifer Gardner), always-joking dad (John Duhamel), and little sister (Talitha Bateman) who's always experimenting with cooking.  Simon has a nice social life at school, hanging out with his friends Leah (Katherine Langford), Abby (Alexandra Shipp), and Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.).  Simon is part of the school play, gets invited to parties, and seems well liked.
And Simon is gay -- something he doesn't tell anyone, friends or family.  When Simon reads an online confession by a closeted gay teen calling himself "Blue," Simon starts corresponding with him, using the pseudonym "Jacques."  Soon Simon is obsessed with getting messages from Blue, as they chat about what it's like being gay but not letting anyone know.
Pretty soon Simon is looking around his high school, imagining that something Blue mentioned might indicate means a classmate is Blue.  Unfortunately, annoying theater nerd Martin (Logan Miller) comes across Simon's correspondence with Blue and threatens to post them to the school unless Simon helps Martin get with Abby.  This puts Simon in a rough spot, since Nick is interested in Abby.

Love, Simon is a mix of drama and comedy, and it's a nice movie.  The movie takes a pretty even-handed approach to Simon's several dilemmas (though the ending may go a little over the top with the high school's acceptance) and it's a fairly realistic look at the teenage dramas that are part of high school.  Nick Robinson is quite good as the regular guy with his one big secret, and the rest of the cast is solid.  (Kudos to Tony Hale as the vice-principal trying way to hard to be cool and fit in with his students.)  Love, Simon is a sweet, good movie.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

3.17.2018

DRAGON FARKLE

What happens when a popular push-your-luck dice game adds in player-to-player combat -- and a dragon?  You get Dragon Farkle, a game from Z-Man Games for 2-5 players where players work the dice and combat each other to raise an army and attack a dragon.

Players use their six six-sided dice, plus an Event Die, to raise an army or combat each other.  Players also get a Companion card (which affects the turns) and a Magic Item (which helps the player, but is discarded after use; players can also only have one Magic Item at a time).

To recruit soldiers, a player rolls their dice and Event Die.  If a player's dice combination earns them soldiers, those soldiers are placed over the player's mat and the dice used are set aside.  If a player didn't get any soldiers, they Farkle, losing any soldiers and Magic Items earned that turn and ending their turn.  If the Event Die came up blank, nothing happens.  If the Event Die shows a Dragon, it eats any soldiers earned that turn; if a player didn't get any soldiers, the Dragon lets them ignore the Farkle and either continue or end their turn.  And if a Rally side (represented by axes) shows up, a player can either double the number of soldiers they'd get on that roll, or get a Magic Item.
 If a player earned soldiers, they choose to either end their turn or continue.  Ending the turn means all the Soldiers and Magic Items earned move onto the player's mat.  If a player continues, they roll any remaining dice, possibly earning more soldiers -- or losing all the soldiers they earned that turn if they Farkle.

Attacking another player is very similar to recruiting soldiers.  The attacking player rolls the six dice and Event Die, earning soldiers (unless they Farkle).  The defending player rolls five dice and the Event Die, earning soldiers.  After both sides roll, the side with more soldiers steals soldiers from the losing side equal to the difference in the soldiers earned that turn; the winning side also gets 500 soldiers from the stockpile.
When a player has 5000 or more soldiers, they can try to win the game by attacking the dragon.  The dragon takes three damage to kill.  A player rolls the six dice and the Event Die.  A Dragon on the Event Die does one damage to the dragon, a Rally does two damage to the dragon, and the blank side does no damage.  However, the results of the scoring dice are subtracted from the player's soldiers.  If the player Farkles, or runs out of soldiers, their turn ends, the player loses their Companion card and gets a new one, and the dragon heals all damage.  A player who hasn't lost all their soldiers can choose to stay and attack the dragon again on their next turn, or they can recruit soldiers or fight other players.  The first player to defeat the dragon wins!

Dragon Farkle is enjoyable, if not radically different from its source game.  The sword and sorcery aspect of the game works well, and the push-your-luck element remains intact, whether recruiting soldiers, fighting other players, or trying to slay the dragon.  This is a nice game, moreso for people who like both Farkle and Dungeons & Dragons.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

2.27.2018

SPLENDOR

Gems and jewelry await!  In Splendor from Days of Wonder, 2-4 players collect gems, create jewelry, use discounts, attract merchants, and score points to get 15 or more points and win the game.

The play area is set up with cards.  There are four rows of development cards placed horizontally: a row from level 1 (cheapest to buy, fewest rewards), a row from level 2 (more expensive, more valuable) and a row from level 3 (the most expensive and valuable).  Several nobles, equal to the number of players plus one, go at the top of the cards.

On a player's turn, they take one of four actions.  They can take three gems -- emerald (green), sapphire (blue), ruby (red), diamond (white), onyx (black) -- of different colors.  They can take two gems of the same color, as long as there are least four gems available before the player takes two.  A player can reserve a development card, taking it from the play area and putting it in their hand; they also get a gold (yellow) token; players can only have a maximum of three cards in their hand, and they can only be gotten rid of by purchasing them.  And if a player has more than ten gems and gold at the end of their hand, they have to return gems until they have ten.

Players can purchase a development card, from the middle of the table or from their hand.  Development cards have a cost, in gems, on the bottom left of the card.  Players can pay the listed cost of the card.  Gold can be used in place of any single gem, and bonus from previously purchased cards can be subtracted from the cost of the development card.  When a development card is purchased, a replacement is drawn, if possible, from the deck in its row.

The top right of each development card shows its reward: points, bonuses, or both.  Points are added up to victory.  Bonuses show a gem color, and it's subtracted from future development card purchases.  Bonuses are cumulative with multiple development cards, so as more and more development cards are purchased future purchases become much cheaper -- and it's often possible to buy development cards for free.

Finally there are the nobles.  If a player's bonuses equal or exceed the quality and type of bonuses shown on the noble tile at the end of their turn, one noble goes to that player and adds their point value to the player's points.

When a player reaches 15 points, the game almost ends.  Every other player then gets one final turn, and after everyone takes their final turn the player with the most points wins!

Splendor is a fun and competitive game of strategy.  While the game starts off slow, as players rely solely on their gems and gold to buy development cards, once players start accumulating bonuses there's a snowballing effect of discounts, making cards easier and easier to obtain.  Initially players have to decide between development cards that give points or bonuses, but later on players will aim for those cards that give both.  The strategy isn't deep (though inevitably someone will buy development cards right before someone else would have) but Splendor is light and enjoyable.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

2.26.2018

GAME NIGHT

Plenty of comedies revolve around characters thinking a real situation is fake -- and seeing how long the movie can draw that out.  This takes up the early portion of Game Night, a movie where friends' gathering to play assorted games spirals out of control.

Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are a happily married couple who seem obsessed with playing games, either with or against each other, and with their friends: married couple Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury); Ryan (Billy Magnussen), who always seems to bring brainless bimbos to game night; and Sarah (Sharon Horgan), an Irish coworker of Ryan who he brought as a ringer.  Max also has issues with his older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), who seems more successful and better liked that Max.  Max and Annie also want to avoid letting their creepy next-door-neighbor police officer Gary (Jesse Plemons) worm his way into their game night.
Brooks takes control of game night, and he has everyone over to his house for a murder-mystery type game: Someone will be kidnapped, and whoever finds the kidnapped person first gets a cool car.  Soon enough, masked men seem to beat up and kidnap Brooks -- and the game is on!  Max and Annie trace Brooks' cell phone to find him.  Ryan and Sarah go to the company Brooks employed to find out the last clue.  And Kevin and Michelle are locked in a room by Max and Annie and have to escape -- while bickering over what celebrity Michelle slept with.
Max and Annie find Brooks, and they think the game is over and they won the car.  But it turns out that Brooks is a smuggler, and his kidnapping was real.  Brooks promised to deliver a Faberge egg to a criminal known as the Bulgarian, and soon the friends are all working together to get and deliver the egg, save Brooks, and keep the police from getting involved.

Game Night is a decent comedy that's slightly uneven.  Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams are very good as the couple who go quite a while thinking all the craziness is just part of a game, and Jesse Plemons is nicely weird as the just-off neighbor, and the rest of the cast is decent.  Some of the humor works fine (amateurs removing a bullet, getting blood off of a white dog) and some falls flat (the shift to borderline action movie).  Game Night is okay, though better than most movies based on actual games (and probably the ones coming soon).

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

2.22.2018

EARLY MAN

Like it or not, soccer (henceforth referred to as "football") has never really caught on here in the United States.  So when a kid's comedy largely revolves around football humor (even the title refers to early Manchester football fans), it can fall flat.  This is a problem for the Aardman Studios' stop-motion animated comedy Early Man.

Dug (Eddie Redmayne) has a simple but happy life with his caveman tribe and pet hog Hognob.  They live in a lush valley, hunt rabbits (with limited success), and all have their own quirks.  Dug would rather hunt larger animals, like mammoths, but Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall) wants to continue hunting rabbits because that's what they've always done. 
Cultures clash when bronze-armored mammoths invade the valley, driving the caveman out of the valley and into the desolate badlands.  Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) is obsessed with bronze and decided to mine the valley for it, not caring what happens to the cavemen.  When Dug ends up in Lord Nooth's city, Dug learns that Nooth's people are obsessed with "the sacred game" of football -- and Dug realizes that his tribe's cave paintings showed his ancestors playing this game. So Dug challenges Lord Nooth's championship team to a game of football: If Dug's tribe wins they get to live in the valley in peace, but if Lord Nooth's team wins the tribe works in the mines.

This would seem to be an impossible task, considering Dug's tribe has never played football before.  But Dug remains optimistic because their ancestors played.  He also gets help from Goona (Maisie Williams), a football fan from the city who's told she can't play because she's female -- so she plays with the tribe.  And there are a few twists, lots of football jokes, flagrant cheating, and a dinosaur-sized duck.

Early Man is more cute than funny.  The cast is game with their voices, but most of the football jokes just fall flat and there aren't many surprises in the story.  As a result, this movie is another kids' movie that just does the minimum to try and entertain.

Overall grade: C
Reviewed by James Lynch

2.19.2018

BLACK PANTHER

While Marvel has done amazing work with their shared universe of superheroes, Black Panther brings them into a new area: nation building.  The movie has a mostly African-American cast for its fictional country of Wakanda -- and it works very well.

Things seem to be going well for T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman).  He's become the new ruler of Wakanda, even temporarily giving up his powers to battle a challenger in combat.  His "panther powers" include super strength, speed, reflexes, and healing; and he also has an incredibly tough super-suit.  His young sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is a tech genuis, working in all areas of the country's vibranium-powered technologies.  His ex-lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) is a spy for the country but returns for his coronation.  And his bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira) is one of the nation's most powerful warriors.
Yet T'Challa is uncertain about keeping his country's amazing scientific advances to themselves and maintaining the illusion that they're a poor nation of farmers.  When Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) --a  terrorist with a mechanical arm who stole vibranium from Wakanda, killing many of its people in the process -- surfaces, T'Challa and his allies go to capture him.  But Klaue is working with Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a killer with a mysterious past whose plans would affect both Wakanda and the rest of the world.

Black Panther has plenty of what we've come to expect from Marvel movies -- super-powered folks slugging it out -- but there are also deeper issues, from loyalty to leaders who one disagrees with to isolationism being in opposition to altruism.  Chadwick Boseman brings a regal attitude to the role of T'Challa, making him both more heroic and more conflicted than the standard super hero.  Michael B. Jordan makes his killer sympathetic at times, and the rest of the cast manages both action and humor equally well.  Black Panther is a fine addition to the Marvel cinematic universe.
Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch