4.18.2015

THE BABADOOK dvd

The supernatural and psychological are often blended in horror -- but few movies mix the two elements as thoroughly as The Babadook.  This movie is as much about the stresses of parenthood as its supernatural title creature.

This Australian movie is about a struggling family.   Amelia (Essie Davis) lost her husband in a car crash when he was driving her to the hospital to give birth to their son Samuel.  Six years later, Amelia is working with the elderly, lonely (and horny), living in a small house with her small dog, and dealing with Samuel (Noah Wiseman).  Samuel is at best a handful, and at worst troubled: He is obsessed with performing magic and reading scary books, and he's armed with homemade weapons to fight them (which get him kicked out of his school).  Samuel scares the other kids, and tends to throw tantrums anytime he doesn't get what he wants.  Amelia is continually worrying about him -- and stressing to no end over him.
One night, Amelia lets Samuel pick what he wants to read, and he selects Mister Babadook,  This is a creepy black and white pop-up book about a monstrous creature in a top hat who will knock three times, get into the people's lives, and then horrible things will happen.  But the last pages are empty, so Amelia puts the book high on the shelf and reads a less scary book to her now-screaming son.

As with many horror movies, strange things start to happen: Lights flicker, strange sounds occur in the house, the dog keeps barking when nothing is there (or is there?), and Samuel keeps on insisting that the Babadook is real and coming for them.  But there's also plenty that seems to come from Amelia's increasing stress and lack of sleep: snapping at Samuel and others, growing more and more detached from everything, and letting old issues come to the surface.  When she finds another copy of Mister Babadook that shows her killing the dog, Samuel, and herself, we don't know if it's the creature or her imagination.  (The fact that she burned the book before going to the police makes them understandably skeptical that she's being stalked.)

The Babadook is a different and quite effective horror movie.  The movie revolves almost entirely around Amelia and Samuel, and the actors are quite effective: Essie Davis captures both the tired stresses of mother and the growing homicidal nature, while Noah Wiseman is a nicely bratty kid who might be on to something with his fears of monsters.  The movie manages to make the mental explanation as or more fearsome than the supernatural one: Amelia's deterioration comes across as even creepier than her hearing a voice croaking "BAAAA-BAAAA-DOOOOOOOK" when driving.  The Babadook uses growing tension more than special effects or quick surprises to create terror -- and it does so well.  (DVD extras are lots of movie background, from special effects and actor interviews to discussing the book-within-the-movie from the illustrator.)

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

4.12.2015

Steel Wheels

My favorite Rolling Stone’s album is most likely Steel Wheels. It is hard to believe when I think back that it was released in 1989. Of note, it was also the first all digital Rolling Stone’s album.
It is interesting to note in retrospect, that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had both not worked together for some years prior to the Steel Wheels Album, and were both pursuing less memorable solo albums (Mick Jagger’s Primitive Cool, and Keith Richard’s better received Talk Is Cheap). However, their former differences were set aside after the induction of The Rolling Stones into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in early 1989. While their more recent previous work had more modern underpinnings, for Steel Wheels they wanted to return to their more classic signature, Stones sound. Steel Wheels is considered their “Reunion album.” It took the band five years after Steel Wheels for their next album, Voodoo Lounge.

4.10.2015

Los Angeles Smarts

As someone who's spent most of his life on the east coast of America -- New York, Richmond, North Carolina -- I've often dreamed of visiting California.  I've heard so much about it, from the awards shows, movie history, and, in the winter, heat (though the latter is less of a problem since I moved to North Carolina) -- and Los Angeles is the center of it all.  Since I don't know the area, though, I'd either have to go for one event or wander around aimlessly.  The Armchair Critic got a guide to L.A. called Los Angeles Smarts -- and it looks like quite a guide to quite a city.

Entertainment in Los Angeles

Los Angeles Smarts describes itself as "a small company that specializes in everything to do with Los Angeles " and while that's quite a claim, they do provide lots of information -- and links to other places for more information or details.  The site itself provides information on L.A. theaters, venues, sporting teams, and restaurants.  In addition, their site provides other information, whether finding other activities for tourists, or the latest news on what NFL team might be moving to Los Angeles.  It's a nice way to find more possibilities for a L.A. vacation.

I have no idea when I'll be going out to California -- but when I do, I'll be using Los Angeles Smarts to figure out what to do and where to go while I'm out there.

Written by James Lynch

4.09.2015

WHAT IF? by Randall Munroe

While the show Mythbusters uses experimentation to either prove or disprove myths, what about random or weird questions that can't be actually tested in reality?  Fortunately, before Randall Munroe began the stick-figure webstrip xkcd , he was a physicist and roboticist for NASA; and he still takes and answers weird questions on his strip.  What if?  Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions addresses some of the best/weirdest questions, using math and science.  And while there are no actual physical experiments to prove or disprove the answers, since a lot of them result in the creation of plasma that's probably for the best.


What If? takes on all sorts of questions, from the potentially possible (Could you make a jet pack by firing guns at the ground?  How hard would a hockey puck have to be hit to knock a goalie back to the net?) to extremely hypothetical. (What would happen if a pitcher threw a baseball at 90% of the speed of light?  If every human disappeared, how long would it be before the last light went out?)  There are also a few "Weird (and Worrying) Questions from the What If? Inbox" through the book, that get very brief answers.  ("Is it possible to cry so much you dehydrate yourself?" -- Karl Wildermuth.  "...Karl, is everything OK?")  And there are plenty of stick figure cartoons interspersed throughout the book, to comment on the answers/


Even though I couldn't follow most of the math and much of the science here, I enjoyed What If? a lot.  Munroe mixes scientific explanation with humor seamlessly, There are lots of funny footnotes ("If it's past the year 2016 right now when you're reading this, hello from the distant past!  I hope things are better in the future.  P.S. Please figure out a way to come get us.") and "citation needed" uses for pretty accepted facts.  Some answers are quite surprising (such as what would happen if everyone on Earth was in the same place and jumped at once; nothing would happen to the Earth, but there's be mass death and the collapse of civilization as all the humans tried to escape from that one area) and it's hard to disagree with Munroe's answers.  Even if What If? is beyond your science understanding, it's still funny and informative.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

4.06.2015

FUN WITH KIRK AND SPOCK by Robb Pearlman

From the 1930s onward, Dick and Jane books taught children to read by utilizing simple words, basic illustrations, and lots and lots of repetition.  But what would happen if this format was used on the original Star Trek television series?  Fun with Kirk and Spock by Robb Pearlman parodies the show's adventures and characters with the same simplistic format as those early readers -- and it's fairly funny.

The tone of Fun with Kirk and Spock is set at the opening, with the book's take on the show' famous opening split infinitive: "See the Enterprise.  See the Enterprise go boldly.  Go go go, Enterprise!  Go boldly!"  From there, we get similar child-like takes on all the major characters: Spock is no fun, Kirk is a great fighter and lover, and so on.  There are also brief versions of key episodes of the show (the cover references "Space Seed") and tropes of the show.  ("See the crewman.  What is the crewman's name?  It does not matter.  Why does it not matter?  He is wearing a red shirt.  It is best not to get too attached.")

Fun with Kirk and Spock is largely a one-joke book, but it's a funny one-joke book -- if you're a fan of the original Star Trek.  Those who know and like the show will enjoy the take on the characters and episodes (such as Spock and McCoy being "frenemies," the Gorn being "fashion-forward," or the fact that Khan "is not a morning person."), and even with the repetitive format it's good for a few laughs and lots of chuckles.  But give or loan it to someone who's not a Trek fan and be prepared to do a lot of explaining.

I wouldn't have thought that the original Star Trek could be explained so well as a children's story, but Fun with Kirk and Spock does just that.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

4.02.2015

IT FOLLOWS

Some great horror films tap into our primal fears for their inspiration.  It Follows combines the basic fear of being pursued relentlessly with a mix of paranoia and 1980s horror movie elements.  And it all works quite well.

The movie opens in the daytime with Annie (Bailey Spry), a teenager, running outside her house, then in a circle, before getting in her car and driving off.  Then we see Annie at night, sitting on the beach, facing her car's headlights, and talking to her father on her phone.  Next it's day, and we see Annie's corpse, hideously contorted and partially dismembered.

Now we jump to Jay Height (Maika Monroe), a young woman living an ordinary life in a middle-class house.  Jay hangs out with her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), continually-reading friend Yara (Olivia Luccardi), and slightly geeky friend Paul (Keir Gilchrist) who has a crush on Jay.  She's also dating Hugh (Jake Weary) and is happy, though he freaks out when she doesn't see the woman in a yellow dress he points out in a movie theater.  But the two get along great, and they sleep together for the first time in the back of his car.  She thinks it's dreamy... until he chloroforms her and she wakes up tied to a wheelchair.  And that's not even the creepy part.

Hugh tells Jay that he's being pursued by an entity, and since they slept together the entity is now pursuing her.  He says no can see it but her (and the people who had passed it on), the entity can look like anyone, and it will walk straight after her in slowly but without stopping until it catches and kills her.  He wants Jay to live -- if it kills her it'll then go after the person who gave it to her (which is Hugh), and then the person who gave it to him, and so on -- and if she sleeps with someone, they'll become the entity's new target.   The Woman in Yellow then shows up, walking towards Jay until Hugh drives them away and dumps Jay in front of her house.


Naturally, Jay doesn't believe Hugh's story and gets the police involved.  But then every bump or strange person seems to affect Jay; and when a large, ghostly figure bursts in the room and none of her friends notice, the panic really sets in.  Her friends quickly believe her and hang out with her; Greg (Daniel Zovatto), the bad boy across the road, doesn't really believe her but still gets her a gun.  Soon Jay and her friends are trying to find Hugh and the origin of this creature, and figure out a way to stop it, while she considers whether or not to sleep with someone and make them the target.  And every stranger, or every friend, could be the evil creature, and it keeps walking closer, and closer, and closer...

It Follows is very simple and very effective.  The movie has virtually no special effects (the most elaborate is Annie's body in the opening) and creates quite a few scares through tension, as slow panning shots reveal nothing -- or a place the creature could come -- or someone slowly walking closer.  The movie also hearkens back to 1980s horror, with both the music (either loud blasts of noise or all-synthesizer songs), the idea that sex is punished by a monster, and a seemingly unstoppable adversary who never runs but always catches up with the target,

Unfortunately, It Follows also has some of the '80s horror flaws as well.  The actors are decent, but only star Maika Monroe has a lot to do -- and even that is mostly looking scared and tired.  And most characters' personalities can be summarized in a sentence, or even a long phrase.   But even with those weaknesses, It Follows still generates more tension and fear than any horror movie in recent memory.  Much like The Blair Witch Project, It Follows skips the usual gore and special effects to achieve a lot with the basics.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

4.01.2015

HOGFATHER by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett's Discworld universe, centered on the city-state of Ankh-Morpork, is a place that may have magic and an Assassins' Guild but still manages to be a whole lot like our world.  In Hogfather, Pratchett blends fantasy and similarity in an adventure and mystery revolving around... Santa Claus.

In Ankh-Morpork it's almost Hogswatchnight, when boys and girls eagerly await the Hogfather: a fat being in a red suit who rides a sled pulled by four magic hogs, drinks Sherry left for him by the parents, and giving gifts to the good children.  But after a strange assassin named Teatime (which he insists is pronounced "Teh-ah-tim-eh") from shadowy being called the Auditors, the Hogfather seems to have vanished.

But there's a replacement Hogfather, and it's the last being one would expect: Death.  The Grim Reaper (who ALWAYS SPEAKS IN CAPITAL LETTERS) has donned a red suit and fake beard and, assisted by his servant Albert, is showing up in homes and giving presents to the needy (sometimes at the expense of others.)  At the same times, magical beings that do what everyone expects keep popping into existence at the Unseen University of wizards, who do things like eat socks or cause baldness (but not, as one hopes out loud, a Huge Bags of Money Goblin).

Meanwhile, Susan (a governess, member of royalty, and Death's granddaughter) is out to find out what happened to the Hogfather -- and why Death is so eager to take over.  She's joined by a talking raven the Death of Rats (who also only speaks in capital letters, but who only says SQUEAK), and Bilious, the God of Hangover (actually, the Oh God of Hangovers).  What could possibly go wrong?

HOGFATHER is sometimes thoughtful, often silly fun.  Terry Pratchett has a keep ear for language and satire, whether it's the inept academic wizard rulers fumbling around each other, trying to get their computer (Hex), powered by ants and bees, to work by figuring out what question to ask or what its answers mean, or just getting anything done:

The Archchancellor pointed dramatically skyward.
"To the laundry!" he said.
"It's downstairs, Ridcully," said the Dean.
"Down to the laundry!"

Death comes across as oddly nice, yet also unsuited for the distribution of free goods, as when giving gifts in a department store:

-- and a sword.  It was four feet long and glinted along the blade.
The mother took a deep breath.
"You can't give her that!"  she screamed.  "It's not safe!"
IT'S A SWORD, said the Hogfather.  THEY'RE NOT MEANT TO BE SAFE.
"She's a child!" shouted Crumley.
IT'S EDUCATIONAL.
"What if she cuts herself?"
THAT WILL BE AN IMPORTANT LESSON.

Susan is a suitably stable and rational heroine, trying to figure out what's happening and why, as well as the source of and reason for myths.  Teatime is, by contrast, a Joker-like villain who's as lethal to his allies as to his enemies (as he says about friends: "I don't seem to have many," he said, apologetically.  "Don't seem to have the knack.  On the other hand...  I don't seem to have any enemies.  Not one.  Isn't that nice?")

Hogfather is clever, from the characters and situations to the jokes and footnotes.  It's also oddly touching, as the characters try to find some kindness and justice in a seemingly uncaring universe.  And it's tremendously funny and nigh-infinitely quotable.  There are plenty of Christmas novels that are saccharine or preachy, but Hogfather is a slanted view that's both alien and familiar -- and damn entertaining.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch

Then the Dean repeated the mantra that has had such a marked effect on the progress of knowledge throughout the ages.
"Why don't we just mix up absolutely everything and see what happens?" he said.
And Ridcully responded with the traditional response.
"It's got to be worth a try," he said.

3.25.2015

MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 vol. XXIII

We've got movie sign!  Mystery Science Theater 3000 vol. XXIII is another four-episode collection of the silly space show that works by shouting funny comments at terrible movies.

This time around, the four movies featured are: King Dinosaur, a "dinosaur" movie that uses mostly stock footage of everyday animals; The Castle of Fu Manchu, starring the decidedly non-Asian Christopher Lee as the title villain; Code Name: Diamond Head, a failed attempt at a television secret agent franchise; and Last of the Wild Horses, a Western that's just plain bad.

There's no central theme to the episodes; however, as relatively early episodes in the series, the bad guys are Doctor Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu, who also voiced Crow T. Robot for these episodes) and TV's Frank (Frank Conniff).   Joel and Mike split the "star/victim" duties through these episodes.   For a chance of pace, during Last of the Wild Horses the episode spoofs Star Trek's "Mirror, Mirror" by sending Tom Servo and Gypsy to an alternate universe -- Where Dr. Forrester and TV's Frank watch the bad movie! -- and their evil counterparts are sent here!  And the bad versions have goatees, of course:


These episodes also feature the two appearances of the Joey the Lemur puppet (friend to all mankind):



As always, the episodes here excel as finding the very funny from the terrible,  While some of the references are dated (like repeatedly seeing Ian McShane in Code Name: Diamond Head and calling him "Lovejoy" after a short-lived series he starred in), there are plenty of other gems, from randomly funny observations ("Wow, the Amish are really hauling ass!") to hitting these movies' oh-so-frequent flaws and stupid moments.  And there are plenty of extras: features of movie director Robert Lippert and television producer Quinn Martin; Frank Coniff discussing MST3K and Kevin Murphy discussing life after MST3K, the videogame Darkstar (which has several MST3K alums in in), and even some show promos from its Comedy Central days.


MST3K v.XXIII is another silly, fun bunch of episodes from this much-missed show.  It's definitely worth checking out.
Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch



3.20.2015

THE NIGHTLY SHOW WITH LARRY WILMORE

After The Colbert Report went off the air, it's not surprising that Comedy Central decided that its replacement would be a topical and satirical talk show.  It's also no surprise that they went with another alum from The Daily Show to host (as Stephen Colbert had been, so many years before).  As a result, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore is the latest addition to Comedy Central's late-night programs.

The format for The Nightly Show is pretty straightforward.  First, Larry introduces the topic for that night's show (from racism to sports to comic book changes) and delivers a comedic monologue on that topic.  Next, he brings on a panel of four people to discuss the topic.  After they chat for a while (and a commercial break) comes the "Keeping It 100" segment, where the panelists have to answer a tough question.  If they answer honestly, they get a "Keeping it 100" sticker; if Larry or the audience things the guest is equivocating, hesitating, or being less than honest, they get weak tea (and teabags thrown at them).  And at the end, Larry has to answer his own "Keeping It 100" question that he's never seen before,

Unfortunately, it didn't take long for that format to fall by the wayside.  Often there'll be some sort of comic skit that cuts into the time, so the guests often don't have to Keep It 100.  Other times Larry will ask everyone the same question, so while the first person may feel on the spot, the others have plenty of time to think about it before they answer.  And it seems like ages since Larry himself has had to answer a question at the end of the show.  And even when they follow their format, five minutes for four guests means a far too short amount of time for the guests to talk: They usually only get a few sentences in, and if one person dominates the conversation the others can wind up almost totally left out.  And while the guest composition is usually three people agreeing with one dissenter, sometimes they all share the same viewpoint and just support each other totally.  That makes for less debate and more self-congratulation.

Fortunately, Larry Wilmore is a good host.  He's funny (love his openings), he does keep the conversation going, and while he's hardly a loud-mouthed pundit (like so many news shows have), he does put his opinion out there pretty firmly (as when, during the first week, he said about the Bill Cosby rape allegations, "The mother****er did it").

I wonder if The Nightly Show is still trying, a few months in, to find its direction.  I hope it does: Larry is very funny and talented, and he certainly deserved to succeed.  For now, though, The Nightly Show is entertaining but more than a little all over the place.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

3.08.2015

GRAVWELL: ESCAPE FROM THE 9TH DIMENSION

There are lots of games where players race each other to a destination -- but what happens when simply moving forward and backwards is a challenge in itself?  Gravwell: Escape from the 9th Dimension from Cryptozoic Games is part race, part puzzle as 2-4 players vie to escape a black hole where the laws of gravity no longer hold sway.

Each player has a spaceship, located in the Singularity -- the center of a spiraling path that goes for 64 spaces and ends at the Warp Gate.  (Two neutral ships are at the 26th and 36th spaces.)  The first player to move their ship into/through the Warp Gate wins; if no one does so after six turns, whoever's closest to the Warp Gate wins.


First, players draft cards.  A number of two-card Fuel cards are laid in decks equal to the number of players times three, with the first card placed face down and the other card face up.  During the first round, the youngest player selects the first deck; for other rounds, whoever's furthers from the Warp Gate chooses first; after that, players pick a deck going clockwise, and at the end everyone will have six Fuel cards, plus the Emergency Stop! card everyone has.

Next comes the Round, made up of six Movement Phases.  In each Movement Phase, players secretly select a Fuel card from their card to play, then reveal them all at the same time .  The revealed cards resolve in alphabetical order, from A to Z.  (Players can also use their Emergency Stop!" once per Round to cancel their own card.)  The players resolve their Movement Phases until out of cards; then, if no one has reached the Warp Gate, new decks are dealt and players draft and start new rounds.

But it's movement that makes Gravwell unique.  Instead of simply going in one direction, the Fuel cards move ships based on where the nearest ship is.  Regular Fuel cards (green; the majority of Fuel cards) move the current player's ship a number of spaces towards the nearest ship; Repulsor Movement cards (purple) push the current player's ship a number of spaces away from the nearest ship.  (If the closest ships are equidistant from the current player, the ship moves in the direction with the most total ships (not counting those in the Singularity); if that number is equal on both sides, the ship doesn't move.)  If a player would end their movement on another ship, that player's ship keeps going in its current direction until it lands on an empty space.  And Tractor Beam cards (blue) pull all other ships a number of spaces closer to the current player's ship,

This different method of moving makes Gravwell challenging, and a lot of fun.  Instead of simply trying to go straight ahead, players have to consider whether they'll go before or after the other players -- and how that will affect the card they play.  (It can be quite a blow to play a Green Fuel card that moves you eight spaces, only to find that by the time you play it the closest ship is behind you, sending you in the wrong direction!  Then again, that's what Emergency Stop! is for.)  Players also have to play all the cards in their hand, so strategy isn't just the best card to move one towards the Warp Gate, but the least damaging time to play what may very well be a bad card.  And the six-turn game limit keeps the game from going on endlessly as ships move forward and back.

I enjoy playing Gravwell.  It utilizes some familiar game mechanics and then tosses in a curve with its strange movement methods.  This game is challenging and fun.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

3.05.2015

FOXCATCHER dvd

One the worst elements of sports may be the need to win at absolutely any cost.  Foxcatcher captures part of this desire by looking at a tragedy that began when two such personalities came together to earn glory -- and resulted in tragedy.  (It's even more disturbing that the movie is based on a real-life series of events.)

In 1987, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) was, surprisingly, in a bad place.  Even though he won a gold medal for wrestling, he was overshadowed by his brother David (Mark Ruffalo), who also won a gold medal and more fame -- plus he has a wife, kids, and home.  Mark, by contrast, lives in a small apartment and makes money taking jobs that were intended for his brother.

Mark sees a change in his fortune when he's approached and professionally courted by John du Pont (Steve Carrell).  John is an amazingly rich man who sees himself as an American patriot, and he wants to coach Mark and his fellow wrestlers into winning the gold again in the 1988 Olympics.  He gives Mark a real salary, state-of-the-art training facilities, and a combination coach and father figure for the wrestler.  John also wants David to join the team, but David won't relocate his family, even with John's money,

At first Mark seems to thrive under John -- until John's controlling nature starts revealing itself: John tells people what to say when talking about him, gives himself his own nickname ("the golden eagle"), pushed his hobbies like bird-wacthing on others, and gets childishly upset when anything doesn't go his way.  He's also clearing struggling with mother issues, as his mother (Vanessa Redgrave, in the movie briefly but effectively) can make him feel like nothing with just a look or sentence.  And it should be no surprise that things get even more tense when John manages to get David to join his wrestling team.


Foxcatcher is an intense, pretty impressive drama.  Steve Carrell is an impressive surprise, as behind his prosthetic nose is a lazy, snide delivery that seems creepy no matter what he says.  Channing Tatum does a solid job as the frustrated athlete who loves and competes with his brother, while unable to handle any setbacks.  And Mark Ruffalo matches Tatum as a well adjusted, family man whose competitive nature doesn't get in the way of his family relationships.  Foxcatcher is almost relentlessly grim -- and hardly a universal look at the professional sports world -- but the actors and drama are quite effective.  (The dvd extras are deleted scenes.)

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

2.28.2015

LEONARD NIMOY 1931-2015

Leonard Nimoy passed away on Friday, February 27, 2015.

Nimoy is best known as portraying Mister Spock, the half-Vulcan science officer and first officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise on the original Star Trek series.  While the character espoused logic and stoicism, Nimoy brought an underlying humanity and empathy to the role that made the character human as well as alien.

Nimoy had a long and varied career outside of Star Trek.  He starred in Mission Impossible, the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  He had a recurring role on the show Fringe, provided the narration for In Search Of... and directed the film 3 Men and a Little Lady.  He even appeared in music videos by the Bangles and Bruno Mars:



But it was Spock that always drew him back.  Nimoy played Spock in every Star Trek movie, appeared in back-to-back episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and is the only cast member to appear in J.J. Abrams' reboot of the franchise.


Nimoy's distinctive voice and fame in the science fiction community also allowed him to provide vocals in many features.  He spoke on the animated series Futurama, The Simpsons and Robot Chicken.  And when he "appeared" on The Big Bang Theory, Nimoy's voice gave "life" to a doll of Mister Spock.
Mister Spock's most famous saying was "live long and prosper."  Leonard Nimoy, who brought the character to life as no one else could, had a prosperous career and a long and hopefully happy life.  He will be missed.

Written by James Lynch




2.27.2015

V2 by Russell James

Some guys truly have all the luck.  Photographer Russell James has fortune and fame, which largely comes from photographing Victoria's Secret Angels.  And if that wasn't enough, during a 2009 swimsuit shoot at Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands, many of them agreed to let him shoot them -- often naked --  for some unofficial pictures.  The coffee table book V2 is a collection of those personal pictures -- and it's not quite what one would expect.

Following introductions from Ed Razek (from Victoria's Secret), Richard Branson (who let them shoot at his home), and Russell James, we get right into the photographs.  Models Brooklyn Decker, Miranda Kerr, Candice Swanepoel, Erin Heatherton, Emanuela de Paula, Jarah Mariano, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, and Lindsay Ellingson are all featured, whether frolicking in the ocean, concealed by branches, or simply reclining on the sand.   Most shots are black and white photos, though a few color ones pop up throughout the book.
While the though of naked Victoria's Secret Angels is, frankly, intoxicating, V2 is not about simple nudity.  James captures the essence of the models, with photos ranging from the playful to the languid.  And while more of the models' bodies are show than would be allowed in a VS catalog, that is hardly the focus.  Sometimes James opts to zoom in on one area of the body; other times his subject blends in and almost vanishes in the beauty of the natural setting.  The photographs show how beautiful these women are -- but they're hardly cheesecake shots.

V2 is a quite beautiful book, capturing the beauty of some of the world's most beautiful models without devolving into mere prurience.  It is creative, talented, a bit surprising, and quite stunning.
Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch



2.24.2015

THE HARE & THE TORTOISE

In Aesop's Fables, the race between the fast-but-lazy hare and the slow-but-steady tortoise illustrates that determination, rather than natural talent, is key to victory.  In the game The Hare and the Tortoise from Iello Games, more animals are racing -- and the keys to winning the race are betting, bluffing, and playing cards.

This game has five animals (Hare, Tortoise, Wolf, Coyote, and Lamb) racing along an 11-tile track.  The first place animal gets five points, second place gets three points, and third place gets two points.  Before the race starts, though, players have to bet.  Each player gets one random animal card for one of their bets.  Then, after players get their starting hand of seven cards (each card has one animal), players choose a second card to put under their starting bet for their other bet.  Players can go with two animals in the hopes at least one will win, or double their first animal to double its points (which is bad if the animal doesn't finish in the top three).

Next, players play cards.  A player can play 1-4 cards of the same animal, provided afterwards no animal has more than four cards and there aren't more than eight cards total.  (After playing cards, players draw back up to six cards.)  If an animal has four cards or there are eight cards in all, the race starts; if not, the next player plays cards, and so on around the table.


When the race starts, the animals go in this order:

-- If there are 1-4 Hare cards, the Hare moves two tiles.  But if the Hare is in first place or tied for first place and four Hare cards are played, the Hare takes a nap and doesn't move at all.

-- The Tortoise moves two tiles, and one tile of 0-3 Tortoise cards are played.  So the Tortoise moves even if none of its cards are played!

-- The Wolf moves one tile with 1-2 Wolf cards, 2 tiles with 3 Wolf Cards, and 3 tiles with four Wolf cards.  In addition, three Wolf cards show the Wolf howling; if one of these is played, no other animals move that turn.

-- The Coyote moves one tile for each Coyote card played.

-- Finally, the Lamb moves a number of tiles equal to the number of Lamb cards played plus one.  But when the Lamb reaches a tile with a river, the Lamb stops moving and takes a drink instead.

The game ends when three animals cross the finish line, right past the final tile.  All players reveal their bets, and whoever has the most points wins!

The Hare & the Tortoise is a family-friendly game that also works very well for adult players.  Little kids will like the cute animals, with no violence or scary stuff happening in the game.  But there's a lot of strategy involved for grown players.  No animal is better than the others (I've seen all five cross the finish line), and having the first bet random keeps players from always going with their personal favorite.  Playing cards is key, as you not only want to advance your animal(s), but also to do so in a way that doesn't make it obvious who you want to win.  There are times you'll play cards to get them out of your hand, and times you just want your animal(s) to speed ahead as much as possible.  This game is relatively simple, but with plenty of fun, replayability, and strategy as well.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

2.17.2015

ZERO CHARISMA dvd

Movies take different approaches to geek culture.  Some take a humorous but loving look at their genre (like The Gamers: Dorkness Rising), while others focus on the ridiculous (King of the Nerds).  Zero Charisma takes both approaches, as its main character seems to embody all the worst possible traits of the stereotypical tabletop RPG game master.

Scott Weidemeyer (Sam Eisdon) is the game master of his home-brewed sword and sorcery game (searching for a publisher) that he's been running for three years with his four (and possibly only) friends.  Scott loves running the game, but it quick to put down anything he disagrees with.  The other players go along with it; and Wayne (Brock England) seems to slavishly follow Scott around and do whatever he says.

Outside of the game, though, Scott's life is pretty pathetic.  He's overweight, has never had a girlfriend, has a room covered in fantasy posters, thrashes to heavy metal, and paints miniatures.
Scott works as a delivery boy for Donut Tacos Palace II, and he often has to make deliveries to the game store that fired him.  Scott lives with his grandmother Wanda (Anne Gee Byrd), who happily interrupts his games; and the reappearance of his mother Barbara (Cyndi Williams) leads to embarrassing stories and more conflict.

When Scott loses a player (who quits to fix his marriage), Scott's search for a replacement leads to Miles (Garrett Graham),  While Miles fits in with the group, he quickly turns out to be the opposite of Scott (solving a geek hypothetical quickly, working for a popular geek website, having a hot girlfriend (who thinks nerds are sexy) and his own home, being funny and social) and overshadows Scott with the gaming group.  And as things get worse for Scott outside the gaming group as well, his bad nature keeps getting worse and worse...

While Zero Charisma makes its lead an amalgam of some of the worst traits of gamers, it's hard for any experienced gamer to recognize some (or all) of the traits in protagonist Scott.  Fortunately, the movie manages to find humor not in mocking the genre or its fans, but in the clash of personalities between a wannabe alpha male and the new, popular guy.  Sam Eidson is nicely unlikable as the GM who finds his iron fist of control over his game slipping away, and the rest of the cast is decent.  Zero Charisma certainly isn't a recruiting tool for getting more people to play tabletop RPGs, but it's a funny little movie that experienced gamers will certainly relate to.  (DVD extras are deleted scenes.)

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch