8.16.2017

WIZARDS OF THE TABLETOP by Douglas Morse

Tabletop games are more popular than ever -- but what about the folks behind these games?  Wizards of the Tabletop: A Rogues' Gallery of Board Game Designers and Conspirators by Douglas Morse is a coffee table book that provides both written and visual information on this diverse group of professionals in the game world.

As one might expect, most of the features folks are game designers, and we get a brief biography of them -- in and out of the gaming world -- usually accompanied by a photograph of their game on the opposite page.  It's a simple and effective way of learning about the person and then seeing what they've created.
There are some additional folks covered.  We learn about some of the people publishing the games, the website BoardGameGeek, the webseries TableTop, the group the Game Artisans of Canada, and even the folks at Geek Chic, who design custom furniture for gamers.
Wizards of the Tabletop is a very good look at both the greatness of the tabletop gaming world and the men and women who are vital to its success.  The people covered are interesting and enthusiastic about the game world; and the photographs really help to illustrate what they're talking about.  This is also a nice source for learning about games that might interest you.  (At the end of a book is an index of all the games discussed; in addition to the page it's on, it includes the year it was published, the publisher, its designer, its artist, and awards it won at Spiel des Jahres.)  Wizards of the Tabletop is a really good read mixed with really good visuals.  It's a must-have for any gamer -- and a good gift to get non-gamers interested in gaming.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch

7.31.2017

ATOMIC BLONDE

While Atomic Blonde is being advertised as "a female James Bond," it doesn't go into fancy gadgets and gimmicks.  It does have a solid plot, some very good (and brutal) fight scenes, and lots of fun for star Charlize Theron.

The movie opens in 1989, days before the collapse of the Berlin Wall.  We see British agent James Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave) killed by KGB agent Yuri Bakhtin (Johannes Haukur Johannesson), who steals his watch.

Next we jump to an office, where British spy Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is being debriefed by MI6 execitive Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman).  Gasgiogne has obtained a list of all covert British agents, which he had on microfilm in his watch; the list also had the identity of Satchel, a British double agent who had been providing information to the Communists.  Lorraine (who had been Gasciogne's lover) was sent to both East and West Berlin to get the list and learn the identity of Satchel.
Unfortunately, the mission is a disaster almost from the start.  Lorraine is quickly identified and attacked.  Her British contact is David Percival (James McAvoy), an agent who's gone native and seems more interested in drinking and partying than getting information.  Agents from numerous governments are after the list, and going to and from East Berlin is a challenge.  Then there's Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), a nervous man who claims to have memorized the entire list.
Atomic Blonde is a decent spy movie.  Charlize Theron does a great job as the title character, an agent who always seems to keep her plans, ideas, and suspicions very private; she also does quite well in the numerous fight scenes.  As for the rest, the plot is a fairly standard spy setup -- who can be trusted?  Who will survive?  Who's the double agent? -- with some twists but no big surprises; and the near-constant pop hits from the 1980s get overdone somewhat quickly.  This is an action movie that's not revolutionary but is satisfying.
Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

7.16.2017

THE BIG SICK

Romance is tricky -- especially when something tragic happens.  This is the surprising basis for The Big Sick, a mix of romantic comedy and drama.

Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) is a young Pakistani-American happy doing stand-up comedy in Chicago. along with driving an Uber and working on a one-man show.  He also has regular dinner with his family, which almost always involved his mother having single Pakistani women "just drop by."  Kumail resists these set-ups, though he keeps the pictures of the women in a cigar box in his apartment.

Kumail meets Emily (Zoe Kazan) when she either calls out to or heckles him during his comedy act.  They date for a few months, until she finds his box of photographs, realizes why he'd been so reluctant to introduce her to his family, and they break up.  Some time after that, he gets a call to visit Emily in the hospital; when her infection is far more serious than first thought and she has to be put in a medically-induced coma, he decides to stay by her side.
The hospital is where Kumail meets Zoe's parents, Terry (Ray Romano) and Beth (Holly Hunter).  Terry is laid back and friendly to Kumail; Beth is openly hostile to him, but then defends him against a racist heckler during his act.  They keep getting together as Zoe's situation progresses; there's also plenty of tension between Terry and Beth, making Kumail uncomfortable.
The Big Sick is quite a few things: comedy, drama, romance, reflection on dealing with a family from Pakistan while being a pretty mainstream American.  The movie handles them all well, though there's a largely low-energy feel to the movie.  There are several funny moments (though oddly usually not from the comedy club scenes) and the cast is good (especially Holly Hunter as a passionate, almost manic, mother).  While all the parts of the movie are good, none of them are really great.  The Big Sick is, overall, a pleasant film.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

7.13.2017

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING

It's time for the portrait of the superhero as a teenager.  Spider-Man: Homecoming is the latest summer superhero film, with a whole lot of high school drama as well as superheroics.

Homecoming wisely skips the very familiar origin story and jumps into the life of Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) after the events of Captain America: Civil War.  Peter is bored by stopping petty crimes and wants more action, even hoping to join the Avengers.  But he's being watched and mentored by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), who want him to remain "a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man."  They also give him a "super suit" with numerous setting and a talkative A.I. named Karen.

When a gang is stealing and selling advanced and alien technology, Spider-Man sees a chance to prove himself by taking down the gang and keeping it a secret from his handlers.  But the gang is led by Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), who dons a truly frightening high-tech Vulture costume to step in when his gang is threatened.
All of this is accompanies by plenty of high school drama.  Peter lives with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), who he doesn't want to know he's Spider-Man.  Peter's friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) finds out he's Spider-Man and geeks about it all the time.  Peter has a crush on Liz (Laura Harrier), is bullied by Flash (Tony Revolori), and always seems to run into sullen Michelle (Zendaya).  And Peter thinks if he becomes an Avenger, he can completely skip school to be a full-time superhero.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is pretty good.  Tom Holland perfectly captures a teenager whose duties as a hero keep interfering with his personal life, and one who's learning as he goes along.  Michael Keaton is a suitably creepy villain, and the high school characters are all solid.  The action is done well, and there's plenty of comedy, from Peter's nervousness to Captain America's very square recorded PSAs played for high school students.  I do think the movie spent a little too much time in high school, which made the film feel a little long.  But Spider-Man Homecoming is a worthy addition to the Marvel cinematic universe.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

7.10.2017

The Pxiies, HEAD CARRIER

When it comes to alternative music and a punk-new wave sound, the Pixies are legends.  And while most of their albums were released in the late 1980s-late 1990s, they've released two albums in the 21st century.  Head Carrier, released in 2016, continues their tradition of amazing guitar riffs, dubious lyrics, and a good amount of shouting.

This time around, the Pixies are made up of Black Francis, on lead vocals and guitar; Paz Lenchantin on bass (replacing Kim Deal); David Lovering on drums; and Joey Santiago on lead guitar.  They all fit together very well, supplementing each others' sounds and making the songs feel very tight.


As for the songs themselves, Head Carrier has a pretty wide variety.  There's balls-to-the-walls screaming in "Baal's Back."  There also plenty of sentimentality, from Paz singing "Might as Well Be Gone" to the closing "All My Saints."  There's plenty of lunacy, from the band-loving "Oona" to the weird and wonderful "Um Chagga Laga."  There's even the surprisingly straightforward "Talent" about the sycophants in the music industry.


Head Carrier is a great reminder that alternative music is still out there.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch


7.02.2017

THE DWARVENAUT dvd

The sculpted dungeons and terrain from Dwarven Forge are some of the most beautiful and sturdy gaming accessories out there -- but what about the person behind it all?  The Dwarvenaut is a look at the life, history, and even process of Stefan Pokorny, the founder and chief sculptor of Dwarven Forge.

The main story of this documentary is Dwarven Forge's then-current Kickstarter, for a modular medieval city.  While the previosu two were successful, Stefan says they need to earn at least two million dollars or the whole company could be in jeopardy.  We see how Stefan and the company try to reach this ambitious goal: raising awareness at Gen Con, shooting more videos for their project, and so on.

Mixed in-between the countdown of the Kickstarter, we learn all about Stefan.  It's no surprise that he played D&D as a child, but he's atill an avid DM, running games (in costume!) for assorted players, complete with lots of Dwarven Forge sets.  He sees D&D as more than a game: To him, it's a way for people to connect, forging connections in a cold, technology-driven world.  He even takes a trip to Gary Gygax' childhoom home.
We also get, in non-linear fashion, the history of Stefan himself: his parents, how he developed his love for and skill in art, his flaws and his strengths.  In many ways, Stefan is living the geek dream life: He does what he loves, he gets to play as well as work, and even when stressed out he has high energy and enthusiasm.
The Dwarvenaut is a very fun look at one person's past, present, and future, as an artist, businessman, and unapologetic geek.  While there's no detailed description about the creation and production of the Dwarven Forge items, by the end of the movie we know how Stefan Pokorny uses his skills and ideas to create them.  This is a very good look at one person's creativity and history.  (DVD extras include deleted scenes, commentary, and the Kickstarter videos from Dwarven Forge.)
Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

7.01.2017

JUNK ART

I may not know much about art, but I know it when I stack it.  This could be the theme for Junk Art, a game from Plan B Games where 2-6 players compete in constructing their own artwork -- but it's trickier than that.

In Junk Art, players are competing to build their own unique artwork to earn fans in different cities; whoever ends the game with the most fans wins.  At the start of the game, there are four sets of 15 unusual-shaped wooden pieces, identical in shapes and in four different colors.  Each player also gets a square base -- about 1" x 1" -- to build their art on.

If the game were just about building the tallest art, this would be pretty dull, as the person with the best balancing abilities would win.  However, Junk Art mixes things up with multiple cities.
Every city has different rules for earning fans.  Usually, players pass cards, with a specific piece and color, to their opponent for them to add to their sculpture; sometimes players pass their whole hand of cards, sometimes just one.  Players usually work on their own sculptures, but sometimes they have to work together on the same sculpture, or move to another player's sculpture each turn.  There are different rules for what ends the turn, such as a player having a certain number of pieces fall off.  Earning fans varies as well, whether all remaining players get fans or the player with the tallest sculpture gets the most fans.  (There's a tape measure included for the latter.)  And after three cities -- with a new sculpture created for each city -- whoever has the most fans wins!
I really enjoy Junk Art.  While balancing the pieces on a very small base is key, it's also important to choose what cards to give other players, to try and get their sculpture to collapse.  The variety of cities and their accompanying rules mean no two games are the same -- even before the different cards are passed around.  And the rules are quite easy to teach.  Junk Art is a lot of fun.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

6.29.2017

BABY DRIVER

Tons of style, slick car chases, and massive amounts of music are the foundation for Baby Driver, the latest summer action movie.  There's not a lot of substance here, but what is here is pretty slick.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is the main getaway driver for robbery crews put together by Doc (Kevin Spacey).  Baby stays mostly silent, constantly listening to music on a variety of iPods to drown out the ringing in his ears.  Doc puts together crews of three robbers, they do the job, and Baby drives them away.  Baby is working off a debt to Doc, which happens after the opening job of the movie.
Baby is happy to get away from crime -- working at pizza delivery, romancing waitress Debora (Lily James) at a diner, taking care of his deaf foster father -- and things seem to be going fine.  But them Doc brings Baby back into the world of crime, with the promise of money and not-so-thinly-veiled threats against his loved ones.  Worse, the crew for the latest robbery is Bats (Jamie Foxx), a self-proclaimed crazy man and killer; and Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), who may be as nuts and dangerous as Buddy.
Baby Driver is pretty much all style. from the elaborate car chase sequences to the soundtrack provided by Baby's soundtracks.  (An early scene has words from the song popping up as Baby dances down the street.)  Ansel is good as a decent guy stuck doing bad things for bad people, and the rest of the cast is solid as well.  Baby Driver is solid summer fare.
Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

6.27.2017

ROUGH NIGHT

Quite a few years ago, there were a few dark comedies about men at a bachelor party dealing with the death of the stripper they hired.  I suppose it's gender equality that the formula is being reversed in Rough Night, where the women have to deal with this problem.

About a decade ago, Jess (Scarlett Johansson), Alice (Jillian Bell), Blair (Zoe Kravitz), and Frankie (Ilana Glazer) were sorority sisters and best friends in college.  In the present, Jess is dragged away from her political campaign and fiancee Peter (Paul W. Downs) for a bachelor party at a glass-walled house in Miami Beach, thrown by the other three friends -- and Pippa (Kate McKinnon), Jess' friend from Australia whos presence causes tremendous jealousy from Alice, who sees herself as Jess' best friend.

The women party it up -- drinking, clubbing, even doing coke -- and they hire a male stripper for Jess.  He gets a bit rough with Jess, and when Alice tries to jump him she accidentally kills him.  Worse, they look very guilty -- they have cocaine, they moved the body to a sex swing to keep it from being seen -- so they decide to get rid of the body.  This involves everything from driving the body through town in a tiny car to dealing with the creepy swingers (Demi Moore, Ty Burrell) next door.  Meanwhile, Peter is freaking out because he can't get in touch with Jess, so he winds up in his own misadventures when driving down to win her back.  And, of course, another male stripper turns up, and folks come looking for the dead stripper...

Rough Night is a pretty basic crude comedy.  There's lot of raunchy humor, from the near-continual profanity, to visual jokes (like the corpse being "disguised" by wearing sunglasses with a penis nose).  The cast is good, with Jillian Bell standing out as the seemingly wholesome teacher who's hornier and raunchier than all the other women.  Unfortunately, this movie follows some pretty predictable patterns: The women all blowing up at each other, a transition to almost being an action movie, and a schmaltzy "best friends forever" ending.  But there are a lot of laughs for most of the movie, making Rough Night good (if somewhat standard) entertainment.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

6.25.2017

THE BOB'S BURGERS MUSIC ALBUM

Wow, that is an awful lot of music!  The Bob's Burgers Music Album has over 100 songs from the very funny cartoon show.  However, getting so many songs on the two CDs is possible because of the majority of extremely brief songs.

Most of the songs on this album are sang by the cast of Bob's Burgers -- H. Jon Benjamin, Dan Mintz, Eugene Miriman, John Roberts, Kristin Schaal -- along with numerous guest stars (notably Megan Mullally, who voices Aunt Gayle and does a dead-on Tori Amos impersonation).  At the end of the album, several bands (including St. Vincent and the National) cover some earlier songs off the album.

Most of the songs are the short tunes that play over the end credits of the show.  There are numerous covers ("99 Red Balloons," "One Way or Another," "You're the Best"), a few full-length songs from the show (the Thomas Edison song "Electric Love," the Die Hard-Working Girl medley "Work Hard or Die Trying, Girl,"), and plenty of scatalogical humor ("The Diarrhea Song," "BM in the P.M.").  There's also a wide variety of songs, from '80s songs to country music and boy bands.
I love the show Bob's Burgers, and I really wanted to enjoy The Bob's Burgers Music Album.  But the shortness of most of the songs (most last less than a minute) can make them hard to enjoy -- and hard to find on the album, since you may need to go through dozens of songs to get to a specific one.  This is good for remembering scenes from the TV show, but I'd rather have fewer full-length songs instead of so many very short songs.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch


6.24.2017

I HATE FAIRYLAND

After reading I Hate Fairyland, you'll never hear the word "fluff" the same way again.  This is a comedy from Image Comics filled with massive violence inside a brightly colored fantasy world -- and it's funny as hell.

A little girl named Gertrude wished she could be on a grand adventure in a magical land.  She gets her wish, being transported (face first) to Fairyland, a magical place full of magical creatures, vibrant colors, and all sorts of animated life.  Queen Cloudia gives her a simple quest: Find a magic key, use it to unlock the door, and return home.  She's given a companion -- the talking fly Larrigon Wentsworth III -- a map of all the known lands, and a small bag that can hold very large things.

Twenty-seven years later, Gert is still wandering around Fairyland.  She hasn't grown physically, she's no closer to finding the key, and she takes her frustrations out on the denizens of Fairyland, usually slaughtering them (even the narrator at the star of the issues) with a battleaxe or cannon.  Larry is sick of Gert but is stuck with her, while Queen Cloudia can't directly harm Gert, as she's still a guest of Fairyland.  The Queen can, however, encourage others to take out Gert -- and she has a plan to make Gert a permanent part of the fantasy workd.
I Hate Fairyland is a demented and delightful reversal of the saccharine-sweet world of some fantasy.  Gert is a true anti-hero, perfectly willing to use or kill anyone in order to get back home.  It's hard not to feel sorry for her, but harder still to really support, well, just about anything she does.  (This is reflected by Larry, who clearly wants to be rid of Gert but can't; he also sometimes pulls out a pistol to help her.)  The first collection, Madly Ever After, sets up this twisted fantasy world quite well; the second collection, Fluff My Life, has the consequences of the cliffhanger at the end of the first collection, plus a little kid in a dragon costume and post-apocalyptic Gert.  If you have a sick sense of humor, I Hate Fairyland is for you.
Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

6.19.2017

ROLL FOR THE GALAXY

Who would have guessed that building a galactic empire would revolve around rolling six-sided dice?  In Roll for the Galaxy, from Rio Grande Games, players vie for victory through developments, planets, and lots and lots of dice rolling.

The object of Roll for the Galaxy is to have the most victory points when the game ends.  Players begin the game with: a cup for rolling dice; a starting tableau of a faction tile (two developments) and a home planet; a construction zone mat with the Citizenry and spots for development and planet tiles; a phase strip, with all the possible roles; a screen which also has all the rules inside; three Home (white) dice in the cup, and two Home dice on the Citizenry, plus any dice given from the home planet.  And a number of victory point chips, based on the number of players, are placed in the middle of the table.
At the start of each turn, players roll the dice in their cup behind their screen, assign the dice on their phase strip to one phase, and all lift their screen together to enact the phases.  Dice normally go under the phase matching the symbol on the dice.  In addition, players can assign any one die to the phase regardless of the die's facing; players can also use the Dictate power to set one die to the side and then assign any other die to any phase.
There are five phases.  Explorer gives players two choices per die.  They can Scout, discarding any number of development or world tiles from their Construction zone mat, drawing a number of tiles equal to the number of discarded tiles plus one, choosing which side to use (one side has a development, the other side has a planet), and putting the new tiles under the tiles already on the mat; or they can Stock, gaining two galactic credits.  Developer puts the dice on the top development tile.  If the dice equal the cost of the development, the development goes into the tableau and its powers start immediately.  If there are fewer dice than the cost, the dice stay on the development; if there are more dice than the cost, dice above the cost go on the next development in the stack.  Settler works exactly like Developer, but for planets on the mat.  Producer puts each die used as a good on available planets, one die per planet unless a development allows more than one.  And Shipper gives two choices per die.  A player can trade goods, for three to six galactic credits, based on the color of the planet.  Or a player can consume goods, getting victory point chips: Always one victory point, a bonus victory point if the die matches the color of the planet, and a bonus victory point if the Shipper die matches the color of the planet.  And the Consumption (purple) die matches all colors and gains a bonus victory point.
After these actions, all dice used by a player go on the Citizenry, and unused dice go back into the cup.  Players can also take dice used on developments, planets, or as goods and place them in the cup.  Players they use their galactic credits to move dice from the Citizenry to the cup, at one die per galactic credit used; if a player has no credits, they automatically gain one.  Then players roll the dice in their cup, assign them to a phase, and  so on.

The game ends when a player has thirteen or more developments and planets in their tableau (including the three they start with) or the pool of victory point chips is empty.  Players then add up the victory point chips, plus they get victory points equal to the cost of their developments and planets; some 6-cost developments and planets give bonus victory points.  Whoever has the most victory points wins!

I really enjoyed Race for the Galaxy.  There is no combat with or blocking of opponents, letting players focus more on their own strategy than that of opponents.  The game starts slowly, but as players get more dice from planets and more benefits from developments players get a lot more dice to use and options for using them.  Players can work to end the game when most beneficial for them, while checking to see if an opponent is close to ending things.  And since active dice don't go back in the cup, earning enough galactic credits to add dice to the cup can be as important as getting more developments and planets.

The one slight downside is that this game requires a tremendous amount of trust: You have to be sure you and your fellow players aren't illegally changing the facing of dice behind the screens before revealing them.  But as long as the players are trustworthy, Roll for the Galaxy is a nice blend of luck and skill in creating a star-spanning empire.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

6.16.2017

RIFFTRAX LIVE: SUMMER SHORTS BEACH PARTY

Ah, summertime.  The season for beaches, barbecues, swimming, and... terrible short features?  Rifftrax Live: Summer Shorts Beach Party continues the MST3K/Rifftrax tradition of joking during terrible movies -- only this time the subjects/victims are short features.

The Summer Shorts feature is hosted by Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy.  This time around, however, they're joined by MST3K alumns Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl, and Bridget Nelson (Mike's wife), along with comedian Paul F. Tompkins.  The guests riff on the shorts with or instead of the three regulars, and everyone joins together to take on the evening's final short feature.

As for the shorts, they prove as terrible -- and therefore ripe for being the subject of jokes -- as the feature films.  There's a safety film involving a magic owl that looks like a furry with a beard.  There's a sexist black and white feature on women in the office.  There's the "exercise" of rhythmic ball movement.  And it all wraps up with two burlap sacks coming to life and being chased by their owner.
It's hard to believe some of these shorts ever got made -- but it's great that the Rifftrax folks got hold of them.  There were a tremendous amount of laughs during all the shorts, and the variety of short features kept the subject matter quite varied.  Even though none of the shorts were beach or summer related, Rifftrax Live: Summer Shorts Beach Party was a very fun way to spend a summer evening.
Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

6.11.2017

IT COMES AT NIGHT

So, what happens when you combine a plague, paranoia, and a low budget with a cast of less than a dozen people?  It Comes at Night is such a movie -- and it's painfully flat and boring.

The movie opens with someone apparently infected and sick, being taken to the forest for a mercy killing and body burning.  We're told (not shown, alas) that there's some sort of incredibly infectious disease that's caused the collapse of civilization.  Paul (Joel Edgerton) survives, with gas masks and plenty of firearms, in his house in the woods with his teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and the family dog.  They follow Paul's rules, live simply, and barricade themselves in the house at night.
Their existence is changed when someone tries to break into the house at night.  This would be Will (Christopher Abbott), who's searching to trade food for water for his family.  Paul is initially skeptical, but he eventually allows Will's family -- young wife Kim (Riley Keough) and their young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) -- to integrate with his family, living and working together.  But Paul's fear of infection remain, there are mysterious sounds in the woods, and Travis is having both nightmares and fantasies about the newcomers to their home.
While bare-bones movies can sometimes work (Clerks, The Blair Witch Project), It Comes at Night doesn't work on so many levels.  We never get to learn anything about the characters, making it hard to root for or sympathize with any of them.  (The bland acting doesn't help either.)  Most of the scares come from Travis' nightmares, which isn't an effective source of terror.  And there's little payoff for the few mysteries introduced in the movies.  This was a huge disappointment.

Overall grade: F
Reviewed by James Lynch