4.28.2016

OBJECTS OF DESIRE by Rita Catinella Orrell and Jason Scuderi

Sometimes two things are combined that had never been put together before but seem like a perfect match in retrospect.  The latest example of this: sex toys and the coffee table book.  Objects of Desire: A Showcase of Modern Erotic Products and the Creative Minds Behind Them, written by Rita Catinella Orrell and designed by Jason Scuderi, provides a visual and written journey through the current world of a very wide range of sexual items.

The subjects of Objects of Desire are beautifully photographed: often on a solid background, sometimes partially or fully submerged for waterproof goods, infrequently worn by a model.  These objects are usually showcased over two or four pages and include the date they were made/released, what they're made of, the manufacture's website, and several paragraphs describing their origin, use, and appeal.  Categories for the book's subjects include Remote- and App-Controlled Toys, Kegel Exercises, Vibrators, Fashion and Jewelry, Cock Rings & Anal Toys, Male Strokers, Dildos and Harnesses, Light BDSM, and In a Category of Their Own.

The items featured in Objects of Desire are impressively varied.  For every item whose sexual purpose is glaringly obvious, there's another that can be "hidden in plain sight" as artwork or jewelry.   There are things made of hand-carved wood and technical marvels that include wireless connectivity, data storage, and even artificial intelligence.  While this book isn't a historical trip or comprehensive guide to this ever-growing area, it certainly showcases the beauty, functionality, and artistry of these devices.
But there's more than just item descriptions.  Scattered through Objects of Desire are interviews with sex toy designers, company business owners, artists, and several sex bloggers (which is my new dream job).  These folks talk about their favorite and least favorite items (toxic materials and crude designs are almost universally hated), customer/reader inquiries, sources of inspirations, trends, and more.  There are also a "foreplay" (forewords), preface,and introduction -- plus where to get (most of) the objects in the book, along with other resources for learning more about this area.
Sex toys have evolved from crude novelty gifts and basic devices.  Objects of Desire highlights the results of this evolution, and the material here -- whether terrific photography or informative descriptions and discussions -- makes for a wonderful treat.
Overall grade: A+
Reviewed by James Lynch




4.25.2016

ELVIS & NIXON

The most requested photograph from the White House is the one showing Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon shaking hands.  But what led to that odd historic moment?  Elvis & Nixon is a quiet yet effective comedy about that might have led to the historic meeting between two seemingly opposite people.
In late 1970, an aging Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) is growing concerned about America's counterculture, whether it's hippies, drug use, Communism, or Beatlemania.  Deciding he needs to get personally involved, Elvis recruits his friend Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettfyer) and they travel to the White House, requesting a meeting with Richard Nixon.  Elvis' plan: to become a "Federal-Agent-at-Large" and to go undercover, infiltrating and arresting people in the counterculture.
Having the most famous singer in the world going undercover may be ludicrous, but Nixon aides Egil "Bud" Krohl (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) see this as an opportunity for Nixon to improve his likability in almost every demographic.  Unfortunately, Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey) just doesn't want to entertain a musician in the Oval Office.  But Elvis and his friends aren't going to accept "no" for an answer, and the two famous people may have more in common than anyone would have guessed...
It would have been easy for Elvis & Nixon to be a simple set of celebrity impersonations, but director Liza Johnson brings out the humanity and desires of the main characters.  Michael Shannon makes Elvis both welcomer and prisoner of his fame, casually accepting women swooning all around him while wishing he could just enjoy a regular life.  (That may be why he desired to go undercover.)  Kevin Spacey has less screen time as the not-yet-disgraced President, yet he manages to make Nixon brilliant and domineering -- yet somehow turned around when he meets Elvis, who casually expects to get and do what he wants.

The humor here is quieter, but it's effective: Elvis' omnipresent guns, Bud and Chapin struggling to make the meeting happen, even Nixon's surprised and surprising response to the person who may be better known than the President.  Elvis & Nixon is an enjoyable, offbeat and plausible imagining of what might have led to this historic meeting.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch


4.18.2016

THE MUNCHKIN BOOK edited by James Lowder

Back in 2000, Steve Jackson Games released a non-collectible card game called Munchkin that parodied both power gamers and the sword & sorcery/D&D genre.  Designed by Steve Jackson and illustrated by John Kovalic, this game exploded in popularity, resulting in numerous new core sets and expansions, merchandising ranging from t-shirts and toys to a plush Duck of Doom (which I have) -- and becoming SJ Games' best selling line of games.  This year the anniversary of Munchkin continues with several core sets getting Guest Artist Editions -- and the publication of The Munchkin Book.  Edited by James Lowder, this book is a celebration of essays about Munchkin from a variety of perspectives.  And while there are no promo cards, each chapter is preceded by a new optional rule.

The essays in The Munchkin Book focus almost exclusively on the original Munchkin game.  As one might expect, several folks involved with Munchkin weigh in.  Steve Jackson shares numerous, er, numbers involved with Munchkin.  John Kovalic shares his favorite illustrations from the core sets he drew.  SJ Games CEO Phil Reed is interviewed by Matt Forbeck.  And Andrew Hackard discussed developing a Munchkin game with the hypothetical Munchkin Baroque.
Other essays here vary greatly, from mathematical game theory ("To Backstab or Not to Backstab") to straight-up comedy (discussing the comedy in "Screw You, Pretty Balloons" or arguing from the dungeon-dwelling monsters' perspective in "Monster Grievances"), playing with little kids ("From Candy Land to Munchkin"), Munchkin charity and conventions ("The Charity Rule") and even mixing romance with Munchkin. ("Flirting 101")

The Munchkin Book is an enjoyable celebration of this wonderful game.  While not all of the essays work well (applying mathematical theories to a lighter game like this feels bathetic, and mixing romance with this cutthroat game seems quite doomed), most of them have a zeal and fun feel that exude the joy of being a gamer, playing this game.  If you like Munchkin, it behooves you to check out The Munchkin Book.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

4.15.2016

MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: 25th Anniversary Edition


Anniversary editions for movies and shows often include extra material, looks back, and other additional materials to celebrate.  Mystery Science Theater 3000: 25th Anniversary Edition follows in this tradition by having more movies, and a terrific documentary, plus the series' usual features and extras.

As is standard for the MST3K dvd releases, the 25th Anniversary Edition has two episodes featuring Joel Hodgson (Moon Zero Two, The Day the Earth Froze) and two featuring Mike Nelson (The Leech Woman, Gorgo).  There are also extras for these episodes, such as Leonard Maltin "apologizing" for his episode, Mary Jo Pehl discussing life after MST3K, and theatrical trailers for the movies featured.  The movies are appropriately terrible, and the jokes at their expense are quite funny.

So what makes this edition different?  First, there are two extra episodes included in this set: the cop movie that looks like a TV cop show Mitchell, and the horror movie about a head in a lasagna tray The Brain that Wouldn't Die.  These episodes are not just funny, but they're also the last episode with Joel and the first starring Mike, nicely showing the transition from the first to last host.
Second is the documentary Return to Eden Prairie: 25 Years of Mystery Science Theater 3000.  Spread over three discs, this documentary has interviews with the show's cast, producers, directors, and behind-the-scenes folks.  There are also lots of clips from early episodes, including the very first episode ever!  It's fascinating to see and hear how the show has evolved through the years.
While I wish the MST3K dvd collections would include full seasons, Mystery Science Theater 3000: 25th Anniversary Edition is the next best thing.  More episodes!  More special features!  A documentary with lots of interviews and rare clips!  This is a wonderful collection for any MST3K fan.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch


4.08.2016

THE TO DO LIST dvd

There are plenty of teen comedies that revolve around sex -- but what about one where the "teens" are in their 20s and 30s, and where the movie may or may not be a parody of teen movies, and the decade when it's set?  The To Do List is a comedy that spends as much time spoofing the teen comedy genre as telling jokes.

Set in Boise, Idaho in 1993, The To Do List revolves around Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza), who just graduated from high school with complete academic honors -- and the reputation as a control freak and a virgin.  She's not interested in partying or boys, until her friends take her to a kegger and she becomes infatuated with Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), a musical good-looking hunk who barely noticed Brandy.  Of course,  Brandy has a nice, geeky friend named Cameron (Johnny Simmons) who Brandy considers just a friend and lab partner.

Brandy writes up a "scam list" of sexual activities to do with assorted people, leading up to her losing her virginity to Rusty.  There's also Brandy's summer job at a pool, run by stoner Willy (Bill Hader) and working with Rusty and Cameron.  There's Brandy's older, obnoxious, sexually experienced older sister Amber (Rachel Bilson), her conservative father Judge Klark (Clark Gregg) and far more liberal mother (Connie Britton).  There are numerous cameos by talented comedic actors, including Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Andy Samberg, Donald Glover, and Jack McBrayer.  There are Brandy's numerous sexual experiments, a prank duel with a stuffy rival pool, and fights between Brandy and her friends.
Did I mention that this movie is set in the early 1990s?  The soundtrack could be a greatest hits collection of songs from the 1990s, characters talk about watching Beaches on VHS, and there's plenty of grunge and Pearl Jam music.
It's hard to know what to make of The To Do List.  This isn't a parody along the lines of Not Another Teen Movie, but it does revel in so many cliches of the teen movie that is comes quite close to parody.  Aubrey Plaza is nicely weird and uptight as the lead, but the cliches are hard to ignore and get tiresome after a short while.  There are some funny moments, but overall The To Do List is a bit disappointing.  (The DVD has several extras, including deleted scenes, commentary, and thoughts from director Maggie Carey.)
Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch

4.04.2016

SPYFALL

Spies have a way of hiding and ferreting out information -- and it turns out, they make the foundation for a really fun party game.  Spyfall from Cryptozoic Entertainment is a quick, easy, fun card game involving listening, bluffing, and planning.

Spyfall begins with 30 sets of location cards in plastic bags, with the game logo on top and the Spy card showing on the bottom.  The first player takes out the cards, game logo on top, and takes out the Spy card and a number of cards (all the same location) equal to the number of players minus one.  The cards are shuffled and dealt out, then every player looks at and then hides their card.  A timer (not provided, but most iPods and cell phones have stopwatches) starts the eight-minute round, and the game begins!

The Non-Spy players want to figure out who the Spy is and successfully accuse them.  The Spy wants to either figure out where they are, avoid being found out, or successfully accuse someone else of being the Spy.  During the game, a player asks another player a question, and that player can answer in any manner they like.  This means asking "Are you the Spy?" is pointless -- a player will simply deny it -- but asking things related to the location ("How many times a year do you go here?"  "How dangerous is this place?"  "What's the most interesting thing you've brought home from here?") can help to establish whether a player is or isn't a Spy (as well as possibly giving information to the Spy about where everyone is).  The player who was asked a question then asks another player a question (not the one who just asked them something), and so on. (A slightly more advanced version has players taking on the role listed on the bottom of the locations,)
During the eight-minute round, each player can stop the timer and accuse a player of being the Spy.  Everyone but the accused player gets to vote, and if the voters unanimously agree the accused player is the Spy, that player flips over their card.  If the accused is the Spy, the non-Spy players win; if not, the Spy wins.  If the vote isn't unanimous, the timer is restarted and the game continues.  Also, if the Spy thinks they know the location, they can reveal themselves as the Spy and guess the location.  If they guess correctly, they win; if not, they lose.

After the eight minutes are up, each player gets an opportunity to accuse someone of being the Spy, and everyone but the accused votes (just like during the round).  If the Spy is found, the non-Spy players each get a point, with the one who accused the Spy getting two points.  The Spy gets four points if they either guess the location during the eight minutes or someone else is successfully accused of being the Spy; the get two points if they aren't discovered at the end of the game.

Spyfall works very well.  The rules are pretty simple, and the speed of the game means it's easy to get numerous rounds played in a very short round.  Since everyone is trying to figure something out -- non-Spies trying to figure out who's the Spy, the Spy trying to figure out the location -- everyone has to listen to the questions and answers even when it's not their turn, keeping everyone involved throughout the game.  Whoever is the Spy has to improvise and bluff while figuring out the location, while other players have to be careful and not jump the gun when accusing others.

It would be nice if there were reference cards with the locations for people to look at, but passing around the instruction book seemed to work well.  Spyfall is a lot of fun, keeping all the players thinking, listening, asking and answering.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

4.02.2016

THE ART OF RICHARD LUONG

The game Cthulhu Wars pits various factions of the Lovecraftian mythos against each other for world domination -- and naturally, it also requires miniatures for the Great Old Ones, minions, monstrosities, and other entities in the game.  Artist Richard Luong has done plenty of art based on the creatures and worlds of H.P. Lovecraft and so was recruited to design the miniatures and cover for Cthulhu Wars.  The process and artwork is featured in the Kickstarter-funded book The Art of Richard Luong.

I was a bit surprised to find that this art book is all about Luong's work in Cthulhu Wars.  The early chapters feature Luong's two-page, full-color painting of each main entity for the factions in Cthulhu Wars; after that are black-and-white images of the miniatures (front and back) for each faction, accompanied by Luong's notes for designing the miniatures.

The later parts of the book feature sketches from Luong, assorted artworks, and the final miniatures that resulted from Luong's designs and notes.

Luong's artwork is quite remarkable, capturing the horror, scale, and otherworldly nature of the denizens of this game world battled over by eldritch entities.  I'm a little disappointed that this work didn't feature more of Luong's work; it could have more accurately been called "The Art of Cthulhu Wars."  But the artwork featured here is excellent, as is the insight into the designs for all of the figures.  (Seeing the final result is a big plus as well.)  The Art of Richard Luong is a must-have for fans of Cthulhu Wars -- or for Lovecraftian art in general.

 Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch

3.28.2016

BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE

In DC Comics, Batman and Superman have been portrayed as both allies (fighting together for good) and enemies (with diametrically opposite views on how to fight crime).  Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice tries to combine both of these concepts, plus lay the groundwork for a Justice League franchise (while borrowing from the comic books Batman: The Dark Knight and The Death of Superman).  The end result is terribly, horribly flawed.

Following the events of Man of Steel, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) has become convinced that Superman is too dangerous a being to be allowed to live.  Meanwhile, Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill) believes Batman is a dangerous vigilante operating beyond the law.  The public seems to be on both sides of this division of views, highlighted by Senator Finch (Holly Hunter) calling for hearings about Superman.  Meanwhile, a chatty Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) has gotten access to General Zod's corpse and the downed Kryptonian ship, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is investigating a mysterious prototype weapon found in the Middle East, and a mystery woman (Gal Godot) has Bruce Wayne's eye as she looks into Lex as well.
While these storylines could have come together well, the execution is pretty awful.  The actors do what they can, but director Zack Snyder has a terrible sense of pacing and throws together poorly-done CGI, unnecessary slow motion, and scenes that are artificial and inauthentic.  (It doesn't help that Eisenberg's Lex Luthor comes across as manic-depressive rather than evil or brilliant.)  The movie is relentlessly grim, in both color scheme and tone, and at least a half hour could have been cut out of the movie and improved it greatly.  The romance feels forced, and there are numerous plot holes that a small child could have pointed out but somehow eluded the movie studio.
Marvel movies, with their flaws, managed to capture the heroism and fun of the comics.  Much as I'd like to see a good Justice League movie, Batman v Superman is a pretty scary preview of what that could be like.  This movie failed on almost every level (though Gal Gadot could make a good Wonder Woman, with better material) and I couldn't wait for it to end.

Overall grade: D
Reviewed by James Lynch

3.18.2016

THE BRONZE

Life can be rough for athletes after their career ends.  Some continue in other areas of their sports, some find other interests, and some try to keep trying to relive their glory days.  The latter is the beginning for the expletive-filled comedy The Bronze.

Back in 2004, Hope Annbelle Greggory was an American Olympic gymnast.  When she injured her ankle and continues on to win the bronze medal, she became America's sweetheart.

Jump ahead to 2012, and Hope (Melissa Rauch) is still obsessed with her former fame and career -- in quite a unique way in the opening scene.  She lives in Amherst, Ohio, cursing at and insulting everyone who doesn't treat her as a superstar.  She has no time for young up-and-coming, ultra-nice gymnast Maggie Townsend (Haley Lu Richardson), and she refers to gym owner Ben Lawfort (Thomas Middleditch) as "Twitch" due to his facial tics.  Hope lives with her postman father Stan (Gary Cole) -- yelling at him as much as everyone -- and she gets money from an allowance from him, along with stealing money from letters before her father can deliver them.  She drinks, does, drugs, and will have sex in exchange for very little.  And she always wears the tracksuit she got in the Olympics.
When her father cuts off her allowance and locks up his mail truck, Hope sort of starts looking for a job.  Then an unexpected opportunity comes along: Before Hope's former and Maggie's current coach killed herself, she sent a letter to Hope leaving her $500,000 -- conditional on Hope training Maggie.  At first Hope is fine slacking off and even hurting Maggie's shot at the Olympics, getting Maggie to eat so much junk food she develops a "beer gut."  But them Olympics gold and silver winner Lance Tucker (Sebastian Stan) turns up as in charge of the American gymnastics team and wants to take over Maggie's training, so Hope starts taking her coaching job seriously.  Then it's a path to the Olympic trials, then the Olympics, and whether Hope will help Maggie eclipse her former fame.
The humor in The Bronze comes almost exclusively comes from Hope's never-ending stream of cursing, insults, and selfishness -- and that's far from enough to sustain the film.  Melissa Rauch doesn't bring much to make her character any more likable or sympathetic through the film, giving us a protagonist who's pretty terrible from start to finish.  There are scattered funny moments through the movie -- notably a gymnastics-filled sex scene -- but the story arc is predictable, the romantic subplot feels inauthentic and tacked on, and The Bronze is, in the end, forgettable except for the copious amount of profanity.

Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch

3.14.2016

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE

So, is it psychological horror or an extraterrestrial menace?  This is the central question of 10 Cloverfield Lane, a claustrophobic suspense film that could almost be a three-person play.
The movie opens with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) rapidly cleaning out her city apartment (but leaving her -- engagement?  wedding? -- ring behind) and driving off.  Driving in the countryside, her car is rammed by another vehicle, and when she wakes up she's in a room made out of cinder blocks, hooked to an IV and handcuffed to the wall.
She soon meets Howard (John Goodman) and learns that she's in his underground bunker.  He tells her that there's been some sort of attack on America -- maybe the Russians, maybe Martians -- the air is contaminated and everyone above ground is dead.  He rescued her from her wrecked car and expects -- sometimes demands -- her thanks and obedience.  He keeps the keys to outside on him at all times, along with a gun.  He expects them to be in the bunker for at least a year or two.  And the only other person in the bunker is Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a local guy who helped Howard build his bunker.
Naturally, Michelle is skeptical.  She wonders if Howard caused her car accident, she wonders if there really was any attack, and she swears she hears cars and other sounds from outside.  But while Howard's stability seems to come and go, there are also plenty of warning signs outside as well.  The trio soon find themselves bouncing back and forth between paranoia and being an impromptu family.

10 Cloverfield Lane has a simple and effective setup, as the three characters are forced together in a waiting game whose rules seem to keep changing.  The cast is good, especially John Goodman, and there's plenty of suspense generated by their "what if?" situation.  The resolution isn't quite as interesting as what happens beforehand, but 10 Cloverfield Lane is interesting and entertaining.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

3.07.2016

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DOOR

Horror movies would not exist or be much shorter if the characters in them would just follow instructions.  Instead, they always seem to ignore warnings and read from forbidden books, feed Gremlins after midnight, or engage in dubious burial practices.  The latter is a key plot point in The Other Side of the Door, a supernatural horror film that's very familiar.

Maria (Sarah Wayne Callies) and her husband Michael (Jeremy Sisto) are an American couple living in Mumbai, India.  They have a young daughter named Lucy (Sofia Rosinsky) and seem like they should be happy -- but that's not the case.  Maria is always depressed, because (as we learn in a flashback) they also had a young son named Oliver, and when the car went into the river Maria had to leave Oliver to drown while she saved Lucy.

After Maria almost overdoses on sleeping pills, the housekeeper Piki (Suchitra Pillai) has an unusual solution for her: If Maria goes to a remote temple in the forest and spreads Oliver's ashes at its steps, when night falls she will be able to speak to Oliver through a locked door and say her final goodbyes.  But Piki makes Maria promise that no what she hears, she is not under any circumstances to open the door.
Of course Maria makes the trip -- and of course she winds up swinging open the door.  It's not long afterwards that strange things begin happening: Aborigine-type men appear and chant, Oliver's favorite stuffed animal begins turning up, things in the house keep moving, Lucy claims she's playing with Oliver, and mysterious figures start appearing.  Soon these events become much more menacing, Maria's nightmares seem to be coming true, and things keep getting worse and worse...

The Other Side of the Door isn't a terrible horror movie, but it has far too elements that have been used many times before.  The grieving parent whose bringing back a deceased child with terrible results has been used plenty of other times -- from "The Monkey's Paw" to Pet Sematary -- and nothing original or surprising is done with that cliche here.  I was hoping the Indian setting would lead to more exotic elements, but that's almost never the case here.  Instead, we get dark figures either lurking in shadows or creeping forward, over and over.  This movie was a letdown.

Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch

3.04.2016

ZOOTOPIA

There are plenty of cartoon animals who wear clothes and act like humans -- and in Zootopia, predators and prey live together and generally get along.  This being a Disney movie, there are also lessons about not judging others, dreams coming true, and some mystery to boot.

Ever since she was little, bunny rabbit Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) dreamed of leaving her family's carrot farm in the sticks and becoming a police officer in the massive metropolis of Zootopia.  She worked hard, got great grades, and finally made it.

However, life in the big city is hardly what she wants.  Lots of the larger animals look down her (literally and figuratively), and the water buffalo Police Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) sticks Judy on traffic ticket duty while the other police officers look into the disappearance of 14 predators.  Mayor Lionheart (J.K. Simmons) thinks Judy's assignment is a token program, while Deputy Mayor Bellwether (Jenny Slate), a sheep, is thrilled a small animal is getting a chance at a serious job.
 Judy gets the chance to prove herself when she agrees to find the missing Mr. Otter within 48 hours -- or resign if the fails.  To do this, she blackmails the con artist fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) into helping her.  Their investigation leads the reluctant duo into underworld critters, predators turning savage, medical mysteries and assorted conspiracies.  And life lessons.
 Zootopia is more cute than funny.  The voice talent and animation are good, and there are plenty of jokes and references for adults: Tommy Chong as a hippie yak, references to The Godfather and Breaking Bad, and the character Gazelle who looks a whole lot like her voice actor Shakira.  But the story is very predictable and there are more chuckles than outright laughs.  Zootopia is entertaining and very, very light.
Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

2.27.2016

REDSHIRTS by John Scalzi

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

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

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

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

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

2.21.2016

FANTASY FREAKS AND GAMING GEEKS by Ethan Gilsdorf

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

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

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

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

Overall grade: C+
Reviewed by James Lynch

2.19.2016

THE WITCH

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


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

Overall grade; F
Reviewed by James Lynch