5.17.2015

UNEXPLODED COW

Cheapass Games always has creative premises for their games, whether it's zombie fast food workers (Give Me the Brain!), sous chefs trying to scale a skyscraper while a demonic rabbit tries to knock them down (Devil Bunny Needs a Ham), or faking stories about foreign travels (Captain Park's Imaginary Polar Expedition).  The company went to 1997 for Unexploded Cow, where players try to solve two problems with a common solution -- mad cows in England and unexploded cows in France -- and make some money in the process.

At the start of the game, a City card is flipped over, everyone gets 5000 francs, antes 500 francs to the pot,  and players draw three cards.  On a player's turn, that player draws two cards and can buy cows (for the price on the card) and add them to their own herd.  All cows have a value (if they explode), and some have special skills: stealing a bomb from another cow in the herd, passing a bomb to another cow in the herd, blowing up themselves and the cows on their left and right, or defusing a bomb for 200 francs.  A player can also play events (some of which have a cost) or play cows into other herds, forcing a player to pay that cow's cost and possibly suffering from a bad cow (which costs a player money when it exploded) or a spy (which "works for" the player who put it in another herd).
Once a player has played all the cards they want to play, it's time for the bomb roll!   The player rolls a six-sided die and goes clockwise from the right side of their herd, into other herds if the roll is high enough.  If one of the the current player's cows explodes, the player earns the money for the cow (or pays the cost for a bad cow) from the pot, scores the current City card, and gets the benefit from the city.  If a cow in another herd explodes, that player gets the money from the cow (again, from the pot), but not the City (unless it's a spy, in which case the spy's owner gets the money and, if the current player, the City as well).  If the roll is higher than the number of cows in play, or goes back around to the starting cow, no cow explodes and the turn ends.  If the player rolls a six, the die is passed to the next player clockwise, who makes the bomb roll.  And if the pot ever runs out, everyone antes 500 francs again on the next turn.

When the last City card is claimed, players start taking turns making bomb rolls, beginning with the player who has the most points in City cards.  The game ends when there's no money left in the pot, or when there's one cow left (who gets whatever's left in the pot).  Players than add up all their money, and whoever has the most money wins!

Unexploded Cow is silly fun.  While there's not a whole lot of strategy (buy good cows for yourself, send bad cows to other herds), event cards and the variety in the bomb rolls keep the game from being anywhere near predictable.  The deluxe edition has the colored cards that the original Cheapass Game eschewed, but the artwork is funny and every card has all the information about each cow readily available.  The game plays quickly, and everyone involved should have a good time (as long as they don't think about the fact that they're blowing up cows).  Here's to bovine madness and a quick buck, er, franc with Unexploded Cow!

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

5.16.2015

They Might Be Giants, GLEAN

They Might Be Giants began back in the 1980s with their Dial-a-Song promotion, where people could call a number and hear one of their songs on their answering machine.  TMBG started that up again (though with a far more sophisticated "answering machine") -- and 16 of those songs made it onto Glean, their new album.  Who'd  have guessed such a disjointed origin could result in a pretty consistent album?

As with most TBMG albums, Glean tends towards quirkiness, both lyrically and musically.  There are rock and pop songs ("Erase," "All the Lazy Boyfriends"), almost spoken word ("Madam, I Challenge You to a Duel"), jazz ("Let Me Tell You about My Operation"), and the instrumental title track.  The lyrics are usually strange, often clever (and sometimes too clever), and have both a sense of humor and an undertone of darkness to many of them, whether it's the worst-romantic-song "Answer" or the paranoid "aaa."

I enjoyed Glean.  While not all of the songs are good, there are far fewer terrible songs than on the past few TMBG albums, and quite a few catchy ones.  Glean is a pretty good return to form for They Might Be Giants, often capturing their strangeness, darkness, and funniness together.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch


5.10.2015

A LA CARTE

There are very few dishes that I can cook, and I don't watch cooking shows (except for Masterchef), but I can still enjoy a game about cooking -- especially when the chefs are psychotic and the dishes are disgusting.  A la Carte is that game, a virtual parody of cooking that is just as easy/challenging for little kids as for adults.

The players start A la Carte with a stove (set to zero), pan, a random cup of coffee, a crepe, and a tray for finishes dishes.  On the table are different dishes (in five colors), along with four containers filled with condiments -- lemon (yellow), pepper (black), paprika (red), herbs (green) -- and salt (clear).  There's also a trash can for spoiled dishes, two sinks for used condiments, and three spoons.

Each player chooses a dish and puts it in their pan; dishes have the required condiments, point value (more ingredients mean more points), and required heating level (and, if exceeded, burning level).  A player gets three actions (represented by the spoons).  A player can try to heat their stove, rolling a die; this can heat their stove by 1, by 1-3, heat everyone's stove by 1, or get them a new cup of coffee.  Players can also try to season their dish.  To do this, they tilt the container over their pan and hope the right condiments fall out; they can't shake the container once it's turned over!  If a dish has three or more of the same condiment (including salt) or the stove it too high for the dish, it's ruined: The dish goes in the trash, the ingredients go in the sink, and the player scores no points.  If the player did get all the ingredients in (as long as there aren't three of the same condiment they can have extra condiments) they score the points, choose a new dish (from a color dish they didn't make, unless no more are available), and continue with their turn, if they have any spoons left.  And if a player makes the dish perfectly (no extra ingredients), they get a star; if a player earns three stars, then win immediately!

Oh, coffee cups and crepes.  Coffee cups are one-use items that let a player do things like swap stoves and pans with another player, lower their stove's heating level, or even sabotage another player's dish by seasoning their dish.  And crepes are different (and fun).  First, a player uses all their spoons to put the crepe in their pan.  On the next turns, the player has to roll the die to heat their pan; they then use actions to flip the crepe.  If the crepe lands in the pan on its opposite side, the player scores the points for it; if not, the player keeps trying until they succeed or the stove reaches 7 and the crepe burns.

A la Carte ends when a player earns their third star (and they then win immediately), a player can't put a new dish in their pan, or a player has completed five dishes (not including crepes).  If no one earned a third start, the points for the dishes (and possibly the crepe) are added up, and whoever has the most points wins.

A la Carte is both simple and difficult.  The rules are pretty simple, so younger players will do just fine competing with adults here.  However, the condiments are almost as large as the container opening, so the biggest danger isn't pouring out too many ingredients, but rather them all getting stuck at the opening.  There's a nice sense of humor to the dishes, whether it's the Octopus a la Marseillaire (an octopus wearing a beret, holding a French flag, and smoking a cigarette), Cuban Breakfast (no condiments -- just a cigar and a cup of coffee on a plate), or Rabbit a la King (which looks like a whole rabbit wearing a fur-lined cape).  There's not a lot of strategy involved (except for using the coffee cups), but the physical activity of the game (trying to get the condiments out or flipping the crepe) is a lot of fun.  A la Carte won't be the main entree at a game session, but it's a very enjoyable appetizer.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

5.07.2015

RIFFTRAX LIVE: THE ROOM

Here's a sentence I never thought I'd write: The Crappening has begun and it's off to a great start.  The next four-movie set from the Rifftrax folks (Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett) began last night with one of the most famously infamously bad movies of recent years: Tommy Wiseau's The Room.  This piece of cinematic dreck got the treatment it so richly deserves (no, nor ironic midnight screenings) at Rifftrax Live: The Room.

After riffing on the final "At Your Fingertips" short (best described as sad children making crappy toys that float out of garbage), the trio take on The Room.  That movie is a virtual parody of itself, from writer-director-star Tommy Wiseau's inability to write, direct, or even speak clearly with his incomprehensible European accent, to the terrible plot and acting, to an actor being replaced halfway through the movie.  The Room even has its own famously bad lines, such as "Oh hi Mark" and "You are tearing me apart, Lisa!!!" (both delivered by Wiseau).


This much self-parody is amusing in itself -- and it supplies the Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett plenty of material to work with.  There are numerous pop culture references, from the present (Bill Cosby, Obama and Biden) to the past (the Red Shoe Diaries show).  The trio have a lot of fun with Wiseau's accent ("I'm going back to BrazilaRomaniSlovakia!"), the numerous and terrible sex scenes (which lead to the creation of the sadly accurate phrase "hip-dick"), the people wearing tuxedos playing football, and lots, lots more.  When all is said and done, The Room is so terrible that comments like "And now, some cars" and "I have cancer!" seem perfectly reasonable.
Rifftrax Live: The Room was tremendous fun with a tremendously bad movie.  To conclude with another sentence I never thought I'd write: I can't wait for the rest of the Crappening.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch



5.05.2015

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

The Avengers may be Marvel's most powerful superhero series -- and with their movie, Marvel's biggest box-office hit and focal point for the plot threads begun in other Marvel movies.  Avengers: Age of Ultron brings the team back together for another round of saving the planet and battling their personal and team demons.
Age of Ultron starts with a bang, as the team -- Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), and Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) -- is attacking a Hydra base to obtain Loki's staff, and the Tesseract it contains,.  However, in addition to Hydra's weapons, they have a special project: the Maximoff twins.  Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) can move faster than the eye can see, while his sister Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) can throw energy bolts, read people's minds, and show them their worst fears.  The twins have a hatred of Tony Stark, and Wanda uses her power to show him the other Avengers all dead.

Thor wants to take the staff back, but Tony gets a few days to experiment on it.  He learns the Tesseract has a gem that has a sort of program, and he (with Bruce's help) wants to use it to make a program to protect the planet -- without telling his other teammates.  Unfortunately, it creates Ultron (voiced by James Spader), an artificial intelligence who wants to create "peace in our time" by driving the Avengers to extinction (and a lot more).

The rest of the movie is a combination of the Avengers fighting Ultron, his nigh-innumerable robot duplicates, and the twins -- as well as dealing with their fractured spirit after Wanda shows everyone but Hawkeye their fears.  There's also more fighting between Captain America and Iron Man, a possible romance between Bruce and Natasha, a lot mote character development for Hawkeye, and cameos from night-innumerable supporting characters from almost every other Marvel movie.  Oh, and Paul Bettany goes from being the voice of Jarvis to the character the Vision.


Avengers: Age of Ultron is both enjoyable and frustrating.  The regular cast is quite good as always, James Spader is suitably creepy as the evil robot, and the twins are decent (even if Olsen's character is almost all defined by her accent).  At the same time, the movie feels over-long at times, lots of characters "leave" when we know they'll be back for the sequel(s), and there's a bit too much slow-motion in the action sequences.  Avengers: Age of Ultron is entertaining, but it isn't as quotable, exciting, or fan-fantasy-fulfilling as, well, the last Avengers movie.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

5.02.2015

FREE COMIC BOOK DAY

Today was Free Comic Book Day, a day when comic book stores and publishers give out free comics to those who love both superheroes and comic books in general.  This unofficial geek holuday -- the first Saturday in May -- was an opportunity for comic book stores to draw the interest of both potential new readers and those who have collected comics for years or decades.  And several stores had additional ways to celebrate -- as did the fans!

I was able to get to two local comic book stores (Apocalypse Comics and Players Choice; both in South Carolina) before work.  Alas, getting to Apocalypse Comics 10 minutes after the store opened meant, today, a long wait on line.  Fortunately, it was worth the wait: The store had large stacks of different titles, and while I'm sure they didn't last the day, I was able to get one of every one I wanted -- or that looked interesting.
As with most years, there are a wide variety of genres and publishers.  Marvel Comics had a preview for its upcoming Secret Wars special, while lots of independent publishers used the day to roll out their titles.   There are also lots of books based on television shows (The Simpsons, Bob's Burgers), video games (Street Fighter), and even movies (Fight Club).   And in addition to new characters, old favorites like the Tick, Judge Dredd, and others appear in comics released during the day.

 Both stores and customers got into the spirit of the holiday.  Stores had different events and incentives to draw customers of all ages and get them to spend as well as load up on freebies.  Apocalypse Comics had lots of discounts on various books, games, and figures; they also had lots of other events through the day, from bouncy castles (below) to radio folks doing a live show to "pro" wrestling events.
 As for customers, there was lots of cosplay (glad to see Squirrel Girl [below] is growing in popularity) and discussions about everything from the comics there to the current and upcoming superhero movies.  The little kid behind me had a toy Wolverine claw, while folks dressed as various heroes, villains, and groups.

Free Comic Book Day was, as always, a lot of fun and left me with lots and lots of comic books to read over the next few days.  Now I just have to wait for the first Saturday in May, 2016...

Written by James Lynch

4.26.2015

EX MACHINA

The Turing test, which was created by Alan Turing back in 1950, is used to determine whether, after a series of questions, the questioner can tell whether they've been speaking with a human or computer.  But how would such a test apply, with all the advances in technology, to artificial intelligence?  Ex Machina explores this with a mixing of technology, personalities, and duplicity.

Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is a programmer for Bluebook, the world's most popular search engine.  He wins a company lottery and heads for a week-long trip at the mountain retreat of company CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac).  Nathan gives Caleb a key card that opens certain doors (but not all) in the home, insists that Caleb treat him like a regular guy, and has cameras and monitors throughout the entire house.  Nathan also gets drunk a lot, "remembers" things in a self-aggrandizing way, and has a servant named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) who doesn't speak English and seems to be there to serve Nathan's sexist whims.  But Nathan's big reason for bringing Caleb is seemingly simple: Caleb has created an android, and he wants Caleb to question the android to see if it actually has artificial intelligence.


The android is Ava (Alicia Vikander), who has spent her whole life in a single room with glass walls.  Ava and Caleb seem to immediately hit it off.  She's also been causing the power outages in the home, and during those times she and Caleb aren't being watched, she warns him not to trust anything Nathan says -- and starts flirting with Caleb, including putting on her clothes and wig to look fully human.  But is Nathan misleading Caleb, or is Ava?  What is Caleb's own agenda?  And what about Kyoko?


Were it not for a couple of scenes with extras, Ex Machina could easily be a modern play, focused almost totally on the four main characters, almost all in the same rooms.  And it all works quite well.  The actors all do very well with their parts, from Alicia giving Ava a blend of naive innocence and calculated planning to Oscar's boss who pretends to be a regular guy while constantly making it clear who's in charge and what he wants.  The visuals support the story perfectly, from Ava's combination of sexuality and machinery to the sterile, reflecting-glass environment of Nathan's created home.  Ex Machina is intriguing and quite dramatic.


Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

4.22.2015

AS KINKY AS YOU WANNA BE by Shanna Germain (and others)

Being kinky can be fun -- but what about the first steps towards entering that world?  How to bring it up with a partner?  What should someone know about safety?  What's out there in the culture?  As Kinky as You Wanna Be: Your Guide to Safe, Sane and Smart BDSM by Shanna Germain is a good introduction to the diverse world of kink, BDSM -- and, to a certain extent, well being in general.

As Kinky as You Wanna Be has a different format that most books on sex.  Shanna's discussions on different topics are intelligent, informative, often personal and sometimes humorous.  Interspersed with the chapters are interviews with assorted extras, plus short stories and excerpts from erotica authors including Janice Ashbless, Kristina Lloyd, Remittance Girl, and Shanna Germain herself.  The mix keeps things interesting, as we get different perspectives on the same topics, along with some pretty entertaining fiction that illustrates the discussions in quite exciting ways.  (The book also ends with a glossary of common vocabulary in the kink world, along with resources such as books and websites.)

My only issue with As Kinky as You Wanna Be is that it is, first and foremost, a primer for those new to this world.  The introduction says "Whether it's your first time or thousandth adventure: welcome" before ending with "All you have to do is take that first step."  The latter sentiment is more in tune with the rest of the book: Those experienced in kink will find little new here, from communication (more about overcoming initial awkwardness than expanding one's repertoire) to the glossary.  (I knew virtually all the terms there.)  If you know the scene(s), this is not the book for you.  That said, if you want to discover what you (and others) enjoy, or you'd like to share your interests with someone inexperienced, As Kinky as You Wanna Be is a fine doorway to this side of sex and sexuality.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

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.