4.09.2014

Kylie Minogue, KISS ME ONCE (deluxe)

Except for The Abbey Road Sessions, Kylie Minogue has always been a pop princess, mixing dance and disco to create her own songs about falling in love and hitting the dance floor.  Kiss Me Once (deluxe version) follows this formula pretty closely, and it works as much as it doesn't.

Kiss Me Once is relentlessly upbeat (except for the my-man-cheated song "Sleeping with the Enemy").  Many of the songs are about love, whether it's a long-standing romance (her duet "Beautiful" with Enrique Iglesias), falling in love ("kiss me once/and you will watch me fall/kiss me twice/and I will give you my all"), or the power of true love ("If Only").  Kylie also sounds pretty randy throughout Kiss Me Once, as evidenced by several songs ("Sexy Love," "Sexercise," "Les Sex") and not-so-subtle lyrics ("Hey Hey Mr.President/I'll be your Marilyn").

As with previous albums, there are times Kylie gets overshadowed by synthesizers and electronic gimmicks that feel generic.  At the same time, a lot of the songs on Kiss Me Once make it into the "fun fluff" category, where Kylie's voice shines through or she seems to be having so much fun we don't mind that she's not taking herself seriously.  Kiss Me Once is a likable pop album that is far from deep or consistent, but there's a bit to enjoy.  (The deluxe version has two new songs and a dvd with a music video and several behind-the-scenes features.)

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

4.07.2014

BAD WORDS

Lots of comedies use an unlikable protagonist as the source of dark comedy -- and Bad Words is no exception.  Starring (and directed by) Jason Bateman, this movie begins and ends with his role as a man everyone loves to hate.
Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) is a 40-year-old proofreader with a strange plan: to win the Golden Quill Spelling Bee.  While this competition is for kids, Trilby takes advantage of the loophole that the participants cannot have passed beyond the eighth grade and Trilby never graduated from grammar school.  And Trilby couldn't be a worse competitor: He revels in the hatred of the parents of the other competitors, plays horrible mind games on the kids right before they take their turn, and curses and insults just about anyone who speaks to him.
Trilby is followed by Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn), a reporter (and meaningless-sex buddy for Trilby) for whom getting information from Trilby is like pulling teeth.  Young Chaitanya Chopa (Rohan Chand) is an irrepressibly chipper kid and speller who decides to make Trilby his friend despite all the curses and abuse.  Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney) is the director of the Spelling Bee who'll do anything to keep Trilby from winning, and Dr. Bowman (Philip Baker Hall) is the dignified creator of the Spelling Bee who warns Trilby about making a mistake by winning the Spelling Bee.

Jason Bateman is very good as both director and star of Bad Words.  He makes Trilby revel in being as offensive as possible, while admitting in voiceovers that he doesn't think things through or consider consequences.  Unfortunately, almost every other part of the movie falls to the wayside, existing only to react to Trilby's bad behavior.  There's the ticking clock of the three-day finals, some movement towards sappiness to keep Trilby from being totally unsympathetic, and some revelations that aren't all the surprising.
Bad Words is a movie based solely around the main character's bad traits.  Bateman does well with them, but the rest of the movie is almost deliberately forgettable.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

4.04.2014

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

Captain America is back in action -- and dealing with a lot more than just super-powered villains -- in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  This movie adds a bit more nuance and thinking to the superhero formula, without shying away from some pretty intense action.
The Winter Soldier opens with Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) working with S.H.I.E.L.D., helping Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Natasha Romanoff/the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) take down some terrorists.  But Fury had his own agenda, and Captain America is getting tired of secrets and being lied to.  In addition, Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) are about to launch Project Insight, which will send three heavily-armed Helicarriers in the air to protect (and strike) anytime there's trouble.  Fury thinks this will stop problems before they start, while Cap thinks it's creating fear, not freedom.
Then things get complicated.  When Fury is looking into Project Insight, he's ambushed by heavily-armed men and managed to drop a flash drive off with Cap before heading to the hospital.  Soon Cap is branded a traitor by Pierce, and the all-American hero is fleeing from S.H.I.E.L.D. while trying to uncover the truth and figure out who can be trusted.  Along the way he's joined by Sam Wilson/the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), a fellow soldier who apparently has unlimited access to a high-tech flying outfit.  There are surprises and twists, old enemies, a threat to millions of people, and the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), a powerful assassin with a robotic left arm.

The Winter Soldier joins The Avengers as one of Marvel's best superhero movies.  The cast is terrific, especially Chris Evans as the hero who finds himself adrift not in the modern world's technology and society but in its duplicity and scheming.  There are plenty of appearances from characters in past movies (Cobie Smulders as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, Garry Shandling as a senator) and references to other Marvel comics to make fans of the comics happy, while providing enough information for folks who know this universe through the movies alone not to feel lost.

Not all of the twists in the story are surprising (as in many movies, politicians are not to be trusted), but The Winter Soldier manages to combine action, suspense, and mystery into a movie that could have been just more good guys in colorful costumes hitting bad guys in colorful costumes.  The Winter Soldier is a very entertaining superhero movie for adults.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

3.30.2014

Shakira, SHAKIRA (Target Deluxe Edition)

Shakira has changed.  On her self-titled new album Shakira, the Colombian singer is less inclined to shake her hips and more inclined to think about love -- and deal with bad boys.

Shakira seems divided between romance as a positive and a negative.  There are traditional love songs about dating when she's famous ("Spotlight"), a long-standing love ("23"), reassuring a skeptical love ("That Way"), or finding support from a love ("The One Thing").

More of the songs, though, seem to have Shakira wishing, to paraphrase Brokeback Mountain, she knew how to quit him.  The first single "Can't Remember to Forget You" has her wanting to leave but being drawn back by romantic memories.  Titles like "You Don't Care About Me" and "Cut Me Deep" are pretty self-explanatory, with lyrics like "You don't care about me/If you did you would let me go" and "You cut me deep/Your words are like steel/And now I can't sleep/'Cause I'll never heal."  Even the reassuringly positive song "Broken Record" has her tiring of repeating her love: "I need you to believe in my love/I feel like a broken record/And I told you 700 times/I don't need to keep looking -- my search is over."

Musically, Shakira has a nice variety.  Shakira's voice is as distinctive as ever, handling tender melodies and upbeat tunes equally well.  Most of the songs are ballads and pop songs, with a few forays into dance ("Dare (La La La)") and reggae on "Cut Me Deep" (until the song veers off in a strange direction of drawn-out words); and unlike her last studio album Sale el Sol, Shakira's latest only has a few songs in Spanish.

Overall, Shakira is a little too balanced: There aren't any bad songs, but not a lot of them stand out afterwards.  That said, Shakira is enjoyable to listen to and a step up from a lot of the music that permeates the top 40 music scene now.  And the Target deluxe edition (disclaimer: I work for Target -- but I play for the Mets.  No I don't) has three extra songs, though one is just "Dare (La La La)" sung in Spanish.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch


DR. DEMENTO'S HITS FROM OUTER SPACE

While science fiction is immensely popular, it's also very open to parody and derision.  Filk music (folk songs based on science fiction and fantasy) has been popular at conventions for decades, so naturally much of that made its way to Dr. Demento's comedy radio show.  Dr. Demento's Hits from Outer Space features filk and other comic songs based on science fiction -- and the results are hit and miss.

Hits from Outer Space mainly features songs about Star Wars and Star Trek.  The songs "Stardrek" and "Star Trip" are juvenile, taking cheap shots at the cliches of the Trek universe.  By contrast, "Star Trekkin'" nicely sums up the each character in a few sentences, while "Weird Al" Yankovic (Dr. Demento's most famous find) turns Don McLean's "American Pie" into a summary of The Phantom Menace with "The Saga Begins." There's Leonard Nimoy reciting poetry ("Twinkle Twinkle Little Earth"), a summary of Star Trek: TNG ("Do the Picard") and a rap about the other Trek series ("What's Up Spock"), and a story of a shore leave gone awry ("Banned from Argo").  And for something a little different, Bill Mumy makes the show Lost in Space poignant with "The Ballad of William Robertson."

Surprisingly, some of the best songs aren't tied to a franchise.  "Carmen Miranda's Ghost" from Leslie Fish is an odd yet interesting look at what would happen if a celebrity's apparition turned up on a space station.  And Boots Walker's "They're Here" is a song of alien paranoia that feels like a kindred spirit to "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-haaa!"  It's too bad there aren't more original songs like these on the collection.

I believe true geeks have to be able to laugh at the eccentricities and flaws of their favorites.  The good songs on Dr. Demento's Hits from Outer Space poke loving fun at them, while others take a meaner, mocking approach.  The former outnumber the latter here -- but not by much.

Overall grade: C+
Reviewed by James Lynch
 

3.19.2014

I DECLARE WAR dvd

War is hell -- but what happens when war is fought by kids?   I Declare War shows how fun and games among children can turn into viciousness and betrayal.

I Declare War focuses on a game of "war" (whose origin is never explained) that's a mix of paintball and capture the flag.  Two teams have their own base, with a flag, in the woods, and a team wins by capturing the enemy's flag and bringing it back to their base.  The players can also shoot each other with paintball guns (making the victim paralyzed until they count out "one steamboat, two steamboat..." up to ten steamboats) and kill an enemy with a "grenade" that's a balloon filled with red liquid.

The teams, though, seem more like adults than kids.  Multiple war champion P.K. (Gage Munroe) is obsessed with tactics and history, coming up with numerous strategies and willing to sacrifice his teammates, and best friend Paul (Siam Yu), to win the war.  On the other team, Skinner (Michael Friend) took over by killing his side's general -- and Skinner might be willing to injure and torture players, for real, to win.  One kid is declared his side's chaplain because he was picked last and doesn't want to fight, "Joker" (Spencer Howes) imagines blowing people up with lasers from his eyes, and Jessica (Mackenzie Munroe) uses sex appeal and manipulation to sow doubt and dissent among the players.  Then there's Caleb (Kolton Stewart), who never speaks but travels with his dog and may be the most dangerous one of them all.
 I Declare War is a strange mix of innocence and mature decisions in these kids.  The makeup of the armies feels a lot like the typical characters you'd get in a war movie -- the thinkers, the cruel, the buddies, even the pacifist -- and things play out much as you'd expect from them.  At the same time, the kids can also act like kids: Imagining their paintball guns and water balloons are automatic pistols and real grenades, Joker's continual "Would you rather" questions about tough choices, or one character leaving the war briefly to get some juice.  But the game is all too real for some of the players, and the movie shows how even a pretend war can turn some to cruelty, sacrifice, and test friendships to their limits.
 I Declare War is no Lord of the Flies (which showed what kids can become when society's rules are totally removed) but it's an interesting look at how a fake war can change little kids.  The acting is good and the end is oddly satisfying.  (DVD extras include commentaries, plus the cast playing paintball together.)
Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

3.09.2014

LOVELACE dvd

Linda Lovelace went from being America's biggest adult film star to an outspoken critic of that same industry.  The biopic Lovelace reflects this dichotomy, essentially looking at the title character's life in two halves -- with some factual changes made along the way.

Lovelace begins in 1970 with Linda Lovelace (Amanda Seyfried) as a 20-year-old good girl stuck in a Florida home with an oppressively religious mother (Sharon Stone) and laid-back father (Robert Patrick).  Linda is swept off her feet by Chuck Traylor (Peter Sarsgaard), who's able to charm her parents while introducing Linda to a world of sex and drugs.  In no time at all, they're married.

But it doesn't take long for Chuck to get in financial troubles, and that's when he decides to get Linda into the porn industry to make some money.  He shows a movie with her, er, talent to producers Anthony Romano (Peter Noth) and Butchie Peraino (Bobby Cannavale), along with writer/director Gerry Damaino (Hank Azaria), and they decide to make her the star of their movie.  The resulting skin movie, Deep Throat, becomes a cultural phenomenon and one of the highest-grossing adult films ever, transforming Linda Lovelace becomes a household name.  But there's a dark side to her success...
Again, Lovelace is split almost directly down the middle.  For the first half of the movie, Linda's life seems pretty good: She's a celebrity, meeting people like Hugh Hefner (James Franco), being talked about by Johnny Carson, and giving interviews about her stardom.  But at the middle point, the movie looks at her life again -- this time with Chuck Traynor as a sadistic, selfish, controlling bastard who will rape, beat, or pimp out his wife based on what's convenient for him.  We get to see Linda suffer, struggle, and ultimately grow out of her marriage.

So how does Lovelace work?  It's a mix of positive and negative.  The only two actors with real screen time are Seyfried and Sarsgaard, and they do very well with their roles.  Seyfried captures both the early innocence of Linda (during her audition for the adult film she recites "Mary had a little lamb") and the fear and ultimate maturity from her abuse.  Sarsggard has an easier time of making Chuck into a monster, with a casual expectation that he is to be obeyed or else.  My biggest issue with the movie is its liberties with Linda Lovelace's life.  While the opening describes this as "based on a true story," the story here cherry-picks parts of Lovelace's life for its narrative.  For example, in real life Linda Lovelace became a crusader against the porn industry, yet here she only speaks out against domestic abuse; the contradictions and falsehoods in her public statements are also skipped entirely.

Lovelace isn't so much a movie about one of the most famous porn stars of all time as it is a docudrama about an abusive husband and the wife who overcame him.  Even with a terrific cast, that's a little disappointing given what this could have been.  (The only dvd extra is a big one, as almost every star and both directors talk about the movie.)

Overall grade: C+
Reviewed by James Lynch

3.02.2014

MUTANT MEEPLES

Lots of games involve figuring out how to maneuver to a certain spot -- but none have the absolutely cute superheroes of Mutant Meeples.  This board game has players figuring out how to get the super-powered meeples in Meeptropolis to the crime scenes first, building their team and winning the game.

The game is played in Meeptropolis, a grid board with horizontal and vertical spaces labeled from A to Q, plus lines representing buildings.  (The harder board has fewer buildings.)  Eight super-meeples are on the board: They all have super-speed (a blessing and a curse) and a unique power (shown below; there are also two "sidekicks" with different powers).  Each turn, two letters are drawn and the intersection of those is the location of the crime scene.

Players can use up to three available meeples to reach the crime scene first.  Players select which meeples they're using and how many moves each meeple will take (including their power, which can be used once per turn).  The total of the meeples and moves is added up; after the first person makes their choice, the timer is flipped and everyone else has one minute to figure out their meeples and moves.  When everyone has decided or passed, the person with the lowest number tries to get their meeples to the crime scene.  If the player succeeds, they win the round and one of their meeples used goes on their team; whoever gets six meeples on their team first wins!  But if a player can't get a meeples to the crime scene with their combo, they lose a meeple from their team, the meeples go back to where they started the turn, and the player want the next-highest number tries to reach the crime scene.

But it's not as easy as that.  There are two big obstacles: super-speed and super teams.  Because of their super-speed, meeples have to move in a straight line -- and can only stop if they run into the edge of the board, a building, or another meeple.  And when a meeple joins a player's team, that player can't use the meeple again, making it harder to reach the crime scenes the closer a player gets to victory.


I like Mutant Meeples.  This game has a nice mix of silliness (who wouldn't smile at heroes heroes with names like Forrest Jump, Nacho Fast, and Skewt), and a blend of spatial planning and quick thinking.  While the game doesn't have a lot of strategic depth -- beyond deciidng which meeples to add to your team -- but it's a fun way to match with with other players.  So get your Mutant Meeples race to the crime scenes and build up your team!

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

3.01.2014

The Gaslight Anthem, THE B-SIDES

Contrary to what The Office 's Dwight Schrute said, not every song sounds better acoustic.  The Gaslight Anthem try some new versions of their existing material, plus some odds and ends, on their latest album The B-Sides.  The results vary in quality.

The B-Sides is split almost evenly between acoustic versions of Gaslight Anthem songs and covers (the latter ranging from the Rolling Stones to Pearl Jam), along with one new song.  Unfortunately, while Brian Fallon's voice can keep up very well with the electric guitars and fast pace of the Gaslight Anthem's normal songs, it often feels loud and out of place on the acoustic songs.  As for these stripped-down songs, they mostly sound like pale copies of the originals (except for "Boxer," which here has a nice, different almost-industrial beat that distinguishes it more from the original).

The covers on The B-Sides are more respectable.  While "State of Love and Trust" is almost indistinguishable from the original, this version of Fake Problems' "Songs for Teenagers" is quite moving, and their take on "Tumbling Dice" suits Fallon's voice very well.

B-sides often give bands and singers a chance to experiment more, leaving their comfort and profitable zones to try something new.  The B-Sides shows that the Gaslight Anthem can do decent acoustic songs and covers but they may want to stick with their traditional sound.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

2.24.2014

Shirley Jackson, WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE

Family can support, and family can destroy.  Shirley Jackson's novel We Have Always Live in the Castle is a bleak and haunting look at an insular family haunted by their past and threatened by change.

This novel is told from the point of view of 18-year-old Mary Katherine Blackwood.  She lives alone with her older sister Constance and their wheelchair-bound, forgetful Uncle Julian.  Mary Katherine is fearful of the her neighbors in the town ("the people of the village have always hated us") and resentful that a home that she believes was supposed to go them was taken by someone else.  Mary Katherine only goes in to town for food, avoids everyone as much as possible, and "protects" the Blackwood home by burying and nailing up items in the home and fields.  Her only non-family friend is a black cat named Jonas.

The Blackwood family is famous and infamous because, six years earlier, most of the family were killed by arsenic and their dinner.  Mary Katherine certainly wishes people dead all the time, but she was in her room when it happened.  Constance seemed a likely suspect -- she knows all about poisons and washed out the sugar bowl that was suspected to hold the arsenic -- but she was found not guilty at trial.  Little kids taunt Mary Katherine by singing about it ("Merricat,  said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?  Oh no, said Merricat, you'll poison me") and Uncle Julian keeps copious notes about the night while trying to remember if it ever happened.  (His ailments seem to have come from the poisoning.)

Mary Katherine, Constance, and Uncle Julian have their routines, traditions, and life each other.  That all changed with the arrival of Cousin Charles.  This family member is not part of their traditions and seems only interested in the Blackwood's money.  But the antagonism between him and Mary Katherine is almost immediate, and their words soon lead to threats and actions...

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a quietly horrific tale of madness and tradition.  Like Jackson's story "The Lottery," this novel looks at holding on to, or creating, routines as a way to cope even if they have no real use or power.  Jackson's prose is slow and steady, bringing us into Mary Katherine's child-like universe of three family members against the world while letting us see her paranoia and hatred.  We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a quiet yet powerful story with strong parallels to the Lizzie Borden scandal and the fears of would-be aristocrats fearful of everyone else.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch

2.23.2014

SPORTS ILLUSTRATED SWIMSUIT ISSUE 50th ANNIVERSARY

Every year the folks at Sports Illustrated forget about sports and focus on gorgeous women wearing skimpy swimwear.  I approve.  This year is the 50th anniversary of this wonderful tradition, and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue 50th Anniversary issue pulled out all the stops to celebrate, starting with their flip covers (seen below).

 

The magazine always tries to have more than just great-looking women is great-looking swimwear, and this year they had a variety of new items.  Famed SISI photographer assembled past cover models (including Babette March (the first SISI cover model) to Christie Brinkley, Kathy Ireland, Heidi Klum, and Cheryl Tiegs) to discuss their experience with the magazine -- and get a photo of all of them.  The traditional body paint swimsuit tradition had new models painted in classic suits from the earlier issues.  Kate Upton added to her cover with a photo shoot done in zero gravity, and Barbie finally made it into the issue as well.

For an issue theoretically dedicated to swimsuits, quite a few of the photos have a conspicuous absence of them, choosing instead to focus instead on the hand-bra, topless shots from the back, and strategically placed arms or decorations:

With that in mind, the issue does manage some startlingly beautiful photography.  The models posed in such exotic locales as Madagascar, Switzerland, Brazil, the Cook Islands, and even the Jersey Shore.
The Sports Issue Swimsuit Issue has become Sports Illustrated's biggest-selling issue every year, and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue 50th Anniversary is a fitting tribute to the simple joy of combining beautiful women, beautiful (if optional) swimsuits, and amazing scenic locations.
Overall grade: Yow!  Er, I mean A+.
Reviewed by James Lynch





2.17.2014

DUCK SOUP

Politics may make strange bedfellows, but in 1933 it made the basis for the screwball comedy Duck Soup.   This classic Marx Brothers comedy is far more silliness than satire, and it still holds up very well today.

The fictional nation of Freedonia is almost bankrupt, but wealthy widow Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) is willing to give twenty million dollars to the country -- on the condition that they appoint modern thinker Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) as president.  He's more than happy to take the job, even as he sings about being worse than the last ruler.  He also sets about wooing Mrs. Teasdale: "Will you marry me?  Did he leave you any money?  Answer the second question first."
 For a bad guy, there's Trentino (Louis Calhern), ambassador to the neighboring country of Sylvania.  He wants to marry Mrs. Teasdale, but Firefly is always in the way.  So he hires two spies to dig up dirt on Firefly.  Unfortunately he winds up hiring two incompetents: Chicolini (Chico Marx) is more interested in selling peanuts than spying, while Pinky (Harpo) is a mute pickpocket busy cutting things off of people and tormenting a lemonade seller.  Along the way Firefly makes Chicolini his Secretary of War, there's lots back and forth between Firefly and Chicolini, and a war breaks out -- with Firefly changing uniforms for every scene!
 Far from political satire, Duck Soup is a combination of clever one-liners and exchanges, and broad slapstick humor.  There are plenty of famous lines from the movie (not to mention Harpo;s physical comedy and several sight gags -- including the famous mirror scene), and Groucho, Chico, and Harpo are all hysterical in their roles.  But the other actors exist almost as straight men (and, for Dumont, a straight woman) and Zeppo Marx is pretty boring as Firefly's secretary Bob Roland.  But goofy as the movie is, it also creates an amazing amount of laughter.  My one big disappointment is that there are no extras on the dvd; given the classis status this movie has achieved, I would have liked some commentary from its supporters, along with deleted scenes and interviews.  But despite that lack, Duck Soup is an really terrific comedy.
Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch


2.13.2014

SMASH UP

One popular pastime for the geek world is arguing over what groups  would win in a fight (also the subject of the tv show Deadliest Warrior).  The card game Smash Up from Alderac Entertainment Games tackles this issue -- sort of -- as factions slug it out for control of bases.
Gameplay is, at first glance, simple.  Each player takes control of two factions (in the core game, these are Ninjas, Pirates, Zombies, Dinosaurs (with lasers!), Martians, Robots, Tricksters, and Wizards), mixes the cards for them together, and draws five cards.  Several bases (equal to to the number of players plus one) are in play.  Each base has a Breakpoint (how many points are needed to score the base) and victory point values (three, usually from highest to lowers); some bases also have a special ability.  Players can play one minion on a base, one action, or a minion and an action.  After a player finished playing cards, all bases are checked.  If the value of all minions (and modifiers) on a base matches or exceeds the Breakpoint, the base scores.  The player with the most points in minions gets the first victory point number, the second-most points gets the second value, and the third gets the last value; players can also play any card with a Special ability.  If any player has 15 or more points after scoring, they win!  Otherwise all cards on the base are discarded, a new base takes its place, the player draws 2 cards (and discards down to 10 if they have 10 or more), and the next player goes.


But Smash Up goes beyond simple "play and check" mechanics.  A lot of cards give you more plays (like a minion that lets you play another minion, and that new minion may let you play another card, and so on), and it's not uncommon for someone to go through most of the cards in their hand each turn.  In addition, the different factions feel and play like their namesakes: Ninjas are great at playing surprises from their hand, Dinosaurs are big, Zombies can play minions from the "dead" discard pile, Pirates can sail from base to base, and so on.  In addition, factions working together usually give their benefits to their allies, creating even more possibilities.  Since they all have their own strengths, players can do as well making their own fun combinations (my Plan 9 from Outer Space group was made of Martians and Zombies) as fretting over what works best together.  And Smash Up has a lot of humor, from the over-the-top instructions to cards like the zombie Tenacious Z or the Trickster's "Flame Trap" with an exploding cereal box that has a leprechaun on it.


Smash Up doesn't have any deep strategy or heavy thinking.  It does have a lot of gleeful celebration of its geeky groups, and there are plenty of ways of playing to reach victory.  Smash Up is very easy to teach, fairly quick to play, and a blast for all!

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

2.07.2014

THE LEGO MOVIE

Who's have guessed that a movie with the most blatant merchandising tie-ins ever would still manage to be so entertaining?  The Lego Movie has plenty of toy tie-ins, but it also has some terrific action, a sly sense of humor, and plenty of pop culture references -- plus some metafictional moments tossed in as well.

Emmet (Chris Pratt) is the ultimate regular guy and conformist in a world entirely made out of Lego.  Emmet always follows instruction manuals (from buildings to life), loves everything that's popular, and agrees with everyone in the hopes that they'll like him.  After a run-in with the free-spirited Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), Emmet gets the Piece of Resistance attached to him.  This convinces the blind old prophet Vitrivius (Morgan Freeman) that Emmet is "the Special," a MasterBuilder destined to save the Lego universes -- with some help from other MasterBuilders, from Batman (Will Arnett) to the cute-and-repressing-rage Uni-Kitty (Alison Brie), to the 1980s spaceman Benny (Charlie Day) to Lego characters ranging from Shakespeare to Michelangelo (sculptor) and Michaelangelo (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle), and Lincoln.   Too bad Emmet doesn't seem to have any original ideas besides a double-decker couch.


It turns out that President Business (Will Ferrell) is also the evil Lord Business, a control freak who hates anyone showing any creativity.  Business' plan is to use a non-Lego artifact called Kragle to freeze all Legos in place on Taco Tuesday -- and send in his Micromanagers to pose them as he wants.  Business' enforcer is a split-personality police officer called Good Cop/Bad Cop (Lian Neeson), whose personality changes as his head spins around.  And there are plenty of robot cops and skeletons, not to mention vehicles, to chase the good guys,


The Lego Movie manages to be as entertaining in its own way as the original Toy Story.  The voice talent in The Lego Movie is impressive (especially Will Arnett as the self-important Batman and Liam Neeson alternating between menacing and silly), and the visual effects make almost the entire movie feel like it was built out of Lego sets.  There's lots of humor, some surprisingly touching moments, and plenty of excitement.  The Lego Movie is another terrific animated feature that has as much appeal for adults as for kids.

Overall grade: A-
Reivewed by James Lynch

UNSPEAKABLE WORDS

 It's time for a mix of spelling -- and madness!  Unspeakable Words is a card game from Playroom Entertainment that mixes the spelling you might find in Scrabble with the sanity challenges from the writing of H.P. Lovecraft and The Call of Cthulhu rpg.

The goal of Unspeakable Words is to be the first player to reach 100 points without going insane.  Players begin with a hand of seven cards (each of which has a letter of the alphabet and Lovecraftian image, except for the wild card Unspeakable Letter) and five sanity tokens (which like little Cthulhu figures).  On a player's turn, they use cards from their hand to spell out (and define) a word, excluding proper nouns, contractions, abbreviations, acronyms., and any word previously made in the game  Players then score the points on the cards used to make the word, draw back up to seven cards, and the player to their left goes next.  (If a player can't make a word, they can discard their hand and draw seven new cards.)

But did I mention the insanity?  After a player scores a word, they have to make a sanity roll by rolling equal to or higher than the points of their word on a 20-sided die (or rolling a 20).  If the player succeeds, nothing happens.  If they fail, they lose a sanity token.  On the plus side, a player down to one sanity is no longer governed by the rules of spelling and can make any word they want from their cards (which is when the definitions get really fun).  On the minus side, a player who loses their last sanity token goes stark raving mad and is out of the game.  Also, a player who would reach 100 points has to succeed at their sanity check to get the points and win the game.

Unspeakable Words is both fun and flawed.  The game is amazingly easy to learn, plays pretty quickly, and has plenty of opportunities for strategy (go for big words that are likely to cost your precious sanity, or smaller words that won't get you to 100 points quickly?) and humor.  However, the cards are made of fairly weak card stock, so frequent play will give you some worn cards pretty quickly.  And as a Lovecraft fan, I was disappointed the Cthulhu minis were black with green eyes, not green overall.  But those are minor quibbles for a game that's an easy one to teach and play.  Unspeakable Words is slightly challenging, pretty funny, and a (literally) mind-blasting hoot!

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch