3.31.2008

AQUA TEEN HUNGER FORCE COLON MOVIE FILM FOR THEATERS

The Cartoon Network 'toon Aqua Teen Hunger Force could be described as an inaction show: Most of the 12-minute episodes have the characters standing around talking, making excuses not to follow any developments, and saying weird stuff. Even these brief episodes are hit and miss; the full-length movie Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters fails in minutes.

The plot, such as it is, has Master Shake (Dana Snyder), Meatwad (Dave Willis), and Frylock (Carey Means) getting involved with a powerful cosmic piece of exercise equipment called the Insanoflex. Fans of the series will be thrilled to see just about every character from the show here, fron neighbor Carl to the talkative, steam-emitting Cybernetic Ghost, video-game creatures Ignignokt and Err, aliens Oglethorp and Emory, and Dr. Weird and Steve. Space Ghost even makes a cameo!

If seeing all these characters together is all you need from a comedy, you might find a little enjoyment in this movie. Unfortunately, for the rest of us the movie is pretty much pure pointlessness. Except for a wonderful opening scene where the "let's go to the lobby" song gets taken over by speed-metal movie theater foods, there doesn't feel like any attempt at any jokes or humorous situations, just characters saying and doing stupid things.

The poster for Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters was done by Frank Frazetta and is much more sophisticated than the art of the actual movie. Likewise, some of the trailers for this movie were funny, while the actual movie is painful. It was a struggle for me to sit through this. Avoid!

Overall grade: F

Reviewed by James Lynch

3.29.2008

Vampire Weekend (XL Recordings, 2008)


The members of Vampire Weekend met while studying at Columbia University in New York City, and took their name from a B-movie they all worked on. Describing their sound as "Upper West Side Soweto," Ezra Koenig (vocals and guitar), Rostam Batmanglij (keyboards, guitar, producer), Chris Baio (bass), and Chris Tomson (drums) combine rock and punk with reggae and township jive. It's an intriguing combination to say the least, and despite some reservations I have, they pull it off fairly well on their self-titled debut album.

Given lyrics making multiple references to Cape Cod, college life, designer clothes, and gourmet tea, it would be very easy to describe Vampire Weekend as punk reggae for preppies, with all the dismissiveness that implies. They redeem themselves, though, by demonstrating a firm understanding of the music they emulate. This is made particularly remarkable by the fact that their primary influences, from Bob Marley to bands like The Clash and The English Beat to even Paul Simon's Graceland, come from before the band members were even born. And they also do a good job of working world music influences into a mainstream rock and pop context, which is something I wish more bands would try to do. And it's produced some positive commercial results too, as the energetic single "A-Punk" has gotten substantial play on mainstream radio.

Youthful energy, combined with a willingness to venture into musical territory that most people their age know nothing about, give Vampire Weekend a sound that's a breath of fresh air in today's pop market. With a little bit of maturity, they could be major players in the music scene in the years to come.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott

3.28.2008

Dance of Death (2005)

After reading Brimstone, I couldn't wait to get into the follow up novel, Dance of Death. The dynamic writing duo of Preston and Child have carefully crafted an story that brings a new level to serialization.

In Brimstone, you may recall that Agent Pendergrast was hot on the trail of his archenemy brother, Diogenes. Clearly there was bad blood between them, and that was before Pendergrast got bricked up inside an Italian castle. This time Diogenes is planning a horrific crime, and Pendergrast enlists the aid of his policeman friend, Vinny D'Agosta to stop the crime. The only thing blocking them is that they don't know what he's going to do, when he's gonna do it, or even where he really is. And they can't turn to conventional law enforcement because according to them Diogenes died years ago, and isn't even alive. Yeah, this is an easy crime to solve!

What follows is a great story on two levels. The first is that this book's story stands on its own, and is a decent read as the plot progresses at runaway freight train speed, or maybe faster in a few spots. The second level is what makes it even better. Throughout Dance of Death, there are references to characters and plots from many of the other novels that these authors have written. It's a real treat for the dedicated reader to find references to (and characters and locations from) Relic, Cabinet, Thunderhead, The Ice Limit (my favorite is the Extreme Engineering Solutions stuff where they even talk about the unfinished mission of a certain large rock...), and the more recent Still Life With Crows, and even Mount Dragon. Preston and Child have labored hard to populate their universe with complex and dynamic characters, and they are not afraid to call on them as the situation arises. They refer to this as "pangea" and it clearly sets them apart from other authors.

In my view, Dance of Death is a really fine thriller, and about as good as it can get. While it's a lot of work to read such a pile of books to really appreciate it, the serious fan will be well rewarded for their effort. Any fan of thrillers should put the Preston & Child duo at the top of their reading list as I do.

Overall Grade: A+

Reviewed by Jonas

Love Story (1970)

Once in a while you find and older film that really stands out as a classic. While I was seriously young when Love Story graced the silver screen, it has stood the test of time. Directed by Arthur Hiller, it stars Ali MacGraw, Ryan O'Neal, with a small part by a youngish Tommy Lee Jones.

The premise of the story is a tale as old as time: two young lovers must go up against their disparate social levels. More specifically, MacGraw is Jennifer Cavalleri, a concert pianist studying up at Radcliffe. Her father owns a bakery in Rhode Island, and she is solid middle class. On the other hand, O'Neal is Oliver Barrett IV, and he has a few halls named after him a Harvard. His family has "megabucks" and he is solid upper class. The classes clash when he brings her home to his parents, and she clearly is not good enough in their eyes (we haven't progressed much from Becoming Jane). We follow this relationship through several years as Barrett attends and graduates from Harvard Law, as he is disowned from his parents.

This movie is definitely a tearjerker. While we start at the end, we know that their love did not last, and Jennifer is abruptly taken away from him. While the disease is never stated, I would guess, based on that it was diagnosed from a blood test, her age, and the rapid progression, and no need for surgery, that it was an acute leukemia. Thankfully, great strides have been made in the treatment of that disease, and I have no doubt she would have done much better today.

This film is well known also for its musical theme. I've had "Theme from 'Love Story'" in my collection for years, but never knew where it came from. It's actually a decent song, although it's not exactly a rocking number.

Love Story is a particularly strong film. It moves well, with strong characters that are easy to care deeply about. It is well acted, and well paced. Roughly half the film takes place in New York, and half in Boston, with the outside scenes all shot on location. This attention to detail clearly shows through, and this movie shines from all the polish. While this is an oldie, it certainly is worth seeking out, and it's amazingly timeless. It's easy to see why it was nominated for 6 Oscars, and the musical score won an Oscar award.

Overall Grade: A+

Reviewed by Jonas

Becoming Jane (2007)

I'm really not a big fan of what's referred to as "period films." However, after watching The Jane Austen Book Club, I was intrigued to know more about this author whose popularity has clearly sustained. In Becoming Jane, Anne Hathaway takes on the role of Jane Austen at a pivotal point in her life.

Jane Austen comes from a family of what they call "slight fortune." Her father is a vicar for the local church. While they have a nice home, and many friends, with other siblings, the only hope for the daughters in the family appears to be marriage, preferably to "marry up." In Becoming Jane, we get a front row seat of what these not quite prearranged, but clearly carefully guided, marriages that must have one objective: to marry someone with more dough than your family. While this recurring theme occurs in many of Austen's works, this is because the author experienced this herself.

Anne Hathaway as Jane did a good job of portraying this complex character who gets torn between a relationship for love, and one for money. There are also good supporting performances from James McAvoy, James Cromwell, and Julie Walters.

However, there are two downsides to Becoming Jane. The first is that this film is long, and slowly paced making it better suited to a matinee than night viewing which can degenerate into a snooze fest. The other is that there are many characters, and on several scenes for too long I was trying to figure out who all these folks were which points to a screenplay that lacked some clarity.

Overall, Becoming Jane is a grand look at the storied live of this beloved author. With period costumes and scenery, it's visually quite strong and interesting. I believe that fans of the author will be pleased.

Overall Grade: B

Reviewed by Jonas

Next (2007)

Whenever I see a Nicolas Cage film, I always think the guy is just not acting, and he plays himself, which is a little flat. While he often plays the same character, with the same persona, once in a while he finds a role that this fits the bill. Rounding out the cast of Next is Julianne Moore, and Jessica Biel.

The premise of the film is that Cage is Chris Johnson, a stage magician at a second rate casino in Vegas, at a second rate show. Yeah, the guy's life is kind of mediocre, hence why Cage's persona gets the job done. However, this character does have one exceptional ability: he can see into the future. No, it's not a crystal ball type of thing, and it only gets him about two minutes ahead, but it still is kind of cool. It's also useful when he heads to the casino to supplement his income.

For some reason, as we plod ahead, Chris has a vision of meeting a woman, Liz Cooper played by Jessica Biel, at a diner at a certain time, and for whatever reason he thinks he is seeing this more than two minutes ahead which he has never done before. Add in another plot of a rogue nuclear weapon loose in the area, and we get a thriller. Hot on the tail of this soothsayer is Callie Ferris, played by Julianne Moore who thinks that Chris can tell her where the nuke is.

Many of us are always fascinated by these films that show the ability to look, or even travel into the future. I enjoyed Next because this time it was far more plausible than some overgrown time machine, although equally unrealistic. This film is reasonably acted, and plotted, and well paced. If you want to see an average attempt at the Hollywood blockbuster, than Next is a reasonable option.

Overall Grade: B

Reviewed by Jonas

3.27.2008

Mark Fry, Shooting the Moon (Bourdidlebaby, 2008)


In 1972, a English teenager studying art in Italy named Mark Fry brought his guitar into a recording studio and cut an album. Heavy on the reverb and chock full of cryptic imagery, Dreaming With Alice never got released outside of Italy and seemed destined for utter obscurity. And yet, for fans of psychedelic folk music, finding a copy of this album is like discovering the Lost Ark. The fact that information on the album, plus a couple of recordings off of it, can be easily obtained with a simple Google search indicates that at least a few people think Dreaming With Alice is worth remembering. As for Fry, he's been hanging out mainly in France, doing more painting than anything else. But I guess he decided that thirty-six years was enough time to keep his fans waiting for a follow-up. Fry's sophomore effort, called Shooting the Moon, came out earlier this year.

Shooting the Moon places Fry squarely in the singer-songwriter genre. The music focuses on Fry and his guitar, with mostly light accompaniment. It does not have the hypnotic dreaminess of its predecessor. After hearing a couple of tracks off Dreaming with Alice (hear them for yourself here), I decided that there was something unique and strangely compelling about the sound of that album which the more mundane new recording could have used. I was struck, however, by a comment I read in a review of the first album about Fry possessing an "honest likeability" that makes the songs work. If anything remains unchanged for Fry all these years later, it's that there's something endearing about the guy. The lyrics sound like the work of a man who's been a bit down on his luck romantically, but Fry comes across as refreshingly real and believable, and you find yourself rooting for him. Fry's songs are unassuming and unpretentious, and it almost feels when you listen to Shooting the Moon like he's sitting next to you at a bar discussing life over a few drinks.

I like Shooting the Moon for the most part. Like I've said about several albums I've reviewed though, I'm worried that whatever chances the album may have for a commercial breakthrough are likely to be undone, ironically and unfortunately, by the album's consistency. Every song is pretty good, but there's no great standout track that can force its way onto the radio or people's hard drives. Still, if you like honest, down-to-earth songwriting, Shooting the Moon has plenty to recommend it.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott


3.25.2008

Tripping the Rift: The Movie

The TV series Tripping the Rift has always been crude, willing to take swipes at popular culture, and often extremely funny. Tripping the Rift: The Movie is a direct-to-dvd full-length adventure that isn't as good as the series' episodes.

All the regulars are back for this computer-animated cartoon about the universe's most messed-up space adventurers: Chode (Stephen Root), the ship captain who's short, purple with green spots, has four tentacles, and is obsessed with sex, money, and sometimes his crewmates; Gus (Maurice LaMarche), the barely-closeted golden robot who's the chief engineer; Six of Nine (Jenny McCarthy), the ship's android science officer and Chode's sexbot; T'nuk (Gayle Garfinkle), a grosteque, raspy-voiced centaur-like woman who's thoroughly vain; Whip (Rick Jones), Chode's reptilian teenage nephew; and Bob (John Melendez), the ship's computer that acts as if it's a neutoric human. Darph Bobo (Terrence Scammell), Chode's nemesis and leader of the Dark Clown empire, returns as well to torment Chode.

The movie has very little plot. The main storyline, a Terminator 3 parody, is that a Terminator-like Darph Bobo is chasing Chode from planet to planet while Chode plans his own birthday bash. There are also extended parodies of Young Frankenstein (in black and white) and Desperate Housewives , plus a jungle treasure hunt, time travel, numerous pop culture references, and more.

But not much more. Maybe the crude humor works best in 30-minute installments, but here the humor is hit and miss. Worse, the show's creators didn't take advantage of the gross humor opportunities an "unrated" movie offers: All we get is cursing that isn't bleeped out. And the only dvd extras are a making-of feature and, if bought at Best Buy, three episodes called "Best of Six."

Die-hard fans of Tripping the Rift may want to buy Tripping the Rift: The Movie. Me, I'd urge you to pick up seasons 1 and 2; I'll be waiting for season 3 to be released instead of rewatching this.

Overall grade: C

Reviewed by James Lynch

3.23.2008

Gracie (2007)

Yet another entry into the genre of "stand up and cheer" sports movies is Gracie. This time around, the sport is soccer. However, this film is a little more than just another sports film. Carly Schroeder stars as Grace "Gracie" Bowen.

At the Bowen house, the family lives, breathes and eats soccer 24/7. The focus of this effort is centered on the eldest child, Johnny, an athletically gifted high schooler that is the star soccer player, coached by his father (ably played by Dermot Mulroney) who is reliving his glory days. Tragically, Johnny is abruptly killed, and reasonably so, it effects the entire family.

As the Bowen family attempts to move on from their loss, Gracie, the sister, decides to play soccer and pick up right where her brother left off. This film chronicles the true story of the uphill battle that she faced, from her family, her friends and the school. Oh, I should mention that this took place in the 70's, and there was no girls soccer team so she was fighting to take the field with the boys.

As a child of the Seventies, I appreciated the soundtrack that used all time appropriate tunes. The props department also paid attention to details such as the 70's specific packaging of the Cornflakes and Gatorade. While neither is essential, it does go towards making a decent film better, and keeping the time setting authentic and believable.

The bottom line is that I enjoyed Gracie. It tells a story of fighting for equality, and moving on after tragedy. It's good drama, and a good sports movie, which are always a combination worth watching.

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by Jonas

3.22.2008

Run Fatboy Run

I think there will be no movie title that makes me laugh more than Run Fatboy Run. It's a shame that the movie is such a waste of terrific talent.
At the film's opening, Libbie (Thandie Newton) is very pregnant and very ready for the day's wedding ceremony, and her cousin Gordon (Dylan Moran) is bouncing back and forth between her and the groom, Dennis (Simon Pegg). Dennis is panicking, and when he sees an open window he takes off, with the rest of the wedding party hollering at him.

Five years later, Dennis is in a rut. He sees his son Jake (Matthew Fenton) sometimes, but screws up their plans; he's also rebuffed by Libbie. Dennis has a small job as a security guard for a women's clothing store, he's behind on the rent for his small apartment, and he drinks and smokes constantly. Worse, Libby is dating Whit (Hank Azaria), an American who is everything Dennis is not: handsome, fit, wealthy, and responsible. When Libby mentions that Whit is running a 26-mile marathon along the Themes, Dennis announces he's running it as well, thinking this will show Libby that he's changed.

Of course, Dennis is completely out of shape and unmotivated, but soon his planned run causes a stir in the community. Gordon bets all his money that Dennis will finish, so he makes himself Dennis' trainer. Dennis' landlord Mr. Ghoshdashtidar (Harish Patel) announces that he'll be Dennis' co-trainer -- which consists of whacking Dennis in the butt with a spatula. And the labdlord's daughter Maya (India de Beaufort) says that if Dennis finishes she'll forget all the rent he owes, but if he loses he gets evicted from his apartment.

There's a lot of talent here -- the script was written by Simon Pegg and Michael Ian Black, and the actors are all very skilled -- but the result is a very juvenile movie. There are a few chuckles, but the film can't resist any gross-out gag or having Dennis do pratfalls or sweat profusely anytime he exercises. Worse, the film is shamelessly manipulative: In the first half Whit seems to do absolutely everything Dennis tries to do better, while towards the end Dennis is transformed into a hero while Whit is villified to a painfully obvious extend. This movie is David Schwimmer's directorial debut; let's hope he learns something about subtlety before he directs again.

If you like Simon Pegg, rent or buy his terrific films Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz. As for this, I say run, filmgoer, run -- away from Run Fatboy Run.

Overall grade: D

Reviewed by James Lynch


3.21.2008

Confessions of a Superhero

Most of us have been kids who dreamed about being superheroes when we grew up -- but Confessions of a Superhero may make you glad your life didn't take you down that path. This documentary, directed by Matthew Ogens, examines four people pretending to be super characters while pursuing their own dreams.

In Hollywood, lots of actors supplement or make their living dressing up as superheroes, offering to be photographed with tourists, then hoping for a tip from the tourist. Confessions of a Superhero looks at four of these faux heroes: Christopher Dennis, a Superman actor who resembles Christopher Reeve; Maxwell Allen, a Batman with quite a bit of anger; Jennifer Gerht, a Wonder Woman; and Joseph McQueen, a black man covered in plastic to become the Hulk.

All four of these people see themselves as actors on the verge of something better, but they take different approaches to their lives pretending to be superheroes. Dennis is a massive Superman fan whose apartment is filled with memorabilia and photos, from the floors to the walls. Allen has plenty of problems, from a barely-controlled rage to ever-improbable tales of his violent and dangerous past. Gerht treats her Wonder Woman work as a day job, as she works in becoming a better actress and auditioning for commercials. And McQueen, who was once homeless, considers posing for photos and hoping for tips as "panhandling."

This documentary gives a good deal of insight in the background and attitudes of the actors in this line of work. (There are innumerable other characters wandering the streets, from Star Wars aliens to Pinhead and Ghost Rider.) A sheriff explains the laws governing these folks -- they can't approach fans for photos, they can't be too aggressive, and they have to stress that tips are optional. Some people see these actors as helping tourism, while others see them as bums. They even sometimes become famous (appearing on The Jummy Kimmel Show) or infamous (when the news reports show "Elmo" getting arrested).

Confessions of a Superhero is interesting, but not particularly insightful. The four actors here seem realistic about their roles as tourist attractions, but this is basically another story about actors doing something a bit silly while searching for their big break. Ogens generally lets his subjects speak for themselves, but some showy touches (Allen visiting a psychiatrist in his Batman costume, Dennis interviewed in a pale green room with a pale green light) are a little over the top. This is a decent documentary, but it's nothing, er, super.

Overall Grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch



3.19.2008

The Game Plan (2007)

In the film, The Game Plan, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson plays the guy who lives and breathes football. In fact he's the star quarterback for a fictitious Boston professional team. Suddenly he discovers he has an eight year old daughter, Peyton Kelly (Madison Pettis) when she literally appears on his doorstep. Somehow, she doesn't fit into his plans for the all night party at the local club, or the team practice, or the rotating girlfriends. Her interest in ballet also clearly doesn't fit into this jock's macho image.

However, quite predictably, as the film progresses, the father and daughter bond. He gets involved in the ballet; she in his football. We learn the circumstances as to how she ended up at his door, and he'll do anything to keep her around and happy.

All right, I know that The Game Plan is put out by Disney, and everything they do tastes at least a little saccharin sweet (and they probably put Prozac in the coffee down at the happiest place on earth"). While I suppose that if I were 10 years old, and hadn't seen too many films before, I probably would have enjoyed it. However, it's not that this is a terrible movie, it's just not too original, and not a really good one. I can't really recommend it that much as there's nothing truly memorable or well done. Still, for some family friendly retread, The Game Plan isn't the worst if you don't expect too much from it.

Overall Grade: C+

Reviewed by Jonas

17 Hippies, Heimlich (Buda Musique, 2007)


17 Hippies are not the kind of band that's easy to describe or explain. There aren't actually seventeen of them, and they don't really look like hippies either (although some of them look old enough that they could easily have been hippies back in the day). Still the band is quite large, with thirteen members coming from different countries and different musical backgrounds. A number of them, both male and female, take turns handling vocals sung in German, French, and English. You'll hear plenty of accordions and banjos on their latest album Heimlich, but you'll also hear winds, horns, a Jew's harp, an African thumb piano, and even a singing saw. To call the band eclectic would be a huge understatement, but if eclectic is what you want then you'll have a blast listening to this.

The album is bookended by a pair of frenetic Balkan pieces -- Golden Fest tunes, as I like to call them. I've actually heard part of the melody for the last tune, a Romanian instrumental called "Rustemul," on an album by the Brooklyn gypsy band Romashka. Most of Heimlich is more laid back than that, though, with styles ranging from Mariachi to tango to bluegrass to French cabaret and lots of other things in between. None of the tracks really have a big band sound, so I get the sense that the band members don't all play on each tune. 17 Hippies aim for simplicity and catchiness in their arrangements, and generally hit their mark. My favorite track is the irresistible "Tick Tack," which will have you singing along even if you don't know any German. The diversity of styles only added to the enjoyment; as you listen, you'll sit there wondering what they'll come up with next.

While 17 Hippies come across as more of a music co-op than a band, that does not diminish the quality of their work. Heimlich came at me in more directions than I could count, but it was all light and catchy, and a clear reflection of how much fun making music can be.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

3.18.2008

Polar Shift (2005)

After enjoying Cussler's latest novel, The Chase, I'm back on the quest to read his older works. Polar Shift is the follow up novel to Lost City, and is in the NUMA files series. It is cowritten with Paul Kemprecos, as the other novels in this series are.

In typical Cussler form, this author takes a bit of scientific theory, and educates the reader in it, while weaving a plot around it. From the title, it's not exactly a spoiler to tell you that the novel revolves around the pole shift theory that hypothesizes that the north and south poles could be reversed at some point with devastating consequences. Along the way we meet a Hungarian scientist that was smuggled out of Europe. Cussler also takes us to some far off places, including the Aleutian Islands (he has used them before, I believe in Black Wind). While up North, we also get a front row seat on a wooly mammoth dig. Also, only Cussler could pull off a car chase involving a Stanley Steamer.

While not as excellent as Lost City, it is still a strong novel. It has a strong "Cussleresque" feel to it ( to coin a term). My criticism is that I would have liked to see more of the Cussler universe of characters in it, although Dirk Pitt did make a cameo appearance at a car show (where else?). Still, the usual cast of maritime experts would have really completed this work. If you're a fan of Cussler, Polar Shift is still one of his better works.

Overall Grade: A-

Reviewed by Jonas

The Silmarillion - J.R.R. (and Christopher) Tolkien (1977)

At this point, thanks to the movies, everyone has heard of The Lord of the Rings. Before that, the books were a cult favorite - to be fair, the books probably still are. There was enough interest, though, for JRR's son, Christopher to collect, compile and edit his father's copious notes and publish them as The Silmarillion.

What sets The Lord of the Rings apart from most fantasy books is the completeness of the world. Things exist in Middle Earth for a reason, and where they exist and what they do there have underlying causes rooted in the history of the place. To muddle terms from multiple media, there is a backstory to Middle Earth. That backstory starts in the Silmarillion.

The books are therefore a collection of myths and chronicles, resembling medieval works or written transmissions of oral history. This is not really too surprising when one recalls that Tolkien was a history Don at Oxford. What it does not resemble, therefore, is a novel and by extension it does not resemble The Lord of the Rings. This caused a problem for me when I first tried to read it back in my junior high school days; I wanted more The Lord of the Rings. Returning to it recently, after yet another rereading of the trilogy (and The Hobbit,) I found it to be much more congenial.

The book has all the problems of history, most obviously that different groups of people call things by different names ("John, known to the elves as Mithtake and named Fred by the men of the East"), and like the early chronicles, it tends to be short on character development. In many places it reads like a cross between the Bible and Bulfinch's Mythology, which is not a bad thing - unless one is expecting a novel. It does mean that each character does tend to "appear on stage" for a short period of time before vanishing again, making it a little difficult to keep track of some of them.

I can not in good conscience recommend this book to everyone. The style and the material are not wildly accessible. For Tolkien completists, of course, it is a necessity.

Overall Grade: C (A for Tolkien completisits)

The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks (1984)

The Wasp Factory is a creepy and oddly compelling book. It is, I suppose a sort of a coming of age story about sixteen year old Frank Cauldhame. The cover blurb quote is this:
Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my younger brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I'd disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim.
That's my score to date. Three. I haven't killed anybody for years, and don't intend to ever again.
It was just a stage I was going through.

While somewhat sensational (shades of A Clockwork Orange!), the killings are not really the the disturbing part. The entire story is told in the first person, and while the narrator is clearly, by most measures, insane, it's a very logical and clear insanity. What is frightening is how much sense it all makes once a few basic, but crazy, assumptions are made.

The structure of the book is handled masterfully. I was struck while reading it, that if the book had been written in the third person, it would be a work of urban fantasy. So many of Frank's obsessions and rituals look "magical," and in the first person in a realistic setting they come across as artifacts of madness. In the third person, they would be "blessed" with objective truth (or at least could be) and suddenly Frank is no longer a crazed semi-psychopath, rather he is the stereotypical misunderstood magical child who sees more than those around him.

The book ends with a remarkable twist, or two depending on how you count. It is another tribute to the author that I was so engaged and caught up in the narrative, fascinated and repelled, that the twists caught me by surprise.

This is not a sweet and happy book, make no mistake. It is ugly, violent, macabre, bizarre ... and thoroughly engaging, in the literal sense; having read even the first few pages, you are likely to be hooked like a fish and dragged through the rest of this short book. When you are done, I suspect it will stay with you for a while and provide food for thought for anyone with even a hint of introspection.

Overall Grade: A-

3.16.2008

The New Lovecraft Circle

H.P. Lovecraft is one of my favorite authors, and his horror has incluenced countless other writers. Many have delved into his mythos of unspeakable, eldritch horrors, and The New Lovecraft Circle, edited by Robert M. Price, collects 25 stories written in the Lovecraftian vein. These stories, largely bringing Lovecraft's New England terror of the 1920s and 1930s into contenporary times, venerate the work and memory of the master.

In his introduction, Robert M. Price ponders whether the critics who claim there is nothing new in Lovecraftian horror are right -- and whether or not that is a bad thing if one enjoys the stories. Certainly there are very familiar elements present here: cursed tomes, ancient and alien entities, mysterious family histories, and italicized final, shocking (!) sentences to end the stories.
Mythos fiction is as much about originality and effect as it is about using the elements begun by Lovecraft, and the authors here bring their originality to this genre. Settings vary from the traditional New England haunts to a beach house in California ("The Horror on the Beach"), a pre-rock show interview ("The Whisperers"), an ancient land ("The Doom of Yakthoob"), an experiment with LSD ("Saucers from Yaddith") and even an English Pub ("I've Come to Talk with You Again.") There are triumphs over evil, a sense of doom and despair, madness and triumph, and two insanely wacky stories: "Lights! Camera! Shub-Niggurath!" mashes together Lovecraftian horror, gung-ho filmmaking and outer space together, while "The Slitherer from the Slime" -- "written" by H.P. Lowcraft and "found" by Lin Carter and Dave Foley" -- will tickle the funnybone of anyone the slightest bit familiar with the actual Lovecraft's work.

The New Lovecraft Circle is a testament to the mythos begun by Lovecraft -- and the freshness and originality than new writers can bring to continue the mythos. These stories are well written, often chilling or scary, and a worthy addition to the library of any horror fan.

Overall Grade: A-

Reviewed by James Lynch

3.14.2008

Ocean's Thirteen (2007)

This week's other third parter is Ocean's Thirteen. Once again, after all the hype that these Ocean films get, not much can live up to it. I also didn't really go for the first two, but I figured I'd give it one more try.

George Clooney once again plays Danny Ocean, a mastermind of the casino heist. Never mind that he made off with tons of loot in the first two films; this time it's to avenge how Willie Bank (Al Pacino) wronged his friend in a casino development deal. Bank is building the ultimate Vegas casino, something to even trump the over the top Wynn. Of course, the obvious solution is to just take Bank out the back and rough him up. Naah, then we wouldn't have any film. Instead, Danny Ocean enlists the aid of his old crew including Matt Damon, Bernie Mac, Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, and Don Cheadle (of note, Julia Roberts didn't return this time around, but I'm not sure she really worked in these films anyway) with an elaborate plot to drain Bank's bank. Even going so far as to enlist outside consultants, they come up with plan to get a bunch of whales into the casino, betting large, and then for the house to lose at all their games simultaneously. Oh, and because they don't need the money, they're not even going to win anything out of this (they do get some jewels later, but it's an afterthought).

So, does the Ocean crew deliver the goods this time around? Well, unlike the other outings, I liked Thirteen better than the last two. I think that this time around the plot had some more substance, was better developed, and I actually wanted to see how it finished. With so much simultaneous star power, the acting was solid throughout. The scenes of the Vegas strip were well done, and they did convey the excitement and vibrancy that permeates that town. One criticism is that there were still too many scenes that dragged on, especially without any dialogue, and I had to use the fast forward button to muddle through.

My other criticism is that in their effort to get this to look like an older movie shot on film, at least on the DVD through my LCD HDTV, it was overdone. To my eye, they had added some type of film effect filter, and it turned up the grain a little too much, and made it look lower quality than the base video likely was. Also, it was plenty overdone in the first scenes, but they had pretty much ditched it by the end. Trying to get the video to look retro and classic is one thing, but this ended up being a distraction, and should have at least been consistent throughout.

I can't say that I'm waiting to see Ocean's Fourteen, but at least Ocean's Thirteen was ok.

Overall Grade: B

Reviewed by Jonas

New Amsterdam, Fox Televison

While the Hollywood Writer's Strike has come to a close, there still is a paucity of new TV shows these days. It's probably due to this that I gave the new show New Amsterdam a chance, even though the whole premise sounded rather silly, and would garner a Mythbuster implausible.

John Amsterdam (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is a NYC detective that has seen it all. No really, he has, as he has lived in the Big Apple from 1642 to now. He just happened to get immortal life from a Native American girl who repaid him after he saved her life. His immortality is as much a blessing as a curse as he needs to find his true love in order to become mortal again.

All right, the first time I heard the premise of the show, as I just outlined, I thought that this made no sense, and how could we make a show around this. After I gave it a chance, and watched the season opener, I see how this could work. For example, there are some interesting flashbacks that show NYC in the past, and can enrich the current location (kind of like in Lost, but significantly less confusing). Also, our main character, Amsterdam, has made a living for the last four hundred years, so we've already gotten hints in the opener that he was a desk maker, a soldier, and who knows what else? The past is also revealed in the course of a murder investigation as Amsterdam does have a day job in this, and at least one other that knows his secret. And how could I forget? He also thinks he finds his true love, although he has no idea who she is. How hard can it be to find her in NYC among the masses?

After the season opener, I am hooked for the time being. It is currently airing on Monday nights on the FOX network. In an Armchair first, in case you missed it, the entire episode, thanks to Hulu, can be seen in the window below so feel free to catch up. Cool, huh?

Grade: B+

Reviewed by Jonas

I Spy (2002)

I Spy is a comedic look at the world of James Bond. It stars Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson, and much of it is set in Budapest (Where else could you have a spy movie but a former Eastern block country?). This film is based on a classic TV series.

Wilson plays Special Agent Alex Scott. He's had a rough start to his career, but he can get the job done even he's not exactly slick doing it. Murphy portrays Kelly Rob, an undefeated boxer who gets pressed into government service as a cover for the agent. Their mission is to recover an invisible plane that is being sold to the highest bidder in a secret weapon auction.

In order for a film such as I Spy to work, it has to be funny, as the plot is secondary, and really only is there to provide a framework for the humor. Thankfully it is. Fans of the Bond films will get a kick out of the opening scene when Wilson's character complains about other agents getting "all the cool stuff," and his gear his ten years out of date. The jokes mostly work also as Murphy coaches Wilson through a romantic interest Rachel, played by Famke Janssen. There are also plenty of good action sequences as the spies bumble through a getaway, and drive some Bimmers off of a car carrier.

At any rate, while I Spy should not be taken too seriously, as a film it mostly works. If you are looking for a James Bond parody of some sort, then check out I Spy.

Overall Grade: B

Reviewed by Jonas


Funny Games (1997)

Back in 1997, before the torture-porn movies like the Saw and Hostel franchises, writer-director Michael Haneke made the film Funny Games, combining twisted and deadly games with a reflexive look at the audience of such fare. Haneke's movie was just remade for American audiences, but the German original --reviewed here -- remains quite chilling.

During the opening credits of Funny Games the music abruptly switches from soothing classical to speed metal, and this summarizes the tone of the film. Georg (Ulrich Mühe) and Anna (Susanne Lothar) are heading to their lake house for a vacation with their young son Georgie, and things could not be more ideal. The family is getting along perfectly, their house is beautiful, they have a boat for sailing, and while the home is gated Georg and Anna know and like all their neighbors.

The serpents in paradise are two young adults: talkative Paul (Arno Frisch) and quiet, slightly heavy Peter (Frank Giering). Dressed in matching white shorts, sweaters, sneakers and gloves, Paul and Peter could be vacationers, or prep school students, and they innocently appear on Anna's doorstep seeking some eggs for a neighbor. Tension quickly begins to build, and in no time the two have smashed Georg's leg with his own golf club and taken the family hostage. The two bet that the family will be dead by 9:00 the next morning and then subject them to some twisted, juvenile, and quite lethal games.

Funny Games is brutal in its simplicity. There are no grand schemes or elabnorate deathtraps; Paul and Peter use household items -- a golf club, a kitchen knife, a rifle off the wall - and their "games" are juvenile and one-sided. The cast does a fine job, from the polite and deadly psychopaths to the family growing more haggard and desperate as their ordeal drags on. Haneke also knows that sometimes less is more, and he creates some of the greatest suspense and horror offscreen, as when there's a gunshot elsewhere while a character calmly makes a sandwich.

But what about the commentary on the violence? Several times Haneke has Paul break the fourth wall, talking directly to the camera and the audience about the goings-on in the movie (and, at one point, changing the action of the movie). This is meant to be a commentary on the audience's complicity in the violence -- do we think these games are funny? Why are we watching? -- but it serves to sever some of the tension by reminding us that this is artificial.
Still, it is refreshing to have a movie that challenges us about its violence instead of simply wallowing in sadism. Even with its forced cleverness, Funny Games is a deliberately disturbing ride.

Overall Grade: A-

Reviewed by James Lynch

3.13.2008

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End is the third part of this wildly successful franchise. Based very loosely on the Disney franchise ride, Johnny Depp plays Captain Jack Sparrow as he leads his band of marauding pirates.

I didn't really like the first two parts, so I'm not quite sure why I even wanted to see the third. Oh yeah, it was that they worked overtime on the special effects department including some new mathematical formula for water modeling in the CGI scenes with the ships circling a whirlpool. For the record, that part was pretty good, but hardly revolutionary from what I saw.

This third installment of Pirates follows the pattern of the other two. We begin with a bang, we have a quite s-l-o-w middle that goes on interminably, and we end with a great shootout and special effects. Unfortunately, at least for me, a veteran of the ride in both Disneyland (California), and Walt Disney World (Florida (I remember when it was an E ticket ride)), who has sailed with the pirates more times than I can remember, I just can't see what all the excitement is with these films. Along the way, Captain Sparrow has to reclaim his ship, scenes with Davy Jones get interjected but really make no sense, and the whole thing becomes one big drag- I'm not sure how the kids can sit through this! Just when I can't take it any more, the cannons fire a broadside volley, the boarding party jumps into action, and we finish strongly in the last few minutes.

I simply feel that it's just not worth it to me to sit through over two hours of movie to see a half an hour of content worth watching. Clearly, from the film's gross earnings, I'm on the minority here. At any rate, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End has first rate special effects, but I wish the story made more sense and was more developed in keeping with the length of this film.

Overall Grade: C+

Reviewed by Jonas

The Ice Harvest (2005)

While I'm usually more than willing to "take the hit for the team," and sit through a lousy movie, when I started to watch The Ice Harvest, I just couldn't get into it. The premise is that John Cusack, a lawyer to the mob, has committed the perfect crime assisted by Billy Bob Thornton. However, this is no adventure into the land of "The Sopranos." Rather this story just couldn't get off the ground, and the beginning got a serious case of what the obstetricians call "failure to progress," as we went to the third club to redo the same scene yet again. I responded with a DVDectomy, and moved on to another film.

Feel free to weigh in with a comment if I jumped too soon, or not.

Overall Grade: Incomplete

Reviewed by Jonas

Sleuth (2007)


There's no doubt that Michael Caine and Jude Law both have award winning acting abilities, however in the film Sleuth it simply doesn't matter. The premise is that Caine is Andrew Wyke, a mystery novel writer (kind of like a James Patterson). Jude Law is Milo Tindle, an out of work actor who makes a living hairdressing. The two have crossed paths in that Law is having an affair with Caine's wife, and they both know this.

What follows is a drama where the two are both trying to at first intimidate each other. This turns into each trying to kill each other. This is all set in an English country mansion, that looks like the crew of "Sound & Vision" magazine just left as the entire home is automated with security cameras on every inch of the acreage, and LCD screens deploying from nooks and crannies.

However, for too much of Sleuth, I felt like I was watching one of those "Mad Magazine" Spy vs. Spy cartoons. Whenever one got the upper hand, the other one would inevitably snatch it back. This goes on and on in a more monotonous than intriguing fashion. Even though the film lasts a mere 89 minutes, it felt like it was over three hours. While I like both of these veteran actors, I can't recommend Sleuth as anything enjoyable.

Overall Grade: C

Reviewed by Jonas

Keren Ann (Blue Note Records, 2007)


To call singer/songwriter Keren Ann Zeidel a globetrotter would be an understatement. Born in Israel to a Russian-Jewish father and a Javanese-Dutch mother, she has lived in Israel, the Netherlands, Paris, and New York, and maintains both Israeli and Dutch citizenship. Most of her early recordings were largely in French, but her self-titled album from last year is the first of her albums to be sung entirely in English.

The album starts out well enough, with the first two song "It's All a Lie" and "Lay Your Head Down" having a cool vibe reminiscent of The Velvet Underground. "Lay Your Head Down," in particular, qualifies as a strong single. But the album loses its momentum from that point. Most of the songs on the album are just too soft. Only near the end, with the song "Between the Flatland and the Caspian Sea," do things pick up again. By that point, unfortunately, I had more or less lost interest.

Keren Ann is not without talent, and her album does have a couple of songs to recommend it. But the songs in the middle of the album suffer from a crippling lack of energy, without anything really distinctive or noteworthy about them to maintain my interest level. Now granted, I just gave a glowing review to Anna Ternheim, whose songs are not exactly happy and bouncy, but Ternheim has the songwriting ability to make a soft, acoustic ballad hit you with an emotional impact equivalent to the force of a bomb. Keren Ann's music by contrast, just tends to float unobtrusively in the corner.

overall grade: C+

reviewed by Scott

3.07.2008

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Raising Sand (Rounder, 2007)


Alison Krauss, both solo and backed by her band Union Station, has been a dominant figure in the bluegrass and alternative country scenes for two decades. Robert Plant, among other things, was the lead singer of Led Zeppelin. Neither needs much of an introduction, but the two performers hardly come across at first glance as likely people to collaborate on an album. However, their careers are both deeply rooted in the musical traditions of America, particularly country and blues. After hearing them together on the unapologetically rootsy Raising Sand, the pairing now seems perfectly natural.

The third collaborator on the project is guitarist/producer T-Bone Burnett. In addition to his own solo career, Burnett's very extensive resume includes production credits for Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, and his ex-wife Sam Phillips. He is probably best known, though, for co-ordinating and producing the soundtrack for the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?

From start to finish, Raising Sand is straightforward, old school country and rock. Indeed, the album largely sounds like it could have been made over forty years ago. The arrangements are mostly sparse, with not much besides one guitar, bass, drums, and occasionally Krauss' fiddle accompanying the vocalists. Both the singers are in fine form. Plant has had the tendency in some of his solo work to try a little to hard to hit notes that are no longer in his range, but he sings within himself here and sounds really good.

Most of the songs date back to the fifties and early sixties, including covers of country and rock standards like Mel Tillis' "Stick With Me, Baby," The Everly Brothers' "Gone, Gone, Gone" and Benny Spellman's "Fortune Teller." The one new song, "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us," was written by Sam Phillips. My favorite song on the album is "Please Read the Letter," a song Plant had written and initially recorded with Jimmy Page on their Walking into Clarksdale album.

If you're looking for some basic no-frills rock and roll, then Raising Sand will do nicely. It's not groundbreaking or overwhelming, but it's a fun little record that proves that the music of the early rock era can still sound fresh and vital today in the right hands.

Overall grade: B


reviewed by Scott

The Jane Austen Book Club (2007)

If ever there was a film that could be designated as a "chick flick" it has gotta be The Jane Austen Book Club. I've never read a Jane Austen novel, but what the heck?

Kathy Baker plays Bernadette, the senior woman of the group. She decides to start a book club devoted to the six novels of Jane Austen. The plan is to meet once a month, and each member will lead a discussion of the next Jane Austen book, whose novels focus on "
the dependence of women on marriage to secure social standing and economic security."

Anyway, the other members are all female, save one. Before the first meeting, a chance encounter with Jocelyn (Maria Bello) ends up with Grigg (Hugh Dancy) being the lone member possessing a Y chromosome. While at first he is like a fifth wheel on a four wheel drive car, he integrates in before too long. It's interesting to see how the group becomes a surrogate family as the film progresses, and their relationships deepen. There are also plenty of references to the Jane Austen novels, and I would had an even deeper understanding for the film had I read this author's works.

Still, I shouldn't have to read six novels just to watch a film. Even for the Jane Austen
naivetè, there was much to enjoy. This was hardly a simple and zany romantic comedy, and could also fit into the drama comedy at many points. While The Jane Austen Book Club is stuck in the "chick flick" mode for much of the film, it is still a flick worth watching.

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by Jonas


A Mighty Heart (2007)

In the aftermath of 9/11, the compelling story of reporter Daniel Pearl, and his wife, Mariane Pearl, also a journalist, caught the nation's attention as he was kidnapped in Karachi, Pakistan as a victim in the "war on terror." He was investigating the "shoe bomber," Richard Reid. It is a most unfortunate, and unthinkable tragedy, when a journalist, who is a bystander trying to report the news, becomes the news itself. This is the story that became the basis of the film, A Mighty Heart.

For those of us that lived through 9/11, especially close to NYC, and were personally affected by 9/11, and knew individuals who were so violently killed, up until now, I really had no interest in Hollywood's attempt to capture it on film. I have not watched United 93, or World Trade Center. I'm not sure if it is that enough time has passed that I wanted to watch this film, or I generally like Angelina Jolie's work, but I decided to watch A Mighty Heart.

In this film, Jolie plays Mariane Pearl. Her husband Daniel is played by Dan Futterman. They both turned in strong performances Needless to say, it's always a challenge to script a film that everyone knows the ending before we even start.

In the end, I really didn't enjoy this film. I didn't expect to, as I expected it to be hard to watch. However, 9/11 and the story aside, it's just not that compelling a story as it's told. Sure, the strength of Mariane comes through, but the film is just a drag and a downer. It doesn't help that too much of it is in Pakistani. Also, while we needed a few shots of the Karachi area to set the place, it seemed that every five minutes we were getting more images of the daily Karachi rush hour, and hardly compelling film making. Also, I'm not sure if there ever was a conclusion other than that the American diplomats didn't do nearly enough to find Daniel, and secure his release.

For all of the above, I'm recommending that A Mighty Heart is a Mighty Skip.

Overall Grade: C-

Reviewed by Jonas

2 Days In Paris (2007)

I'll come right out and skip to the bottom line: 2 Days In Paris just wasn't that good of a film. Sure, it started off ok. A couple of thirty somethings travel from NY to Paris, her country of origin. They're reasonably played by Adam Goldberg, and Julie Delpy, both seasoned actors. Yet, this film doesn't work really. What went wrong?

First off, from the title of the film I should get the grandeur of Paris. A well done film will use the title city almost as another character, full of vibrancy, a life of its own, depth, and famous views. However, I don't think we saw the Eiffel Tower once!

We also missed on more than the "postcard shots." Too much of the film was in French. Sorry guys, but in this age of DVD, there's no reason that we can't get an English only soundtrack. More than half the film is reading subtitles for these scenes that go on and on (and on). If I wanted to read a book, I wouldn't be watching the TV set.

Also, the plot is rather silly. These two go to Paris. Goldberg is this mostly neurotic guy that is rather implausible as he thinks he's getting sick from one raindrop. He wouldn't ever leave his apartment in NYC if he was that much a germophobe. The story is based around that Delpy's ex boyfriends keep showing up, just about at every turn. You start to wonder how committed to him she really is as the story progresses at a snail's pace.

Finally, the one subplot that could have been developed is when Goldberg gets mistaken for a thief. In one scene he's picked up by the French police, without his fluent girlfriend, and put in cuffs. This could have been ripe territory for some French prison scenes, or some interrogation with him not understanding the language. What did we get? Nothing! One scene he's in cuffs, and the next he's back on the street. What a letdown.

Was there any part of 2 Days In Paris that was worth watching? There was one cute scene when she brings her boyfriend in, he meets the family, and they have a dinner together as the parents talk about him in French, and their daughter loosely translates the dialogue. Unfortunately, it's really not worth watching a film for one scene.

Overall Grade: D+

Reviewed by Jonas

King of California (2007)

Ever hear that saying about the fine line between insanity and genius? Well, King of California is themed around that old statement. It stars Michael Douglas and Evan Rachel Wood.

Douglas plays Charlie, a bipolar patient that after a two year stay at an inpatient psychiatric facility is discharged back into the world. Sufferers of bipolar disease often exhibit grandiose ideas, and poor impulse control (at least in the manic phase). While he may not be a danger to self or others, and hence not need to be in the hospital, let's say that his disease is hardly cured. Shouldering much of the burden is his daughter, Miranda ( played by Wood). With the absence of her father, she had a lot of growing up to do quickly, and supported herself by working double shifts at the local Mickey D's despite being a minor. With her father back on her doorstep, her burden only increases, and the theme of who is really the adult here runs throughout this film.

The plot of King of California focuses on Charlie's latest "big idea" that he came up with while he was in the hospital from their library and the internet. He is hot on the trail to buried Spanish treasure left by a missionary Monk back in the 1600's, a Father Torres. While he has no money, there's no stopping Charlie as he buys a GPS unit, a metal detector, and even rents a backhoe for the big dig. Hot on the trail, the landscape of California has changed a little bit in the last three centuries, and he thinks that the buried treasure is smack dab in the middle of the neighborhood's Costco of all places. With a singularity of purpose, he plunges ahead towards the truth, as pictured in the image below.

The King of California has much going for it. For starters, the acting performances were well done. I don't know if Douglas spent time observing mental patients, but I believed that he was manic for most of the film. The flashbacks, unlike in many films, were also well done, appropriately inserted (with cues to make it obvious it was a flashback), and adds to the depth of the characters, and their unusual father-daughter relationship. The overall plot of chasing down a treasure is also engaging, and kept my attention throughout.

The part where this film stumbles is the end. It kind of feels like a song on the radio turned off midway, rather than ending on a strong major chord. While we do get answers on the treasure, and the veracity of Charlie's delusion, somehow it felt less than satisfying. Even given the lackluster ending, I can still recommend King of California to those looking for something a few magnitudes away from the mundane, and a good character study on bipolar disease.

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by Jonas

Fragile Things - Neil Gaiman (2006)


Neil Gaiman is an eclectic writer, and this collection of short works illustrates his range. There are over thirty pieces in Fragile Things, fairly evenly split between poetry and short stories with a novella tossed in at the end. As is the case with large and eccentric collections, not everything will be to everyone's taste, but there will probably be something in the book for everyone.

Overall, the poetry is a little weak. Gaiman is a very evocative writer and while the poetry certainly has mood, it rarely seems to do much beyond setting a mood. Gaiman's great strength lies in plotting and in bringing mythology (or Ur-mythology) into a contemporary setting. Poetry is not a form which is conducive to elaborate, tight plotting; the poems, therefore, do not play to Gaiman's strengths.

The short stories are, on the whole, better than the poems. They run the gamut from pretty good to quite exceptional with side trips into funny on one side and disturbing on the other. The two best short stories in the book exemplify this. Harlequin Valentine is disturbing and excellent, while Sunbird is funny and excellent. Both have those elements of modernizing fantasy and myth that Gaiman does so well. A Study in Emerald is also quite good; it is a mishmash of Lovecraftian Cthulhu mythos and a Sherlock Holmes story and works well.

The final entry in the book is The Monarch of the Glen, a novella which revisits the world of American Gods. It is one of the best, if not the best, things in the book, showcasing everything Gaiman does well. Interesting characters, tight plotting, wonderful slightly odd settings and resonant images from old stories (in this case bits of Beowulf among others) transplanted into the 21st century with such skill that they do not seem out of place at all.

As I mentioned, such a diverse book is almost guaranteed to have some hits and some misses. There are more hits than misses in Fragile Things and several of the hits are bullseyes. For completists, it's a must have, for those unfamiliar with Gaiman's work, it would be a good way to get a sample of his various styles and some pointers toward further reading.

Overall Grade: B+ (with a few B-'s and a couple of A+'s)

3.06.2008

Corvus Corax, Venus Vina Musica (Noir Records, 2006)


The eccentric German Medieval band Corvus Corax first got my attention a couple of years ago when a compilation of their first decade of music, called Best of Corvus Corax, became their debut American release. The songs the band performs may be meticulously researched from or inspired by ancient (mostly Latin) texts, but their arrangements, mostly featuring an army of bagpipes backed by a barrage of drums, are designed to maximize the energy and mayhem. Their latest album, called Venus Vina Musica, was released in the fall of 2006.

The album begins rather somberly, with a short Latin dirge titled "Anti Dolores Capitis," featuring some deep, infernal chanting at the end. Then the frenzy kicks in with the title track, which I'm guessing is a celebration of wine, women, and song. Most of the songs and instrumentals follow in a similar vein, but the band does break from its basic formula a bit as the album proceeds. The twelve tracks include a rhythmically complex Balkan-flavored instrumental, a French song in a 6/8 rhythm that reminded me a lot of African music, a tune suitable for belly dancing, a dark ominous waltz, and an increasingly frenetic jig. The highlight of the album is the extended jam "Sanyogita," which clocks in at nearly seven minutes. On this track the band demonstrates an ability to gradually build up the tension, instead of simply letting it rip from the start.

Corvus Corax are probably not for everybody -- their presentation is rather bizarre, they don't use the typical assortment of instruments, and subtlety is not one of their strong points -- but I find them to be both interesting and entertaining. When most people think about primal energy or intensity in music, they invariably think about rock and roll, not anything older than that, and certainly not anything a lot older than that. Corvus Corax takes a different approach, and shows that the energy that rock and roll taps into has been a part of music for as long as there's been music.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott