Time for some high-flying, gravity-defying kung-fu fighting! The Forbidden Kindgom is a fun, light movie where martial arts legends Jackie Chan and Jet Li battle countless minions (and yes, each other) to save a kingdom.

This story starts off in South Boston, where awkward teen Jason Tripitkas (Michael Angarano) loves kung-fu movies, has no luck with the local girls, and gets bullied by some one-dimensional teenage thugs. After a botched robbery and quick chase at Jason's favorite store, he finds himself transported back to ancient China, holding the mysterious staff from that store.

In short order Jason meets Lu Yan (Jackie Chan), a traveling martial artist and heavy drinker; he also claims to be one of the legendary immortals. Lu provides the story behind the staff. At a gathering of immortals, the mischievous Monkey King (played by Jet Li) was tricked and betrayed by the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou), who turned the Monkey King to stone. Before being petrified, the Monkey King sent the staff away, and legends say when it is returned by a seeker the Monkey King will be free.

Jason also meets up with the Silent Monk (also played by Jet Li) who, after fighting with Lu, decides to join them. Rounding out the makeshift party of heroes is Sparrow (Liu Yifei), a beautiful young woman and skilled warrior whose family and village were slaughtered by the troops of the Jade Warlord. She has a weapon which can slay an immortal, and she seeks revenge on the Jade Warlord.

The villains aren't as diverse as the heroes. The Jade Warlord is a ruthless leader, skilled and fighting and ruthless in command. There's a deadly assassin named Ni Chang (Li Bingbing), a white-haired killer who is equally skilled with a whip, a bow, or her enchanted hair. Otherwise, the bad guys have hordes of heavily armored sword-wielding troops who know enough martial arts to fight the heroes but not enough to do anything but get their butts handed to them every time.

The Forbidden Kingdom is enjoyable fluff. The fight scenes are impressive, and it's nice to see Jackie Chan reprising his drunken master style of fighting again. Even though the action uses as much special effects and wire tricks as combat, Chan and Li still manage to put on a great show of martial arts. (The other actors are no slouches either.) The story is as much comedy as excitement, and there are no surprises along the journey: We know who's going to find themselves, who's doomed, and what will happen in the end. The Forbidden Kingdom is a good diversion, a movie that's an entertaining way to spend an afternoon.

Overall Grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch


Conspiracy (2008)

So what do we end up with when we put Val Kilmer into the role of a discharged Marine with some issues, and call the film Conspiracy? Well, direct to video is never the hallmark of high quality cinema, but at least this time it's more watchable than most.

Kilmer is MacPherson, a special forces Marine that was discharged from the Gulf War (it's anyone's guess if it was part one or two) after sustaining an injury. While he's happy to live a completely hedonistic lifestyle on his disability pay, a war buddy encourages begs him to come out to New Mexico where he needs some help on his ranch. After some "hoo-ra's" and "semper fi's" he agrees to make the cross country journey by bus to the border town. However, as he enters a booming town that appears like a gold rush just started, he can't find a trace of his buddy whose his house (we later learn) is burned to the ground. On top of that, some Halliburton type of contractor appears to be controlling the whole place, and have the police in their back pocket.

Now we've got a majorly ruffled Marine asking all the wrong questions as the local law enforcement attempts to escort MacPherson back to the bus depot for a one way trip back to where he came from. Soon, this turns into some type of poor man's Rambo remake, but it is not as nearly engaging as the original as first blood is drawn. As the film progresses, the score gets settled, and we learn what is really going on in the town.

In a medical aside, there's a mistake in the film. In one scene, it's clearly seen that MacPherson has a leg prosthesis on his right leg for an above knee amputation. However, later in the film, he somehow manages to drive a car using his right foot. Despite the latest prosthesis, this simply wouldn't occur, and makes no sense to me.

Medical nitpicks aside, all I can say is that this wasn't too terrible a film, but it wasn't that good of one either. Those looking for some kind of Rambo Lite will think the film Conspiracy is ok.

Overall Grade: B-/C+

Reviewed by Jonas

A Baronial Household of the Thirteenth Century - Margaret Wade Labarge (1965)

I am a fan of "daily living" style history books (see Daily Living in the 12th Century and Scotland Under Mary Stuart) and this book is a solid entry in this category. Working from surviving household rolls of Eleanor de Montfort, augmented by similiar sources, Margaret Labarge attempts to paint a picture of the mechanics involved in administering a large noble household with a reasonable degree of success.

The book is well laid out, discussing first the castle as a dwelling, then the position of noblewomen in household management. From there she proceeds to questions of provisioning, cooking, clothing and so on, addressing costs, the household organization to monitor and provide the goods or services and so forth, with the result that the reader does get a certain Upper Management view of the time. The conclusions that Labarge draws from the scanty information in the rolls is correlated with and supported by other documentation so that she offers an interpretation of a specific point, one feels fairly confident in accepting it.

The book is particularly useful if one is interested in the economics of the time since it contains quite a bit of information on pricing, something which is missing from many books of this type. On the other hand, unless one is interested in it, the discussions of, for instance, why the wheat prices are higher in one location than another and how much may leave one cold.

A Baronial Household ... is perhaps not as accessible as, for instance, the Gies'books, being aimed less at the casual reader and more at the reader with an interest in medieval history, but that is no crime. It is fine addition to any collection of "Daily Life" books.

Overall Grade: B

Premonition (2007)

I've had the Premonition disc sitting around for months, and simply didn't get around to watching it. After I did, I was glad that I finally got to it.

Sandra Bullock plays Linda Hanson, a suburban housewife with a husband and two young daughters. Her life is pretty much average, until one day she awakens to the reality that her husband is dead. However, she keeps getting premonitions (hence the title) of other adverse events that are going to happen affecting herself and family. As the tale gets told, in a series of nonconsecutive days of the week, we learn about marital difficulties with her husband, her relationship with her mother, the daughter's accident that she can't remember, and a psychiatrist that thinks she's psychotic works on getting her committed.

Premonition reminded me of another film that runs out of order, Memento. In that film, the story is told backwards to simulate the memory disorder where the main character has no short term memory. In Premonition, we're a lot more jumbled as there's no true order, but characters and subplots keep getting revealed in bite size pieces for easy digestion. While it sounds like it is very confusing, I'd say that it's only mildly so, and makes us identify with our protagonists unsettling feeling of each time she wakes up to start a new day, she's not sure if her husband is alive or dead.

Overall, I enjoyed Premonition. It's an interesting drama, that attempts to break new ground in the sequence of storytelling. Also, don't miss the DVD's featurette that shows the story sequence chronologically after you see the film to get some insight on how the whole thing fits together.

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by Jonas


Habib Koité and Bamada, Afriki (Cumbancha, 2007)

Malian singer/guitarist Habib Koité is one of the most respected performers of Western African music. Together with his backing band Bamada, Koité has earned his reputation by combining superior musicianship with a strong sense of melody. While Koité and Bamada have built and maintained a sizable international following over the last few years with steady touring, Afriki is actually their first album in six years.

The best and worst thing that can be said of Afriki is that it's pretty much exactly what anybody familiar with Koité's music would expect it to be. Koité churns out his usual assortment of mellow guitar grooves, set to the traditional rhythms of his homeland. Yes it's a bit predictable, but Koité's playing remains superb, and the music is generally quite pleasant. The one track which deviates from Koité's basic formula is called "Nta Dima," in which Koité takes the concept of a horn section quite literally -- the "horns" used in the song are antelope horns. Their tone doesn't quite match the tone of the guitar, resulting in a slight dissonance that's a bit jarring at first, but after a few listens it became the most compelling track on the album for me.

Fans of Habib Koité and Bamada will find plenty to their liking on Afriki, which ably reinforces Koité's status as an elite guitarist and a solid all-around performer. People who like laid-back guitar music do not need to have a particular affinity for African music to enjoy the quality of this recording as well.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott


Rendition (2007)

Rendition is a drama that looks at the unfair, and questionably legal, practices involving the detainees at Guatanamo Bay. It stars Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Omar Metwally.

Isabella (Witherspoon) and Anwar (Metwally) are the typical American family with one child. One day, Anwar doesn't return from his business trip in "North Africa" (more on that in a bit). Next thing we know, Anwar is unofficially "lost," the U.S. Government knows nothing of his whereabouts, and his wife figures out that he got on the plane, but never off (sounds like some luggage). She turns to some government contacts for help. In the meantime, much of the film shows the torture tactics that undoubtedly go on at Gitmo, much of it performed by a junior agent, Douglas Freeman (Gyllenhaal).

At least to this reviewer, Rendition had much potential but really just fizzles like last year's pop rocks. Rather than an intelligent thriller that asks the question of why does our government treat people like this, and could this not happen to any of us, we end up with a front row seat for too much torture and not enough thought. While any good horror director knows that the suggestion of the monster has far more impact than some guy running around with fake blood and a rubber knife, this lesson could have been learned here: We simply see too much of the torture, and it starts to lose its impact. On top of that, I felt like it was being dumbed down every time they flashed "North Africa" as a setting on the bottom of the screen like it was the sister country to South Africa. Seriously, were we in Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia or Morocco? Or were we more interested in international ticket sales than making a good film for American audiences?

On top of all of this, we end on a flat, and less than settled, note. It's never completely clear if Anwar is a terrorist or not, and therefore the film loses its impact. If the point of the film is that there are many atrocities inflicted on innocent folks at Gitmo (which I think it is), then we should have made it clear that the guy is not a terrorist rather than having us wonder if maybe with just a little more "encouragement" he would have cracked and given us the phone number to Osama Bin Laden's condo cave. As it stands, I just didn't enjoy this rendition of Rendition, despite a more mature role for Reese Witherspoon.

Overall Grade: C

Reviewed by Jonas

Margot at the Wedding (2007)

So, just this week, fellow Armchair Critic Jim asks me about my grading system, and what constitutes the different letter grades. I go through what they are in my mind, and he feels a little differently about the "mediocre" category. Hey, to each their own, and that's fine by me. Then, he asks me if I truly disliked Apocalypto so much, and couldn't even get through watching the DVD, why wasn't it just an F, and not an F+. I replied that because it had some visual interest at some points, it wasn't totally bad, and I'd reserve an F for those totally dismal films that failed in every department. While I can't find this type of film too often, after all, it's on the other end of the bell curve and an A+ review is a rarity around here, I'll tell you that Margot at the Wedding is such a truly awful film.

How can a film featuring such veteran actors as Nicole Kidman, not to mention Jack Black be so dismal? Imagine a film based around some estranged friends and family gathering around a wedding that few think should be taking place. The house guests are all thrown together, and all they do is gossip about each other. they keep mentioning characters that are nearly impossible to keep straight. They throw in random sexual scenes, like the neighbors in the backyard in the buff, that serve no purpose other than shock value, and don't even make any sense given the minimal plot. The thing drudges along at the speed of a full dumptruck, stuck in reverse, going uphill, and running out of gas. Unfortunately, after wasting an hour of my life on this, I realized "who cares" and I ejected the disc to a feeling of relief. Don't waste any time on Margot at the Wedding, as it is a waste of two veteran actors who have done far better work elsewhere. I can understand Jack Black getting involved with this, but seriously, Nicole Kidman? What was she thinking?

Overall Grade: F

Reviewed by Jonas


The past is never far behind in the Spanish horror drama The Orphanage (El Orfanato), a creepy movie that mixes horror with personal drama.

As a child, Laura was raised at a seaside orphanage before being adopted and removed from her friends. Now an adult, Laura (Belén Rueda) wants to reopen the orphanage as a place where she and her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) can help some special needs children. Laura also wants to raise her young son Simón (Roger Princep). Unknown to Simón, he is adopted and HIV-positive, secrets Laura keeps from him.

Simón has a large number of imaginary friends; and some of them may not be so imaginary. After a visit to a nearby cave, Simón talks about his friend and leaves behind a trail of shells to lead him to their home; that night, Laura finds the shells piled up on their doorstep. And while entertaining the families and children for the new home with a party with masks, one silent child appears wearing a sack on his head. Then Simón vanished without a trace.

The Orphanage has plenty of horror elements -- creaking and moving items in the house, figures that seem to vanish -- but it's more about Laura's need for her child. She pursues every avenue available to find Simón, from the police to parapsychologists. Her pursuit leads her to the past, and to recreating the history she left behind at the orphanage.

Relying more on tension and atmosphere than gore and violence, The Orphanage is an effective movie. Rueda shines as the parent facing her worst nightmare and willing to do anything to get her son back. The rest of the cast is solid, but they are present to react to Laura, from husband Carlos' understandable desire to move on and concern for his wife's sanity to the psychic medium fearful of providing too much hope. The Orphanage may not be a typical horror movie, but it's a film worth seeing.

Overall grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch


H.P. Lovecraft's fictional city of Arkham has become a staple of Lovecraftian fiction. It has a history of the supernatural, it contains the New England people and architecture so beloved by Lovecraft, and it is nearby such significant locales as Miskatonic University, Innsmouth, and Dunwich. The anthology Arkham Tales: Legends of the Haunted City uses the city as the focal point for its horror tales. Alas, it doesn't deliver stories worthy of the Arkham name.

The stories here range from the 1920s and 1930s (when Lovecraft wrote) to the present day. There are numerous elements from Lovecraft's work, from evil tomes to Professor Wilmarth. Unfortunately, the stories don't deliver the horrors or creativity of Lovecraft or other authors who have ventures into his mythos. There is little of the universal horror that lingers after the reader has finished a story. Repeated references to the Pinkerton detectie agency seemed to promote the Call of Cthulhu card game more than add to the history.

These stories aren't awful, but they aren't inspired either. (The sole exception is "Disconnected," whose deliberately chronologically-jumping story provides a chilling result at the end.) I'd recommend fans of Lovecraft read the originals, or take a look at one of the other numerous Lovecraftian anthologies out there.

Overall grade: C-

Reviewed by James Lynch


Accelerate by R.E.M.

R.E.M. is back and rockin'! After the mediocre album Around the Sun, Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills return in full force with volume, energy, and an album that is incredible: Accelerate.

The opening guitar riff of "Living Well is the Best Revenge" lets us know that we're in for a treat; and when Michael Stipe's singing joins in, everything comes together. The band remains political -- especially on "Until the Day is Done" -- but they cover a wide variety of topics, from teen angst ("Supernatural Superserious") to homesickness and nostalgia ("Houston") to just wanting to party ("I'm Gonna DJ"). They only slow down on "Houston" and "Sing for the Submarine"; the rest of the album comes at you like a rocket.

Accelerate doesn't replace Automatic for the People as my favorite R.E.M. album, but it is a thoroughly impressive, extremely consistent album. Pick it up and crank it up!

Overall grade: A

Reviewed by James Lynch


While the unknown often contains great horrors, the known can prove even more dangerous. This is one of the themes of The Mist, an excellent adaption of a Stephen King story by veteran King director Frank Darabont.

At the start of The Mist, the residents of a town in Maine are recovering from a massive storm. Professional artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane) is heading into town for supplies, bringing along his young son Billy (Nathan Gamble) and also Brent Norton (Andre Braugher), a contentious vacationing New York lawyer who has sued David in the past. David's wife Stephanie (Kelly Collins Lintz) stays behind to work on the damage to their home.

The supermarket in town is filled with people stocking up after the storm. It quickly becomes a sanctuary as an impenetrable mist comes out of nowhere and doesn't go away. When Dan Munn (Jeffrey DeMunn) runs into the store screaming "There's something in the mist!" he's not exaggerating: The townspeople are soon besieged by a wide variety of creatures, from a giant tentacle to unearthly insects.

The horrors outside are matched by what's inside. It takes almost no time for divisions in the townspeople to become tense. Some poorer locals accuse David of acting like he's better than them. Brent doesn't believe any of the events are supernatural and instead accuses the locals of trying to make the vacationers look like fools. And the fanatically religious Mrs. Camody (Marcia Gay Harden) is convinced that this is the end of days -- a proclamation that seems ridiculous at first but draws more converts as the body count grows and no relief or explanations are in sight.

While The Mist has very effective elements of a "typical" horror movie -- only giving glimpses of the creatures, creating an atmosphere (literally and figuratively) of unknown danger -- its real strength is the human drama of the situation. The supermarket become a cross-section of humanity, with concerned parents, tough bikers, elderly townsfolk, and more joined together -- but more at odds with each other than helping one another. The large ensemble cast doesn't allow for any many individuals to stand out (except for Marcia Gay Harden, who does an excellent job as the harmful zealot who uses the people's fears under the guise of spreading God's love) but they all do an excellent job as ordinary people driven by fear of the unknown -- and each other.

Director Frank Darabont keeps the tension high through realism, having the people acting and reacting as normal people under stress and forced confinement together. He also explains that he envisioned The Mist as a 1960s-style black and white monster movie -- and thanks to the two-disc deluxe edition, he gets his wish! In addition to behind-the-scenes features and interviews with cast and crew, the deluxe edition of The Mist contains the entire movie shot in black and white. I won't say which is better, but including both is an excellent option for the horror fan to choose from.

Creepy, effective, thoughtful, and shocking at the end, The Mist delivers what a fan of intelligent horror wants -- and the black and white version gives them a lot more.

Overall grade: A-

Reviewed by James Lynch


The Night Porter

There are many movies about World War 2, but few deal with its aftermath in such a strange way as The Night Porter. This intentionally slow drama explores the decadence and aftermath of Nazi Germany -- and its impact on two very different people.

In Vienna 1957 Max (Dirk Bogarde) has a job as a night porter at a hotel. He cleans up after people, sees to the needs of the guests, keeps after the staff, and generally behaves as a minor bureaucrat at a small job.

Max has a past, though: He was a Nazi commander at a concentration camp. Max's circle of acquaintances is made up of fellow Nazis in hiding, and they're preparing a "war crimes" trial for Max: Klaus (Phillippe Leroy) will act as prosecutor, they will present all the evidence against him -- and then destroy it. Hans (Gabriele Ferzetti) is a psychiatrist who sees this as theraupeutic, a way to leave the guilt behind. The decadent Bert (Amedeo Amodio), a Nazi ballet dancer with a crush on Max, tells him to embrace the trial. Max just wants to be left alone, but he's cautioned that not only are documents dangerous, but as little as one witness could expose him.

And such a witness appears. Lucia (Charlotte Rampling) is travelling with her husband, a conductor, and they check into Max's hotel. Lucia was a prisoner under Max, and they recognize each other immediately. However, at the concentration camp they began a sadomasochistic affair -- and after some initial trepidation on both their parts, Max and Lucia resume their affair in the present. Max fears that if the other Nazis discover Lucia;s role in his past they'll kill her, while Lucia represents a link that could expose them all.

The Night Porter is not a sensationalistic movie (despite the titillating poster) but rather an examination of the consequences of the war on people. Max went from being in command to a minor hotel employee, and resuming his affair with Lucia returns some of that power to him, despite the dangers. Lucia is haunted by what happened to her, but she is as drawn to it as she was in the past. Vienna is a bleak place, with the war present from the Nazis who create their own community while hiding to the people who don't want to get involved and risk their war pensions.

Director Liliana Cavani handles the material with a neutral touch, neither praising nor damning these characters forced together by their shared past. Dirk Bogarde makes Max a thoroughly neutral character, someone neither proud or ashamed of his past and seizing little opportunities of power where he can find them. Charlotte Rampling is excellent as a woman who doesn't question why she'd drawn back to such a destructive person, and the rest of the cast performs well.

The Night Porter may be a bit deliberate in its pacing, but this results in a drama that is original and thought provoking.

Overall grade: B+

Reviewed by James Lynch

Lucky Number Slevin

A smart movie is a good thing, but a movie that works too hard at being clever can collapse under its own pretension. This is the fate of Lucky Number Slevin, a crime drama that reminds us constantly how witty it is from the title to the ending.

The movie opens with the killer Mr. Goodkat (Bruce Willis) telling someone at an airport a story of a family wiped out by mobsters and the unpredictable "Kansas City shuffle" where the unexpected happens -- then Goodkat kills his listener.

From there we meet Slevin (Josh Hartness), who's having the day from hell. Slevin lost his job and his apartment and found his girlfriend cheating on him in one afternoon. He's invited to stay at the apartment of his friend Nick Fisher (Sam Jaeger), and on the way Slevin is mugged and loses his wallet. Nick's not at home, and things look like they're improving when Slevin has a "meet cute" with neighbor Lindsey (Lucy Liu) stopping by when Slevin's wearing nothing but a towel. Then the other visitors come.

Two mobsters think Slevin is Nick (remember, Slevin's wallet was stolen) and bring him (still in towel) to the Boss (Morgan Freeman), who thinks Slevin is Nick and wants Slevin to repay "his" debt to the Boss by killing the son of a rival mob boss called the Rabbi. After Slevin is brought back to the apartment, he's picked up by two more mobsters, who bring him to the Rabbi (Ben Kingsley). The Rabbi wants the thousands of dollars Nick owes him in two days, or Slevin will be killed.

From there, things get complicated. Lindsey decided to play amateur sleuth and find out where Nick is. Slevin is caught between the two investigators, plus watched by Detective Brikowski (Stanley Tucci) who's invesstigating the Boss and the Rabbi. The Boss and the Rabbi live in massive apartment buildings across the street from each other, and Mr. Goodkat shows up apparently working for both of them. And Slevin has "ataraxia," a condition that leaves him free from anxiety or worry and lets him drift back and forth as everyone seems to be after him.

The complexity of Lucky Number Slevin could have been forgiven with a dash of realism somewhere. Alas, that isn't to be found here. Virtually every bit of dialogue is so clever it's artificial, and the potentially great cast sounds like it's reading an amateur play. None of the characters are particularly interesting, and considering the immense acting talent here it's a crime for it to go to waste. By the time the movie's convolutions are resolved, you won't care one way or another.

I was unlucky enough to see Lucky Number Slevin. Hopefully you won't be.

Overall grade: D

Reviewed by James Lynch


Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)

Romantic comedies are usually about finding true love, but a good breakup can also be pretty amusing. In Forgetting Sarah Marshall it's absolutely hysterical -- as well as smart and surprisingly touching.

Peter Bretter (Jason Segel, How I Met Your Mother) lives and loves his girlfriend, Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell, Veronica Mars), the star of a C.S.I. - type show which he composes music for. When she dumps him -- something he tries to prevent by remaining naked as long as possible -- he cries and cries and cries, then tried a number of disappointing one-night-stands. On the advice of his former stepbrother Brian (Bill Hader), Peter goes on vacation to Hawaii. However, he hasn't even checked into his resort when Sarah shows up... with her famous British rock star boyfriend Aldolus Snow (Russell Brand) with her.

There is hope for Peter on his vacation. First and foremost is the beautiful and spunky Rachel Jansen (Mila Kunis, That '70s Show), the hotel worker who takes a liking to the depressed Peter. There are assorted other friends Peter makes on his vacation: Darald (Jack McBrayer, 30 Rock), a religious newlywed who can't seem to make sex work with his bride; Brian (Bill Hader, Superbad), a hotel employee who harbors a big crush on Adolus; and Chuck (Paul Rudd), a very stoned surfing instructor. Brian and his wife Liz (Liz Cackowski) also appear through a computer link to offer Peter advice.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall is produced by Judd Apatow, and his signature blend of crudeness and niceness are fully present here. There are plenty of adult jokes, from Peter's frequent full-frontal nudity while being dumped to a demonstration of sexual positions using giant chess pieces. But there's also a lot of heart and depth to the characters. If Peter were a little less likable he'd be utterly pathetic, but Jason Segel makes us like the big lug even in the middle of his crying fit. Sarah has a lot of depth to her, and instead of being the evil woman who dumped a nice guy, she makes it easy to understand why she left him. Kunis' Rachel has her own history and beliefs -- she's not just there to make Peter feel better -- and even the pretentious rock-star Adolus has some niceness to him.

It's a pleasure to have a comedy with rich characters -- and one that makes you laugh so much! From several one-liners to the puppet-musical version of Dracula, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is a strong contender for the best comedy of the year. Go see it!

Overall grade: A

Reviewed by James Lynch


Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is a spoof of the life of Johnny Cash, loosely following the film, Walk the Line. While it's always a challenge to successfully pull of a spoof, this one does a worse job than most, and falls flat on its face.

First of all, I'm not even sure where they came up with the name Dewey Cox (played by John C. Reilly), but it's annoying. All the characters are as deep as a movie cutout figure, complete with plastered down hair. While at first, the double entendre songs are entertaining, but within a short while, they were grating on my nerves as well, despite liberal use of the remote control's fast forward button for the DVD player. Finally, pushing the limits of what can be on a screen, even for a movie rated R, there were some rather exposing scenes that made this film completely inappropriate for family viewing. Sure, the 60's were all about peace, love and understanding, but quite often the suggestion of something is a lot more interesting than showing the whole thing, especially when it doesn't contribute or add to anything.

Was there anything good about this? Well, unfortunately, before we write Walk Hard off, there were. The scene with Dewey sitting around with The Beatles was actually kind of cute. Also, the scene where Dewey goes through his Bob Dylan stage was also hilarious as the performed song was this mish mash of multiple Dylan tunes.

Unfortunately though, a few clips, more suitable for a viral video on YouTube, does not quality cinema make. Even accounting for the few funny parts, on the balance, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story isn't worth the time to view.

Overall Grade: C-

Reviewed by Jonas

Mike Doughty, Golden Delicious (ATA Records, 2008)

New Yorker Mike Doughty first made a name for himself singing and playing guitar in the eccentric jazz/rock band Soul Coughing. That band broke up in 2000, after which Doughty spent several years getting his solo career off the ground. A couple of his homemade recordings eventually got the attention of Dave Matthews, who signed Doughty to his ATO label. The first result of this pairing was the solid 2005 album Haughty Melodic. Starting with the single "Looking at the World from the Bottom of a Well," Haughty Melodic was full of witty and insightful songs.

Regrettably, Doughty's new album Golden Delicious fails to approach the same standard. Doughty instead comes across as a tired songwriter fresh out of good ideas. The single "27 Jennifers" is decent enough, but it's actually a re-recording of an older song of Doughty's, and several songs on Haughty Melodic were better. Otherwise, too much of the album seems lyrically forced, at least in the few cases when the choruses have actual words and weren't borrowed wholesale from some place else. Doughty's singing style has always incorporated an improvised, sort of hip hop variant of scat singing. In the past this had a sort of quirky charm that worked for him in general, but on Golden Delicious it just sounds overused and clichéd. And while I agree with the sentiments of the politically charged opening song "Fort Hood," which deals with people's indifference to what's going on in Iraq, the appropriation of the chorus of "Let the Sunshine In" from the musical/movie Hair didn't strike me as being inspired as much as too cute by half. The only lyric that caught my attention comes on the song "Like a Luminous Girl," when he sings about meeting somebody at the station in Ronkonkoma. While I can't help wondering who he knows that lives out my way, the reference to my home town wasn't enough to keep Golden Delicious afloat for me.

I'd still strongly recommend Haughty Melodic to to people interested in Mike Doughty's music. Golden Delicious, by unfortunate contrast, just finds Doughty at a loss for inspiration.

Overall grade: C+

reviewed by Scott

Dan In Real Life (2007)

Dan In Real Life is a look at a stressful, holiday, extended family get together. It stars Steve Carrell as Dan, and Juliette Binoche as Marie.

Dan is a newspaper writer that does the local self help column (kind of like a "Dear Abby"). He is a somewhat recently widowed father of three daughters. His middle child is growing up too fast, and his older daughter is trying to use her new learner's permit to drive at every opportunity. Unfortunately, Dan has not been able to move on from the loss of his wife, but a chance encounter with Marie at a local bookstore gives him new hope- or so he thinks. Next thing we know, he has fallen, completely unbenkownst to both of them, for his brother's new girlfriend. And they're all living as "one big happy family" in the parents seaside Rhode Island home for the holidays. Talk about uncomfortable!

While the premise was somewhat novel, Dan In Real Life needs to declare itself more clearly. I mean, it doesn't know if it wants to be taken seriously as a drama, or more of a romantic comedy. I think it would have worked better as a drama, and dropped the inane comedy of falling off a roof for no reason, or blowing through the same stop sign multiple times as neither was especially funny. Overall, the humor, at least to me, felt like it was layered on top like a sugary frosting sitting on an otherwise fine piece of cake. In that situation, I usually scrape the frosting off, but it's a little harder with a film. Also, I didn't particularly care for Steve Carrell's performance in this, as I felt he was playing himself more than truly acting for most of it. Still, it's not the worst film I saw this week...

Overall Grade: B-

Reviewed by Jonas


Life or Something Like It (2002)

Angelina Jolie and Edward Burns star in Life or Something Like It. It's a romantic drama that takes a look at what to do when you think you're abruptly dying.

Jolie is Lanie Kerrigan, the Seattle TV reporter who is climbing the corporate ladder. She seemingly has it all together, and loves her life: she dates a major leaguer, has a great apartment, and is a TV personality that is on the verge of going national. What could possibly mess this all up?

A chance encounter with a homeless guy/prophet of doom, known on the street as Prophet Jack (played by Tony Shalhoub, better known for his work on "Monk") sets the stage for the conflict of the film. Out of nowhere, he makes some predictions, including one that Lanie is to die within the week.

What's a blonde to do? Absolutely nothing, at first. However, when his initial prophesies start to materialize, she takes his soothsaying more seriously. In the meantime, Lanie travels to NY for her national TV debut, which haphazardly turns into the interview of her life. With so little time left, she rapidly rebounds from the end of her relationship, and starts anew with the cameraman she can't stand, Pete (Edward Burns).

Overall, Life or Something Like It just didn't do it for me. The plot kind of drags, and none of the performances were overly convincing or involving. I've seen each of these actors do better in other roles. While there's really nothing wrong with this film, there's really no reason to seek it out either.

Overall Grade: C+

Reviewed by Jonas

My Martian Child

I wasn't really sure what to expect from a film called My Martian Child. The scene in the trailer of a kid hiding in an Amazon box with the trademark logo was enough to intrigue me. It features John Cusack, his sister Joan, Bobby Coleman and Amanda Peet.

The premise is that John Cusack is David, a fairly successful science fiction writer, who is recently widowed. His wife and he had plans to adopt a child, but they are unfulfilled. Joan Cusack is Liz, the author's sister (who better to play your sister in a film than your actual sister?) who is a somewhat overwhelmed mother of two boys, and an average American mom. "Sometimes it's not the child you want, but it's the child that needs you," was at work when David is contacted by the orphanage. Bobby Coleman is Dennis, an antisocial boy who has setup a fixed delusion the size of this planet, and truly believes that he is a visitor from Mars. With great hesitation, they decide that David can become a foster father to Dennis, with the intent to adopt.

While raising a child is never easy, trying to raise one who believes he is a Martian is a level or two of difficulty higher. Through some clever Hollywood scripting, at a few points we start to wonder if the child really is from this planet as he exhibits some "special abilities," like tasting the color of M&M's, his knowledge of astronomy, or seemingly altering the outcome of the local minor league Baseball game beyond the odds of probability. As the film progresses, Amanda Peet is introduced as Harlee, a landscape architect who wants to be more to David.

All of this builds as the emotions become stronger. Dennis, who has been hurt and rejected several times before is constantly pushing the limits to see if his adopted father can really stay close to him. David develops love beyond what he thought he would, but it is still hard for him to assume the parent role as he wants to be the child's friend. Both give us strong performances as this complex relationship develops, and changes.

My Martian Child is definitely different, in a good way. It's quirky, and offbeat at times, but strongly emotional and involving throughout. I just wasn't sure where we were going for most of it, but that's why it held my attention throughout, and was entertaining. When you want something a little different, than My Martian Child will please.

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by Jonas

No Reservations (2007)

No Reservations is the Hollywood remake of the German film, Mostly Martha. It stars Aaron Eckhart, Abigail Breslin and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Zeta-Jones is Kate, a driven executive chef in a swanky Manhattan restaurant. Apparently no one ever told her the phrase "Work to live, don't live to work," as she has her entire life is tied up in this restaurant, and she has little (more like nothing) outside of it. The plot develops with a crisis as Kate's sister is coming into town to visit, and is fatally killed in an automobile accident, and her niece, Zoe (Breslin), is injured as well. Suddenly Kate has to fulfill her godmotherly duties and raise her sister's child, a responsibility that she unenthusiastically fulfills.

Along the way, we realize that Kate is wholly unprepared for this endeavor, despite her outward achievement at the restaurant. Seriously, it shouldn't take a psychotherapist to suggest making the kid fishsticks instead of duck or a whole fish (with the head on) to eat! Geez, no wonder Zoe wasn't quite gobbling this fare up! Enter Nick (Eckhart), a budding chef that for most of the film we can't decide if he is truly studying under Kate, or waiting for his chance to push her aside in the kitchen. Quite predictably, and inevitably, a romance develops between Kate and Nick.

No Reservations, while mostly predictable, is still a good film. There's no plot twists and turns to keep track of. You can guess the ending halfway through, and there's no surprises along the way beyond an occasional speed bump. It's like ordering a hamburger at the diner: completely predictable, but still satisfying. Sometimes, that just what your taste buds need, and this film can deliver. All three stars turn in convincing performances so No Reservations is definitely a safe viewing choice.

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by Jonas


De Novo Dahl, Move Every Muscle Make Every Sound (Roadrunner Records, 2008)

De Novo Dahl are a Nashville-based indie rock band featuring Joel J Dahl (vocals, guitar, lyrics), Keith Lowen (bass, vocals), Serai Zaffiro (vocals, omnichord), Joey Andrews (drums), and Matt Hungate (keyboards, vocals). While they specialize in sunny power pop, Dahllyrics have more depth than you might notice at first glance. Their third album Move Every Muscle, Make Every Sound came out in March.

The opening song "Shout" is the obvious single. While there is some similarity in lyrical theme to the Tears for Fears song of the same title, this song is both more aggressive and catchier. The most intriguing song on the album, though, is the six-minute "Means to an End." Set to an edgy musical backdrop reminiscent of John Lennon, Dahl and Zaffiro trade verses while taking the roles of some sort of special agents in a surreal science fiction story. Otherwise De Novo Dahl do a fine job of mixing things up, from the bouncy pop of "Make Some Sense," to the more punkish "Be Your Man," to the disco of "Shakedown." There's even some sharp social commentary in the song "Marketplace": "We've built an empire of broken down homes. We laugh with our neighbors and say we've never felt so empty and alone." Listen closely for the church organ near the end of the song.

With Move Every Muscle, Make Every Sound, De Novo Dahl have made a fine power pop recording that succeeds in being fun and catchy without being one-dimensional. I get the feeling that this a band that we'll hear more good things from in the future.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

Mozaik, Changing Trains (Compass Records, 2008)

Andy Irvine and Dónal Lunny first played together nearly forty years ago in the influential Irish folk band Planxty. They've both kept busy with all sorts of musical projects over the years; Irvine has a solo carer and is a member of Patrick Street, I've rattled off Lunny's resumé in a previous post so I won't repeat it here, and both have participated in the periodic Planxty reunions. They share a keen interest in music from other parts of the world, though, and they founded the band Mozaik several years ago to team up musicians from different folk traditions and explore their common musical ground. In addition to Irvine (bouzouki, mandolin, vocals) and Lunny (bouzouki, guitar, vocals), the quintet also includes the American Bruce Molsky (fiddle, banjo, vocals), plus Dutchman Rens van der Zalm and Bulgarian Nikola Parov (both play too many instruments to mention). Their 2004 debut CD Live from the Powerhouse focused on pieces already in the repertoires of the individual members, but on the new CD Changing Trains, Mozaik work with new compositions and new arrangements of traditional songs and tunes.

Irvine owes much of his long and productive career to being a master of the autobiographical song, particularly when he intertweaves details of his own life with the evolution of his musical tastes. Changing Trains has a couple of excellent examples of Irvine's narrative style. The first is the opening song "O'Donoghue's," which recalls many long nights spent in a pub in Dublin that played a pivotal role in the revival of traditional Irish music that started in the early 1960's. Irvine was part of that scene, and in the course of the song he drops the names of members of The Dubliners and also Johnny Moynihan, with whom Irvine later played in a band called Sweeney's Men. As Irvine recounts, it was Moynihan who first brought the bouzouki from Eastern Europe to Ireland. It took Irvine and Lunny to make the instrument popular, though. The second example is "The Wind Blows Over the Danube," a song about the summer in the late sixties that Irvine spent in the Balkans exploring the music there. By the end of the summer he had visited many places and fallen in and out of love, and was left wondering where the time went.

The rest of Changing Trains shifts styles according to the different band members' specialties. Molsky contributes a pair of old American folk songs, and Lunny gives a very rare lead vocal on a Gaelic waltz called "Siún Ní Dhuibir." The instrumentals frequently mix styles from one part of the tune to the next. The Lunny composition "The Humours of Parov," for example, combines an Irish slip jig with a Bulgarian horo, both in 9/8 time. "The Pigfarm Suite" combines several polyrhythmic tunes, the first of which is stately and the second of which is more aggressive. Other tracks, like Irivine's adaptation of "The Ballad of Rennardine" and Molsky's arrangement of the Appalachian pieces "Train on the Island/Big Hoedown" are simpler and more self-explanatory, but still quite effective.

Despite the individual reputations of the five members, Mozaik clearly sound like a fully cohesive band starting to hit its best stride. While I liked Live from the Powerhouse, I think Changing Trains represents a clear step forward for the band. The songs are very good, and the playing hits the very high standard you'd expect from the musicians involved. I hope the quintet can time to record and perform together more often in the future, because they have a good thing going.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott


Love or Money (2001)

Love or Money is a British look, through film, at the age old question of whether one should marry for love or money. This has been going on for eons, and Jane Austen wrote about it plenty, so why not make a film about it. Apparently this film is kind of obscure (I can't even find the movie poster for it), but you never know what you can find on the shelf at your public library.

Daniel is having trouble finding a suitable bride, so after a souring experience, he decides to go on a game/reality television show. Worse than ABC's "The Bachelor," the show requires you to marry a bride that you've never seen before (but voted for by some TV audience), and then make a marriage work for six months. Why would anyone subject themselves to this test of "Wedding Survivor?" Well, after the half a year, if you're still hitched, and can answer a set of questions correctly about your mate, you get a little bonus consisting of two cars, a nice house, and a million pounds (which, with the exchange rate, is quite a bit of dough these days).

The ironic thing is that Daniel hardly needs the cash as his family is some type of ice cream mogul in England. He marries Samantha, a down on her luck physical therapist who sees this as her way out of her current financial situation. She also has a few surprises of her own that Daniel must learn to cope with as the film progresses.

In summary, Love or Money is somewhat offbeat. While the pretense of a game show to settle this complex issue is hardly realistic, but it does frame this age old question that does come up in our society more times than many would admit. If you're not sure which is more important, than checking out this film might stimulate some thought.

Overall Grade: B

Reviewed by Jonas

License To Wed (2007)

License To Wed is one of those slightly offbeat comedies that Robin Williams can add his brand of humor to, and take a decent film and elevate it a notch better. It also stars Mandy Moore and John Krasinski.

We've all heard that the divorce rate in the US is a dismal 50%. Moore plays Sadie Jones, and Krasinski is Ben Murphy. They're two twenty somethings that clearly are in love, and are ready to make a lifelong commitment to each other. The Jones family has a particular Reverend Frank that is to perform the ceremony. The only issue is that Reverend Frank puts his betrothed couples through a series of tests to insure that the marriage will not end up in the divorced half when it is all said and done.

The problem is that these tests are more extreme than any pre-Cana course, and is more akin to a cardiac exercise stress test. The good Reverend takes this to the extreme, and is not above using anything to make sure they are right for each other. He even organizes antagonistic and ridiculous free association games, or takes it a level further and goes so far as to bug the couple's bedroom, and makes an uninvited house call in the middle of the night.

Through all of this, it takes an actor like Robin Williams to keep the totally ridiculous from spinning off into space somewhere, and grounded somewhere on this planet. It's his gift, and although at times I wish he would make more serious films, few can pull off a role like this and make it work as well as he can. With that said, License to Wed held my attention, and was fun in a whimsical and less than realistic way. In other words, decent entertainment which is always a welcome addition.

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by Jonas

Madea's Family Reunion (2006)

In the follow up film to Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Tyler Perry once again transforms himself into the headstrong Madea (and a few other characters along the way). Like Perry's other films, that he writes, directs and acts in, this one follows the same formula of the "triple threat."

There are some consistencies in his work across the various films. For example, they all take place, at least in part, in Atlanta. The theme of the lifestyles of the rich versus the plight of the poor is also shown as the classes clash. There is also the theme of the battered woman and how far she can be pushed to try and maintain a dysfunctional relationship.

In the middle of this is the cantankerous and lovable Madea. A headstrong matriarch, gun toting in her purse, her life of experience qualifies her to dole out advice to the rest of the family. While Madea does organize a family reunion, she also gets the challenge of fixing an unruly teen tossed into her lap.

Madea's Family Reunion has plenty of humor, with its stereotypical, cartoonish, larger than life characters. While they're not subtle, they're tolerable as they tell a larger story. I've become a Tyler Perry fan, and if you haven't seen his work yet, it's well worth a look.

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by Jonas

Apocalypto (2006)

I've always had a fascination with the great societies of Central America: the Mayans and the Aztecs. These were highly developed civilizations, with great cities. Their knowledge of math, astronomy, calenders, and writing was eons beyond anything the North Americans ever developed, and in some cases ahead of European and Asian civilizations. Also, the Mayan pyramids stand to this day as a testament to the vitality of these large cities.

With that context, I set out to watch Mel Gibson's Apocalypto. This director, on the one hand sets out to take authenticity to the extreme with all the dialogue in Mayan. Seriously, how the heck do you find folks that speak this language, and why? Once again, couldn't they dub in an English soundtrack for those of us that are lazy movie watchers, at least on the DVD?

Unfortunately, it gets worse. Rather than show us the great Mayan civilization, complete with architecture, and a size that would have created wonderment, we instead focus on the violence of the Mayans- for the entirety of the film, to the exclusion of everything else. Yeah, I realize that the Mayans weren't exactly into book clubs or knitting, but the only reason for the film doesn't have to be fighting and bloodshed, and not much else.

Between it all, I couldn't take it, and had to eject the DVD halfway through as there was nothing redeeming here. Even fans of Mayan civilization won't be enthralled with Apocalypto. Once again, I think I simply wanted to see a different film.

Overall Grade: Incomplete (Preliminary Grade: F+)

Reviewed by Jonas

Feast of Love (2007)

I've never been a fan of films that could be categorized as "slice of life." Similarly, I don't enjoy films that have tons of characters with disparate stories that for too much of the film their paths don't cross. While Feast of Love has elements of both of these types of films, it actually does pull it off.

Feast of Love takes place in a small town of Oregon. Morgan Freeman portrays a college professor on permanent sabbatical. While away from the school, he gives advice to his acquaintances. Another major character is Bradley Thomas, played by Greg Kinnear. He keeps looking for love (sorry for the cliche) in all the wrong places. Along the way we meet a realtor that offers more than a house, and another young couple believes that love can save all. Through it all, Freeman is the father figure that glues this all together as he plays the paternalistic role to the rest of the town.

There is a medical tie in to Feast of Love. At one point, one of the characters catches a football, and ends up on the ground in need of CPR. Can that really happen? Unfortunately this can occur as the energy transfer sends the heart into an arrhythmia. Thankfully, there was an ER doc on the scene. What does she do? Two precordial thumps that reestablish a pulse (which only rarely works outside of Hollywood), and a run to the hospital in a station wagon. As they are stuck in traffic, it shows why they would have been better off waiting for the ambulance which could have provided meds and defibrillation. Too bad they didn't have an AED at the game as it could have given this guy a much better chance.

Anyway, Feast of Love is a disjointed and mildly haphazard look at this grand experience known as life. While it's not always pretty, it gets the job done.

Overall Grade: B-

Reviewed by Jonas


I-CON 27

I-CON 27, the Long Island, NY science-fiction, fantasy, and gaming convention, was held on April 4-6 out at SUNY Stony Brook. For me, this marked a personal milestone: my tenth annual I-CON convention, a decade of panels, games, events, and amazing costumes. And the convention remains as wonderful as ever.

I got to hear Harlan Ellison give an hour-long lecture/q&a, and he is as vibrant, acerbic, and brilliant as ever. I met Jeffrey Combs, who autographed my CD of him reading "Herbert West, Re-Animator." I listened to Tracy Scoggins discuss her career, including her season on Babylon 5. Alas, I only got to hear Billy West for a small time, due to scheduling pressures.

I-CON 27 was scattered all over the Stony Brook campus, and I got in my share of walking this weekend! Panels I attended ranged from the new-to-me area of Alternate Reality Gaming, to unrealistic biology in Star Trek, to "What Makes A Gamer Tick... and Explode," to "Things That Make People Paranoid," to "Supermisogyny!" Not all the panels were good -- the Star Trek one was a bit dry, and one computer art demo consisted of a person slowly filling in lines on a screen -- but I enjoyed myself at almost all of them. I also relaxed in the video game area, enjoyed combatants slugging it out with mock swords and weaponry, and chatted with fellow conventioneers.

I was active at the convention as well: I ran the terrific game The Great Space Race (got my butt kicked), gave my second annual lecture on "Super(hero) S&M!" (how could it not be fun?), won at a Thurn and Taxis game, and came in second place in a South Park Trivia contest! This year also marked the first time I had my biography run in the program. Cool!

Also cool were the numerous people in costumes. There were innumerable folks who came as their favorite anime costumes (I can't count how many Narutos I saw), superheroes and supervillains, original creations, and even Ronald McDonald and the Hamburglar! Some Ghostbusters were there (and they turned their car into the Ghostmobile, shown above), as was someone with Captain Pike's automated chair. Corsets and medieval garb were omnipresent, and I wound up going through 2.5 rolls of film.

It was announced that next year I-CON will be held at a different college in Suffolk County; Harlan Ellison ended his lecture by vowing he wouldn't be coming back to I-CON again. Ellison noted that he's promised this before and still winds up coming back, so I hope he'll return. And no matter where the convention goes, I'll always return to I-CON.

(Also, a shout-out to Scott and Donna, who put me up (put up with me?) during the convention, and kudos to Scott for volunteering in the gaming area for the whole weekend.)

Reviewed by James Lynch