Sam Phillips, Don't Do Anything (Nonesuch, 2008)

With a history that includes her past life as Leslie Phillips, the big-haired golden girl of 80's Christian rock, and an acting role as a mute terrorist in Die Harder with a Vengeance, Sam Phillips would be noteworthy for the basic oddness of her career trajectory even if her music wasn't that good. However, Phillips' insistence on marching to the beat of her own slightly off-kilter drum has resulted in some very strong albums over the past two decades. Until recently, the one predictable element on a given Sam Phillips album was the production of T-Bone Burnett, her husband. But several songs on Phillips' 2004 CD A Boot and a Shoe hinted that the marriage was unraveling, a fact that she confirmed on her subsequent tour. She really appeared to have been blindsided by the turn of events, but happily Phillips has resurfaced strongly with her new release Don't Do Anything, her best album in over a decade.

While Phillips and Burnett still seem to be on speaking terms -- she thanks him in the credits, and she did allow a song she wrote for this album, called "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us," to also be recorded by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss on the Burnett-produced Raising Sand -- she opted to produce Don't Do Anything herself. (With most of the songs making a direct or indirect reference to him, it might have been awkward.) Starting with the opening track "No Explanations," with its ominous double-tracked lead-in vocal, dueling distorted guitars, and heavy drums unaccompanied by a bass, Phillips shows off plenty of skill in that role. While Don't Do Anything maintains the minimalist approach to instrumentation employed on A Boot and a Shoe and her 2001 release Fan Dance, electric guitars are mixed in more evenly with the acoustics this time around. The resulting sound incorporates as much of the power pop of 1994's excellent Martinis and Bikinis and the unnerving dissonance of her classic 1996 album Omnipop as it does the folksy cabaret of the two more recent albums, and the mix works really well.

In addition to "No Explanations," the album has a particularly strong run of songs in its middle. "Little Plastic Life" is a fun pop song, complete with a catchy chorus, about "the domestic dreams we try out on each other...and ourselves". "My Career in Chemistry" is an Elvis Costello style rave-up about the explosiveness of romance and the lingering effects when it's gone. Phillips evokes late-era Beatles on "Flowers Up," with a string quartet backing her up on piano. Over the years, she has been a rare performer who can wear the influence of the Beatles on her sleeve without sounding overly reverential, or like she's trying to be somebody other than herself. "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us" is both a song about finding inspiration at a difficult time and a tribute to the legendary gospel singer and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Phillips wrote it in a style that would have fit right in on her last two albums, but the song gets a bouncier, more festive arrangement on this record than it probably would have gotten had she recorded it earlier, and I think this liveliness makes Phillips' own version slightly superior to the version done by Plant and Krauss.

Some people might complain that at thirty-five minutes, Don't Do Anything is too short. I've bought too many hour-long albums where only half an hour is any good, though, and the really good albums are good as a whole. And this is a really good album.

Overall grade: A

Reviewed by Scott

To view the video for "Can't Come Down," click here.

Death Note

Sometimes anime can be silly, sometimes convoluted beyond belief, and sometimes creative and compelling. Death Note provides a suspenseful, unpredictable, and intense experience of mass murder, comedy, and cat and mouse.

Light Yagami is a high school senior who is utterly brilliant, utterly bored, and pretty disgusted with the world around him. Things change for him when, one day in class, he sees a notebook fall from the sky outside. Light picks up the notebook -- which has the words "Death Note" written on the cover in English -- and finds that it contains several rules: If the owner of the Death Note writes someone's name in it while picturing that person's face, that person will die. The owner of the Death Note can also specify the time and way the person dies; if that is left blank, the victim will die in 30 seconds of a heart attack.

Disbelieving the supposed powers of the Death Note at first, Light eventually tries it, writing down the name of a criminal on television -- and finds that the Death Note works! Light is soon visited by a winged, grinning god of death (technically, a shinigami) called Ryuk the Death. The Death Note belonged to Ryuk, and he dropped it on Earth due to boredom. Ryuk says he's not on anyone's side, but he'll work with Light. Ryuuku is also invisible to anyone who hasn't touched the Death Note; he also loves apples.

So, what's a bored, angry genius to do with the ultimate weapon of death? Light decides to make the world a better place by killing as many criminals as he can, taking credit for this using the pseudonym "Kira." Light wants to make a better world -- and proclaims that he will be the god of this new utopia.

Mass murders don't go unnoticed, which brings Light/Kira in opposition with his brilliant opposite: L. This famous, mysterious detective only appears at first speaking through a laptop carried by his associate. When we finally see L, he's almost the opposite of Light: L is pale, hunched over, usually barefood, always eating junk food, and completely lacking in any social graces. He's also amazingly intelligent, and soon becomes convinved that Light is Kira. Much of Death Note becomes a game between the two, as L tries to prove his suspicion that Light Yagami is the killer, while Light seeks a way to kill L without implicating himself.

There are a lot of twists and turns along the way. Light's girlfriend Amane Misa is a famous model -- with a shinigami of her own and the ability to see a person's name just by looking at them with "shinigami eyes" (obtained by sacrificing half of one's remaining life). The task force headed by L to catch Kira includes Light's father, the incompetent Matsura, and even Light. And there are several twists -- from the Death Notes being passed to others to a very surprising death -- that keep the series surprising.

Death Note has a few typical, almost stereotypical, elements of anime -- the cool, handsome, brooding antihero, the giggly untra-hot girl -- but these flaws pale compared to the impressive, tense story. This series recently wrapped up airing on U.S. television, and the end was as dramatic and satisfactory as one could hope. Death Note is an impressive animated series, one worth watching from start to finish.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch



Back in the 1950s, Bettie Page was one of the most famous and infamous pin-up models in the world. Her face could be found in innumerable magazines and on postcards, and her more risque work was highlighted in hearings on indecency. The movie The Notorious Bettie Page looks at the life of this very simple lady who became such a sensation.

Gretchen Mol stars as Bettie Page, a young religious woman who leaves Nashville, Tennessee to pursue her dreams of acting. Following a disastrous marriage, Bettie heads to New York City, where she finds few acting roles -- but plenty of work as a model. Apart from mainstream photos, she also did some racy bondage and s&m photos and short films for the brother-and-sister erotic photography team of Irving Klaw (Chris Bauer) and Paula Klaw (Lili Taylor). Bettie also works with John Willie (Jared Harris), an erotic photographer, and Maxie (Cara Seymour), a more experienced model who gives her some lessons on modeling.

There are storm clouds on the horizon. Raids on pornography are prevalent -- the movie opens with an undercover bust of a store that sells Bettie Page photos -- and a Senate hearing had the goal of proving that pornography is corrupting the nation's youth. As the chair of the Senate committee, Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn) alleges that viewing such pictures leads to "suicide, murder, and psychosis."

The Notorious Bettie Page is a good film, but not a particularly insightful one. Gretchen Mol is the spitting image of Bettie Page, and Mol allows her character to be an almost-innocent girl who's famous for her racy pictures. There's little conflict between her modeling and religious beliefs -- she tells someone, "All we're doing is taking pictures" -- and she seems happy to keep doing photos while frustrated not to be an actress. Director Mary Harron evokes a feel for the repressive atmosphere of the 1950s, but her focus on Bettie Page is more of a simple look at one person rather than an examination of the world in which she lived. The supporting cast is fine, and the mostly blac-and-white filming lends an element of nostalgia, but overall The Notorious Bettie Page is a bit superficial. It's still fun, though! (The dvd also includes interviews with the cast, along with a short film starring the real Bettie Page.)

Overall Grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch


Is honesty the best policy? This is a question that has been addressed innumerable times before, from comedies to dramas. Sleeping Dogs Lie attempts to put a shocking twist on this question, but the movie forgets that a comedy should be funny.

We learn the big secret of Amy (Melinda Page Hamilton) at the movie's beginning: One night in college, bored, Amy did something with a dog that I'm not going to repeat here. Jump ahead a few years, and things are going great for her: She's a kindergarden teacher, and her boyfriend John (Bryce Johnson) just proposed to her. The two head up to visit Amy's parents (Geoofrey Pierson and Bonita Friedericy), who see her as their flawless diamond. Amy particularly shines in comparison to her brother Dougie (Jack Plotnick), a grown man living at home and smoking meth.

When John presses Amy to reveal the craziest thing she's ever done, she tells him -- and things immediately start falling apart with John, her family, and her life in general. Was it a mistake to be completely honest? Will she ruin her friendship with Ed (Colby French) if she tells him? Can she patch things up with John and her family?

Sleeping Dogs Lie was written and directed by stand-up comic Bob Goldthwait, which makes the near-total absence of humor more surprising. There are virtually no laughs beyond the gross-out element of the secret, and the situations are cliches at best: uncomfortable silences, asking a man for his daughter's hand in marriage while he's chopping wood, etc.. The acting is one-dimensional, and a 180-degree turn to drama with a death feels like it should be part of another film. Let this dog of a film lie untouched -- avoid Sleeping Dogs Lie.

Overall Grade: F

Reviewed by James Lynch


TO THE DEATH by Patrick Robinson

Several years ago, George W. Bush said, speaking of the war on terror, that "You're either with us or against us." This black-and-white philosophy pretty well defines To the Death, a Patrick Robinson thriller that has as much gung-ho American patriotism as any episode of 24.

Set in 2012, this novel opens with two thwarted terrorist attacks: a bomb in Boston International Airport and a hijacked plane. After interrogation in Guantamano, the captured terrorist reveals the location of the main nemesis of To the Death: General Ravi Rashood, the Commander-in-Chief of Hamas and a former British military man. After a failed attempt to kill Rashood by the Israelis, Rashood and his femme fatale wife Shakira are given a mission: to assassinate Admiral Arnold Morgan, the controversial Presidential advisor and main enemy of terrorists.

Meanwhile, Lt. Commander Jimmy Ramshawe, the Assistant Director of the NSA, has begun piecing together the various seemingly random events that indicate what Ravi and Shakira are up to. The bulk of the novel are the parallel workings, as Ravi and Shakira work to place themselves in a position to kill Morgan while Ramshawe tries to figure out their plan and protect Morgan.

As a thriller, To the Death is decent. There's quite a large number of people -- the first three pages are a cast of characters -- but since the focus is on action and the procedures of covert missions and interdepartmental cooperation, character is mostly secondary. The twin operations are contrasted nicely, and there is some good suspense.

What really put me off To the Death was how absolutely wonderful the good guys are and how absolutely evil the bad guys are. All the good guys get along perfectly, have no flaws (except, gosh, that they love America just too darm much), and are perfectly willing to ignore any pesky laws that interfere with their plans. By absolute contrast, every single Arab or Muslim is either a terrorist or providing support to terrorists. (Robinson also has some of his heroes toss around the slur "towelheads" quite often.) The wicked press is only interested in selling stories, making up stuff and endangering America in the process. Any politicians who don't automatically support this our-way-bar-none approach to national security are motivated by selfish ambition. "With us or against us" indeed!

The best thrillers give us characters we care about, and plots that make us think, as well as action and tension. To the Death, alas, is too mired in shallow stereotypes (both of the good and bad guys) that distract from what could have been a decent thriller.

Overall grade: C-

Reviewed by James Lynch



Batman returns to the big screen in a tremendous way in The Dark Knight. In a summer with a large number of quality superhero movies -- Iron Man, Hellboy 2, The Incredible Hulk -- The Dark Knight stands out with all-around quality, from the edge-of-your-seat action to an impressive script backed by equally impressive acting.

At the start of this movie, things are going well for Gotham City. Batman (played by Christian Bale) is both popular with the people and has the mob on the ropes by attacking their money sources. Lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldman) is officially denying involvement with the Batman while shining the Batsignal and working with him. And the city's "white knight" is Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the district attorney who's fearless in taking on the mob. Dent is such a popular, courageous, and overall good warrior that Batman is considering retiring his superhero ways and finally being with Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over from the role from Katie Holmes in Batman Begins) -- even though Rachel is happily dating Dent. Meanwhile, Batman still gets moral support from Alfred (Michael Caine) and hardware support from Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman).

Absolute chaos hits Gotham City with the Joker (Heath Ledger), a scarred psychopath in makeup. From the heist on a mob-owned bank to destroying buildings and killing people, the Joker is a perfect portrait of madness and homidice. While there were fears that the sensation surrounding the actor's death would create hype that his performance could not meet, Ledger creates the perfect Joker.

His performance is one of many great ones in The Dark Knight. It's somewhat ironic that while Batman is the protagonist and star of the movie, Christian Bale has some of the least challenges as an actor here; it's not that his performance is weak, but he speaks gruff as Batman and doesn't offer much tension as Bruce Wayne considers hanging up the cape and cowl. As I mentioned earlier, Eckhart is amazing as Harvey Dent, the unmasked face of justice for Gotham City. He isn't flawless, and his intense focus hints at his ultimate fate. Gary Oldman shines again as James Gordon, an honest cop thrilled to be working with men like Dent and Batman -- and struggling to keep things together as the Joker's madness and destruction wears away the hope of Gotham City. Caine and Freeman are fine in their supporting roles, and Gyllenhaal provides Rachel with some backbone as she both fights the good fight and reminds Bruce Wayne not to pin his hopes for a normal life on her.

Did I mention how exciting The Dark Knight was? The movie opens with an intense bank robbery and keeps on delivering. There are amazing fist-fights, nail-biting vehicle chases (including a game of chicken between the Batcycle and a huge truck), and much more. Unlike Batman Begins where most battles were a series of dizzyng quick camera cuts, The Dark Knight shows the Batman as a skilled warrior.

My only complaint with the movie is its length -- over two and a half hours -- and reducing some of the time spent on the romantic triangle could have cut this down a little. That's a very small complaint from an amazing movie. The script is smart, the action and acting is truly impressive, and this could be the best movie of the summer -- as well as an example of everything a summer blockbuster can and should be. The Dark Knight is not just a great "comic book movie" but an epic adventure by any standard.

Overall Grade: A+

Reviewed by James Lynch


Annbjørg Lien, Waltz with Me (Grappa, 2008); Unni Løvlid, Rite (Grappa, 2008); Vallkyrien Allstars (Grappa, 2007)

Like the other Scandinavian countries, Norway has an active folk music scene. Its folk musicians benefit from a number of record labels eager to promote and distribute music influenced in some ways by the nation's folk traditions. For example, Grappa includes among its list of acts some of the country's most renowned folk performers, and young performers just starting out. I recently had the opportunity to listen to three new Grappa releases, covering a broad range of performers and styles.

Norway's most distinctive folk instrument is the hardanger fiddle, a fiddle with many supporting strings underneath the main four to provide resonance. Mainstream listeners may have heard the hardanger fiddle in the Lord of the Rings movie series, where it was used to play the Rohan theme. Arguably the most famous of Norway's hardanger fiddle players is Annbjørg Lien, who recently was commissioned to compose a series of pieces for a performance in Telemark, a village steeped in the tradition of hardanger fiddle music. The results were recorded for an album titled Waltz with Me. Wanting a folk equivalent of a string quartet to perform the pieces, Lien recruited Swedish violist Mikael Marin of Väsen, American fiddler/guitarist Bruce Molsky, and Scottish cellist Christine Hanson. Lyrics were written for several of the pieces as well, with Kristen Bråten Berg and Bruce Molsky singing them. Like many of the performers in the genre of New Nordic Folk, Lien composes and arranges her music in ways that combine influences from a number of musical traditions beyond her own. On Waltz with Me, these outside influences include bluegrass, Celtic, Swedish fiddle music, and even some classical to provide a touch of stateliness to the proceedings. The music is obviously eclectic, but also highly personalized, and the performances are predictably first-rate.

Singer Unni Løvlid goes further back in time than the Norwegian fiddling traditions to derive her inspiration. Her musical style would qualify more as a combination of modern classical and New Age than folk, but her lyrics are structured after Medieval religious chants. Her album Rite reminds me a lot of an album I heard a few years back consisting of modernist interpretations of the songs of Hildegard von Bingen, the twelfth-century German abbess who added a feminine touch to the spiritual music of her day. Unfortunately the von Bingen album just wasn't all that interesting, and neither is Rite. Most of the songs just plod along with little sign of life, and the electronic touches generally distract from the music more than they enhance it. The only attention-grabbing point on the disc comes on the last track "Portrett," when a heavily distorted storm of synthesizers and strings breaks the calm. It may have been the one moment of catharsis on an otherwise somnolent recording, but even that doesn't save the song from an ineffectively discordant melody. Nor, alas, is it enough to salvage the album.

Vallkyrien Allstars are a trio of young Norwegian hardanger fiddle players. Like Annbjørg Lien, they use the musical traditions of their homeland as a springboard to explore all sorts of different styles. On their self-titled debut CD, they combine traditional Norwegian dances with rock, reggae, and cabaret to produce a wildly eclectic and fun record. Of the three discs I'm reviewing, this one manages to be not only the most directly reflective of Norwegian traditional music, but also the most adventurous. The star of the group is Tuva Livsdatter Syvertsen, whose potent vocals channel the ghosts of both Edith Piaf and Janis Joplin. But she, Ola Hillmen, and Erik Sollid are all excellent fiddlers, and the cast of backing musicians provides solid accompaniment as well. They're the kind of band that would go over phenomenally well at The Nordic Roots Festival, but with the Festival changing formats after this year, they unfortunately might never get the opportunity to show what they've got. (Annbjørg Lien will be bringing her quartet to this year's festival, however.)

Overall grades:
Annbjørg Lien B+
Unni Løvlid C-
Vallkyrien Allstars A-

reviewed by Scott

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright 2008 The Green Man Review



Everyone's favorite big red monster good guy is back! Hellboy II: The Golden Army brings Hellboy and the rest of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense back to battle the supernatural villains that threaten humanity. While the storylines can be a bit run of the mill here, the visuals are creative and superb.

Inside the B.P.R.D. there are plenty of tensions. Hellboy (Ron Perlman) has lots of tension, both in his new romantic relationship with the pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) and his desire to go public -- which irritates his boss Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor). The aquatic Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) tries to keep the peace, and new member Johaan Krauss (voiced by Seth MacFarlane, of Family Guy fame) is a by-the-book German whose ectopolasmic body animates a mechanical suit.

And there are villains. In a pre-credits fairy tale, we learn that centuries ago the elves created an invincible Golden Army, but after seeing its devastation on the humans the Elven king decided never to use it again. Now the renegade Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) has decided to take control of the army and unite the supernatural beings of the world against the humans. Princess Nuala (Anna Walton) flees with the piece of the crown Nuada needs to awaken the army, which leads her to the B.P.R.D. (and a romantic relationship with Abe). But she is linked psychically (and, in a way, physically) with her brother, so it's not long before he comes after her.

The innumerable subplots can get a little wearying, and some parts are downright predictable (though I couldn't have predicated a drunk Hellboy and Abe singing along to Barry Manilow). The acting is fine, there are many very good action sequences -- and the effects are astounding! This movie is populated with a spectacular diversity of creatures, from small carnivorous Tooth Fairies to a giant forest elemental that would give the creature from Cloverfield a run for its money. The Golden Army itself is a hellish amalgam of golden metal and glowing red fire, while the various critters that pop up are a wonder to behold. The acting is consistently good (though I think anyone who could do a German accent could have done Krauss as well), but for me the action and especially the visuals make Hellboy II: The Golden Army a really fun summer movie!

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by James Lynch



The term "romantic comedy" feels very inadequate to describe the movie Secretary, even though this is a very funny movie with plenty of comedy. It's a typical "girl meets boy" story, with several atypical twists.

Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has problems. Her nervous habit of cutting herself led to her being institutionalized, and when released she lives and home and deals with her sister's picture-perfect marriage and her father's drinking. She has a pretty average boyfriend in Peter (Jeremy Davies) but she wants more. So Lee goes to secretarial school, which leads to a most original job.

From the moment Lee applies to a lawyer's ad for a secretary, it's clear several things are amiss: The office is in shambles and the secretary in there leaves in tears. Then Lee meets Mr. Grey (James Spader), a blend of intensity, quirkiness, and shyness. He explains that the position is simple -- typing and answering phones -- and, after a few somewhat personal questions, Lee is hired.

However, Mr. Grey is not an ordinary man, or an ordinary boss. His demands soon have Lee getting close to overwhelmed, and soon he takes a more... hands-on approach to disciplining Lee for typos or other errors. In the real world, this would lead to a massive lawsuit. In Secretary, this taps into something in Lee that she can't resist. But Mr. Lee also feels self-loathing and disgust in the very acts that Lee finds captivating, so soon she's pursuing him in this unusual office relationship: When he says "Look, we can't do this 24 hours a day, seven days a week" she answers back simply, "Why not?"

Movies often treat sexually unusual material either for cheap laughs, exploitation, or condemnation. Secretary rises above numerous such opportunities, instead making the office s&m relationship into an integral part of the lives of these two people. There's plenty of humor here, but never at the expense of the main characters. And while there is both sexual activity and substantial nudity, neither are ever gratituous or salacious.

Gyllenhaal and Spader are the keys to making this movie work. As a damaged person discovering herself, Gyllenhaal demonstrates vulnerability, quirkiness, and finally self-strength and determination. Spader's Mr. Gray is a mass of neuroses, needing to be in charge but also unsure of how to deal with his impulses. These two are superior to just about all the other leads in the seemingly endless string of mainstream romantic comedies.

If you haven't guessed by now, Secretary is not for the easily offended. If that's not you, I very highly recommend this very funny, very smart, very exciting (I have to use the phrase after all) romantic comedy.

Overall grade: A

Reviewed by James Lynch



The New Zealand folk parody duo Bret and Jemaine spread their low-key humor across several musical genres on their self-titled album Flight of the Conchords. Combining music from their concerts and HBO television special, there are plenty of chuckles.

The key to the humor here is that the pair approach their songs in earnest, without realizing how ridiculous they sound. For example, "Think About It" strives for social consciousness, but is deflated by such lines as "A man is lying on the street, some punk has chopped off his head/ And I’m the only one who stops to see if he’s dead/ Turns out he’s dead." "Mutha'uckas" deleted the curses from the song, leading to some long and choppy silences. And "Business Time" is a Barry White-style song about gettin' it on -- except the woman's comments show how far from the great lover the singer actually is.

I can't help but compare the album to the HBO series of the same name. Alas, not all the songs from the show are on here (sorry to all the geeks who wanted "Frodo, Don't Wear the Ring") and I miss how on the series Bret and Jermaine would often spontaneously start singing and playing -- often to the confusion of the people around them. And while the songs are often cute, only a few are laugh-out-loud funny. Flight of the Conchords is an amusing album, not hysterical but quite enjoyable.

Overall grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch

The Watchmen - Ben Bova (1964, 1969)

The Watchmen is a collection of two books by sci-fi great Ben Bova, collected into a single volume. Both deal with an Interstellar Terran Empire and the Star Watch which is charged with holding it together and keeping the peace. Both are interesting, but for different reasons.

Science fiction, as I've said before in reviews, can be a vehicle for writers to comment on issues which are of very real import in a way which provides a little distance and perspective. Star Watchmen, the first of the two short novels, is a fine example of this type of writing. Published in 1964, it is a pretty clear analogy for the proxy wars and colonial in-fighting that were flaring up in Southeast Asia. As an allegory for Vietnam (and other places), it works well. Bova renames the various parties involved, and without a real-world name as a peg to hang one's hat, it becomes a lot harder to tell who the "good guys are." The book is a little dated, but it's still a good read.

I remember reading The Dueling Machine back in the early 80s and thinking how cool it was. It bears up pretty well on this rereading, even though the whole book is essentially written around a single cool idea. That idea is sort of what has come to be called "virtual reality" - a machine which allows the participants to share a dream and fight to the "death." When the machine is used to cause actual death, investigations are spawned and the plot proceeds. However, the book revolves around the neat technological idea. It is handled deftly enough - and still makes our current VR look a little lame.

Bova writes well, and the books are entertaining. They both look a little dated, but that is not a bad thing. When one realizes that the books were written forty years ago, one cannot help but admire the vision of the writer. Taken together, they are a fine time capsule.

Overall Grade: B



Change is part of comic book characters -- even iconic ones -- as new artists want to put their stamp on the character and new writers demonstrate their creative directions for the character. Batman: Gotham Knight introduces a Japanese feel to Gotham's dark protector, as different anime artists illustrate each of the six interwoven stories here. I wish I could have said the results were better.

Anime has created some wild visuals before, but while their takes on Batman and other Gotham regulars (Commissioner Gordon, Killer Croc, Scarecrow, Deadshot) are different, they're not memorable or particularly inspired. Sure we see Bruce Wayne as a typical cool anime-star teen, or Batman wearing different types of body armor, but it's not wild or original enough to be memorable. The only real fun is in the opening story (a reimagining of a comic book tale) where a bunch of kids share their recollections of meeting Batman, turning him into a smoke-demon, a winged monster, and a robot.

The stories here aren't particularly inspired: Batman fights criminals, experiments with technology, and (in the weakest one) deals with pain while flashbacks show him, well, learning to deal with pain. I'm also surprised that with the Joker featured so prominently in the upcoming movie, the Clown Prince of Crime is absent here. He could have made quite an impression, whether he was like the homicidal mastermind from Naturo or the physics-defying Pierre Le Fou. Instead we have lots of mobsters, a giant reptile, a brief bit with the Scarecrow, and a deadly shooter.

Some of the action here is good, and the voice talent is solid. Overall, though, Batman: Gotham Knight is a letdown. If you're looking for a Batman fix while waiting for the new movie, I recommend the original animated series.

Overall Grade: C

Reviewed by James Lynch

Artemis Fowl - Eoin Colfer (2001)

Artemis Fowl is billed as a children's book, like Harry Potter, and like that 600-lb gorilla of the genre, it makes perfectly acceptable reading for adults. The premise of the book (and of subsequent sequels, one assumes), is that young Artemis Fowl is a criminal genius in a world where magic and superscience exist, if not by side-by-side, at least in the same universe. Fowl is on the mad scientist side of the equation, his nemesis, Holly Short, is on the magic side - although even as a Faerie in the employ of the Lower Elements Police, Recon (or LEPRecon) Captain Short makes full use of superscience. The appeal of the book lies in the interesting world created by Colfer for his characters to inhabit and in those characters themselves.

Comparisons to Harry Potter are inevitable. If the books lacks the epic scope of the Harry Potter books, they compensate with a darker tone (darker, at least, than the first few Potter books) and with tighter plotting.

Colfer's writing is good, drawing on numerous genres for inspiration and melding them into an engrossing whole. The book reads almost like a hard-boiled police procedural or thriller, toned down a bit for a younger audience, and with magic and a twelve year-old protagonist thrown in. It's an eclectic mix, but one that works.

It is interesting that Fowl is a master criminal. Unlike most heroes of books aimed for this crowd, he is not a good, upright but misunderstood hero in waiting (cf. Harry Potter, etc.), he's a villain. At the same time, he's a young boy trying to make his way in the adult world, with reasonable success, which is a very appealing image.

Overall Grade: B


Ichi the Killer

There are violent movies, there are really violent movies, and then there's Ichi the Killer. This Japanese movie, from director Takashi Miike (who also directly the effectively disturbing The Audition), is so ridiculously over the top that it goes beyond gore and violence into comedy. This is one weird, wild ride.

All is not well in the Japanese underworld. Gang boss Anjo has disappeared, and his most loyal underling Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano) takes over the gang and is determined to find him. Kakihara has more than a few screws loose: He's as much a sadist as a masochist, he's as ready to mutilate himself as to torture others, and his most-used weapons are cooking skewers. There's Kaneko (Hiroyuki Tanaka), a good cop (and single father to a young boy) kicked off the force for losing his gun who was helped by Anjo years before and feels a sense of duty to him. Then there are the twisted pair of identical twin corrupt cops (both played by Suzuki Matsuo). And the trail leads to Ichi.

Ichi leaves a true trail of carnage behind him: Rooms are filled with corpses, blood, and formerly-internal organs. When we finally meet Ichi (Nao Omori), we see he's an adolescent mind in an adult body, sexually conflicted and intensely shy. His "costume" is an all-black outfit with shoulder pads, a big "1" in reflective lights ("ichi" is Japanese for "one"), and deadly razors that pop out of the heels. Ichi is often lying down crying and sobbing, and he is goaded into killing by Jijii (Shinya Tsukamoto), an old man who convinved Ichi that the men he kills are like the bullies who used to beat up Ichi. Oh, and Ichi helped defend Kaneko's son from some bullies.

You'll need a strong stomach and a twisted sense of humor to sit through Ichi the Killer -- but it's very worth it! Miike has the actors strolling through the carnage like it's another ordinary day (especially the mutilated Kakihara walking around in a bright purple robe), giving an almost comical sense of surrealism to what could have been another simple tale of revenge. The actors all do an excellent job with their roles, and there are quite a few surprises -- not to mention undoings and inversions of movie cliches. Take a walk on the wild and oh-so-bloody side and find Ichi the Killer.

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by James Lynch



Rihanna had quite a year in 2007: Her album Good Girl Gone Bad was a tremendous hit, the single "Umbrella" (with its repetitive chorus "Umbrella/ella/ella/ella/ay/ay/ay/ay") was considered by many critics to be the song of the year, and her music videos and concert performance demonstrated why Victoria's Secret named her the Sexiest Female Musician. To follow up this success, she rereleased her most recent album with three new songs. Since I never got the album originally, Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded is all new to me, so I don't feel cheated as if I had to repurchase the album for a few bonus materials. I do wish the album were better.

The bulk of Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded is a combination of sex and synthesizers. For the majority of the album, Rihanna is flirting or more direct, whether using sexual automobile imagery (in "Shut Up and Drive") or being substantially more straightforward: "Come up to my room you sexy little thing/ And let's play a game, I won't be a tease/I'll show you the room, my sexy little thing." There are are also plenty of "men are scum" songs, from the tune "Breaking Dishes" (where she destroys the man's stuff and "I ain't gonna stop until I see police lights") to the new song "Take a Bow" which offers sarcastic praise to her cheating man's performance of sorrow. Synthesizes abound through the music, sometimes coming close to drowning out the music and often giving the songs a mechanical feel.

Rihanna does have some good songs here, and she does occasionally shine. The song "Hate That I Love You" is a smooth, skillful ballad with Ne-Yo that captures the challenge of being drawn back to someone you want to leave. "Don't Stop the Music" is a fun, upbeat club song, and the Rihanna-Maroon 5 collaboration "If I Never See Your Face Again" is solid pop. If Rihanna would worry less about making radio-friendly music and allow her voice to stand out, she could make some really outstanding pop music. As it stands, Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded is a mediocre album with as many forgettable songs as good ones.

Overall Grade: C

Reviewed by James Lynch



Pixar has made some of the most amazing animated movies in recent years, and they continue their tradition of excellence with WALL-E. This film manages to find humor, romance, and wonder among some of the most depressing ideas of the future ever featured in a children's movie.

Sometime in the future, humanity has covered the Earth in so much waste (much with the Buy n Large company logo) that the planet cannot sustain life. So humanity bailed on the planet, boarding a spaceship and taking off for parts unknown. They did decide to clean up in their absence, leaving behind a Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class robot; we know him as WALL-E. This little robot has a torso that crushes garbage into square cubes, clamps at the end of its arms that can lift the cubes, and all-terrain caterpillar treads that let him zip around the ground and he makes piles of crushed garbage.

WALL-E also developed a personality. While going about his job, WALL-E brings a cooler to collect items he finds interesting. WALL-E has a pet cockroach (and not a cute anthromorphic critter, but a realistic-looking bug) that he feeds with a Twinkie. WALL-E gets nervous, shows curiosity, and has a morning routine that's the robotic equivalent of that cup of coffee to wake up. WALL-E is lonely, watching a video of Hello, Dolly and holding his clamps together sadly.

Company arrives when a spaceship lands and leaves -- but not dropping off EVE. This robot can fly, has a laser in her arm (and an itchy trigger finger), and keeps scanning the planet on a secret mission. WALL-E is smitten, even if EVE is a reluctant partner. When EVE goes into a hibernation mode after seeing WALL-E's plant, he takes care of her. And when the spaceship returns and picks up EVE, WALL-E follows.

On the starship Axiom, things are... very regulated. All the people float about on hovering beds, eating and watching video screens constantly -- and so fat that virtually no one even walks. Glowing lines direct the traffic of humans and robots alike, setting pre-ordained paths that all follow without question. The B&L company is omnipresent, from branding to announcements. WALL-E's presence changes things, from the small cleaning bot that's perpetually scrubbing his tracks, to releasing a horde of defective robots, to inspiring the Captain (Jeff Garlin) to do more than the same old routine.

WALL-E works on just about every level possible. The special effects are amazing, creating an Earth where piles of garbage tower over skyscrapers and a futuristic "utopia" that's sterile and regulated. Neither WALL-E nor EVE have human features, but both manage to convey very human feelings through their movements and synthetic voices.

The story is also a cautionary tale, where human consumerism has gone berzerk and the humanity has to be reawakened by a mechanical being. And while the dual disasters of a planet laid to waste and a starship of laziness and gluttony are frightening, there is so much humor here that these potentially overwhelming themes don't come across in an overwhelming fashion. Kids will get a kick out of the chases and silliness (though I don't envy parents having to explain why they can't keep any cockroaches that they find in the house) and grown-ups will enjoy the amazing visuals, fun humor, and deeper story than one usually finds in animated fare. WALL-E is a truly spectacular movie, from its deep themes to hysterical comedy. This is easily one of the best movies of the summer, and WALL-E may be one of the best movies of the year.

Overall grade: A+

Reviewed by James Lynch