11.28.2008

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN

Growing up can be a challenge -- and having a vampire next door certainly doesn't make it any simpler. The Swedish horror-drama Let the Right One In goes beyond the usual vampire motifs to explore the violence, loneliness, and neediness of growing up.

Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) has it rough. A pale, skinny 12-year-old boy, Oskar is bullied at school constantly. He shows an interest in groesome news stories and practices stabbing with a small knife. Things change for Oskar with the arrival of Eli (Lina Leandersson), a cute girl who moves into the apartment next door. While initially shy, she and Oskar soon become friends.

But Eli and her father are far from normal. Eli only shows up at night, stands in the snow without a jacket (or shoes), and has the window of her room covered up with a poster. Further, her father has been attacking people, hanging them upside down, and draining their blood into a plastic container. You don't need to have seen too many horror movies to know the truth about Eli.

To its credit, Let the Right One In takes the vampire tale in an atypical direction. While there the usual vampiric elements -- skin smoking when exposed to sunlight, throats being attacked, a creature scampering up a wall -- the movie centers more on Oskar and how his relationship with Eli affects him as a person. Kare displays a disarming vulnerability as the perpetual target of the stronger kids, while Eli strikes an oddly appropriate right note as the cold creature who nevertheless becomes Eli's only friend -- without losing her creepiness. (When asked her age, Eli replies, "Twelve, more or less.")

The pacing of Let the Right One In is sometimes slow, and the "action" part of the movie -- where some drinking buddies are the ones after the mysterious killers in town (and often her victims) -- feels like some forced action. Still, with so many horror movies devoted solely to gore or sadism, Let the Right One In is, flaws and all, some (gotta say it) fresh blood in the horror genre.

Overall grade: B-

Reviewed by James Lynch

William Pint and Felicia Dale, The Set of the Sail (Waterbug, 2007)


William Pint (guitar, vocals) and Felicia Dale (hurdy gurdy, fiddle, vocals) are a folk duo based in the Pacific Northwest. They specialize in performing folk and Medieval ballads about sailors and seafaring. Their latest album of stories of the sea is called The Set of the Sail.

Pint and Dale keep things basic and simple, and the approach works pretty well. Most of the arrangements only need two instruments, although a few guests do appear on the record. There's no gimmickry anywhere on The Set of the Sail; nor does the duo stray from the nautical theme. In other words, what you see is exactly what you get.

The Set of the Sail contains a bunch of decent songs, along with a couple of very good ones in "Go from My Window" and "The Dreadnought." The performances are more solid than spectacular. I'd rate it as a pretty good folk album, although if you're partial to sea songs or to the sound of the hurdy gurdy you might like this album a lot.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott

Kate Rusby, Awkward Annie (Pure Records, 2007)


She may have an enviably youthful appearance and demeanor, but South Yorkshire native Kate Rusby has been part of the English folk scene for over fifteen years. Rusby has built her reputation with an endearing combination of rustic Engligh charm and one of the sweetest voices in all of music. On her latest album, called Awkward Annie, she mixes traditional songs with a bunch of her own compostions, maintaining the standard of quality she has set for herself.

While her voice dominates the proceedings, Rusby benefits from a stellar core of supporting musicians, including multi-instrumentalist John McCusker, guitarists Ian Carr and John Doyle, Chris Thile from the fine American band Nickel Creek, and several members of the renowned Scottish group Capercaillie. The song styles range from Rusby's trademark sad ballads to more lighthearted, humorous songs. The darker material might not be for everybody, but Rusby is skilled at capturing the emotion of a song, and her voice makes any melody sound golden. I'm a bit more partial to the humorous pieces, though, particularly "The Old Man," a song about a farmer and his wife who trade roles for a day. (Spoiler alert: the husband gets the worse of it.) My favorite track on Awkward Annie is actually the bonus track, a cover of The Kinks' "The Village Green Preservation Society." Ray Davies has always had a more distinctively English lyrical style than any of his rock contemporaries, and this song in particular just seems like it was meant for a good folksinger to sing.

Kate Rusby was a delight to see perform when I saw her in Manhattan a few years back. Awkward Annie reflects the same combination of laughter, emotion, and grace that makes Rusby worth seeing in person.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott

An interview with Kate Rusby, followed by a performance of the old folk standard "Blooming Heather" which she recorded for this album.

11.23.2008

MUNCHKIN QUEST

It's time to go dungeon diving and kill the monsters, steal the treasures, and stab the buddies in a tabletop board and card game: Munchkin Quest. This game is largely based on the Munchkin card game and adapts it quite nicely to a board game.

As in Munchkin, players in Munchkin Quest start at level 1 and want to reach level 10, mainly by killing monsters, selling goods and gold, or playing "go up a level" cards. Each turn, players build the "board" by moving into unexplored areas, laying down a room tile (and hallways, doors, passages, or walls that affect how much movement it takes to enter or exit the room), and fighting a monster in there. Other players can play cards to interfere, and adjacent players can help (though usually only if getting something in return). Victorious players go up levels and gain treasure; defeated ones take a wound, try to run away, and may lose items or even die.


Many of the cards (and most of their art) in Munchkin Quest are taken directly from Munchkin. Munchkin Quest does expand on the card game in several ways. Players have "life tokens" (think hit points) that are lost even if a player manages to run away from a monster, making every combat riskier. Players and monsters also roll dice to affect who wins, adding a more random element to combat. Using moves to search rooms or discover multiple rooms offers more chances to level up quickly. Monsters get their own "turn," moving around at the end of each player's turn. And reaching level 10 isn't enough to win: A player has to make it back to the Entrance and defeat a boss monster (which always starts at level 20) before claiming victory.
Munchkin Quest is illustrated by John Kovalic, and it has his signature wit. The artwork is humorous, there are oddly comical card combinations -- one game I played had a player battling a Coldly Logical Itsy-Bitsy Spider -- and the rooms often have in-jokes with the art. (The room Den of Thieves includes a sign stating "Members: Please Stop Stealing the Furniture.")
If you're looking for a cutthroat "board" game with lots of competition and plenty of comedy, get Munchkin Quest. The rules will be easier to learn if you've played Munchkin (or one of its spin-offs) before, but after a few turns of Munchkin Quest you'll be seeing out powerful weapons and looking to lay down some monster smackdown!
Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

11.19.2008

Quantum Of Solace (MGM/Columbia Pictures, 2008)


It has become very trendy in recent years to re-invent characters from popular series, getting a whole new cast and crew and often restarting the story. The new Batman movies, in particular, have been enormous commercial and artistic successes. The most surprising and intriguing reinvention, though, has been of James Bond. The celebrated British spy has been entertaining movies audiences for nearly half a century with his dry wit, numerous gadgets, countless trysts with beautiful and exotic women, and the ability to escape from any situation and save the world many times over. As entertaining as the twenty-plus Bond movies were, though, you could make the argument that James Bond was the most static character in all of cinema. That is no longer the case, though. First with Casino Royale and now with Quantum of Solace, actor Daniel Craig gives Bond an element of depth he never really had before. And for the first time, the behavior Agent 007 is influenced by the events of a previous movie in the series and the relationships he developed in it.

In fact, a good memory of what happened in Casino Royale is required if you want to understand much Quantum of Solace. For starters, the wonderful Judi Dench returns as M, the head of the intelligence agency called MI6. Jeffrey Wright also returns as sympathetic CIA agent Felix Leiter, and Giancarlo Giannini intriguingly reprises his role as René Mathis, an agent that Bond mistakenly had arrested in Casino Royale. Of course, Casino Royale climaxed with the death of agent Vesper Lynd, for whom Bond had genuine feelings of affection for (a radical departure from most Bond movies). It is this event which fuels Bond's anger for most of this movie.

I don't think Bond begins the movie quite as hell-bent on revenge as some reviewers have made him out to be. He doesn't actually use any sort of excessive or unjustified force; rather, like in any Bond movie, he disposes of people who are coming after him. But the fact remains that in the early part of the movie, most of the bad guys who get in Bond's way don't live long enough to provide any information on Quantum, the shadow organization that MI6 is trying to investigate, and M becomes suspicious of Bond's motivations. Bond has enough of a trail of clues to find Dominic Greene (played by Mathieu Almaric), a sinister entrepreneur and high-level Quantum member, but not before bumping into Greene's lover Camille Montes (played by Olga Kurylenko). Greene had sent somebody to kill Montes, who is actually a Bolivian spy, before Bond intervened. It turns out that Greene is supporting an imminent coup attempt in Bolivia, led by a deposed dictator, in exchange for some land whose value to Greene is not immediately apparent.

With the main thrust of the plot in place, Bond spends the next hour and a half or so in a series of escapes, rescues, chases, fight sequences, etc. While the pace could get blistering at times, there was enough room for plenty of dialogue and character development, to a far greater degree than most Bond movies. Indeed Quantum of Solace may be both the best written and best acted movie in the entire series. Craig and Dench are both superb, especially when interacting with each other, and Kurlyenko holds her own as well. Unfortunately, the cinematography got very aggravating during the action sequences. I don't know who thought changing the camera angles faster than moviegoers can process what they are seeing was a good idea, but it severely compromised what was otherwise a great movie. Being caught up in the fast pace and intensity is only exhilarating when you have some clue what's going on.

I have no problem at all with Bond movies getting more cerebral and thoughtful. I certainly don't understand people complaining about the title; all Bond movies have cryptic titles, and I thought Quantum of Solace as a title made perfect sense in the context of what happened in Casino Royale. So many things about Quantum of Solace were done right that I would still strongly recommend going to see it. It's rare that an action movie succeeds as well in the fine details like plot, characterization, and dialogue as this movie does. But that only makes the movie's shortcomings in visualization that much more perplexing and frustrating.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO

Plenty of Westerns have borrowed heavily from Japanese films -- The Magnificent Seven was a remake of The Seven Samurai, while Yojimbo was turned into A Fist Full of Dollars -- so it seems appropriate that Sukiyaki Western Django is a Western with an almost all-Japanese cast, despite being set in Nevada. Too bad it's so self-indulgent and insanely over the top.

A mysterious, cool, unnamed Gunman (Hideaki Ito) comes to a small town where two clans -- one dressed in red, one in white -- have been feuding for centuries and are now in search of a hidden treasure. The Gunman offers to find the treasure for whatever clan makes him the best offer, and before you know it just about everyone is shooting everyone else.

Director Takashi Miike has done wonderful films, such as The Audition and Ichi the Killer, but Sukiyaki Western Django is a misfire. While there's some ridiculously cool action (including shooters capable of blasting crossbow bolts out of the air), the acting is also over the top (such as the corrupt Sheriff who suddenly pulls a Gollum-like dual personality) and everything is fully ridiculous. Quentin Tarantino produced this movie (as well as appearing in it), and some of his stylictic excesses show through (an animated sequence, ultra-cool characters). I really wanted to like this film, but Sukiyaki Western Django proves that sometimes too much is just too much.

Overall grade: D
Reviewed by James Lynch

11.14.2008

The Lord of the Rings -- Original London Cast Recording (Kevin Wallace Music, 2008)


Back in 2006, I got to see the theatrical production of The Lord of the Rings that premiered in Toronto that year. While I gave it a mostly favorable review, the show was not particularly well received by critics in general. Eventually the show opened in London as well, to a more favorable response. And unlike the Toronto cast, the London cast got to record the music of the play.

The lyrics for the songs in The Lord of the Rings were written by Shaun McKenna and Matthew Warchus. The music for the play came from the Indian composer A. R. Rahman and the Finnish folk group Värttinä, with some assistance from the musical supervisor Christopher Nightingale. Nightingale wanted from the outset to use a lot of world music in the play, not just to portray the rustic folksiness of the hobbits, but also to best capture the peculiarities of the other races in Tolkien's world and the dark forces at work in many of the scenes.

As anybody familiar with the story would expect, the music covers the full range of the emotional spectrum. "The Cat and the Moon," sung by the hobbits in The Prancing Pony, is a boisterous romp faithfully modeled on Tolkien's song from the book. By contrast, the loud, dissonant female voices heard from offstage in "Flight to the Ford" convey the intensity of the desperate run to Rivendell that Strider and the hobbits make with the Dark Riders in close pursuit. On the sentimental "Now and for Always," McKenna and Warchus do a fine job of capturing the spirit of the conversation between Frodo and Sam as they rest far above the city of Minas Morgul.

My biggest criticism of The Lord of the Rings is that it has a split personality. At its best, it represents a bold marriage of a classic story to music based on the same folklore and myths that inspired Tolkien in the first place, and in many ways it is truer to the spirit of the books than Peter Jackson's movies were. But there are also plenty of formulaic musical theater clichés thrown in for good measure, like an overwrought duet between Aragorn and Arwen, that I really couldn't be bothered with. Still, the producers deserve plenty of credit for taking some chances with the play, especially with the music. Like the play itself, the soundtrack to The Lord of the Rings is flawed but still worthy of the attention of people who like the story.

Overall grade: B


reviewed by Scott

11.13.2008

Alas, poor WizKids Games


On November 10, 2008 the gaming company WizKids Games was shut down. Topps Company, which took over WizKids in 2002, announced that WizKids "will immediately cease operations and discontinue its product lines."




WizKids Games burst onto the gaming scene in 2000 with their first game, Mage Knight Rebellion. This game was a miniatures game, set in a sword-and-sorcery world (though with guns), where people costructed armies of figures from different factions. The figures were plastic (making them cheaper than many other miniature games out there) and pre-painted (which was great for folks like me who couldn't paint well on tiny figures), but what set them apart were the simple-but-brilliant bases.

Every figure's base had all the statistics for that figure -- speed, attack value, defensive value, damage, and if they had a ranged attack or could fly -- shown in an L-shaped gap on the base. (Special abilities are shown by color and explained on a separate card.) As a figure takes damage, the player turns the base a number of clicks equal to damage, revealing the new stats for the figure. Instead of referring to rulebooks or sheets of paper for each unit, everything is shown on the figure itself!

WizKids used these bases for several other lines of games. Mechwarrior: Dark Age was based on Battletech and had three types of units: giant 'mechs, vehicles, and infantry. Marvel HeroClix and D.C. HeroClix games brought the heroes from the comics onto the game table; and since the figures could be mixed together, comic book fans could create wild mixes of units, go with themed teams, and finally determine if the Avengers could defeat the Justice League. HorrorClix had evil monsters and fleeing mortals competing.


Not all went perfectly for WizKids. Mage Knight Rebellion eventually underwent a reboot -- turning to Mage Knight 2.0 -- before being discontinued. While Mechwarrior: Dark Age and the HeroClix games did quite well, there were a number of failures: Crimson Skies (which was adapted for the XBox), Shadowrun Duels (whose large figures work very well as Shadowrun action figures, not so well for playing), Creepy Freaks (gross monsters for kids), and even MLB SportsClix. They tried a few non-miniature games as well, including the board game Tsuro and a collectable card game based on the new Battlestar Galactica .


I lost interest in most WizKids games a while back. A few years after their beginning WizKids adopted a policy of "planned obsolescence," making all figures tournament-illegal after two years. They claimed it was to level the playing field (literally) for new players, but I thought it was a way to force people to buy new figures every few years.


Still, it's sad to see WizKids Games fold. The company managed to make miniature gaming far more accessible and inexpensive, and having everything listed on the base simplified gaming enormously. Topps will "pursue strategic alternatives so that viable brands and properties... can continue without noticeable disruption" -- I'm sure HeroClix will continue; not so confident about MechWarrior and HorrorClix -- but this remains an ominous event for the gaming community in this troubled economy. While I did drop most of WizKids' games (I still play Tsuro, and the Dwarven Steam Behemoth is so beautiful I kept it), I enjoyed putting together teams and armies, I had lots of nice games against other players, and I enjoyed collecting their figures. WizKids Games, you will be missed.

James Lynch

Miriam Makeba, 1932-2008


Miriam Makeba was a matriarchal figure in black South African popular music. Along with her ex-husband Hugh Masekela, she was an ambassador abroad for a culture and music that were being systematically suppressed in her homeland. Arriving in America in the early sixties with the assistance of Harry Belafonte, Makeba made a number of hit records, the most famous of which was "Pata Pata." She didn't make much of a dent in the pop charts (at least not here) after the mid-sixties, but she continued to perform regularly for the rest of her life. I can remember going to see her perform a few years ago at Central Park Summerstage, and it was by far the most packed I have ever seen the venue for one of its free shows.

The international success that Makeba enjoyed not only served as an inspiration for South African musicians who continued to suffer under the apartheid system, but also left the door to her homeland's music open enough for outsiders to make albums like Paul Simon's Graceland possible. Therefore, her importance in the development of African music cannot be overstated.

Makeba announced in 2005 that she would be embarking on her farewell tour, but she remained an active performer for the last three years. She liked to say that she would sing "until the last day of my life," and that's exactly what happened. Miriam Makeba suffered a fatal heart attack on Sunday, just after a performance at a benefit concert in Italy. A sad ending, to be sure, but I can think of worse ways to go.

"Pata Pata"

11.11.2008

KEEPS GETTIN' BETTER cd/dvd by Christina Aguilera

It's hard to believe, but a decade after Christina Aguilera entered the fray of Britney Spears clones (blonde, hot, female, very young, and overtly sexual) she's still going strong. Keeps Gettin' Better: A Decade of Hits is a Target-exclusive cd/dvd combo that shows how after ten years, not much has changed in her ten years of making music or making music videos.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I work for Target. Not that anyone particularly cares -- I just like disclosing.)

Keeps Gettin' Better is Aguilera's first greatest hits collection, and it goes from her first hit single "Genie in a Bottle" to her just-released tune "Keeps Gettin' Better." For the most part, the music can be divided into upbeat, risque pop songs and slow, emotional ballads ("I Turn to You," "Beautiful," "Hurt"). There are no rare tracks, four new songs (two new ones and two remixes of older ones), and no live performances, Spanish-language tunes, or "Lady Marmalade" performance.

What boosts Aguilera above the average forgettable one-hit wonder is that she has a great singing voice -- what a set of lungs! -- and the songs from her Back to Basics album ("Ain't No Ohter Man," "Candyman") had her mixing her contemporary pop with a 1940's-style mix of soul and jazz that works pretty well. Ironically, her new song "Keeps Gettin' Better" declares "some days I'm a super bitch/up to my old tricks/but it won't last forever" while the two new songs do sound like her old synth-driven songs.

As for the videos, well, my opening paragraph mentioned Aguilera being blonde, hot, and female -- and they certainly don't downplay any of that in the videos. There's no shortage of skin or movin' and shakin' in the songs (except for the aforementioned slow ballads), and "Dirrrty" is quite shamelessly self-exploitative (though hard to watch without thinking of the great parody of it done by Sarah Michelle Gellar on Saturday Night Live). I was disappointed that the video for "Keeps Gettin' Better" didn't make it on the disc; and Aguilera's weird butterfly-goth persona in "Fighter" still creeps me out.

If you like Christina Aguilera but don't have any of her music, Keeps Gettin' Better is a nice way to pick up just about all of her hit singles. Folks who have her other albums should only get this if they want the videos -- very little new here musically -- and if you don't like what you've heard from her popular music this album certainly won't change your mind.

Overall grade: B- (music), B (videos)
Reviewed by James Lynch
(who resists predictability by not posting the "Dirrrty" video here)

11.07.2008

Christopher Paolini, Brisingr (Knopf, 2008)


Christopher Paolini started his Inheritance series when he was just a teenager, with the book Eragon. This story chronicled the initial adventures of the young dragon rider Eragon and his dragon Sapphira. The two quickly became a vital part of an alliance of elves, dwarves, and a group of renegade humans called the Varden against the wicked emperor Galbatorix -- himself a dragon rider and keeper of the remaining dragon eggs. Eragon became a big hit with readers of young adult fantasy, to the point that the book was adapted as a movie. (The film had its moments, but suffered from a lack of the rich detail that the book possessed.) The story split into multiple arcs in the second book Eldest. Eragon and Sapphira went to the elves to learn the ways of dragons and riders. Meanwhile, the armies of Galbatorix sacked Eragon's home village of Carvahall, forcing Eragon's cousin Roran to lead the surviving townspeople on a hopelessly perilous journey towards rebel territory. And the young but wily Nasuada took over control of the Varden upon her father's death, and had to get very creative in order to maintain her command and the Varden's strength. All the good guys converged in time for a pivotal battle against the enemy, which climaxes with a dramatic (but predictable, I thought) revelation about Eragon's heritage.

Paolini originally intended the Inheritance series to be a trilogy, but eventually decided that there was more remaining to the story than could be told in just one book. So the newest addition to the series, Brisingr, doesn't end the story but does do a fine job of setting the stage for the climax. While the action begins with everybody together, it quickly branches off again into multiple arcs. Eragon, Sapphira, and Roran fly into the heart of enemy territory to rescue Roran's fiancée Katrina. The mission succeeds, but circumstances force Eragon to stay behind while the others fly off. Nasuada, meanwhile, has to endure an unpleasant ritual trial in order to thwart a challenger to her leadership. She also has to get the humans using to fighting alongside the militant Urgals, rather than against them. Eragon gets back to the Varden on foot with the aid of Arya, the elf maiden for whom Eragon's affections remain unrequited. They return just in time for another battle. After the battle is resolved and Eragon presides over the wedding of Roran and Katrina, he and Sapphira again split up. Eragon needs to assist his ally Orrin in the appointment of a new dwarvish king, but not all the dwarves are happy with Eragon's presence. Roran is sent on missions, but is forced to choose between obeying orders and saving his comrades-in-arms. Eventually Eragon and Sapphira reunite and make a return trip to the land of the elves, where they get some final instruction from their mentors Oromis (an elf) and Glaedr (a dragon). Eragon also finally gets a new sword, having lost his old one at the end of the second book. The name of the sword, which is the elvish word for fire, gives the book its title. Eragon and Sapphira then fly back to the Varden, who are advancing on a major city. The book ends with the battle that ensues.

While all three books in the series have been entertaining, I would argue that Brisingr is the best written of the three. The first two books can certainly be criticized for being derivative, but at this stage Paolini has developed the races and the characters enough to make them distinct from the standard archetypes of heroic fantasy. Brisingr also does a better job than the first two books of balancing action and development; Eragon leaned a little too heavily on the action side, while Eldest could have used another fight or two. Christopher Paolini is definitely maturing as a writer, and it's been fun reading along as his characters mature with him. Hopefully he will not keep his audience waiting too long for the culmination of the series.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott


11.05.2008

THE ORDER OF THE STICK: War and XPs

Epic battles, devious plots, romance, adventure, comedy, tragedy -- all with stick figures! The Order of the Stick: War and XPs is a collection of the webstrip about D&D-style adventurers, and this collection impresses on numerous levels.

The central focus of this series is the band of adventurers known as the Order of the Stick. Roy Greenhilt, the leader, is a fighter on a quest to defeat the lich Xyklon -- and who has to put up with the antics of his teammates. Elan the Bard is happy, idiotic, and thinks Roy is his best friend. Haley Starshine is the thief, second in command, and in love with Elan. Durkon is a dwarven cleric (with thick Scottish accent). Vaarsuvius is an elven magic user whose gender is still a mystery (easy to pull off with stick figures) and who is quite verbose. And Belkar Bitterleaf is a ranger who's homicidal, greedy, and willing to stab his teammates in the back (sometimes literally).

The main threat comes from Xyklon, who wants to control the mystical gates that will release the Snarl, a primal force (shown as crayon drawings). Xylkon has a goblin cleric Redcloak, an army of goblins and hobgoblins, numerous undead (often made when Xyklon slays his goblins and hobgoblins), the Monster in the Shadows (never seen, and so far never used), and demon roaches that are always underfoot. In War and XPs Xyklon and company are about to match on Azure City for its gate.

There are other threats. There's the Linear Guild, an evil group with Elan's evil twin Nale, his girlfriend demon-or-succubus Sabine, and the tough-but-dumb half-orc Thog. There's also Miko, a paladin so holier-than-thou she's convinced the Order of the Stick are evil and actually working with Xyklon.

The Order of the Stick: War and XPs is put together brilliantly. This is primarily a comedy strip, and there are laughs to be found in every page. The third wall here is shattered on a regular basis, with characters talking about making skill checks and D&D rules, talking about the comic strip, and referencing everything from the Justice League to Pokemon. There are lots of visual gags (see the pic below) and verbal ones: "Wait a minute. Is that a dwarven battle challenge, or are those just Led Zeppelin lyrics?" "Both. It turns out that Led Zeppelin lyrics ARE a valid dwarven battle challenge."

There's more here than cheap laughs (or even rich laughs). Politics and plans impact almost all the events of this story. Several cliches of the adventure tale are both parodies and thrown out, resulting in quite a few surprises. And the final siege on Azure City is as impressive as the battle in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

The Order of the Stick is a webcomic, but there's plenty here for folks who have been keeping up with the story online. Not only are there plenty of bonus strips, but also writer-artist Rich Burlew provides commentaries for each section. You'll find out about the motivations for almost all the characters, the problems arising from Haley's garbled speech (and the translations of what she said), and how The Seven Samurai helped him illustrate the climactic siege. There's even a summary of the events from the previous strips/collections (though I recommend getting and reading those too).
The Order of the Stick: War and XPs is a wonderful illustration of how comedy, action, and planning can all meet and work together. Every gamer should pick up this book, as should anyone who enjoys laughing or adventure.

Overall grade: A+

Reviewed by James Lynch

11.04.2008

FUTURAMA: BENDER'S GAME

There are numerous instances of sci-fi technology and magic coming together -- from the Star Wars movies to the Shadowrun rpg -- but few are as goofy as Futurama: Bender's Game. This straight-to-dvd movie, the penultimate entry in the Futurama saga, plays around with the conventions of medieval fantasy.

This movie has the Planet Express crew (voiced by the usual Futurama actors) dealing with a dark matter fuel shortage caused by the villainous Mom. At the same time, the robot Bender finds his imagination, becomes obsessed with playing Dungeons and Dragons, and winds up insane and unable to tell the difference between reality and D&D.

These storylines come together, oddly enough, when the 12-sided die used in the D&D game is the key to breaking the fuel shortage. Further, Fry and Leela somehow get sucked into a parallel world where Bender's fantasy seems to have come true: Bender is now the knight Titanius Anglesmith, the Professor is a magic user, Leela has become the cyclops-centaur Leegola, Amy is the water nymph (and nympho) Gynacaladriel, Zoidberg is a giant monster, Hermes is the androgymous centaur Hermaphrodite, and Fry becomes Frydo, obsessed with the magic 12-sider. Oh, and Mom is now the villainous Momon.

Bender's Game is much like the first straight-to-dvd Futurama movie Bender's Big Game in that it feels like a few episodes of the series stitched together. There are a good number of chuckles throughout, poking fun at both gamers and fantasy films, but the two plots feel stitched together instead of working well with each other. And I thought the end was a bit weak.

Bender's Game isn't an instant classic, but fans of gaming and the Futurama show will enjoy it. Early next year the final entry in the Futurama saga, Into the Wild Green Yonder, will be released. I'm curious to see how it ends -- and if anything that happened in Bender's Game will carry over and affect that movie.

Overall grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch

Haugaard & Høirup, Rejsedage/Travelling (GO' Danish Folk Music, 2008)


Danish folk musicians Harald Haugaard (fiddle) and Morten Høirup (guitar) have performed as a duo for ten solid years. They might not have the strength of numbers, but their superior musicianship gives them as much power and flexibility as you'd expect from a full band. Their latest CD, available here in the U. S. via download, is called Rejsedage in their native tongue, and Travelling in English.

Situated at the crossroads between the British Isles and Scandinavia to the north and the rest of Europe to the south, Denmark has developed a very eclectic folk music tradition. Haugaard and Høirup's music encompasses the full range of Danish folk, along with some contemporary styles as well. On Rejsedage, you'll hear Nordic waltzes, slow airs, fast reels blending Celtic and bluegrass, and even some French Hot Club jazz. The two musicians deviate a bit from their basic guitar and fiddle sound on a few tracks, adding some accordion, harmonica, and electric guitar. Høirup also sings a couple of songs on the album as well.

Rejsedage/Travelling is not overwhelming or overpowering; instead it is steady, solid, and enjoyably diverse. The one regret here is that Haugaard & Høirup, like many other top folk acts, are really great live performers who can't quite match their concerts on disc. Still, they are the kind of act that anybody interested in folk fiddle music should check out.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott

11.03.2008

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels - Jasper Fforde (2007)

First Among Sequels is the fourth book in the Thursday Next series, a giant train-wreck of bilbiophilia, science-fiction, comedy and literary in-jokes. There are those of us who find that mixture to be a recipe for delicious book-geekery. If you don't like puns, complicated humorous riffs on literary genres and the like, then these books are probably not for you.

The two backgrounds which surround our heroine, Thursday Next, are the "real world" in which she lives, an alternate universe where time agents run around trying to keep all of time on track and paradox is a commonplace; and the BookWorld, a different universe where literature comes from and which bleeds into the real universe as books. Some few people can cross back and forth between the two worlds and deal with reciprocal crises. Thursday Next, naturally, is one of the few who can make this transition, which allows her to address such horrors and threats as (in this book): the disappearance of all vestiges of comedy from the books of Thomas Hardy, once famed for their hilarity; the sudden death of Sherlock Holmes in the series which the denizens of the BookWorld have been unable to penetrate, even by going in sideways through "The Lost World"; and, of course, the fact that Thursday's own literary avatars from the previous Thursday Next books are causing difficulties.

If the idea of a literary character having trouble dealing with previous literary versions of herself while in a literary BookWorld which is accessible only through a different literary construct amuses you, then this series is for you. Start with The Eyre Affair and enjoy. (I had never read Jane Eyre, but The Eyre Affair convinced me to give it at try ...) If you can't find the earlier books, then this book will do as an introduction, since it doesn't make a whole lot more sense if you've read the others - which is part of the charm, frankly.

If you are already familiar with Thursday Next, then First Among Sequels will not disappoint you; it is a worthy entry into the series.

Overall Grade: B+

11.02.2008

THE RED ALBUM by Weezer

Weezer, rock music's loudest nerds, are back with The Red Album. This album will sound familiar to anyone who's listened to Weezer's music before -- but that ain't a bad thing.

As with many Weezer songs, the protagonists are wannabe badasses who sound a bit too dorky for the loud drums and electric guitar backing them up. The character in "Troublemaker" is pure rebellion, while "Pork and Beans" expresses nonconforming as "I eat my candy with the pork and beans... I don't give a hoot about what you think." Even the risky actions in "Everybody Get Dangerous" don't seem all that bad. And "Dreamin'" is nothing but avoiding any responsibility while fantasizing.

The Red Album does go into other areas as well. "Cold Dark World" is a creepy romance, "The Angel and the One" is surprisingly touching, and "Heart Songs" is a loving tribute to significant songs in the singer's life (and may be the only music list including Joan Baez, Quiet Riot, Debbie Gibson, and Nirvana).

Weezer reminds me of the Ramones in that they seldom stray from their signature sound but do well within in. You won't find much on The Red Album that you haven't heard on previous Weezer albums -- but you will enjoy these rockin' tunes!

Overall grade: B+

Reviewed by James Lynch


(Below is the video for Weezer's "Pork and Beans," featuring some of the Internet's biggest viral video celebrities.)


video