5.31.2009

TRANSFORMERS

As a child, I wasn't interested in the Transformers toys when they debuted. (Yes, I'm old enough to have been in grammar school when this toy line came out.) As an adult, I could not get into the movie Transformers. This film may be the perfect summer movie (if you take "perfect" not to reflect quality but rather completeness): tons of action scenes, blasting volume, based on a familiar property, hot babe, painful dialogue and forgettable story.

For the story, let's see. Nerdy high school student Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is buying his first car, but all he can afford is a beat-up yellow Chevy Camaro. He also has a crush on beautiful Mikaela (Megan Fox), who hangs out with jocks, doesn't know who Sam is despite their having numerous classes together -- and, of course, winds up in the middle of his adventure.

Let's leave Sam for a moment and go to the Middle East, where a U.S. military base is hacked and attacked by a giant robot-scorpion-thingy. The surviving soldies, led by Captain Lennox (Josh Duhmael) and Sergeant Epps (Tyrese Gibson), have to get their recording of the attacked back to the U.S. government.

Meanwhile, strange things are happening with Sam's car (as if its wrecking the other cars in the lot so it would be bought wasn't enough). Apart from driving itself, the car can turn into a giant robot called Bumblebee that talks only in sound clips from the radio. There are two groups of giant alien robots that transform into vehicles: the Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, who want to protect humans; and the Decepticons, led by Megatron, want to use something called the Allspark to turn all machines on Earth into evil living monsters that will conquer the planet. (Seriously.) There's also a secret government agency run by Agent Simmons (John Turturro), Sam's grandfather having discovered the key to everything here, a vital item for sale on eBay...
This movie is the cinematic equivalent of, with a truly massive budget, grabbing a bunch of toys and mashing them together so they "fight" while little army men act as the humans in the middle of the battle. To his credit, director Michael Bay knows action, and Transformers can be quite exciting, whether soldiers are fleeing from a metallic sand scorpion, or when the Autobots and Decpeticons are punching, jumping, shooting, and doing gymnastics in the middle of a city.

Sadly that's about it for what I liked about this movie. The dialogue and story are clunky to say the least, with predictable characters (the outcast teen becoming the hero, the government jerk who gets his comeuppance) and painful attempts at humor (robots spouting their catchphrases, trying to hide around a house, and taking a (literal) leak on a jerk). Just about every character here is one-dimensional, and none are that interesting. It's as if the folks behind the movie knew there had to be something between action scenes, so they tossed in as little as necessary to fill the time before the next battle.

If you loved playing with these toys as a kid and always dreamed of seeing the Autobots and Decepticons slug it out on the big screen, Transformers is for you. As for me, I wanted something more that just action -- and I didn't get it here. Transformers was a huge hit and its inevitable sequel is out this summer, but to me it was (to quote a writer very far removed from this) full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Overall grade: D
Reviewed by James Lynch

5.30.2009

UP

Pixar Studios takes to the skies with Up, their latest computer-animated adventure. This movie treads on some heavy grounds at times -- the journey from youth to old age is covered before the opening credits -- yet it remains tremendously fun.

Life is rough for Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner). Having grown up with, married, and outlived his childhood sweetheart Ellie, Carl never took the trip to South America that they dreamed of as little kids. Now 78, Carl has construction happening all around his house, a dreary routine, and a run-in that leads to a retirement home. So Carl does what anyone (in a cartoon) would do: He launches hundreds of balloons out of his chimney and flies his house south!

Carl isn't alone for the journey, though. Russell (Jordan Nagai), a chubby Wilderness Explorer out to earn his last badge, happened to be on Carl's porch when the journey began. When they arrive at (well, near) their destination, they're also befriended by two animals: Dug (Bob Peterson), a golden retriever whose special collar lets him talk; and a large, colorful exotic bird that Russell names Kevin.

Up needs conflict and tension, and both are supplied by Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). An explorer and childhood hero of Carl's, Charles has been in South America to clear up a scandal of his youth -- and he's quite ruthless in pursuit of this goal. His numerous talking dogs provide a scary army for him as well.

Up is done extremely beautifully. The voice talent is terrific all around, with Asner perfectly capturing the gruff, grumpy Carl and Nagai perfect as the kid whose enthusiasm knows no bounds, even as it gets him into trouble. This may be the first Pixar film to deal so directly with what it's like to grow old, but the interplay between youth and experience is handled very well.
And anyone who owns a dog -- or just likes canines -- will appreciate Dug's verbalized thoughts. The visual effects are spectacular: Some of the landscapes and heights were so well done I felt almost dizzy, this South America of adventure is colorful and exotic, Carl looks like Spencer Tracy and Russell looks like a Weeble come to life.

Some people designate animation and cartoons to kids only, but Up has plenty of humor, action, and genuine warmth for all ages. This is a really wonderful film and a great moviegoing experience.

Overall grade: A

Reviewed by James Lynch

5.29.2009

Tori Amos, ABNORMALLY ATTRACTED TO SIN


Tori Amos, the mistress of the weird and the personal, brings an experimental voice and unusual imagery to her new album, Abnormally Attracted to Sin. Sometimes with Tori, simpler is better.

Abnormally Attracted to Sin has Tori assuming multiple female personalities, from the slightly menacing opening "Give" ("Do I have regrets?/Well, not yet") to a mother commiserating with another in "Maybe California" to the final femme fatale of "Lady in Blue." Her singers (characters?) are strong, vulnerable, happy, sexy, punishing, and worried.

While Tori's persona shifts all over, so do her musical stylings. Sometimes Tori's voice is simple and straightforward, while other times it bounces up and down like Kate Bush. The song styles are also everywhere: here slow and synthesizer-covered, there simpler.

Some artists can move from style to style effortlessly, but Abnormally Attracted to Sin is a very hit-and-miss effort. Tori only lets her playful side out on two songs -- "Not Dying Today" and "Mary Jane" -- and her beautiful piano playing is often overwhelmed by the electronic music added to every song. While some songs are catchy, and a few are powerful, many just feel overdone and weak (like the title track).

I'd love to hear Tori Amos playing some of the songs off her new album on tour, just her and a piano and a microphone. As it is, Abnormally Attracted to Sin is a mixed release from this skilled musician.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch



5.25.2009

Jones Beach Air Show 2009

In what is becoming an annual tradition, once again I ventured down to Jones Beach for the Air Show. This year, the Navy's Blue Angels were replaced by the Thunderbirds of the Air Force. If you've never seen a squadron of F-16's flying overhead, this was the place to be. It can be a challenge to take pictures of planes that can exceed Mach 1 without even trying. After over 70 shots, these were the usable ones. Adding to the challenge, it was an overcast day which wasn't helping either. Anyway, it's always a thrill to see this type of military hardware up close and personal.

Thunderbirds,F-16,Jones Beach Air Show 2009

F-16,Jones Beach Air Show 2009,Thunderbirds

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F-16,Jones Beach Air Show 2009,Thunderbirds

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5.24.2009

Rachael Yamagata, Elephants... Teeth Sinking into Heart (Warner Brothers, 2008)


Rachael Yamagata is a singer, pianist, and guitarist from Virginia. Her second full-length album, titled Elephants... Teeth Sinking into Heart, is a two-part album consisting of a normal length CD and a five song mini CD. Her choice of how to present the album is a bit puzzling, though. For one thing, both parts could have fit on one disc. Also, the most inspired music is on the shorter of the two discs.

All the songs on the first disc are mellow and moody. The pace never really changes, which gets quite frustrating. Only the song "Duet," on which Yamagata shares the vocals with Ray LaMontaigne, grabbed my attention. By contrast, the mini CD rocks. Yamagata's husky voice is naturally sexy, and she works it to great effect on the second CD. The first three songs -- "Sidedish Friend," "Accident," and especially the angry rave-up "Faster," are the best songs on either part of the album.

All told, though, Elephants... Teeth Sinking into Heart lacks the consistency to hold up as a whole. Rachael Yamagata has talent, but like a few other performers I've reviewed she doesn't seem to appreciate that less is sometimes more. Perhaps if she combined the best songs from the first disc with the five from the second and rearranged the order for some variety, she could have made a more effective album.

Overall grade: C+


reviewed by Scott


for the video of the song "Faster," click here.

5.23.2009

DOMINION


Plenty of games involve using resources to win, but there is a card game that makes a very unique use of drawing, discarding, and shuffling cards for victory: Dominion. This intriguing game also makes the cards needed to win fairly detrimental during the game.

Each player starts with seven one-Copper cards (used to buy other cards) and three one-point Estate cards (used to determine the winner at the game's end). During a player's turn they can take one action (to play an Action card), perform one buy (purchasing a card), then discard their hand (and, with few exceptions, any cards bought) and draw five more cards. Then the next player goes.

This sounds simple -- and it starts off so -- but there's a lot of strategy involved. There are ten stacks of Kingdom cards (each stack has multiple copies of the same card) all players buy from. These cards can give you more actions, more buys, more actions and buys, or hurt the other players. Players can also buy higher-value Treasure cards or Estate cards. When all the six-point Estate cards are gone, or three other stacks are gone, the game ends and whoever has the move victory points from Estate cards wins.

So why not just keep buying Estate cards? They are both expensive (so you'll need to get a lot of Treasure cards in a single turn to buy them) and useless before the endgame (as they take up space in your hand). Higher-value Treasure cards can be useful -- but Action cards that let you more cards can often put more Treasure in your hands in a turn. Many cards can "stack," giving a player multiple actions, buys, or both during a single turn. And of course, if someone is ahead in points and working to exhaust stacks, you may have to skip buying cards you want for fear of ending the game too quickly.

Gameplay is very easy to learn, but it may take new players a few games to get use to not only all the discarding and drawing, but also how some card combinations work together. Once that's done, though, Dominion is a really fun, challenging and thoughtful game of strategy and chance.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

THE TOXIC AVENGER MUSICAL


Broadway has been adapting movies for years now, but who knew Troma Films' '80s cult classic The Toxic Avenger would be turned into a musical? Well, it has -- and The Toxic Avenger Musical sustains the cheesy lowbrow humor of the movie.

The play follows the plot of the movie fairly closely. In the highly polluted town of Tromaville, New Jersey ("if the pollution doesn't get you/the aroma will"), the corrupt mayor is storing toxic waste. Nerdy Mervin Ferd the Third wants to stop her, but her goons dump her in the waste. Melvin is turned into the Toxic Avenger ("Toxie"), a giant green monster who dispenses justice by brutally killing all polluters; Melvin/Toxie also has a crush on Sarah, who is conveniently blind.

As you might imagine, The Toxic Avenger Musical is about as sophisticated as a whoopee cushion -- and this musical revels in that. This musical has songs that include "Hot Toxic Love," "Thank God She's Blind" and "All Men Are Freaks." The enthusiasm the cast brings to The Toxic Avenger Musical balances the relentless lowbrow jokes and lyrics. The end result is amusing, even if it can become wearying at times.

For those who find the music of Broadway stuffy and elitist, this is about as far from that as you can get. (Sorry, Urinetown.) The Toxic Avenger Musical is crude, it's lewd, it's simplistic, and it's very often funny.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

TERMINATOR SALVATION

The Terminator franchise jumps to the future with Terminator Salvation. Instead of sending more robots to the past to keep John Connor from becoming the leader of the human resistance, this latest installement in the series takes us to the future in the middle of the human-robot war.

In the year 2018, John Connor (Christian Bale) is a leader in -- and to some, the savior of -- the Resistance. He leads ground missions, works with his pregnant wife Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard), and wants to find Kyle Reese, the man who John will send back in time to save his mother and become his father.

Meanwhile, Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), who we saw executed in 2003 after signing his remains to Skynet, wakes up in this future with no idea what's been happening. He meets up with Resistance fighters Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood, fulfilling this movie's sexy tough female role), mute young girl Star (Jadagrace) -- and Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin).

This wouldn't be a Terminator movie without lethal robots. Terminator Salvation offers Terminators fused to motorcycles, snakelike Terminators in the water, a giant Transformer-type Terminator, and the traditional skeletal-metal T-800 Terminator. And the Terminators aren't just killing humans: They're capturing humans for a nefarious purpose.

Terminator Salvation is almost relentlessly bleak -- just about the only humor comes from lines from the original Terminator -- and relentlessly action-filled. There are chases, gunfights, running escapes, and dodged bullets in close to every scene in the movie.

The focal points of this movie are John Connor and Marcus Wright, flip sides of the same coin: Connor is the human out to both destroy the machines and preserve his destiny, while Wright feels guilt over both what he did before and his inhuman state and wants to find redemption. The other actors are all decent -- including Bloodgood, Helena Bonham Carter as a Skynet scientist, and Michael Ironsides as the ruthless Resistance leader -- but they're all there to support the two stars.
Terminator: Salvation isn't a great movie, but it is exciting. By turning the future into the movie's present, we are given not another variant on time-travelling assassins but rather a chance to see humanity in its own element, fighting not for an abstract future but for their present. This series will continue -- I've heard that this movie is the start of a second trilogy of Terminator movies -- and Terminator Salvation shows that the future should be exciting.

Overall grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch

The Hunt for Gollum (Independent Online Cinema, 2009)


Cyberspace has unquestionably become a haven for amateur filmmakers of all degrees of skill. YouTube, for example, contains all sorts of homemade movies. Most of these are short and simple, and not the kind of things you would ever subject to a serious critical analysis. Sometimes, though, you come across people with the talent, and sufficient free time, to pull off something more ambitious. Such is the case with The Hunt for Gollum, an all-amateur production set in Tolkien's Middle Earth just before the main part of the action in The Lord of the Rings. Directed by Chris Bouchard, this forty-minute film is based on a portion of the back story that Gandalf and Aragorn relay at The Council of Elrond.

The Hunt for Gollum is clearly and unapologetically made by and for Tolkien fans. Either the books or movies will do. So if you don't already know the name of the tavern in which the opening scene is set, or the identity of the mysterious hooded figure waiting at a back table away from all the merriment, or why everybody would stop abruptly when a grey-cloaked, bearded old man enters the room, then you should brush up on a few things before watching this film. Needless to say, Gandalf (Patrick O'Connor) has found out some disturbing news and needs Aragorn's help with an urgent task. Gollum is roaming about, and he knows too much. Aragorn (Adrian Webster) needs to find him before he falls into the wrong hands.

From there, the story moves at a quick pace. Aragorn heads out into the wilderness to pick up Gollum's trail. He gets a key clue from a fellow ranger, who tells him of reports of a strange creature sneaking into houses and stealing food. But orcs have started crossing the river Anduin, and a pair of them cross Aragorn's path to their great regret. Aragorn does eventually find and trap Gollum, carrying him in a sack as he tries to head northward. But the orcs are crossing the river in increasing numbers, and worse things than orcs are on the prowl as well. Fortunately the dark forest contains friends as well as foes. But Gollum may have already fallen once into the grasp of the enemy, which would mean the time that Aragorn and Gandalf have to get the Ring safely out of the Shire is running perilously short...

In terms of the visuals and the soundtrack, the makers of The Hunt for Gollum very deliberately try to capture the feel of the Lord of the Rings movies. Considering the enormous difference in budgets to work with -- nobody made a cent off this project -- they succeed remarkably well. There are points where you really do feel like you're watching an extension of the movies. I felt myself getting sucked back into Middle Earth, just like I did when I saw The Fellowship of the Ring in the theater for the first time after not having read the books for years. A big reason why this works is that Bouchard cleverly minimalizes the need for special effects. For example, you never see Gollum up close until the last few seconds of the film. Plus, Webster and O'Connor are surprisingly convincing in their roles, too. They and Bouchard should not have any difficulty finding paid work in this field if they feel so inclined.

The Hunt for Gollum is testament to what can be accomplished with a good idea, a good story, and a bunch of people who believe in something enough to work on it for free. Any Lord of the Rings fan should go to the film's website and take a look. This isn't merely a good film for its budget; it's a good film, period.

Overall grade: A

reviewed by Scott


5.22.2009

Julianne Hough, JULIANNE HOUGH


Current country music has taken a definitive turn towards top 40 pop -- and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Singer Julianne Hough covers some familiar territory, to bouth country music and pop music, on her debut album Julianne Hough, and it's a nice enough trip.

Julianne Hough contains plenty of songs about cute boys and being in love, from the bad boy who got away ("Jimmy Ray McGee") to a long-distance love ("Dreaming Under the Same Moon"). There are also life-affirming positive tunes ("My Hallelujah Songs," "About Life," "Love Yourself") and songs about other's problems ("Hello," "Help Me, Help You").

Julianne Hough doesn't have a lot of surprises or originality (and the song "You, You You" annoys by often repeating a word three times in a row during the song). What it does offer is a sweet singing voice and a good number of catchy tunes and strong ballads. Julianne Hough is an enjoyable little album for those who like their country music infused with a good dose of pop.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch



5.20.2009

FANBOYS

Road trips have been a staple of movie comedies, but they've never been quite as geeky as in Fanboys. This movie is a homage to all things Star Wars -- and to its most zealous fans.

It's Ohio 199, and people are counting down to the release of The Phanton Menace. Three young adult friends are really psyched about the movie: the loud and heavy Hutch (Dan Fogler), the ultra-nerdy Windows (Jay Baruchel), and the balanced Linus (Chris Marquette). At a Halloween party they meet their old friend Eric (Sam Huntington), who is the only one that moved on to a more adult life.

Eric is an outsider to the others, but when he learns that Linus has cancer and won't live to see The Phanton Menace, Eric talks them into their old plan: travel 2000 to Skywalker Ranch, sneak in, and steal a copy of The Phanton Menace. Soon the friends -- accompanied by cool geek chick Zoe (Kristen Bell) -- are travelling in Hutch's Millenium Falcon-styled van and battling Trekkies, stripping in a gay bar, and failing to pick up women. (There are also numerous cameos, from cast members of Star Wars to Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes, Seth Rogen, William Shatner, and Ethan Suplee as a menacing Harry Knowles.)

Fanboys pokes a lot of fun at its leads, but there's a great deal of affection there as well. (The Trekkies come off much, much worse.) Unfortunately, the movie seldom goes beyong the superficial. Star Wars quotes are to be expected, but it feels like they make up about half of the film's dialogue. None of the characters are more than one-dimensional, and there are more funny situations than funny scenes. The result is a movie that has lots of chuckles but could have used more laughs. (And the DVD extras are pretty standard: commentaries and making-of features.)

Fanboys is ultimately a cute, disposable movie for the ultra-nerds and folks who love them. If all you need in a movie is hearing lines from Star Wars almost nonstop, seeing Kristen Bell dressed in Princess Leia's slave costume (okay, I gotta give a big thumbs up for that one), and seeing tons of Star Wars memorabilia, this is the movie for you. Otherwise, Fanboys will be pleasant enough viewing that's forgotten about five minutes after it ends.

Overall grade: C+
Reviewed by James Lynch

5.16.2009

Green Day, 21st CENTURY BREAKDOWN

It's been five years since Green Day launched a full-on musical assaunt on conservative America with American Idiot. So how do they follow that up in a new America? There's still plenty to worry about and rail against, as Green Day demonstrates with their latest album, 21st Century Breakdown.

"They're playing the song of the century/of panic and promise and prosperity" sings Billy Joe Armstrong on the album's opening, and this mix of optimism and pessimism permeates 21st Century Breakdown. Bush may be gone, but Green Day warns against the decline of America in songs like the title track and "American Eulogy." The brave rebel in "!Viva la Gloria!" becomes "so unholy" in "?Viva la Gloria?" The band also tackles banal music ("The Static Age,"), romance ("Last Night on Earth"), and weapons ("Peacemaker") and peace ("21 Guns").

Green Day remains in great form, both musically and lyrically. Armstrong's vocals support both tender moments and screaming jags. Tre Cool's percussion is great throughout, and guitar from Armstrong and bass from Mike Dirnt keep things rocking from start to finish. ("Horseshoes and Hand Grenades" is a contender for being the best loud song of 2009.) 21st Century Breakdown may not have the full thematic focus of American Idiot, but it's a great modern rock album. And the Target special edition (as a disclaimer, I must point out that I work for Target. I! Have! Disclaimed!) has six live tracks that show Green Day is great out of the studio too.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch

5.15.2009

Tripods - The Complete Series 1 & 2 (BBC, 2009)


In the 1960's, the author John Carpenter wrote a trilogy of books (The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead, and The Pool of Fire) telling the story of young Will Parker and his struggles to first save himself, and then humanity in general, from the control of a race of aliens who pilot massive land-roving vessels called Tripods for their three legs. In 1984 and 1985, the BBC adapted the first two books into a series. Dissatisfied with the results, they declined to pick up the third season, leaving the series on a cliffhanger -- much to the chagrin of the cult following the show had developed. It took until 2009 for the complete series of The Tripods, consisting of 25 half-hour episodes covering two seasons, to get released on DVD.

The first season begins in a village in rural England. The setting appears to be several centuries in the past, but we are informed that the year is in fact 2089, and there is the matter of the giant three-legged spaceship hanging out in the field. It turns out that the Tripods have quenched humanity's lust for violence and technology by placing a mind-control device called a cap on each person as they approach adulthood. Will Parker (John Shackley) is a year away from capping and doesn't like the idea, as the cap takes away all imagination and creativity. He discovers that his cousin Henry (Jim Baker) feels the same way, and together they make their escape. They find out from a vagrant named Ozymandias that there is a refuge in the White Mountains, in a country called France to their south, where a small band of uncapped people are plotting the overthrow of the Tripods. Will and Henry reach France, where a like-minded youth named Jean Paul (Ceri Seel), nicknamed Beanpole, helps them escape the clutches of the Black Guards and joins them on their journey. The bulk of the season consists of a series of mini-adventures, in which the trio meet many interesting characters and make all sorts of narrow escapes, as they complete their journey.

Season two begins underground in the White Mountains. The leaders of the "Freemen," as they are called, need people to infiltrate the Tripods' city. The easiest way to do this is to compete in and win an athletic event in the games which the Tripods hold annually. (The games enable the Tripods to select the strongest and fittest humans for their service.) Will, Beanpole, and a German youth named Fritz (Robin Hayter) travel to the games, wearing fake caps to conceal their identity. Will and Fritz win their events and get taken inside, while Beanpole clandestinely monitors the city from the outside. Inside, Will becomes the slave of an alien who's intrigued by his curiosity, while Fritz maneuvers his way out of hard labor and into the control station of the city's power plant. Both obtain much information, but Will discovers that the Tripods aren't nearly as benevolent as they make themselves out to be. Worse, his master begins to suspect that there's something not right with Will's cap. Will needs to escape, and fast -- and even then, he and Beanpole are not assured of a safe trip back to The White Mountains, or even that the rest of the Freemen will be waiting for them when they arrive...

Like most BBC sci-fi productions -- fans of the original Doctor Who series will know exactly what I mean -- the special effects budget for The Tripods was painfully limited, and the visuals have to be taken with several grains of salt. That being said, the series was very entertaining and suspenseful. The acting, done as it was by people whose names you wouldn't recognize from any other project, was strong throughout. The individual episodes were well-written, and the underlying story arc develops in a steady fashion that's easy to follow. There were some differences with the books, particularly regarding the age of the protagonists; the TV series has Will in his late teens rather than his early teens like the books. The story as depicted on television did not seem in any way compromised as a result, though. Unfortunately, the series is one season short. People who get into the series will need to accept an unresolved conclusion, or get their hands on the books so they can finish the story.

All in all, The Tripods was a very engaging program. Sci-fi fans will get hooked quickly if they start watching. They may wind up screaming over getting left hanging at the end, but they'll find the journey up to that point to be well worth their while.

Overall grade: A-


reviewed by Scott


While the series itself wasn't narrated, John Shackley did narrate this summary for the original Season 1 DVD.

5.14.2009

Gomez, A New Tide (ATO, 2009)


The English rock band Gomez has been at it for well over a decade now, and have quietly amassed a strong catalog of songs. Last month Ian Ball, Ben Ottewell, Paul Blackburn, Tom Gray, and Olly Peacock released their sixth studio album, called A New Tide. Over the years they have traded much of their quirkiness for consistency. This has alienated some of their fans, but in general has not adversely the overall quality of their recorded output. Sometimes, though, too much consistency isn't necessarily a good thing.

As usual, the vocals are shared between Ball, Ottewell, and Gray. All three contribute good songs, from Ottewell's "Little Pieces" to Gray's swingy "If I Ask You Nicely" to Ball's hard rocker "Airstream Driver." There's also a nice segue from the energetic "Win Park Slope" to the quiet "Bone Tired." But while the album is steady and solid from beginning to end, it lacks a real attention-getting standout track. There's nothing here on level of their best song from the past, like "Sweet Virginia," "Ping One Down," or "How We Operate."

A New Tide is another one of those albums which, despite being pretty good, will likely suffer commercially because there's not one song in particular that can force its way onto people's iPods. Gomez have made songs like that in the past, so it's a bit disappointing not to hear one or two on this record. Still, the album is likeable enough all the way through to make it worth a few listens.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott

"Airstream Driver" performed in the WFUV studios

5.10.2009

Trio Acoustica (Gateway Music, 2008)


As I said when I reviewed Kristine Heebøll a month or two ago, it's very common for Scandinavian folk musicians to be involved in multiple projects at the same time. Faroese guitarist Stanley Samuelson, whose solo album Tíðin Rennur was reviewed here recently, is also partners with a Norwegian guitarists Oistein Rian and Steen-Vidar Larsen in the group Trio Acoustica. On their self-titled album, the trio perform songs in all the Scandinavian languages of Germanic origin, and throw in some folk-rock standards from the sixties that listeners in the Anglophonic world will easily recognize.

As with Tíðin Rennur, fans of laid-back guitar music will like this record even if they don't always understand the words. The three guitars, and frequently the three voices as well, blend together nicely. From the perspective of an English-speaking listener, the one thing that would really distinguish Trio Acoustica from Tíðin Rennur, and presumably make it more accessible, is the inclusion of covers of The Beatles ("Norwegian Wood"), The Byrds ("Eight Miles High"), and Crosby, Stills, and Nash ("Helplessly Hoping"). The covers don't necessarily improve on the originals, but they do fit well on this record and offer a fresh perspective on familiar material. In particular, their guitar and mandolin arrangement of "Eight Miles High" shows that the song still works even when stripped of its trippy psychedelic underpinnings. The rest of the album contains mostly original compositions with the Brazilian-flavored "Dierdres Samba" and the jovial "Jeg har en gitar" being highlights.

Trio Acoustica is a pleasant effort from three skilled musicians that will appeal to people in the mood for something mellow. If I'd recommend this a bit more highly than Tíðin Rennur, it's not because of a clear difference in quality. Rather, the inclusion of some familiar songs might give the listener a frame of reference that makes it easier to understand and appreciate the remaining songs.

Overall grade: B+


reviewed by Scott

"Jeg har en gitar"

5.08.2009

STAR TREK

Star Trek is an interesting creation: a prequel that changes just about everything from before -- and also includes a cast member revisiting his character from the series.

This time around Jim Kirk (Chris Pine) is a rebellious womanizer haunted by his father's legacy as a starship captain who died saving his crew (and Jim and his mother) from a Romulan ship (that resembles the one from Star Trek: Nemesis). Spock (Zachary Quinto) is treated like an outcast from his fellow Vulcans for having a human mother. Through a series of plans and coincidences, Kirk and Spock wind up on the Enterprise under Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood). The other reintroduced characters are: Leonard "Bones" McCoy (Karl Urban); Uhura (Zoe Saldana); Scotty (Simon Pegg); Sulu (John Cho); and Chekhov (Anton Yelchin).

The Romulan ship has returned, and it turns out that it's from the future, its commander Nero (Eric Bana) is out for vengeance, and he has a way of destroying planets. Someone else has come from the future: Spock (Leonard Nimoy).
This version of Star Trek is almost all action -- and that's not a great thing: There are numerous setups for space battles, land battles, and even a chase from CGI monsters. While the Federation has a structure and chain of command, here command of the vessel switches more times than the sub in Crimson Tide. (They also kept Kirk as the only person not wearing a Star Fleet uniform because he's, y'know, such a rebel.) While avoiding camp, there are plenty of verbal homages to the original series.
There are several good things about this Star Trek. Zachary Quinto is wonderful as Spock, letting his human side poke through while repressing his emotions; he also shares a great rivalry-respect with this Kirk. I also like that Uhura had a lot more to do this time than answer the 'com. Director J.J. Abrams manages a decent job juggling the large cast of characters, finding something for everyone to do.

Purists may not be thrilled with all the changes done to the Trek universe, but this Star Trek reboot is enjoyable on its own merits. If this is the start of a franchise, I hope they delve more into the ideas and ideals that made the original so enduring instead of just more space battles.
Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

5.07.2009

HOSTEL PART II


As a fan of horror movies, I find it depressing that many "horror" movies are little more than exercises in sadism and torture. Thanks to cable television, I caught a prime example of this: Hostel Part II.

Proving that equality between the sexes isn't always a good thing, the three tourists captured to be tortured and killed in the first movie have been replaced with three female victims for this sequel. Whitney (Bijou Phillips) is the wild sexual one, Lorna (Heather Matarazzo, light years from Welcome to the Dollhouse) is the introverted, awkward one, and Beth (Lauren German) is the sensible, mature balance between the two. While touring Europe the trio are befriended by model Axelle (Vera Jordanova), who takes them to stay at a hostel in Slovakia. There their passport photos are sent to an auction where men and women bid for the victims. Two of the winners are eager American businessman Todd (Richard Burgi) and his reluctant friend Stuart (Roger Bart), who both think the experience will change them. (And a pre-credit sequence reveals the fate of a main character from the original Hostel.) Abduction, torture, and killing follow.

Hostel Part II certainly won't do anything for European tourism, but it also does nothing worthwhile for horror movies -- or movies in general. While sadism can play a vital role in horror -- be it the torments Ash goes through in the Evil Dead trilogy or the twisted family traditions of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre -- it can't be the sole reason for the film. And that's exactly what happens with Hostel Part II. The characters are all one-dimensional, there's a disquieting combination of stomach-churning gore and exploitative cruelty (it was hard for me to find pictures to use in this review that wouldn't be too unsettling) that aims for the basest of human instincts.

Director Eli Roth manages a little creativity during a chase at a Harvest Festival, but otherwise he gives nothing but sleaze and violence in Hostel Part II. Avoid this one at all costs.

Overall grade: F
Reviewed by James Lynch

5.06.2009

RISK 2210 A.D.


The classic boardgame Risk has players sometimes negotiating and always battling to conquer the world. Risk 2210 A.D. changes and, yes, improves the original game with a futuristic battle to conquer a drastically different world -- in five years or less.

The world has changed quite a lot -- and by "world" I mean the board for you to conquer. Traditional nations have been replaced with such places as the Australian Testing Ground, Amazon Desert and United Indiastan. Underwater colonies provide new territories to conquer -- and more paths to continents than were available in the original game. Even the Moon waits for conquest!

While combat remains basically the same as the original game -- players roll 6-sided dice, then compare the highest numbers to see whose troops win -- the main innovations are energy and Commanders. Energy, collected at the start of the turn, can used to bid on Turn Order (to see who goes first), build Space Stations, hire Commanders, and buy Command Cards. There are five Commanders in the game -- Diplomat Commander, Land Commander, Naval Commander, Nuclear Commander, and Space Commander -- and they let you purchase and use their Command Cards. Also, you need the Naval Commander to send troops to undersea colonies and the Space Commander to send forces to the Moon. Every player starts with a Land Commander and Diplomat Commander.

Command Cards are a great random element in Risk 2210 A.D. These cards can do anything from give you more troops to destroy an attacker's troops to giving points at the end of the game. But you can only buy these cards if you have the appropriate Commander in play, and the Commander has to be alive to use them. (If a Commander is killed you can rehire them.) Since all Command Cards have to be purchased at once, you can't keep buying them one at a time until you get what you need. And players who focus on different Commanders will have very different strategies to winning.

Oh yes, each game of Risk 2210 A.D. lasts a number of turns equal to the number of players. (So much for spending dozens of turns amassing a giant army in Australia and then sending it out to run rampant over the world.) It's not impossible to eliminate one's opponents in that time, but it is trickier. You're more likely to focus on taking and holding territory than pure aggression. There are some other small changes in Risk 2210 A.D.: Space Stations help you defend, and four random land territories begin the game nuked and impassable.

I love how Risk 2210 A.D. keeps what works from the original Risk and adds new elements to create a game of future conquest. Both the future map and the Machines of Destruction (MOD) pieces -- a soldier in battle armor, a squat machine, and a Battletech-like 'Mech -- bring the players into this new world to conquer. There's a lot of strategy involved, but the luck of the draw for Commander Cards and the roll of the dice make every gam eunpredictable. Play Risk 2210 A.D. and prepare to make the future yours!

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch

5.03.2009

X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE


Snikt! Snikt! Wolverine returns to the big screen, making a lateral move from the star of the X-Men movies to the star of his own prequel: X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

In the mid-19th century young brothers Logan and Victor Creed run away following a violent encounter (with Logan's bone claws). During the credits we see a montage of the adult Logan (Hugh Jackman) and Victor (Liev Schreiber) as soldiers from the Civil War up to Vietnam -- with Creed becoming more and more violent.

In Vietman, the healing and claws of the two brothers bring them to the attention of military leader William Stryker (Danny Huston), who recruits them into a group of other superhuman operatives. But Logan leaves when Victor's savagery remains unchecked. Then Logan's in Canada, where he finds love with Kayla (Lynn Collins), who obligingly gets killed to prompt Logan to seek revenge (which includes calling himself Wolverine, and getting his bones coated with an unbreakable metal). And Victor/Sabretooth is still on the prowl; and Stryker is up to something; and there are lots of cameos from characters from the comic book and X-Men movies...


Much like the X-Men movies, this movie focuses on a few main characters -- in this case Wolverine, Sabretooth and Stryker -- and reduces everyone else to neat powers. There are teleporters, people with diamond-hard skin, and the strongest fat guy ever, but we learn next to nothing about them except for their abilities. (The best brief-but-fun supporting character is Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), whose preternatural skill with a sword is combined with an unending stream of chatter.)

X-Men Origins: Wolverine is the fourth time Hugh Jackman has taken on the role of Wolverine, and Jackman once again combines the tough-guy element with the tormented character never allowed to be happy. Schreiber is suitably evil as Sabretooth, the villain who feels betrayed by his brother's decency.

The plot of X-Men Origins: Wolverine has plenty of holes, with complicated twists and plans that don't make a lot of sense. This might be forgiveable if the movie were exciting, but for every cool action scene, there's another one that relies too much on slow motion. (There is a nice amount of humor sprinkled between the battles and tragedies.) X-Men Origins: Wolverine is an okay movie, but it's nothing to get excited about. And considering how much the previous X-Men movies focused on Wolverine, I can't guess who another Origins movie would be about.

Overall grade: C
Reviewed by James Lynch

Stephen Lynch, 3 BALLOONS

Stephen Lynch is a balladeer of the twisted, combining his guitar playing and singing voice with immensely dark humor. 3 Balloons is Lynch's latest foray into evil musical comedy.

Just about nothing is off limits on 3 Balloons. There are songs about AIDS, drug smuggling, cursing at little schoolkids, body parts, and a series of brief "Dear Diary" tunes that sound sweet until the writer's identity is revealed. Even when praising the cartoon Peanuts Lynch works in plenty of cursing.

Stephen Lynch varies his musical styles a bit more on this album than others, adding some folk music and medieval sounds, but he continues the format that's worked for him so far: making the music seem genuine while the lyrics are dark comedy. This mix makes 3 Balloons good for many sick laughs, even after repeated listenings.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch