9.30.2009

MARTIAN FLUXX


The card game Fluxx has covered the normal world, the world of Monty Python world, and a world where zombies attack. So what's next? Invading the Earth, courtesy of Martian Fluxx.

In Martian Fluxx the players take on the roles of the Martians. As with previous Fluxx games, players accumulate Keepers, add New Rules to the initial "Draw 1, Play 1," play Goals that will let a player win, suffer Creepers that keep them from winning (or meet a Goal's requirements), and use Action cards for a variety of effects.

Some of the Rules and Actions are the same as previous versions of Fluxx, but the rest have an appropriately alien feel. Keepers include the Tentacle, Tripod, Space Suit, and very useful Mind Control Transmitter. Those pesky Creepers are now such hinderances as a Pathetic Human or Germs. Goals may involve "invading" specific cities, finding Two All-Beef Earthlings (two Cows), or Skloozmo! The Ungoal "Retreat" ends the game with no winner, and a promo card, shown below, gives you more cards for speaking with an alien accent!

Martian Fluxx follows the rules of the previous Fluxx games exactly, which is both a strength and a weakness. The game plays exactly like older Fluxx games, so anyone hoping for interesting changes or variations will be disappointed. That said, the rules are still very easy to learn -- new players can start in less than five minutes, experiences players can start almost immediately -- and there's plenty of humor in the cards. Martian Fluxx isn't a departure from the Fluxx formula, but it's still funny and fun to play. Now where is that second Cow...

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch




9.27.2009

HERE COMES SCIENCE by They Might Be Giants


John Linnell and John Flansburgh have been making quirky music for almost thirty years as They Might Be Gaints -- and during that time they also started making children's music. Having tackled numbers and the alphabet, the two Johns now sing about all things scientific in Here Comes Science.

This album is a basic primer on some of the most popular areas of the world of science. Some songs are very straightforward in what they cover ("Cells," "Photosynthesis," "Electric Car"), while others take a less straightforward path to their subject ("Bloodmobile" is about the circulatory system, "Put It to the Test" explains the scientific method, and evolution is part of a family gathering in "My Brother the Ape").

As someone who studied liberal arts in college, I can appreciate the challenge in making science fun -- but They Might Be Giants manage to do it here. There's a nice variety in the songs, from the goofy "Roy G. Biv" to rockin' numbers like "Why Does the Sun Shine?" and "I Am a Paleontologist." The songs are pretty informative -- I now the difference between speed and velocity -- and they should get little kids more interested in science ideas. (I like how they follow the old song "Why Does the Sun Shine?" with the more scientifically accurate "Why Does the Sun Really Shine?") And there's also a dvd with music videos for all the songs, using simple and effective animation.

Here Comes Science is aimed at kids, so adults will find it cute more than great music. I also wonder about including "The Ballad of Davy Crockett (in Outer Space)": It's a fun song, but very scientifically inaccurate on an album about teaching science. Overall, They Might Be Giants have created an informative and fun album with Here Comes Science.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch


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HELL HOUSE by Richard Matheson

Sometimes the simplest things work best. Richard Matheson's Hell House is a haunted house story that's relatively quick, pretty straightforward, and extremely scary.

Rolf Deutsch, a dying old rich man, wants to find out about "survival" -- life after death -- so he hires people to investigate. They are sent to the Belasco House, "the Mount Everest of haunted houses," which was the site of unspeakable depravities under its owner Emeric Belasco. After his death there were two investigations into the house, and all but one investigator wound up dead or insane in the place nicknamed "Hell House." Deutsch bough the Belasco House and he wants a definitive answer about life or death. And he wants the answer within a week.

The investigators are a nice cross-section of paranormal investigators. Dr. Lionel Barrett is a scientist convinced that the paranormal is explainable by scientific means -- and he believes his machine, the Reversor, can remove the supernatural from the house. Sister Florence Tanner is a church leader and spiritualist who believes that the house can be cleansed with prayer and love. Benjamin Fischer is the only survivor of an early investigation into the Belasco House; he returns cynical, angry, and convinced his psychic strength is enough to conquer Hell House. And then there's Edith Barrett, Dr. Barrett's wife, who brings a series of fears and issues unknown to everyone.

Time is omnipresent in Hell House: Each section is a day in the week- December 18 through 24 -- and each section is a time of day followed by what one or several of the characters are doing. Everything happens in a linear path, giving the impression the reader is in the house, as much a part of things as the characters. Matheson creates a terrific atmosphere, both in the evils of the Belasco House and of tensions between the investigators, each of whom is skeptical of the others. Matheson also has plenty of horror in this novel, but it's presented gradually and mysteriously, not with sudden monsters and creatures.

Hell House is a terrific horror story. There are no elaborate gimmicks or unnecessary gore. Instead the reader has a tale of horrors and a scientific investigation into something all the characters think they can conquer but really don't fully know. Hell House may appear deceptively simple, but it works very well indeed.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

9.26.2009

CHEZ DORK

If there's one thing about geeks, it's that they love their stuff -- often to the point of excess. The card game Chez Dork captures this silly side of the uberfan world.

The players each take on a character from John Kovalic's comic book Dork Tower -- Matt, Igor, Ken, Carson, Gilly, or Bill -- and each one has a unique advantage and disagvantage. Players start each turn by getting $30 to buy stuff, drawing up to five cards -- and then buying stuff.


Stuff is what wins the game for a player. All Stuff has a name, cost to buy, point value, flavor text, and Obsession(s). Each turn a player can buy as much Stuff as they can afford -- or buy nothing to save up for bigger Stuff later. The first player to get 25 points or more in Stuff wins.


Of course, the best dorks are the obsessed fans. Each character has a permanent Obsession, and players can play a single Temporary Obsession played on themselves, or on another player when it's not their turn. (Exceptions: Bill has two permanent Obsessions and can never get any Temporary Obsessions, while Carson has no permanent Obsession but can have up to three Temporary Obsessions.) If any Stuff matches any Obsession a player has, that Stuff is worth twice as many points. (The cards "Autographed" and "Limited Edition" also double point values, so combining them with an Obsession can be extremely helpful.)

And if $30 a turn isn't enough, players can also auction off Stuff they have in play. Bidding starts at $1 and the highest bidder wins, so auctioning off Stuff is a gamble: You could create a bidding war that gets you a lot of dough, or you could wind up losing something for next to nothing.



Chez Dork is a simple yet enjoyable game. Except for the variable outcomes of an auction, strategy consists mainly of getting as much Stuff that matches your Obesssion(s), possibly pulling a surprise win by giving yourself a Temporary Obsession that suddenly puts you at 25 points or more. This game has a great feel for the world of fandom, between the very real Obsessions (LARPs, Sci-Fi, Dice, Furries, Computer Games, etc.) and the hilarious Stuff names and flavor text. ("Final Utter Cataclysm XVIII" -- "I'm waiting for the sequel." "Kong Pong" -- "Trivial. Boring. Totally behind the times. It's a classic everyone should own.") Right now Chez Dork is out of print, but if you and yours are massive dorks with a sense of humor, it's worth finding. And you too will declare: IT MUST BE MINE!
Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

9.23.2009

BACKSPACER by Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam continues to rock! Backspacer, their latest album, showcases the band's ability to keep the music coming mostly hard and fast.

(Disclaimer: Backspacer is only sold through Target, and I work for Target. Disclaiming: It's good for what ails ya.)

The majority of Backspacer is simple, straightforward rock. Songs like "Got Some" and "Johnny Guitar" go straight for the jugular, while the band shows a more romantic (or romantically frustrated) side with tunes like "The Fixer" ("If there's no love/I wanna try to love again") and "Unthought Known" ("look for love and evidence/that you're worth keeping").

Pearl Jam also has a tender, thoughtful side, shown through on "Just Breathe" and "The End." Indeed, the latter song is quite mournful, wondering how nothing stays the same -- "people change as does everything/I wanted to grow old/just wanted to grow old" -- and apologizing just for company.

Just about everything on Backspacer works. The band's lineup, the same since 1998, has the perfect blend of music to match Eddie Vedder's rough, often howling voice. While few of the tunes are radio-friendly enough to make it onto top 40 radio, Backspacer is a rewarding listen from start to finish.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch


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JENNIFER'S BODY


If you thought Megan Fox became famous for her looks instead of her talent, you'll still think that after seeing her in Jennifer's Body. This high school horror movie is an unfortunate mash-up of cliches.

The small town of Devil's Kettle has an unusual pair of best friends: Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) and Anita "Needy" Lesnicky (Amanda Seyfried). Jennifer is a promiscuous cheerleader, popular with all the boys and quick to make a sarcastic comment. Anita is quiet, shy, and ready to do what Jennifer wants. Even Anita's boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons) is jealous of how much Anita follows Jennifer around.

Jennifer drags Anita to a dive bar to see the band Bad Shoulder. When the bar burns down, Jennifer and Anita escape -- but then Jennifer goes off with the band in their band. Later that night Anita is home alone when she finds Jennifer there -- bloodied, bruised, and barfing up some sort of black, prickly ichor. The next day in school Jennifer looks and acts fine; in fact, she seems unaffected by the numerous students and townies who died in the fire.
Things then get much worse. Jennifer is killing and eating male students. Anita knows this, between inconvenient psychic flashes during the crime and visions/hallucinations of Jennifer covered in blood and gore. But can Anita stop her best friend, considering how strong Jennifer seems to be?
Anyone hoping for a horror-movie commentary on high school with Jennifer's Body will be disappointed. Instead of going for anything thoughtful or original, the movie settles for prurient ways of showing Megan Fox and horror cliches, from the approaching-from-behind camera angles to the slow motion. So much slow motion... Writer Diablo Cody does a good job capturing how high school students talk, but apart from the occasional sarcastic one-liner there's no dialogue of note. Fox and Seyfried turn in one-note performances as the literal femme fatale and the scared wallflower; the rest of the cast is unimpressive, and the film fails to make any use of terrific actors J.K. Simmons and Amy Sedaris, giving them little more than cameos.
If you're a Megan Fox fan, pick up one of the numerous magazines with pictorials of her instead of sitting through Jennifer's Body. This movie is neither scary nor funny. It's just disappointing.
Overall grade: D-
Reviewed by James Lynch

9.20.2009

David Byrne, LIVE FROM AUSTIN, TEXAS

David Byrne achieved fame and success as the lead singer for the Talking Heads, and his solo work since then has been less well known but consistently good. Both these sides of his music are displayed on Live from Austin, Texas.

This album was recorded in 2001, the same year as Byrne's Look into the Eyeball, so it's no surprise that about half of the live album comes from there. The other songs are Talking Heads staples -- "Once in a Lifetime," "Life During Wartime," "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)" -- along with a few other Bryne tunes and a very fun Whitney Houston cover.

Live from Austin, Texas is a very good album. While a song or two could have used some backing vocals, Bryne's earnest, unique voice usually works quite well; he also plays a mean guitar, and the other musicians are excellent (notably the violinist's work on "This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)." If you enjoy David Byrne's music with or after the Talking Heads, Live from Austin, Texas will have you enjoying Byrne's passionate singing and playing.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

THE INFORMANT!

Corporate greed and illegal activities are the stuff of drama -- but can they be funny? This is answered, sort of, in The Informant!, the latest movie from director Steven Soderbergh. Based on a real-life investigation and scandal, this movie takes a comic look at the worst whistle-blower in history.

Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) is a scientist-turned-executive for agricultural business ADM. When the FBI investigates a case of corporate espionage, Whitacre winds up telling them about ADM's price-fixing, an illegal arrangement between several multinational companies. Soon FBI agents Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale) are using Whitacre as their agent, having him do everything from deliver corporate documents to record conversations.

Whitacre seems to be an intelligent and nice guy who can't help talking; a voiceover has him rambling constantly, often about things unrelated to what's happening around him. Unfortunately, he also has his share of ridiculous optimism (when the scandal breaks, he believes he'll be promoted at the company he's spying on) and his share of secrets: during the second half of The Informant! almost every scene has a new revelation about Whitacre.

The Informant! is an uneven blend of comedy and drama. The movie completely revolves around Marc Whitacre, with the effective supporting cast having little to do but react to him. Matt Damon makes Whitacre an interesting blend of a man, someone who knows a tremendous number of facts but who can't stop telling people things even when he should know better. He's also convinced he's the hero in everything, even as his personal sins keep coming to light. Soderbergh doesn't know quite how to treat the material, though: Early on Whitacre's naive optimism seems comical, but then things grow far more grim. It doesn't help that the music by Marvin Hamlisch would be more in place in a 1960s comedy that this mid-'90s drama.

The Informant! is an interesting story, where the person doing the right thing is the person who's done his share of wrong as well. The movie isn't consistently funny enough or dramatic enough to be great, but Damon is quite entertaining and a worthy lead for this tale.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

9.17.2009

Kris Delmhorst, Shotgun Singer (Signature Sounds, 2008)


While they've made their fair share of good music, contemporary American folk singer/songwriters are not generally known for their sense of experimentation. As Boston resident Kris Delmhorst's recent album Shotgun Singer shows, though, there are some exceptions. Shotgun Singer is largely a homemade work, recorded in a rural cabin with Delmhorst doing most of the producing and playing a large number of instruments (acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards, bass, even the cello) herself. The solitude helped Delmhorst create a very distinctive sound, often a bit dark but quietly intense and very effective on the whole.

From the eerie opening song "Blue Adeline," Delmhorst creates an atmosphere where things are never quite what they seem or what you'd expect. Sometimes, in the background, the guitar or piano hits a series of single notes that aren't quite in rhythm. Other times, like on the penultimate song "Freediver," Demhorst holds onto notes for a little long, letting the pitch drop off in a ghostly manner. Even on the very upbeat "1000 Reasons," the vocal harmonies strike a somewhat dissonant chord in the chorus. But the mood works, and when Delmhorst asks "If not for love, what are your for?" or achieves a soulful, bluesy catharsis on songs like "Riverwide" and "Kiss It Away," the emotion creeps under your skin and lingers there.

Carefully conceived, well performed, and immaculately produced, Shotgun Singer is the kind of album where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There's no particularly brilliant standout track that will force its way onto people's iPods, but every song is effective in a subtle way. I definitely recommend multiple attentive listens for this one, as it will grow on you.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

A solo live performance of "Blue Adeline"

9.12.2009

WHITEOUT


If you take a murder mystery and set it in Antarctica, you get... a murder mystery with a lot of ice and snow. Whiteout is a routine whodunit in a new setting.

U.S. Carrie Stetko (Kate Beckinsale) is the law at a remote Antarctic research station that's days from being evacuated in several days due to an oncoming storm. Stetko has a haunted past (shown in flashbacks), a friend in elderly doctor John "Doc" Fury (Tom Skeritt), and a desire to leave law enforcement. When recent pilot Delfy (Columbus Short) sees a body on the ice, Stetko investigates.

Soon Stetko is immersed in a mystery. Who killed a scientist from another base -- and why was he in the middle of nowhere with no gear? Can agent Pryce (Gabriel Macht) be trusted -- or did he turn up near another victim because he's the killer? And what does all this have to do with a Russian plane that crashed 50 years earlier?

Whiteout is most illuminating when it gives glimpses of living in a part of the world where below freezing is the norm. Guide ropes link buildings so people don't get lost and freeze to death dozens of feet away from safety. Touching metal with a bare hand can have terrible consequences. And everyone is a suspect.

As a mystery movie, Whiteout offers little new beyond the location. A mystery figure dressed all in black pops up now and then to swing an ice axe at people, the aforementioned guide ropes serve to offer up chase scenes set in a very small area, and characters voice what they see and think in case simply showing it to the audience isn't enough. None of the actors really stand out (and I think it's sexist that Beckinsale is shown stripping down to her underwear, then showering, before her character even speaks) and the mystery's revelation is neither disappointing nor thrilling. Once you get past the blinding snows in Whiteout, you realize you've seen it all before.

Overall grade: C
Reviewed by James Lynch

9


It's been the end of the world as we know it -- and dolls and machines battle for the rest in 9, a tremendously grim animated film.


At the film's opening a small burlap doll, with lenses for eyes and a zipper running down its chest, awakens in a room with a dead body and a small round metal device with weird symbols on it. This is 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood), who knows nothing about himself or the devastated world.


9 soon leaves and dsicovers other beings like him. 5 (John C. Reilly) is a friendly fellow with only one eye; 7 (Jennifer Connelly) is an aggressive warrior; 6 (Crispin Glover) is a near-lunatic with insight into what's going on; 2 (Martin Landau) is a fearless inventor. They all live in sanctuary in a church, led by 1 (Christopher Plummer), who enforces his rule with 8 (Fred Tatasciore), a massive thug.

The danger: machines. A variety of maelvolent machines wander the world, capturing and violently killing the dolls they find. 1 wants to stay in hiding (even after 2 is captured) and wait for the machines to simply vanish. 9 wants to take action, from rescuing 2 to finding out what happened to the world.

9 is a combination of stunning visuals and pedestrian story. The world of this movie is a vast wasteland of destroyed buildings, endless rubble, and frequent (but mercifully covered up) dead bodies. The little doll-beings each have their own unique features that match their personalities, from 1's various crowns to 9's "normal" traits. The machines are varied and frightening: mixes of doll parts and gears, boxes that fire rockets, and a partially-cloth serpent that slithers along.

Storywise, 9 is very typical: An outsider comes into a community, doesn't settle for the usual ways, and leads everyone to a new existence. The voice talent is good, but 9 doesn't try to be more than an adventure/action movie. Still, the visual impact of 9 is incredible, and the movie is entertaining.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

9.08.2009

Rokia Traoré, Tchamantché (Nonesuch, 2009)


Malian singer/guitarist Rokia Traoré has been a part of the African music scene for over a decade at this point. She first came to my attention in 2005, when she visited Amercia to promote her 2003 release Bowmboï. She took her time recording a follow-up, though, as her latest album Tchamantché did not came out just this past year.

On Tchamantché, Traoré mixes and matches a number of musical styles, from her homeland and beyond. For better or worse the album peaks immediately, with the simmering, ominous opening song "Dounia."  This song is particularly noteworthy for the way it incorporates a traditional African stringed instrument called a n'goni (it sounds like a kora but is much smaller) into what is otherwise a bluesy rock arrangement.  On the song "Zen," Traoré adopts the singing style of French cabaret to the accompaniment of African percussion and a human beat box.  "Kounanda" features some very pretty instrumental interplay between the n'goni and a harp. Tchamantché also includes a surprising yet effective cover of an American jazz standard, George and Ira Gershwin's "The Man I Love."

The problem with the album is that most of the songs are either mid-tempo or slower.  There is one good upbeat song called "Tounka," but Traoré doesn't cut loose even on that song like she did on "Nienafing" off of Bowmboï. Still, Rokia Traoré is a free-spirited artist willing to take chances, and Tchamantché has enough going for it to justify giving it a few listens.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

"Dounia"

9.06.2009

EXTRACT


Mike Judge has a good comic ear for types, be they the workplace (Office Space), down-to-earth conservatives (King of the Hill) or just plain morons (Beavis and Butt-Head). Unfortunately, in his new film Extract, written and directed by Judge, the humor and insight are almost missing.

Extract centers on Joel (Jason Bateman), the founder and owner of Reynold's Extract, a soda-type product. Joel works in the office, smoothing over the various problems and worker complaints. Things are good for Joel: General Mills is considering buying out the company, and when Step (Clifton Collins Jr.) suffers a, er, mid-body injury he's willing to settle for an insurance payout. On the downside, Joel hasn't slept with his wife Suzie (Kristen Wiig) in three months; for her, the sweatpants are the same as a chastity belt. And Joel's bartender buddy Dean (Ben Affleck) is a fountain of bad advice, most of it revolving around drugs.

Enter Cindy (Mila Kunis), a young woman very willing to use her good looks to help her scam and steal whatever she can. She gets Step thinking of suing for as much as she gan get, and her flirtations with Joel make him consider Dean's advice to hire good-looking moron Brad (Dustin Milligan) to seduce Suzie so Joel can then go after Cindy without any guilt.

Unlike Judge's other work, Extract doesn't provide sympathy or interest for his characters. Instead of having comedy come from the characters, there are "funny situations" that aren't funny (like Joel coughing up massive amounts of marijuana smoke) and one-dimensional characters, from an annoying neighbor who never stops talking to Gene Simmons as a greedy lawyer. The cast is fantastic -- I've loved Bateman, Kunis, and J.K. Simmons in other work, and Wiig shows a nice timing that her SNL work must have delevoped -- but the characters aren't interesting. Extract has a few laughs here and there, but it's surprisingly disappointing.

Overall grade: D
Reviewed by James Lynch

9.04.2009

The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks - Robertson Davies (1985)

Robertson Davies is a favorite author, not without reason as my previous reviews on this site attest, and The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks provide yet another reason why those who read Davies love his work and why those who don't read him should.

The Papers are collected from several separate Marchbanks books spanning decades. The conceit is simple and timeworn: Davies claims he is simply editing the diary entries or essays of a friend, the curmudgeonly Samuel Marchbanks, and this allows him to write the material in the voice of Marchbanks and then comment on it in his own, or, at least, in a voice which uses his own name.

The first part, "The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks," purports to be a year in the life of "a Canadian during one of the early years of the Atomic Age." The entries swerve back and forth madly from politics to small town life to battles with a recalcitrant furnace.

The second part, "The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks," is a series of short topics for discussion at dinner parties arranged by course. This, once again, allows cantankerous digressions on whatever topic comes to mind, with explanation and apologia by Davies.

The third part, "Marchbanks' Garland," is more of the same, but also some (manufactured) epistles. The epistolary novel is a difficult form to carry off effectively, and, by using it as part of the book rather than as the sole structural element, Davies brings it off admirably.

Ultimately this is a lovely collections of literary "small bites," that one can read in dribs and drabs. It's a great bedside book, since the lack of any overarching plot means that one can read just a few pages or paragraphs whenever one has the time. The style is, as always with Davies, smooth and engaging. It is serviceable as an introduction to Davies for novices but is quite rewarding for old hands as well.

Overall Grade: B+