10.31.2009

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD


As I thought of a classic horror movie to review for Halloween, one came to mind as a great movie, as a breaker of rules, and as something airing quite frequently today: Night of the Living Dead. This is hardly the first zombie movie, but it set the stage for all following zombie flicks.

The setup of Night of the Living Dead is effectively simple: Barbara (Judith O'Dea) is traveling with her brother Johnny (Russell Streiner) to put flowers on their father's grave. Johnny scares his sister by telling her, "They're coming to get you Barbara!" That tease proves prophetic: A man in a suit staggers to them, kills Johnny, and pursues Barbara to a house.

The house is a refuge that's under siege, as humans hole up there while more of the undead stagger to it. Ben (Duane Jones) is an action-oriented man focused on escaping to meet up with other survivors, while Harry Cooper (Karl Hardman) wants them to stay in the cellar with his wife Helen (Marilyn Eastman) and sick little daughter Karen (Kyra Schon) until the zombies leave. They're later joined by young couple Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley).

Night of the Living Dead both broke many rules about horror while creating so many of its own. It's hard to think of another movie in the 1960s where a black man was the strong, resourceful hero and a white man was cowardly and selfish. Barbara, far from being a plucky heroine, spends most of the movie almost catatonic and helpless. Some of the protagonists' plans work, while others fail horribly. And the ending remains as chilling after numerous viewings as after the first one. Director George A. Romero creates true terror both as the humans try and survive and the zombies shuffle forth with mindless malevolence. A low budget doesn't keep the creatures from being terrifying, and there's social commentary that doesn't detract from the horrors.

If you're just looking for a scary movie or searching for one of the best horror movies ever, the destination is the same: Night of the Living Dead.

Overall grade: A+
Reviewed by James Lynch

10.30.2009

Vägilased, Ema Õpetus (Eesti Raadio & Vägilased, 2006) and Paabel, Epöpoa (Paabel, 2009)



Estonia might not make the news very often, but like every other nation it has a rich musical tradition. And like every other place that I know about, it has a contemporary generation of performers re-interpreting their homeland's music in ways that suit the performers individually and bring the tradition into the present. Two examples of the modern folk music you can hear in Estonia today come from the bands Vägilased and Paabel, who have recently released albums respectively titled Ema Õpetus and Epöpoa.

Estonia bears more linguistic and cultural resemblance to Finland than to any of the other countries in Europe, so it is not surprising that their folk music has plenty of common ground with Finland. Indeed, the songs on Ema Õpetus would fit in nicely on a Finnish folk sampler CD. Both countries have runo songs, for example, which (to make a very long story short) are highly repetitive working songs usually sung by one or more women. So anybody familiar with Finnish runo songs from bands like Värttinä or Hedningarna will recognize the style of many of Vägilased's songs immediately. The arrangements of Meelika Hainsoo (fiddle and vocals), Cätlin Jaago (flutes, pipes, Jew's harp, vocals), Toomas Valk (accordion), Jan Villeberg (guitar), Marti Tärn (bass), and Reigo Ahven (drums) would likewise not sound out of place coming from a Finnish band. The overall sound of Ema Õpetus is a bit on the mellow side, in something of a smooth jazz vein. This isn't a bad thing, but if you're attracted to the edgier side of Nordic music you won't find much of that here. I did really like the first two songs on the album, though. "Vanaemamäng" has a good build-up of energy courtesy of a droning Jew's harp and some sharp, two-part female vocals, and the title song boasts similarly nice harmonies with a really cool Medieval-sounding instrumental break in the middle.

Paabel, by contrast, are more adventurous and experimental on Epöpoa. Erko Niit (guitars and vocals), Tõnu Tubli (percussion), Sandra Sillamaa (winds and pipes), Arno Tamm (acoustic guitar and vocals), and Tanel Kadalipp (bass) combine traditional Estonian music with rock, jazz (in both the smooth, groove-oriented and the harsh, dissonant varieties), and lots of free-form improvisation. Their tracks tend to be on the long side (averaging over five minutes), and each one is punctuated in abrupt shifts in mood and tempo. Sometimes Paabel interrupt the flow with a jazzy instrumental, sometimes with percussion, sometimes with bizarre stream-of-consciousness vocalizing, and sometimes with a simple polska transitioning into a wailing sax and moaning voices over a disintegrating rhythm. Basically, anything goes. A live album, Epöpoa reminds me of a performance by a similar Swedish folk band called Groupa at the 2001 Nordic Roots Festival in Minneapolis. I remember interviewing people in attendance during that weekend, and one person described the Groupa set as "such a cry and a chant that it seemed like they were calling the Nordic gods back down to earth." Perhaps that's an exaggeration, but there was definitely something primeval about that performance, and Paabel aim for a similar feel. The band have a few things going for them, especially Sillamaa's playing, but I feel that they keep trying to do too much on each piece, and that a little simplicity wouldn't hurt. They throw a lot of wild ideas on the wall, and while some of the ideas stick, they don't really discriminate between what does and what doesn't.

So both Ema Õpetus and Epöpoa have their strengths and weaknesses, but the two of them collectively manage to cover a very broad range of musical styles within the ostensibly narrow confines of Estonian folk music. I have a slight preference for Vägilased over Paabel on account of their being more melodic and easier on the ears, but the distinction has more to do with taste than a demonstrable difference in quality between the two.

Overall grades: Ema Õpetus B, Epöpoa B-


reviewed by Scott

Vägilased performing "Ema õpetus" at a festival. The video quality is not so good but you do get a sense of the band's sound.


Paabel performing "Sandra Epöpoa."


10.24.2009

Flight of the Cocnhords, I TOLD YOU I WAS FREAKY

The Flight of the Conchords, the comic folk parody duo Jermaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, have a new album I Told You I Was Freaky. Oddly, this album is less folksy than their last one -- and less funny.

This time around, Jermaine and Brett seem to have gone the synthesizer route, coupling this with one-note jokes. There's a synth song about a lack of women at a club ("Too Many Dicks (on the Dance Floor"), a fake rap song about women checking out their, er, "Sugalumps," a list of weird sex activities (the title track) and an unfunny Bowie-esque tune called "Fashion Is Danger." These songs, and some others, seem to take a simple idea -- angels having sex, a demonic female -- and not do anything funny or clever with it.

The Conchords are talented, and there are some amusing tracks here. "Rambling Through the Avenues of Time" is a Beatles-esque psychedelic romance song with Jermaine undercutting Bret with pragmatism ("She looked like a Parisian river" "What, dirty?"). "We're Both in Love with a Sexy Lady" has the two discovering they both want the female they just met ("Was this about forty seconds ago?" "No, about forty three seconds ago"). And I Told You I Was Freaky opens with an amusing song called "Hurt Feelings" where the duo rap about everything from missing friends to uncomplimented meals to family ("the day after my birthday is not my birthday, Mum"). Alas, the weak songs on I Told You I Was Freaky match the good songs, resulting in a mediocre album.

Overall grade: C
Reviewed by James Lynch

10.23.2009

BURN IN HELL


Who'd have guesses a game about the tormented souls in Hell could be so friendly and fun? Burn in Hell is a card game where players assemble Circles of the damned for points.

All the cards in Burn in Hell are damned souls, ranging from the truly evil (plenty of Nazis, murderers, and other infamous characters) to those oddly present (Marilyn Monroe, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Houston) from the time of Cain to Osama Bin Laden. Each card has a point value from 1 to 10, from one to seven of the Seven Deadly Sins, tags (such as Artiste, Cannibal, Murderer), and sometimes a special ability. There's also a caricature of the person with a little devil (art by Greg Hyland), plus a biography of the person on the back.

Each player starts with five cards. There's also a Pit of five cards in the center of the table. (All cards are always visible to all players.) At the start of the game Hell is 100 degrees. Each turn a player draws three cards, then keeps two and sends one to the Pit; the temperature is lowered by that card's point value, and when the temperature reaches zero and everyone has had the same number of turns the game ends (since Hell has, y'know, frozen over).

On a player's turn they can exchange any one card for any card in the Pit, or a card for two cards whose total is equal to or less the card sent to the Pit. Players can also trade cards among each other, or use a card's special ability (usually to get more cards from the Pit or from other players).

The key to victory is creating Circles. A Circle consists of four or more cards that have the same point value, the same sin, or the same tag; a Circle can also be made of seven cards if each has one of the Seven Deadly Sins. But bigger Circles score more points -- a Circle of 4-5 cards scores twice the cards' total value, a Circle of 6-7 cards scores three times, and 8 or more score four times -- and if all cards in a Circle qualify two ways, the score is doubles again. (A player who had the Seven Deadly Sins that all had Wrath scored amazing points!) Players also get points for the face value of their cards at the game's end.

You might think a game revolving around souls in Hell would be depressing, but Burn in Hell is impressively lighthearted and challenging. While some special abilities are used against other players (usually to steal a card that was needed for their upcoming Circle), play usually focuses on one's own cards instead of hurting the other players. The combinations that can make up Circles are quite varied -- one player went for numerous small Circles, while I usually made fewer ones with more cards for more points -- and the comical illustration keeps the game from getting depressing. (The biographies on each card are quite informative.) So if you want a challenging game where everyone from Cain to Osama Bin Laden are grouped in Hell for victory when it freezes over, take out Burn in Hell and play with the souls of the damned -- for fun!

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

10.21.2009

SPORTS ILLUSTRATED SWIMSUIT PORTFOLIO: THE EXPLORERS EDITION

Does one really need an excuse to look at beautiful women wearing swimsuits? The answer to this will determine your reaction to the latest Sports Illustrated collection Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Portfolio: The Explorers Edition.



There are two versions of this collection: a 192-page coffee table edition and a 144-page magazine version. Both books feature the same 19 swimsuit models, photographed by the same five photographers, from the most recent Sports Illustrated annual swimsuit issue.
The "explorers" theme behind this collection is the exotic locales that are the settings for the photographs. Of course, all the swimsuit shoots are in exotic locations, so this is as rare as a baseball game being played at a baseball stadium. It's simply an excuse to show off these women wearing next to nothing.

While there may not be a compelling theme behind this collection, there's certainly nothing wrong with the result. As always, the models are lovely and the photography is very well done. (And yes, the locales are stunning as well, suiting the models.) The coffee table edition is superior to the magazine edition -- having a few more photos of each model and bigger pages -- but the magazine version is more affordable. If you picked up the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue earlier in the year you'll already have most (all?) of these photos already; but if you're looking for a collection of beautiful women in beautiful places, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Portfolio: The Explorers Edition is another compilation of loveliness.
Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

10.18.2009

The Fireman, Electric Arguments (ATO, 2008)


The Fireman is a side project for Paul McCartney and the veteran producer Youth. They recorded two instrumental albums in the nineties which fell through the cracks completely, but their third album Electric Arguments contains songs. Electric Arguments does maintain the same experimental flavor of its predecessors, though, so people expecting a typical McCartney album will be in for a bit of a surprise.

The whole album has a resonant ambience, heavy on the reverb and containing a bit more distortion than the arrangements would normally call for. On tracks like the opening bluesy rocker "Nothing Too Much Just Out of Sight," the countryish "Light from Your Lighthouse," and the electronic "Lovers in a Dream," McCartney does some different things with his voice. As a result, the normally unmistakable tenor behind so many classic Beatles songs is not always easy to recognize. Youth contents himself with creating the soundscapes to back up McCartney's voice and instrumentation. Most of the music on Electric Arguments has a dreamy, trance-like quality, which does work nicely enough on songs like "Sun Is Shining" and "Lifelong Passion."

On one hand, it's always interesting to hear a performer of McCartney's stature doing something different for the fun of it, especially after he seemed to be trying too hard to get back on the radio with his last album Memory Almost Full. On the other hand, Electric Arguments is more interesting than it is good. McCartney included "Sing the Changes" and "Highway" on the set list for his shows at Citifield over the summer, but neither song is particularly memorable. And that more or less sums Electric Arguments up. There are some promising ideas in here, but none of the songs really stick with you once you put the album down.

Overall grade: B-


reviewed by Scott


"Sing the Changes"

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY

While it's true that sometimes less is more, it's also true that sometimes less is just less. The midnight cult flick Paranormal Activity is a horror movie with the lowest budget, smallest cast, and least special effects since The Blair Witch Project. Sadly, it also lacks some necessary elements for a truly scary movie.

Micah (Micah Sloat) just bought a new and powerful video camera. His live-in girlfriend Katie (Katie Featherston) believes that the supernatural events that happened to her twice in her childhood are starting again, so Micah decides to videotape everything they do and get proof of this, er, paranormal activity.

Things start benignly enough -- bumps in the night, objects moves -- but soon the occurrences become more menacing. A psychic (Marc Fredrichs) says it's a demon and not a ghost, since it followed her before moving won't solve anything, and he's powerless to do anything to help the couple. And while the evidence on video keeps mounting, so do the sleepless nights and growing fears...

Given how so many horror movies these days rely solely on gore and torture, I have to give Paranormal Activity kudos for goign with a bare-bones approach, using implied fears instead of special effects to create its atmosphere.

Alas, this isn't enough. We barely get to know the characters, so there's not a lot invested in them. I laughed that the psychic is not only taken completely at his word, but acts as pure exposition by explaining what's happening without doing anything about it. Towards the end, when things are really bad for Micah and Katie, they simply stay (because the psychic said leaving wouldn't help) and don't try anyone or anything else: a prist, refuge in a church, every psychic in the phone book. And while showing the whole movie through a video camera gives a sense of realism, it ultimately becomes as much of a gimmick as gore and torture in other movies. (For example, when the timecode on the sleeping couple speeds along then slows down, you know you'll see or hear something right after it goes to normal time.)

Paranormal Activity would be a great student film and it's a good try and making a movie on the smallest of budgets, but it never gets beyond quick jolts.

Overall grade: D
Reviewed by James Lynch

10.16.2009

SECRET GIRLFRIEND


Ah, the Internet: where anything can be posted, from the sort of criticism you might hear from soneone in an armchair to juvenile antics of young dudes looking to score. Sadly, Comedy Central is not making The Armchair Critic: The Series. They did, however, make a series of comic web episodes into their show Secret Girlfriend, which truly goes for the lowest common denominator.

Secret Girlfriend revolves around three twentysomething friends. Phil (Derek Miller) and Sam (Michael Blaiklock) are best buds who seem to spend all their time either thinking of ways to get laid or "working" at making Internet comedy videos. The third friend is an unnamed buddy represented by the camera's point of view, so the series is "shown" from what this invisible person sees and hears.

This third buddy also provides the, er, tension in the title. His girlfriend Mandy (Alexis Krause) is the best and worst of male stereotypes about women: She's hot, horny, and ready to get wild; and she's also obsessive, jealous, suspicious, and ready to attack anyone she thinks her boyfriend is interested in. So of course along comes Jessica (Sara Fletcher), who's also beautiful but more of a laid-back buddy girlfriend than the possibly psychotic Mandy. Can the character we never see enjoy himself with Jessica while keeping things going with, and keeping Jessica a secret from, Mandy? Will any of Phil and Sam's schemes work?

Who cares? Secret Girlfriend plays out like someone turned an issue of Maxim into a show. In this universe, the women are universally babes either flirtatious and attracted to the stars or disgusted with them (but still wearing revealing clothes). The protagonists are the epitome of juvenile, and the humor reflects this: Plot after plot is nothing but dumb plans to sleep with women that in any other universe would be far, far out of their league. And the show just isn't funny (unless maybe you're in high school).

I haven't seen the web version of this, but the show Secret Girlfriend plays like cheap online comedy: almost no plotting, cheap t&a shots, lots of phone messages, and pretty base humor. There has been a trend in many movies where what once would have been guys just trying to score have a lot more heart and strong female characters (from American Pie to I Love You, Man). Secret Girlfriend is an unfunny step back to shallow chauvanistic comedy -- without any laughs.

10.13.2009

White Rabbits, It's Frightening (tbd Records, 2009)


Although originally from Missouri, White Rabbits have been working out of Brooklyn for several years now.  This spring, the sextet consisting of Stephen Patterson on vocals and piano, Alexander Even and Gregory Roberts on guitar and vocals, Adam Russell (since replaced by Betancourt) on bass, and Matt Clark and Jamie Levinson on drums and percussion released their second album, called It's Frightening.

While the two-guitar, bass, drum, and keyboard format might seem conventional at first glance, White Rabbits' sound is defined by a couple of distinctive elements like Patterson's slurring vocals and anarchic piano and especially Clark and Levinson's dueling drums.  Indeed, It's Frightening is one of the few albums featuring multiple drummers where you can really hear the difference that the extra percussion makes.  And nowhere is this more effective than on the groundbreaking opening song and single, "Percussion Gun." The drummers' relentless assault and battery gives this song a unique character while remaining pure, essential rock and roll. The rest of the album isn't quite on the same high level, but there are still a few strong tracks, including "Rudie Falls," "Lionesse," and "The Salesman (Tramp Life)". 

It's Frightening is a solid work overall, with some pretty good songs, a couple of really good songs, and one great one.  White Rabbits have the potential to break out in a really big way in the not-too-distant future.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

"Percussion Gun." An instant classic.

10.10.2009

DRAGONS' DEN

Plenty of television game shows have competing people, but few are as personal and long-term as Dragons' Den. This show (I'm reviewing the BBC version, though it began in Japan and has versions in several countries) has plenty of risk for both the contestants and the judges.

The judges in the "den" (actually an upstairs loft) are five British self-made multimillionaires -- currently Duncan Bannatyne, James Caan, Deborah Meaden, Peter Jones, and Theo Paphitis -- out to hear, question, and possibly invest their own money in the contestants' businesses. The contestants are entrepeneurs that want the Dragons' financial investment, and often their experience and business contacts, in exchange for a percent of equity in their business.

Each contestant says what amount of investment they're looking for and what percentage of their business they're willing to exchange for that investment. Then comes the presentation, explaining and often demonstrating their idea to the Dragons. Following that comes the Dragons' questions; these usually cover everything from marketing to costs to potential customers. Then each Dragon either declines to invest ("I'm out") or makes a counter-offer to the contestant. Negotiation can go back and forth quite a bit, often between several Dragons. If the contestant doesn't get at least the amount they wanted initially, they get nothing.

Dragons' Den has plenty of variety and tension (the latter underscored by dramatic music). Products pitched by the contestants range from inspired to lunacy, and that describes the contestants as well. The Dragons are often quite acerbic, though it's understandable since they're being asked to put up their own money: Paphatis often asks, "Why should I children's inheritance on this?" The Dragons are always professional, though, often bidding against one another to secure a deal or pitching their own experience and connections as part of their offer. Their questioning can often reveal flaws or falsehoods in a pitch. There are even lots of surprises beyond the success or failure to get an investment: Some contestants reject the Dragons' offers, while one person with a pub- and online- poker league negotiated his way into more money that he originally asked for!

Dragons' Den is often manipulative, both with the aforementioned dramatic music and a voiceover describing the risk and tension, but it's entertaining and serious at the same time. Each episode gives the viewer several chances to see people aiming for an investment in their dream -- and having to defend it to people who know their business.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

10.09.2009

RIFFTRAX

Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett had a terrific time cracking jokes during awful movies on the tv show Mystery Science Theater 3000. With that show over, the trio continue the tradition, with both awful and great films, with Rifftrax.

Skipping the short skits and character silhouettes against the movie screen that were part of MST3K, Rifftrax is simple and direct: You have a dvd with the movie with comic commentaries, plus the movie by itself.

I've seen two Rifftrax takes on two movies -- the great Night of the Living Dead and the wretched Plan 9 from Outer Space -- and they both work well. While there's plenty of material to mock in Plan 9 from Outer Space, they still found plenty to "riff" on in the classic horror movie as well. The humor can sometimes be juvenile and the trio use plenty of running jokes, but you'll be laughing a lot by the movie's end. And hey, you can always see the movie as it was originally too!

So, if you're looking for something pretty silly and very funny, pick a movie you love -- or love to hate -- and get ready to enjoy people talking during the movie with Rifftrax.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

video

10.02.2009

ZOMBIELAND

Zombies have taken over the world -- but the old human needs remain. Zombieland is the latest zombie comedy, this time focusing on a handful of survivors who are so cautious that they people where they're from instead of giving out their names; but they still need each other.

Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) is a nerdy young adult who's stayed alive largely thanks to his list of rules, ranging from cardio to double-tap (shooting a zombie twice to be sure it's dead). While trying to get home to see if his parents survived, he hooks up with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a good ol' boy who loves killing zombies and really wants a Twinkie. During their travels the two meet up with two con artists-- cute Witchita (Emma Stone) and her young Little Rock (Amber Breslin) -- whose goal is to get to an amusement park.

I haven't said much about the zombies because, well, they're fairly generic: mindless, fast, often with blood and gore all over them and always homicidal. Zombieland is about the humans who, while possibly the last humans on the planet, still have the same old issues and desires. Columbus reveals that he was a neurotic and lovelorn geek even before the zombies came, so his attraction to Witchita would be as in-character in a teen comedy as in this post-apocalyptic world. Tallahassee's joy at killing the undead and avoiding emotional attachments mask his grief over a loss. And the two girls manage to scam the guys -- a few times -- but they too need to be part of something more.

Oh yeah, Zombieland is also pretty funny! Amid the gory zombies (both killing and being killed) are some nice one-liners, not to mention a terrific celebrity cameo. Zombieland doesn't break new ground in the horror-comedy genre, but it is an entertaining diversion.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch