11.26.2009

SPORTS ILLUSTRATED: EXPOSURE


Ah, the dream team: a collection of the best people in a field, gathered together for a spectacular performance. While the dream team often applies to sports, Sports Illustrated: Exposure assembles its own dream team of supermodels in an amazing coffee table book.

Sports Illustrated: Exposure is different from most Sports Illustrated swimsuit shoots. Instead of having numerous locations, a wide variety of swimsuit colors and styles, and (more recently) body paint, this collection of photos was taken over a 10-day period in Harbour Island in the Bahamas. Photographer Raphael Mazzucco also had the models clad in a variety of all-white swimwear.


So, what makes this a dream team? That would be photos of eight women who have graced the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue: Rachel Hunter, Rebeca Romijn, Daniela Pestova, Elle MacPherson, Yamila Diaz-Rahi, Elsa Benitez, Veronica Varekova, and Carolyn Murphy. To call these women beautiful is an understatement, and Mazzucco combines the perfect Harbour Island background with the models' posing, often with each other, in styles from sensual to playful.
Sports Illustrated: Exposure is a true wonder. It would be hard to imagine a more perfect collection of models to be photographed together (though if you can, we do have a comments section), and the photos are both stylish and natural. One may feel having nothing but all-white swimwear is limiting, but there's no repetitive feeling in the photographs here. Sports Illustrated: Exposure is, simply, amazing.
Overall grade: A+
Reviewed by James Lynch

PARTY POOPER

Whick of your friends would be the most likely to do something -- or the least likely? Knowing the answer to this, or knowing how someone else will answer, is the key to Party Pooper, a game from Out of the Box Publishing.

Out of the Box also published Apples to Apples, and Party Pooper shares a key element with that earlier game: One player acts as a judge each round (in Party Pooper they're "the host"), and the other players (in Party Pooper they're "the guests") try to guess how the host will make a decision.

At the start of each round of Party Pooper the host rolls a six-sided die that will come up either "Party Pooper" or "Party Animal." The host then draws a card which has a situation on it. The host has to decide which player -- including themselves -- would either be most likely to do what the card called for (if "Party Animal" was rolled) or would be the least likely to do it (if "Party Pooper" was rolled.) The guests decide who the host will choose. When everyone is ready, the judge says "One... two... three... point!" and everyone points at their pick. Every time a guest picks the same person as the host, that guest and the host each get a plastic chip. Then the person to the host's left becomes the new host. After a certain number of rounds where each player gets to be the host the same number of times, whoever has the most chips wins.

Party Pooper is fun -- with some qualifications. As with many party games you need to know the other players -- friends or family members work best -- to do more than blindly guess. Unlike Apples to Apples, players can't discuss what they think the best answer is. My biggest problem is the pointing: Anyone who pauses half a second can change their pick, resulting in more arguments and accusations of cheating than fun party antics. (I find it easier to have people write down their picks.)

But Party Pooper does provide some lighthearted fun. There are 400 question cards, so you can play a large number of games without repeating questions. The question cards are almost all family-friendly (though with my niece and nephew playing we skipped a card about nude sunbathers), and the situations presented are more silly than potentially insulting. Party Pooper has its flaws but is an enjoyable little party game.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

Harlem Shakes, Technicolor Health (Gigantic Music, 2009)


As you might guess from their name, the members of Harlem Shakes are New Yorkers, although the quintet of Lexy Beinam (vocals), Todd Goldstein (guitar, vocals), Jose Soegaard (bass, vocals), Kendrick Strauss (keyboards, vocals), and Brent Katz (drums, vocals) were actually based in Brooklyn rather than Harlem. Their music combines indie rock with some rudimentary electronics. Technicolor Health came out this past spring, but since they've recently announced a split, their second album appears to be their last.

Technicolor Health has its moments. Beinam's pleasantly unassuming voice reminds me a lot of Nick Lowe, and suits the songs well. "Niagra Falls" has a nice piano part and a good bounce to it, and the really good single "Sunlight" boasts an infectious chorus. But most of the album lacks a real spark. Plus, the electronics often sound cheesy and do more harm than good.

So on the whole, you'll find a couple of songs worth a few listens or a download, but not enough quality to sustain a full album. Harlem Shakes might have been capable of eventually making an album that's strong all the way through. Technicolor Health is not that album, though, and it doesn't seem likely that they'll give themselves another chance.

Overall grade: C+

reviewed by Scott


Harlem Shakes play "Sunlight" in front of their home crowd in Brooklyn.

11.24.2009

Shakira, SHE WOLF

It's always refreshing to discover pop music that doesn't sound like everything else on the radio. This atypical and rewarding feat is achieved on She Wolf, the terrific new album from Shakira.

She Wolf uses lots of synthesizers and electronics, but these are flavored with other influences: Latin, Indian, and even folk music. (I could see "Gypsy" being written by the Indigo Girls as easily as by Shakira.) And it's all held together by Shakira's voice, which can go from sensual to powerful to playful -- sometimes in the same song.

This time around, Shakira sings almost completely about love and lust. ("She Wolf" and "Gypsy" are more about self-discovery.) Songs topics include repeatedly falling for the wrong guy ("Did It Again"), playful exhibitionism ("Spy"), and pure sensual fantasy ("Good Stuff"). The lyrics are light and fluffy, and if She Wolf has one flaw it's the occasional clunker in the writing: "I'm so happy I should get sued," "I'm starting to feel just a little abused/like a coffee machine in an office." But there is also clever writing here, from the dark obsessed and vindictive ex-girlfriend in "Mon Amour" to bemoaning a lack of eligible men in "Men in This Town": "The good ones are gone or not able/ and Matt Damon's not meant for me."

She Wolf has nine songs in English, three of those songs performed in Spanish as well, two live songs, and two songs with rappers Lil Wayne and Kid Cuti. The version from Target (disclaimer: I work for Target. Disclaiming: It's good for what ails ya) has a bonus dvd with two live performances, an interview with Shakira, the video for "She Wolf" and a making-of feature for that video. She Wolf won't revolutionize all music or become immortal poetry. What it is, first and foremost, is fun. Shakira has made an album that's very enjoyable and easy to listen to repeatedly. Aooooooooo!

Overall grade: A-

Reviewed by James Lynch





Väsen, Väsen Street (NorthSide, 2009)


Over the past fifteen years, no band has epitomized new Swedish folk music more than Väsen. A superior live act with an unsurpassed sense of instrumental interplay, Olav Johansson (nyckelharpa), Mikael Marin (viola), and Roger Tallroth (guitar) have built up enough of a following internationally that the organizers of the Lotus World Music & Arts Festival have started lobbying the town of Bloomington, Indiana to name a street after them. Whether their efforts come to fruition or not, Väsen Street can be enjoyed by anybody for the price of a typical CD.

On the new album, Väsen provide the usual assortment of self-composed and traditional polskas, schottishes, and waltzes. The schottishes (bouncy tunes in 2:4) get a bit more emphasis than usual, and "Garageschottis" is my favorite track on the CD. There are a couple of twists on Väsen Street as well. "Absolute Swedish" veers off in a bluegrass direction about halfway through, with the assistance of American musicians Mike Marshall (mandolin) and Darol Anger (fiddle). "Hagsatra Brudmarsch" was originally composed for Mikael Marin's wedding and played by a wedding orchestra; for the recording, Väsen are joined by Marin's wife Mia (from the band [ni:d]) and Emma Reid on fiddle, along with frequently recurring fourth member Andre Ferrari on percussion.

Otherwise, anybody familiar with Väsen will know exactly what to expect. This is something of a mixed blessing, as dependability often goes hand in hand with predictability. And their recorded output, good though it is, still doesn't match their phenomenal live shows. Having said that, on Väsen Street the band continues to meet the high standard of musicianship they've set for themselves, and if you like the sound of Swedish fiddle music at all, then it's impossible not to love Väsen.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

Hey, I was there! Väsen performing what would become the title tune of their new album at the 2008 Nordic Roots Festival in Minneapolis.

11.21.2009

Vieux Farka Touré, Fondo (Six Degrees Records, 2009)


With his 2006 self-titled debut CD, Vieux Farka Touré embraced the legacy left him by his late father, the venerable Malian guitarist singer Ali Farka Touré. The younger Farka Touré has quickly built up a solid reputation on his own terms, though. His second CD Fondo finds him largely going electric, finding a middle ground between the guitar and kora music of his homeland and some good old-fashioned rock and roll.

Touré's embrace of amplifiers and distortion on Fondo is a mixed blessing. On one hand, the album's high-energy songs really rock, especially the hyper workout "Sarama." Touré puts some percussion and some simple yet very effective drumming underneath his frenetic guitar playing, and the result is a really exciting track. On most of the quieter numbers, though, the electric guitar doesn't work quite as well as an acoustic guitar would. I also don't think Touré has the same melodic sense with his playing that his countryman Habib Koité does, and he frequently lets his guitar dominate the instrumental arrangement too much. For example, the song "Mali" has some nice accompanying instrumentation, but you have to listen closely to hear it underneath the heavily distorted guitar. By contrast, Touré shares the spotlight with kora player Toumani Diabaté on the really pretty instrumental "Paradise." Fondo would have benefited from more tunes like this one.

Vieux Farka Touré clearly builds most of the arrangements to the songs on Fondo around his guitar. While I'm sure this works perfectly well in a live context, it sometimes sounds as though the song exists merely as an excuse to set up the next guitar solo. This isn't necessarily a bad thing -- Eric Clapton is probably more guilty of that than anybody, and I'm a huge fan -- but you do have to wonder how many of the songs really hold up independently of the guitar. Still, "Sarama" and "Paradise" are excellent recordings, and fans of Malian guitar music will probably find plenty else to like here as well.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott



Co-producer Yossi Fine talks about the making of Fondo.

THE PRISONER

Welcome back to the Village! The Prisoner, a remake of the 1960s spy-surreal show, is a six-part miniseries with a new take on the individual struggling against conformity. Sadly, newer isn't better.

The person known as Number Six (James Caviezel) wakes up in the desert with no idea how he got there. After rescuing an old man (who says something cryptic and then dies), Six wanders into the Village. This place is borderline surreal: homes are all triangular, everyone has a number for a name, the roads and ground are all sand, conformity and paranoia are the norms, there is nothing but desert around the Village, and no one beleives in a world outside of the Village. No one but Six, who has flashbacks to his life in New York.

Six's nemesis is Number Two (Ian McKellen), the leader/ruler of the Village who lives in a palace, struts around in a white suit, carries a hand grenade, and seems avuncular when happy and ruthless when crossed. His goal seems to be to get Six to accept life in the Village.

If Six has enemies, he also has allies. The attractive doctor 313 (Ruth Wilson) has romantic feelings for Six and is divided between wanting him to accept life in the Village and helping him escape. (She also appears in Six's flashbacks to his life in New York.) 147 (Lennie James) is a cabbie who quickly becomes Six's friend. And Number Two's rebellious teenage son 11-12 (Jamie Campbell Bower) is dissatisfied with life in the Village.

While the original Prisoner alternated between James Bond-type adventure and psychedelic weirdness, this new version seems mired in pretentiousness. Dramatic moments are filled with slow motion, while abrupt camera cuts and noises are jarring and annoying. The mystery behind Six's resignation is never explained in the original, yet it's told in the second episode of the new version. (Six also spray-paints it on a glass wall.) Numerous comments are meant to seem profound ("a man with nothing to hide is a man with nothing to find") but wind up as just flashy.

The leads in The Prisoner also fall flat: one-dimensional characters that just aren't interesting. I suppose it's to the show's credit that it wraps up the storylines in the finale, instead of keeping it going, but even the resolution is dull. When it comes to this version of The Prisoner stay away from the Village.

Overall grade: D
Reviewed by James Lynch

11.19.2009

Amy Speace, The Killer In Me (Wildflower Records, 2009)


A Maryland native currently based in Jersey City, New Jersey, Amy Speace first came to my attention in 2006 with her album Songs for Bright Street. It took a bit of time for Speace to produce a follow-up, but her recent divorce left her with plenty of reasons to be preoccupied. As often happens with songwriters facing a difficult real-life situation, Speace took solace in her music. She maintains the same keen wit on The Killer in Me that she showed on her previous album, even if the more light-hearted songs have been replaced by a great deal of catharsis.

Musically speaking, Speace uses the same blend of folk, country, and rock on The Killer in Me that characterized Songs for Bright Street. But the similarities between the two albums end there, as the tone of the new album is much darker. Most of the songs deal with the break-up either implicitly or explicitly, with the title track setting the tone. "The killer in me loves the killer I see in you. The killer in me loves the killer I see in you. I'm gonna tell you what I need, cut so deep just to watch me bleed. The killer in me loves the killer I see in you." Speace offsets the darkness somewhat with a pair of upbeat, positive songs called "This Love" and "Something More Than Rain." On the latter song in particular, she embraces the hope that what she's dealing with now will lead to a much brighter future. Speace doesn't change the subject until the last two songs on the album, but even then the mood doesn't brighten. "Piece by Piece" was written for Speace's father, as a reminder that she's there for him as he deals with the loss of his brother. The remarkable final track, "The Weight of the World," is sung from the point of view of a person who lost her brother in combat. Speace successfully and poignantly conveys the emotion of the situation without getting political or taking a side. Her vocal delivery is so convincing, in fact, that I had to double-check to make sure that she wasn't singing about her own brother.

The Killer in Me is heavy, weighty listening, with most of the songs coming from a very dark place. But Amy Speace is a capable and maturing songwriter, and the album is ultimately a testament to her perseverance. Like the the best songs from performers like Sam Phillips or Beth Orton, the music is quite potent, and ultimately therapeutic.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

a live performance of "The Killer in Me"

11.18.2009

IT'S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA: A VERY SUNNY CHRISTMAS

There's something about the excess sentimentality of Christmas that has inspired some cynical and/or ironic Christmas "specials" in comedy (Bad Santa, A Blackadder Christmas Carol), horror (Black Christmas and Silent Night, Deadly Night) and even children's movies (The Nightmare Before Christmas). The gang from Paddy's Pub enters the seasonal fray with It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: A Very Sunny Christmas.

It's Christmas Eve in Philly and the gang is getting ready for a traditional Christmas. Charlie (Charlie Day) and Mac (Rob McElhenney) plan to get wasted and spend Christmas Day throwing rocks at trains. Dennis (Glenn Howerton) and Dee (Kaitlin Olson) are bracing for another holiday where their father Frank (Danny DeVito) buys exactly what they want -- but keeps it for himself. (This year he shows up driving the Lamborghini Dennis wanted, and he uses the designer purse Dee wanted to store cheesy snacks and malted milk balls.) There's also a giant snow machine in the bar.

Things chance when everyone makes some discoveries. Charlie and Mac each learn the horrible truth behind what their parents did as "traditions" and try to make up for it by finding the Christmas spirit. Meanwhile Dennis and Dee learn that Frank's deceased former business partner that he swindled is alive, and they decide to use him to expose Frank to their own version of A Christmas Carol -- and get reparations. And, as in the television series, nothing goes right for any of them.

In fact, while A Very Sunny Christmas was released on dvd, it might as well have been a two-part episode of the television series. This is both good and bad. Like the tv series, there's plenty of twisted humor, from the elaborate plans to simple gags like Charlie's fascination with the game Simon. But though being on dvd allows for a lot more profanity -- I suspect they could have gotten away with showing Danny DeVito's ass on cable -- they don't do more with the freedom of a straight-to-dvd release. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: A Very Sunny Christmas is funny, but it should have been shown on tv or added to the next season of the show instead of being released on its own. Still, it's pretty funny. As Frank exclaims, "Merry Christmas bitches!"

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

11.17.2009

SHOWGIRLS

There are bad movies. There are exploitative movies. There are sleazy movies. Then there is Showgirls, which sets new lows for all of the above. This movie wallows in its sleaze from start to finish, sabotaging itself in every way in the process.

Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley, doing a 180-degree turn from Saved by the Bell) has hitchiked from out east to become a Las Vegas dancer. Nomi winds up becoming friends with Molly (Gina Ravera), who gets Nomi a job at a strip club. Through a series of coincidences and encounters, Nomi attracts Cristal (Gina Gershon), the lead dancer at a topless show at the Stardust, and Zack (Kyle MacLachlan), Cristal's boyfriend and the entertainment director for the Stardust. After Nomi gives Zack a lapdance while Cristal watches, Nomi starts moving up in the world of, um, high-class stripping and dancing. Poles are danced on, bitchiness and betrayal are everywhere, and a whole lotta skin is shown.



Showgirls is the product of writer Joe Esterhaus and director Paul Verhoven. These two worked very well together on Basic Instinct, where the lurid elements worked in the service of the dangerous criminal element. In Showgirls, though, behind the sleaze is nothing but more sleaze. The actresses may look good and dance well, Berkley is fully one-dimensional. As for Gina Gershon, if you want to see her doing actual good work in a sexy movie, see Bound instead of this.

If you're hoping for some prurient fun from watching Showgirls, look elsewhere. The dance routines are energetic and, er, revealing, but they're also way over the top. (The same is also true for the movie's most unintentionally comic moment, a sex romp that's both aquatic and epileptic.) A brutal scene near the end will obviate any superficial fun one might have found in the dancing and skin, while the movie's resolution contradicts everything that came before it.

Some of the most interesting aspects of Showgirls are what happened behind the scenes. While this film may sound like a direct-to-video sleazefest, it was actually intended as a summer blockbuster that would make NC-17 movies more widely acceptable. But a combination of box-office and critical failure kept this from happening. A later attempt to market this as a midnight movie, along the lines of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, also failed.

I suppose Showgirls does deliver what it promises -- a stripper movie with too much nudity to get an R rating -- but watching this movie was an exercise in pain from start to finish. One of my pragmatic philosophies is that there is more than enough t&a in the world that one doesn't need to sit through a bad movie just to see some. With that in mind, skip Showgirls.

Overall grade: F+
Reviewed by James Lynch

11.15.2009

Weezer, RADITUDE

Weezer is back with Raditude -- and this time they're girl crazy! Their latest album pours on the volume and energy but loses a little quirkiness in the process.

Raditude opens with the rockin' nostalgic track "(If You're Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To" which is so full of high school romance it could have been on The Academy Is... album Fast Times at Barrington High. Then it's time to go clubbing with "I'm Your Daddy" and "The Girl Got Hot." It's only natural that the next song is "Can't Stop Partying" which celebrated partying while making it sound like an addiction. There are songs of romance ("Love is the Answer"), malls, ("In the Mall") and unwinding after a hard week ("Let It All Hang Out.") The deluxe version has four bonus songs.

Weezer has a sly and subversive sense of humor in a lot of that music, and it's largely absent on Raditude. There are a few occasions where wry comments make it into the songs here -- such as when the loud "Let It All Hang Out" thinks going wild involves vitamin water -- but most of the songs are pretty straightforward. Even so, the songs on Raditude are pretty catchy and they know their way around an electric guitar. Raditude may not be Weezer's best, but it is a fun album.

Overall grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch

11.11.2009

BATT'L KHA'OS


Humans and orcs just can't get along when towers are involved. Last week I reviewed Castle Panic, where humans try to protect their tower from wave after wave of monsters, including orcs. This week I'm reviewing Batt'l Kha'os, a tile game where orcs and humans vie for control of several towers

Batt'l Kha'os is for two players who take on the roles of knights (wearing orange) and orcs (wearing purple). Victory comes from controlling towers. Each tower has a point value (1-4), color flag (orange or purple), and a number of knights, orcs, or blank spaces on each corner. The first player to get 7 points wins!

"Combat" comes from tile placement. Like tower tiles, each tile has a number of knights, orcs, and blank areas on the corners. When three corners adjacent to a tower tile are filled, players count up the number of orcs and knights around all four corners. If the knights are the majority, they control the corner and an orange token is placed there; if there are more orcs, they get the corner and place a purple token there; if it's a tie, a neutral token (showing a human and orc skeleton) goes there. When all four corners around a tower have tokens, the side controlling the most corners controls the tower and gets its points; if it's a tie, the points go to the knights if the tower has an orange flag and to the orcs if the castle has a purple flag.

Then there are special tokens that can be played on non-Tower tiles. Drums add one or two warriors (based on the token played) to each corner of a just-played tile for that player's side. The Leader multiplies each corner's warriors by two, the Banner lets you play a second tile immediately, and the Halbred prevents your opponent from playing a tile adjacent to your tile for that turn. (The advanced game has five additional tokens, plus a few different Towers.) Once a token is played it can't be moved, so they must be used carefully.

While Batt'l Kha'os is fun, it's also a little too simple. As soon as you know an opponent will take a Tower -- either through greater troops or from a tie at a Tower with their color -- you can abandon that Tower and start planning for your next Tower to control. The tokens add a little change to the place-and-add turns, but since you know what tokens your opponent has there's not a lot of surprise. Batt'l Kha'os is simple and it is quick, but it's more something for two people to play before or after a more involving game than a draw in itself.

Overall grade: C+
Reviewed by James Lynch

11.10.2009

Britney Spears, THE SINGLES COLLECTION


Greatest hits collections are interesting creations. Done well, they provide new material for fans while appealing to new people interested in their music. Done poorly, they simply redo what came before. The latter is the case with Britney: The Singles Collection, the second hits collection from Britney Spears.

Britney Spears released Greatest Hits: My Prerogative back in 2004. Since then she had an album more or less coinciding with her problems (Blackout) and a "comeback" album that got more critical acclaim (Circus).

Do two albums provide enough new material to justify a new collection? Not really. Nine of the songs on Britney: The Singles Collection were on My Prerogative (thankfully not her Bobby Brown cover), with two off Blackout and three from Circus. The only new song is the single "3" where Britney is trying to create controversy by singing about threesomes. (Lots of synthesizers, lots of bad lyrics -- she couldn't come up with a different rhyme for "three" than "Peter, Paul and Mary"? -- and lots of scantily-clad dancing in the video.)

I wonder who the audience is for Britney: The Singles Collection. Die-hard fans probably have her albums, folks who wanted one collection of hers probably got My Prerogative, and one new song isn't enough to warrant buying a whole album. If you find Britney Spears a guilty pleasure and didn't go with her first collection or get any of her albums, Britney: The Singles Collection may be good. Otherwise, this feels like a way to release a "new" album that's repackaged older material.

Overall grade: D
Reviewed by James Lynch


video

Dan Auerbach, Keep It Hid (Nonesuch, 2009)


Ohio native Dan Auerbach first came to prominence as the guitarist and singer for the duo The Black Keys -- think of them as a more down and dirty version of The White Stripes. While the band still exists, Auerbach took some time off from the group to record his first solo album Keep It Hid.

Freed from the relatively inflexible two instrument format of The Black Keys, Auerbach aims for sonic diversity on Keep It Hid. The album is bookended by a pair of fairly mellow tracks, "Trouble Weighs a Ton" and "Goin' Home." On the ballad "When the Night Comes," Auerbach sings soulfully above an acoustic guitar and a mellotron. Still, Auerbach specializes in harder-edged material, and for the most part the rockers dominate the album. Three songs in particular stick out. The biggest musical statement comes early on, with the second song "I Want Some More." The raunchy vocals, crunching guitar, and reggae organ combine to make this a great single. Otherwise, "My Last Mistake" is solid retro power pop, and the blistering "Street Walkin'" sounds like late sixties proto-metal over a Bo Diddley beat.

Dan Auerbach has an affinity for vacuum tube amplifiers and analog recording equipment, so there's a good reason why his guitar sounds like a blast from the past. It's a risky approach, but Auerbach does a nice job of taking something old and making it sound fresh and vital. Keep It Hid is worth a look, with a bunch of decent songs and a couple of really good ones.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

A live performance of "Street Walkin'."

11.08.2009

CASTLE PANIC


The castle is under siege! Wave upon wave of goblins, orcs, and trolls want to destroy the walls and collapse the towers! Can someone slay enough monsters to save the castle and become the Master Slayer? Or will all be lost? This is the scenario of Castle Panic, an elegantly simple game that is both cooperative and competitive.

The board of Castle Panic is divided into six sections, numbered 1-6 and colored red, green, or blue, that go from sections (Forest, Archer, Knight, Swordsman) into the castle wall, behind which is a tower. These sections determine both where players can do damage and where monsters appear and advance.

Players draw cards, can discard and redraw, and trade one or two cards with other players(depending on the number of players) -- then it's time to attack! Most cards let a player do a point of damage to a monster in a certain section in a certain color. There are also specialty cards like Tar (stops a monster from moving), Barbarian (killing a monster in the castle), Nice Shot! (killing a monster with one hit), Hero (which can deal one damage to any figure in a certain color), and Missing (preventing monster tokens from being drawn at the end of the turn). The cards Brick and Mortar can be played together to rebuild one destroyed wall.

Ah, the monsters tokens. Goblins take one hit, Orcs take two, and Trolls can take three. (The pieces are triangular, and the part pointing at the castle shows their remaining life.) There are four bosses, each of whom have a special ability. Then there are Plagues (making all players discard one type of card), tokens requiring 3 or 4 tokens to be played, and the Giant Boolder, which crushes all monsters in its path -- and only stops when it hits and destroys a wall or castle.

After players attack, all monsters on the board move closer to the castle. When a monster moves from the Swordsman ring against a wall, the monster takes one damage and the wall is destroyed. If a monster enters the castle, they move clockwise, taking one damage when moving against and destroying a tower. And if the last tower falls, everyone loses. At the end of each turn, players draw two random monster tokens, putting monsters in the Forest (rolling the die to see where they go) and applying the effects of other tokens.

If the last tower falls, all players lose. But if they players defeat all the monsters, the players get points for each monster they slew (Goblins are worth one point, Orcs are worth two, Trolls are worth three, and bosses are worth four) and whoever has the most points wins, becoming the Master Slayer!

Castle Panic is simple, yet is plays almost perfectly. The rules are very easy to learn, the setup is simple, and play can start in a few minutes. The relentless attacks of monsters creates a real feeling of dread and oppression, and most players will be likely to help one another (by giving advice and trading cards) rather than refuse help and look out for themselves. The stand-up walls and towers are a nice visual element, and having the life on the monsters represented on the part pointing to the castle obviates the need for pen and paper. There's even a solo mode for solitaire play! While there's not a lot of strategy here -- kill the monsters before they breach the walls -- Castle Panic is great fun to play -- and replay!

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

11.06.2009

MONSTERS, MARRIAGE, AND MURDER IN MANCHVEGAS

It ain't always good when a filmmaker can realize their vision. The immensely low-budget Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas is deliberately cheap, cheesy, and stupid -- and it wears out any appeal quite quickly (like the electronic keyboard music that permeates the film).

This film revolves mainly around the Manchvegas Outlaw Society (M.O.S.), three adults who wear matching jerseys and spend their days acting like kids. Marshall (Matt Farley) acts like the M.O.S. is as important as the F.B.I., Jenny (Marie Dellicker) has an unrequited crush on Marshall, and All-Star Pete (Tom Scalzo) is, um, there. The three shoot hoops, deliver newspapers, sell lemonade, watch for criminals, talk at night on cans connected to strings (honestly) and play pranks on a rival "organization."

The plot, such as it is, revolved around Melina Corbin (Sharon Scalzo), a young girl on vacation from finishing school who is soon engaged to Vince (Kyle Kochan), a lower-class kid with some anger issues. The match doesn't appeal to Melina's father Dan (Kevin McGee), and when Melina vanishes after going skinny dipping Dan is convinced that Vince is a killer; several other murders reinforce this belief. There are also some of the fakest monsters ever filmed, and a university archaeological "expedition" in the forest. Will pretending to be engaged to Jenny make Marshall realize his feelings for her? Can the M.O.S. solve the case? What adults have water balloon fights anyway?



Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas is like a comedy sketch parodying movies with zero budget and painful acting. To its credit, this is the goal of the movie: Everything is deliberately overdone badly, and in the dvd featurettes the cast mentions "classic" bad horror movies that inspired them. But something that may have been mildly amusing as a five-minute sketch becomes painful shortly after that -- and sitting through 80 minutes of this was a real endurance test. Hearing bad dialogue delivered poorly isn't entertaining -- even when done deliberately -- and there are no performances, jokes, or routines that I could describe as amusing or entertaining. The press release I got with my dvd said that one of the film's makers "leaves copies of his DVDs most everywhere he goes." If you happen to find a copy of Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas, leave it where you find it. Or throw it out.

Overall grade: F
Reviewed by James Lynch

11.05.2009

NAKED AMBITION: AN R-RATED LOOK AT AN X-RATED INDUSTRY


Awards ceremonies are wonderful opportunities for photography: They provide not only celebrities dressed in their finest but also a chance to glimpse behind the curtain at the personalities and standards of their industry. Naked Ambition: An R-Rated Look at an X-Rated Industry is a photographic look at the porn industry's biggest awards show: the Adult Video News Awards.

Photographer Michael Grecco took over 13,000 pictures at the 2006 and 2007 AVN Awards to create "an experiment in journalism, using portraiture and still life photography as a document of an event, a time, and a culture." The photos selected became the 224-page coffee table book that is Naked Ambition.

The photos are almost all of the female and male professionals of porn, along with scattered shots of industry, er, toys and accessories. Each photo of a person or people has their name, a nickname ('The Tall and Short of It," "The Fountain," "The Archer," "The Import") and often their comments and brief biography. As the title suggests, these photos could be considered rated "R": no full nudity, but plenty of glimpses.

Naked Ambition also has forewords by Dave Navarro (lead singer of the Foo Fighters), Larry Flynt, and Michael Grecco. Lann Friend and Rob Hill wrote the biographies of the stars, and the celebrities often provide some thoughts and stories of their own.

Naked Ambition works quite well in its goal of documenting the biggest awards ceremony in adult entertainment. While the photos are all posed (no candid shots here), they're not touched up, giving a more human side to the folks than one might see in their films. Naked Ambition covers the spectrum of people in this world, from mainstream adult celebrities (like Jenna Jameson and Tera Patrick) to classic stars, alternative performers, people with, er, specialties, lawyers, older folks, transgender performers, and even one very tattooed fan. I also enjoyed Navarro's parallels betwen rock stars and porn stars.

There are a few problems with Naked Ambition. There are no page numbers (and therefore no index), so there's no simple way to go back to a picture you want to see again. There's no rhyme or reason to why some folks get biographies and others just have their name and nickname. And, on occasion, a single photo is split between two pages, sometimes bisecting the subject between the two pages. (On a personal side, I got tired of all the navel piercings pretty quickly.) There are also several typos throughout the book.

Despite those flaws, Naked Ambition: An R-Rated Look at an X-Rated Industry is quite good at capturing the essence of the AVN Awards and its stars and performers. The photos are very well done, and for those who read the words the bios that are present are amusing. Having this on your coffee table will certainly generate interest!

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch





Liz Carroll and John Doyle, Double Play (Compass Records, 2009)


Chicago resident Liz Carroll first gained attention in Irish music circles as a teenager in the 1970's, when she won a pair of fiddling competitions in Ireland. She recorded and performed sporadically between the late seventies and 2000, but has since picked up the pace considerably. John Doyle's guitar playing for the band Solas in the late nineties was nothing less than a revelation; his energetic, percussive accompaniment completely redefined the style and has spawned many imitators. Carroll and Doyle have toured together frequently over the past decade, and Double Play is their second album as a duo.

Carroll and Doyle make a really good team because they can play with the subtlety and intimacy you would expect from a duo, but they can also match the energy and fury of the best five or six-piece Irish bands. Double Play contains plenty of examples of both mellow and high-octane Irish fiddle tunes, many of which were composed by either Carroll or Doyle. Doyle also sings three songs for the album. The pair have set a high standard of quality in their performances both separately and together over the years, and they don't disappoint here. My favorites are the set beginning with "Lament for Tommy Makem," in which Doyle plays some really nice harmony under Carroll's melody, and the set beginning with "Paddy Glackin's Trip to Dingle." Perhaps I'm biased because Dingle Bay was one of the highlights of my honeymoon, but that set really swings.

If you're a fan of Irish music, or a least curious about the genre, you'll definitely like Double Play. Liz Carroll and John Doyle are both superb players whose abilities are well showcased by this recording. Like with a lot of recordings by top-notch folk musicians, though, it doesn't quite match what the performers can do live, so definitely see them in concert as well if you get the chance.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

Liz Carroll and John Doyle were the featured entertainment at The Capitol on St. Patrick's Day. The musicians come out of this looking good. Draw your own conclusions about everybody else.

11.04.2009

Pink, FUNHOUSE TOUR LIVE IN AUSTRALIA

Pink has had a varied musical output, doing everything from sneering hard pop to tender ballads. She hasn't had a greatest hits album (yet), but Funhouse Tour: Live in Australia has almost all of her hits, plus some covers. The strength and problem is that these are often divided between the cd and dvd.

The cd portion of Funhouse Tour is divided between a high-energy first half and slower second half (except for ending with "Funhouse" and a new single) -- and both work well. Opening with a far-too-brief cover of "Highway to Hell," Pink blasts her way through several of her top 40 hits, infusing them with great energy. Pink performs her more sentimental songs equally well, letting her voice softly go along with the music. Her cover of "Bohemian Rhapsody" should have been more distinct from the original, but even with that Pink does a respectable version of the Queen classic.

My conflict about Funhouse Tour comes from the concert dvd. On the one hand, having a visual recording of the tour is a nice addition to the cd: You get to see the spectacle and stage show, plus a lot more songs. (There are 21 songs on the dvd and 12 on the cd.) But why weren't these songs on the cd, either by expanding it or making it a two cd release? Some of the dvd songs missing from the cd include several of Pink's big hits ("Just Like a Pill," "So What," "Sober"), not to mention a very sensual cover of the DiVinyls' "I Touch Myself." I'm glad the concert is here, but I'd have liked to have all the songs on the cd. That said, Funhouse Tour is a nice, um, tour of Pink's music, showcasing her talent nicely.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

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