The Supergirls takes a largely chronological look at the female crimefighter in the comic book, with each chapter covering a decade. The book begins with the heroines of the 1940s -- Phantom Lady and Lady Luck-- before moving on to more recognized superwomen like Wonder Woman, Batgirl, and Supergirl. Each chapter provides a historical context for what was happening and how it impacted comic books, and how the women reflected that time: World War Two resulted in star-spangled heroines in the 1940s, while MTV's "angst, detachment and cynisicm" was reflected in the heroines of the 1980s.
There's plenty of commentary to go along with the history. Madrid lets readers know very clearly what he likes and dislikes in the trends affecting women in comics, whether it's the numerous changes to Wonder Woman or the different treatment of male and female heroes when it comes to fashion or sexuality. He is often very persuasive in his ideas of what works and doesn't, though sometimes he can seem as sexist as the practices he bemoans. Describing Power Girl, he concludes, "...her character often comes off as a bitch, as was often the case with strident feminists." Madrid also complains about the skimpy outfits the heroines wear -- but he also complains about more modest outfits being "unisex" and unappealing.
Surprisingly, The Supergirls is not illustrated with pictures of its subjects. There is only a somewhat generic black and white drawing at the start of each chapter, so the reader has no visual basis for seeing what Madrid describes as classic or inferior art, or what is overly sexual or overly asexual, or what the less famous heroines looked like. (Can anyone describe the original Red Tornado?)
The Supergirls serves as a history lesson in two ways: The book gives a look at the backgrounds and roles of the female heroes through the years, and it shows how comic books are a reflection of popular culture, for good or ill. As one might expect, many feminist theories about the inequalities in the treatment of men and women are present here. Also present is a comic book fan, weighing in on the history and subjective highs and lows of the women in comic books. The Supergirls has its flaws, but this book is a pretty persuasive and enthusiastic look at female superheroes, an often-neglected but significant part of the comic book world.
Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch
Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) has it rough. A one-time country star, Blake is now, in his words, 57 and broke. He smokes constantly, he drinks constantly, and he hasn't written a new song in years. Blake's touring consists of driving an old jeep to bars and bowling alleys in the southwest, often followed by one-night stands with fans. And his one-time protege Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) has become a superstar by playing music Blake doesn't consider real country music.
Blake's chance for redeption may come from Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a young reporter related to a musician in one of Blake's performances. Initially only interested in an interview, Craddock falls for Blake's charms. Being divorced and a single mother, she feels that she should know better, and she remains cautions even while falling for the singer.
Crazy Heart is a simple movie anchored by some great performances. Jeff Bridges is absolutely terrific as a man who seems to drift through life thanks to his former celebrity. Blake can still play a mean song (kudos to Bridges as he sings all his songs), but his self-destructive ways keep holding him back and keeping him down. Gyllenhaal is, as always, terrific, this time as the woman who knows she should know better about the May-December romance. The story is fairly straightforward -- Blake's self-destructive path and shot at turning things around -- but the terrific music and great acting make Crazy Heart a step above most once-famous star tales.
Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch
I suppose it's a sure sign that New Nordic folk music has gained a foothold in the Scandinavian mainstream when heavy metal groups have embraced the folklore, mythology, and in in some cases the sounds and incorporated them into their own music. Then again, there is a darkness in the old stories and an edginess in the traditional melodies that make them very compatible with the most primal elements in contemporary music, so the connection is more natural than it may look at face value. I've already spoken plenty about the Faroese band Týr and their intriguing hybrid of folk and metal, and the Finnish band Korpiklaani covers a lot of the same ground. The band consists of Jonne Järvelä (vocals and guitar), Jaako "Hittavainen" Lemmetty (fiddle, mandolin, whistle), Kalle "Cane" Savijärvi (guitar), Juho Kauppinen (accordion), Jarkko Aaltonen (bass), and Matti "Matson" Johansson (drums), with J. Jyrkäs supplying the Finnish lyrics (Jonne composes the music and writes the English lyrics). Their newest album is called Karkelo, which roughly translates to "party."
Most of the songs on Karkelo are in Finnish. The lyrics are original, but rooted in the myths and folk stories of Finland. This actually gives them something fairly significant in common with the folk band Värttinä, even if the similarities more or less end there. Happily, the inherently lyrical Finnish language remains fun to just sit and listen to even on a heavy metal recording, and that doesn't depend on whether or not you actually know what Jonne is singing. There are two songs in English as well. The lyrics of "Vodka" and "Bring Us Pints of Beer" both celebrate, in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion ("Everyone is gorgeous! Yeah vodka!"), a recreational activity cherished by Finns across the centuries.
Like Týr, Korpiklaani are much more metal than folk. The band rocks as loud and hard as you would expect any metal band to do. I'm partial to the song "Kultanainen (Golden Woman)." Based on a story in the Kalevala, this song has a cool intro with the guitarists revving it up on separate speakers; it's definitely worth a listen through headphones. I don't feel that Korpiklaani completely succeed at fitting their folk instruments into their overall sound, though. When the accordion or fiddle leads the tune, like on the thrash polka "Vesaisen sota," they sound fine. But most of the time they get completely overwhelmed, or come across a little too much like novelties. The joiking (a style of wordless vocalizing native to the Sámi people in the extreme north of Scandinavia) that Jonne does on "Kohmelo" works really well, but I wish he didn't wait until the last song to do it.
As somebody with more of an interest in Nordic folk music than heavy metal, I probably have a very different perspective on Karkelo than most Korpiklaani fans would. I'd be the guy in the back of the club making ponderously academic comments on the effectiveness of alliteration in Finnish lyrics, or the common musical ground the Sámi have with Native Americans, while everybody else is moshing up front and throwing bottles of beer around. I guess there's more than one way to party.
Overall grade: B
reviewed by Scott
"Vodka." But don't forget to drink responsibly, everybody!
The Temple of Chac is just waiting for you, filled with a floor over lava, a raging river, a bridge that's falling apart, and numerous treasures waiting for you! What, you didn't think there would be numerous death traps as well? This is the board game The Adventurers, from AEG, which is as close as you'll ever come to playing Raiders of the Lost Ark -- and not just because of the giant boulder.
Players get two characters (in case the first one dies). All characters have the same load level (more on that in a moment), plus a special ability they can use once per game. After setting up all the treasures, the walls, the boulder, the Lava room, the bridge, and even more items, the miniatures are placed at the entrance to the Walls room. The goal is to escape the temple with the most valuable treasures -- and both of these things can be tricky to achieve.
Each turn the main player rolls five six-sided dice. All players get a number of actions based on the die rolls and their load level. A player with 0-3 treasures gets an action for each die number two or higher; having 4-6 treasures gives an action for each die number three or higher; carrying 7-9 treasures gets an action for each die number four or higher; and lug around 10-12 treasures and you only get an action for each die number five or higher. This is a nice way of showing that the more treasure someone is carrying, the less they can do. Players can discard treasures at the start of each turn to lighten their load level -- and this happens a lot.
There are several actions a person can take on their turn. A character can use an action to move one space horizontally or vertically. A player can pick up a random treasure in some areas, or roll to try and get a more valuable treasure in other areas. While in the Wall room a player can peek at one of the four tiles that shows which spaces in the Lava room are trapped. The main player takes their actions first, then the other players do the same, going clockwise.
After every player finishes their actions, two things happen. Cards are drawn to see if the walls in the Walls room move closer -- and if a character is in-between them when they close all the way, splat! The main player also rolls for the boulder. The first turn, the main player rolls two dice and the boulder moves a space for each die result of three or higher. The next turn the main player rolls three dice, then next turn four dice, and after that five dice are rolled each turn. If the boulder hits a character, or a character foolishly moves into the boulder, that character dies. If the boulder reaches the exit it traps any characters that didn't escape in the temple, and they lose. And the boulder's path is the one the adventurers are taking!
Fotrunately there are ways to avoid the boulder besides just outrunning it; unfortunately, they're all dangerous. The Lava room has sixteen tiles, offering players both an area the boulder never goes and a shortcut to the exit. However, four of the room tiles are trapped, and stepping on a trapped one sends the character into the lava.
There's a raging river where characters can speed along, avoiding the boulder and picking up more treasure! At the end is a waterfall, which may kill the character unless they discard a lot of treasure -- and even that may not be enough. Finally there's a bridge with weak planks, and the planks may fall off if too much treasure is hauled across. And if a character does die, their new character enters the game in the Lava room -- behind the boulder.
The Adventurers is simple fun. While there is a certain balance between carrying a lot of valuable artifacts and needing actions (I've seen many a greedy character get smushed by the boulder because they lacked the actions to stay ahead of it), the game is largely grabbing treasure and running like crazy. There are a few different areas for players to try -- sticking to the path, risking the Lava room, rushing down the river -- but these are basic choices, often influenced by the presence of the boulder. I have to give The Adventurers props for its, well, props: the cards have appropriately Aztec symbols, the plastic walls give a sense of claustrophobia, and the boulder looks great and has a flat base so it doesn't roll out of control! The downside is that the game setup takes quite a while; ironically, the game itself plays very quickly.
You may have so much while playing The Adventurers that it's only afterwards you realize that, for all the cool props, it's a fairly basic game. But it's a lot of fun while it's going on, the props are amazing, and for all its simplicity The Adventurers is very entertaining.
Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch
Las Vegas is famous for its glitz, glamour, gambling, and sex ("what happens in Vegas..."), so it was the perfect setting for a prime-time pseudo-soap. Las Vegas aired on NBC for five seasons, following the action and sexual escapades of the employees of the fictional Montecito Casino and Hotel.
Las Vegas centered around Danny McCoy (Josh Duhamel, most famous for his role in the Transformers movies), ex-marine and protege of Ed Deline (James Cann), former CIA agent and head of security at the Montecito. Danny also had a fling with Ed's daughter, the flightly Delinda (Molly Sims). Danny's buddy Mike Cannon (James Leisure) is a valet at the Montecito who's also a computer genius. (The show later eliminated the valet job.) Danny's childhood sweetheart Mary Connell (Nikki Cox) also works at the hotel as a special events director. The whole cast didn't revolve around Danny: there's also hot African-American-with-an-English-accent pit boss Nessa (Marsha Thomason) and Sam Marquez (Vanessa Marcil), casino hostess. The final season eliminated characters Ed, Mary, and Nessa and brought in new Montecity owner A.J. Cooper (Tom Selleck) and Piper Nielsen (Camille Guaty).
Remember the elaborate casino security in the Ocean's movies? You won't see much of that here, as the people in charge of security run around after crooks and cheats. Then again, Las Vegas is as much about the sexual comings and goings of the staff, quirky people and childhood sweethearts finding love, lots of celebrity appearances (hey, at least the show "killed" Jean-Claude Van Damme!), and lots and lots of beautiful people in expensive suits or skimpy outfits.
Las Vegas is, simply, shiny fluff. While there are occasional attempts to make the show "serious" (like Danny being sent off to war briefly), the show is all about seeing how the beautiful people play. I strongly suspect Caan and Selleck did the show for the paycheck alone -- and none of the other cast members really stand out. If you want a show that's silly and a soap with a big budget and less intrigue, you may enjoy Las Vegas. Me, I'll pass.
Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch
Following the disastrous events in the last collection, War and XPs, the title group has, indeed, been split in three directions. (Spoilers follow, if you haven't read that collection.) Roy, the leader of the party, is dead -- and the afterlife is tricky even in a world where characters get raised from the dead all the time. Haley and Belkar are busy trying to find the others -- plus lugging around (and losing) Roy's corpse. And Vaarsuvius, Durkan, and Elan are at sea with the survivors of Azure City.
Old villains are back -- the Lich Xykon, the Thieves' Guild -- along with a few new adversaries. There's a love triangle, the corruption of ultimate power, prophecies fulfilled, and one character dressed as Aquaman. (Seriously.)
The Order of the Stick: Don't Split the Party is an interesting phase in the OOTS saga. While this story doesn't develop much with either the battle against Xykon or learning about the Snarl, it does give us some of the most character development to date. Author and artist Rich Burlew's commentaries on the strips -- both in terms of individual character and overall effect -- are fascinating, as always, as he delves into the challenges and results of having his protagonists too powerful. Without Roy to guide them, the party members each go in their own directions, with results ranging from inconsequential to tragic.
And, as always, OOTS is funny. Even in the midst of the travials of the characters, there's plenty of comedy (except for Vaarsuvius' dark journey) and lots of laugh-out-loud moments. This starts with Belkar's "recap" -- that ranges from Charles Dickens to Law and Order -- to Belkar's "enlightening" hallucination to the eventual party reunion.
The Order of the Stick: Don't Split the Party is the fourth collection of webcomics, so you really need to read the earlier collections to know what's going on. Once you do, or if you did, this latest collection is a wonderful read.
Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch
The "hill" is composed of three rows of tiles, divided into sections of three, three, and four tiles. Each tile is face down until a player reaches it, and every tile has an obstacle. To go over an obstacle (represented by a yellow arrow) the player has to roll equal to or over the number on the obstacle. To go through an obstacle (red arrow) you'll need to roll between or equal to the numbers on the obstacle. To go around an obstacle (blue arrow) you need to roll equal to or under the number on the obstacle. Failing a roll ends your run.
You can beat the obstacles by upgrading your toboggan. At the start of each turn players buy upgrades -- and this is the most original part of the game. Twelve upgrade tiles are turned over; each upgrade can be used on one or two types of obstacles, or will affect other upgrades. Players roll a set of six dice -- four, six, eight, ten, twelve, and twenty-siders -- to buy upgrades. Going one at a time, players by an upgrade by discarding dice equal to an upgrade's cost, by discarding a die of the same type shown on the upgrade, or by discarding all remaining dice to snag one upgrade. This makes for a variety of purchases and guarantees a player can always buy at least one thing at the end of their turn. Some obstacles are discarded after use, some can only be used once a run, and others are usable as often as needed.
During a player's run they get a point for each face-down tile they encounter and flip over. Players have to go in a straight line down the tiles, but at the two breaks (three and six tiles down) they can move to another row; players also get points for reaching these breaks. If no one's reached the bottom of the hill by the third run, whoever has the most points wins.
Toboggans of Doom is easy to learn but hard to play. Since obstacles aren't discarded when beaten, players will have to face the same obstacles multiple times. Since many obstacles are discarded when used, players often have to start from scratch for their second and third runs -- and may be very ill-equipped if they do make it far down the run.
On the plus side, Toboggans of Doom is incredibly easy to learn, quick to play, and has nice artwork and a great sense of humor. (What other game lets you use an Army of Moles to get through a Viking Opera -- on a toboggan?) This game is a decent filler game, to be played while waiting for or preparing for a "main" game.
Overall grade: C+
Reviewed by James Lynch
After Frank Miller's grim and gritty rendition of Batman in 1986's comic book miniseries Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, the movies followed suit soon after. The first movie, Batman, seemed like a big gamble -- the director of Pee Wee's Big Adventure with the star of Mr. Mom? -- but all the elements came together very well.
Batman Forever continued two-villain motif, as Tommy Lee Jones played Two-Face and Jim Carrey was the Riddler. Val Kilmer took on the roles of Batman/ Bruce Wayne, making him flat and uninteresting. Audiences also got to see Robin/Dick Grayson on the big screen; this Robin was also a young adult, played by Chris O'Donnell, making it.... odd that people talk about him like he's a helpless young orphan. Nicole Kidman had little to do as psychiatrist and love interest Chase Meridian; at least she didn't scream as much as Basinger.
If the first two movies had plot holes, Batman Forever had gaping chasms. There was also a return to near-camp silliness, from the painful dialogue to the almost neon color scheme for so much of the movie. A tendency to shift to slow motion in most action scenes didn't help, and Jones and Carrey seem to be competing to see who can ham it up the most. And yes, the body armor worn by Batman does feature visible nipples.
If you ask people what the worst superhero movies are, Batman and Robin will always be present and may be named the worst. While my personal vote for the worst is Pumaman (great on Mystery Science Theater 3000, wretched on its own), Batman and Robin would earn this dubious silver metal.
I should have known better. As a kid I never played with G.I. Joe toys, and as a slightly older kid I knew how silly their cartoon was. And yet, the combination of a good sale and seeing Sienna Miller in tight leather led me to G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. As I said, I should have known better.
The movie focuses on army buddies Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans), who wind up recruited into the super-mysterious -- but quick to recruit -- international military unit G.I. Joe. The other members have skills instead of personalities: Scarlett (Rachel Nichols), a logical redhead with a laser-guided crossbow; Snake Eyes (Ray Park), a silent masked martial artist; Heavy Duty (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a loud man with some big guns; and General Hawk (Dennis Quaid), the tough-as-nails leader.
As for the baddies, they're as one-dimensional as the heroes. Ana, a.k.a. the Baroness (Sienna Miller), is the hot-and-deady femme fatale. Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) is a martial artist obsessed with Snake Eyes. James McCullen (Christopher Eccleston, so good on the new Doctor Who, so much less here) is the arms creator playing the government and terrorists against each other. And the Doctor (Joshua Gordon-Levitt, another great actor phoning it in here) likes to torture and alter people for science.
The plot, such as it is, involves a superweapon called nanomites that can be programmed to destroy anything from a tank to a city: The bad guys want it (even though McCullen's M.A.R.S. company built it, so why not just build more?) and the Joes want to protect it or get it back. There are other items tossed in -- the former romance between Duke and the Baroness, the shared past of Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow, Ripcord hitting on Scarlett -- but the closest this movie comes to being clever is working in lines from the cartoon series. As with the toys, this is all about the tech.
If G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is anything, it's a running ad for cool toys. There are lots of machine guns, laser weapons, and pulse-beam devices. The Delta-6 Accelerator let the good guys run over cars, through trains, and dodge missiles. There are tanks, submarines, tunnelling vehicles, and just about every sort of CGI thing to distract from the lack of any real plot or character.
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is mindless fun -- minus the fun. This movie may hold some appeal to fans of the old toys and cartoons, provided those folks look back and never think about their flaws. For me, this movie was very stupid and fairly boring (except for Sienna Miller's outfit) and I'll gladly pass on the inevitable sequel.
Overall grade: D-
Reviewed by James Lynch
Hailing from Roosevelt, NY, Kyle "Ice" Jason is a singer with a purpose. Today's music is lacking both in substance and in style, and something needs to be done about it. Jason advocates a reconnection with the pioneers of jazz and soul, people who could make a good song without boasting of their possessions, and who could romance women in a smooth, classy sort of way. In short, he is calling for a Revolution of the Cool.
In some ways Jason reminds me of Andrew Roachford, an English singer/bandleader who also wears his soul influences on his sleeve. While Roachford has enjoyed a comfortable twenty-year career on the other side of the Atlantic, he's never found an audience here; his style was either too black for rock stations, or not contemporary enough for R&B stations. Jason appears to be in a similar boat, which is regrettable because Revolution of the Cool, released in 2005, is quite good. The primary difference between Jason and Roachford is that Roachford mixes some hard rock in with the soul and funk, while Jason leans towards jazz.
Assisting Jason in his task is a rock solid, and impeccably dressed, corps of backing musicians called the Soul Power Movement. (While the whole band smokes, I have to direct particular attention to bassist John Montalbano, a fellow native of Mineola, NY and alumnus of Corpus Christi Elementary School.) The album opens with "People People," a slow groove lamenting the state of music and of the world. "What difference does it make to me, the kind of car you drive? Still getting no respect from me, when all I hear about on your CD is your house (big and fancy), your car (big and fancy), your ice (big and fancy), and your women (half-naked); your guns (maybe kill you), your drugs (maybe thrill you), say what kind of world have we made for our children?" From there, the album varies in style and tempo quite a bit. Jason does a fine job channeling James Brown with songs like "Hipper Nipple" and "Hot Sauce." He and his band lay down some slick funk on "After Midnight" and "Why (Am I So Funky)"; on the latter song, Jason pays tribute to pretty much all of his influences. "Simone by Moonlight" is pure smooth jazz, while the instrumentals "Cat-O-Tonic" and "Round Peg in a Roomfullasquares" veer into edgier jazz and swing.
While I'm personally a bit partial to the more upbeat numbers, the performances on Revolution of the Cool are solid throughout. Kyle Jason is a very talent and mutli-dimensional artist with plenty to say and enough style to back what he says up. It's unfortunate that Jason seems to have fallen through the cracks, though. His official website was no longer up when I checked and, well, I'd have never even known about this album if I wasn't Facebook friends with one of the guys in the band. It just goes to show for all you music junkies out there; if you blink, you might miss something good.
Overall grade: A-
reviewed by Scott
Why is Kyle Jason so funky? Allow him to explain.
There are plenty of stories here about the dead trying to eat the living, be it a survivor wondering if he's the last living person on the planet ("Almost the Last Story by Almost the Last Man") or a porn magazine producer on an island with his undead models ("In Beauty, Like the Night.") These stories are usually good, with each author's personal take on the attacks (such as Stephen King's tale as much about Maine as about the undead), but it's the unexpected versions of zombies that are the most memorable here.
Some of the zombies are part of everyday life, from those used as cheap labor ("Meathouse Man") to ones that walk around people as a sign of guilt ("Followed"). In "Calcutta, Lord of Nerves" Poppy Z. Brite has the zombies as just another part of the Indian cities. "Dead Like Me" is a creepy look at how a human survivor can pretend to be a zombie, while the only zombies in "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead" are those acting in Night of the Living Dead. There are homages-parodies to-of Our Town ("How the Day Runs Down") and Less Than Zero ("Less Than Zombie"). And I'm still trying to figure out what to make of Neil Gaiman's "Bitter Herbs."
This variety makes The Living Dead a cut above the standard zombie fare. There are plenty of chases and killings here, but the original takes on these creatures elevate the stories from variations on a theme to unique creations. The Living Dead is a fascinating look at what authors can do from the seemingly simple starting point that is the zombie.
Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch
Nine, the movie based on the play Nine based on Fellini's movie 8 1/2, is supposed to be about inspiration, fame, and the art of making art. That's somewhat easy to miss with all the bumping and grinding.
Writer-director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) is an Italian legend, recognized by everyone and often called "Maestro." He's also a wreck: His last two movies were flops, he's set to start filming his ninth movie -- Italia -- in ten days despite not having written a word, and he has panic attacks and writer's block.
Then there are the women. Contini is surrounded by beautiful women, a temptation he often succumbs to. There's his long-suffering wife Luisa (Marillon Cotillard), his married mistress Carla (Penelope Cruz), and the beautiful fashion reporter Stephanie (Kate Hudson, taking a role from romantic comedies to sing and dance here). Flashbacks also show Contini's mother (Sophia Loren) and the prostitute Saraghina (Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas). The only non-model-beauty is costume designer Lilli (Judy Dench) -- and even she gets a cabaret number.
The musical numbers in Nine are woven into the action, usually as Contini reflects on his past or fantasized about his present. These musical numbers are almost all burlesque -- plenty of corsets, lingerie, and the aforementioned bumping and grinding -- but they're more arousing than rousing. The songs are entertaining at the time but forogtten soon after.
There's not much to the story either. Daniel Day-Lewis downplays Contini, showing us little of the talent that made him such a legend and repeats his wastrel ways over and over. Most of the actresses are there as singing and dancing eye candy; the notable exception is Cotillard, who brings depth and dignity to the wife who knows about her husband's lies and finds it harder and harder to ignore them.
Director Rob Marshall seems to settle for the glamour of women rather than reveal anything about the artist (or, for that matter, Italy). This makes Nine feel superficial, with some nice visuals but not a whole lot more.
Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch
Dave Barry is best known as a writer of humourous newspaper columns and collections of the same, as well as books of short bits of humour in the same vein. In 1999, he published his first novel, Big Trouble, which is in the "Bunch of South Florida Wackos genre," as he puts it in his acknowledgments. The result is a little uneven, but not unappealing.
The genre's master, as Barry says, is Carl Hiaasen, and Big Trouble reads almost like Hiaasen juvenalia. The plot concerns a Bunch of South Florida Wackos who, without really meaning to, finding themselves reeling from bad to worse as they get involved with arms dealers, corrupt corporations, hit men from Jersey, FBI agents with mysterious powers from Special Executive Order 768 dash 4, and a strangely heavy suitcase. The situations are zany, the characters comically inept and yet strangely frightening and the plot, such as it is, involves everyone except for the suitcase chasing the suitcase for one reason or another.
Pretty thin stuff, plotwise.
But the plot isn't the point. The point is Barry's writing and the oddly amusing characters. Here the novel works pretty well. It's not as funny as Barry's straight-ahead humour writing, which isn't surprising, but may come as a shock to anyone who reads it expecting straight-ahead humour writing. The characters are not particularly deep - they are South Florida Wackos after all - but are quirky and interesting. Barry keeps the pace up, an essential in this sort of thing, since if anyone slowed down to think the whole thing would fall apart. This combined with plenty of white space and a large font means that one can zip through the book in a couple of hours (I did).
All of which boils down to this: it's brain candy, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It's pretty light and distracting, also not always a bad thing. If Carl Hiaasen's books in this genre are the giant Chocolate Easter Bunnies with their heads bitten off of brain candy, Big Trouble is the marshmallow Peep that's been run through the microwave. And sometimes, that's exactly what you want.
Overall Grade: B-
The genre of New Nordic Folk music went through a wildly creative period in the nineties, with recordings by groups like Värttinä, Hedningarna, and Väsen ranking among the essential albums in any genre for the decade. While the musical traditions of the Scandinavia remained rich and vibrant in the decade just past, there have been very few really great albums in the genre since Värttinä's Ilmatar and Gjallarhorn's Sjofn came out in 2000. Happily, the recently reunited group Boot have added their names to the short list of elite Nordic bands with the release of their new album Soot.
In its original form, Boot consisted of Swedish fiddler Ola Bäckstrom, best known internationally for his work in the band Swåp, and Hedningarna's Hallbus Totte Mattson and Björn Tollin on lute and percussion. They recorded an album called Virvla in 1999, and performed live with a team of dancers. Bäckstrom and Mattson recently decided to revive Boot after a break of nearly ten years, with Tollin's place filled by Samuel Andersson. The versatile Andersson has a long history with Mattson, having backed up Hurdy-Gurdy for a live performance at the Nordic Roots Festival a few years back and recently joined Hedningarna as an extra fiddler. On Soot he mostly plays percussion, but he proves to be the spark plug that ignites most of the tracks on this CD.
The tunes on Soot, mostly composed by either Bäckstrom or Andersson, by themselves fit rather neatly within the confines of Swedish traditional fiddling. Boot's arrangements take the tunes out of the tradition and into a very different place entirely, however. Like Hedningarna, Boot incorporate elements of both Medieval and modern music, with an emphasis on primal energy. The difference is that most of Hedningarna's best music relies heavily on electronics, while Boot's sound is almost completely acoustic. Of the three musicians, Bäckstrom has the easiest job as the primary player of the melodies. Mattson plays a more subtle yet no less vital role, using his lute to strum chords, pluck a rhythmic bass line, provide some very Baroque-sounding countermelodies, and occasionally take the lead role as well. Andersson controls the energy level, hitting on a vast assortment of drums from all parts of the world. At times he provides a simple, steady beat, and at times he sounds like an onrushing one-man army.
There are plenty of highlights on Soot to choose from. The opening tune "Itku/Balkan" combines a traditional march with a Bäckstrom composition that combines a gypsy melodic structure with a rhythm that could pass for a slip jig as easily as a polska. Andersson's "Godrun" has an irresistible groove, despite a meter that constantly shifts. The percussion on Bäckstrom's "Murven" gives the polska the flavor of an intense belly dance rapidly reaching crescendo. Andersson does something truly unique on the traditional polska "Lillasystern" when he plays the melody on his drum the second time through. The rat-a-tat-tat drumming on Bäckstrom's "Rödhåringen" turns a simple schottish into a rock-and-roll tune.
It's been a while -- nearly a decade, in fact -- since I've heard a Nordic album as good as Soot. It succeeds in maintaining its roots in the tradition while reaching explosive levels of energy. I really, really hope Boot do not go another ten years before making another disc.
Overall grade: A
reviewed by Scott
Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright 2010 The Green Man Review
As the violist for Väsen for nearly twenty years, Mikael Marin needs no introduction among followers of Swedish traditional music. Marin's wife Mia Gustafsson is not nearly as well known, but she has fiddled with the group [ni:d] who have one album out and are working on a second. Their first album together is titled Mot Hagsätra, in reference to a Stockholm subway line. Marin's viola and Gustaffson's fiddle are the only instruments on this recording. A handful of the tunes are traditional, and the tune "Cajunvals" was composed by Antti Järvelä of Frigg, but most of the pieces were composed by one of the two performers.
Predictably, Mot Hagsätra's biggest strength is the playing. Gustafsson is a fine fiddler who more than holds her own playing next to her husband and handling a wide variety of melodies. Marin, as he does in Väsen, supplies creative harmonies and countermelodies. There is no driving guitar or percussion on this album, so the listener can focus fully on the interplay between the two stringed instruments.
The album contains a typical assortment of polskas, along with a few waltzes and one schottisch and reel apiece. In contrast to what you might expect from a Väsen recording, the arrangements are quite easy on prospective dancers. Waltzes appear to be the duo's strongest suit. The opening tune "Hjärtklappen" sets the tone for the CD perfectly, and their joyous version of "Cajunvals" is my favorite track on the CD. The Swedish reel "Kung Harts," composed by Gustafsson for Marin's birthday and performed with the usual melody/harmony roles reversed, is another particularly strong track.
If Mot Hagsätra has a weakness, it's its length; eighteen tunes running nearly an hour is a bit much, especially when most of the best performances are placed in the first half of the album. Still, Mikael Marin and Mia Gustafsson give solid performances throughout, and the album on the whole is at least as good as the most recent Väsen CD Väsen Street. Fans of Väsen who are in the mood for something with a more purely traditional feel will like this recording a lot.
Overall grade: B+
reviewed by Scott
A cute animated video set to "Cajunvals"
Ryanhood are an acoustic power-pop duo based in Tuscon, Arizona, consisting of Ryan Green and Cameron Hood. Both sing and play acoustic guitar, although Hood does most of the lead vocals and Green does the lead runs on guitar. Their newest CD The World Awaits features pleasant two-part harmonies and a lot of readily accessible mid-tempo melodies.
Ryanhood strike me as the kind of band whose audience would likely be mostly female, but I hope that doesn't sound too dismissive from a guy's perspective. Hood and Green have devised a formula that should have very broad crossover appeal, combining dueling energetic acoustic guitars with good vocals and a steady bass-and-drum backing. Fans of country, folk, and rock should like The World Awaits equally well. Ryanhood have a better sense of melody and harmony than many more popular acts, and presumably good singing and good tunes are still the best way to open doors in the music world. Indeed, the album is very radio-friendly from start to finish, and I'm kind of surprised that their following is still presently confined mostly to Arizona. "Stopless" is the primary single off the album, although I'm partial to the more groove-oriented "Nothing but the Real Thing." They also do a really good instrumental called "Appy Jam," in which Green shows off his considerable chops.
The World Awaits isn't necessarily groundbreaking, but it's a likable collection of well-sung and well-played pop songs that should go over well with a much broader audience than Ryanhood currently have. If these guys can catch a lucky break, the world may very well await them.
Overall grade: B+
reviewed by Scott
A live performance of "Nothing but the Real Thing"
They key to Tikal is resource management. Every turn a player draws a tile -- an empty jungle, a temple, with treasures, or a volcano -- and places it on the board. The player then has 10 action points to use in a variety of ways: move from one tile to another (costing a number of points equal to the stones between tiles), excavate a temple (increasing its point value), bring more explorers onto the board, collecting a treasure, force a treasure trade with another player, create a new base camp, etc.. Now matter how carefully you plan there never seem to be enough action points in a turn, so players must decide what to do -- and what they can't do -- each turn.
Scoring happens when a volcano tile is uncovered or the last tile is placed. Each player gets a turn, scoring at the end of the turn. Players get points for a temple if they have more explorers there than anyone else. They also get points for treasures: one point for a single treasure, three points for a set of two identical treasures, and six points for a set of three identical treasures. If a volcano tile started the scoring round, it gets placed after everyone has a chance to score.
Tikal is a nice looking game . The board is a verdant green, evoking the jungles the players are exploring. Small wooden pieces are used for the explorers and camps, and as temples are excavated point tiles are places on top of them, making the valuable temples rise high on the board.
Tikal is quite an intriguing board game. While there's plenty of competition for temples and treasures, players can't directly attack or interfere with their opponents. (It's possible to place a tile making it harder to get to, but since all tiles much be accessible a player can't be completely cut off.) The limits on both what players can do (players need two explorers present to excavate two temple levels or collect two treasures) and what they have (only two base camps, twice per game sacrificing all pieces where they have a majority at a temple to permanently score that temple for the rest of the game) make every turn an important one. Even scoring is interesting, as a player often has a majority on their scoring turn but know another player can take the majority when they score. While Tikal isn't fast paced -- lots of planning goes into each player's turn -- it is thoughtful and quite challenging.
Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch