12.29.2011

THE DARKEST HOUR

A change in locale is no substitute for an original plot, creative creatures, or exciting action. This lesson was lost on the makers of The Darkest Hour, an alien invasion/monster attack movie that feels like a SyFy Channel movie with a bigger budget.




The characters in The Darkest Hour are as paper-thin as they come, but here's the background. Young adult buddies and business partners Sean (Emile Hirsch) and Ben (Max Minghella) are in Moscow to promote their website -- which is ripped off by their former partner Skyler (Joel Kinnaman). The guys then meet up with American tourist Natalie (Olivia Thirlby) and her Australian friend Anne (Rachel Taylor) at a bar --where they also bump into Skyler. And that's when the aliens attack!


Starting at floating lights drifting down from the skies, the creatures quickly drift in and out of invisibility, attacking people and turning them instantly into dust. The five main characters survive for a few days in a food locker, then emerge to find Moscow extremely empty. They set out to find more survivors, and hoping to find out how to defeat the creatures. They learn more about the aliens: They are more visible at night than the daytime, conventional weapons slow them down but don't kill them, they can't see people through glass, and when the creatures approach they activate and nearby electrical devices. They also run into other characters (including a spunky young girl and an eccentric scientist), find weaknesses in the aliens, and get killed off one by one.

The only original part of The Darkest Hour is that there's no pattern of predictability to who survives and who gets killed. Otherwise, it's extraorginarily familiar. The aliens kill people instantly -- unless it's more dramatic (and in this movie, that means slow motion) for a creature to grab and drag a character for a few seconds. The whole "the streets and buildings are deserted" has been done more than enough times for it to be less than scary. None of the characters develop any real personality, and when we finally see the aliens they look lik estandard CGI creatures. It also bugged me that the characters learned early that the monsters can't see through glass, yet they don't bother to bring any glass with them through the most alien-infested areas. The Darkest Hour may have aliens based on electricity, but that alone doesn't keep it from being very dull.

Overall grade: D-
Reviewed by James Lynch

12.28.2011

Tinariwen, Tassili (Anti-, 2011)


The African nation of Mali has produced an abundance of quality performers in recent years, most of whom come from the country's green, southern portion. A small part of the population, though, eke out a living in the quite inhospitable northern half of the country that is part of the vast Sahara desert.  These desert people are called the Tuareg, and they have often found themselves at odds with the governments of the countries across whose borders their region spans. The musical group Tinariwen was founded over thirty years ago in a camp of displaced Tuareg rebels on the Libyan side of the border.  Band leader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib and his bandmates eventually returned to Mali, making tapes of their music for anybody who wanted one. Slowly and steadily they built up a following, and for the last decade they have been recording internationally. On their most recent album Tassili, they sing songs of love and survival in environments that are welcoming in neither the physical nor the political sense.

While the music on Tassili does share some common ground with the modern folk music of the rest of Mali, particularly in the guitar rhythms, there are some Arabic influences as well, along with an awareness of popular music from the United States.  The musical arrangements are simple and straightforward. The vocals are generally call-and-response, with very little harmony, and the instrumentation consists of a number of guitars with some light percussion.  The end result is something of a mixed bag.  One one hand, Ag Alhabib lacks the voice and charisma of his southern compatriots.  The guitar playing, while good in a laid back sort of way, doesn't demand the listener's attention the way that the playing of Habib Koité or Amadou Bagayoko or Vieux Farka Touré does.  Having said that, Tinariwen do get some good grooves going, and the song "Tenere Taquim Tossam" (featuring some vocals in English from members of TV on the Radio) is a super blend of African rhythm with American blues and soul.

Despite the cultural differences and their very unusual history, Tinariwen are a vital contributor to the increasingly popular music coming from Mali. Tassili has its ups and downs, but Tinariwen ultimately succeed in putting the desert region of their homeland on the musical map.  Fans of African music will want to check them out, as will people looking for some guitar music of a different sort.

Overall grade: B-


reviewed by Scott

"Tenere Taquim Tossam"

Randall Garrett, TAKEOFF!

There's plenty of silliness in the world of science fiction that makes it a ripe target for parody. Randall Garrett took a more subtle -- but quite humorous -- approach to his beloved genre in Takeoff! This collection of stories, and a few poems, lovingly mimics and spoofs some of the sci-fi classics.

The stories here range from the subtle to the extreme. His "The Horror out of Time" adopts the style of H.P. Lovecraft, never really going for comedy until the final, dramatic, italicized reveal. The same is true of the Asimov-inspired "No Connection" and the Western-based "Mustang."

On the flip side, I may not have read E.E. Smith's Lensman books, but I didn't need to in order to appreciate Garrett's "Backsgtage Lensman," with its over-the-top intergalactic Boy Scout, extra-dimensional villains, and casual violence. Likewise, the difficulties of transporting mutant ducks in "Look Out! Duck!" become very goofy very fast -- and not just because two of the main character are named Rouen Drake and Donald MacDonald. There are also aliens who flip back and forth between British nobility and the American beat generation ("The Cosmic Beat"), a different take on history ("Despoilers of the Golden Empire"), and poems that summarize everything from Who Goes There? to The Caves of Steel with rhyming verse.

Takeoff! is, first and last, fun. Garrett shows great affection for his source material (often in the forewords to the tales) while simultaneously delighting in spoofing it. A few of the entries are a litle dated, and I didn't care for the shameless punning of "Through Time and Space with Benedict Breadfruit." Still, Takeoff! is a lighthearted, enjoyable take on some of the classics of science fiction.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

12.22.2011

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011 movie)

Stieg Larsson's novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a brilliant, brutal, and popular mystery. It makes sense that the American film adaption would be directed by David Fincher, whose work includes Seven, Fight Club and The Social Network. This film of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo loses none of the tough hits of the original book -- though some of the changes lessen the final impact.

The film follows the format of the book closely. In Sweden, financial reporter and publisher Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) has just been convicted of libel against businessman Wennerstrom (Ulf Friberg), resulting in his reputation and finances being ruined. At the same time, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is an asocial, possibly insane punk -- who's a brilliant researcher and hacker -- who prepared a background check on Mikael. This leads both of them to the Vanger family.

Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) is the elderly patriarch of the declining, but still powerful, Vanger industrial organization; he hates most of his family, yet lives with most of them on their private island. Forty years ago, during the Vanger family board and family meeting, an accident completely blocked the bridge that is the only way onto and from the island. At about the same time, Henrik's beloved niece Harriet (Moa Garpendal) vanished. No body was found, nor was any sign she was still alive. Henrik was obsessed with her disappearance, and he is convinced someone in his family killed her during the accident and snuck her body away. In addition, someone has sent Henrik a pressed flower in glass every year on his birthday -- something Harriet did before she disappeared. So Henrik hires Mikael to live on the island, ostensibly writing the history of the Vanger family but actually investigating what happened to Harriet. If Mikael can solve the case, he'll get twice as much money as if he doesn't; he'll also get the evidence proving Wennerstrom is corrupt.

Meanwhile, Lisbeth has do deal with a truly disgusting lawyer who controls her money, as well as her personal demons. She eventually gets drawn into the Harriet case, as a research assistant for Mikael. They find the Vanger family is truly corrupt -- from the greedy to a former Nazi -- and the case goes well beyond what happened to Harriet.


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a solid adaption of a mystery that began forty years ago and has a firm impoct on the present. Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara are both very good as the leads, two very different types of people who actually mesh well together, both personally and professionally. Fincher does a good job creating an atmosphere of degeneracy, whether in Lisbeth's life in the city or in the isolated Vanger homes. While the movie is pretty faithful to the novel, some of the changes weaken the story somewhat (like an image in the window in Harriet's room on the day she vanished; that is forgotten about quickly), and the final revelation is blunted by an unnecessary foreshadow. There's also an unfomfortable juxtaposition of erotic nudity in the latter part of the movie with some brutal sexuality in the former part. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is flawed, but it is also intense and entertaining.


Overall grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch


THE GUILD season 5 dvd

What happens when a comedy series that began on the Internet becomes incredibly popular? For The Guild season 5, the MMORPG denizens go beyond their computers and local town to a gaming convention -- jamp-packed with celebrities! Fortunately, the series manages to stay true to its nerdy roots.
The Guild season 5 has the Knights of Good travelling together to MegaGame-O-RamaCon, a convention that has everything from the creator of their medieval fantasy computer game ("The Game") to celebrities from old and current sci-fi shows, to immensely geeky panels. However, the Knights of Good have their own issues at the convention. Codex (Felicia Day) has to deal with her possible romantic feelings for fellow Guild member Zaboo (Sandeep Parikh) -- and the possibility that The Game may be changing or ending. Zaboo, meanwhile, becomes the leader of the Seat Savers, a massive Twitter-based group holding seats for everyone; Zaboo is always flanked by a pair of Master Chiefs -- and avoiding all possible sleep. Vork (Jeff Lewis) is out to make money and hate celebrities -- until he meets Madeline Twain (Erin Gray), the star of his favorite canceled sci-fi show. Bladezz (Vincent Caso) wants to play up his celebrity as star of a horrible Internet commercial -- but he can't get the group's hotel room comped. Clara (Robin Thorsen) has become enamored with steampunk -- but the pretentious, er, steampunks want nothing to do with her. And Tinkerballa (Amy Okuda) seems to be wearing a new costume every few hours -- and runs into the last people she wants to see.


There are also tons of celebrities, whether having fun with their own images (Nathan Fillion as a surly celeb, Neil Gaiman desperate to score seats) or just showing up to deliver a few lines (Grant Imahara, Summer Glau). There are plenty of costumed folks from every genre, ridiculous panels, and a furry that may or may not be stalking Codex. Having attended plenty of science fiction and gaming conventions, I can say that this created convention is pretty amusing and extremely accurate.


The strength of The Guild is that we love the main characters despite their flaws -- or perhaps because of them -- and season 5 doesn't lose sight of this trait. Codex remains the neurotic glue trying to hold these people ("friends" may be a little strong) together while facing the possible end of the game that seems to define her life; the rest of the cast is terrific, as always, as they deal with their own issues while remaining blind to their selfishness. And even with six storylines happening almost simultaneously, the stories manage to be clear -- and damn funny too!

The dvd (for those not content with watching the series online) includes the cast member's favorite moments, how they created MegaGame-O-RamaCon on "a web series' budget," a gag reel, a table read, and how one extra managed to become twins. These extras aren't vital, but they're a mildly interesting peek behind the curtain.


The Guild season 5 is proof that success and money don't automatically corrupt something good (in this case, the Knights of Good). They may have left their hometown to rub elbows with celebrities, but it's still fun hanging out with Codex and her dysfunctional Guild.


Overall grade: A-

Reviewed by James Lynch

12.19.2011

Ljova, Lost in Kino (Kapustnik Records, 2011)


As an in-demand classical violist, member of the New York gypsy band Romashka, and leader of his own group the Kontraband, Lev "Ljova" Zhurbin keeps himself busy.  Perhaps the most interesting facet of his work, though, is his scoring of the soundtracks to numerous films, from low-budget art house movies to more ambitious projects directed by people like Francis Ford Coppola.  On Lost in Kino, his third album, Ljova performs (with some help) two dozen of his original soundtrack compositions.

Lost in Kino
is broken into two halves.  The lighter first half primarily reflects the Eastern European side of Ljova's musical background with contributions from his bandmates in Romashka, but is bookended by two bluegrass-flavored pieces featuring Mike Savino on banjo.  Because the pieces were composed for particular movie scenes, a lot of them clock in at less than a minute and end rather abruptly.  Even the longest track on the first part, "War Then Peace," is a composite of several different musical themes.  Taken together, though, the fragments connect like a gypsy Abbey Road.  The compositions may have originally been designed to reflect different moments in different movies, but collectively they present a quick sampling of the many diverse styles of Balkan and gypsy music. Romashka's performances are never less than first rate, and this portion of the disc makes for some fun listening.

The second half of the disc consists of generally lengthier pieces more serious in tone.  The music in this section is mostly classical in feel, although some of the tunes maintain the Eastern European influence and two are even Oriental in flavor.  The longer compositions can be considered on their own terms, and not just in the context of this album the movie they were made for. Of these, the highlight is a beautifully arranged extended instrumental called "The Coup."  Another very strong track is "Russian Winterland, "a very pretty waltz featuring Inna Barmash (Romashka's singer and Ljova's wife) singing the melody line the second time through.

Ljova's compositions range from very quirky and tongue-in-cheek to very meticulous and deliberate, with a lot of stops in between. One way or the other, his work is always intriguing and worth a listen. Lost in Kino manages to cover a lot of musical ground in a relatively short amount of time, but broad diversity and quality compositions make for an effective combination.

Overall grade: A-


reviewed by Scott


"The Coup"

12.16.2011

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO by Stieg Larsson

How do you solve a murder that happened 36 years ago -- if it happened at all? What distinguishes retribution from revenge -- or is there a difference? And just how dysfunctional can one family be? These are the ingredients of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the insanely popular mystery novel from late authir Stieg Larsson.


At the book's opening in December 2002, things are very rough for Swedish financial reporter and magazine publisher Mikael Blomkvist. His story about corrubt businessman Wennerstrom backfired, leading Blomkvist to be convicted of libel and costing him his reputation, his money, possibly his magazine's future, and three months in jail. Things turn around -- for better or worse -- with an offer from Henrik Vanger, the 84-year-old patriarch of the Vanger family, a once-powerful and still-important group of industrialists.


Henrik hates most of his family, which ranges from the selfish to the misanthropic to a supporter of the Nazis. During a family gathering in 1966 on the Vanger's home on an island, a truck accident blocked the bridge that was the only connection between the island and the mainland. At about the same time Harriet Vanger -- Henrik's 16-year-old niece, and one of the few family members he liked -- vanished. No body was found, and no sign of her appeared afterwards. Henrik believes someone, probably a family member, used the accident as an opportunity to kill Harriet and smuggle her body out in a car before the search was fully underway. Henrik also believes Harriet's killer is the one who has sent him a rare flower in glass every year on Henrik's birthday -- something Harriet did until she disappeared.


Blomkvist's job is to spend a year among the Vanger family on their island, ostensibly to write their history but really to find out what happened to Harriet. Blomkvist will be well paid if he finds nothing, but twice as much if he solves the mystery. In addition, Henrik has promised that if Blomkvist figures out what happened, he'll give Blomkvist proof of Wennerstrom's corruption.


Then there's Lisbeth Salander. The title character, Lisbeth looks like a typical punk -- tattoos, piercings -- who seems almost psychotically asocial. She's also a brilliant researcher, a talented hacker, and -- despite her slight build -- devastating when dealing out vengeance against those who wrong her (which happens, graphically and brutally, here). She starts out investigating Blomkvist and winds up helping him investigatge the disappearance of Harriet Vanger.


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is, as several characters mention, a mystery of the "locked room" variety: What happened in the seemingly inaccessible location? As a mystery, this is extremely well written. We go along with the Blomkvist as he goes from seeing his assignment as an old man's obsession to a possibly real crime, to something far more sinister and going beyond Harriet. The main characters are both admirable and flawed: Blomkvist may be noble, but he's also a notorious womanizer (including with one of the suspects in the Vanger family); Lisbeth has a history of horrors, which may be why she has trouble relating to the world -- and responding with calculated ferocity. The Vanger family proves to be a truly twisted intertwining family unit, and there are amazingly disgusting -- and suspenseful -- scenes on the way to unravelling the mystery of Harriet's disappearance.


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo veers at times into very brutal territory (though doubtless inspired by the statistics about how many women suffer abuse in Sweden), but it's a tense, surprising, and extremely involving mystery. Larsson has two other books with these protagonists -- The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest -- and I look forward to reading these as well.


Overal grade: A-

Reviewed by James Lynch

Lindsay Lohan Does PLAYBOY

The book Ebert's Bigger Little Book Glossary includes this entry: "Centerfold Folly. With the exception of Marilyn Monroe, no actress who has appeared nude in Playboy to advance her acting career has ever actually advanced her acting career." But does this apply to an actress hoping to re-start her career? And what if she channels Marilyn Monroe while appearing nude in Playboy? Time will tell if this works for Lindsay Lohan, the cover model and main attraction for this year's Holiday issue of Playboy.

The photo spread has Lohan doing a shot-by-shot re-creation of the Marilyn Monroe photo spread from the 1949 issue. As such, Lohan is adorned with Monroe's hair (in color in style), wears nothing but red lipstick, and poses just shy of showing everything (though I must tragically show even less for this entry) against an all-red backdrop. There's also a brief bio of Lohan, from her successes to current probation; a bit of hope contradicting the "Centerfold Folly," cited above, as the writer notes that Drew Barrymore posed for Playboy in 1995 "and by 1998 she was back on top... a star again, for all the right reasons"; and a few comments from Lohan, who quotes Marilyn Monroe, observes that "because you only live once you have to learn from your mistakes" (an odd comment from someone who's repeatedly violated her probation) and "I have no idea why there is this fascination with everything I do." (An odd comment from the nekkid cover model of Playboy.)


So Lindsay Lohan has joined the long roster of celebrities baring it all for Playboy (and voiding her statement in 2004: " I'm not doing Playboy, no. Never.") Will this wind up as the latest mistake from someone whose life of excess led her to addiction and prison? Will the publicity (the issue was released early after the photos were leaked online) and reported million dollar payout for the photos lead to new career opportunities for the actress? And how will this affect Playboy, which has fallen on such tough times that Hefner is considering selling his magazine? Time will tell; but as Lohan's successes and failures all happened before she bared it all, it will be her actions and not this pictorial that resurrects her career -- or ends it.



Written by James Lynch.

The Derek Trucks Band, Already Free (Sony, 2009)


Guitarist Derek Trucks has built a strong reputation over the past decade and a half both as a member of The Allman Brothers Band (his uncle, drummer Butch Trucks, is one of the remaining original members) and as the leader of his own band.  Already Free, the 2009 release of The Derek Trucks Band, showcases his mastery of the slide guitar and boasts a number of good songs.

While Trucks is the bandleader, dominant instrumentalist, and most prolific songwriter, he doesn't actually do any of the singing.  That role is filled mostly by Mike Mattison, but the album also features guest vocals from Susan Tedeschi (Trucks' wife) and Doyle Bramhall II (a blues guitarist best known for touring with Eric Clapton). Most of the best songs come early in the album, particularly with the one-two opening salvo of "Down in the Flood" and "Something to Make You Happy."  The first song, a Bob Dylan cover, gets a down-and-dirty blues treatment that comes across like a breath of fresh air. Trucks and his band do a fine job bringing an Al Green-style arrangement to the second song, originally by the late, underrated blues rocker Paul Pena.  Another solid song is "Sweet Inspiration," a love song with the feel of a rousing gospel number.  The band mix styles throughout, but whether they do blues, soul, or straightforward rock, Trucks' slide guitar dominates the musical arrangements. This is certainly not a bad thing, as Trucks is a first-rate guitarist who gets a remarkable clarity of tone. Much like Clapton or Stevie Ray Vaughn, Trucks knows what his selling point is and he milks it for all it's worth.

Already Free is the kind of album that fans of guitar rock will eat up.  Derek Trucks is a strong player with a rock solid band, and there are more than enough good songs here to justify the purchase.  Trucks and Susan Tedeschi have recently pooled their musical resources together, and the Tedeschi Trucks Band's first release Revelator is definitely on my to-get list.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott


"Down in the Flood"

12.15.2011

Rodrigo y Gabriela, Live in France (ATO Records, 2011)


The Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela have had a busy couple of years, between the release of their album 11:11 in 2009, their contribution to the soundtrack of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, and the run of shows that culminated in the recording of their newest album, Live in France. The live album has a considerable amount of overlap with 11:11, but the context of a concert setting (single takes, no overdubs or margin for error) makes the instrumental virtuosity and chemistry of Rodrigo Sánchez and Gabriela Quintero that much more impressive.

Like 11:11, Live in France opens with the blistering track Hanuman.  This tune (an instrumental, like all their tracks) is the perfect showcase of Rodrigo's flamenco-inspired lead runs back by Gabriela's wonderfully and uniquely percussive rhythm guitar.  The performances throughout are superb, but people who have 11:11 won't find a whole lot unfamiliar here.  Of the eleven tracks, eight come from 11:11.  The exceptions are solo performances from the two musicians and the closing song "Tamacun" from their self-titled album released in 2006.  Rodrigo's solo performance is noteworthy for the smattering of familiar heavy metal riffs he inserts into it, and "Tamacun" benefits from the audience festively singing along with the melody. Otherwise, the tracks don't really add to what is otherwise already on 11:11.

Of course, 11:11 is an excellent album, and there's certainly nothing wrong with the performance of the same material on Live in France. Ultimately, what you do get from the live album is a deeper appreciation that all of the amazing playing is quite real.  Rodrigo y Gabriela genuinely are as good as they sound, and that makes for fun listening.  And hearing the audience get into it, seemingly responding to every note, is an added bonus.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

A live performance of "Tamacun"

12.14.2011

Rufus Wainwright, Want One (Dreamworks, 2003)


As the son of Loudon Wainwright III and the late Kate McGarrigle and the brother of Martha Wainwright, Rufus Wainwright certainly has pedigree. He makes a point of following the beat of his own drum, though, eschewing the more straightforward folk of his parents in favor of an alternation between lush, often operatic rock arrangements and distinctively eccentric pop. His third album Want One, which came out in 2003, reflects many sides of a complicated musical personality.

Wainwright sets the tone for the album quickly with his opening song "Oh What a World," in which he sings about straight men reading fashion magazines to a musical arrangement inspired partly by Maurice Ravel and partly by Tom Waits. He plays around with different singing approaches throughout the album, from very elaborate falsetto harmonies on songs like "Go or Go Ahead" to jazz era crooning on "Harvester of Hearts." He also makes references in his lyrics that require a program to keep up with, with allusions to Britney Spears, Pinocchio, Judy Garland movies, and the TV shows Three's Company and Third Rock from the Sun. When not making observations of the world from his endearingly peculiar perspective, Wainwright often spouts off stream-of-conscious lyrics; on the song "Movies of Myself," in which Wainwright sings about "looking for a reason, a person, a painting, a Saturday Evening Post edition by Jesus, an old piece of bacon never eaten by Elvis."

Rufus Wainwright may be something of an acquired taste, but you have to respect any artist who goes wherever his muse leads him and dares his audience to follow along. Despite being a bit challenging at points, Want One is sufficiently eclectic that there's probably something on it to please anybody. I was most partial to the upbeat "Beautiful Child," but it's the kind of album where you could ask fourteen people to name their favorite song and get fourteen different answers.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott


"I Don't Know What It Is" performed on Letterman

12.09.2011

BUGF#CK by Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison has been writing, lecturing, arguing, pleading, persuading, winning awards, gaining fans, making enemies, and entertaining people for years. As one might expect, the man is very quotable. And a small sampling (in both pages and dimensions) of his words is presented in bugf#ck: The Useless Wit and Wisdom of Harlan Ellison.

After a brief biography of Ellison, bugf#ck goes right into quoting the man, from his interviews, his stories, his novels, and his lectures. This is quite a diverse collection of quotation. You'll hear Ellison discuss writing, handle hecklers, crack jokes, attack enemies, and deal with rights, religion (of lack thereof), and much more. Almost every quotation is followed by its source (yes, I know they're all from Ellison: I meant the year and place they first appeared) and there are a few anecdotes tossed in for good measure.

My only problem with bugf#ck is the size. The book is a little over 120 pages, and Ellison's decades of work, writing, and speaking could fill a far larger book. In addition, this book is literally pocket-sized, like one of those inspirational collections at the front of bookstores. That makes it easy to bring with you -- but also amazingly easy to misplace or lose. Other than that, bugf#ck is a great collection (hopefully the first of many) of the words of the great Harlan Ellison.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch


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BLOOD BOWL: TEAM MANAGER

Years ago, gamers who felt left out of the world of sports got to experience them through Blood Bowl, a customizable miniatures game that brought mythical creatures into the a football-type sporting competition. Fantasy Flight Games returns to this world, in a non-customizable card version, with Blood Bowl: Team Manager. This latest version does a fine job simulating a season of teams facing off against each other.


In Blood Bowl: Team Manager, each manager controls a team of players through a series of games, competing to have the most fans at the end of the game. Dwarves and Chaos specialize in tackling, Elves and Skraven are fast ball carriers, and Humans and Orcs are balanced between the two. During the five turns, the players will send their players to compete in match-ups for different rewards.

There are six turns (four for a two-player game). On each turn, a row of cards are revealed: a Spike! Magazine card (a tournament or headline) and a number of highlights (games). Headlines affect gameplay, with effects like drawing more cards, adding cheating tokens, or limiting the number of players at each highlight. Highlights have rewards (on either side) for the competitors, with one main reward for the winner. Only two managers can compete in a highlight, but any number can battle for a tournament. Rewards include fans, team upgrades (helping players in the highlights), staff upgrades (either helping with highlights or giving fans at the end of the game), and star players (much more powerful than the starting lineup). If multiple symbols appear for a win, the playe rdraws that many cards, picks one, and discards the rest. Each player draws six players, assigning them one at a time to highlights and possibly tournaments.


All players have a Star Power (two, actually: one for normal play, one if downed by a tackle) and other skills. The basic skills are used when a character is played, though some are reactional (like Guard, which lets the character take a tackle instead of the target.) Cheating gives a random token that can add to the Star Power, give fans, or get the player ejected. Passing moves the ball (worth two Star Power) from the other team to the midfield, or from midfield to that character. Sprinting lets a player draw a card, add it to his hand of players, then discard one. And it wouldn't be football without tackling! Blood Bowl: Team Manager has special six-sided dice with three tackle symbols, two blank sides, and one fumble. If a tackler attacks an opponent with a lower Star Power, the attacker rolls two dice and decides which result to use. If tackler and oponent have the same Star Power, one die is rolled. If the target has a higher Star Power, both dice are rolled -- but the target decides which die to use! If the tackle succeeds, a standing target is downed: They are tiled sideways, lose their abilities, and their Star Power is almost always lowered. If a downed character is tackled, they are discarded from the match. And if the result is a fumble, the attacker is downed.

After all the players have been assigned, it's time for the Scoreboard Phase. For each highlight and tournament, the sides add up their remaining Star Power. The higher Star Power wins the main payout; if it's a tie, whatever side has the ball wins; and each side collects their payout for participating. The players are then sent to the discard pile, six new players are drawn , new highlights and Spike! Magazine cards are drawn, and it's the next turn.

Blood Bowl: Team Manager is pretty good at simulating the world of football -- albeit a world with orcs, elves, cheating, and violence. Each of the teams have their own strengths and weaknesses, so no one format will dominate every game. There's a lot of luck, whether it's hoping a cheating token will benefit a player instead of booting them from a match, or needing that big tackle to win the round. The artwork is appropriately brutal without getting too bloody, and flavor text from commentators Bob and Jim provides some solid humor to this competition. Choosing which rewards to go for is as important as winning matches; and Team Upgrades have a way of really adding up at the end of a game.


It's a stereotype that gamers at bad at sports -- a stereotype that often has a basis in reality. Blood Bowl: Team Manager won't replace actual exercise, but it is a very fun, pretty strategic battle in a fantasy world of sports.



Overall grade: B+


Reviewed by James Lynch

12.03.2011

TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL dvd

What if there was a horror movie where the evil weirdos were nice, and the respectable people were evil? This is the premise and running joke of Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, a cute gore-filled comedy.
It's Memorial Day weekend, a bunch of college kids -- frat boys and hot babes -- are heading to the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia for the weekend. They're excited by the usual activities -- weed and beer, skinny dipping -- but creeped out by two strange, dirty hillbillies they meet at a store on the way up. Chad (Jesse Moss) doesn't help by telling his fellow teens that it's the 20th anniversary of the Memorial Day Massacre, where some hillbillies slaughtered a bunch of people in this very location!



In this case, though, the hillbillies are quite nice. Tucker (Alan Tudyk) just bought his vacation home -- a rundown cabin that could easily be in the Evil Dead or Friday the 13th movies -- and looks forward to a weekend of fixing it up, along with fishing and drinking beer. Dale (Tyler Labine) is a sweet guy with a crush on the college girl Alison (Katrina Bowden), but he gets tongue-tied around women. When the accident-prone Alison slips and falls in the water, she's rescued by Tucker and Dale, who take her to their cabin to recover. And that's where the misunderstandings begin.



The college kids all think Alison was kidnapped by Tucker and Dale, and everything they see or hear reinforces that belief (as when Alison helps the hillbillies dig an outhouse, and the kids think she's being forced to dig her own grave). Worse, every time the kids try to rescue her, they wind up accidentally killing themselves (including the best woodchipper scene since Fargo) -- but in ways that make the remaining kids think Tucker and Dale are homicidal maniacs. (The dvd extra "Tucker and Dale ARE Evil" edits the movie, showing what happens from the college kids' point of view.) Chad seems especially intent on a survival-in-the-wild battle. For their part, Tucker and Dale think the kids are on a group suicide pact, and Dale is afraid they're trying to kill Alison. Hijinks, spattered blood, and a growing body count ensue.






While Tucker and Dale vs. Evil inverts the usual horror movie characters, it's fundamentally a one-joke movie: a misunderstanding that leads to mayhem and accidental horror. (Though the movie continues even after Dale and the surviving kids sit down to talk things out.) Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk manage the dual task of looking like backwoods killers while acting like nice, decent folks out for their own vacation. The rest of the cast is pretty one-dimensional, whether it's Katrina Bowden as the only college kid willing to stop and listen to the title characters, or Jesse Moss as the increasingly violent and intent survivor. The rest of the supporting cast blend together, with the biggest "personality trait" being the girl who runs slower than everyone else due to her high heels.



Tucker and Dale vs. Evil is light, superficial, and twisted fun. This movie doesn't deconstruct the horror cliches, but it does have fun with misunderstanding after bloody misunderstanding. The one-joke premise does wear thin after a while, but this is still entertaining -- in a very gory, light-hearted way.

Overall grade: B-


Reviewed by James Lynch

BRITNEY SPEARS LIVE: THE FEMME FATALE TOUR DVD

Britney Spears has always thrived on spectacle as much as sound (if not moreso), so it's no surprise that her new album Femme Fatale would be followed by a concert dvd that's many songs from the new album combined with a lot of flash, dancers (but not dancing -- more below), costumes and sets. In that sense, Britney Spears Live: The Femme Fatale Tour dvd supports the idea that she's more style than substance. And yet, it may also let down her fans as well.
This concert dvd has 20 songs, along with a bizarre concert video of a secret agent plotting to take out Spears. (I guess they had to justify the "femme fatale" description of her somehow.) Unfortunately, the songs stay very close to the originals -- except for a swing feel to "If U Seek Amy" and a Middle Eastern take on "Boys" -- so there's little difference between hearing them live and on the albums. A few songs only get partial time, as when "Lace and Leather" is briefly played during a fan's on-stage treat, or when her first song, "...Baby One More Time" is used as in intro to Rihanna's "S&M." Musically, this concert won't win over her haters -- and there's not much new for fans. (I do like her cover of "S&M," though it was better when performed with Rihanna.)


But what about the spectacle, the concert experience? Well, there are lots of costume changes and elaborate sets, from an Egyptian barge to a medieval Japanese-themed finale. What's disapppointing, though, is the star herself. For some reason, Spears rarely uses her legs when dancing, resulting in an odd reverse Riverdance: Her armsare flowing and swaying, while her lower body is pretty stationary. This would be fine if she were relying on her singing to carry the day; since she's not, it's another letdown.


Overall, Britney Spears Live: The Femme Fatale Tour dvd is very disappointing. The songs from her disappointing new album don't improve live, there's little interesting happening musically, and even the "wow" factor of an elaborate live concert is missing. Also, there are literally no bonus features on the dvd, so folks who want a look behind the scenes of this tour are in for a disappointment.


Overall grade: D-

Reviewed by James Lynch


12.02.2011

VICTORIA'S SECRET FASHION SHOW 2011

Dozens of supermodels are walking down a catwalk in sexy lingerie and elaborate costumes to rock music. Since I was awake when this happened, it must have been the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show 2011. As with the company's previous shows, this is essentially an hour-long commercial -- but what a commercial!

This Fashion Show features the Victoria's Secret models -- called Angels -- strutting their stuff down the catwalk. The exact outfits aren't sold byVictoria's Secret (though a line of lingerie is "inspired by" the show); instead, there are outfits with superheroes, couture, and aquatic themes. And Adriana Lima showed off her post-baby body by sporting a $2.5 million bra, shown directly below:

While the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show 2011 opens with a ballet and classical music, is quickly shifts into current pop and rap hits. There are also live performances from Kanye West, Kanye and Jay-Z together, Nicki Minaj (closing the show), and Maroon 5; the latter is no surprise, as lead singer Adam Levine is dating Angel Anne V.



There are small featurettes: the models' first VS Fashion Show, pictures of the Angels as little kids, the elaborate costumes in the shows (as one Angel put it, "It's amazing what they can do with a bra and a pair of panties"), and the Angels' lesser-known interests (from a boxer to a photographer to "a sexy nerd"). But the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show 2011 is first and foremost hot women in cool lingerie walking and dancing down a runway to contemporary music. It may not be the loftiest of goals, but it's honesty straightforward -- and it works very, very well.

Written by James Lynch





















11.26.2011

PUNKIN CHUNKIN

Engineering and physics have made amazing contributions to the world, but I'm not sure where launching pumpkins far across a field ranks. Regardless, every year teams of people gather with their homemade machines to compete at launching a pumpkin the furthest. Punkin Chunkin, put on by the Discovery and Science Channels, shows this competition and the people behind the machines -- and watching it has become an annual Thanksgiving tradition for me.

The World Championship Punkin Chunkin contest, held in Delaware, has six categories: centrifugal, catapult, tortion, trebuchet, human powered, and air cannon. Each team builds a giant device (resembling siege devices -- which are the template for many of the machines) to send their pumpkin flying as far as possible. Teams have three minutes to prepare their machine for the launch, then the pumpkin is sent flying! (Hopefully: Sometimes the pumpkins break apart -- called "pumpkin pie" -- and sometimes they roll off before launch.) Each team gets one shot a round, and there are three rounds. The teams' best time is counted, and whoever has the furthest distance in their category wins "the world's biggest trophy."

Punkin Chunkin also has backgrounds on many of the teams (the reigning champions, the underdogs), different guest hosts (this year featured Kari Byron, Grant Imahara and Tory Belleci, the "Build Team" from Mythbusters), and the tailgate-style party atmosphere among the fans.


While using technology to hurl pumpkins through the sky isn't a... traditional sport, it is an impressive competition. The competitors both know how silly it is (team and device names include Second Amendment Too, Hormone Blaster (an all-female team), Chunk Norris, and Chucky III) and also put tremendous time and planning into their quest for victory. While the show is somewhat manipulative by only showing and giving background on certain competitors, there's also a sense of tension as the top three fight for the top spot: Sometimes the difference between first and second place is only 10 or 20 feet, and some times push their machines literally past the breaking point in a last-ditch attempt to come from behind. Punkin Chunkin is an odd and enjoyable celebration of American ingenuity, silliness, and competition.


Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

11.24.2011

THE MUPPETS

The Muppet Show was an odd amalgam of humor aimed at both kids (cute puppets, mostly innocent humor) and adults (breaking the fourth wall, celebrities ranging from Steve Martin to John Cleese). The new movie The Muppets adds a metafictional element, as the earlier show becomes a show within the movie.

Walter (voicedby Peter Linz) and Gary (Jason Segel) are brothers -- even though Walter is a muppet and Gary is a human. Walter feels isolated growing up, but finds friends and companionship when watching The Muppet Show. When Gary is going to Hollywood with Mary (Amy Adams) -- his girlfriend of ten years -- Walter is thrilled to tag along, to see the Mupet Studios. (Mary is less than thrilled, as she's hoping for time alone with -- and possibly a proposal from -- Gary.)

Walter's crushed to find the Muppet Studios forgotten, filled with cobwebs and dust. Worse, Walter overhears one-dimensional villain Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) plotting to tear down the studio to drill for oil when Kermit's original contract expires in two weeks -- unless someone buys the studio for $10 million.

So Walter, Gary and Mary find Kermit the Frog, who decides to get the Muppets back together and put on a telethon to raise the $10 million! But the Muppets are scattered all over the world, there's bad blood between Kermit and Miss Piggy, the television executive (Rashida Jones) keeps pushing Kermit to find a celebrity host, and Tex Richman wants to sabotage the whole endeavor. And there are also lots of celebrity cameos, musical numbers, and characters speaking directly to the audience.

The Muppets is a mixed bag of a movie. The latter half is definitely better, when the whole gang is back together doing what they do best; the musical numbers are pretty good; and there are some nice touches here and there, like Sam the Eagle working for a Fox News-type station and a barbershop quartet rendition of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." But the movie takes a long time to get to its finale, and Gary and Mary's characters are so pure and cheerful they seem less real than the Muppets. The Muppets is deliberately silly and nostalgic, but not consistently funny.

Overall grade: C+
Reviewed by James Lynch

11.23.2011

Rihanna, TALK THAT TALK (deluxe edition)

Rihanna is back -- and better than ever. Literally: Talk That Talk (deluxe edition), her new album, is far more consistent in terms of quality than her previous releases. The bonus tracks on the deluxe edition are also pretty good.

On Talk That Talk Rihanna goes for more of a rap/street sound than previously (having Jay Z singing like the ultimate alpha street playa on the title track helps), but there are plenty of pop songs here as well, whether singing about love overcoming adversity ("We Found Love") or the compulsion for romance ("Drunk on Love"). And whether going with street or pop, every song on Talk That Talk is about love and romance -- and sex.

Rihanna's never shied away from her sexuality -- I can't count how many times I heard her song "S&M" off her previous album -- but on this album she really turns on the heat. Whether it's the barely-concealed euphemisms of "Cockiness," the less subtle "Birthday Cake" or the dance-or sex "Roc Me Out" she certainly earns the parental warning on the album cover.


Overall, though, Talk That Talk is a pretty solid album. Rihanna's voice sounds great, the songs are almost all catchy, and the mostly upbeat tempo doesn't get bogged down with maudilin ballads or reggae tunes. ("Farewell," the last song on the regular album, might have slowed things down if it didn't combine a moving message with Rihanna's soaring voice.) And while the deluxe version has some unnecessary fluff (postcards of the singer, a sample of her perfume), it also has three bonus songs that are as good as the music on the regular album. Talk That Talk (deluxe album) has Rihanna strutting her stuff very well.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

11.21.2011

AVENGERS: EARTH'S MIGHTIEST HEROES vols. 3 and 4

Avengers assemble -- again! Marvel's animated team of super heroes wraps up its first season with the release of Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes! volumes 3 and 4. These two dvds introduce characters familiar to fans of The Avengers comic book series, wrap up some ongoing storylines, and lay the groundwork for the next season's stories.

These dvds feature the Avengers at full strength: Iron Man (Eric Loomis), Thor (Rick Wasserman), Captain America (Brian Bloom), the Hulk (Fred Tatasciore), Black Panther (James C. Mathis III), Hawkeye (Chris Cox), the Wasp (Colleen O'Shaughnessey), and Hank Pym (Wally Wingert), who alternates between Ant-Man and Giant Man. The team faces off against old enemies from earlier in the series (the Masters of Evil, Hydra, A.I.M.) and also faces new threats. Volume 3 features a multiple-episode arc where the team battles Kang the Conquerer (Jonathan Adams), the warlord from the 41st century who says he must conquer the Earth to save it. Volume 4 has two multiple-episode storylines: Ultron-5 (Tom Kane), Hank Pym's robot gone rogue; and as Asgardian tale that reveals the villain behind many of the previous episodes. There are also arguments about science vs. magic, the (sort of) betrayal by Hank Pym, and two bits of foreshadowing for the next enemies.


As with the earlier episodes, Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes 3 and 4 maintain a high degree of faithfulness to the original material. While not retelling the original stories, these episodes manage to bring the basics of them to life, through nice character development and very good action. There are some corny and unsubtle parts to the episodes, but these dvds wrap up the first season of this cartoon quite nicely. Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes 3 and 4 are worth checking out by any comic book fan!


Overall grade: B+

Reviewed by James Lynch

11.20.2011

SMALL WORLD

There are plenty of games out there where you have to conquer the world -- but how many involve giving up and starting over as part of the path to victory? Small World, from Days of Wonder, beautifully expands on a Risk-type setting to create many options for victory in a world where there just isn't enough room for all the races. The goal of Small World is to earn the most victory points by the last round of play. At the start, players select a race and special power combination. There are 14 races and 20 special powers, and they are combined randomly and laid out in six rows. Each race has its own unique ability (for example, Dwarves get a bonus victory point for occupying a mine, Tritons need one less token to attack a coastal area), each special power is unique (Flying lets you attack anywhere, while Heroic lets you make two areas immune to enemy attacks and abilities), and adding the numbers on the race and power tell you how many tokens you get. You have to put a victory point token on each race-special power above the one you select, so the top one is free but picking the one on the fifth row will cost you four victory points (which other players get when selecting one of those race-special powers). Then it's on to combat!


Combat is pretty simple. Your first attack has to be from the edge of the board or adjacent to a coast. It takes two tokens to conquer a terriroty, plus one token for each Encampment, Troll Lair, Fortress, and Mountain in a territory, plus one token for each enemy token. If you defeat an enemy, the minimum number of your tokens used for the conquest are put in the territory, while one opponent token that was there is discarded, while the rest (if any) get moved to their other territories at the end of the turn. You can make more attacks, as long as you have the tokens to do them, to any territory adjacent to one you control. As your final conquest, you can try for a conquest you normally couldn't make by rolling a special six-sided die (with three blank sides, and a 1, 2, and 3 on the other sided) and subtracting the result from what you'd need to conquer. You then get to move your tokens onto any territories you control, you score a victory point for each territory you control (plus possible points from your race and/or special power), and then it's the next person's turn.

But you don't get new tokens (unless that's your race's special power), so sooner or later you'll want to start over -- and you can! Instead of attacking, you can send your race into decline: Each territory you hold goes down to one token, you lose any race and special power abilities, and you score one point per territory; you also discard any tokens from a previous in-decline race if you had one. (A few races and special powers operate while in decline, but very few.) On your next turn, you pick a new race and special power combo, and you re-enter the fray!


Small World is a very impressive game. There's a terrific combination of randomness and skill that keeps any one strategy or one combination from always providing victory; and the limited die-rolling adds a small element of chance that won't make or break a strategy. There's a nice sense of humor to the game, from the flower-sniffing Elves to the Hobbits' warning sign, and the mix of races and special powers makes for a funny game: One game featured Diplomat Skeletons, Alchemist Trolls, and Seafaring Ratmen. Knowing when to do into decline can be the key to victory (or defeat), as can being willing to pay more for a certain race-special power combo. And the board (has to be said) is a small world after all, with a fairly limited number of territories resulting in fierce combat and fairly quick games.


Small World is a great blend of strategy and chance, humor and planning, and it's a place worth checking out -- and conquering.


Overall grade: A

Reviewed by James Lynch