In the Munchkin series of games, the players are ostensibly the heroes, out to reach level 10 by killing monsters, stealing stuff, and screwing over the other players. If you thought that quest to victory should include eating human brains, Munchkin Zombies will leave you very satisfied, as you're not so much fighting the zombies as being one of them.

In terms of play, the rules for Munchkin Zombies are pretty much the same as for the other Munchkin games. Everyone starts at level 1 and equips themselves with items (you can use one set of headgear, two hands' worth of items, one set of armor, and one set of footgear; you can carry one Big item and any items you can't currently use; and you can sell 1,000 gold pieces' worth of items to go up a level), gives themselves Powers (if they have the levels for them) or Mojo (replacing classes or races in other Munchkin s), and kicks down a Door. If it's a Monster and they player's level plus bonuses are higher, the player goes up a level (or two, for the tougher monsters) and gets treasure. If a player can't beat the Monster (possibly due to interference from other players), the player can get help from one other player (and together they can try to beat it -- risking more interference, of course) or run away (and possibly face Bad stuff). If a player faces a curse, it affects them (if possible) and is discarded. Any other sort of card goes in the player's hand. If a player didn't encounter a monster, they can Look for Trouble (play a Monster from their hand to fight) or Loot the Room (draw a face-down Door card). Then it's the next player's turn, and the first player to reach level 10 (by combat only for that all-important final level) wins!

So what's new in Munchkin Zombies? First and foremost, the tone. I've always thought that the characters in Munchkin self-delusionally saw themselves as heroes, brave and noble fighters who just happened to screw over the other players and slaughter and steal everything in sight to win. Eating brains should... temper that heroic belief. The "monsters" you're fighting are regular people: the Cute Little Kid, the Soccer Mom, the Action Hero, a Nun, etc. In other Munchkin games, you battle the undead. Now you are the undead -- and the "shambling, out for brains" type, not the teen angst type.
As for what zombies have and do, Munchkin Zombies gets the feel perfect. There are three Mojos for you zombies (Voodoo, Plague, and Atomic), and their potential powers are appropriately simple: Fast, Strong, Smart, etc. The items you find to use are the sort of garbage or refuse a zombie might stumble across. The Shiny Porcelain Armor is a toilet, the Hand Grenade is a hand, and the Wishing Ring may well be a plastic ring from a six-pack of cans. As for zombie abilities, it makes sense that you would be protected by Decaying Flab, or that you could use Your Own Pancreas and/or Spleen as a weapon. And what zombie wouldn't want to use Another Zombie as a weapon?

And so, Munchkin Zombies becomes borderline macabre (in a series of games that revolves around killing and stealing). It's also pretty funny (especially as the players moan the Curses that rhyme with "braaaaaains") and very competitive. There's not much new in terms of the rules or card play, but Munchkin Zombies is twisted fun for anyone who enjoys either goofy horror or competing with other players. Just don't use it as an introduction to Munchkin for the squeamish...

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch


The Lonely Island, TURTLENECK & CHAIN

I believe the best parts of Saturday Night Live these days are the "Digital Shorts," and those get collected into albums from the Lonely Island (fronted by Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone, with guest appearances from singers like Akon, Rihanna, Justin Timberlake, Beck, and even Michael Bolton). Turtleneck & Chain, their sophomore release, is a bit more juvenile than their first album, Incredibad.

The tone for Turtleneck & Chain is set from the opening, "We're Back!" as the singers try to out-offend each other with gross penis jokes. It's one-joke concepts that are hit or miss through the album.

Is it funny to record a track in honor of mothers, complete with hissy fits when the mom interrupts the recording? Not really. Nor are songs solely about feces ("Trouble on Dookie Island"), shy women ("Attracted to Us") or turtlenecks, thin gold chains, and light beer (as on the title track).

The funny thing is, sometimes this approach works. "I Just Had Sex" is only about guys who very recently got laid, yet it has infections enthusiasm behind it. "Jack Sparrow" has a pretty standard rap tune being interrupted by Michael Bolton's movie references, yet it's pretty funny. (Sadly, this video isn't on the bonus disc with several movies.) "Threw It on the Ground" has a wannabe protester expressing his anger at "the system" by throwing almost everything on the ground. "The Creep" may work better as a music video (with its, er, creepy dance moves shown by Nicki Minaj and the guys looking like John Waters), but it's still fun. And even "Shy Ronnie 2" -- about an inept bank robber too shy to give orders -- has a certain charm. (And if you wondered what could follow "Dick in a Box," Samberg and Timberlake offer an unusual swap in "Motherlover.")

And so, Turtleneck and Chain is an uneven album. When it works, the songs are infectious and fun; when it doesn't work, they make two or three minutes feel too long for the repetition. Fortunately, the good outnumbers the bad -- and the music video dvd is a very nice plus -- making this a decent comedy album.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch


The Break, Church of the Open Sky (Bombora, 2010)

The Australian group Midnight Oil may be best known for their politically charged songs about Aboriginal land rights and the environment, but they never forgot that they owed their existence to Sydney's thriving surfing scene in the mid-seventies. Nearly all their albums contain at least one song that makes reference (and reverence) to the ocean or the beach, and on two occasions -- "Wedding Cake Island" off their 1980 EP Bird Noises, and "Gravelrash" off their 1996 CD Breathe -- they recorded surf-rock instrumentals. Most people's knowledge of the instrumental variant of surf rock (meaning guitar melodies without vocals, as opposed to the multi-part harmonies of The Beach Boys) doesn't extend beyond the Surfaris' "Wipe Out," but performers like the Surfaris and Dick Dale made a big dent in the American charts in the years leading up to the British Invasion. Guitarist/keyboardist Jim Moginie, drummer Rob Hirst, and guitarist Martin Rotsey shared a passion for surf rock even as the music of Midnight Oil went in very different directions. That band has been defunct for close to a decade now, as singer Peter Garrett left at the end of 2002 to pursue a career in politics (he currently serves as a member of Parliament and a minister in Prime Minister Julia Gillard's Cabinet). After several years of working on each other's side projects, Moginie, Hirst, and Rotsey decided it was time to go back to their roots. They recruited former Violent Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie, who moved to Australia with his wife in 2008, and named the new band The Break. Their debut CD, called Church of the Open Sky, came out last year.

The liner notes alone are sufficient to make the CD a treat for the members of Midnight Oil's devoted cult following. Hirst provides a detailed and fun description of the recording of the album, while Moginie expounds on the musicians and surfer haunts that inspired the album and gave the tracks their various titles. Musically, the tunes don't stray too far from the surf-rock instrumental theme.  The guitars are predictably heavy on the reverb -- it wouldn't be surf rock if they weren't -- and Moginie periodically throws in some groovy-sounding keyboard effects. (There's no theremin on the album, however.) The musicianship is rock solid throughout.  Ritchie may not have a decades-long working relationship with the rest of the band, but he fits in perfectly well.

The potential pitfall with an album like this is that each track hits you in more or less the same way, and the tunes need to be really catchy to be memorable.  Fortunately, about half the album is really catchy. The first two tunes, "Cylinders" and "Winkipop," really stand out for their energy. "The Surfing Priests" has a chanted chorus that sinks deep into your brain with multiple listens. The last track, "Cyclops," hints at the hard-edged rock that defined much of Midgnight Oil's early sound.

Church of the Open Sky may not be deep or overwhelming, but it is certainly fun. Big fans of Midnight Oil or the surf rock genre will like this, and I'm guessing that similarly devoted fans of Violent Femmes will want to check it out as well. I could certainly see The Break evolving into a full-time band, with their next album having lyrics and singing. But I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott



Jones Beach Airshow 2011

I was a little disappointed this year that neither the Navy's Blue Angels, nor the Air Force's Thunderbirds made it to the 2011 Jones Beach Airshow. I decided to try something a little different this year, and rather than head to the beach, I headed to Republic Airport where most of the planes takeoff from. I was able to see several of the performing planes.

The upper two pics are of "FiFi," the world's last flying B-29 "Superfortress." You could actually feel the ground shake and smell the aviation fuel on takeoff.

Next down is a biplane. The fourth down is the FA-18 "Superhornet" that they sent after the F-22 had some issue that grounded it. This is the plane that the Blue Angels fly in.

The last pic is the A10 "Warthog." It also goes by the name "Thunderbolt," "Flying Gun" and "Tankbuster." I can tell you that it was over my head before I got the camera out, and this is aircraft, which is designed to fly low and support ground troop operations, is one serious piece of hardware, with the sound to match.



Capercaillie, Roses and Tears (Vertical Records, 2008)

Ever since the eighties, particularly their 1989 CD Sidewaulk, Capercaillie have been at the forefront of the folk music scene in Scotland.  Their career has had a number of impressive highlights, including an unlikely hit on the UK pop charts with the Gaelic song "Coisich, a Rùin (Come On, My Love)" and an appearance in the major motion picture Rob Roy.  Their music has gotten less purely traditional over the years, with the addition first of a full-time drummer and then a percussionist as well.  But you could also argue that they have become a bit formulaic, never really straying very far from the style they developed in the late eighties and early nineties.  Their most recent effort Roses and Tears probably won't change anybody's mind about the group, but for longtime fans that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Roses and Tears does follow a similar pattern to other Capercaillie albums.  A number of songs feature Karen Matheson singing Gaelic mouth music over smooth, jazzy rhythms flavored with Scottish jigs and reels.  The supporting cast of bandleader Donald Shaw (accordion and keyboards), Manus Lunny (guitar and bouzouki), Charlie McKerron (fiddle), Michael McGoldrick (flutes, whistles, pipes), Ewen Vernal (bass), Che Bersford (drums), and David Robertson (percussion) mix traditional tunes with original compositions, using arrangements that are both groove-oriented yet rooted in the sounds of their homeland.  There has always been a bit of a political element to Capercaillie's music, and that comes out on Roses and Tears as well. The two songs sung in English both deal with war, particularly the plight of Scottish soldiers.  "Don't You Go," written by the recently deceased English singer/guitarist John Martyn, is a plea from a mother to her son to question the motivations of the people asking for his service.  Shaw's composition "Soldier Boy" expresses hope that soldiers return with their minds, bodies, and consciences intact.

Roses and Tears is nothing new to people familiar with the previous work of Capercaillie.  The band do what they do, and they generally do it well. I was hoping for more lively pieces myself, but the band only really cut loose on "Rose Cottage Reels." Otherwise, the album is decent affair, not their best work but sufficient to please their audience.

Overall grade: B-

reviewed by Scott

A photo montage of Scotland set to "Him Bó," the first song on
Roses and Tears



Arr, matey, there be treasure to be grabbed, ships to be sailed, and, well, cards to be played. Pirate Fluxx, the latest edition of the Fluxx games from Looney Labs, applies the Fluxx formula to the pirate genre -- with great success.

Pirate Fluxx follows most of the rules from previous editions of Fluxx. You start the game with a hand of three cards, and at the beginning you draw a card and play a card. Keepers are items that can help you. Goal cards have the requirements for a player to win; it's usually two Keepers together, like Key Lime Pie (the Key and Limes) or Treasure Ship (the Galleon and any two Booty Keepers). Action cards are used and then discarded, letting you do things like stealing Keepers, playing more cards, or getting rid of New Rules. And New Rules affect how many cards all players can draw, play, or even keep during their turns. There are also two Creepers (Scurvy and Shackles), which get played automatically and can keep you from winning -- but they're easy to get rid of, and they can often be given to another player!

Pirate Fluxx introduces a new type of card to the Fluxx system, and it adds a very strategic element: Surprise! These are the first cards that can be played during someone else's turn (allowing you to stop a player from winning as they complete a goal), or they can be played during your own turn for greater effect.

While it's to be expected that Pirate Fluxx has a pirate theme, it's impressive how well that theme works in gameplay. The Captain's Hat gives a number of bonuses (plus everyone else has to call the player with it "Captain"), so it's also a target for the other players to discard -- or steal for themselves. Several Keepers are designated as Booty (treasure cards) or Ships (large vessels), and many other cards affect these, for good or ill. And, as with all Fluxx games, Pirate Fluxx is very quick to teach and very fast-paced to play. If you're a fan of the pirate genre, Pirate Fluxx is a real blast; if you're not, it's still a lot of fun to play!

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch


Last weekend the television series Smallville ended after an impressive ten seasons on the air. The show was about the formative years of Clark Kent that would eventually lead him to become Superman. Alas, it suffered from overdoses of teen angst initially, and poor plotting throughout.

Clark Kent (Tom Welling) seems to be a typical teen in the rural town of Smallville, Kansas, until he notices some changes -- like super strength and invulnerability. His parents Jonathan (John Schneider) and Martha (Annette O'Toole) have quite a surprise: He's an alien, whose ship landed on Earth in a meteor storm many years ago. Now the folks try and instill a sense of goodness and morals in Clark, while he gets occasional lessons and training from the program/ghost/something of his biological father Kal-El (Terrence Stamp) at the Fortress of Solitude.

Clark has a huge crush on Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk), but is afraid knowing his secret could put her in danger (not to mention her parents were killed in the meteor storm that brought Clark to our planet). Clark's friend Chloe (Allison Mack) has an unrequited crush on Clark; she also has a "Wall of Weird," tracking the strange occurrences that happened in Smallville since the meteor shower. It turns out that kryptonite (called "meteor rock") has given lots of people abilities, often resulting in the show's "freak of the week" who appears, battles Clark, and is never heard about again. And "meteor rock" is common enough to cause no end of problems for Clark.

And what would the story of (pre-) Superman be without his nemesis? Lex Luthor (Michael Resenbaum) is being groomed by his father Lionel (John Glover) to be a ruthless, brilliant ruler of men. But Lex is both friends with Clark (who saved Lex) and suspicious of him (knowing something's different about Clark but never quite finding out what.)

Eventually both Lana and Lex were written out of the show, and the replacements came in. Lois Lane (Erica Durance) was brought in as the perky, flirty-antagonism love interest of Clark. Tess Mercer (Cassidy Freeman) was the heir apparent to the Luthor empire, wavering between good and evil. (Lionel Luthor was still around, sometimes good and sometimes evil.) While lots of superheroes appeared for an episode or two (they got Aquaman, but never Batman), the most regular was Green Arrow (Justin Hartley), though he usually appeared as Oliver Queen: no costume, no arrows. And Clark became a superhero known as the Blur.

Truth be told, I'm not sure how Smallville lasted as long as it did. For comic book fans, there were some good references and castings (Terrence Stamp, who voiced Jor-El, played Zod in Superman 2; Annette O'Toole, Clark's mother, played Lana Lang in Superman 3) but lots of inconsistencies (such as a prison of baddies put there by Clark -- yet Lex couldn't figure out his secrets). The will-they-won't-they romance(s) consisted of far overdone longing stares and about-to-tell-but... scenes. The histories of characters like Lionel and Oliver show that the writers had no clear vision for the characters or where the show would go. And while I really liked Michael Rosenbaum as Lex -- the person who seems to have everything, yet is jealous of a simple farmboy with friends -- most of the cast was adequate. (The finale was underwhelming -- not to mention several flashback montages!) At some point the Superman franchise will get the big screen treatment again, but Smallville was a very inconsistent look at the origins of the teen who would become the Man of Steel.

Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch



Surely in these difficult times, we can all find solace in the insane antics of some often evil, usually funny stick figures. Or not. Anyway, Cyanide & Happiness: Ice Cream and Sadness is the second collection of web strips from www.explosm.net .

Much like the first collection, Ice Cream and Sadness gathers together the twisted comedy of Kris, Rob, Matt, and Dave. Just about nothing is off-limits here: dating, pets (horny, dead, and mutilated), Cyanide & Happiness ("You call this art? It's just colored rectangles and circles"), birth ("Umbilical chords" -- eew), death (so much death here...), Jesus ("Extreme Sports Christ!"), technology, sexual innuendo, superheroes, insanity, perversion... the list goes on and on. Most are stand-alone strips, and most are funny.
Ice Cream and Sadness also brings new material, for those who follow this comic online. There are 30 new strips here. In addition, there are Interactivities ("Bust a thinking cap in your ass") that range from Word Scrambles ("buttsxe") to Color by Number to Connect the Dots -- which all wind up in a dark place.

Cyanide & Happiness doesn't really grow or evolve, and the material in Ice Cream and Sadness is about the same quality as the first collection. So while it's often juvenile, you'll still laugh. A lot.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch



There are classic games of clashing armies and world conquest. There are classic games of deep strategy and cunning bluffs. Give Me the Brain! is the classic card game of zombies trying to finish their shift at a fast food restaurant, with only one brain between them.
Give Me the Brain! (originally published by Cheapass Games, now out through Steve Jackson Games) has the players as zombies working at Friedey's, the fast food restaurant of the damned. Players start with a hand of seven cards, and the first person to end their turn with zero cards wins. There is also one brain (represented by a six-sided die, though I like using a rubber brain) that gets bid on and passed around quite a lot.

At the start of the game (and if the brain gets dropped), players bid on the brain. Bid cards range from 1-20, though the lowest-value ones are worth more if you just had the brain. Players can bid once, they bid face-up, and you can make a losing bid to have fewer cards. And it is possible to win without the brain, but having the brain certainly helps.
After someone gets the brain, it becomes their turn. On a player's turn they perform jobs, which do something good or bad for the player. Each job has a number of hands, and on a player's turn they can do two one-handed jobs or one two-handed jobs. (Some jobs give you objects, with aid you during the game.) If a job also has a brain icon, the player must have the brain to perform that job. If the player with the brain does such a job, afterwards they have to roll higher than the number on that job or they drop the brain and bidding starts. And if you can't play a job, you spend the turn loafing and either draw another card, or discard your whole hand and draw one more than the number of cards you had before.
Give Me the Brain! is very simple, yet it possessed a good deal of both strategy and humor. How long do you hold onto a good bid card, and how quickly do you want to burn off low bids that could become high if you just had the brain? The jobs also make for interesting situations: Plenty will hurt your opponent, but some will give you more cards as well. And it's very possible to win without having the brain.

And Give Me the Brain! is funny, or so funny. Every bid card has flavor text, from the stressed-out zombie shouting, "I Suffer a Mix of Emotions!" to the zombie with its head in the tiolet saying, "I Can Hear the Ocean." You can grab the brain by playing "Look! A Monkey!" or answering the queston "Are you still serving breakfast?" with the answer "Uh, you mean, like, today, or in general?" And what undead Friedey's employee doesn't enjoy a good game of Brain Baseball?

Give Me the Brain! is quick, it's easy, and it's hysterical. Steve Jackson Games made very few changes from the Cheapass Games' Special Edition of this game (a bigger box and some very small changes to the word placement on the cards), but they deserve kudos for keeping this goofy game in print. Zombies have seldom been so silly -- or so enjoyable.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch



How does one make a movie that challenges a hero who is a god? By taking away his powers, of course. Toss in numerous Shakespearean themes (not surprising, given Kenneth Branagh as director) and you have Thor, the latest superhero film.
Thor is divided between heaven and Earth -- or, more accurately, Asgard and Earth. In Asgard, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is poised to become the new king, at the decision of his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and to the possible annoyance of his thoughtful brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). But a disruption during Thor's ceremony leads Thor -- along with his warrior friends Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Fandral (Josh Dallas) and Sif (Jaimie Alexander), plus Loki -- to attack the realm of Frost Giants, with whom Odin had previously battled. This enrages Odin who, upset with Thor's pride, arrogance, and ruining a peace between the two races, removes Thor's powers and sends him to Earth (along with his hammer, now enchanted that only one worthy may gain its powers).

On Earth, Thor is found by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a scientist studying the sort of scientific principles that, conveniently, brought Thor to Earth. Their "meet cute" is her hitting him with the car by accident; her comic relief is assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings) and her older, responsible, skeptical, protective partner is Erik (Stellan Skarsgard). No one knows what to make of this man, who seems delusional in his belief that he's a god, the fighting skills to almost back up such a claim, and both good looks and an easy-natured charm.

Also, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and the organization S.H.I.E.L.D. are examining the hammer, and what happened when Thor arrived. Back in Asgard, Loki is discovering family secrets and engaging in numerous subtle plots -- and taking power. And Hemidall (Idris Elba), who controls the rainbow bridge (far less silly than it sounds) that allows people to travel to and from Asgard, is suspicious of what's happening in Asgard.
Thor is a pretty impressive movie. While there are plenty of inside jokes/references for Marvel fans (from other Marvel characters to the near-obligatory Stan Lee cameo), Thor is more about personalities than powers. The movie opens and closes with lots of action (from the war with the Frost Giants to the walking armored Destroyer), but the main focus is on, well, learning. Thor is sent here to learn humility, and while never really humble (no Marvel here has ever has such consistent swagger and bravado), does discover that there's more than combat and ego. Meanwhile Loki, up in Asgard, learns about his true history and nature while handling his feelings to his more popular brother and impressive father.

Chris Hemsworth is terrific in the title role, while Tom Hiddleston brings depth, complexity, and even sympathy to the villainous Loki. (Anthony Hopkins is, naturally, wonderful as a regal ruler.) Natalie Portman has less to do here, as the spunky romantic interest/free spirit who winds up helping the possible lunatic due to his charm. There are times I wish there was a bit more action in the middle, but Thor is a pretty entertaining movie -- and a quality summer blockbuster.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch


THE AVENGERS dvd vol. 1 and 2

With so many Marvel superheroes making their way to the big screen, it's no surprise that an animated series has been made of a super-team that includes summer heroes Thor and Captain America. The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes! vol. 1 and 2 shows the online start of this series and the following full-length episodes. It'll leave you wanting more -- which is part of the problem.

Unusual for such a well-established franchise, this series began as a series of "micro-episodes" that lay the foundation for the rest of the series; these are collected in the first dvd. We see Thor (Rick Wasserman) defending Asgard from storm giants -- and his scheming stepbrother Loki (Graham McTavish). The Hulk (Fred Tatasciore) is pursued by the military -- and fights the Absorbing Man. Iron Man (Eric Loomis) battles some evil robots from the evil organization Hydra. Captain America (Brian Bloom) fights and falls in World War 2 -- where time-traveling villain Kang (Jonathan Adams) watches. And Hank Pym (Wally Wingers), alternating between Ant-Man and Giant Man, has constructed a prison for super-powered criminals at the request of S.H.I.E.L.D. When they all escape at once, Hank and his girlfriend the Wasp (Colleen O'Shaughnessey) work to contain them; and soon Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, Hank Pym, and the Wasp have become the Avengers, sworn to track down and recapture the escapees!
The second dvd collects the full-length episodes. The team faces not only villains -- the Enchantress, Baron Zemo, the Man-Ape and the brilliant Leader (nicely voiced by Jeffrey Combs) -- but their own personal issues. The Hulk feels like he's treated as a monster. Hank is suspicious of Iron Man's past as a designed of weapons. The team also gets new members: Captain America (brought from the 1940s to the present); Black Panther (James Mathis III), who initially needs their help; and Hawkeye (Chris Cox), an archer framed for treason.

The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes! is a delight for older comic book readers (many stories are based on classic issues of The Avengers) and newer folks (introductions are quick, and it's no surprise that numerous characters are very close to their live-movie counterparts). The action is well done, there's a nice sense of humor through the series (notably as the Wasp and Thor try to figure out what M.O.D.O.K. is), and it's neither too cute for adults nor too violent for kids.

These two dvd sets contain, in all, thirteen episodes. Unfortunately, there are 26 episodes in the first season of The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes! (not to mention the micro-episodes featuring Hawkeye and the Black Panther). I suppose Marvel wanted some of this series available to coincide with the summer movies featuring these heroes, but I feel that this could have been released all in one set, not spread out over what will probably be four different dvds. I look forward to seeing the second half of this series; I just wish I could have seen it all at once.

Overall grades:
B+ (for quality)
B- (for not having the full season in one release)

Reviewed by James Lynch