9.30.2011

MONEYBALL


Plenty of baseball movies feature an underdog team whose pluck and determination enable them to come from behind and claim victory -- but what about when the deciding factors are money and computers? Moneyball -- based on the real-life 2002 baseball season -- is a drama that's as much about the structure of professional baseball as it is about playing the game.

Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), general manager for the Oakland A's, is tired. The A's just lost the division playoffs to the Yankees (who, not coincidentally, have a budget more tha four times greater than that of the A's). Beane also knows that his three best players are leaving the A's for teams that can offer them a lot more money. And team manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has made it no secret that he'll be looking for another manager job.


Beane finds help from an unlikely source: Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a low-level employee for a rival team. Brand believes a team can be put together not with traditional player scouting, but with mathematical formulas based on player stats. He also believes players that are undervalued for a number of reasons -- age, personal scandals, even looking funny -- can bring value for a fraction of the cost of star players. Beane hires Brand and makes him the assistant general manager, and they put together their "team of misfit toys." But they face skepticism across the board -- from the scouts who say baseball can't be reduced to just math, to the numerous fans blasting the A's on radio call-in shows -- and the losses in the early season don't help.

Moneyball is an interesting sports movie, as we see the impact of money on the game -- and a radical new theory that challenges that factor. From the beginning to end, we see how the A's don't have a budget remotely close to the other teams, yet are expected to compete on an uneven playing field the same way they do. "Reducing" baseball to player stats analyzed to construct a team goes against most fans' feel for the game -- but how else to compete with teams that can easily buy the best players? The result isn't a cliched "heart and spunk bring victory" but rather a look at the stress of not just going for a championship, but doing it in a way no one else believes in. And the script, co-written by Aaron Sorkin, has some pretty sharp dialogue.


Moneyball is, for the most part, a two-person movie -- and they have two very good people for the roles. Brad Pitt does fine work as Billy Beane, a long-time player (flashbacks show the young Beane as being recruited rather than accepting a college scholarship -- then bombing on the field) who loves the game but is clearly tired of losing and (seemingly) not having the resources to win. Jonah Hill is best known for comedy, but he does a good job as Peter Brand. If Beane is the heart of the team, Brand is the brains, the man with the plan. Hoffman is decent as the clearly self-serving team manager, and Kerris Dorsey provides a sympathetic voice (and one of the few female characters in the movie) as Beane's concerned young daughter.


Moneyball is a very good drama, looking at a fundamental shift in playing America's pasttime. The cast is good, and the drama comes as much off the field as during the pivotal games.


Overall grade: B+

Reviewed by James Lynch

9.25.2011

Trio Mediæval, Folk Songs (ECM Records, 2007)


Trio Mediæval are a Norwegian/Swedish female vocal trio consisting of Torunn Østrem Ossum, Anna Maria Friman, and Linn Andrea Fuglseth. They have worked together since 1997. While much of their repertoire consists of sacred music and contemporary compositions, they are well versed in the folk music of their homelands. The title of their 2007 CD Folk Songs is as self-explanatory as it gets; accompanied only by Birger Mistereggen on percussion and jew's harp, the trio sing traditional ballads from the old villages in Norway, many of which go back to the Middle Ages.

Like a typical collection of folk songs, the songs range from topics that are universal over time -- a number of the songs are religious, two are children's lullabies, and of course there are some love songs -- to the more exotic and fantastic. "Villemann and Magnhild" is a Medieval ballad in which Villemann, the hero, rescues the maiden Magnhild and drains a troll of his strength simply by stroking his harp. "Rolandskvadet" is a Norse interpretation of the French legend "The Song of Roland." The folk songs of Norway and Sweden, especially when sung by women, have a distinctive lilt to them that's hard to describe if you haven't heard one. They're not alliterative or percussive in the way that Finnish songs tend to be, but there's something about the way the vowels are pronounced that didn't pass down from the Norse end of the Germanic languages into modern English. This makes the voices seem otherworldly, and hard to really capture in words for the uninitiated. But if Nordic singing is an acquired taste, those who've acquired it will find the overall sound of Folk Songs quite lovely. The harmonies are exquisite, and the percussion is sparse but very effective. My one criticism is that the songs all effect the listeners in a similar way, and there isn't enough variety to sustain an album exceeding an hour in length.

Still, Trio Mediæval do a very nice job on the whole, and I'd recommend Folk Songs to anybody who likes Scandinavian singing. I'm never certain what recording will work as a good introduction for somebody not familiar with Nordic music, but people who like vocal music or have a general interest in the music of the Middle Ages will probably find plenty to pique their interest on this album.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott


"Gjendines Bådnlåt (Gjendine's Lullaby)"

TRICK 'R TREAT

Ah, the horror anthology: a collection of scary tales that don't have to be related, just all about horror. These collections have been inspired by everything from comic books (Creepshow) to television shows (Twilight Zone: The Movie), and it makes sense that Halloween -- the holiday of scares -- would inspire the same sort of features. Trick 'r Treat, written and directed by Michael Dougherty, is not just a movie with Halloween stories, but interconnected Halloween stories.


The movie opens with Emma (Leslie Bibb) ready to take down the Halloween decorations early -- and the deadly consequences of that simple action. Then we have Steven (Dylan Baker), the unassuming school principal -- who's also a serial killer having to deal with countless distractions while getting rid of his latest victim. Laurie (Anna Paquin) is a teen dressed as Little Red Riding Hood who wants tonight to be her first time -- and "special" -- while her friends and sister are more experienced; and someone seems to be following Laurie. A couple of teens take Rhonda (Samm Todd), an idiot savant, to an abandoned quarry where a bus full of children drowned many years ago. And finally, cranky old Mr. Kreeg (Brian Cox) wants nothing to do with the holiday -- until a diminutive intruder shows up inside his house...


Trick 'r Treat isn't that much of a treat. For the most part this is standard horror material, both in form (gruesome killings, mutilated bodies) and message (folks who are mean come to untimely ends). The movie has the occasional nice touch -- lit pumpkins going out one by one in a thick fog, the small creature whose mask is a smiling sack -- but this is a pretty routine horror movie.


The main (only?) big innovation of Trick r' Treat is its non-linear interwoven stories. While all of the stories take place in the same town on the same night, the stories aren't told in chronological order. So a person who was murdered in one scene may bump into a character on the street in the next scene. While this is somewhat clever, it doesn't add any great meaning or irony to the scenes (unlike its similar use in Memento and Pulp Fiction); it just ties the stories together.
The only dvd extra is the short animated feature "Season's Greetings," Michael Dougherty's original tale that inspired one of the stories in Trick 'r Treat. The only commentary is for this short, not for the movie.


Halloween is a little over a month away, and in some ways Trick 'r Treat is perfect for the holiday: a few scares, a few monsters, a horror movie with a lot of costumes and killings. This is far from a great horror movie, but it's also a step up from a standard slasher or Saw movie.


Overall grade: C

Reviewed by James Lynch

9.21.2011

So Long, R.E.M.

Today, rock and roll said goodbye to R.E.M. Over the past 31 years, these boys from Athens, GA have created numerous albums, quite a few experiments in sound and style, and a unapologetic political stance. But all good things must end.


R.E.M. began with singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Berry. (Berry would leave the band in the late '90s.) Their first single, "Radio Free Europe," was released in 1981 and was a big hit -- and a seminal influence -- on the college radio scene. Their first full-length album, Murmur, was released in 1983, and they released albums fairly consistently afterwards, up to this year's Collapse Into Now, which would prove to be their final album. While the band had plenty of hit singles, from the weepy "Everybody Hurts" to the goofy "Shiny Happy People" to the deceptively simple "The One I Love" to "It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I feel fine)" -- the one no one knows the words to but everyone sings anyway -- they also had a remarkable consistency through most of their albums. They also resisted performing just one way, trying everything from heavy electric guitar (Monster) to mandolin and country (Out of Time).

With the band's popularity came both financial success (their contract with Warner Bros. in 1996 was for a reported $80 million) and political activism. The members of R.E.M. made no secret of their politics, from gay rights (Michael Stipe would eventually out himself) to opposition to wars to near-hatred of George W. Bush. This was reflected in their music as well, with songs like "Ignoreland" and "Orange Crush." But while the band was quite political, this never overshadowed their music, and albums like Lifes Rich Pageant, Accelerate and (my favorite) Automatic for the People were great listening experiences.

Back in the 1990s Michael Stipe thought it would be great to play a concert on New Year's Eve 1999, then break up right after they finished playing. The band managed to last another eleven years past that, but the end had come. The music landscape has changed substrantially since thy started in 1980, but R.E.M. produced 15 albums (not to mention compilations and live albums), influencing untold numbers of music fans, musicians, and the world of alternative music.

Jim Lynch


(who knows almost all the words to "It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I feel fine)")

9.19.2011

Rian Hughes and Imogene Foss, HARDWARE: The Definitive SF Works of Chris Foss (Titan Books, 2011)


If you are a science fiction fan of a certain age, then you are familiar with, at least by sight, the work of Chris Foss. One of science fiction's most prominent artists, Foss helped to create the look of British SF publishing in the 1970s. In HARDWARE: The Definitive SF Works of Chris Foss, Rian Hughes and Imogene Foss have collected many of Foss' greatest paintings from that period in an attractive, hardbacked volume.

Foss is perhaps most well-known for his spaceships. They are colorful, industrial, believable, and above all, enigmatic. These are craft meant to voyage between the planets and the stars, and their sometimes total isolation from other objects bespeaks the deep mystery, the vast emptiness, and even vaster loneliness, of outer space.

The Bloodstar Conspiracy (1978) epitomizes these themes well. A dagger-like, finned starship, checked orange and white, moves across a roiling planetary surface, its destination an ominous mushroom cloud rising from below. The craft in Mission to the Heart Stars (1980) resembles nothing so much as Tutankhamun's burial mask departing from a planet beneath a bright white sun. In Conquests (1981), a squat, blue- and black-striped ship cruises just above the cloud layer of an alien world of three moons. In the distance are slender towers. Who lives within them?

Iceberg in Space (1979) is another favorite. A red and yellow tug, with a lobster-like pincer claw affixed at the bow, tows an enormous chunk of gleaming-white ice behind it. Foss' future was a future that worked, literally.

There is a strong emphasis on the technological in this book, but the paintings are neither sterile nor dull. Many works are of aircraft and seagoing warships locked in combat. The German warship Prinz Eugen (1975), under relentless air attack, is at least as fine as any other work made of a similar naval encounter.

In addition to his cover work, Foss was involved in an early attempt to bring Frank Herbert's Dune to the silver screen, and herein are several conceptual sketches and paintings executed by Foss for the never-made Alejandro Jodorowsky film version of that novel. They are especially intriguing in a “road-not-taken” way. Pirate Spaceship Spilling Spice (1975) is a wonder to behold. If only! Conceptual works made for Alien, another sci-fi film, have also been included.

I also appreciated Foss' puckish sense of humor. Easter Island (1975) portrays a spacecraft employing cables to lift one of that island's great moai into position. Best of all is EMI Billboard (1989) in which three tugs maneuver a space-based music advertisement into orbit.

I can hear the question now. Oh sure, old, beautiful, evocative SF art is all well and good, but surely Hardware is no more than a fine coffee table book. Nostalgia aside, is it really worth $34.95 American?

Apart from the hoary response that the value of art is itself not to be measured in money, there is the fact that Hardware is a freakishly awesome coffee table book, straight from the living room of the House of Cool. It is full of richly detailed paintings that will, at the very least, stir some thought for the future of our species in space, something that we seem to have forgotten.

There is another compelling, practical reason for owning Hardware. In an era in which seemingly every newly published sci-fi novel is bleak, dystopian, bloated, or riddled with zombies and other such nonsense, Hardware conveniently provides the titles of the books for which Foss executed these marvelous covers. You have heard of most of the authors already - Asimov, Blish, Van Vogt, etc. Track these books down. They can still be found somewhere. Perhaps Seventies SF had what too many recent novels seem to lack – story.

reviewed by Marc

9.18.2011

THE BEST OF H.P. LOVECRAFT

H.P. Lovecraft is, in the opinion of myself and many others, one of the great American authors of horror. He created a combination of cosmic, unearthly horrors with eminently believable details that seem to set the stories in our world. His collection of fictional cursed tomes -- including The Necronomicon, Unspeakable Cults and The King in Yellow -- have appeared in numerous other stories, books, and movies. Cthulhu, his most famous entity, has appeared everywhere from the roleplaying game The Call of Cthulhu to plush figures to the recent Cthulhu Dice and Munchkin Cthulhu. Lovecraft's best form of writing is the short story (though his poetry and novels are worth reading), and The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre collects much of the best of this amazing writer.

Following an introduction by the late, great Robert Bloch (author of Psycho and a correspondant of Lovecraft), we jump into Lovecraft's worlds of madness, death, and ancient horrors returning to the present. "The Rats in the Walls" opens the collection, as the narrator grows increasingly sensitive to the noises in his ancient home -- or is he going mad? Discovered knowledge proves equally unsettling in stories like "The Outsider" and "The Picture in the House."

Lovecraft also dealt with the cosmic, whether it's the Great Old Ones that existed long before humanity, the angles and architecture that defy reason, the dreamlands that some can enter from this world, or mathematics and formulae that resemble magicks. "The Call of Cthulhu" ties many of these elements together, as a series of events across the globe reveal a horrible pattern. "The Music of Erich Zaan" presents chilling power, while "The Colour out of Space" is a New England tale of corruption and compulsion. All the stories here are excellent, combining prosaic description with nigh-indescribable menace and mind-blasting knowledge.

This isn't a comprehensive Lovecraft collection, and any Lovecraft fan will wish for more stories. (My missing picks: "The Festival," "Cool Air" and "Dagon.") But until all of Lovecraft's works are collected in one volume, The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre is the best collection of his stories that I've seen to date. This belongs on the bookshelf of any true horror fan.

Overall grade: A+
Reviewed by James Lynch

9.12.2011

The Ukrainians, Istoriya (Omnium, 2004)


The Ukrainians have spent twenty years blending rock, punk, and world music in a style that makes them come across as an Eastern European equivalent of The Pogues. Despite their name, the group have always been based in England. The band was conceived when guitarist Peter Solowka played around with Ukrainian folk tunes during a radio session with BBC DJ John Peel featuring The Wedding Project, the rock band he was playing with at the time. Peel suggested the band do a full show of Ukrainian music for their next visit, for which Solowka recruited singer/violinist Len Liggins and mandolin player Roman Remeynes. The program was a hit with Peel's listeners, but less so with the rest of The Wedding Project; soon Solowka was given the opportunity to pursue his Ukrainian musical interests full time.

For most of the songs on the 2004 compilation CD Istoriya, The Ukrainians consisted of Solowka, Liggins, Remeynes, Michael L B West (mandolin and guitar), Stepan Pasicznyk (accordion), Paul Briggs (bass), and Dave Lee (drums). The band has since undergone a number of personnel changes, but Solowka and Liggins remain constants. Coming from four full-length albums and three EPs, the songs are a mix of original compositions, traditional Ukrainian songs, and some covers of punk and new wave songs translated into Ukrainian. Most of the latter come from a pair of tribute EPs, first to The Smiths and then to The Sex Pistols. "Anarkhiya (Anarchy in the UK)" is a little too hokey to be taken seriously, but "Batyar (Bigmouth Strikes Again)" is priceless.

The musical arrangements lean heavily on plucked strings, and most of the more traditionally flavored songs and tunes have a hyper polka rhythm. While this can get a bit redundant, the energy is strong throughout, and "Hopak" in particular is an excellent instrumental. The traditional melodies have a lot in common with Greek bouzouki music. While the Ukraine is not considered part of the Balkan region, much of the music on Istoriya will sound familiar and comfortable to fans of Balkan and gypsy music. Of course, the album also has heavy doses of bass and drums, and Solowka and West plug in their guitars from time to time as well.

All in all, Istoriya is a fun recording from a band whose members have feet planted in two different musical worlds. The novelty of their approach will wear off after a few listens, but The Ukrainians still have plenty of energy, a good sense of melody, and a sense of humor working in their favor.

Overall grade: B+


reviewed by Scott


A recent live performance of the Ukrainians' first single, "Oi Divchino"

9.11.2011

ALIEN FRONTIERS

There are lots of games focused on sending out spaceships to explore and conquer the galaxy -- but what about using ships to colonize a planet? And what if the players compete to place colonies and utilize orbital facilities, without any combat? This is the universe of Alien Frontiers, a fascinating board game, for 2-4 players, from Clever Mojo Games.

All players begin the game with 6-8 colony tokens (depending on the number of players), one alien tech card, and three ships (represented by six-sided dice); the second player gets a fuel token (orange), the third player gets an ore token (gray), and the fourth player starts with one fuel and one ore. Players keep track of their score on a scorepad, and whoever has the most points (from placed colonies, controlled territories, certain alien tech cards, and the Positron Field) when a player's last colony is placed is the winner.
On a player's turn they gather all their ships from the board and roll them; their values stay constant for the turn, unless a card changes them. Players usually send the ships to the orbital facilities around the planet. These can: get a player fuel or ore; let a player place a colony (three do this, each with different requirements); build a new ship; trade fuel for ore; get a new alien tech card; or steal resources or an alien tech card from another player. Several require certain dice and resources to be used (the Colony Constructor can only be used if a player has three dice of equal value and pays three ore), and they can't be used if another player's ships aren't in all of its docking parts.

Players also use alien tech cards. These sometimes have a cost to use and can do anything from give victory points to let players alter the value of their ships (great for getting the sequence you need for a certain orbital facility) to moving colonies around on the planet. Certain alien tech cards also let players place, remove, or move the Isolation Field (negating a territory bonus), Positron Field (giving an extra point to the person controlling that territory), or Repulsor Field (preventing players from adding or removing colonies). Most alien tech cards have two functions: a basic one (usually requiring spending fuel or ore) and an advanced one (requiring the card be discarded).

Then there's colonization. When a player makes a colony, he places it on a territory (all amusingly named for science fiction writers). Each territory gives a advantage in relation to an orbital facility; conveniently, the territories are connected by lines to each one's beneficiary. (The exception is the Burroughs Desert, which lets a player purchase and use an extra ship for -- no matter how many ships the player has --for 1 fuel and 1 ore.) If a player has the only colony or more colonies in a territory than any other player, that player get an extra point and the territory's advantage; if there's a tie, no one gets the extra point or advantage.

After sending out ships and colonizing, if a player has more than eight resources at the end of their turn, they have to discard down to eight. No hoarding! Then it's the next player's turn.

I am very impressed with Alien Frontiers. Using six-sided dice for ships is a simple and elegant way for players to have new opportunities/challenges each turn; and since a player takes their ships off the board to roll them at the start of their turn, it's impossible to permanently block a facility. The game board has a terrific layout, showing very clearly the requirements for the facilities and the bonuses from the territories. The alien tech cards are useful, but none are so powerful that they decide the winner of a game on themselves. And players need to put a lot of thought into colonization: not just what territory to colonize for its benefit, but also whether or not to tie with another player's territory to deny them their benefit. And while there's no direct combat (the closest is the Plasma Cannon, which can be discarded to make an opponent lose a ship -- but never reduce them under three), there's plenty of competition for use of the facilities and control of the territories. Alien Frontiers is pretty simple to learn, but it requires a lot of planning and strategy to be the victor on this alien planet.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

GLEE: THE MUSIC, DANCE PARTY

The show Glee is, much like American Idol, a combination of tv entertainment and music machine: People who like the people and performances from the show may also seek out the songs on cd/iTunes. Glee: The Music, Dance Party (disclaimer: This is a Target exclusive, and I work for Target -- or does Target work for me?) is a six-song collection of upbeat covers from the show.

I'm not sure what makes this collection a "dance party" -- the lack of slow ballads, perhaps? -- but the songs here are a mix of pop, rap, and even '80s nostalgia (with "I Know What Boys Like"). The problem is that there's no attempt to make these covers sound different from the original versions (unless you count the slightly cleaned-up lyrics on "Yeah!").

That's not to say the songs are bad per se. Heather Morris (Brittany on the show) has a decent voice, singing on "I'm a Slave 4 U" and "Tik Tok." There's also a nice, almost deliberately amateurish version of, well, high school kids singing together on "I'm Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend how to Dance with You."

Glee: The Music, Dance Party is neither terrible nor great. It is, simply, six routine covers of popular songs that were performed on a popular show.

Overall grade: C
Reviewed by James Lynch

9.10.2011

Blind Guardian, Nightfall in Middle Earth (Century Media 1998, 2007 reissue)


My servant you'll be for all time.


It isn't often that I get to hear the words that Morgoth, the Black Foe of the World, uttered to his lieutenant, Sauron, the future Lord of the Rings, in the dark depths of the fortress of Angband at the end of the cataclysmic War of Wrath. With his rich, menacing baritone, Morgoth convinces as the rebel archangel who could seduce lesser spirits into his service, and cause them to desert their allegiance to the noble Valar, their rightful overlords.

With the avenging host of the Valar having broken into Angband, the uncharacteristically obsequious Sauron counsels his dread master to seek safety in the bowels of the stronghold. Morgoth rejects this advice, and orders Sauron to instead save himself. “I left ruin behind me when I returned,” he ruminates after his servant with a famous career ahead of him has departed, “but I also carried ruin with me.”

If this does not send chills up your spine, then you are as cold and lifeless as a barrow-wight. But as a certified Tolkien geek since the age of ten, this is right up my alley. German metal band Blind Guardian has delivered a tour de force rock album based upon Professor Tolkien's famed legendarium, The Silmarillion. Remastered in 2007, Nightfall in Middle Earth (1998) is a dark and brooding contemplation of the fall of the Noldor Elves after Morgoth steals the priceless jewels, the Silmarils, kills their king, and absconds to his icy fortress in the far north of Middle Earth.

I won't even attempt to describe what flavor of metal this album represents. Blind Guardian is described as a power metal band, but I see Nightfall in Middle Earth as something else. Imagine the product of a collaboration between Queen and Def Leppard based upon Tolkien's great fantasy world, and this is the result. With operatic flourishes, and driving metal, Blind Guardian has captured the spirit - the pathos especially - of The Silmarillion. It is not a happy album, but, then again, The Silmarillion is not a happy book. Combining traditional metal songs with much shorter pieces, and perhaps most intriguingly, with spoken word compositions, such as "War of Wrath," which is quoted at the beginning of this review, Nightfall in Middle Earth is suffused with a sense of irreplaceable loss, the sad but defiant spirit of the ancient North. Blind Guardian has picked out some of Tolkien's most poignant, moving stories and set them to music.

We feel the rage and sorrow of the hot-tempered elf craftsman Feanor in the album's best track, "Nightfall," as he reproaches the impotent Valar after the murder of his beloved father. He asks them “The enemy of mine, isn't he of your kind?” In "Time Stands Still (At the Iron Hill)," we stand with the valiant Fingolfin, High King of the Noldor Elves in Middle Earth, as he duels the wicked Morgoth in vain. "Noldor (Dead Winter Reigns)" explores the catastrophe that the Noldor, glorious and mighty, but arrogant and proud too, have brought upon themselves in their rash pursuit of Morgoth without the aid, or even blessing, of the Valar.

Nightfall in Middle Earth is a concept album in the truest sense of that term. It is an older album, originally released in 1998, but its sound is very much Eighties metal. If you are a fan of Tolkien, then you must give this album a chance.

reviewed by Marc


A live performance of "Nightfall"

9.08.2011

CHILDRENS HOSPITAL

The medical television show is more about melodrama than medicine, where romantic entanglements and big trouble matter as much as, or more than, any medicine. (And Jonas can speak to the innumerable factual errors on these shows.) This makes the genre ripe for parody, which the comedy show Childrens Hospital does. Over and over. In very, very broad strokes.

Set in the fictional Childrens Hospital (named for Arthur Childrens), Childrens Hospital revolves around a caricature of television and movie doctors. Dr. Blake Downs (Rob Corddry) believes in "the healing power of laughter" instead of medicine -- and always wears clown makeup. The Chief (Megan Mullally) hobbles around the hospital with a walker or crutches. Dr. Lola Spratt (Erinn Hayes) pretended to die -- "Is it really so crazy that I'd fake my own death because I had too many emails?" -- and was mistaken for a ghost when she returned. Dr. Glenn Ritchie (Ken Marino) is the macho doctor who often wears a yarmulke. Dr. Owen Maestro (Rob Huebel) is a dim-witted ex-cop turned doctor. Dr. Cat Black (Lake Bell) has dated almost everyone on the show -- one episode starts with a montage of her breaking up with over 20 people -- and had her thoughts as the voice-over narration for the show. Dr. Valerie Flame (Malim Akerman) took over the narration in season 2. Sy Mittleman (Henry Winkler) is the administrator who'd fire a doctor rather than replace the coffee machine. And there are plenty of celebrity guest appearances, from Michael Cera doing hospital announcements to Matthew Perry telling viewers where to learn more about race (and where to find hardcore lesbian porn).
Childrens Hospital is, first to last, silly. Mecidal "issues" range from a six year old with advanced aging disease having an affair with a doctor, to a doctor finding the cure to cancer, only to have it blocked by Big Pharma (and leading to a break-dancing sequence at the end). The show is happily politically incorrect, offering skewed perspectives on everything from abortion to date-rape to whether it's better to save a young jerk or an older but nicer man (who are both impaled by the same pipe) and Rabbi Jewey McJewJew. The show even mocks "special" episodes, like a fake live show, a theater episode, a flashback episode, and two behind-the-scenes specials (revealing, among other things, that one actress doesn't speak English and learns all her lines phoenetically).

The show Scrubs was a comedy, yet it worked to make the characters real and situations often became quite grimm. Childrens Hospital doesn't bother with any of that, going for the over-the-top characterizations, ridiculous situations, and bizarre sentences ("I took an oath to first do no harm, and that's what I'm going to do: No first harm!") every time. Fortunately, it has a fine comic cast, and the source material -- from e.r. to House to Grey's Anatomy -- certainly sets itself up for parody. Unfortunately, not trying to give the characters any sort of dimension or depth leaves the show shallow, as no characters are really engaging or sympathetic. Still, Childrens Hospital is composed of 12-minute episodes (as when it began as a web series), so it doesn't overstay its time.


Childrens Hospital is funny -- in small doses. Many of the lines are strangely amusing, and it doesn't hold back when it comes to potentially sensitive topics. I just wish it tried to be more than an extended bunch of one-liners about doctors.


Overall grade: B-

Reviewed by James Lynch




9.04.2011

RED NOVEMBER

It's a rough -- very rough -- life on board the experimental gnomish submarine BFGS Red November. Fires are breaking out everywhere, flooding keeps happening, the reactor is overheating, hull pressure is going critical, hatches keep seizing up, the missiles may be launching -- and hey, is that a Kraken outside the sub? It'll take all the players working together to survive -- and they still might not -- in Red November, a board game from Fantasy Flight Games.

The players in Red November represent sailors on the doomed sub, and time is both their salvation and enemy. The players win if they make it to the end of the time track without the sub getting destroyed. However, as they spend their time (moving and performing actions), events keep happening -- and those events are quite bad.

During a player's turn they can move (typically 1 minute to open a hatch and move into another room on the sub), then perform an action to slow down a disaster, such as putting out a fire or fixing the oxygen pumps. (Players can also get items or grog, both of which can be helpful.) A player spends 1-10 minutes on their action (possibly discarding item cards for a bonus), then rolls a 10-sided die. If they roll less than or equal to the time (plus item) spent on the action, the disaster is averted (for the time being); if they roll higher, they failed and lost the time. A player then makes a faint check (if they drank grog) to see if they fall unconscious. Then the events happen.

As a player allocates their time, a Time Keeper counter moves forward on the time track running on the edge of the board. When the player is done with actions, their counter moves forward to the Time Keeper -- and each time their counter passes an event spot, an event card gets played. A fire may break out in a random room, advancing the Asphyxiation Track Marker; a random room may flood; the Pressure Track or Heat Track may advance; a room may flood, or a Timed Destruction Event may start. If the Asphyxiation, Pressure, or Heat tracks reach the end, the crew is killed. If a Timed Event isn't fixed in time, the crew is killed. Also, fires, flooded rooms, and blocked hatches may make it tough-to-impossible for the crew to reach the rooms to fix the problems. Other events can block hatches or force discards. And if a flood or fire break out in a room where a character fainted, that character dies! The benign "Respite" card is the only one that doesn't cause problems for the players.

Red November is a fine combination of strategy and luck. Players will have to make some sort of plan to keep the ship intact long enough to win (usually spreading out to reach the different rooms), but the different disasters (and failues to fix them) will keep every player on their toes. While the scenario sounds grim, there's a frantic goofiness to the artwork and cards. And this revised edition of Red November has a much bigger board than the original version, making it far easier to keep track of where everyone (and every disaster) is. Red November is a great example of a cooperative game that's always challenging for the players, no matter how often they play. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go stop the missile launch again...

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

Various Artists, Rave On Buddy Holly (Fantasy, 2011)


The performers who turned the British Invasion into a musical revolution may have wanted to be the star that Elvis was, but they also wanted to be the singer/songwriter and all-around musician that Buddy Holly was. Despite losing his life in a tragic plane accident over fifty years ago, Holly remains a widely revered figure among rock musicians. This year, nineteen veteran and contemporary acts contributed covers of Holly songs to a collection called Rave On Buddy Holly. Tribute albums generally produce mixed results, and this is no exception.

Ironically, some of the performers I was most looking forward to hearing on this record were the most disappointing. Paul McCartney's version of "It's So Easy" was distressingly messy, for example. Lou Reed's version of "Peggy Sue" was atonal, and just noisy for noise's sake. Both these songs, and several others on the album, ignored the original melodies to a large degree. Given that melody was one of Buddy Holly's strengths, the frequency with which this approach was adopted is extremely hard to fathom, and certainly hurt the album much more than it helped.

On the other hand, some tracks work pretty well. Cee Lo Green does a fun version of "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care" -- yes, Elvis' version of this song is a lot more familiar than Holly's, but the song still fits in nicely here. Nick Lowe picks a relatively obscure song in "Changing all Those Changes," but his straightforward rockabilly arrangement is just what the song called for. Patti Smith does an atmospheric, almost spiritual interpretation of "Words of Love" that qualifies as the album's one true improvement over the original. And while I had my doubts initially about Kid Rock doing a Memphis soul take on Holly's classic acoustic ballad "Well All Right," he manages to pull it off pretty well.

Most of the remaining tracks were nice, if not particularly noteworthy. But that's the typical curse of a tribute record; a "nice" cover of a better original is interesting to hear once or twice, and then you'll want to go back to the original. Still, albums like Rave On Buddy Holly are designed to bring the music of the original performer to a new audience, and if a few people go to a record store or search Amazon or iTunes looking for Buddy Holly's recordings because of this album, it will have accomplished a worthy goal.

Overall grade: B-

reviewed by Scott

The electronic press kit for Rave On Buddy Holly

9.02.2011

APOLLO 18

There are plenty of conspiracy theories about the faked moon landing -- but what about a secret mission that actually went there after the "last" mission? And what if what was found, and the reason for going, was terrifying? This is the premise of Apollo 18, the latest "found footage" horror movie.

Ostensibly previously unreleased NASA footage, Apollo 18 tells the story of three astronauts who went to the moon on a covert mission back on December 1974. One stayed in orbit around the moon, while his two colleagues (played by Warren Christie and Lloyd Owen) went to the moon in a lander, to set up numerous motion-sensitive cameras and transmitters, ostensibly to spy on the Russians.

The movie Alien may have told us that in space no one can hear you scream, but Apollo 18 gets around that with radio interference: a lot of strange, chittering sounds. There are lots of times when it looks like something just moved, and things start getting misplaced or stolen. Then there's the discovery of a Soviet lander on the moon -- and a dead cosmonaut. And there are those inhuman footprints...

Despite its novel setting for a horror movie, Apollo 18 is fairly typical for a movie "composed" of recovered footage. While the use of multiple cameras keeps this from becoming "The Blair Witch Project in Space," after a short while the camera interference and cutouts get both predictable and annoying. The actors do a solid job, but there's not much for them to do with both building tensions and the near-obligatory government conspiracy (this time, thanks to the Department of Defense).

Apollo 18 has creatures from beyond, infection and madness, the sneaky government, and someone looking at their feet while running and panting. It's not bad, but I've seen it all before -- though not on the moon.

Overall grade: C
Reviewed by James Lynch





9.01.2011

THE BEST OF GAHAN WILSON

Gahan Wilson has been making disturbing and hysterical cartoons for over 50 years. His work has graced the pages of The New Yorker, Playboy, National Lampoon, comic books and science fiction magazines. It's hard to do justice to such a body of work in under 150 pages, but that's the goal of The Best of Gahan Wilson, a modest collection of a tremendous cartoonist.

The Best of Gahan Wilson showcases Wilson's humor with many of his favorite topics. There are supernatural monsters a-plenty, but there are also the everyday horrors: the pharmacist who accidentally turned a patient to a puddle of goo, the little kid who sends his just-built toy robot to kill his parents, the creepy neighbor you wouldn't want inviting you to a barbecue, and so on. These one-panel cartoons, in color and black & white, are quite twisted, dark -- and damn funny too.

The Best of Gahan Wilson also has some longer features of Wilson's. There are some serial pieces he did for National Lampoon -- including "Nuts," which Wilson describes as "my cranky reaction against the archetypal, totally unchildlike beings in Peanuts" -- and his illustration of Edgar Allan Poe's poem "The Conquerer Worm." Wilson also comments on some trends here and there, including some of his favorite subjects (H.P. Lovecraft, Dick Tracy, Sherlock Holmes) and how he shifted from mythical horror to social and political commentary in his humor.

The Best of Gahan Wilson is an excellent introduction to Wilson's work. There are collections of his work that have bigger pages and more cartoons (and a much bigger price tag), but this is a very good sampling of his art, his sense of humor, and his subjects. And if this makes you want to seek out those other collections, so much the better!

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch


STRIP JOINTZ ROCKS

What sort of music is ideal for stripping? If you're looking for classic rock or alternative, the 1998 compilation Strip Jointz Rocks: Rock N Roll for Sexy Dancers gives a pretty good mix of classic rock and alternative tunes collected for, well, stripping. (For rap and r&b, those are on the other two Strip Jointz collections. I have no idea if there's a country collection designed for this activity.)

Strip Jointz Rocks is pretty evenly divided between classic rock and alternative songs. While some of the classic rock songs are pretty obvious -- Motley Crue's "Girls, Girls, Girls," Billy Squire's "The Stroke" -- I was surprised to hear "Born to Be Wild" and "What's Your Name" here. And when hearing Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll Part 2" I'll always think of sports fans chanting in a stadium. Still, they tend to work with the, er, theme of this album: strong beats, and simple or risque lyrics that aren't exactly thought-provoking.

The alternative songs work much like the classic rock ones, though there are the occasional lines in Duran Duran's "Girls on Film," Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love," and Republica's "Ready to Go" that may be a little uncomfortable when mixed with stripping. (And Billy Idol's "Dancing with Myself" feels pretty out of place here.) But these songs have even more overtly sexual overtones -- Berlin's "Sex (I'm A)," Gleaming Spires' "Are You Ready for the Sex Girls" and the DiVinyls' "I Touch Myself") -- and they also manage the strong, steady beats that seem ideal for the local strip club (or private show). Of course, anyone who's lived through the '80s will hear Yello's "Oh Yeah" and think of the end of Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

Strip Club Jointz ends withTom Jones' cover of "You Can Leave Your Hat On," and in a way it's the perfect finale: the horns and drums sound like they're played right in a club, the unmistakable lyrics (actually directing the subject on how to move and what to remove), and a voice that's both sensual and fun. I don't know how the music in strip clubs is chosen, but Strip Jointz Rocks works very well: not only for that motif, but also as a very nice blend of classic rock and alternative music.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch