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

JENGA

"Gravity is a harsh mistress" -- The Tick

Jenga, the classic removing-and-stacking game, requires steady hands and a sense of balance for victory. It's simple to learn, challenging in execution, and almost perfectly packaged.

Jenga begins with a tower, composed of 18 rows of rectangular wooden pieces, with each row consisting of three pieces next to each other and the pieces of each row at a right angle to the row above and below it. On each player's turn, they have to (using only one hand) remove a piece from anywhere but the top row, then place it on the top to start or continue the top row, without the whole thing falling over. The last player to put a piece on top without it falling over wins.

Those are all the rules to Jenga. It's an amazingly easy game to learn and teach, quick to set up, and quick to play. While it's fun, it is the same formula over and over for each game. Also, while some versions apparently come with a hard plastic sleeve to keep the pieces in the tower, mine came with a paper sleeve that doesn't do much.

Jenga isn't a game for playing all day long, but it's a good filler for playing in-between games or while waiting for everyone to show up.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

11.12.2011

FOOTLOOSE 2011 soundtrack

While I didn't see this year's remake of Footloose, it's safe to say -- from the trailer, and the original -- that the theme of the movie is that teens just gotta dance. Considering that the remake is set in the south, it also follows that they just gotta dance to country music. This year's Footloose soundtrack delivers plenty of country music; but as for the dancing...

This Footloose soundtrack is almost half remakes of songs from the original movie and soundtrack, and half original material. The covers are a mixed lot: Blake Shelton stays pretty close to the original for the title track, giving enough of a country twang to make it remain fun. Likewise, the country music feel that Jana Kramer brings to "Let's Hear It for the Boy" makes the song fresh and uplifting. But the duet of Hunter Hayes and Disney singer Victoria Justice on "Almost Paradise" is a little too close to the original, while making "Holding Out for a Hero" into a slow, almost-mournful ballad doesn't quite work.

The new songs are also mixed. It's hard not to want to get up and dance to songs like "So Sorry Mama" (a tribute to those irrestible bad boys) and the Big & Rich=Gretchen Wilson collaboration "Fake ID" (about an underage kid eager to sneak into a bar to hear a band). But the soundtrack takes an odd turn halfway through, slowing down for the aforementioned "Almost Paradise" and following that with two blues songs and a slower rocker before returning to dance with David Banner and Denim's cover of "Dance the Night Away." Maybe this shift from dancing makes sense in the context of the movie, but it's an odd change of mood on the album. I'm also surprised that Julianne Hough, the movie's co-star, doesn't have any songs here since she has her own country album out.

Overall, the Footloose soundtrack is a fairly enjoyable collection of mostly country songs.

I would have though the soundtrack to a movie about dancing would have a lot more songs you could dance to, but there are plenty of good covers and originals through this album.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

11.10.2011

Are All Guys Assholes?


The Question on Every Woman's Mind...


by Amber Madison

Tarcher/Penguin

$15.95

            So, are all guys assholes?  The surprising answer, supplied by Amber Madison in her new book is: no.  Yeah, I could not believe it myself.  But Madison, a dedicated assholologist, spent a lot of time interviewing 1,000 men all across America.  Her survey, a copy of which is appended to the book, asked a number of probing questions designed to test a guy's asshole quotient (that's my own term) and it appears that the American male's AQ is not quite as high as just about every woman would expect.  True, a woman might merely be going on her own limited experience of the men who have moved into, and then with astonishing rapidity, out of, her life when she labels all men assholes, but Madison believes that much of the asshole stigma that adheres to men is derived from a popular culture that casts men as emotionless, sex-hungry assholes.

            But men are emotionless, sex-hungry assholes, I hear women shouting back as they read this.  That's not some media nonsense!  Good point.  There are times, when I too, a man, believe that (most other) guys are merely upright-walking dogs.  But Madison has some interesting things to say about the men that she met during her interviews, many of whom proved to be remarkably thoughtful in their responses to her survey questions. 

            Are All Guys Assholes? is aimed at young women.  Imagine a very long Cosmo article about what guys really think.  I am not a member of the target demographic, but the title itself was enough to pique my interest.  I decided to review the book much as a person with a serious illness (in this case, guyness) would review a book that explained the condition to those who are not afflicted (all women).  

            Women clearly need some help.  Women don't want to be angry and upset all the time at their men.  They may love their boyfriends, and want to know why their emotional lives seem so stunted.   Or whether men are really as commitment-phobic as they are portrayed in the media.  The pain women feel is easy to discern.  Talk to a woman about men and very soon the angst and ire pours forth, along with a boatload of scorn.  The word “asshole” is used by women to describe the young men in their lives almost as readily as “breathing.”  As a descriptive epithet, it is hurled with such frequency that I can't help but believe that it is deployed recklessly, and unfairly, such as whenever a guy breaks up with a woman, or merely displeases her.  Nonetheless, in those instances, I suppose, if a woman really believes that a guy is an asshole, then to her at least, the term fits.  But it would be better for a woman to learn how to avoid assholes in the first place.

            I have some reservations about Madison's methodology.  She handed out surveys to men in bars.  As a non-bar going guy, I wonder just how representative these men actually are.  Genuine men can be found in many other places, and they are not all the same.  I'd also advise women against looking for their soulmates in bars, which are not well-known for being places where you find men looking for long-term, romantic love relationships.  I am also suspicious of Madison's interview technique, in which she, a pretty young woman herself, talked directly, in-person, to her survey-takers.  This seems to me to be a flaw, in that any number of men might become unwilling to express their less noble personality traits and beliefs about women in a cute woman's presence. 

            Madison organizes the book around questions that a woman might pose about a prospective boyfriend.  Some of them are heartbreaking, or at least would be, if I, a man, actually had a heart.  I kid!  I kid!  Sort of.  For example, one question is:  How often am I gonna see this guy?  How depressing!  Others are:  How will I know if he really likes me?  Is he acting like he likes me just because he wants to get laid?  I've been hooking up with this guy for awhile, is there any chance of becoming his girlfriend?  We've been dating for a while.  So why isn't he asking me to be his girlfriend? 

            As entertaining as the book is, it also makes for some downbeat reading.  Shouldn't these kinds of questions be beyond or behind the concern of twentysomething young women?  Most seem to arise because of the weirdness that the hook-up culture on college campuses and in big cities have inflicted on young people, women and men alike.  If a woman isn't sure how much she will see a guy, or even if she is his girlfriend, what is she doing wasting her time on him?  Some questions are understandable.  The other gender will always be mysterious, being raised in different ways and treated differently from almost the moment of birth.  It can't be expected that women will find men any more comprehensible than men do women.  It is just sad that Madison has had to write a book full of answers for women so deeply troubled by all the jerks that the world has to offer. 
          
Marc

11.06.2011

SPORTS ILLUSTRATED SWIMSUIT PORTFOLIO: FANTASY ISLANDS

As fall approaches and the days and nights get chillier, it's easy to imagine someplace nicer. Tropical islands have a definite appeal: sun, sand, oceans, warmth... and the world's most spectacular swimsuit models. The last are featured in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Portfolio: Fantasy Islands, the latest coffee-table book based on that ultimate expression of the male heterosexual id, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.

The theme of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Portfolio: Fantasy Islands is presented quite simply in the title. This collection features seventeen models, being shot in swimwear by five photographers, in islands in Fiji, the Philippines, the British Virgin Islands, Singapore, and Hawaii. Each model has several pages of photographs, followed by their photographer speaking about how great it was working with them.



This book follows the same format as the previous Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Portfolio collections (also reviewed here), essentially expanding the annual Swimsuit Issue into a hardcover book with larger dimensions (11.2" x 12.2") and glossy pages. And, as with previous years, it works very well. The combination of stunning women and gorgeous scenery remains as intoxicating as ever, and while there are few surprises, this book delivers exactly what it promises. The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Portfolio: Fantasy Islands is another terrific collection of beautiful photography of beautiful women.


Overall grade: A-

Reivewed by James Lynch






11.04.2011

Soulless (2009) and Changeless (2010) - Gail Carriger


These two books, Soulless and Changeless, are the first two in what appears to be an open-ended series, the Alexia Tarrabotti novels, or the "Parasol Protectorate." They are a mish-mash of Steampunk, nearly-sparkly Vampires and not-quite-brooding werewolves. I must say, at the outset, I enjoyed them rather more than I felt I ought.

As I say, the setting takes as its jumping off point, a Victorian steampunk world, and then postulates that one of the reasons for the preeminence of the British Empire is the fact that King Henry VIII embraced the supernatural, incorporating vampires and werewolves into British society. Werewolves often serve in the military, vampires are high-society hosts, and so forth. This conceit of Miss Carriger's works well and helps to elevate the book above the glut of vampire and werewolf fiction.

The other aspect of the books which turns reading them from simple guilt into guilty or not-so-guilty pleasure is the sense of humour. One pull quote compares her wit to that of Austen and Wodehouse. While I would not go quite that far, after all, P.G. Wodehouse is one of the great stylists of the English language, Miss Carriger does bring a witty touch to her writing. Our heroine, Alexia Tarrabotti, has a best friend naturally, named Ivy Hisselpenny. Her half-sisters are the Misses Loontwill. If those names do not strike you as at least slightly amusing, then perhaps these books are not for you.

Miss Carriger also has put some thought into her setting, both the steampunk and the supernatural, which makes it internally consistent. Some of the touches that she has added to the well trodden ground of vampire-and-werewolf are quite innovative, and are fully integrated into the larger world of the books.

The drawback to the books, and call me a prude if you must, lies in the extended and somewhat indelicate interludes between Alexia and her eventual husband, the werewolf Earl of Woolsey. The problem is not simply one of taste, I'm afraid. The books have a somewhat affected style, which mocks ever so slightly, but in a loving way, Victorian literature and mores. The more overt erotic passages are, as a result, a bit jarring, since their tone does not quite fit with the rest of the narrative.

However, that is a minor quibble. The books are a great deal of fun, and I enjoyed the first two immensely, although a tendency toward cliff-hangerism is becoming more pronounced. There are four books in the series to date, and although I have not yet read books three and four, I fully intend to, and if you are looking for a ripping yarn, some clever wordplay, and a nicely executed twist on the standard tropes of fang and claw, perhaps you should, too.

Overall Grade: B to B+