12.28.2012

DJANGO UNCHAINED

If there's a mix of fine cinema and nostalgic trashiness, there must be a new Quentin Tarrantino film.  Django Unchained is profile of the brutality of racism in the pre-Civil War south, as well as a shoot-'em-up with an ultra-cool, ultra-lethan man on a mission.


Django Unchained begins with Django (Jamie Foxx) getting recsued from a chain gang of slaves by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz).  Schultz, a German-born multilingual gentleman, poses as a dentist -- even having a stagecoach with a large bouncing tooth -- but he's a bounty hunter, focusing on finding criminals that are wanted dead or alive, killing them, and bringing their corpses in for the bounty.  He needs Django to identify the Bitter Brothers -- and once they are found and killed, he'll give Django his freedom, $75, and a horse.
But Django wants more than his freedom.  His wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who conveniently speaks German, was sold into slavery and Django wants to find and free her.  So Schultz and Django become partners, and the trail to "Hilda" leads to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the owner of a giant cotton plantation known as Candyland.  Assisted by an Uncle Tom manservant named Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Calvin fancies himself a man of gentility and culture, yet he has a passion for watching black man fight to the death.
There's a wide range of things going on throughout Django Unchained.  On the one hand, this shows the brutality and inhumanity of slavery, from the tortures and treatment of people as property to the "n-word" being thrown about casually and the frequent amazement and often hostility at the sight of a black man riding a horse.  At the same time, the opening music and titles have the feel of a blackploitation film, and the movie often goes for glorified shootouts (with no sympathy for Django's victims) as bodies literally explode after being shot.

Overall, these elements make the movie a little long -- but they all work well.  While there are painful moments of cruelty and gore, there are also plenty of comic moments, from Django's overly-fancy valet costume to some wannabe Klan members complaining that they can't see through the eyeholes in their masks.  The action scenes and gun glorification are over the top, but that's tempered by Tarantino's love of scenes of one or two people talking; and the cast is terrific.  Django Unchained isn't the best Tarantino movie -- but it is pretty good.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

12.27.2012

WITS AND WAGERS

Trivia games have been around for ages (the most popular being the 1980s phenomenon Trivial Pursuit) -- but what happens when you add betting and odds to the mix of knowing random facts?  Wits & Wagers from North Star Games puts a nice wrinkle on the "who knows the most?" type of game by adding betting and the ability to use another person's answers.

Each player (or team of players) gets two chips in their team color, an answer card, and a dry-erase marker to write on the answer card.  At the start of a round, a question with a numerical answer is asked.  (Some questions include: How many provinces make up Canada?  In dollars, how much was Mike Myers paid to voice Shrek in the movie Shrek 2?  In what year was the electric razor invented?)  Each player/team then guesses what the answer is without going over, writing their guess on their answer card.
 
Next it's off to the Betting Mat!  Each person's guess goes on the mat.  If there are an odd number of different guesses, the middle guess goes in the "Pays 2 to 1" slot, with each higher and lower guess going on either side of the guess (and paying 3 to 1, 4 to 1, etc.).  If there are an even number of different guesses, the "Pays 2 to 1" slot is skipped.  After the guesses are placed, each player can put their two chips on two answers on the board: the same answer, two different answers, or the "All Answers Too High" slot at the end that pays 6 to 1.  A player can also put any chips they've won under their team chip, risking those chips but possibly winning much more.  After all players have bet, winning guesses get paid, losing guesses lose all their chips except the two team chips, and each player with an answer in the winning slot gets three bonus chips.  Then the answer cards are erased and the next round begins.  After seven questions, whoever has the most chips wins.
 
Wits & Wagers is a good party game: easy to explain and quick to play.  While knowing the answers certainly helps, it's just as important to know how much to risk and whose to bet on.  (I won one game because I'd risk 2-3 chips on each guess while my opponents only used their starting chips.)  As with any trivia game, there's the possibility that if you play enough times the players will know the answers just from repetition (though expansions and trivia books can take care of that problem).  Apart from that, though, Wits & Wagers is a lot of fun for casual gamers to hang out and see who can win the most chips.
 
(There's also a Party Edition of the game that has no Betting Mat.  I prefer the standard edition.)
 
Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch


12.23.2012

BOB'S BURGERS

The dysfunctional-but-lovable family unit is a staple of television sitcoms -- especially animated ones, from The Simpsons to Family Guy -- so it's no surprise that Fox added Bob's Burgers to its Animation Domination lineup.  Fortunately, this cartoon about a regular dad trying to keep sane with a crazy family is elevated by some terrific voice talent and a dark sense of humor.
Bob Belcher (H. Jon Benjamin) just wants to raise his family and make a few bucks cooking at his restaurant, Bob's Burgers.  However, his family is fairly insane.  Youngest daughter Louise (Kristen Schaal) always wears rabbit ears, loves getting people in trouble, and is a borderline sociopath.  Middle child Gene (Eugene Mirman) fancies himself a comic and singer -- even if his material consists of fart noises on an electronic keyboard.  Teenage daughter Tina (Dan Mintz) has low self esteen and goes along with just about anything anyone says.  And Bob's wife Linda (John Roberts -- lot of men doing women's voices here) enthusiastically drags Bob into all sorts of things he wishes he didn't have to do.
Bob's Burgers is largely a series of wacky hijinks (Bob trapped in a crawlspace, the family gets hijacked at sea, the family adopting a cow) that have no bearing on any other episodes.  However, in addition to the great voicework (from H. Jon Benjamin's almost-dull everyman to Schaal's mischievous imp), Bob's Burgers has some terrific jokes.  When Bob gets trapped in the wall, it leads to a Shining parody; when they go to a music festival, there's a dead-on parody of Tori Amos.  And when the kids crash a birthday party for free cake and the mother wants to know how they know her son, their answers are "homeroom," "church," and "Desert Storm."

ww.you doesn't revolutionize the sitcom -- but it makes me laugh.  A lot.  That's pretty good for a burger joint.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

12.15.2012

LINCOLN

There are plenty of historical movies out there -- and most could learn from Lincoln about how to narrow their focus and make their subject gripping.


Lincoln begins after Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) has been re-elected President and is about to start his second term.  The Civil War rages on, though there are signs that the South may be ready for peace.  However, Lincoln's main focus seems to be on passing the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution -- which would abolish slavery.  Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) wants to wait for passage until later in the President's term, when the House of Representatives won't be so closely split between Lincoln's Republicans and the bitterly-opposed Democrats.  Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) wants the amendment, but he may scare potential supporters by suggesting that "blacks" will then be given the right to vote, work as free men, and even (gasp!) have interracial marriages.  Even Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) fears that the amendment may both tarnish Lincoln's popularity and extend the Civil War; and she fears their son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt) will become a soldier and get killed.


Lincoln is a movie about a man navigating between two separate, monumental events simultaneously: ending the Civil War and passing the thirteenth amendment.  The political maneuverings are intense, as every single vote could make the difference and political operative W.N. Bilbo (James Spader) uses everything from appointments to bribery to swing Democrats over to supporting the amentment -- or at least voting absent.  At the same time, the war is on everyone's mind, weighing on them with the cost in American lives and the potential for more bloodshed if the amendment passes.  There always seen to be African-American people around, mostly servants or soldiers, awaiting their fate without having a say in it.  And through it all, Abraham Lincoln wanders, often telling jokes and long stories but always determined to do what he feels history and America demand of him.


Lincoln is an amazing film.  The performance of Daniel Day-Lewis is extraordinary, making Abraham Lincoln a man struggling to maintain and impose his convictions even while surrpunded by perils and doubters.  The rest of the cast is also exceptional, notably Tommy Lee Jones as the idealist whose very passion may hurt his cause but who also knows his way around politics.  This movie is adapted from the book Team of Rivals, and the focus on this pivotal part of Lincoln's life keeps the film from being a padded biopic and rather focuses the audience on the one time of tension when politics and war seemed to conspire against the President.  Director Steven Spielberg combines drama and comedy equally well, getting very human and passionate performances from the cast. Lincoln is a riveting, thoughtful, and thoroughly engrossing movie.

Overall grade: A+
Reviewed by James Lynch

THE BEST OF BURLESQUE cd

Did you know that burlesque shows began not as risque stripping entertainment but as musical and comic entertainment?  The Best of Burlesque: 50 Original Club Classics takes a more historical approach to this genre of music, offering more jazz and blues than bump and grind.

The Best of Burlesque includes a wide variety of artists -- including famous ones like Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie, Etta James, Louis Prima, Bo Didley, and T-Bone Walker -- performing everything from instrumental dance numbers to blues-inspired spoken-word pieces.  The striptease element is present in some of the numbers here, whether it's the iconic "The Stripper" from David Rose to the barely-concealed double entendres of songs like "My Girlfriend's a Jockey," "I Love to Ride" and "Big 10 Inch Record (of the Blues)."  However, these songs also celebrate the hip, cool lifestyle, the Playboy Club rather than Playboy as it were.  There are numerous tunes about drinking, being stylish ("Jack, That Cat Was Clean") and being cool ("Three Cool Cats").  The Best of Burlesque is as much about the lifestyle of the clubs as it is about being sexy and gettin' it on.
 
My biggest complaint with this collection is its lack of context.  While the dates for the songs are given (mostly 1940s and 1950s) and there's a small history of the burlesque scene from the 19th century to today, The Best of Burlesque doesn't provide more details on the music.  How popular were these songs?  Did they face censorship due to their often-risque lyrics and melodies?  Who influenced who?  Who performed together?  Instead, we're simply given 50 songs, not presented in chronological or thematic order.
 
The Best of Burlesque is mostly useless for those looking to perform and strip down.  It works well, though, as a sampling of the music of the cool crowd from the '40s and '50s.
 
Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

12.05.2012

VICTORIA'S SECRET FASHION SHOW 2012

There are plenty of annual traditions that come about towards the end of the year -- Thanksgiving dinner, Black Friday shopping, putting up the Christmas tree, midnight mass, New Year's Eve celebrations -- but I'll go with supermodels in lingerie.  The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show 2012 continues this grand tradition/commercial by following the same formula as the past shows: gorgeous women, elaborate costumes, musical performances, featurettes about the shows and models, and, oddly enough, Victoria's Secret commercials during the commercial breaks.

The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show 2012 has several themes -- Circus, Calendar Girls, Pink Ball (think pinball), Silver Screen Angels, and Angels in Bloom -- with the outfits based on each theme.  Many of the outfits include elaborate props or attachments, such as pinwheels, bicycle handlebars, and a spinning hypnotic disc; as someone comments, the shows become "more couture-y" each year, and what's modeled here is meant to inspire what's sold in the stores, not to be sold directly.

This year, featurettes include a look at the store's commercials ("five days of modelling for 30 seconds"), what dating is like for the Angels (warning: nothing that will help you or me with them), a brief look at the career of model Candice Swanepoel, and bloopers from the show.

 

For those looking for the million dollar bra, The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show upped the ante with a $2.5 million bra, worn by Alessandra Ambrosia (pictured to the left).  I can't tell the difference between it and the other bras -- must be my lack of fashion sense (or lack of millions of dollars to spend on underwear).



There are two ways to tell what musicians are popular at the moment: Check the latest Now That's What I Call Music cd and see who's performing at the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show.  This year the show had multiple performances from Rihanna, Bruno Mars, and Justin Bieber.  In-between the live performances there were club mash-ups of everything from the Doors' "Break on Through" to current top 40 hits.
 
Anime even made a surprise appearance, as one of the outfits was clearly inspired by the show Ranma 1/2.  (Thanks to the Topless Robot website for this bit of trivia.)




The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show 2012 delivered what it always does: some of the most beautiful women in the world in some stunning lingerie (and some goofy "couture-y" outfits); behind-the-scenes items that are sometimes interesting (it takes a year to prepare for each show) and sometimes bathetic (does  a Victoria's Secret commercial really feature "confident, powerful women"?); live and mixed musical performances (and who knew these women had Bieber Fever?); and the information that The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show was "sponsored in part by Victoria's Secret," which explains their commercials during the show.  It's sexy, it's silly, it's shamelessly commercial, it's fun -- and it's very likely coming back year.  And I can't wait.

Written by James Lynch
 
 



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12.02.2012

TOTAL BLACKOUT

I don't think the ability to see in the dark is the stuff of science fiction amymore -- from animals with this ability to night-vision goggles -- but since the SyFy Channel shows wrestling, they might as well pretend seeing in darkness is advanced.  At any rate, this ability is the whole impetus for their game show Total Blackout.

Hosted by Jaleel White, each episode of Total Blackout has four contestants competing in total darkness for a $5000 prize; and thanks to cameras that see in the dark, we get to watch what the contestants are doing while they race with each other or try to identify things by touch, smell, etc.  After each event, the remaining contestants jump onto spaces on the floor in front of them -- with the eliminated player falling through.

I wish they'd left the lights and cameras off for Total Blackout; that way, I wouldn't have had to watch this terrible show.  The challenges to be gross and sadistic, and the final challenge has a cruel prank played on the contestants (such as telling them they'll have a live tarantula placed on them, while it's just a stuffed animal).  The contestants spend most of their time shrieking and squirming (not that I can blame them), and White provides incessant useless, annoying, and unfunny commentary during the challenges.  And "thanks" to editing, we don't see who's winning a competition until it's over and we wait for one person to jump into a pit.
Total Blackout seems designed for people who still find the Saw movies entertaining.  For those of us who like contests with intelligence, skill, or even dignity, this show is the antithesis of quality programming.  Sadly, this makes it a perfect addition to the SyFy Channel.

Overall grade: F
Reviewed by James Lynch

11.25.2012

MOCKINGBIRD LANE

Remaking a tv show or movie shouldn's simply be a rehash of the original; it should bring something fresh and different, offering more than just a rerun of the source material.  Mockingbird Lane succeeds at breathing new life into The Munsters, in no small part due to the whimsy, enchantment, and dark humor of writer Bryan Fuller (who was also behind the amazing show Pushing Daisies).
While the original Munsters had a family of monsters who thought they were a normal family, Mockingbird Lane has members of the Munster family who cover the whole spectrum of awareness of their monstrosities.  The show begins with the Munsters moving into their new home after young Eddie Munster (Mason Cook) turned into a werewolf on a Wildlife Explorer camping trip.  Herman Munster (Jerry O'Connell), a patchwork patchwork of body parts, wants to shield his son from knowing that he's a lycanthorpe.  Herman's wife Lily (Portia de Rossi) is a loving wife and mother -- and vampire - who's fine with her abulities but doesn't want her son thinking she's a freak.  As in the original show, Lily's niece Marilyn (Charity Wakefield) is the black sheep of the family for not being any sort of monster. And Grandpa (Eddie Izzard) is part vampire, part gargoyle, part mad scientist, and all about embracing monstrosity, whether turning the neighbors into his blood slaves or wanting to kill Wildlife Explorer Steve (Cheyenne Jackson) to replace Herman's failing heart.
Much like Pushing Daisies, Mockingbird Lane features an impressive blend of the light and the dark.  There's an almost artificial brightness to the suburban neighborhood, contrasted with the magical world of the Munsters.  There's a very wicked sense of humor through the show -- when a realtor warns "There may be dead homeless people in the walls!" Marilyn calmly answers, "Then they found a home after all" -- and a good family dynamic that includes tension with the in-law and fitting in when you really stand out.  The cast is excellent (especially Izzard, relishing the role of unrepentant bad guy) and the show is amazing.

Alas, Mockingbird Lane only had a pilot episode made, shown and passed on by NBC.  (This is surprising, as it would be a perfect fit with their fantasy show Grimm.)  Since this show has some magic and humor sorely missing from most television programs, I hope Mockingbird Lane finds new life elsewhere.
 
Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch
 
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11.18.2012

THE BEST RED VS. BLUE DVD EVER. OF ALL TIME.

Ah, the clip show: Both a way to introduce new people to something and to make something "new" by re-releasing older material.  The 100-plus episode webseries Red Vs. Blue tackles this challenge with The Best Red Vs. Blue DVD Ever.  Of All Time by having the cast present their "best of" moments by hosting an awards show.  In some ways, this is as juvenile as the series -- and just as funny.

Red Vs. Blue has nothing to do with politics.  Instead, it's all created by folks in the Halo videogame, as the Red Team and Blue team are stuck together in Blood Gulch Canyon; the Blue Team controls Blood Gulch Outpost Alpha, while the Red Team occupies Blood Gulch Outpost Number One.  In theory, the two sides should be trying to kill each other and take the other's outpost.  In practice, that virtually never happens.   Instead, the members joke, bicker, blow stuff up, hurt themselves, and occasinally fight everyone but each other.

The cast includes: Sarge (Matt Hullum), a tough-as-nails dtill seregant who never gets around to attaxking the enemy; Grif (Geoff Lazer Ramsey), a fairly intelligent soldier in yellow armor ("It's not yellow.  It's gold") who's too lazy to do anything useful; Donut (Dan Godwin), stuck in pink armor; Tucker (Jason Saldana), always ready to follow anything vaguely sexually suggesting with "Bow chicka bow wow"; and Caboose (Joel Heyman), a compete idiot.  ("I don't want to be dead!  I want to be alive!  Or a cowboy.")  There's also freelancer Texas "Tex" Alison (Kathleen Zuelch), a kick-ass fighter who can outshine everyone else (and who tends to hit Grif in the nuts), and the Meta, a nigh-unstoppable creature.  And don't forget Andy the Bomb and Sheila the Tank!
 
The Best Red Vs. Blue... has almost the whole cast at an Oscars-type show, giving awards for everything from funniest lines ("You will fear my laser face!") to best action scenes to best episodes from each season.  The full-length episodes and scenes stretch the dvd out to over two hours, but it shows a surprisingly exciting side to the series at times.  Of course it's hard to take a series about men in futuristic armor and heavily armed bickering and falling (not to mention calling each other "you cockbiting fucktard!"), but The Best Red Vs. Blue... is filled with laugh-out-loud moments -- and a good overview of the series (if you don't mind spoilers).  It's a very entertaining clip show/award show.
 
Shotgun!
 
Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch
 

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11.15.2012

TABLETOP

What's the best way to learn about new and different games?  A web series watching people play and having the rules explained helps.  So do celebrities -- including Wil Wheaton as host -- and a loser's couch and reusable trophy for the winner.  This is the setting for TableTop, a web series that is a pretty good guide to and review of many good geek games (quite a few of which were also reviewed here).


TableTop begins with Wil Wheaton introducing a board or card game, then sitting down to play with three other people.  Players include actors (like Felicia Day and Colin Ferguson), reality hosts (Grant Imahara from Mythbusters), internet stars, gaming professionals (Steve Jackson, who created Munchkin, joins them to play Munchkin), and even Wil's wife Anne.  During the game various rules and strategies are explained, sometimes play fast-forwards, and within 22-25 minutes there is a victor.  The losers sit on the Loser's Couch, while Wil interviews the victor (if he wins, a cardboard cutout of himself; if the game wins, a copy of the game), and (temporarily) gives them the trophy of victory.


TableTop is a terrific way to introduce people to some terrific games.  The folks gathered together get very competitive, very profane (lots of curses bleeped out), and often very silly.  My only complaint is that sometimes get the rules wrong (though I suspect Steve Jackson did that because he knew no one would question the man who made the game they were playing); while it's possible this happens to streamline ganeplay for the introduction, it's still a little misleading.  Except for that, though, TableTop is a terrific way to show not just how to play games, but how much fun the games are to play.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

(And be sure to check out 23:05 in the clip below for every gamer's worst nightmare)


Blink-182, GREATEST HITS

"That's about the time that she broke up with me/No one should take themselves so seriously/With many years ahead to fall in line/Why would you wish that on me?/I never want to act my age."  These lyrics from "What's My Age Again?" by Blink-182 sum up the band's pretty consistent message, and that comes through pretty clearly on their 2005 Greatest Hits album.

Blink-182 has always straddled the line between pop and punk.  On the one hand, their songs feature aggressive percussion from Travis Barker mixed with snide vocals from Mark Hoppus and Tom DeLonge.  On the other hand, their music includes catchy guitar hooks and mostly songs about women and dating.  It's appropriate that their first really big hit, "All the Small Things," works just as well as a parody of boy band music as a song very much in the style of boy bands.

This mix may keep Blink-182 out of the roughest, unpolished, edgy punk arena, but it's also pretty appealing.  The songs have a funny, often self-depricating side ("My girlfriend takes collect calls from the road/And it doesn't seem to matter that I'm lacking in the bulge") and even manage some serious songs (the pre-suicide "Adam's Song" and "Staying Together for the Kids") while trying new sounds with "Feeling This" and "I Miss You."

The biggest problem with this Greatest Hits collection is what's missing.  While there will always songs that can't fit onto a collection (I wish "Anthem Part 2" was here), there are only two new songs here; and while their cover of "Another Girl, Another Planet" is very good, it first appeared on an MTV show.   There are no rarities or live tracks here that would have offered more than what's on the albums.

Blink-182 Greatest Hits is a ptetty good sampling of some kick-ass music from a semi-punk band.  I'm sorry there wasn't more new or rare music here, but this is still a good collection of kick-ass songs.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch



11.07.2012

Kylie Minogue, THE ABBEY ROAD SESSIONS


Everything old is new again, as Kylie Minogue reinvents her old hits (and new single "Flower") on her new album The Abbey Road Sessions.  This has her not simply collecting songs for another greatest hits compilation, but departing from her pop-disco stylings to give these songs a new feel that is quite beautiful.

While most of the songs here began as pop fluff -- from Kylie's teen beginnings to most recent album, Aphrodite -- Kylie reinvents them by focusing on her vocals, supported by everything from piano to violins to acoustic guitar.  The result is amazing, as Kylie transforms from a top 40 diva to a crooner who would be just as comfortable singing in a piano bar or in front of an orchestra.  The Abbey Road Sessions also provides a nice amount of musical variety, whether it's the '50s-sounding "Locomotion," the lovelorn-ballad approach to "Hand on Your Heart" and "Never Too Late," or keeping "Can't Get You Out of My Head" a fast-paced song not with steady synthesizers but with violins rushing in.  (It's also nice to have Nick Cave singing with Kylie again on "Where the Wild Roses Grow.")
 

Songwriting has never been Kylie Minogue's strength, and even the very nice redoings here can't conceal the sometimes-clunky lyrics.  Apart from that, though, The Abbey Road Sessions is a stunning album that shows a side of Kylie that has seldom been seen but is quite seductive musically.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch


LET THERE BE FACEBOOK


Facebook seems to be everywhere these days -- but what if it was everywhere for all of history, from the creation of the universe to, well, Lady Gaga's time as a baby?  Let There Be Facebook by Travis Harmon and Jonathan Shockley is a comic take on what would happen if the omnipresent social site had always existed.

The format for Let There Be Facebook is pretty simple: Take the biggest people in history and have them post on Facebook -- along with pictures, responses, and Internet slang to their comments.  The results include God and the Big Bang discussing the creation of the universe, Alexander the Great's friends thinking he may have an addiction to conquering, Davy Crockett getting many comments about his hat by someone who may be a raccoon, and Wilbur Wright discussing the first flight while Orville complains how few babes there are at Kitty Hawk.  There are also newsfeeds (such as the one for World War 2), likes and dislikes, and attending/not attending stats for different events.


Let There Be Facebook is a one-joke book -- but it's a joke that's done well.  It's easy to imagine what historical folks would say on the site, but it's pretty funny when those veer into unexpected territories, like the fake proposed works of Shakespeare and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, states talking on Facebook about letters a Pony Express rider is struggling to deliver, or Babe Ruth avoiding a dying kid's request that the Babe lose some weight.  Let There Be Facebook is a quick read that's good for quite a few chuckles.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch

11.04.2012

WRECK-IT RALPH

Can a person transcend their destiny to become more than what they're expected to be?  Or, in simpler terms, can the bad guy in a 8-bit arcade game become a good guy?  This is the basis for Wreck-It Ralph, a cute trip through video games that was surprisingly made by Disney, not Pixar.
In Litwak Arcade, a world exists that's a blend of Toy Story and Tron where the video game characters are self-aware.  When the arcade closes, the characters relax and -- traveling through power cables -- mingle together.  Characters are discouraged from game-jumping into new games (since if they die in a different game they don't regenerate) and fear a character "going Turbo" (named after a character who left his game to jump into a new, more popular game and got them both removed).  Video game characters can see outside the games to the real world, and their biggest fear is getting permanently unplugged.  (Homeless characters like QBert sit around in-between games.)

It's the 30th anniversary of the game Fix-It Felix Jr., a game where Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) damages an apartment building, Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer) repairs the building, and the residents throw Ralph off the roof.  But Ralph feels completely unappreciated -- Felix gets pies and parties, while Ralph has to sleep in a garbage dump, isn't invited to the anniversary party, and attends a villain support group -- so he leaves the game to win a medal, after which Gene (Raymond S. Persi) promises that Ralph can live in the penthouse.


Ralph winds up in a first-person shooter called Hero's Duty, where he annoys the tough-as-nails leader Calhoun (Jane Lynch), battle robotic bugs, and earns his medal.  But he soon winds up in a saccharine-filled cart racing game called Sugar Rush and the medal is lost.  A cute racer called Vanellope von Schweetz can get Ralph his medal back if she wins the race -- but she tends to glitch at inopportune times, doesn't have a vehicle, and doesn't know how to drive.  Further, the game's ruler King Candy (Alan Tudyk) is determined to keep Vanellope fro racing.  Felix goes searching for Ralph (since without him, their game gets the dreaded "Out of Order" notice), as does Calhoun, who thinks a bug that escaped with Ralph will wind up destroying Sugar Rush.

Wreck-It Ralph is a fun, light piece of entertainment.  There are plenty of elements there for those who remember when video games were outside the home, from numerous characters from the '80s to the shooter requiring eight quarters per play.  The visuals of the movie are impressive, as characters from different games mingle together (such as Calhoun being three times as tall as Felix).  The voice talent in very good: Reilly brings a rough-but-vulnerable side to Ralph as the tough guy who just wants to be loved, Silverman is the perfect brat with a heart of gold, McBrayer is perfect as the goody-goody hero (and a perfect contrast to Lynch's always-angry soldier), and Tudyk does nice comedy as the silly ruler.



Wreck-It Ralph doesn't offer many surprises (except for one plot twist) or emotional highs that mark the best animated features, but it is often funny and visually stunning.  This is an enjoyable little movie for both little kids and adults who used to plop quaters on an arcade machine to get the next turn.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch

11.01.2012

Taylor Swift, RED (deluxe version)

So, is Taylor Swift still a country artist? On her new album Red (deluxe version), she eschews most sounds of country music to create an almost pure-pop album. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with that...

Red (deluxe version) has Swift singing mostly about her favorite topics: love and boys. She can be quite optimistic about love, whether it's the teen fantasy night of "Starlight," the goofy romance of "Stay Stay Stay" or the hopeful new romance of "Begin Again." Conversely, Swift has plenty to say/sing about her exes, from bashing an ex in the first single "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" to old loves in "All Too Well" and "Sad Beautiful Tragic." She veers off romance a few times -- the we're-young-and-partying "22" and thr fame-is-rough "The Lucky One" -- but Red (deluxe version) is all abour romance, whether it's finding it or remembering it.

While Swift sings as well as ever, the writing here suffers from repetition.  Swift has an annoying habit of either "stuttering" part of a word over and over in the chorus, or using the same word several times in a row; this happening so often in "Stay Stay Stay" doesn't help.  As for the music behind the vocals, Red (deluxe version) sounds a bit less distinct from standard top 40 pop on the faster songs.  When Swift slows down for the ballads, she can be genuinely moving.  And the deluxe version of Red, from Target (disclaimer: I work for Target -- but I play for keeps!) has demo and acoustic versions of the first three songs on the album, plus three new songs.

Red (deluxe version) isn't a bad album, but it lacks the memorable sounds and variety of Swift's last album, Speak Now.  This time around Swift feels like she's doing more crowd-pleasing music than challenging or growing.  I hope that Swift tries for more country in her next release.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch


 

10.31.2012

PORN AND PONG by Damon Brown

One of  history's dirty little secrets is that most advances in technology have wound up being used for pornography/erotica -- so it's no surprise that sex has made its way into video games.  But did the sex in society affect the games, or did the sex in games affect society?  This is discussed in Damon Brown's book Porn & Pong: How Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider and Other Sexy Games Changed Our Culture.

This book is divided into three sections: "The Porn Era (1972-1995)," "The Lara Croft Era (1996-2001)," and "The Grand Theft Auto Era (2001-2008)."  Brown talks about not just the overtly sexual games -- the ones in the title; the infamous and crude Custer's Revenge; and the Leisure Suit Larry series -- but also what else was happening in the world and technology.  For example, one section begins with a detailed description of the interactive experience NASA provided of images from Mars -- and how they were overshadowed by the online Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee sex tape.  "Porn pundits argue that it was downloaded or bought online several times over any Mars-related paraphenalia," observes Brown wryly.  "In retrospect, it seems that Pamela Anderson Lee was the real uncharted world."

Porn & Pong isn't a consistent look at the intersection of video games and sex.  The book provides some good details and observations of the mix of the two, from the iconic Lara Croft's idealized/excessive measurements (38-24-34) to the fact that Custer's Revenge "sold eighty thousand copies at fifty bucks a pop" to the MMORPG gay pride parade held in World of Warcraft.  However, the book doesn't make a case for these games affecting culture as for their being affected by it, namely through the numerous controversies and attempts to ban them.  Porn & Pong notes that Playboy had its first video game centerfolds in 2004 -- but that it happened after the magazine was losing readers to Maxim.  This book isn't helped either by numerous typos (plus the phrase "a porn," as ridiculous sounding here as when used on Family Guy) and excessive spacing between paragraphs, giving the impression this book needed to be padded out.

The most insightful part of Porn & Pong is in Jon M. Gibson's introduction, where he argues that video games are still stuck in the juvenile, t&a-focused stage of dealing with sexuality.  Brown's book tends to support this view of sex in video games without commenting too much on it.  In the conclusion, Brown says, "...video games and their virtual worlds have rapidly changed our perception of entertainment, of interaction and of human relationships."  While this may be the case, Porn & Pong suggests that when it comes to sex, video games follow societal trends instead of creating them.

Overall grade: C+
Reviewed by James Lynch

10.26.2012

Halloween Gaming

Halloween is easily my favorite holiday.  It's the one holiday where you can dress up as literally anything, you can go from house seeking free candy, and you can play tricks and enjoy scares and the supernatural.  These elements are also popular in many games, so it's natural there are plenty of games that are natural fits for Halloween.  Below are some of my favorites.  Enjoy!

RIFFTRAX: BIRDEMIC

One staple of Halloween is the horror movie; and thanks to the Rifftrax folks, a new tradition is the horrible movie.  Kevin Murphy, Mike Nelson, and Bill Corbett have continued their Mystery Science Theater 3000 tradition of comedy wisecracking during bad movies with Rifftrax -- and around Halloween there seem to be bad horror movies given this comically savage treatment.  This year the trio took on a recent, unintentionally comic and definitely terrible movie with Rifftrax -- Birdemic: Shock and Terror.

Birdemic: Shock and Terror tries to present a message about global warming; sadly, the horrible acting, atrocious plot, and terribly fake cgi birds make it as effective in delivering its message as Plan 9 from Outer Space was at warning about the dangers of nuclear war.  The short description: a salesman quickly becomes a millionaire and environmentalist (despite not being able to pronounce "solar panels") starts dating a model (who quickly becomes the Victoria's Secret cover model) when global warming causes birds to start blowing up gas stations and attacking people.


Normally that would be enough said about this movie (except for sympathy for anyone who sat through it),  However, Murphy, Nelson, and Corbett have plenty of fun with the movie, from the star's inability to "walk like a person" to the longtime absence of the birds (and, when they do show, their hovering and sounding more like seagulls than eagles).  The trio performed their riffing live at Nashville, it was beamed to theaters, and it was a lot of fun.

My only complain was with before they got to the movie.  Previously, the Rifftrax movie specials had three-to-four short features that got riffed before the main event.  This time, though, they only had one; and while they did a good job with the "comic" sad sack Norman short, I would have liked to have more Halloween fun.

Still, the trio managed to get the audience laughing a'plenty at the movie where survivors of a killer bird attack arm themselves with wire hangers, fire automatic weapons at a bus (filled with people), and see forest fires that never spread from one small spot.  I can't wait to see what they do next Halloween.  In the meantime, "Keep flailing!"

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

10.20.2012

ARGO

I'm always wary when I hear the phrase "based on a true story" applied to a movie -- it's so broad it can be applied to just about anything -- but in the case of Argo it comes closer than most.  The movie tells the incredible story of a covert rescue amidst an international standoff.

Argo begins with the tense situation between America and Iran in late 1979.  The Iranian Revolution had put the Ayatollah Khomeni in power, and the country's former leader fled to the U.S. -- with Iran demanding his return for trial and execution.  An angry mob overrab the U.S. embassy in Iran, taking the personnel there hostage and claiming they were spies.  However, six Americans managed to escape, hiding out in the home of the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber).  The six were still in danger, both from the Iranian government that knew six embassy personnel were unaccounted for and from Iranian mobs ready to kill any Americans they find.


The rescue plan for the six comes from CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directed Argo): He'll travel to Iran as a Canadian filmaker scouting locations for a sci-fi B-movie called Argo, provides cover stories and forged documents for the six Americans making them out to be his film crew, and they'll all fly out together.   After working with special effects expert John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to build up some real Hollywood buzz for the fake film, Mendez travels to Iran.  But there are numerous dangers, from U.S state department doubts about the plan (Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston), Mendez' boss, describes it as "the best bad idea we have, by far") to the Iranian government literally piecing together pictures of the six Americans from shredded documents taken from the embassy.  And there's still the very difficult task of getting past customs in Iran to get on a plane and head home...

Argo works well as both a historical document and a drama.  Speaking as someone who was around during the hostage crisis, I can say Argo captures the feel of the time, from the yellow ribbons everywhere in support of the hostages to the inflamatory statement from both the American and Iranian public condemning the other side.  There's not a lot of character development here, but Argo works better as a political and espionage procedural, showing how a desperate plan was put together and executed very quickly.  There's also a surprising amount of humor, namely from Goodman and Arkin as they navigate Mendez through the treacherous world of Hollywood (and their crude, funny slogan for their fake film).  Argo is solid, suspenseful movie magic revolving around a real operation during a tense time in American history.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch