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
 
 



X

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