One challenge of portraying people playing tabletop games in comic books is that it can be boring to see people sitting at a table rolling dice.  Scott Kurtz frequently delves into assorted sides of gaming with his online comic PvP, and he spun off into a Dungeons and Dragons comedy with Table Titans.  This group of D&D players begin on their own with Table Titans Book One: First Encounters.

The story begins with the Table Titans -- snarky dude Alan, rules-obsessed Andrew, and real-life warring mythical dwarf Val -- getting ready for a D&D competition.  Their goal: claim the Winotaur, a trophy of great renown, currently owned by rival gaming group the Dungeon Dogs.  Adam isn't happy Brendan is their Dungeon Master, but Brendan is the only person willing to DM for them.  And their fourth player is Darby, a cheerful and slightly dopey guy who's never played D&D before.

Then the D&D adventure begins, with the players getting (sometimes getting stuck with) their pre-generated characters.  Everyone's quite happy, except for the would-be fighter Val:

They then embark on the D&D adventure, involving a town under siege my a mysterious monster, a former adventurer, a conspiracy, and a cute blink dog as their new helper and mascot.  Will the Table Titans solve the mystery?  Can Val deal with playing a bard?  Will Brendan remain as their DM?  And who will wind up with the Winotaur?

I enjoyed Table Titans but -- and as a gamer I never thought I'd say this -- the comics are almost too focused on the gaming.  We know virtually nothing about the players outside of the gaming table (except for Val): There's no backstory for the characters or how they met, or why the Table Titans can't get another DM).  On the plus side, the comics do capture the often-unintentional humor that happens at the game table, and Kurtz keeps things interesting by showing the in-strip D&D game as a full-fledged adventure.

Table Titans lacks the over-the-top bad behavior and worse playing that is a staple of Knights of the Dinner Table, but it's still an enjoyable trip into the world of some D&D players.  The first volume also has a few extras: the PvP comics that introduced the Table Titans, the pre-Brendan Table Titans playing the Mines of Madness, character sketches, and tales from the table from real-life roleplayers.  Table Titans Book One: First Encounters is a nice, enjoyable look on some D&D players.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch



If there is alien life out there, what will our first encounters with them be like?  How will we communicate with them?  And how will both individuals and nations react to the unknown?  These are some of the issues addressed in Arrival, a very thoughtful science fiction film.

The movie opens with linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) remembering her daughter Hannah, from her birth to sad death as a teenager.  After that, she's teaching a class when it's interrupted by world-shaking news: aliens have landed on Earth, with 1500' oval ships landing at 12 locations on Earth.  And Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) recruits Dr. Banks to communicate with the aliens.
Louise is taken to the Montana location, where an alien ship is hovering above the ground.  Unfortunately, no attempts to decipher the alien sounds have been successful.  Fortunately, every 18 hours a hatch opens, allowing humans to enter the ship.  While physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) tries to figure out the properties of the aliens and their ship, Louise decides to focus not on speaking with them, but rather teaching them our written language.  The aliens -- giant squid-like creatures with seven legs, floating in a white fog behind a barrier -- respond with their own language: a series of circular symbols.
While Loiuse and Ian work on figuring out why the aliens are here, pressure is building around the world.  Some populations riot in wake of the aliens' arrival.  China is leading a push to respond the aliens with military force.  And some of the Montana soldiers are ready to use violence...
Arrival is more measured than much science fiction -- there are no laser beams, aerial battles with spaceships, or creatures wandering among humans -- and that's both a strength and a weakness: This is one of cinema's most realistic approaches to first contact with alien life, but it also means at times watching people work on translations can get boring.  Amy Adams is fine as the professional who has to work on what could be the most important translation in human history while dealing with her personal devastating loss; and the rest of the cast is more or less just there.  The aliens are nicely otherworldly and mysterious, and there's a plot twist and concept that may not be fully satisfying but is unexpected.  Arrival is a solid movie about what happens when life from other world finally reaches us.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch



Many of the earliest episodes of Doctor Who have been lost.  I got to see an interesting solution to this problem with Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks.  While the episodes may be lost, possibly forever, the folks at BBC America did put together the audio from the 1966 episode -- and made an animated version of the episode!

The Power of the Daleks is significant because it introduced both the idea of regeneration (that when near death, a Time Lord could regenerate, gaining a new body and personality) and Patrick Troughton as the new Doctor, replacing William Hartnell.  Appropriately, this switch is reflected in the Doctor's companions: Polly (Anneke Wills) is certain he's still the Doctor, while Ben (Michael Craze) is skeptical.  The new Doctor seems silly: constantly playing a recorder, wearing a large floppy hat, and muttering to himself.

The adventure begins quickly, as the trio leave the TARDIS to wander around the planet Vulcan (no relation to Star Trek).  The Doctor meets a human who introduces himself as the Examiner -- who's promptly shot dead, with the Doctor knocked out from behind.  When the Doctor wakes up, he takes the Examiner's badge, posing as him to have full access to the human colony of Vulcan.  The colony has been having episodes of sabotage from unknown rebels.  The biggest discovery, though, is that scientist Lesterson (Robert James) has found a "space capsule" containing two apparently deceased/deactivated Daleks.  Lesterson wants to revive/reactivate them, to use them as servants; but the Doctor warns that doing so would doom the entire colony.  And there's evidence that there was a third Dalek that's gone missing...

The Power of the Daleks is a nice reminder of the clunky charm of the original series.  While the new animation keeps a lot of the original limits of the series (the humans in the "futuristic" colony use guns; the Daleks' beam weapon is shown by briefly showing a negative of the scene), the story is nicelty involved, with several threads -- Who killed the Examiner?  Which characters are rebels?  What is the master plan of the Daleks? -- that all come together.  It's a shame the episodes are gone, but nice that it was "regenerated" this way.
My one complaint with this was the animation: While the black and white matches the original series, the animation feels stiff, with shading rarely changing and usually only body part for one character moving at a time.  It feels artificial, and oddly reminiscent of the series Archer.  While that was distracting, it was a worthwhile sacrifice to get to see Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks.  And afterwards, there were interviews and behind-the-scenes with several folks involved with animating the series, plus Anneke Wills talking about being on the original series!

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch



The Marvel superhero universe has now added sorcery to its world of super-powered beings.  Doctor Strange adds magic to the universe with a familiar reluctant hero premise that also has some truly trippy visuals and a surprising amount of humor.

Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, whose Englishman-with-American-accent maked him sound like Hugh Laurie as Dr. House) is a brilliant and renowned neurosurgeon.  He's also conceited, hated for being a know-it-all by his colleagues, and tends to select cases based on how much fame they'll get him.  He also works with his ex-girlfriend Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), an e.r. doctor who wants Strange to help more people.

When a car crash leaves Stephen with uncontrollable trembling in his hands, he goes into a depression, pushing everyone away and spending all his money searching for experimental cures.  When he gets a file of a patient who had a seeming impossible cure for spinal damage, it leas Strange to a secret location in Nepal.  There, select people learn everything from magic (astral projection, using "Sling Rings" to create teleportation portals, summoning and controlling energy, visiting different dimensions) to martial arts, to sentient artifacts that choose their users.  This place is led by the Amcient One (Tilda Swinton), Strange is taught by Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Wong (Benedict Wong) runs the library of ancient knowledge.
Of course, villainy is afoot.  The evil sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) has stolen some pages from the library.  He and his disciples plan to destroy the three sanctuaries -- in New York, London, and Hong Kong -- that protect the Earth from magic threats from other dimensions.  Once they're gone, the powerful entity Dormammu will absorb Earth into his Dark Dimension.  Strange still just wants his old life back, while the others push him to be a hero.

While Doctor Strange is a somewhat familiar story of selfish turning to redemption, it's still a pretty fun movie.  This may be the most visually impressive movie, with landscapes seeming to fold onto themselves, astral forms battling through the real world, and a hellish CGI universe in the Dark Dimension that seems disturbingly real.  While there's plenty of action, there's also a surprising amount of humor: Strange's levitating cloak acting more or less on its own for some slapstick humor, Wong listening to Beyonce on an iPod, or Dr. Palmer's incredulous reaction to learning that magic exists.
Doctor Strange is a worthy addition to the Marvel cinematic universe.  It has good acting, a nice blend of action and comedy, and (again) some amazing special effects.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch



There are plenty of ways to celebrate Halloween -- and I was fortunate enough to catch Rifftrax Live: Carnival of Souls on the big screen on Halloween itself!  Comedy may not seem like something for Halloween, but it worked -- especially with such a bad horror movie.

After some funny opening movie quotes and trivia ("The razorblades actually make the apples taste better") accompanied by songs from "Weird Al" Yankovic and Jonathan Coulter, the Rifftrax trio (Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, Bill Corbett) took the stage and their microphones.  They began with two terrible shorts -- "The Dirt-Witch Cleans Up" and "Masks of Grass" -- then jump into the feature.  And while Carnival of Souls may not be quite as bad as other movies they've riffed, it still supplies plenty of fodder for comedy: endless organ music, a near-total lack of acting, an over-the-top scuzzy male creep, pale zombies or ghosts, and a lead actress who goes through almost the whole movie with a blank stare.
As always, the jokes fly fast and frequently.   There are digs at Utah, Golden Corral, Wonder Woman, and even subjects of previous rifts, like Birdemic and "Shake Hands with Danger."  And the trio are in fine form, with numerous laugh-out-loud moments and leaving the audience happy (and unable to take Carnival of Souls seriously ever again).  Rifftrax Live: Carnival of Souls was a fun and funny evening for Halloween.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch