Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

Ok, I'll admit it upfront: I saw the trailer for this movie, and my first thought was "chick flick." After viewing the movie, I will admit, that it was much better than the usual fare for this genre. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is the coming age story for these four sixteen year old girls. What binds them together is a pair of secondhand blue jeans that they mail between them during their first summer apart. Each one of them has some growing up to do,each in their own way. What results is a great twist, on this otherwise familiar plot. While the pants make the rounds, a touching story develops keeping the four sisters together, while being geographically apart.

Overall Grade: B+

Brokeback Mountain

Reviewed by James Lynch

Many films have been made about the collision of passion and society, when the heart and the world are in conflict, but few have been done with the beauty and depth of Brokeback Mountain. This is not due to the controversial content – calling it a “gay cowboy movie” is a vast oversimplification – but due to the strong performances, excellent direction, and beautiful cinematography.

Cowboys Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) first meet in Wyoming in 1963, taking a job living on Brokeback Mountain while watching over a herd of sheep and getting occasional supplies brought from town. At first the men are indifferent to each other – Ennis is largely quiet and focused on the job, while Jack chats, plays harmonica, and talks about the rodeo – but soon they start getting along. They do more than that, as a sudden, almost violent physical passion takes hold of them both. The two men assure each other that they “ain’t queer” and that their “thing” is only during the job.

After the job ends, the two men pursue their separate lives. Ennis stays in Wyoming, marries his fiancée Alma (Michelle Williams), and gets by doing small jobs and taking care of his family. Jack moves to Texas, tries and fails at bull riding, marries beautiful rodeo star Lureen (Anne Hathaway), and makes a living working for his father-in-law. But when Ennis and Jack meet again, their passion flares anew. Soon the men are sneaking off on “fishing trips” a few times a year. Alma (who knows this hidden side of Ennis) worries about her man, Jack wants Ennis to leave his life and join him on a two-man ranch, and Ennis refuses to leave his “normal” life, claiming his duties as a family man but also fearing what could happen if people found out about them.

Brokeback Mountain is an extraordinary look at these two characters and the choices that they make and the rules they consider. Jake Gyllenhaal makes Jack Twist an appealing character, someone whose desire to go after what he wants is both appealing (he’s more willing to commit to his partner) and a weakness (as he pursues other men when Ennis keeps resisting him). Heath Ledger offers a wonderfully nuanced performance: His character is largely quiet, but for all his strength he is dominated by fear and lashes out at any thought others could find out. Director Ang Lee, recovering nicely from the debacle of Hulk, does a wonderful job of making the characters fully realized – with strength, weakness, beauty, desire, and conflict. And the cinematography reflects the worlds of the characters. Brokeback Mountain first appears to be a bad place to work (cold, rainy) but soon appears to be a paradise, especially in contrast to the stifling drabness of the “normal” world the men live in. These elements combine to make Brokeback Mountain that rare gem: a beautiful, powerful, flawless movie. Brokeback Mountain is the best movie I’ve seen in 2005, and it is a true classic.

Overall Grade: A+


King Kong

Normally I don't like the idea of re-makes, especially when the movie being re-made is a classic. Even decent re-makes of classic films, like the recent version of The Manchurian Candidate, cannot really be taken on their own terms unless the re-make brings something to the story that the original lacked. Naturally this is beyond the ability of most filmmakers, but when I found out that Peter Jackson planned to follow up the Lord of the Rings trilogy by re-making the legendary 1933 thriller King Kong, I had plenty of reason to believe this would be an exception to the general rule. For the most part my optimism was vindicated, although the new King Kong winds up being a bit too long for its own good and stumbles at a few places. The visual effects in a handful of scenes did not receive the same amount of care that went into the most of the movie. For example, you could easily argue that most of the dinosaur scenes were better in the original version than they are in the new one.

The fact that most of the movie reinforces the reputation Jackson earned with Lord of the Rings makes these lesser moments that much more frustrating. Kong really comes to life in the new version, thanks to a combination of standard-redefining computer animation and Andy Serkis bringing out multiple facets in the giant gorilla's personality, much as he did with Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Naomi Watts shines as frustrated actress Ann Darrow, bringing depth, intelligence, and compassion to a character reduced to alternating between screaming and fainting in the original. I had worried about whether Jack Black could pull off a relatively serious role, but he turned out to be perfectly cast as the overly ambitious movie director Carl Denham. Ultimately though, any re-make of King Kong would be judged by two sequences: the fight between Kong and the tyrannosaurus rex (or three of them), and the climactic scene on the top of the Empire State Building. In both cases, the new version delivers spectacularly. The New York scenery was so intensely true to life that anybody with even a slight fear of heights will consider the climax to be the most squeamish part of the movie. (Unless they're also afraid of bugs, but that's a long story.)

In short, while the new version of King Kong would have benefited from fewer scenes and an equal amount of care placed in each sequence, the film has enough moments of brilliance to justify its hype and blockbuster status. It's a little frustrating that it could have been better, but the new King Kong is still well worth seeing.

Overall Grade: B+

An Introduction, of Sorts

Second day of class, junior year of high school, September 1986: The third year of my four-year sentence did not begin auspiciously. Here I am doing exactly what I did yesterday during lunch -- walking around the cafeteria, looking for an empty seat at a table where I'd feel welcome. Wait, what about over there... with those two? Scott, don't do this to yourself... you'll be stuck with the "geek" label the rest of your life... you'll waste countless hours over-dissecting Star Trek and Star Wars and you'll still be playing Dungeons and Dragons in your mid-thirties... you'll wind up with no friends, at least none that any normal, sensible, well-adjusted person would ever admit to having and...

(glossing over nineteen years and a handful of important details)

...and here we are starting a blog together. I guess some things were meant to last. Hopefully this little endeavor will be one of them.


Bad News Bears

Billy Bob Thorton stars in this new twist on the old "Bad New Bears" franchise. Thorton plays the role of the coach who is a "has been" major leaguer who works by day as the local exterminator, and moonlights as the drunk coach of the losing little league Bears. There are a lot of humorous one-liners, and the kids turn in a excellent and entertaining performance. In the end, the coach ends up learning the true meaning of the game. While I needed a 7th inning stretch at one point, I also laughed out loud at several points. The movie is definitely for a more adult crowd than the originals.

Overall Grade: B+

Four Brothers

Four Brothers focuses on this hodge podge family of four grown up kinds that their mother adopted off the streets of Detroit. What initially appears as a senseless murder, takes us into a complicated web of underworld relationships. At times, the plot seems thinly glued together by a series of progressively violent scenes. For aficionados of gangster movies, they'll find a lot to like here, but for the rest of us, the parts do not add up to anything greater.

Overall Grade: C+


The Interpreter

It was with great anticipation that I viewed The Interpreter. The cast includes Nicole Kidman, and Sean Penn. The story centers around Kidman's character, who functions as an interpreter at the UN, and hears a little more that she should. what follows is a series of plot turns and twists. Several other reviewers gave it high marks.

This should have been a good movie, but it was definitely not. The background story in the fictitious country of Matabo lost my interest as it doesn't even exist. The story has more characters that a Nascar racecar event, which also contributes to the confusion. The first half of the movie is extremely slow. There are a few decent action scenes, but the whole thing never came together in my mind. In short, skip The Interpreter for something worth watching.

Overall Grade: D


Mount Dragon

Looking for a great thriller from the duo that brought us Relic? This novel focuses on "Mount Dragon," a fictitious Level 5 biohazard facility set in the New Mexico desert, close to where the first atomic bomb tests were conducted. The principal character is Guy Carson, a scientist that specializes in genetics. The plot focuses around his attempt to cure a scourge of mankind- the influenza virus. Set against a back drop of the badlands of the desert, the authors have managed to create a thriller of large proportions. It not only works as a biothriller, but also as a cyberthriller, and a wilderness survival novel. This is all wrapped around a cautionary tale of genetic reengineering and the power that man has its disposal currently. Even though the novel came out in 1996, it's message is still contemporary today. I can recommend Mount Dragon to thriller readers without reservation.

Overall Grade: A

Also Reviewed:
The Codex


Beginning Miniatures, Advanced Horror: HeroScape and Betrayal at House on the Hill

Reviewed by James Lynch

Do you want to wage war with armies assembled from the past, present, and future? How do you feel about exploring a mysterious house, waiting for one investigator to betray the others? Hasbro’s HeroScape is a fun, simple introduction to the world of miniatures, while Avalon Hill’s Betrayal at House on the Hill combines miniatures and boardgaming into a new, exciting horror experience.

HeroScape is a miniatures combat game that is fun and simple. The initial release, Rise of the Valkyrie, contains everything you need to play: numerous tiles to construct the playing area, pre-painted plastic figures, attack dice (six-sided dice with skulls on three sides), defense dice (six-sided dice with shields on two sides), a d20 for a few rolls, Basic and Master Game rules, a book with scenarios for both formats, plastic tokens, and turn markers.

If you ever wanted to pit a dragon against futuristic warriors, HeroScape gives you the chance! Warriors are varied here, from the aforementioned dragon Mimring to contemporary Airborne Infantry soldiers to killing machines from the distant future. There are two types of units: Heroes, powerful single figures, and Squads, groups of two or more less powerful figures. Information on the heroes is given on the Army cards; since the stats for the figures don’t change, there’s no need for pen and paper to keep track of Army statistics. In the Basic game, Army cards have each unit’s name, Move (how many spaces it can go in a turn), Range (the distance it can attack), Attack (how many dice it rolls when attacking), Defense (how many dice it rolls when attacked), points (used to determine the maximum army size), and what parts of the figure count for line of sight. In the Master game, Army cards get more detailed. Every figure has one or two special abilities, like the Airborne Elite’s grenade attack and parachute drop, the Marro Warriors’ ability to make a water clone, or Raelin’s defensive bonus to her allies. Units also have hit points (so your best troops can’t be wiped out in one shot), heights, and other characteristics.

Movement and combat are very straightforward. Figures move a number of tiles equal to their speed, stopping in water, using more movement to leave water, and using extra movement to go up elevated terrain. Non-flying figures stop moving when they’re adjacent to an opponent, and if a figure moves away from an opponent the opponent rolls one attack die to take a free shot at the leaving figure. When it’s time for combat, the attacker rolls a number of attack dice equal to its Attack score, the defender rolls it’s Defense in defense dice, and the defender takes a point of damage for each attack die’s skull not countered by a defense die’s shield.

Turns take on quite different forms between the Basic and Master games. In the basic game, players roll a d20 and the player who rolled highest chooses an army card, moves the figure(s) on the card, and attacks with the figure(s) on the card. Afterwards the next player does the same, and when everyone’s had a turn they start again. In the Master rules, players place Order Markers on the Army cards (giving multiple turns to the same card if they like) to show which unit(s) will go first, second, and third; opponents can’t see the turn numbers on the markers, and there’s also a bluff piece to throw off opponents. Players roll for initiative, and starting with the high roller each player moves and attacks with their piece selected first, then their second, then the third.

The scenarios offered are very detailed, giving players different victory conditions (wiping out an opponent’s forces, rescuing a figure, getting a scout to a point across the battlefield, surviving the rising poisonous mists), directions on how to set up the board, and scenarios for both Basic and Master games.

If you want to expand HeroScape, there are several expansions for this game. There have been three waves of boosters so far, offering new Heroes and Squads that include cybernetic gorillas, king-fu monks, dragons, and kilted Scotsmen. Terrain packs also provide bridges, trees, and lava to change the landscape (and a few more units as well).

How much you like HeroScape depends on how basic you like your miniature games. The rules and figures are simpler than those for the WizKids miniature games, and far less detailed than you’ll find in the Warhammer or Battletech universes; players who want to meticulously construct and paint their armies may feel bored. More casual miniatures players will enjoy HeroScape, as the figures offer a nice variety of traits and powers, and there are plenty of scenarios to play. The stackable terrain tiles work very well, creating mountainous terrains that actually show height and depth. And while hardcore players will want the expansions for greater versatility and more cool figures, the figures in the starter box are enough for four or five people to enter the fray. (The starter box is around $40, which is far less than you’d pay for figures, terrain, dice, rulebooks, and paint for most other miniature games.) HeroScape proves that a game doesn’t have to be incredibly detailed to be fun!

From the clash of mighty armies we turn to the investigators of the paranormal in Betrayal at House on the Hill, a board/miniature horror game with a twist. This game, for three to six players, has the investigators exploring a creepy house, eventually fighting its horror – and one of their own.

At the start of the game, players choose a character; there are 12 characters, two similar ones on each side of the character cards. Each character has four traits: Might, Speed, Knowledge, and Sanity. These traits start at a certain level, and events during the game can raise or lower them. Traits are used to make skill checks or combat, where a player rolls a number of dice (six-sided dice with two 1s, two 2s, and two blank spaces) equal to their trait. Every turn characters can move, attack, and use items. Players then put their character pieces at the Entrance Hall to the house, and they’re off!

Betrayal at House on the Hill can be divided into two parts: exploration and the Haunt. At the beginning of the game, players explore the house. Players move a number of rooms equal to their Speed. When a player moves into an unexplored area of the house, the player draws a tile for that part of the house (basement, ground, or upper level), places it adjoining the doorway they came from, and follows the instructions for that room. Some rooms are beneficial (ending your turn in the Larder increases your Might by one), some have negative effects (if you don’t make a Might roll when leaving the Junk Room you lose one Speed), and some have mixed effects (such as the Mystic Elevator, which moves you at random and can hurt you). Many rooms have cards; moving into a room where you draw a card ends your movement.

There are three card types in this game: events, items, and omens. (All cards have suitably creepy flavor text.) Events can affect all the players, or just the player who drew the card, in a beneficial or detrimental fashion. Items are usually helpful, but they can be problematic if lost. (Amulet of the Ages increases all your traits by one, but you lose three points in all traits if it’s lost.) Omens function like events – good or bad effects for one or more players – but they can also start the Haunt. At the end of a turn when someone drew an omen card, that player rolls six dice. If the result is less than the number of omen cards in play, the Haunt begins.

When the Haunt occurs, the player who rolled it looks at a chart in a booklet; the omen card, and the room the explorer was in when the Haunt began, determines which Haunt is revealed – along with who the traitor is. There are 50 (!) different Haunts in the game, none of which have the same object. (I’ve fought evil twins, battled a mad bomber who had strapped explosives to the heroes, and seen a lycanthrope rip through the heroes.) The traitor is also determined through different means – the Haunt revealer, the player with the highest Sanity, the player with the lowest Might, etc. – so there’s no way to tell who will be the villain.

When the Haunt begins, the game becomes a conflict. The heroes (everyone but the traitor) read the scenario in the Secrets of Survival handbook, telling them what they need to do to win. Meanwhile, the traitor reads the scenario in the Traitor’s Tome, learning what the traitor must do to win. Neither side knows the other’s goal or how it is achieved.

Once everyone knows their side’s conditions for victory, the game becomes a competition. The traitor controls both their character and any monsters that are part of the scenario. (It’s possible for the traitor to be killed and that player, controlling the monsters, wins.) Monsters are generally tougher than players, requiring a particular item to do more than stun them, and the traitor’s character can also try to hunt down the heroes. The traitor can also move about the house more freely, ignoring non-damaging card and room effects. For combat, the combatants roll a number of dice equal to their Might (or another trait, if a card allows that) and the lower roller takes damage equal to the difference between the totals. Physical damage can be divided between Speed and Might, and mental damage can be split between mental traits. When any trait reaches a skull (after the last number), that character is dead – or possibly part of the Haunt. Players can still explore new rooms, hoping to come across cards to help them win; or they can focus solely on winning,

Who will prevail? Can the intrepid heroes defeat the traitor in their midst? Or will the hidden evils of the house conquer the explorers?

Betrayal at House on the Hill is incredibly fun! The very large number of scenarios and variable methods of selecting who’ll be the traitor give this game a colossal replay value. The flavor text and scary rooms create an atmosphere of horror (in any other game having the Underground Lake on the upper level would seem like a mistake, but it fits here), and the simple combat and skill check rules make play easy.

There are some problems in this House. Since the objective and traitor aren’t known until halfway through the game, there’s really no initial strategy except to make your character as strong as possible (for when you become or battle the traitor). There are 291 tokens – including monsters, room tokens, event tokens, and item tokens – so even after they’ve all been punched and separated it can take a while to locate the tokens you need during the game. There is much errata – from the Underground Lake appearing on the top floor to requirements for winning scenarios – so players have to visit the homepage, print the corrections, and refer to it to play this game correctly. And, like Clue, you can be surprised that you’re the villain after all!

But these are minor problems with a very good game. Get some friends (and one traitor) together, put on some scary music (I recommend the soundtrack to the Evil Dead trilogy, if you can find it), and prepare for Betrayal at House on the Hill. This house may be a scary place, but you’ll keep heading back there!

Overall Grades
HeroScape: A
Betrayal at House on the Hill: A-

Suggested Links:
Betrayal at House on the Hill



This is our first post of our new blog! We're planning to bring you reviews of current books, movies, music and table games. Quite frankly, no one else is satisfying this niche, so we decided to do it ourselves. Enjoy, and check back soon as we get up and running.