MR. HANDS by Gary A. Braunbeck

Take a grieving parent, a summoned monster, and a demand for vengeance that doesn't end when the one calling for it wants it stopped, and you have.... the movie Pumpkinhead. Almost 20 years later you also have Mr. Hands, a horror novel from Gary A. Bruaunbeck that follows the movie's plot with some disturbing child abuses tossed in for little purpose.

Following a prelude of a man climbing a mountain and a woman firing a shotgun, a haggard man walks into a bar with a deformed-looking doll (stubby legs, large hands) and begins telling an unbelievable story. Fortunately for him, the three people there -- a bartender, a sheriff, and a reverend -- say all the odd items on display have an unbelievable story, so they'll listen without judgment or disbelief. (I wonder if they answer all the spam they get on their computers.)

Anyway, the man's story primarily involves two people. Ronnie kills children -- but he's a nice killer of children, as he can sense their pain (past and future) and can put them out of their misery; he sometimes kills their abusers too. Lucy Thompson has a hellishly hard life, having lost one child, having a second child abducted (leaving behind her doll, Mr. Hands, with her blood on it), and becoming obsessed with killed and abused children. When (far too late in the book) there's a meeting between Lucy, Ronnie (or his ghost, or spirit, or something), a storm, some booze, that doll, and a really weird memorial statue, a monster emerges! Really, what else would happen? Mr. Hands is now a giant that kills anyone Lucy tells it to, and he can only be seen by her and his victims. But when Lucy makes a mistake, she finds that she can't call off the creature she helped create.

There's very little to recommend in Mr. Hands. The characters are hardly believable, and Braunbeck's dialogue feels artificial. Moreover, the descriptions of abused children don't add or build to the tension; they just leave an uncomfortable feeling with the reader. (The added novella Kiss of the Mudman also disappoints, as it has the good buddies from the bar dealing with the ghostsly icons of dead rock stars. Seriously.) The monster is neither original nor creative. Forget the doll, and forget the book -- neither are that scary.

Overall grade: D-

Reviewed by James Lynch


You Kill Me (2007)

You Kill Me is a recent "killer comedy" featuring actor Ben Kingsley and director John Dahl. Maybe it's just me, but I didn't find it humorous at all.

If we were going for the most implausible plot, then this film should be nominated. Get this: Kingsley plays Frank, a Buffalo, NY mobster that has a serious problem- his drinking is interfering with his work. After his intoxication causes him to sleep through a job, his mob boss sends him to San Francisco to detox, and attend AA meetings. During the day he works as a mortuary tech. Along the way he develops a romantic relationship with Laurel, played by Tea Leoni. Does any of this sound funny to you? I thought not.

As You Kill Me progresses, we figure out that Frank only attends the AA meetings, and "falls off the wagon" plenty because he wants to go back to killing. He openly stands up at the AA meetings and shares this with the group. Scripted better, this could have been a joke as the group thinks he's talking about something else, but we don't take it to the next level.

In short, You Kill Me is flat, and completely implausible. It was a good waste of some serious acting talent.

Overall Grade: C-

Reviewed by Jonas

Men At War, Book I, The Last Heroes

Lest you were worried that I ran out of WEB Griffin books to read, have no fear! I've started 2008 off right with the Men At War series, and took a look at the first book, The Last Heroes. Let's see, Griffin has focused on Army life in The Brotherhood series, on Marine life in The Corps, so we're due for the Navy, and that is what The Last Heroes focuses on. However, before we start humming "Anchors Aweigh," it's more focused on the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the current CIA), and naval aviation, with sprinklings of lots of tales that we've touched on before.

The novel starts in the early summer of 1941. It appears that America's involvement in the war seems inevitable, and preparations are being made. These include President Franklin Roosevelt putting Wild Bill Donovan in charge of setting up the OSS (interestingly a lifelong friend, law school classmate, and diehard Republican). While each of the branches of the service would collect intelligence relevant to them, for example the US Navy's intelligence branch keeping up on the strengths and weaknesses of foreign navies, no one really had the entire picture of what was going on with enemy countries. Hence the need for the OSS.

Against this backdrop, Griffin writes a tale of the chosen service members that get involved with the newly forming OSS. In The Last Heroes, we get taken from Washington DC, to an American private air wing fighting the Japanese over China, to Morocco, and even a stop in the Philippines. Griffin manges to work in some info about General MacArthur that didn't make it into The Corps series. Another theme is collecting uranium for a nuclear bomb.

My criticism of this novel is that for the small size of the book, there's too much going on with too many characters. I can see plenty of groundwork being laid for future plots and relationships, but it ends up being a little confusing at times. Still, at this writing, there's 6 novels in the series, and with Griffin's son cowriting the last two, I'd expect this series to outlast the author.

Overall Grade: B

Reviewed by Jonas

Also reviewed:

The Secret Warriors, Men At War, Book II

The Namesake (2006)

I'm going to give you the bottom line about this movie right at the start: The Namesake is the best film I've seen in too long. While it won't get the attention it deserves at the awards "shows," it is a film well worth the time spent watching it.

The Namesake focuses on a generational story. Kal Penn stars as Gogol Ganguli, a native born New Yorker. His father is an engineering professor, and his mother a librarian. Both of the parents are Indian immigrants, and their cultural ties to their native country are quite strong. Their children think they are backwards, and act more American than Indian as they grow up. As the family works through crisis, Gogol discovers that he is more Indian than he had realized. Through the cycle of immigration, marriage, birth, and death, we get a glimpse into the divided cultural ties of this Indian family as the story progresses.

The Namesake is well acted, and well scripted. It is fascinating to see how the parents act when they first come to America, and are so excited at natural gas for 24 hours a day, drinking water from a tap, and a laundromat- modern conveniences that most Americans take completely for granted. This film then takes us on an almost three decade journey as the first generation children integrate themselves into American society, while retaining their Indian traditions more than they even realize or would want to admit. One particular revealing scene is when Gogol tells his father that he wants to be an architect, and his father can't comprehend why he doesn't want to be an engineer, like he is. It's kind of interesting when you realize that the father originally wanted his children to grow up in America because they could become anything they wanted to, yet he wanted him to do what he did. There is also plenty of the story devoted to the parents guiding their children to marry not only an Indian spouse, but a Bengali one, which is the region they were from.

If you like films which make you think, develop characters, and provide a multicultural experience, then The Namesake should be on your short list of films to see. In fact, this is one of the few films that I think you need to watch more than once to take in all the nuances.

Overall Grade: A+

Reviewed by Jonas


Enjoy Every Sandwich: The Songs of Warren Zevon

Warren Zevon was a fantastic musician and songwriter, and the cover album Enjoy Every Sandwich is a worthy tribute to his music. The songs covered here are almost all enjoyable and interesting takes on Zevon's songs.

Kudos for assembling a very eclectic group of musicians for this album. Big rockers like Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, Don Henley, and Bonnie Raitt are performing alongside Steve Earle, the Pixies, Jill Sobule, and even actors Adam Sandler and Billy Bob Thorton! And these performers make most of these songs their own, refusing to merely copy Zevon's originals.

Most of the songs hit the mark quite well. Browne and Raitt combine their talents for a high-energy version of "Poor Poor Pitiful Me," while Jill Sobule's childlike voice makes Zevon's dirge "Don't Let Us Get Sick" almost upbeat. Even Adam Sandler infuses "Werewolves of London" with a comic energy that maintains that Zevon classic's goofiness without turning it into a joke. There are a few weak songs -- Billy Bob Thorton whispers rather than sings "The Wind," the Pixies deliver a sonic and grating rendition of "Ain't That Pretty at All," and Bob Dylan can't save Zevon's dull "Mutineer" -- but the overall album is very strong.

Warren Zevon fans will enjoy Enjoy Every Sandwich for the new versions of classic songs, while folks unfamiliar with Zevon (who should really get his wonderful greatest hits collection Genius) can enjoy some rockin' tunes and hopefully seek out the originals.

Overall grade: A-

Reviewed by James Lynch


The giant monster movie hits Manhattan with Cloverfield, the horror flick produced by J.J. Abrams (Lost, Alias) and director Matt Reeves. This movie doesn't break new ground but does deliver plenty of scares and a few nervous chuckles along the way.

The movie, told entirely from the point-of-view of a handheld video camera, opens with a going-away party for Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David), who's heading to Japan to start a new job. Rob's brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and Jason's girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) are in their Manhattan apartment to wish him well, and Jason quickly passes on the video camera on to Hud (T.J. Miller), Rob's "best bud." Hud is obsessed with the pretty and brooding Marlena (Lizzy Caplan) and the drama comes when Beth (Odette Yustmas), who Rob has a crush on, comes with a date and leaves after she and Rob have a fight. Then there's what feels like an earthquake, several buildings explode, and the Statue of Liberty's head comes flying down the street. And glimpses of a giant creature make everyone panic.

During the evacuation over the Brooklyn Bridge, Rob gets a cell phone message from Beth that she's injured, dying and scared -- so he decides to head back to rescue her, and he's joined by Hud (still filming) and his friends. So these friends head against the tide of people fleeing the city in search of Beth. Unfortunately chaos reigns, there's the ever-present danger from the giant monster (and numerous smaller spider-like critters), and the friends start dying off at a fairly quick rate.

Cloverfield is mostly horror fluff -- pretty damn downbeat horror fluff -- that's done well. The actors do a decent enough job, but their role in the movie consists almost entirely of screaming, running, crying, then running some more. There are plenty of scary moments, and the decision to show only part of the creature until the movie's end keeps the level of suspense high. The friends' quest takes them from soldier-filled streets of Manhattan to abandoned sunway tunnels to a nerve-wracking trip from a standing apartment building over to the one that collapsed against it. The handheld camera technique gives a feeling of immediacy to the action (though folks who felt nauseous from the camerawork of The Blair Witch Project won't fare well at all here) and its light and night-vision options come into play at critical scenes in the movie. There's no grand message or overall theme, but Cloverfield provides an entertaining afternoon with some high-quality scares.

Overall grade: B+

Reviewed by James Lynch


The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

The Bourne Ultimatum is the third movie of the Bourne franchise. They can best be described as global thrillers, with hero Jason Bourne as a rogue agent trying to figure out who he is, and how he ended up in the middle of all of this. These movies are loosely based on the popular books of author Robert Ludlum.

I've seen all three movies of the series, and I must say they follow a plenty simple formula. Take Jason Bourne and throw him into exciting far off locations. Add in a pretty female sidekick that he trusts to help him. Cue the bad guys that will stop at nothing to get Bourne (they call him "the asset" in these films). Add in some shots of the said city, with the dramatic theme music, and you too can make a Bourne film.

In The Bourne Ultimatum, Jason (Matt Damon) finally gets some answers. He discovers that he was part of a CIA black op team that was reprogrammed to go after terrorists that would hurt America. Hidden in the movie is a cautionary tale that asks how far America will go to protect itself from those that would bring it down.

What makes The Bourne Ultimatum work is twofold. The first is that the special effects are first rate. The car chase scene through the streets of Manhattan is first rate, and among the best I've seen. Likewise for the scene when the Audi goes off the roof of the parking garage, it was great. The second is the commanding on screen presence of Matt Damon. He can fill the screen like only Hollywood's A-list can, and he does a great job with the film.

While I wasn't the biggest fan of The Bourne Identity, and even less of The Bourne Supremacy, I'd venture to say that The Bourne Ultimatum is the strongest of the lot. Those looking for an action thriller film on a global scale will be pleased with it.

Overall Grade: A-

Reviewed by Jonas

Eye of the Dolphin (2006)

I'll readily admit that I've been a long time sucker for any dolphin movie. I've seen all the Flipper stuff, and even enjoyed The Day of the Dolphin. With that disclaimer, that I'm long overdo for a dolphin movie, I'll proceed with my review of Eye of the Dolphin.

The overall plot is rather formulaic, trite and been done many times before. Carly Schroeder ably portrays Alyssa, a troubled teen that is heading the wrong way after her mother's death. Her grandmother, Lucy (played by Katherine Ross, who has worked in "ABC After School Specials" and reprises that sort of role here) has her hands more than full. Alyssa's father, Dr. James Hawk (Dunbar), a struggling dolphin communication researcher in the Bahamas, has no idea that he even has a daughter. Eye of the Dolphin is about reconnecting with his daughter, and her maturing beyond her rebelliousness. In a way, this film reminds me of In the Land of Woman.

However, to write this off as just another family-friendly-formula-film would be an error. For starters, it's visually very well done. From the picturesque scenes of the Bahamas, to the stunning underwater photography, Eye of the Dolphin is stunning. For those of us that don't scuba dive, or haven't taken part in a dolphin experience, this may be the best we can do to see these remarkable animals.

As the film progresses, we see the parallels between Alyssa, the wild girl, and the wild dolphin that she befriends. Both need to come to an understanding to mature. We also see the relationship between father and daughter mature, and in the end, there is no doubt that she is a chip off the old block. Adding to the authenticity of the film is that they used the native Bahamians as extras throughout Eye of the Dolphin.

The bottom line is that this film is an enjoyable entry into the genre of "dolphin films." If you dream of a Caribbean vacation right from your armchair, than this film is for you. While it's nothing exceptional, Eye of the Dolphin is quite strong in many areas.

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by Jonas

See the trailer here.

Rescue Dawn (2006)

When you mix in a story of a Navy pilot shot down during the Vietnamese War, and his harrowing plan of escape, I would think that this was my kind of film. Unfortunately, Rescue Dawn is rather lackluster, and doesn't add up to the sum of its parts.

Christian Bale plays Dieter Dengler, a German born man that had the dream of flight. After spending years in the US Air Force peeling potatoes, he goes to college living out of a Volkswagen (Digression: hey, it was the 60's, but that still doesn't explain the guy who did this in medical school that I knew.), and reenlists in the Navy. Dengler than becomes a Navy flier. He pilots the A-1 Skyraider from the USS Ranger (seriously, they were using propeller planes during 'Nam). On his inaugural mission over enemy territory Dengler gets shot down just over the Laotian border. Rescue Dawn chronicles his subsequent capture, torture, and escape.

So what's wrong with the film? The acting is merely average, but that is not what truly sinks it. Also, the scenery and setting seem to do the story justice. The screenplay simply obscures the amazing story of the principal character. I read the Wikipedia entry on Dengler, and it is a lot more fascinating than the film itself. The way the film progresses, sure we can't detail the entire guy's life, but Dengler hardly is portrayed as the hero that he was. Somehow, he seems too lackluster, and not a resilient guy that consistently bounces back from the knocks that life hands him.

Anyway, while the film is not terrible, I seriously think that it could have been a whole lot better. Breeze by Rescue Dawn, there's plenty of better movies out there.

Overall Grade: C

Reviewed by Jonas


The Last Pagan - Adrian Murdoch (2003)

Flavius Claudius Julianus was ruler of the Roman Empire in the middle of the 4th Century. He was a dedicated pagan, a lover of Hellenism, a talented military commander, a philosopher and an opponent of Christianity who was in a a position to do something about it. When he died, the victory of Christianity in the Western world was assured and history branded him Julian the Apostate.

The Last Pagan traces the short but eventful life of Julian from his childhood to his early death on campaign in Persia.

His early years were fraught with danger, as Imperial Roman politics at the time tended to involve a lot of killing your relations to secure your own claim, while trying to leave someone alive to whom you could eventually pass rule. Julian was therefore shuffled from place to place as a child, never spending much time near major political centers where a revolution could coalesce around him. He was raised and educated as Christian, but the education necessarily brought him in contact the pagan history of the region, still moderately fresh, and he was converted (or perhaps reverted) to paganism.

Eventually, he was called to serve the Empire militarily in Gaul. Victories there led, as they so often seemed to, to acclamation as Emperor. Successful revolt brought him the Empire. As Emperor he was uniquely suited to encourage the old ways and both directly and indirectly to inhibit the spread and rise of Christianity. This he did as well as he could while preparing for a campaign in the East against Persia. That war went pear-shaped and Julian died near what is now the capital of Iraq.

That arc is most of the book. The last chapter of the book examines changing views of Julian throughout history - from his initial "demonizing" as an enemy of the Church who was struck down by the hand of God, to his rehabilitation and use against the Church during the Reformation and on to the modern day.

It would be easy to categorize The Last Pagan as "history lite" because it is so eminently readable. That would do the book a disservice, though, since the scholarship seems solid and the speculation which is so much a part of almost all historical writing is supported. The style is engaging, not dry at all, and in this Murdoch is helped by his subject, whose life was full of event. Murdoch returns the favor by using those events to paint a vivid, sympathetic and engaging picture of Julian. The result is history which does not feel dead but alive, with personages at once larger than life and human. It would be a fine introduction to Ancient/Classical history for those who have not yet dabbled in the Roman (or Greek) world.

Overall Grade: B+


Brimstone (2004)

Brimstone is the follow up novel to Still Life With Crows from the Preston and Child writing duo. It features their main protagonist, Agent Pendergrast, who is the unstoppable FBI agent. He also gets assisted from some characters we've seen before, including police officer Vincent D'Agosta, a New York cop that could give DeMille's John Corey a run for his money.

Unlike the man vs. nature theme that they often feature, this time it's more of a murder mystery in Brimstone. Prominent New Yorkers from the upper crust of society are experiencing a not so minor issue of spontaneous human combustion. As the bodies pile up, Pendergrast follows the trail from New York, on over to Italy where half the novel takes place.

Along the way, we take a few side trips to the house from The Cabinet of Curiosities. We now find out who the eyes from the previous novel belong to, although there is still more to be told as to who Constance is. We also set the stage for the next two novels as we are introduced to Diogenes, Agent Pendergrast's evil brother. There's clearly going to be a showdown when this is all done, and this novel is known as the first of the "Diogenes Trilogy."

This duo is known for crackling detail written thrillers, and a creepiness that's hard to explain. Brimstone clearly delivers on both counts. It's also notable that they draw on the grandmaster of horror writing himself, Edgar Allen Poe, with a scene right out of "The Cask of Amontillado," which a few may recall was our first reading assignment during freshman year at high school (not counting the initial summer reading, of course). Yes, Preston and Child can match the creepiness of Poe, which is no small achievement.

My only criticism of Brimstone is that after 500 pages of excellence, it ends on a cliffhanger of an unfinished note. Maybe it's just me, but I like more of a resolution, but thankfully, the next few novels in the series are out, and I'll be looking for Dance of Death soon.

Overall Grade: A

Reviewed by Jonas

For our other reviews of their work, click here and here.

Read the first chapter here.

David Fleming, Breaker Boys: The NFL's Greatest Team ans the Stolen 1925 Championship (ESPN Books, 2007)

In its early years, the National Football League had a lot less structure to it than it has now. Teams came and went, and several small towns across the country were represented by teams trying to compete on the same stage with teams from the big cities. In 1925, professional football had about the same credibility that professional wrestling has now, and most people assumed it would be decades before a professional team could compete with the well-organized and well-coached elite college teams. But a team from the league's smallest city, Pottsville, in the heart of the coal mining region of Pennsylvania, changed the way the country looked at professional football -- but was deprived of what it had earned on the field because it violated a rule the league had never bothered to write down. In his book Breaker Boys, ESPN's David Fleming tells the story of the 1925 Pottsville Maroons.

For the sake of disclosure, Pottsville happens to be my mother's hometown. The landmarks and streets that Fleming mentions are all familiar to me, and when he talks about the Catholic church that shares its foundation with Yuengling brewery, he's talking about the place where my parents married. Somehow, I was totally unaware of the Maroons or their remarkable story until I found out about Fleming's book. Naturally, Fleming's suggestion that Pottsville was the home of the NFL's first great team was more than enough to get my attention.

Fleming begins the story with an introduction to the characters that populated the Pottsville Maroons. Running back Tony Latone, for example, learned life's hard lessons working in the mines from a very early age, but he also learned how to make heavy, resistant masses bend to his will through the force of his powerful legs. Predictably, a story about a team in the freewheeling Roaring Twenties needs an owner that's both assertive and at least marginally shady, and out of central casting comes Dr. John G. Striegel. His Maroons had dominated local semi-pro leagues in Pennsylvania in the early part of the decade, but Striegel's ambitions reached higher than that. He wanted entry into the NFL, and would stop at nothing to not only get in, but win when he got there. When he scouted other teams and saw a player he liked, he recruited him the old-fashioned way: he offered the player more money than he could reasonably refuse. Striegel first got the NFL's attention by grabbing two prominent players from the folding NFL franchise in Canton, despite NFL president Joe Carr's desire to send them to the Cleveland franchise. Then he snatched two lineman from the Frankford Yellow Jackets (Frankford is an area in Philadelphia, and the franchise eventually became the Philadelphia Eagles) before their owner, Shep Royle, could re-sign them for the 1925 season. Remarkably, Striegel had managed to make enemies of the two most powerful people in the NFL before the Maroons had even joined the league. But he had the money to buy in, and Carr accepted the Maroons' entry figuring that teams traveling to the east coast could stop in Pottsville on the way back and pick up an easy paycheck, along with an easy win.

The league underestimated Striegel and the Maroons enormously. Despite an early loss in bad weather that threatened to bankrupt the team, the Maroons' combination of hired hands and local players toughened by years in the mines blew away some of the league's storied franchises, including Curly Lambeau's Green Bay Packers. While they lost in Philadelphia to Royle's Yellow Jackets, the rematch in Pottsville turned into a devastating rout, with the Maroons winning 49-0. This victory was very significant for two reasons. First, it gave the Maroons, at 10-2, the best record in the eastern half of the league. The best team in the west, the Chicago Cardinals, were eager to host the Maroons in a winner-take-all showdown. Although the league did not have an official championship game at the time, the media certainly described the Pottsville/Chicago match-up in that manner.

The other reason the Frankford game was important concerned a barnstorming team consisting of graduated members of the 1924 collegiate champion team from the University of Notre Dame. College football was already a big part of the national sports consciousness in 1925, and nowhere was it bigger than at Notre Dame. The barnstorming team included the legendary Four Horsemen, four backs still highly revered today on the campus at South Bend. The Notre Dame All-Stars booked a stadium in Philadelphia for a match between the Pottsville/Frankford winner. Royle was as ecstatic and enthusiastic as Striegel -- before the game. If losing made Royle jealous, being humiliated made him angry. As Pottsville moved on to play Chicago, Royle filed a protest with the league, on the grounds that the Maroons were about to violate an accepted but unwritten rule in the league by playing a game within twenty miles of another team's home stadium. (Apparently this rule did not affect the Chicago Cardinals or their crosstown rivals, the George Halas-led Chicago Bears.)

The issue became serious for the league when Pottsville went into Chicago and dispatched the Cardinals with a convincing 21-7 win. The sports press across the country were quick to proclaim the Maroons as the NFL's champion, and trumpeted the upcoming showdown with the Four Horsemen as a major event. Carr tried to stop Striegel from playing the game, and warned him that there would be consequences. Striegel persisted, partly because he didn't think the league's ruling would survive a legal challenge, partly because he had lost money on the team and couldn't resist the huge paycheck that came with this game, and partly because he hated backing down from challenges, on the field or off. Despite the dire consequences, the game went on. The Notre Dame All-Stars dominated the first half, but only had a 7-0 lead to show for it. Then the Maroons dug down, and wound up winning the game 9-7 on a last-second field goal.

The Maroons' victory did for the NFL what Joe Namath and the Jets would do for the AFL by winning Super Bowl III in 1969. The league now had the credibility to exist on an equal standing with the college game. But Pottsvile and its team reaped none of the rewards. The team was stripped of its title, and only existed for a few years after that. The 1925 championship was unofficially given to the Cardinals. Their owner at the time did not accept it, but the Bidwell family that bought the Cardinals from him has controlled the team through moves first to St. Louis and then to Arizona. As 1925 is one of only two championships the Cardinals have ever won, the Bidwells have squelched all attempts by the league to give the Maroons proper acknowledgment.

Fleming's writing is concise and easily readable. Regardless of the town in question, the story is gripping and compelling, and all Fleming had to do with it was report it as it happened. My one critique of the book is that Fleming hints that the league wanted to rid itself of the small-town teams, but doesn't go into enough detail about it or explain why that would be the case, or why one of those teams, the Green Bay Packers, managed to survive.

Anybody interested in the early history of the NFL will enjoy Breaker Boys. Of course, if you have any connection to Pottsvile, the book is required reading. As for Fleming making the case that the 1925 championship rightly belonged to Pottsville, well, I can hardly be objective. I do think that a league that doesn't have a problem awarding Coach of the Year to a man who was caught cheating can afford to give Pottsvile and the Maroons more recognition than they have.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

David Fleming

Knights of the South Bronx (2005)

I'm always up for a "stand up and cheer" film, and Knights of the South Bronx is a gem. It features veteran Ted Danson, and Keke Palmer.

The story is somewhat formulaic I can fully admit, not unlike Freedom Writers, Take the Lead or The Ron Clark Story. You know, bunch of troubled youths in the inner city Bronx at the local school. An eager teacher shows up, in Danson portraying Richard, an out of work exec who is substitute teaching for some cash to keep his family in the manner to which they've grown accustomed. The key is that Richard is this closet chess champ that the kids discover when he plays fourteen games simultaneously in an exhibition and wins them all at the local park.

You can probably guess the rest. The kids learn that chess can be a great equalizer, in that it's only based on intellect, and not that they're poor or minorities, or anything else. While the kids focus on chess playing, at least they're focusing on something, and their math and reading scores follow, although the school's principal, and plenty of the parents don't quite get it.

Before we can say "checkmate," the children decide to compete in a local tournament. While they initially get mopped on the board, soon they have some success under the tutelage of their teacher (even though most of the other schools have dedicated chess coaches). This all leads to the national chess tournament where... I won't tell you, but you can probably guess who comes home with the trophy. It is based on a true story.
Knights of the South Bronx did hold my attention, and I did enjoy the film. I was particularly intrigued by Darwin, a five year old that got stuck learning chess because his kindergarten class ended early and would go to his sister's class because no one else was at home.

It was particularly touching at the end when they showed the number of children that had graduated, and moved on to colleges (some went to my alma mater), much of which could be attributed to their involvement with chess. That school's trophy case was stuffed! Perhaps I just have a soft spot for this type of film because back in third grade, I had a teacher that was really into chess, and had the whole class playing, but then again, he was a bit progressive as he would put on magic shows, and showed film strips (remember those?) about Bigfoot, UFO's and the Loch Ness monster. This experience made the next grade all the more painful when the most progressive thing we did was to look up words in a dictionary, and even with the largest one they sold at Waldenbooks, I still couldn't find half of them! Anyway, if you want a little inspiration, then Knights of the South Bronx is worth seeking out.

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by Jonas

Waitress (2007)

Keri Russell stars as Jenna in Waitress, an indie film about life, struggle, and the persistent will to change one's life for the better. It also features Nathan Fillon, Cheryl Hines and Andy Griffith.

Jenna is a waitress in the local diner. Her job is dead end, and she gets yelled at by her boss hourly along with her fellow employees, even though she is also the resident pie maestro. Her husband, Earl (Jeremy Sisto), is the proverbial jerk who mentally and physically abuses her, is constantly suspicious, and takes her money. The conflict comes when Jenna discovers she is pregnant, and will have the child even though she openly states that she doesn't want it. She makes preparations to leave her life behind, and also to compete in a pie baking contest. Her obstetrician, Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillon) provides a welcome outlet to her miserable life, and what starts innocently rapidly progresses to an extramarital affair. Along the way, veteran actor Andy Griffith portrays Old Joe, the diner owner, who gravitates between cantankerous old timer and wise oldster.

Overall, while the plot of Waitress is a downer, the acting is strong. However, the characters have the depth of a tidal pool- at low tide. The waitresses are just too stereotypical in their dialogue, and you wonder if folks in this situation could really be that simple. I think that this film had more potential but it is an acceptable movie to view for some more serious drama.

Overall Grade: B-

Reviewed by Jonas



If you thought the movie musical needs more gore and gloom, your perfect movie has arrived! Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has leaped from the theater to the big screen, and star Johnny Depp and director Tim Burton work their magic to create another dark tale.

Sweeney Todd begins like a typical revenge story. A flashback shows Benjamin Barker (Depp) living an idyllic life in London with his wife Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelley) and baby girl Johanna, until the corrupt and degenerate Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) had Parker arrested and deported to get to Lucy. Fifteen years later Barker returns as Sweeney Todd, appearing as a gothic apparition -- pale skin, wild black hair with a white streak, dark circles under his eyes -- and learning that Lucy poisoned herself after Turpin raped her and Johanna (Jayne Wisener) is the ward of Turpin.

Todd goes mad and gets even. He joins forces with a fellow gothic dweller of the slums, the darkly cheerful Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), whose claim to make "the worst pies in London" is hard to dispute. Todd finds his silver-handled razor blades and repoens his barber shop, hoping to get his enemies in the chair for a little slicing and dicing. Todd isn't too picky about his victims, as he puts his belief that everyone deserves to die to practice. Mrs. Lovett is a very happy accomplice, finding a most nauseating means of disposing of the bodies.

There is a subplot where young sailor Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), the young sailor who rescued Todd from the ocean, falls in love with Johanna and wants to rescue and marry her.. There's also the young boy Toby (Ed Sanders) is informally adopted by Mrs. Lovett after his abusive employer, the preening, pompous barner Signor Aldolfo Pirelli (Sascha Baron Cohen), is dispatched by Todd. But the focus of Sweeney Todd is the dark quest of Todd to get his revenge on the evil Judge Turpin -- and more or less anyone else he meets.

The music here is as cheerful as the film is dark. Rather than slow gloomy dirges, Sweeney Todd features grim songs with a quick tempo and frequent dark humor (such as when Todd sings a love song about his daughter while slitting throats). Director Tim Burton gets the most from his excellent cast, resulting in energy and mania through the grizzly proceedings. There are no heroes here -- Todd will kill just about anyone, and the romantics Anthony and Johanna seem naively optimistic against the dark backdrop of London -- but for gallows humor, Sweeney Todd delivers. You won't feel hopeful at the end of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street -- but you will feel entertained.

Overall grade: A

Reviewed by James Lynch


Top 10 CD's of 2007

Another year, another mountain of CD's reviewed here. As I've finally got all the reviews up, I'll spare long discussions and just link to the original posts.

10. The Born Again Floozies, 7 Deadly Sinners: I had a whole bunch of B+ albums, and room for only one of them in the top 10. (I think I need to make some of my B+ grades into B's, while we're on the subject. Some of the B+ albums were clearly better than others.) Perhaps being freshest in my memory gave this particular CD the needed boost, but chalk one up for novelty.

9. Vieux Farka Touré: The younger Farka Touré picks up his father's mantle with nicely with a lot of groove-oriented guitar playing on his debut.

8. Alamaailman Vasarat, Maahan: Totally frenetic, but also totally original and fun.

7. John Fogerty, Revival: A venerable legend gets mad, gets even, and keeps rocking.

6. Roachford, Word of Mouth: It will take more than my word of mouth to get Roachford albums released in the U. S. again. Our loss.

5. Kíla, Gambler's Ballet: Another album not yet released here, but at least I have hopes for this one.

4. Gomez, How We Operate: I know, this came out in 2006, but it would have cracked last year's list had I known about it. So it's on this year's list instead.

3. Väsen, Linnaeus Väsen: A great live act in either format, but their albums as a quartet have always worked a little better for me than their albums as a trio.

2. Ranarim, Morning Star: Two Swedish albums in the top three. Deal with it.

1. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Baby 81: Essential hard rock from a band that keeps getting better.

reviewed by Scott

Alamaailman Vasarat, Maahan (Silenze, 2007)

Alamaailman Vasarat is a Finnish phrase meaning "hammer of the gods." It is also the name of a Finnish band that mixes genres like Balkan and klezmer with jazz and heavy metal. The band's instrumentation consists of winds, horns, drums, keyboards, and two cellos that are distorted like electric guitars as often as not. As their name implies, they are not known for their subtlety.

Maahan is the band's third album overall, and the second one I've gotten to hear. As before, the music is all instrumental, and generally frenetic. I suppose some of their music qualifies as folk, but the folk music they play comes from eastern Europe, not from their native Finland. Alamaailman Vasarat take the energy that comes naturally in most Balkan music and elevate it a few notches. The signature element to their sound is the heavy metal crunch that the cellists provide. There's actually quite a lot of untapped potential in using stringed instruments other than the guitar, and I think it's only a matter of time before it catches on.

While their previous album Käärmelautakunta featured a classic instrumental in "Asiatehdas" that none of the tunes on the new record can match, Maahan is more consistently strong and fun all the way through. Highlights for me include "Luiden valossa, naapurin talossa," "Huikeuden lieriö," and "Katkorapu," all of which are big rushes of adrenaline. This album will appeal to rock fans who like their music lively regardless of the instruments used.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

The Born Again Floozies, 7 Deadly Sinners (Triple R, 2007)

The Born Again Floozies defy an easy description. Then again, it would be a challenge to find the right words to say about any rock band whose rhythm section consists of a tuba and a pair of tap dancers. Throw in a group leader who plays guitar in a uniquely percussive style and writes quirky lyrics about Bible thumpers, getting arrested, and enjoying the company of society's various outcasts, and you have a great recipe for a novelty act. But will this group from Indianapolis still hold people's attention once the novelty of their debut CD 7 Deadly Sinners wears off?

Actually, they just might, due to the legitimate talents of Joey Welch, the head lunatic in the asylum. He's a fine singer and guitarist, and has written at least a couple of tunes whose catchiness transcends their off-kilter presentation. The title song is the obvious single here. Not only does "7 Deadly Sinners" provide a name for the album, but for the band as well: "Born again floozies, heretics all, practicing heathen makers, let's have a ball." "Do Did Does" and "Drivin by the Penetiary" are fine songs as well.

While I can't guarantee that the Born Again Floozies will be more than one-album wonders -- hell, this album may not even get them regular gigs outside of Indianapolis -- but 7 Deadly Sinners is a fun record with a few goofy but likeable songs. I'd definitely recommend this to people in the mood for something a bit different.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars, Living Like A Refugee (Anti-, 2006)

So much music and art has been created by people facing some sort of adversity, and Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars have faced far more than their fair share. Driven out of their country by a brutal civil war, the members of this band found each other among the refugee camps in neighboring Guinea. At first they played together simply because they could, but the musical collaboration has happily outlasted the civil war and the return of the musicians to their homes.

Living Like A Refugee was recorded mostly in studios back in Sierra Leone, but a few of the tracks come from the camps themselves. Despite their roughness, these recordings have a great feel to them, and songs like "Bull to the Weak" and "Kele Mani" are the highlights of the disc. If anything, the lack of production on these recordings brings the group's strong musicianship, particularly from lead guitarists Ashade Pearce and Geassay Jahson Dowu Bull, into focus. While some of the musical arrangements are West African style, most of Living Like A Refugee is pure reggae. In particular, the Refugee All-Stars have opted for an old school, guitar heavy approach, evoking Bob Marley and The Wailers from the Catch A Fire era.

While Living Like A Refugee suffers from a shortage of exceptional tracks, the album does maintain a cool vibe throughout. Fans of the earlier Marley recordings will find plenty to like here. Sure, Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars have no difficulty getting people's sympathy on account of what they've been through, but this album holds up pretty well to close scrutiny.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

The Wailin' Jennys, Firecracker (Red House Records, 2006)

The Wailin' Jennys are a Canadian trio. At the time their second album Firecracker was recorded, the line-up consisted of Annabelle Chvostek, Nicky Mehta, and Ruth Moody, all of whom sing, write songs, and play multiple instruments. (Chvostek has since left and was replaced by Heather Masse.) Their music blends country and bluegrass with pop and gospel thrown in as well. Firecracker is their second album together. Given the three-part female harmonies, The Wailin' Jennys could fairly accurately be described as a rootsier, less sassy version of The Dixie Chicks, and will probably draw most of their audience from fans of that band.

I first heard of The Wailin' Jennys when their song "Devil's Paintbrush Road," the Chvostek composition that leads off Firecracker, got played on Radio Paradise. That particular song is a great number driven by Chvostek's strummed violin, but unfortunately nothing else on the album is nearly as good. The band's numerous attempts at countrified pop boast some pleasant enough harmonies, but otherwise sound predictable and formulaic. They fare better when going for a more rustic sound, like with the waltzy "Swallow" (another composition by Chvostek), but only the opening song stayed with me when I moved on to other albums.

The Wailin' Jennys have some promise, but seem torn between trying to be a folk act and a pop act and don't do well enough at either. Firecracker does have an excellent opening song that's worth checking out or downloading. Otherwise, it really didn't hold my interest.

Overall grade: C+

reviewed by Scott

In the Land of Women (2007)

Freshly graduated from "The OC," actor Adam Brody takes to the big screen and attempts to be the new leading man. While veterans such as Olympia Dukakis and Meg Ryan bring some experience, under the control of freshman director Jon Kasdan, the movie lacks a little polish at times. Still, it has a raw and real feel to it that makes it a worthwhile endeavor.

Brody plays Carter Webb, a twenty something prolonged adolescent who is on the verge of adulthood. While he makes a living at writing soft porn, upon the breakup with his girlfriend, he needs to get away and ventures to his grandma's up in Michigan. He finds in his grandmother an older woman, played by Olympia Dukakis, that despite her barely compensated dementia, can occasionally impart a nugget of wisdom. Both Carter and his grandma need each other in a symbiotic way.

Across the street lives Sarah Hardwicke, ably played by Meg Ryan. Despite the average appearance to outsiders: husband, two children, nice house, etc, etc, there's a lot more going on at the Hardwicke house. Not the least of which is that Sarah is newly diagnosed with breast cancer, and she's trying to fit her treatment into her busy schedule while dealing with an entire household of family issues.

The dichotomy of Carter- on the edge between adolescent and adult is shown that he has an interest in both the mother and the daughter across the street. As the film progresses, he does ultimately do some growing up, and cross the threshold into adulthood.

While In the Land of Women is a little rough around the edges (and I'm still used to seeing Brody as Seth of "The OC") this film has enough drama, with characters that are multidimensional enough to keep my attention throughout this 100 minute well paced film. Look for it on DVD.

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by Jonas

The Flying Scotsman (2006)

I hadn't heard anything about The Flying Scotsman, but when I read the DVD box about some cyclist that used washing machine parts in a bicycle and succeeded, I was curious enough to see what this was all about. It stars Johnny Lee Miller as Graeme Obree, a world class cyclist.

Obree is a Scottish amateur cyclist who decides to go after the world one hour distance record. This is not for the faint of heart as these guys in prime shape can go around 32 miles in one hour pedaling on their bike! In order to break the record, he needs a custom made bike. With some assistance, he gathers parts, including the ball bearings from his washing machine, and constructs a bike to take advantage of his unique cycling position. What makes it even more unbelievable is that he is up against teams that are using engineers and composite materials that are costing loads of money more. While he does break the record, it is bittersweet as his new record gets broken shortly thereafter by another.

To think that The Flying Scotsman is just another stand up and cheer sports movie would be a mistake. While it does have all the elements of this genre, it is also a story of one man's struggle against adversity, both from the cycling world, and from his bouts of depression. Reportedly, the film is based on Obree's autobiography.

While I enjoyed this film quite much, one difficulty was that the Scottish accents were a little thick, and I did need the subtitles on to get all of the dialogue. Even with that, The Flying Scotsman is an enjoyable film, and worth seeking out on DVD.

Overall Grade: A-

Reviewed by Jonas

The Heartbreak Kid (2007)

What do you get when you mix the Farrelly brothers with the comedy of Ben Stiller? Well, one kind of messed up film with an interesting premise, that mostly doesn't work throughout The Heartbreak Kid.

Ben Stiller plays Eddie Cantrow, a mostly successful sports goods store owner in San Francisco who is single and longs for finding the perfect woman. On the rebound, he thinks he finds her in a chance street encounter, in Lila (Malin Ackerman). After a hasty courtship, and a rushed wedding, they are off on their honeymoon. However, the honeymoon ends during the honeymoon (actually on the drive to it). Set in a Mexican resort, Eddie discovers that his new wife is not the woman of his dreams, and can't even stand her! Instead he falls for Miranda (Michelle Ackerman) who really seems just perfect for him. Ben's real life father, Jerry Stiller plays, in what is undoubtedly a stretch for him, Eddie's father.

I think the premise of The Heartbreak Kid is clever enough, but then goes off into a series of not so funny scenes that make you think that all the characters are clearly nuts. I generally don't like Ben Stiller films, and this one fits the mold of more silliness than substance.

Overall Grade: C

Reviewed by Jonas


Indie Sex

Sex and movies share a long and complex history, filled with conflict and collusion, desire and decadence, upholding norms and challenging them. The documentary Indie Sex explores the interplay between sexuality and cinema by giving us commentary from people in the movie industry, clips from films used to illustrate the points made, and a timeline of historical events to place the topics discussed in context. The result is a brilliant lesson in the interplay of movies and sexuality.

Indie Sex is divided into three main segments: Censored, tackling the issues of movie ratings and movie censorship; Teens, looking at how teenagers and teen life are treated in the movies; and Extremes, how the movies handle the unusual or unusually intense aspects of sexuality. (The fourth segment, Taboos, is included as an extra on the dvd.) All the segments have commentary on a wide range of people: actors (including Peter Sarsgaard and Rosanna Arquette), directors (from John Waters to Catherine Breillat), film critics, writers, producers, even burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese (that's her image on the cover; sorry, but she's not dressed like this in the documentary) and musicians. These people provide a wide range of viewpoints and experiences, and while there's a definite bias in favor of independent films over mainstream Hollywood -- critic Jami Bernard comments, "Indie films are where you can get a deeper exploration of something" -- the end result is an excellent variety.

Hollywood films aren't attacked or ignored. In providing the history of sex and movies, Indie Sex covers quite a few mainstream films and trends -- such as the success of the American Pie franchise and the colossal failure of Showgirls -- to tell us not only how independent movies are treating sex, but also how movies in general deal with this topic.

The history here is extensive, going back to the first silent films (and anyone thinking that was an innocent time will be surprised at some of the movies here), to the original ratings system (G, M, R, and X), and on to speculation on what "the final taboo" will be for movies. The film clips buttress the points made by the speakers: Even when a film isn't discussed, a few racy seconds shown from it serve to demonstrate another way movies treat the topic of sex.

Directors Lesli Klainberg and Lisa Ades wisely resist interjecting their own views and thoughts, instead giving the spotlight to the people speaking on this. Unlike the flawed This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Indie Sex also avoids any cheap theatrics and stays focused on its topic. The people interviewed also don't hate Hollywood: some work in mainstream movies, and director Lee Daniels, defending the ratings system, observes, "The question is, what are we shielding [children] from? And the answer is, people like me, until they [the children] are eighteen."

As one might imagine -- from the title or the cover -- Indie Sex is definitely intended for mature audiences. With that in mind, Indie Sex is a tremendously informative and entertaining navigation of human sexuality, movies, and their inevitable combination.

Overall Grade: A+

Reviewed by James Lynch


Futurama: Bender's Big Score

Futurama returns, in a straight-to-dvd full-length movie! But is the film Futurama: Bender's Big Score better or worse than the TV series? About the same, actually.

Just about everyone from the show is back: Fry (voiced by Billy West, who also does numerous other voices), Leela (Katey Segal), Bender (John Di Maggio), Dr. Zoidberg, Hermes, Professor Farnsworth, and so on. After a less-than-subtle jab at the show's cancellation -- the Planet Express crew is told they were cancelled by the Box Network (whose "B" flickers to a "F") -- the movie takes the Planet Express crew to the Nude Beach Planet, where the characters give their emails to a trio of nude aliens. These aliens send spam emails, which give the aliens control of Planet Express -- and Bender. They also notice that Fry has a tattoo of Bender on his buttock, and this tatoo contains a binary code letting anyone travel back in time (really) -- at the risk of creating a rip in the universe -- so the aliens send Bender back through history to steal everything valuable.

Also, Fry is jealous of Lars, the new man in Leela's life. And Hermes is upset because Barbados Slim is making a play for Hermes' wife after Hermes accidentally got his head cut off. And Fry went back to the 20th century, hunted down by Bender. Earth is owned by the nude aliens. And Al Gore's head is flying around!

Much like The Simpsons Movie, Futrama: Bender's Big Score feels like a good, slightly extended version of the TV show. Most of the jokes hit the mark, but the overall feel is chuckling instead of laughing out loud. There are some creative sci-fi touches (including how any paradoxical beings wind up dead pretty qucikly) and I look forward to the upcoming three movies that will wrap up this series -- The Beast With a Billion Backs, Bender's Game, and Into the Wild Green Yonder -- but anyone who's not a die-hard Futurama fan should be fine waiting for Futurama: Bender's Big Score to air on Cartoon Network.

Overall grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch