Futurama: The Beast With a Billion Backs

The silly sci-fi animated cartoon series Futurama continues its straight-to-DVD march with its latest installment, The Beast with a Billion Backs. The original voice cast is back, the humor is as goofy as ever, and the movie is a bit more fun that the previous release Bender's Big Score.

At the opening of The Beast with a Billion Backs, the rip in the universe still hangs in the sky from the end of the first movie. People are panicking over it, but they're a bit bored of panicking as well. Professor Farnsworth challenges his nemesis, Professor Wormstrom, to explore the tear, using the way all scientific disputes are resolved: Deathball! (I leave it to Scott, our resident scientist, to verify the accuracy of this method.)

Fry, meanwhile, has a new girlfriend Colleen (Brittany Murphy) but isn't thrilled to be living with her and her four other boyfriends. Bender is upset that the universal tear destroys any robots who enter it. Amy finally married Kif (sort of). Oh, and giant purple tentacles are pouring through the rift!

These tentacles belong to Yivo (softly and beautifully voiced by David Cross), a giant planet who is, shall we say, lonely. The tentacles attach themselved to the back of people's necks, making them fall in love with Yivo. Almost all life quickly becomes attached to it, and Leela seems to lead the few survivors. Bender, of course, is even more angry that it's something else that excludes robots.

Futurama: The Beast with a Billion Backs plays like an extended episode of Futurama -- but a good one! There's a lot of fun with the situations, and laughs flow like tentacles through a tear in the universe. (You know, I always wanted to say that.) There are a few extras on the dvd, including audio commentaries, the clips from the Futurama video game (with optional commentary), and a preview of the next movie, Bender's Game. Futurama: The Beast with a Billion Backs is a good movie with plenty of laughs.

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by James Lynch


Get Smart (2008)

Once again, the big screen is drawing upon the TV screen for inspiration, while years ago it used to go the other way. While last week it was Sex and the City, this time it is Get Smart. Also, this is another TV series that I have never seen a single episode of, although my excuse this time is that it was on back in 1965.

Steve Carrell, who I am not a big fan of, plays Maxwell Smart, the lead character. He is a an analyst at Control, a secret government agency that battles the evil forces of KAOS (which looks like the call letters of some radio station in the Midwest). When Control gets taken down, and they are short agents, and Maxwell gets his wish to be sent into the field as a full fledged Secret Agent. The only problem is that it is immediately apparent that he is in over his head, way over his head actually. So to counter his "newbie-ness" he is partnered up with veteran Agent 99, played by the up and coming Anne Hathaway. Faster than we can say "spy gadgets," the duo is off to combat the forces of evil.

Along the way, there is plenty of humor, and Get Smart draws upon plenty of source material. For example, there is a scene with a laser security system blanketing a room that looks like it was lifted from the film Entrapment. There is also a segment of Get Smart that throws in some of the props of the venerable TV series, including the iconic "shoe phone" that must have mesmerized audiences long before we all had smart phones on our belts.

My criticism of the film is that I think it loosens up a little too much at times. The plot is relegated to secondary status as Maxwell and Agent 99 continuously bicker how to handle a situation. Add in Maxwell's antics, and the emphasis on physical comedy to the exclusion of most everything else, and you can see how things constantly blowing up and falling, for no reason at times, can strain the attention span as repetitiveness abounds.

On the plus side, at least I've finally found a film that Steve Carrell seems better suited for. His goofy physical comedy works here, which seemed totally out of place in Dan In Real Life. Hathaway does a departure from her more serious roles into this type of comedy, and she did seem a little miscast at times, although I'm told that she looked like the character in the original series. Rounding out the ensemble was Dwayne Johnson, better known as "The Rock," who portrays Agent 23, the machisimo super agent that is the role model for all to aspire to.

What's the final verdict for Get Smart? I think it was a pretty good film, but it missed the mark for excellent. Those looking for a secret agent spoof film will enjoy it, and it is likely the start of a whole series of these from the box office sales of this reprised franchise. Fans of the old TV show will be pleased, but it was fine entertainment for those that had never seen the show as well.

Overall Grade: B (almost a B+)

Reviewed by Jonas


Moving Cloud, "Welcome: Who Are You?"; Shooglenifty, Troots; Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, Welcome Here Again

Bands that play traditional Celtic music generally operate under a basic formula, mimicking what goes on in typical pub sessions. The melodies are played on fiddle, plus one or two additional lead instruments like a flute or an accordion, while the aggressive strumming of a guitar and/or a bouzouki provides the chordal accompaniment. This approach has generally worked well over the past thirty-five years or so. Still, bands or duos interested in recording albums or going on tour know that they have to distinguish themselves in order to get noticed. Sometimes this can mean adding instruments on, whether it's something simple like natural percussion from instruments like the bodhrán, or something more complex like electronics or rock amplification. It can also mean stripping things down, focusing on the clarity of the melody instead of maximizing the energy. I've had the opportunity to listen to new albums from several Celtic acts over the past few weeks, with each act bringing something different to the table.

The first album I listened to is called "Welcome: Who Are You?", from a band called Moving Cloud. Despite the unmistakably Irish flavor of their music, Moving Cloud actually hail from the unlikely country of Denmark. (Some of you might recall a Donegal-based band with the same name that released two albums on Green Linnet in the nineties. The members of the two bands were evidently so fond of the same particular reel that they both named themselves after it. While I imagine they'd appeal to the same audience, they are two different bands, from different places, with different personnel.) The primary distinguishing element of Moving Cloud's sound is the heavy reliance on percussion. Svend Kjeldsen has been banging on the bodhrán and other assorted instruments for the band since their inception, and is the only person to be part of every Moving Cloud lineup to date. He provides a steady backbeat and groove to most of the pieces on the album. He is assisted on a couple of tracks by step dancer Mette Løvschal, a relative newcomer to the group. They collaborate on a unique recitation called "Anahorish... My Place of Clear Water," the most intriguing track on the album. Filling out the band's sound are long-time members John Pilkington (vocals, guitar, bouzouki) and Klavs Vester (flutes and whistles), along with the band's newest member, fiddler Christopher Davis Maack.

Outside of "Anahorish," "Welcome: Who Are You?" contains the usual series of jigs, reels, and slow airs, with Pilkington throwing in a few songs for good measure. Moving Cloud deserve to get noticed in the crowd, though, partly because Kjeldsen makes the faster pieces more rhythmic, but also because the band as a whole plays with a healthy amount of energy and spirit. Now, I could understand it if somebody with a thousand or two Celtic albums might be more demanding than I am, but I actually hadn't listened to a whole lot of new Irish-style CD's in a while, and I found "Welcome: Who Are You?" to be a breath of fresh air.

Moving on to Scotland, I gave a few listens to the new album Troots by Shooglenifty. Shooglenifty have been playing together for over a decade, and have built their reputation by combining jigs and reels with rock instrumentation and electronics. They draw a lot of comparisons to Irish modern folk acts like Kíla and the Afro-Celt Sound System, but on this album, at least, I don't feel that they live up to those comparisons. They aren't nearly as creative or interesting with their arrangements, and without any significant vocals the album suffers from a lack of variety. They also lean a little too heavily on the drums and amps, to the point where not only do the actual tunes become almost secondary, but the individual performances and any sense of band chemistry get lost in the shuffle as well. They may play as well as Moving Cloud, for example, but they make it hard for the listener to notice sometimes.

A couple of years ago I was attending a concert by Liz Carroll and John Doyle with the woman I've since married, and I commented to her before the show that Carroll and Doyle were the best Irish fiddle/guitar duo I had seen perform. At which point, the person sitting next to us interjected, "In that case, you haven't seen Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill." Indeed I haven't, although after giving Hayes and Cahill a closer listen on some of their older recordings and more particularly on their new release Welcome Here Again, I've come to realize that comparing the two acts is actually very hard. The quality of playing is nearly equal (and equally brilliant), yet their approaches to Irish fiddle music couldn't be any more different. Where Carroll and Doyle rear back and fire, Hayes and Cahill strip everything down. They play with a disarming deliberateness of pace which, for listeners accustomed to the usual rowdiness of an Irish session, almost doesn't register at first listen. In other words, you'd better be prepared to give their music time to grow on you.

Happily, after several listens to Welcome Here Again I really started to get what Hayes and Cahill were doing. Hayes' fiddling emphasizes the clarity and beauty of the melody above everything else. No tunes are played at breakneck speed, with abrupt transitions into a different tune or dramatic changes in key. Intensity is built up slowly, if it is built up at all. What you do get, for the most part, is one lovingly played tune at a time. Cahill's accompaniment is correspondingly sparse, embracing the empty spaces and quiet moments. You won't hear all six strings vigorously strummed at once at any point on this recording. Cahill also frequently mimics a harp with his playing. While the approach is generally effective, it also makes me wonder what Hayes could do with the right harpist backing him up.

Welcome Here Again is calmly reflective from start to finish. I could see some people complaining that it is too calm, but I think less restless listeners will find that the album works beautifully as a whole.

Overall grades:
Moving Cloud B
Shooglenifty C
Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill A-

reviewed by Scott

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright 2008 The Green Man Review


The Incredible Hulk

Marvel's angry green giant returns to the big screen in The Incredible Hulk, both the latest summer blockbuster superhero movie and part of Marvel's attempt to create a cohesive universe for their upcoming Avengers movie. Ang Lee's bizarre and disappointing interpretation of the Hulk mythos has been forgotten for a more traditional story.

The movie opens with flashbacks showing Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) accidentally turning himself into the Hulk, which leads to his injuring his girlfriend Betty Ross (Liv Tyler) and incurring the wrath of General "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt) before destroying much of a military base and escaping.

We then see Banner living in Brazil, living as anonymously as possible while trying to cure his condition. He experiments with drugs, practices meditation and martial arts to control his rage. (A pulse monitor warns him when he gets too worked up.) He also corresponds anonymously with someone about his condition, and he pines for Betty.

The military hasn't given up on capturing Banner and turning his condition to a weapon. Ross is still determined to bring Banner in, and he recruits Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), a hotshot soldier, to lead the capture. Blonsky is all action, and when he willingly lets others inject him with the "super soldier" serum to get stronger, well, neither fans of the comic book nor anyone who's seen the trailer for the movie will be surprises to find out where that leads.

This movie is a mix of action, drama, and melodrama -- with mixed results. The special effects are light years ahead of those for the last movie, and the Hulk's big battles -- against the military and the Abomination -- are truly amazing. Director Louis Letterier also handles the chases well, as Banner hauls ass while trying to keep his cool.

Unfortunately, when the movie slows down its flaws show through. Edward Norton shines as Bruce Banner, but the rest of the cast is one dimensional. Liv Tyler is extremely dull as the suffering love interest; and why did they bother to make her a scientist anyway? William Hurt is okay as General Ross (even if he looks and sounds exactly like Captain Stottlemeyer from Monk) but he's undercut by a character without any redeeming qualities -- a villain we're supposed to hate absolutely. Likewise, Tim Roth has little to do but fight scenes and express a desire for more action.

There are lots of small items tossed in for fans of the comic book (notably Tim Blake Nelson as Samuel Sterns, a likely candidate for the villain in the inevitable sequel), the inclusive Marvel movie universe being created (with a mention of Nick Fury and appearance by Tony Stark), not to mention cameos from Stan Lee, Lou Ferrigno, and even Bill Bixby. The Incredible Hulk does have a certain superficial feel to it that only vanishes when the big green guy is destroying stuff.

Overall Grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch


Psycho Shop - Alfred Bester and Roger Zelazny (1998)

Bester and Zelazny are two great names in sci-fi, so a collaboration between the two sounds like it has great potential. The fact that it is an unfinished novel by Bester, finished by Zelazny after Bester's death does not in any way diminish that potential. The introduction compares it to a jazz duet between two master musicians, an anaology which is perhaps apt. Improvisation when it works well is magical, but also very much of the moment. For a novel, the result is a fast-paced and amusing story but one which lacks the structure and craft to be truly great.

The premise is packed with tropes of the genre - time travel, a magical (or in this case, following Clark's 3rd Law, scientific) shop where almost anything can be traded including personality traits and ephemera like "genius", and highly evolved supermen and women.

The action veers back and forth through time and space, as our hero, Alf Noir, is sent to investigate the "magical shop" and it's owner Adam Maser. Along the way, increasingly disconcerting gaps in Alf's own past start showing up, leading to a final showdown.

The style is brisk and a lot of fun, and some of the asides or "riffs", if I may stretch the metaphor, are brilliant. Overall, however, it lacks coherence. While incidents and vignettes shine, the novel as a whole does not scintillate. It is certainly a pleasant enough read, but it will not stick with you the way that the great works by either author do.

Overall Grade: C+

The Soddit - Adam "ARRR" Roberts (2003)

Parodies are tricky. When they work, they can be incredibly funny - especially to those who know the source. When they fail, they can be truly miserable - especially to those who know the source. The Soddit hits neither of these extremes, landing in a middle ground which is, while not particularly inspired, at least fairly amusing.

The book is not a note-for-note or incident-for-incident parody of Tolkien's The Hobbit, rather it aims for a more general or thematic pastiche. Overlaid on the plot of The Hobbit is a completely separate plot, original to Roberts, which is actually quite good. At the conclusion of the book I was left dissatisfied. The parody was only adequate but the original plot was interesting enough that I would have preferred a book where it could be fully developed without being shoehorned into a Tolkien parody. Ironically, had it been an original book, though, I would have been much less likely to purchase it in the first place - a literary Catch-22 of sorts.

In any case, the book has it's moments, but ultimately is merely average. For those looking for a good Tolkien parody, I recommend seeking out The Harvard Lampoon's Bored of the Rings, but for those looking for straight-ahead fantasy, Mr. Roberts' other books might be worth checking out.

Overall Grade: C


The Whigs, Mission Control (ATO Records, 2008)

The Whigs are an aggressive garage band from the musical hotbed of Athens, Georgia. Parker Gispert sings and plays guitar, Julian Dorio plays drums, and Tim Deaux is their new bassist. Their second album Mission Control was recorded last fall and released in January.

For better and for worse, The Whigs only seem to know how to play loud and hard. So if energy is what you're looking for, you'll find it in abundance here. Unfortunately there's little variety, and even loud bands need a consistent sense of musicality to make a strong album. Mission Control does boast a pair of solid rockers in "Right Hand on My Heart" and "Already Young," but the rest of the disc just didn't do anything for me. Too much of it struck me as loudness for its own sake, without enough melody or depth to make it interesting.

You only need one or two good songs to get noticed, though, so I could see The Whigs generating some buzz. But they're the kind of band where I'd recommend downloading a couple of specific songs over purchasing the whole album.

Overall grade: C+

reviewed by Scott


A World Between - Norman Spinrad (1979)

I am continually amazed by the prescience of some science fiction novels and books. It is possible that what I should be amazed by is really the fact that "the more things change, the more they stay the same." A World Between is one of those books that, while written in 1979, could have been written about, say, the 2008 US Presidential race-thus-far. It takes on issues of sexism, political correctness, media culture and media manipulation with side-trips into hetero-sexism and inter-gender relationships, all executed with the deft touch of a master.

Set in the moderately distant future, the plot revolves around the fate of the planet Pacifica, whose role in the interstellar community is that of media producer and information broker. The Pacifican constitution mandates free access of the press and is founded on "electronic democracy." You may begin making Twilight Zone sounds in your head any time now. Into this vibrant culture, where "information wants to be free," two spaceships arrive close on each other's heels, each representing a competing ideology.

First to arrive are the technocratic Transcendental Scientists. This male dominated faction's main crime in the eyes of the Pacificans is that they restrict their advances to their own people rather than engaging in free market trading and sharing; in short, they use technology as a weapon for market trading and sharing; in short, they use technology as a weapon for political purposes.

They are followed by the Femocrats, radical feminists and lesbians in a communistic vein. The scene is set for a clash of titanic proportions. Since faster-than-light (FTL) travel does not exist, the battle will be fought for hearts and minds with propaganda and politics rather than with guns and bombs.

What follows is the struggle of our Pacifican heroes (of both genders) as they try to negotiate a middle path between two extremes. As the TS and Femocrats try to manipulate the Pacifican elections and government, both sides engage in the type of gender politics that have been so prevalent in the past year. Thirty years ago, the book must have seemed like a wild flight of imagination, today in almost reads like a documentary.

Spinrad tackles his subjects with wit and humour, as well as consumate craftsmanship. Admittedly some of the style and conceits seems a little dated, but remarkably few. Some of the characterizations are a little heavy-handed as well, but Spinrad's writing is strong enough to make this a quibble. While this is not Spinrad's best book, it is still a very good book, and the issues he addresses are amazingly timely.

Overall Grade: B+



If you're missing the blend of horror, action, and action that's been missing since Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel left the air, take heart: Reaper delves into the same mix, with less detailed plotting but plenty of heart and fun.

Sam Oliver (Brett Harrison) is a slacker. He lives with his parents; he has a job at the Work Bench (a thinly-disguised Home Depot) where he hangs out with his best buds, the loud and wacky Bert "Sock" Wysocki (Tyler Labine) and more levelheaded Ben (Rick Gonzales), along with his cute female friend/wannabe love interest Andi (Missy Peregrym). On his 21st birthday things get weird for Sam, but he soon learns that there's a perfectly logical explanation: Before he was born, to save his father's life Sam's folks agreed to give the soul of their firstborn child to the Devil -- and he's come to collect.

The Devil (wonderfully played by Ray Wise) is always charming, always neatly dressed, and always has an angle. In this case, he decides that Sam will be his bounty hunter, catching evil souls that escaped from Hell (each of which has their own unique power) and sending them back. Usually after suddenly transporting Sam somewhere, telling him about his latest target, and sending him back, the Devil sends Sam a vessel to catch the soul. (These range from a Dirt Devil to a dove in a cage to an instant camera.) After a soul is caught, Sam brings it to the portal to hell -- the DMV -- where Gladys (Christine Willes) ships it down to the netherworld.

Sam is a reluctant hero at first, but he soon finds that he enjoys doing some good. (Sock and Ben also tag along on every hunt, no matter how dangerous.) However, apart from numerous screwups with the vessels, Sam also has trouble working for the Devil while keeping his life a secret from Andi, and keeping his job, and generally trying to stay alive.

Reaper is more silly than scary, but it's good fun. There are also several ongoing storylines that keep it from being solely about the nasty of the week. When Sam wants a copy of his contract to find a loophole, it's hundreds of pages long - and in Latin. Sam has a nice time dating Cady (Jessica Stroup), but there always seem to be hints that she's the Devil's daughters. And in a wonderful bit of casting, former co-stars from The State Ken Marino and Michael Ian Black are Ken and Tony, a friendly, polite gay couple who are also demons plotting to kill the Devil.

Far more comedy than action or horror, Reaper proves the supernatural can be quite lighthearted. The cast is consistently effective, even if Brett Harrison spends most of the series acting like a frustrated deer in headlights. For all the supernatural elements, this show is light and amusing: seldom scary, but good for quite a few chuckles.

Overall grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch


I Am Legend (2007)

With Will Smith's next film due to come out over July 4th, I decided to catch up on his previous film available on DVD. This is I Am Legend, but it quickly became apparent to me why I generally can't stand horror films.

The premise is that Will Smith is some military scientist. A few years ago, in an effort to cure cancer, a virus was reengineered into a vector to be able to kill the tumors. Faster than we can say "Jurassic Park," the virus is mutated into a killer and most of humanity is wiped out. A few of humankind are naturally resistant (mutants if you will), and Robert Neville (Smith) is one of these. He ends up in NYC, which was his predisaster post. He searches for a cure in his basement lab, and drives around a desolate city, unless you count the wildlife, and folks that have been turned into zombies by the virus. Zombies? Yeah, that's when I realized that I Am Legend went from far fetched to ridiculously implausible.

There are hordes of zombies wandering around the city, and they come out at night. The otherwise impressive job the special effects department did in converting many iconic NYC spots (Times Square, Brooklyn Bridge, USS Intrepid) into post apocalyptic shells of their former existence is completely undone by the poor costumes of the zombies that would fit in alongside any 1950's monster movie. Yup, it's that bad.

Meanwhile, the cure is right in Smith's unprocessed blood that he sends along at the end. Duh! While the cure may be in there in the form of an antibody, that doesn't mean anyone can do anything with it, so a tube of his blood is not particularly valuable. If you were upset when DISH dropped their Monster HD channel, then this film is for you. Other than that, the rest of us can steer clear of I Am Legend.

Overall Grade: D+

Reviewed by Jonas


Death Sentence (2007)

While I did expect Death Sentence to be a B rated movie, I didn't expect it to sink as low as it did. It stars Kevin Bacon and John Goodman.

It starts out with a decent enough plot. Bacon is the mild mannered, insurance risk, numbers man, Nick Hume. He lives the boring suburban life, and is perfectly satisfied with his family of two children and his wife. This all changes in a heartbeat when he stops at the proverbial gas station in the bad section of town. Faster than we can say "roll up the windows kids" his firstborn child is knifed, the victim of a gang attack, while his father watches by helplessly. Thankfully the murdered is caught, but justice does not prevail as the DA wants to make a deal for 3 to 5 years for murder because there was no other physical evidence to support the eyewitness. So far, the film was gruesome, but it hadn't sunk yet beyond retrieval.

Next thing we know, Bacon decides to take the law into his own hands, which consists of dusting off a hunting knife from the shed, and getting into a knife fight with this trained killer. Yeah right, like this insurance number cruncher was going to be able to take on this gang banger? Who writes this stuff?

Next thing we know, it's an all out gang war with Bacon on one side, and a whole gang of thugs on the other. At least Bacon stops by the neighborhood gun salesman, Bones Darley, played by John Goodman in his departure from his usual happy go lucky roles where he is known for his belly laughs. After trading in his life savings for a small arsenal, he's off to settle the score once and for all. Along the way, it's total violence, with the bodies piling up including his own family that get taken out along the way. I was particularly dismayed to see the shotgun, with one shot, go through inches of reinforced concrete. Seriously, aren't there any technical experts on these films?

I suggest you take my word for this. While Death Sentence starts out ok, it simply goes in a downward spiral, and every time I'm thinking we've reached rock bottom, it dropped another notch. While at least I got through this one, I was all to happy at the end to end the experience. This film reminds me of why I don't watch horror films.

Overall Grade: D-

Reviewed by Jonas

Sex and the City (2008)

So, I've already gone to the cinema to see the latest Indiana Jones film. Now, this week, we hit this heat wave, and some hours of A/C sound pretty good. What else is playing? Well, this Sex and the City film seems to be getting a lot of buzz. However, I hear that it's a continuation of the hit cable TV series, that I never saw a single episode of. Seriously. I knew Sarah Jessica Parker better for her work at Steve & Barry's. On top of all this, when fellow Armchair Critic Jim hears that I'm going to see this, he wishes me well, and says "You're a braver man than me for tackling S&TC, comrade." He goes on to explain that "One of the best criticisms of the show came from one of the actresses on the show, who described it as 'women sitting around complaining that there are no fabulous men, only fabulous women.'" Hmm, did I really want to see this? Would my manhood emerge unscathed? However, faced with another 90+ degree day of sweltering heat, the "fabulous women" beckoned.

I shouldn't have been too concerned. I was able to pick up the storyline pretty easily. While the characters initially confused me a little bit, I had everyone straight before too long. The center of the action is Carrie Bradshaw (Parker). She has had an on and off again relationship with Mr. Big (Chris Noth) for far too long. As they plan on moving into a fancy Manhattan apartment, they decide it's time for matrimony. Faster than we can say "wedding planner," the wedding is totally out of control, and Mr. Big stands Carrie up at the altar in a dramatic scene. Carrie and the rest of the gals go on the prepaid honeymoon in Mexico. Carrie returns to rebuild her life, and enlists the aid of a young assistant, Louise (Jennifer Hudson). Eventually relationships and lives get rebuilt, and there just might be some wedding nuptials by the end.

Overall, I do have to agree with Jim that this is a highly woman centric film. However, focusing on the gals doesn't exclude a guy from enjoying it. The acting was all well done. Sex and the City is worth a viewing just to see all the fashion that went into it (I can only imagine the budget for all those edgy outfits). They also made good use of many Manhattan locales in the setting which add to the realism and excitement of the film. They also did a good job of portraying the characters as multidimensional, but with seasons of a TV show to draw upon, it's not too hard when you're starting with developed characters already.

Was Sex and the City true to the original TV series? I still have no idea. All I can say was it was an entertaining way to spend a few hours away from the stifling weather, and watch a decent story unfold that certainly held the audience's attention with plenty of chuckles along the way. Isn't that what movie magic is all about?

Overall Grade: A-

Reviewed by Jonas



I must preface this review with the admission that I have never played a game of Twilight Imperium to completion. My most recent attempt was a game that consisted of about an hour of rules explanation followed by six hours of playing -- and we still had to declare "the next round is the last round" instead of playing until someone got enough victory points to win. Twilight Imperium is a very long, very complex game; and its expansion, Shattered Empire, simplifies it in some ways and lengthens it in others. It's also a lot of fun and, if you have the patience, it's very rewarding.

Each player takes control of an alien race. The races all have certain starting ships, homeworlds, and technologies. The races also get their own advantages, such as combat bonuses, additional command tokens, or trade benefits. Players then put together the "board" from a series of six-sided hexes. Hexes will contain a planet (or two), a nebula, a supernova, or empty space. You want to put planets near you, while putting unwanted tiles near opponents. In the center of the board is Mecatol Rex.

Each player's race sheet provides a turn breakdown, information on ships (cost, movement, bonuses, and combat values), and resource management. Each player has a number of command counters that are divided between Strategic Allocation (for using secondary abilities of command cards), Fleet Supply (which determines the maximum number of ships in a hex), and Command Pool (used to build ships or to move -- and possibly attack with -- your fleet). Switching command counters each turn is a key element in Twilight Imperium.

At the start of each turn, players choose a command card, which provide everything from technology advances to calling for intergalactic votes on political cards. Much like the game Puerto Rico, these cards have a primary ability that benefits the player who selected it, followed by a secondary ability that other players can use (though they'll likely have to spend a counter from Strategic Allocation to do so). Command cards are numbered, and their numbers determine the order of play.

After command cards are selected, the action phase begins. Players can use the main function of their command card, use a counter from their command pool to activate a system (either moving ships there or to build at a spacedock), transfer ships, or pass. This is when players can take new planets, which provide resources for building ships and buying technologies. This is also when players attack.
Combat is very similar to Axis & Allies: After any pre-combat rolls are made, each side rolls dice and damage is inflicted simultaneously on each side. (There are action cards that can affect damage, and two large ships take two hits to be destroyed.) Unlike many other combat games, a large army can't plow across the board in one turn: The Fleet Supply creates a very strict limit for how many ships can be in one hex, and once a system is activated with a command counter no ships can move from that system for the rest of the turn.

For all this discussion of the game, I still haven't said how a player wins. There are certain public objectives that give players victory points for meeting their requirements (such as having at least two technology advances in three different fields) and each player gets their own private and more difficult secret objective (like occupying two hexes next to opponents' homeworlds). After each action phase, players have the chance to get the points for one public objective or their private one. When a player reaches the predetermined number of points for victory, they win! (The basic rules have a command card giving the player two victory points, while this is missing from the Shattered Empire command cards.)

Of all the games I own -- and it's a large number -- Twilight Imperium is easily the most complex. There are a lot of elements to keep track of, setup and rules explanation take a long time, and it's easy to spend a half hour for a single turn. The game does speed up as the players get more planets and resources, and interpersonal diplomacy ("I won't attack you this turn if you don't attack me") can be as important as lucky dice rolling. If you have the time and focus to devote a whole day to playing, Twilight Imperium is a rewarding way to build yourself a space empire.

Overall grade: A-

Reviewed by James Lynch


Kung Fu Panda (2008)

You'll believe a panda can practice kung fu! Actually that's one of the easier feats of Kung Fu Panda, the animated kids' martial arts feature from DreamWorks Animation. This feature focuses a bit too much on its two leads, but it proves a funny action movie that shows reverence for more traditional martial arts movies.

In this anthromorphic world of the Valley of Peace (in ancient China, naturally) the panda bear Po (Jack Black) dreams of being a great martial artist with his heroes, the Furious Five. Unfortunately Po is fat, lazy, and apparently destined to be a noodle cook.

When the fearsome snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian McShane) escapes from prison, the turtle master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) declares that it is time to declare which warrior is the fabled Dragon Warrior. Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) assembles his students, the Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross), and Mantis (Seth Rogen). A mishap with a chair propelled by fireworks leads to Oogway selecting Po as the Dragon Warrior -- something that sits quite poorly with Shifu and Tigress.

What follows is a blend of the traditional "lovable loser finds his strength" story and some very mixed martial arts. While kids will enjoy the antics of lovable Po (and quite a few fat jokes at his expense), kung fu fans will enjoy everything from what would be wire-fu (if this wasn't animated) to slow motion and extreme speed. There's an exciting sequence of dueling chopsticks, not to mention one of the most amusing training montages you're likely to see this year.

Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman are the perfect voices for their roles in this movie. Black tones down his usual hyper-cool slacker persona to make us root for Po, while Hoffman supplies surprising wit as the frustrated teacher who can't believe his worst student is the one destined to save the day. If I have one complaint, it's that with the massive focus on Po and Shifu the other characters have little to do: The talent voicing the Furious Five is truly impressive, but they have little to do but react to Po -- and the end result is that just about anyone could have done the voice work the actors did.

I had a lot of fun at Kung Fu Panda. There's plenty of humor here, and the action is reminiscent enough of "traditional" kung fu films to provide some nice thrills along the way. So if you're looking for some good laughs and good action, check out the panda with the moves!

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by James Lynch

The Golden Compass (2007)

The Golden Compass proves the point that just about everyone thinks they can do fantasy these days. Add in a little Harry Potter, stir with some Lord of the Rings, maybe a little Chronicles of Narnia, and hey, we can do fantasy, right? Nothing can be further than the truth.

After half an hour, I just couldn't take it anymore. Even Nicole Kidman herself, and LOTR veteran voice Ian McKellen couldn't keep this runaway freight train of a movie on track. It simply doesn't make enough sense, talking about "dust" and strangling each others "familiars" or whatever they called them to proceed with watching the rest of this film. This film is just plain stupid. Into the DVD reject pile The Golden Compass goes.

Overall Grade: Incomplete

Reviewed by Jonas

Awake (2007)

Awake is a drama that uses "anesthesia awareness" as the core to the plot. It stars Hayden Christensen, and Jessica Alba.

Christensen plays Clay Beresford, a too rich banker with an overbearing mother. He secretly dates and falls in love with his mom's assistant, Sam Lockwood (Alba). Clay is also in need of a heart transplant. When he goes to the OR, well, you can kind of figure out that he's awake the entire time, and by the way, there's a plot to kill him, and there's a drunk anesthesiologist involved in the mix.

This film had lots of potential, but whoever the technical advisors were just didn't make it happen. First of all, for someone in need of a heart transplant, he never is even short of breath, or has any chest pain, and looks fine. Not gonna happen. If he can function with his daily routine, he's not getting close to any transplant list.

Next, the scenes in the OR just degenerate. Every time we see the monitor, the heart has a rate of 30 (sinus bradycardia). Even when they're shocking the heart, again it's sinus bradycardia which makes no sense. Also, I can tell you that the drapes were inadequate to preserve sterility, there were no lines to the patient for the pump (heart lung bypass machine), and it took way too long to even intubate the patient after induction of anesthesia. Quite simply, it seems like there were no technical advisors.

Finally, if you think about it, they chose the wrong operation. With a heart transplant, the heart is totally removed from the body, before the new one is sewn into place. There is no pulsatile blood flow, and the patient is totally dependent on heart lung machine. How exactly is the brain functioning with no pulsatile blood flow to be aware of anything?

I could go on and on, and it doesn't make any sense to me. Without going into too many details, I can tell you that anesthesia awareness is a real problem, although not a common one. I have seen it once, and although the patient was completely aware, they were not in any pain. The patient was even able to recount portions of the operation, and conversations that took place while they were out. Unfortunately, all you as a patient can do is hope your anesthesiologist knows what they're doing, and hope for the best (this can help but not everyone is a big fan of it).

Anyway, I can't really recommend a film like Awake that has so many plot holes poking their way through it that it looks like Alpine lace Swiss cheese. If you're gonna make a film like this, you gotta get the technical details right, or I'm gonna ding you. Awake is a literal snooze.

Overall Grade: D+

Reviewed by Jonas

Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

I've been hearing about the new Indiana Jones movie for months now, and it was one of the most anticipated films of the summer. First "Armchair Intern" Ian gives it our highest (and very coveted) A+ rating, without much explanation with his "preview review." On the other hand, Armchair Senior Reviewer Jim is less than enthralled and low balls it with a C-. In the meantime, our resident musical expert Scott tells me that he'd give it a solid B (and that wasn't just for the score).

Hmm. What are we to do? As Armchair Founder and Webmaster, clearly I need to settle this, and come up with a bottom line. So, I got off my DVD watching butt, paused my DVR and took my annual trek to the theater. Jim's review has already done a good job of summarizing the plot, so I'm gonna skip over that. Also, by way of background, I did want to say that I've seen all the previous Indiana Jones films, and would probably give Raiders an A-, and the other two a B+.

Without further delay, I will say that I enjoyed Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. However, after a decade hiatus, still with the input of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Harrison Ford, I think it did miss the mark.

Clearly, Spielberg was going for the feel of the serial movie (like he did in the Back to the Future films that I liked very much) that he grew up with on weekends as a child. However, the other films in the series really didn't follow the formula, so it makes Crystal Skull feel like a departure, and "less Indy," at least to me. In addition, the introduction of space aliens to finish the plot, that incidentally look a lot like ET, also didn't have the right feel of Indiana Jones, where the previous films were more classical archeology based.

There were also many plot holes that simply didn't fit. Indiana surviving a nuclear blast in a refrigerator (lead lined or not) was simply implausible, and also dangerous to show children as they could try that at home with disastrous consequences. Swinging on vines to catch up with cars? Again, not gonna happen. Swashbuckling with swords when there is a machine gun mounted on the vehicle, again silly. Ants that devour everything in their path, while well animated, just isn't reality either. Handing bullets and gunpowder to a prisoner also is simply ridiculous. Let's also not forget the barrage of gunfire that Indy gets aimed at him in the warehouse, that magically never hits him, or even grazes by him.

There were at least a few parts of this film that did pay homage to the original films. While somewhat silly, it did make sense for Indy to be less than grateful when his son tries to save him with the snake from the quicksand. I also liked the more subtle cameo by the Ark of the Covenant seen in the warehouse after being side swiped by car during the chase. Finally, they do point out the Harrison Ford is "getting too old for this," as his aching bones endure too much action.

In summary, the Crystal Skull is the least favorite of the Indy films. While devout fans (you know, the ones who own the whip, and wear their fedora to the theater) may be happy to have this franchise back, it feels too much like an afterthought to the originals. While some really well done special effects, a recycled John Williams score and Ford's natural acting ability save this film from a complete disaster, I can only recommend it to others who don't expect a masterful plot, and only barely.

Overall Grade: B-

Reviewed by Jonas

Dead Rock West, Honey and Salt (Populuxe, 2007)

Dead Rock West are a California-based quintet that specialize in straightforward, no-frills rock. Honey and Salt is their debut. The band's music revolves around the interplay between Frank Lee Drennen (vocals, guitars, main songwriter) and Cindy Wasserman (vocals). The lineup is completed by Phil Parlapiano (keyboards and mandolin), David J. Carpenter (bass), and Bryan Head (drums), although the session credits include several different lead guitarists as well.

The tone for the album is set by the solid opening track and single "Highway One," which is both a song about trying to reach an old lover and an ode to "driving way too fast" on the Pacific Coast Highway. Drennen and Wasserman take turns singing lead on the songs, and harmonize on the choruses. The tempos range from relaxed country to fast punk, with plenty of stops in between. Generally the louder songs made the biggest impression with me, especially "Pretty Disaster" and "Telephone." Like "Highway One," these are very suitable tunes to crank up while hitting the open highway. The more aggressive numbers might remind some listeners of X, a California band from the eighties with similarly dueling male and female vocalists. Dead Rock West acknowledges the influence by doing a souped up cover of "Burning House of Love."

All in all, Honey and Salt is an encouraging start for Dead Rock West, with a bunch of decent songs supporting a handful of very good ones. People looking for a good fix of basic guitar rock will like this album.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott


I-CON 27 Photos!

Thanks to Scott, the 2.5 rolls of photos I took at I-CON 27 are now online! You can view the pictures here. And the intrepid Scott is in there as well!



Of all the summer movies approaching this year, I am confident that none will be as spectacularly mediocre as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. This movie, released almost two decades after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, is neither as bad as it could have been nor as good as it should have been.

Harrison Ford is back as Indiana Jones, the rock-'em sock-'em archaeologist who spends as much time beating up bad guys as deciphering ancient clues. Ford is an action hero in his 60s -- and the movie wisely acknowledges this -- but he still has an adventurous spirit and handles both action and humor with ease.

Unfortunately, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull falls almost immediately into a repetitive pattern: Jones gets kidnapped, fights, escapes, explores some clues, travels somewhere, gets kidnapped again, fights again, etc. This time -- 1957, to be precise -- the evil, generic, we're-fine-if-they-get-killed Nazis have been replaced by the evil, generic, we're-fine-if-they-get-killed Russians. The Russian leader is femme fatale Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), wielding a sword, sporting a Louise Brooks hairdo, and posssibly possessing psychic powers. She is in pursuit of a crystal skull which, when brought back to its place of origin, is rumored to bestow great powers. (In the meantime it frightens natives, drives some people insane, and causes ants to move away a short distance. Seriously.)

Of course, no Indiana Jones movie would be complete without sidekicks. There's Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a 1950s punk (meaning he wears a leather jacket, combs his hair a lot, and rides a motorcycle) who wants to find the skull because the Russians kidnapped his mom so Mutt would find Indiana for help. Mom turns out to be Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen, from Raiders of the Lost Ark), who's spunky and provides sexual tension with Indiana. There's also Professor "Ox" Oxley (John Hurt), whose mind was both messed up and given knowledge by staring at the crystal skull too long. And there's British adventurer "Mac" McHale (Ray Winstone), who changes sides so often I lost interest in whether he was friend or foe.

For a movie directed be Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Indiana Jones and the Kindgom of the Crystal Skull has surprisingly little magic to it. I didn't mind them substituting science fiction for magic, but the attempt to recreate the old-style movie serials feels less adventurous than seeing Ford jump into a bunch of generic soldiers again and again and beat them all up. Little of the swashbuckling is exciting, and quite a few action scenes are just silly (notably the swordfight while straddling two speeding jeeps, and swinging with the monkeys). This movie wasn't terrible, but it isn't memorable either.

Overall Grade: C-

Reviewed by James Lynch


Bo Diddley, 1928-2008

Rock music lost one of its most original showmen and a pioneer of the electric guitar when Bo Diddley passed away today at age 79. Actually named Ellas McDaniel, Diddley was born in McComb, Mississippi in 1928 and went up to Chicago to join the emergent blues scene there in the early fifties. He quickly made a name for himself for his energetic stage shows, his odd rectangular-shaped guitar, and the signature rhythm to which he played most of his songs. The "Bo Diddley beat," as it was called, propelled hits like "Bo Diddley" and "Who Do You Love?" and inspired many imitators over the years, from The Rolling Stones ("Not Fade Away") to U2 ("Desire") to even George Michael ("Faith"). While the hits dried up after the early sixties, he remained a revered guitarist and live performer. He did leave a mark on the early years of MTV, though, providing a memorable cameo as a contestant in an epic pool match with George Thorogood in Thorogood's video for "Bad to the Bone." Diddley also appeared in a legendary Nike commercial featuring the athlete Bo Jackson trying his hand at every sport conceivable.

Bo Diddley's primarily musical legacy comes from his live performances rather than his recorded output. I had the pleasure of seeing Bo Diddley perform on three separate occasions. He may not have been in his prime physically, but he still could put on quite a show. While I'd still recommend a greatest hits collection of his to anybody curious about early rock and roll, the records don't really do his live shows justice.

Bo Diddley's influence on the generations of performers and guitarists who have followed him is incalculable; just for starters, any performer who'd count The Rollling Stones as an influence owes something to Bo Diddley as well.

"Bo Diddley"

"Road Runner"


Whitechapel Gods - S.M. Peters (2008)

Whitechapel Gods is an urban fantasy, set in an alternate Victorian London, where the titular gods have established a metaphorical beachhead in the world to expand their power. A small band of rebels are fighting against their oppression against seemingly overwhelming odds.

Peters handles his material well, blending elements of Lovecraftian Horror, steampunk and dark fantasy into a rich nightmare world. A soupcon of pulp fiction adds a little spice to the mix. The two "gods," Mama Engine and Grandfather Clock, are mechanistic monsters, a dream of industrialization gone horribly wrong. The rebels are a rag-tag bunch of broken, damaged outcasts and dreamers.

The story is driven by plot rather than character, since most of the major players are so fantastic as to be more plot-devices than fully developed personalities. This is not a fatal drawback by any means, but it does skew the feel of the book toward epic fantasy. The real strength of the book is in the setting. A dark, super-industrial Whitechapel, built and fueled by magic, policed by inhuman mechanical killers and covered in a permanent debilitating smog which is killing slowly those who are not killed more quickly by the servants of insane divinities, is painted vividly in a palate of browns and blacks with the occasional splashes of bright red arterial blood.

The story builds with increasing velocity, even if at times parts of it become a little incoherent, and an epilogue which is all sweetness and flowers is somewhat out of character, but overall the book is fairly satisfying and the setting completely engrossing.

Overall Grade: B+