Halloween (2007)

If a classic movie gets remade, the new version should add something worthwhile to the original to justify its existence. Rob Zombie's 2007 version of Halloween provides more details on what made Michael Meyers the monster he is; sadly, this Halloween also adds Zombie's excessive gore, profanity, nudity, and horrible examples of humanity.

As a 10-year-old boy, Michael Meyers (Daeg Faerch) has a horrible home life: mom Deborah (Sheri Moon Zombie) is a stripper, Deborah's boyfriend is an abusive alcoholic cripple, and Michael's older sister is a tramp. Michael does like his baby sister Laurie -- but he's also been killing small animals. Dr. Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell, taking over the part played by Donald Pleasance in the original) warns that Michael is on the path to becoming a psychopath -- proved when Michael kills three people (including two family members) on Halloween night -- and is incarcerated as a result

Seventeen years later, Michael (now played by Tyler Mane, who is amazingly tall yet evades the peripheral vision of every other character in the movie) escapes from prison (thanks to some drunk horny rapist guards) and heads home. Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton) is a happy, normal teenage girl unaware of her relation to Michael. And before you can say "slasher" there are lots of horny teens getting skewered, Loomis running after Michael, and finally a whole lot of crawling through an abandoned building.

The backstory to what makes Michael Meyers tick (and stab) isn't needed. Nor are the gratituous nudity and violence pervasive through this movie, as well as the plethora of characters that are nothing but scumbags. McDowell is good as Loomis, but the rest of the cast is forgettable. And while Michael's collection of masks is a bit disturbing, the excesses here make this substantially inferior to the original. This Halloween, unless you feel like wallowing in gore and depravity skip the new Halloween and go with the original.

Overall grade: D
Reviewed by James Lynch


Aimee Mann, @#%&*! Smilers (Superego Records, 2008)

Although arguably still better known as the singer and bassist for 'Til Tuesday, the 80's group that had a major MTV hit with "Voices Carry," Aimee Mann has managed to have a very durable solo career. Mann has endured several misadventures with the recording industry along the way. Her first two solo albums, Whatever and the excellent I'm with Stupid, wound up being released over a year after they were recorded, on different labels than the ones they were originally intended for. However, she managed to secure a sizable audience for herself with the songs she contributed to the movie Magnolia in 1999, and has maintained a steady output since.

Mann's latest album is called @#%&*! Smilers. Most of the record was performed by a quartet consisting of Mann on vocals and acoustic guitar, producer Paul Bryan on bass, Jay Bellerose on drums, and Jamie Edwards on keyboards. A string quartet and a horn section appear on a couple of songs apiece. The album's most dynamic moments revolve around Edwards' creative keyboard playing, especially on the livelier numbers where he evokes The Cars with his retro style. This is especially true on "Freeway," the album's opening track and single.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album isn't as much fun. Mann continues to be a keen lyricist, but he music on her recent albums lacks the bite to do her lyrics justice. I feel like she tries a bit too hard to be folksy, when she's always struck me as being more in her element plugged in. @#%&*! Smilers has a couple of good songs and is pleasant enough on the whole, Mann is capable of making records that are more than that.

Overall grade: B-

reviewed by Scott




Hamlet 2 should have been such a better movie. Take a horrible actor turned horrible teacher, add a completely offensive and improbable sequel, toss in some funny cameos, and you should have a great comedy. Instead, Hamlet 2 veers off its comedic course.

Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan, most recently in Tropic Thunder) was a bad actor in several small commercials and cameo appearances who wound up teaching theater in a high school in Tuscon, Arizona. Dana's plays are all remakes of Hollywood movies, his theater class consists of two students, and he has to teach in the cafeteria. Things aren't better at home: His wife Brie (Catherine Keener) is as unsupportive as one can imagine, they had to take in a boarder named Gary (David Arquette) to make money, and Dana has to rollerblade everywhere. And Dana is driven to tears by the harsh reviews his plays get from the school's young newspaper critic.

Things change for Dana -- and not in a good way -- when his class is suddenly filled with Latino kids who act like gangbangers and who joined because all the other classes were filled. When Dana is told the theater department is being cut, he decides to save the program by making a sequel to Hamlet that incorporates a time machine, President Bush kissing Satan, Dana's numerous father issues, and a musical number called "Rock Me Sexy Jesus." Almost before you can blink the play is under protest, the students are finally inspired, ACLU lawyer Cricket Feldstein (Amy Poehler) wants the play to go on -- and Dana continues to show his near-total lack of intelligence or talent.

I wish the end result of Hamlet 2 was as insane as the description is. Alas, the play spends too much time in a pretty unamusing parody of the inspirational teacher reaching out to the students and too little time on the play within the movie. (Before the movie I wondered why there was no soundtrack for Hamlet 2. After seeing the movie, I know why: There are only two full original songs!) Steve Coogan is funny as the oblivious protagonist, but seeing him act stupid over and over gets repetitive very quickly. There are some very nice parts -- notably Catherine Keener as the wife who'd rather see her husband working at Rite-Aid, and Elisabeth Shue playing a version of herself who went into nursing because she got sick of Hollywood -- but the kids are pretty unamusing -- and they take up almost as much of the movie as Coogan. And the end of Hamlet 2 just fizzles out.

There are so many other movies that take on the elements of Hamlet 2 so much better, notably Waiting for Guffman for a horrible play and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut for a demented musical. Hamlet 2 has some laughs, but it's very inconsistent and wears out its central concept pretty quickly. I hope there's not a Hamlet 3.

Overall Grade: C+

Reviewed by James Lynch

WHERE THE DEEP ONES ARE by Kenneth Hite and Andy Hopp

I must confess: I've never been a fan of Maurice Sendak's children's book Where the Wild Ones Are, as the story felt far too brief. As a tremendous fan of H.P. Lovecraft, I was intrigued to see Sendak's work transformed into the Lovecraftian children's book Where the Deep Ones Are.

Transforming Lovecraft's story "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" into the format of Sendak's tale, haunted narrator Robert Olmstead becomes Bobby, a little boy wearing a costume that looks like a frog with tentacles. Sent to his room for wanting too much fish, Bobby imagines traveling to Innsmouth, learning about the Deep Ones from the old man, and becoming a Deep One himself.

There's something wonderfully twisted about seeing the eldritch Lovecraftian horrors depicted in a cartoonish fashion, while a cheerful little boy wanders around smiling in footie pajamas that look like a Deep One. Artist Andy Hopp does an excellent job mimicking Sendak's art style, and Kenneth Hite manages to hit most of the major story points of "A Shadow Over Innsmouth" with a version that can be read in less than five minutes. If you ever wanted a version of Lovecraft for little kids (or demented adults), go forth and discover Where the Deep Ones Are.

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by James Lynch

More Than Fire - Philip José Farmer (1993)

More Than Fire is, so the cover tells us, the final book of the World of Tiers series (previously reviewed here.)

I suggest reading that review quickly, then coming back. I'll wait.

More Than Fire fits tidily into the series and all the previous comments still hold true. In contrast to the other books in the series, this one takes as its main character Kickaha, a human adventurer from Earth. The Lords are still present but almost entirely as antagonists, as opposed to the first few novels, where a "good" Lord was the central figure. This provides Farmer with a few more opportunities to talk about the issues of racism and prejudice and the like than the previous books. He manages to work them in without seeming like digressions and without seeming heavy handed, no mean feat.

The writing is good, as it always is. If it doesn't reach the heights of some of his other works, it is well fitted to the story, which is also important. If you liked the other World of Tiers books, you will find this book worthy of a place next to them on the shelf. If you've never read any of the series, I would strongly suggest finding a copy of The Maker of Universes itself rather than starting with this one.

Overall Grade: B


Mamadou Diabate, Heritage (World Village, 2006)

Although he currently resides in North Carolina, Mamadou Diabate was born in Mali and raised on the musical traditions of his homeland. He is a master of an indigenous African stringed instrument called the kora. While it is much larger than a guitar and is played while holding it outward from the body, the kora has a comparable sound to a classical guitar. Diabate's third album Heritage is an entirely instrumental recording, mixing traditional pieces with Diabate's own compositions. Alongside the kora, Diabate is accompanied by guitar, bass, a relative of the xylophone called the balafon, and some light percussion.

The predominance of the kora over the guitar makes Heritage a bit more purely traditional than albums I've recently reviewed here from other Malian artists like Habib Koité and Vieux Farka Touré, but the overall feel is very similar. Diabate's band builds the tunes around steady, mellow but insistent grooves, providing Diabate with the right rhythms to showcase his playing skills. Indeed, the album's major selling point is Diabate's instrumental prowess, which is superb throughout. He plays the kora with the speed of a flamenco guitarist, and makes some intricate, complex melodies sound effortless.

The catch with recordings from virtuoso instrumentalists, whether in rock or folk music, is that they frequently don't do justice to what the performers can do live. I haven't seen Mamadou Diabate in concert, but he strikes me as being that kind of performer. That being said, Heritage would do very nicely as an introduction to Malian traditional music for novices, and should certainly appeal to long-time fans of African music as well.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

Diabate performing "Foulaya" last month.


(fast times at barrington high) by The Academy Is...

Teens and power pop have always walked hand in hand, sometimes offering strong, driven rock and at other times generic rebellion. (fast times at barrington high) by The Academy Is... offers plenty of teen angst, romance, and rebellion -- with a dash of life beyond the teen years.

The opening song "About A Girl" sets the tone of uncertainty for the album: After lead singer William Beckett sings about a girl who doesn't notice him but drives him wild, the chorus tells us "I'm not in love/this is not my heart/I'm not gonna waste these words/about a girl." In the midst of the hanging out with friends and chasing women, the songs here hint at an awareness of growing up. One song cautions "but this charade is never going to last/so pick the poison and pour yourself a glass" while "After the Last Midtown Show" has the protagonist and friends just drinking and smoking, then asking "Is there anything I missed?/ Is there anything I missed?/Tell me if I'm wrong/But why would we change a thing?" The final tune, one more weekend, is a call to a buddy to hang out once more as he prepares to move away -- and grow up. Even the potnetially comic song of young man singing to his much older lover ("Beware! Cougar!") resists cheap laughs or easy bragging.

(fast times at barrington high) buttresses its ideas with rock and roll that's loud and fast, full of strong percussion and electric guitars in abundance. It's a shame that this album came out in late August, because (in a world with less mainstream repetition on the radio) this would have made a great soundtrack for the summer. With (fast times at barrington high) The Academy Is... joins groups like Jimmy Eat World and Plain White T's as groups that may seem for the teens but can be enjoyed by all.

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by James Lynch



Normally I'm not a fan of party games: those games designed to be played by large numbers of people without any real strategy and such skills as knowing trivia or how to draw. At Scott's birthday celebration last weekend, someone had the party game What's It To Ya? Playing it once, I loved it; after the second game I knew I'd be buying a copy for myself as soon as possible.

The goal of What's It To Ya? is to correctly predict how everyone playing ranks the importance of different things. The format of What's It To Ya? is brilliant in its simplicity. Each turn five item cards (which have different concepts or items, ranging from Air Conditioning to Good Looks to Self-Esteem) are placed, one each, next to five ranking cards A, B, C, D, and E. Each player secretly arranges their A-E cards, from the most important on the left to the least important on the right, to show how they think everyone will rank the items. After everyone makes their selections, everyone reveals (and often explains) their cards one at a time, and the players with the letter matching the most-selected item of importance (or those tied for importance) push their card up. At the end of the round, the player(s) with the most cards up get a point -- or two if they got all five cards that round. And the first person to get seven points wins.

I love just about everything about What's It To Ya? The rules take a mere minute or two to explain, and by using the item cards to keep track of both correct answers for the round and points scored in the game there's no need for anything beyond what's in the box. While the game only works if you know about your fellow players (much like Apples to Apples, this is one that doesn't work well with people you just met), there is some skill between balancing how you rank the importance of the five items with how you think everyone else will. And the results are often very humorous and unexpected. (There was much amusement when someone ranked Marriage second and their spouse ranked it fourth.) And the game goes very quickly: We played two full games in less than an hour!

If you're looking for a party game that's fun, clever, simple, and fast, go to your local game store (or www.newworldgames.com ) and pick up a copy of What's It To Ya? You'll be very, very glad you did.

Overall grade: A-

Reviewed by James Lynch


ZOMBIE HAIKU by Ryan Mecum

Zombies have provided the inspiration from horror to social commentary (Dawn of the Dead), action (the remake of Dawn of the Dead), and even comedy (Shaun of the Dead). The shambling undead brain-eaters have now inspired something else: poetry. Zombie Haiku by Ryan Mecum documents the early days of the zombie outbreak, from both the survivor and zombie viewpoints, in five-seven-five syllable entries.

Zombie Haiku adopts the format of the found journal; this one is found, quite originally, in the arm severed from a zombie. The anonymous author of this journal sets forth the goal "to capture the beauty which can be so overwhelming that I sometimes feel like I'm going to burst open." The journal changes direction quitr quickly, from the unknowing descriptions of the zombie outbreak ("As I start my car/my neighbor ust keeps starng/and dosn't wave back") to his own horrifying transformation into an undead monster filled with insatiable hunger ("she's in the kitchen/scared and screaming her lungs out/which I will soon see").

Telling the tale of a witness-then-zombie in haiku format is certainly a unique way of approaching the zombie genre. Mecum supplies plenty of gore -- notably when the narrator feeds and thinks of feeding -- but there's also dark humor, allusions to Night of the Living Dead and Shaun of the Dead, and even moments of the zombie's memories of being human ("for the next few days/we watch groups of what we were/living how we lived"). The number of syllables are off now and then; still, poetry has never been the forte of the living dead. And while many zombie tales provide numerous viewpoints from the human suvivors -- World War Z provided different points of view with each chapter -- Zombie Haiku only provides those of a generic person (not much of the poet in the early entries except for the haiku format) and a generic zombie.

Zombie Haiku is a quick read and an enjoyable addition to the body of zombie literature. Part horror, part horrific (going home to eat has never been so twisted), part comedy, this book is a dark walk through the shoes of a protagonist who both flees from the horror -- and shambles as part of it.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch


Ronnie Drew, 1934-2008

Irish music lost one of its most venerable elder statesmen this past weekend when Ronnie Drew passed away at the age of 73. Drew was a founding member of The Dubliners, who together with The Clancy Brothers re-vitalized interest in the traditional songs of Ireland in the early to mid sixties. Songs like "The Wild Rover," "Whiskey in the Jar," and "Finnegan's Wake" have become Irish standards largely because of The Dubliners.

Drew certainly didn't have the purest singing voice in the group; that belonged to the late, great Luke Kelly. Instead, Drew had a very distinctively deep and rickety voice that, as he put it, was "more of a storytelling voice" than a singing voice. Indeed his voice is something of an acquired taste, but it had more than enough character, combined with Drew's strong personality, to make him an effective vocalist regardless.

In their songs, Drew and the Dubliners told many stories of Ireland in general and their home city in particular. They also wore their strongly left-leaning politics on their sleeves. Their defiant attitudes and lifestyles, combined with their staunch refusal to compromise and insistence on calling things exactly as they saw them, made The Dubliners heroes to Irish bands from subsequent generations like U2 and The Pogues.

Drew first left The Dubliners in 1974. He returned in 1979 and stayed with them another sixteen years, before leaving the band for good in 1995. He continued to draw crowds as a solo artist, and I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to review the opening night of a multi-week run of shows at the Irish Arts Center in New York City in 2004. He seemed full of vigor and vitality at the time, but sadly his health started failing shortly afterwards.

"Finnegan's Wake"

In 1987, The Dubliners and The Pogues teamed up for a rousing version of "The Irish Rover." Drew and Shane MacGowan share the vocals.

Travels With My Aunt - Graham Greene (1969)

Graham Greene, as a writer, often flies below the radar in America; which is ironic since so many of his works have been made into movies which have had great success: The Quiet American, The End of the Affair (twice), the great The Third Man, and, of course, Travels With My Aunt. Greene is a writer comfortable with a wide variety of styles and tones. The Comdedians (previously reviewed here) is dark and brooding. Travels With My Aunt is funny, almost screwball, while managing at the same time to make a few interesting insights into human nature.

The plot is fairly straightforward. An uptight retired banker, Henry Pulling, encounters his aged aunt at his mother's funeral. She convinces him to go traveling with him and soon the respectable Englishman is mixed up with lowlifes and hoodlums from Brighton across Europe to Istanbul, and ultimately to Paraguay. Along the way, many of his beliefs about what is right and wrong, who he is and ultimately what his place in the world is and should be are challenged.

While this sort of thing might seem to be well-trodden ground (Hello, Dolly and Mame come quickly to mind), Greene's take on the buttoned-down younger man and a wild older female relation is sparkling and original. It mixes in elements of a caper novel, as well, giving the whole thing a velocity which is almost inebriating. The book practically reads itself.

While a good book and an engaging read, it is not, perhaps in the first rank of Greene's work - but second rank Greene is still quite good.

Overall Grade: B+



It's ironic not only that the biggest selling issue of Sports Illustrated is their annual swimsuit issue, which has nothing to do with sports, but also that since 1997 one of their most popular features of that issue doesn't involve actual swimsuits but instead body paint designed to look like swimwear (or other garments). Sports Illustrated: In the Paint takes a look both at the process of making these human works of art and the glorious results.

Joanne Gair first achieved notoriety with her Vanity Fair cover of Demi Moore in a suit made of paint, but her work on the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue special issues truly brought her fame. She has done all the painting for every issue since 1997, and Sports Illustrated: In the Paint has her, and others involved, discussing the challenges, inspirations, and results of turning some of the most beautiful women in the world into human canvases.

To say creating these works is difficult is an understatement. The models have to remain still for several hours at a time, spending the bulk of the day motionless for one or two photos that will appear in the issue. (The photo at the bottom of this review shows Heidi Klum making the best of an accidental brush with the painting-in-progress.) Gair is a perfectionist, not just tossing colors on models but taking great care with the shading, texture, and style of each work of art. A few props -- such as zippers, bows, or string -- are often used to add a bit of texture, but this enhances the illusion of clothing rather than takes a shortcut to creating the art.

As the body painting feature has continued, themes are used each year to keep the feature fresh (as if seeing these almost-naked women could get boring). Sports Illustrated: In the Paint has collections of the models "wearing" everything from sportswear to rock band t-shirts. There's even a collection where Gair turned the women into living classical statues!

Sports Illustrated: In the Paint is a fun collection. There's not a lot of depth to the process of creating these amazing photos (though the technical details can be quite interesting), but the results are truly spectacular. It's easy to see why Gair has become a staple of this special swimwear issue, and Sports Illustrated: In the Paint is an excellent showcase of her work. Wow!

Overall grade: A-

Reviewed by James Lynch



While Woody Allen's more recent comedies have been fluffy, screwball antics, his older ones combine humor with thoughts and musings on life and love. Woody is back to deeper comedy with his latest film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona. In this film, what could have been a mere sex romp becomes an exploration of what it means to love, and to get what one wants.

Best friends Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are vacationing together in Spain. Vicky is the more level-headed of the two: She is engaged to a nice, ordinary, somewhat dull man named Doug (Chris Messina) and is traveling in Spain to do research on Spanish culture. Cristina is an artist who just finished months making a 12-minute movie and feels like wandering. Vicky considers love as stability and security, while Cristina wants love to be filled with passion, drama and pain. The two ladies are staying in Barcelona with Vicky's friend Judy (Patricia Clarkson) and her husband Mark (Kevin Dunn). And Vicky and Cristina soon become enamored of the sights and sounds of Spain.

At an art gallery, both ladies notice handsome painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) who Judy says had a passionate divorce. A short time later Juan Antonio meets the women and offers to take them with him for the weekend to see the sights, drink fine wine, and make love -- hopefully with both of them. Cristina is intrigued and smitten, Vicky is insulted and a little offended -- but they both go with him. And when a stomach ailment interferes with Juan Antonio and Cristina's getting together, he and Vicky wind up sharing a night of lovemaking.

The movie jumps forward a few weeks, when Doug has joined Vicky in Spain and Cristina is living with Juan Antonio. Only Vicky keeps weighing the stable but dull prospect of life with Doug with the reckless but wild time she had with Juan Antonio. Cristina, meanwhile, finds herself enjoying life with Juan Antonio and discovering a love of photography -- but faces new challenges when Juan Antonio's crazy and somewhat dangerous ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) not only shows up, but also moves in with Juan Antonio and Cristina!

In lesser hands Vicky Cristina Barcelona could have become a frivolous film about male fantasies. Woody Allen, writing and directing the movie, transforms it into two separate views of what happens when people wonder if getting what they want means having what they want. Rebecca Hall is a female version of the characters Woody Allen used to play in his movies -- someone clever, intellectual, and prone to overanalysis which sometimes leads to inaction -- and she makes Vicky a genuinely nice person who suddenly wonders if her desired life of predictability is all she really wants. Scarlett Johansson (a regular in Woody Allen's movies these days) plays Cristina as a modern bohemian, someone ready to fall into love and defy society, but who may not be able to handle all she receives. Javier Bardem is immensely charming and seductive -- but his character is also passionate about life and art and Spain, a gourmand of life rather than a libido-driven stud. Penelope Cruz is wonderful as the ex-wife who's alternately suspicious and accepting of Cristina, who loves and hates Juan Antonio, who is an artist herself -- and a true wild and tortured soul. Cruz and Bardem demonstrate consistently Juan Antonio's assertion that he and his ex-wife are "meant to be together and not meant to be together." And Woody Allen treats Spain as the ideal of romanticism, full of color, life, and the omnipresent strings of the played Spanish guitar.

I could have done without the narration, which often stated what would have been evident from the dialogue and the acting; and a subplot where Judy has a situation mirroring Vicky's crisis was a little heave-handed. Still, there are plenty of laughs and plenty of musings in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. It's good to see Woody Allen back in fine form.

Overall grade: A-

Reviewed by James Lynch



H.P. Lovecraft has always had an uneven relationship with the genre of film. While his stories and novels have influence in movies ranging from The Evil Dead to Alien, there have been few full-length adaptions of his works; and those have been, more often than not, quite poor. (For an excellent analysis of Lovecraft's work in film, I recommend the book The Lurker in the Lobby by John Strysik and Andrew Migliore.) Worse, Lovecraft's seminal story "The Call of Cthulhu" was never adapted; and the horror movie Cthulhu Mansion only has the title in common with the story (and Lovecraft fans like to pretend doesn't exist). The good folks at the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society http://www.cthulhulives.org/ have not only done a film of Lovecraft's story, but their interpretation also did it in the style of a black-and-white silent film. The result is spectacular.

The Call of Cthulhu is under fifty minutes long, yet it manages to cover all the material of Lovecraft's tale, roughly divided into three parts. In the late 1920s, the protagonist is going through the papers of his late great-uncle -- and what he discovers shatters his world. First there are his great-uncle's 1925 meetings with Wilcox, a tormented artist who has nightmares of ancient evils and an unnatural city -- and who creates a clay image of a horrific creature.

Next is an account from 1907 of Inspector Legrasse and his research into, and raid against, an evil cult in the backwoods of Louisiana. This led to the discovery of a "Cthulhu cult" -- and a statue much like that created by Wilcox.

The final part of The Call of Cthulhu has the protagonist discovering, through chance, the final piece of the puzzle: A mysterious incident in the South Pacific ocean that left all but one man on a ship dead -- and the most startling proof of the eldritch entity Cthulhu.

The Call of Cthulhu is an ideal cinematic example of form and function meeting perfectly. Lovecraft's tales are almost all set in the early 20th century, and the silent-film format used here creates a perfect period atmosphere. It's amusing to see all the actors with pale faces and dark lips, but that ultimately adds a feeling of nostalgic style to the film. Further, by relying on the actors' gestures and the moody musical score, the full horror of the story is conveyed with a minimal of dialogue cards.

Given how many big-budget Hollywood horror flicks are just awful, The Call of Cthulhu is more impressive for creating action and horror with a minimal budget. Everything is done simply, yet despite not being realistic (such as the fake ocean waves and stop-motion creature) you'll be drawn into this world of horror and madness. The dvd extras reveal more tricks of the film, from creating a cultist mob with only a few actors to the "ninjas" present in most scenes of the film.

I love the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, I mourn when I think of the treatment his tales have received in movies, and I rejoice that The Call of Cthulhu is a movie that does Lovecraft right. I absolutely recommend this movie!

Overall grade: A

Reviewed by James Lynch

Tropic Thunder

War is hell, and actors are idiots. These two ideas form the basis of Tropic Thunder, a spoof of both action movies and certain types of actors.

The movie Tropic Thunder revolves around the misadventures of making the the in-film war movie Tropic Thunder in Vietnam -- and things are a wreck. Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is an action star who did six sequels to his hit movie Scorcher and wants this movie to resurrect his career. Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is an Oscar Award-winning Australian method actor who gets what is essentially advanced blackface to play an African-American. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is a comic actor famous for playing far farters -- and who's heavily addicted to drugs. Alpha Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) is a young African-American rapper whose main concern is promoting the energy drink Booty Sweat. And Kevin (Jay Baruchel) is the fairly unknown actor who's the most stable of the cast.

The movie is going horribly. Tugg is insecure, Kirk is condescending, and the director Damien (Steve Coogan, star of the upcoming Hamlet 2) gets no respect from anyone. The writer of the real-life story behind Tropic Thunder, Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), has a plan: Drop the stars in the middle of the jungle, away from their cell phones and personal assistants, and make them work for the movie. Of course, the actors are barely in the jungle when they wind up isolated and targeted by Asian drug lords as DEA agents -- and the actors think it's all part of their movie.

Writer-director Ben Stiller said he got the idea for Tropic Thunder from actors who had to spend a week or two in boot camp before doing war films and complaining how incredibly hard it was. Unfortunately, this idea doesn't translate to consistent laughs through this movie. There are a couple of laughs -- notably as Kirk Lazarus tries to sound profound and makes no sense -- but there are as many jokes that flop as those that work. There is a shameless, open attempt at being politically incorrect -- some groups are protesting a discussion on how best to play a retard -- but it's not over the top enough to be truly awful and hysterical.

What impressed me in Tropic Thunder is the supporting cast. The highlight of the movie is easily Tom Cruise, who plays studio exec Les Grossman as a greedy opportunist who curses constantly and often busts a move. Matthew McConaughey has fun as Tugg's agent Rick "Pecker" Peck, whose biggest concern in life seem to be making sure his client has TiVo. Steve Coogan isn't in the movie for too long, but he adds a manic touch as the hapless director.

I'm tempted to recommend Tropic Thunder just so people see Tom Cruise's most hysterical role in years, but the movie is just too uneven. There are plenty of chuckles, and even a few big laughs, but this movie is more sporadically amusing that consistently funny.

Overall grade: B-

Reviewed by James Lynch



The company Cheapass Games began with the philosophy that most of the expense of board games went into pieces you already had -- dice, counters, money -- and they would give you the essentials (rules, board) for a low price. This makes it a mystery that years later, one of their flagship games, Kill Doctor Lucky, has been released with all the "fancy pieces" as Kill Doctor Lucky Deluxe Edition from Titanic Games.

The gameplay of Kill Doctor Lucky Deluxe Edition is virtually identical to earlier versions of the game. In this pre-murder mystery, you're in the mansion of Doctor J. Robert Lucky with the goal of doing him in. However, several other people are in the mansion -- and they want to kill him to! So as Doctor Lucky blithely wanders through the mansion, the players try to get him alone so they can do him in.

The board, which represents the mansion, is divided into main rooms (numbered 1 through 20), halls, and a few unnumbered rooms. Each turn a player can either do nothing (moving zero or one spaces) and draw a card, or play movement cards (moving them or Doctor Lucky either a certain number of spaces or to a room) and draw no cards. After all movement is done, if the player is in the room with Doctor Lucky and no other players can see into the room, that player can try to kill him.

A player can try and snuff the good doctor by either playing a card (which have a point value; many are worth more in certain rooms) or making something up for a one-point murder attempt. Going clockwise, the other players can play failure cards for all or some of the points of the murder attempt. If the total points equal the murder attempt, the try fails and Doctor Lucky wanders off to the next-highest numbered room. (And if the Doctor moves into a room where another player is, it becomes that player's turn.) But the other players can't share information on their failure cards, so it's a balance between keeping the Doctor alive for the turn and blowing all of one's failue cards that could be used against other players. Also, failure cards don't get recycled into the deck, so when they're gone the Doctor's lifespan is very brief indeed.

The game Kill Doctor Lucky is wonderful, a great blend of simple rules, substantial strategy, and pure chance. I'm a bit conflicted about Kill Doctor Lucky Deluxe Edition: While it keeps the same game play as the original, it goes against the direct philosophy of its original company. It is nice to have a solid board instead of having to lean several pieces of paper together to make up the mansion, and the pieces are nice. However, the only addition to the rules are "spite tokens" (that give a +1 bonus to all murder attempts for each failure) that could easily have been included in the original rules. Kill Doctor Lucky is a must-have game. If you don't have it, get Kill Doctor Lucky Deluxe Edition; if you don't have it, the upgrade is more of a luxury than a necessity.

Overall grades: A if you don't have it already, B if you already have the Cheapass Games version

Reviewed by James Lynch


The strength of films produced by Judd Apatow, like Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, is how he manages to give the characters heart and warmth in the midst of wild adventures and mishaps. Sadly, Pineapple Express skils any real care for the characters and settles for being a very typical stoner comedy.

Dale Denton (Seth Rogen) is happily going nowhere. He works as a process server, delivering subpoenas to people and smoking a lot of weed while driving around. He's dating Angie (Amber Heard), a high school senior. And his best buddy is his pot supplier Saul (James Franco, as far from his deadly serious role in the Spider-Man movies as possible), a laid-back dude content to deal pot. Saul likes Dale so much, he sets him up with the exclusive marijuana type Pineapple Express, a rare and potent strain of weed.

At Dale's next job, he sees a man shot and killed by mobster Ted (Gary Cole) and uniformed officer Carol (Rosie Perez). Dale does such a poor job bouncing his car between two parked cars while "escaping" that they both get a good look at him. And from the joint of Pineapple Express Dale dropped while fleeing, they know Saul is involved too.

The rest of the movie is mostly Dale and Saul bonding (and smokin') while pursued by hired killers Budlofsky (Kevin Corrigan) and Matheson (Craig Robinson). There's also Red (Danny R. McBride), a friend of Saul's who is as ready to swear loyalty to the two fugitives as to give them up to their pursuers. And while Dale and Saul are just trying to stay alive, they wind up getting in the middle of a mob war between Ted and his Asian competitors.

If this sounds like a plot from a Cheech and Chong movie, it might as well be. All the characters in Pineapple Express are very one dimensional: the evil bad guy, the laid-back stoner, the angry cop, etc. There are some laughs in the interplay between Rogen and Franco, but they're not delivered enough to make this a well-sustained comedy. If the sight of two grown men smoking massive amounts of weed tickles your funnybone, Pineapple Express is for you. If not, it's an uneven comedy. It's hard to believe Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen helped write such a mediocre comedy.

Overall grade: C-

Reviewed by James Lynch



There are certain principles that I have found to be true. Reality is flexible. Luck is good but skill is better (except for the lottery). All the world's a stage -- so don't trip. After seeing Catwoman, I discovered a new principle: There is more than enough t&a in the world that one doesn't need to sit through a horrible movie to see it. Halle Berry looks great in her Catwoman costume -- and that's the sum total of good things I can say about this movie.

In the movie, Halle Berry plays Patience Phillips a timid, mousy, disheveled graphic designed for a cosmetics company run by George Hedare (Lambert Wilson) and his wife Laurel (Sharon Stone). One night Patience is at work late and learns that George and Laurel know their new signature cream is unsafe -- so, like all business executives, they kill her. In a scene pretty much lifted from The Crow, Patience is brought back from the dead as cats circle around her, and she now has cat powers!

So, what's a wimp with powers to do? She puts together two costumes for secret missions. She flirts with handsome police detective Tom Lone (Benjamin Bratt, of Law and Order fame). She foils a jewel robbery, steals the jewels herself, then returns them. (I didn't understand it either.) She gets a whip, investigates the company that had her killed, and fights lots of generic thugs. And she acts more and more like a cat.

Where to start with this train wreck of a film... It's hard to believe that Halle Berry won an Oscar as she purrs, hisses, and delivers a painfully campy performance here. Benjamin Bratt is wasted, Sharon Stone's one-dimensional villain makes me believe her promise as an actress peaked back with Basic Instinct, and Mad TV star Alex Borstein is utterly forgettable as Patience's friend Sally.

But it's a superhero movie, so how's the action? Not much better. The cgi is painfully obvious when Catwoman swings and bounces from building to building -- who knew computers could re-create Middle Earth but fail to animate a superheroine? The fight scenes are stiff, and the final showdown with Laurel is dull.

Catwoman isn't the worst superhero movie ever -- that dubious honor remains with Pumaman -- but it is a true disaster of a movie. (Halle Berry probably agrees with this description: She showed up to accept her Razzie for Worst Actress for this film.) If you want to admire Halle Berry's bod, enjoy the pics here or look up more online. If you want to pick a good superhero movie, watch any one (except Pumaman) and you'll suffer less than if you sit through Catwoman.

Overall grade: F

Reviewed by James Lynch


The X-Files: I Want to Believe (20th Century Fox, 2008)

On screen, the Fox TV series The X-Files spent nine years chronicling the adventures of special agents Fox Mulder (played by David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) as they investigated alien abductions, unraveled government conspiracies, and dealt with many disturbing individuals engaged in various psychotic behaviors that usually had some link to the paranormal. Off screen, the performance of the show in terms of ratings was as complex and enigmatic as the show's underlying story. Due to some exceptionally good writing, primarily from creator Chris Carter but with increasing help over the years from Frank Spotnitz, it wasn't hard to understand the very loyal following the show developed among sci fi buffs. However, the show broke into the mainstream in a big way, and by the fifth season there was considerable demand for a motion picture. The surprising success of The X-Files exposed a flaw in the main story arc, though. Carter had always said that he never expected the show to last very long, and as the web of conspiracies became increasingly tangled, there was no plan in place to bring any sort of coherent resolution to the series. (Compare this to the similarly complex current sci fi series Battlestar Galactica, where you get the sense that all the major plot twists were mapped out carefully well in advance.) The original X-Files movie tried to explain and resolve as many of the unanswered questions as possible, but the writers overreached and wound up misfiring. The show struggled from that point, but not to the same degree that most of its audience lost interest. When Duchovny took leave of the show in the first half of season 8 and was replaced by Robert Patrick as Agent Doggett, the bandwagon was more or less emptied. (Ironically, the eighth season featured some of the show's best writing, and remains vastly underrated.) The X-Files came to an end in 2002, after a ninth season that was disappointing both commercially and aesthetically.

Now, six years after the show's demise, Mulder and Scully are back for another X-Files movie, subtitled I Want to Believe in honor of a poster Mulder always kept in his office. Carter and Spotnitz likewise return to their usual roles as writers for the film. I found it amusing that there was some buzz about whether the two protagonists would finally hook up romantically, as anybody who stuck around for the last two seasons has known the answer for a while. Mulder is still in hiding from the government at the beginning of the movie, with Scully providing his only contact with the outside world. Scully, meanwhile, has taken a job at a Catholic hospital -- one of the fun ironies of the series was how Mulder's strong beliefs and Scully's scientific skepticism were reversed where religion was concerned -- and is torn with deciding whether it is worth it to put a boy in her care through a series of painful operations that would raise his chances of survival from zero to very slim. An FBI agent then comes to Scully in an effort to reach Mulder. Another agent has been kidnapped, and their only clues have been provided by a disgraced priest who either has a psychic connection to the criminals, or is in on the crime himself. Mulder naturally takes the priest at his word, in spite of Scully's protestations, and the heart of the story commences. From there, the case takes the usual series of twists and turns. The kidnappers turn out to be far more dangerous and disturbing than was apparent initially. Meanwhile conflict also ensues between Scully, who had willingly left her old life behind, and Mulder, who's reinvigorated by being on the job again.

Some people have complained that I Want to Believe lacks the aliens and the deep conspiracies that defined the underlying story of the series. (Reports have circulated that the aliens mistakenly showed up on the set of the Indiana Jones movie instead.) But The X-Files was about more than just aliens, and some of the best episodes revolved around harrowing encounters with people who reflect the worst elements of human nature. This movie would rank among the creepiest of the X-Files episodes, and the scene in which the film's climax takes place is absolutely not for the squeamish. All told, I felt like I was watching a better-than-average X-Files episode. Maybe that isn't sufficient for some people, or at least not enough to justify paying to see it on the big screen, but I left satisfied. The movie should still appeal to people who remained loyal to the show, although I can't say that it will win back any of the audience that the series lost.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott

To view the trailer, click here.


Hoody hoo! The gaming comic book Knights of the Dinner Table started as a small strip in 1990, and it's still going strong almost 20 years later. If you've ever played Dungeons and Dragons, or know people who have, you'll love the misadventures of some of the world's worst gamers.

The prime focus of KODT is a Muncie, Indiana-based group of roleplayers called, well, the Knights of the Dinner Table. Going from left to right in the picture above, the Knights are: B.A. Felton, the frazzled gamemaster who always wants to create an epic adventure and whose campaigns are invariably wrecked by the others; Bob Herzog, the whiny, scrawny smartass with a quick temper; Dave Bozwell, the jock who's ready to slay anything he considers a threat (or experience points); Sara Felton, B.A.'s cousin and the only player interested in acting heroically or altruistically; and Brian van Hoose, the epitome of the rules lawyer who can cite passage and paragraph ver batim -- as long as it backs what he wants.

The Knights' game of choice is HackMaster, a thinly-veiled version of D&D that has tons of errors and rewards selfishness, greed, and wanton killing. This fits nicely with the playing style of Bob, Dave and Brian (who dubbed themselves "the Untouchable Trio," since when their characters got killed their new ones were exact copies of the last ones), who have been known to destroy whole towns and slaughter characters that did them no harm (and who B.A. wanted to use to start the adventure).

There's a lot to KODT besides just the Knights, though. Several other gaming groups are often covered, most notably the Black Hands, a group more explicitly malevolent than the Knights. There's fat old-timer Weird Pete, who runs the local Games Pit gaming store. (In one of many nice touches, the current store has a sign in the window warning "Parents! I'm not yer kids' babysitter!" while in flashbacks a sign proclaims "Parents, I will gladly watch your children while you shop.") There's Hard Eight Enterprises, which publishes HackMaster (and SpaceHack, and Hacknoia, and many other games), and the company's legendary owner/HackMaster creator Gary Jackson -- who was killed off. A current story has his widow/Hard Eight president Heidi Jackson revamping HackMaster to be more accessible to new players, while the staff try to stick with the minutia of the old rules. (D&D 4e vs. older versions, anyone?) And there's even a hyper-intelligent chimp called Squirrely that works for Weird Pete.

The art of KODT is simplistic -- most faces and bodies are copied from other pics, with an occasional raised arm, costume, or character who got bruised or in a cast providing variety -- which may turn off some readers while adding to the charm for others. The storylines vary from short (plenty of self-contained stories in many issues) campaigns that can go well over a year (such as the Knights' current crawl through the Temple of Horrendous Doom). It's usually a good idea to find the start of a longer story arc before delving in the middle, and all the issues are collected in each Bundle of Trouble volume.

Oh yes -- KODT is funny. Damn funny. Often laugh-out-loud funny. The Untouchable Trio hear there's a gazebo and, not knowing what it is, engage in an "epic" battle with the creature! The strip I used at the top has the Knights finding a legendary cursed hand, which leads to Dave and Brian trying to cut off their own hand to use it, Sara trying to destroy it, Bob wanting to sell it, and B.A. reminding those hacking at themselves of the hit points they're still losing. A movie discussion had them saying that the Lord of the Rings movies were good, but no Hawk the Slayer. ("Hawk rules!") A Dalek appears in Weird Pete's game store. An argument over avoiding starvation by eating Dave's "magic" cow or Bob's "dwarven warhorse" (a mule) has them deciding to each the torch bearer instead. A mission to investigate crop circles in Canada results in a massive gunfight as the Knights' characters try to smuggle a massive arsenal through Customs -- and Dave insists Canada is a Communist country! And the Knights often play different games, taking on such varied ones as Risk, Once Upon a Time, The Settlers of Catan ("I have wood for sheep") and The Great Space Race.

KODT also resists being a static strip. While the Untouchable Trio spent years playing the same characters -- Bob was the dwarven thief Knuckles ("I waste him with my crossbow!"), Dave was the fighter El Ravager (with a +12 sword), Brian was the mage Teflon Billy ("fireballs coming online") -- recent changes have forced them to play new character types. Weird Pete faces still competition from the new game store in town -- that's run professionally. And right now the future of HackMaster is in danger (possibly of becoming better) as the old school faces the perils of progress.

Each issue of KODT has other features, from editorials and letters (including mine, printed so often they now bear the heading "The Lynch Report") to gaming news, characters and articles on HackMaster (yes, Kenzer & Company www.kenzerco.com , the folks behind KODT, actually released a HackMaster rpg), and even cartoons. For me, the draw is the strips first and foremost. So I highly recommend everyone out there pick up Knights of the Dinner Table, enjoy the monthly exploits of these gleefully woeful gamers, and join them in their cry of triumph:


Overall grade: A

Reviewed by James Lynch