Aliens attack! Monsters respond! Hilarity ensues! Well, maybe not the last part so much in Monsters vs. Aliens, the latest animated movie from DreamWorks.

Susan (Reese Witherspoon) is getting married when a meteor crashes on her and turns her into a 50-foot-woman (every bride's nightmare). She's almost immediately captures and held in a secret prison facility run by General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland). Her fellow prisoners are fellow monsters: Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), a mad scientist in a human-cockroach body; B.O.B. (Seth Rogan), a hungry, happy, stupid blue blob; the Missing Link (Will Arnett), a fish-man who's got quite an ego but is in terrible shape; and Insectosaurus, a skyscraper-sized mutant larvae that bellows a lot and is easily distracted by bright light. And Susan is isolated from her family and her fiance Derek (Paul Rudd) -- plus she's told her new name is Ginormica.

More trouble is coming, though: the alien Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson) wants the Quantonium that was in the meteor that hit Susan, and he sends a giant robot to capture it. With traditional military forces powerless to stop it, the hapless President Hathaway (Stephen Colbert) authorizes the release of the monsters, promising them their freedom if they stop the giant robot.

While Monsters vs. Aliens manages to reference a few other sci-fi and monster movies, including Independence Day, E.T. and Godzilla flicks, at its heart the movie is a tale of a bunch of outcasts and losers coming together to save the day. Unfortunately, it's done very predictably. You'll know within minutes what will happen between Susan and her self-centered fiancee, or whether or not the Missing Link will make good. The movie also put its most exciting scene in the middle of the movie instead of the climax.

This movie's terrifically talented vocal talent feels underused as well. Seth Rogan is fun as he continues his series of roles as the lovable dope, Will Arnett once again plays an arrogant jerk, Reese Witherspoon does well as the terrified woman who, er, grows into her new abilities, and Stephen Colbert finally gets to be president! But the other voices sound generic, not really adding anything to their characters.

Monsters vs. Aliens does have some impressive 3-d effects, and the battle with the giant robot is pretty exciting. But while so many children's movies are made for adults as well, this one only aims for the simplest level possible.

Overall grade: C+
Reviewed by James Lynch



The art of the ninja involves stealth and combat. These traits take on an almost goofy quality in Ninja Versus Ninja, a simple, quick, fun game of strategy, attacks, and sneaking

In Ninja Versus Ninja the two players (and this is strictly a two-player game) have six ninjas on a rectangular board. These large-headed ninjas face each other, swords raised, in the relative safefy of their dojos with a three-space-deep neutral area between them. Players win by sending their ninjas to infiltrate the enemy's dojo and return, or by eliminating all of the opponent's ninjas -- but neither task is easy.

Each turn a player rolls two four-sided dice, then moves one ninja that many spaces. Ninjas move in a straight line, with one 90-degree turn allowed; in an opponent's dojo a ninja can also make one 180-degree turn. The more spaces into an opponent's dojo the ninja travels, the more points that ninja scores -- if they return. Once a ninja leaves their own dojo, they must return to their dojo within three turns or be discarded. If a player scores seven points, they win!

Then there's combat. If a ninja ends their movement on an opponent's ninja, that opponent is discarded. But a ninja must move the exact number of spaces and turns to end their turn on an opponent's space; since all other ninjas can't be passed through, this is tougher than it sounds.

Ninja Versus Ninja is very simple to learn, very quick -- and a lot of fun. Most games are finished in 10-15 minutes, and I've seen as many games ended by eliminating an opponent's pieces as by getting the right number of points. The pieces are cute (identical ninjas except for the color of their clothing, with a "shadow ninja" tracking how deep into an opponent's dojo a ninja gets, and a sensei to keep track of score) and there's a surprising amount of strategy involved in balancing offense vs. defense, and whether going on a deep infiltration mission that's hard to return from is better than a number of smaller, safer missions. There's not a lot of depth to Ninja Versus Ninja, but this game is immensely enjoyable when you're in the mood for something easy and quick.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch



There are plenty of comedies about someone looking for love, but I Love You, Man is a comedy about a man looking for a bud. In the spirit of many Judd Apatow comedies, this movie combines crude language and sight gags with a lot of heart.

Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd) just got engaged to Zooey (Rashida Jones) and things are going great -- until he overhears his fiancee talking with her friends Hailey (Sarah Burns) and Denise (Jamie Pressley) and Peter realizes he has no male friends. Peter is a bit of a nerd, and he's adored by just about every woman he knows while having no guy buddies. This is confirmed by his family: his crude father Oswald (J.K. Simmons), his sweet mom Joyce (Jane Curtin), and his fully confident gay brother Robbie (Andy Samberg, in a great supporting role). Soon family and friends are setting Peter up on "man dates," ranging from Denise's irritable husband Barry (Jon Favreau) to Doug (Thomas Lennon), who thinks they're on a real date.

Then, while trying to sell Lou Ferrgno's house, Peter meets Sydney Fife (Jason Segel). Sydney is the opposite of Peter -- outspoken, obnoxious, sometimes a free spirit, sometimes seemingly in a state of protacted adolescence -- and soon the two are best friends, with Peter considering asking Sydney to be the best man at his wedding. But all the Rush musical covers and long lunches soon start to affect Peter's relationship with Zooey.

I Love You, Man is an often tasteless comedy that still manages to be sweet. There's lots of profanity (and what may be the most tasteless engagement toast in all of cinema), but most of the humor comes more from Peter's nerdiness than from gross-out gags. And while this is very much a guy movie, the female characters are fully developed and have as much depth as the men. Rashida Jones makes Zooey a strong character who loves her man but doesn't do whatever he wants. Rudd plays (and occasionally overplays) Peter's awkwardness, including several lousy tries to come up with a cool nickname and awful foreign accents. And Segel continues his great comic tradition as the absolute foil to Peter -- who still makes their friendship believable.

I Love You, Man isn't hysterical, but it provides plenty of laughs and a nice look into the workings of the male mind. This is a very enjoyable comey, good to see either with a date or a buddy.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch


Neko Case, Middle Cyclone (Anti-, 2009)

You could argue that, given her solo career and her contributions to The New Pornographers, nobody has been part of more good music over the past decade than Neko Case. Certainly her 2002 CD Blacklisted will figure prominently when I make my top 10 list for the decade, and if I make a similar list of concerts, her performance at the Bowery Ballroom on Valentine's Day 2005 would rank at or near the top. Her new album Middle Cyclone is flawed in places, but Case still expands on her reputation for alluringly cryptic lyrics and haunting melodies with a number of excellent songs.

While most of her early solo work would qualify as country, Case has incorporated more straightforward folk and mellow alternative rock into her sound over the years. Middle Cyclone continues this progression. The one intriguing instrumental addition is the "piano orchestra." Case filled a barn on her Vermont property with pianos, and together with a bunch of friends (including two New Pornographers and Garth Hudson of The Band) had all of the pianos playing simultaneously on several of the songs. In general it's more of a curiosity than an enhancement, but it does work to great effect on her cover of Harry Nilsson's "Don't Forget Me."

Case has generally done a good job of balancing the faster and slower songs on her previous albums, but on Middle Cyclone there is a marked difference in quality between them. The more upbeat songs here, other than the closing song "Red Tide," don't do all that much for me. The opening song "This Tornado Loves You" and the single "People Got a Lotta Nerve" both suffer from choruses that sound forced, and the attempted environmental anthem "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth" certainly means well but comes across as preachy. By contrast, a number of the quieter, moodier songs are simply superb, and rank among Case's best work. Songs like "The Next Time You Say Forever," "Polar Nettles," "Vengeance Is Sleeping," "Middle Cyclone," and "Don't Forget Me" would each by themselves justify the purchase of the album. A full album of that would have been truly special.

Curiosly, Case appends a half hour of outdoor sounds, mostly consisting of croaking frogs, to the end of the album. A minute or two might have been interesting, but there is such a thing as overkill.

Middle Cyclone
may be uneven, but the good parts of it are exceptional and more than outweigh the weaker material. Neko Case can be extraordinarily good when the spirit moves her, and this album has more than enough examples of that to make it worth multiple listenings.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

Neko Case gives an overview of the songs on her new album.


Trio Mio, Stories Around a Holy Goat, and Kristine Heebøll, 10 Point (GO' Danish Folk Music, 2007)

While not as well known internationally as their counterparts in the other Scandinavian countries, the folk musicians of Denmark have a thriving community. As in Norway, Sweden, or Finland, it is not unusual to find a Danish musician involved in multiple projects with different groups of people. Fiddler Kristine Heebøll, for example, first came to prominence in Danish folk circles a decade ago as a member of Phonix, who would later (without her) gain a small audience in America as a result of their performance at the 2004 Nordic Roots Festival. More recently, she has worked both as a solo artist and as a member of the group Trio Mio. May 2007 was an especially busy month for her, as she went into the studio to record two different albums. One was a Trio Mio album called Stories Around a Holy Goat, and the other was a solo effort called 10 Point. Both these albums cover the same broad range of Danish traditional music, and even have some overlap in regards to specific tunes played, but they differ significantly in how the tunes are arranged.

In addition to Heebøll, Trio Mio consists of Nikolaj Busk on piano and accordion and Jens Ulvsland on bouzouki, guitar, and vocals. Like most Danish traditional recordings, Stories Around a Holy Goat mixes the polskas, waltzes, and marches found in the rest of Scandinavia with the jigs, reels, and slow airs of the Celtic tradition. The distinguishing feature of Trio Mio's arrangements is the presence of a piano, an uncommon instrument in Nordic music. Busk makes the instrument work in this contex by clevely shifting between harmonies, chords, and some decorative improvisation. Ulvsland's accompaniment on the more modal bouzouki provides a nice counterpoint to the piano, without clashing with it. The interplay between the three instruments works best on the very pretty wedding waltz "Bryllupvals til Mari og Johnny." A couple of tunes feature some additional musicians, who work to great effect on the extended medley "Julias Vals/Klippen på Koster." This set starts out as a simple, placid waltz, with the fiddle and accordion sharing the melody with a clarinet. The waltz then shifts into a polska as the arrangement gets more dynamic, before going completely Medieval when a keyed fiddle and hurdy-gurdy come in.

For 10 Point, Heebøll composed all the music herself and did the bulk of the arranging as well. Most of her arrangements emphasize group fiddling, although Dan Gisen Malmquist appears frequently on clarinet and bass clarinet, an an accordion and a cello can be heard on the disc as well. Two of Heebøll's compositions from Stories Around a Holy Goat, "10 Point" and "Klippen på Koster," also appear on this album as well, but the performances differ significantly between the two albums. While Trio Mio played "10 Point" as a fast reel backed by percussive finger-picking on guitar, Heebøll's solo arrangement is more subdued, with her plucked fiddle serving as the rhythm instrument. You know a tune is good when it holds up to very different arrangements, and the polska "Klippen på Koster is arguably the standout track on both albums. The string quartet arrangement of "Klippen på Kloster" on 10 Point works just as effectively as the more Medieval treatment that Trio Mio gave it. Other highlights include the set of jigs "Svesken/Det flodefarvede lyn" and the marches "Gräfin von Holzendorff/Desperate Nobility."

10 Point and Stories Around a Holy Goat come equally recommended as good examples of Danish fiddle music. Kristine Heebøll is a very versatile player as well as a promising composer and arranger. And with both Trio Mio and the guests on her solo record, she works with a solid supporting cast.

Overall grade: B+ for both

reviewed by Scott



Who would have guessed a game about bean farming could be so much fun? Bohnanza is a card game about planting, harvesting, trading, and planning -- and it's intense, silly, frustrating, and amazingly enjoyable.

Each turn, a player first plants one card (with an optional second card) in their bean field. The player then draws two cards, face-up, which the player can plant, trade, or try to give away. (If they can't get rid of them, the cards must be planted.) At any time, players can harvest their beans for the appropriate amount of gold (listed on each card). Then the player draws three cards, and the turn passes to the next player.

So what makes Bohnanza different from other card games? First, there is a tremendous restriction on resources. Players start with two bean fields, and they can buy a third field during the game. Each bean field can only hold one type of bean, and when forced to plant a new bean they often have to discard an existing number of beans -- even if they can't harvest them for gold or were one turn away from getting more gold. (It's no surprise that many players will pass on donated cards, even for free.) Also, multiple cards have to be harvested before single cards, so you can't build up one type of bean farm while discarding useless single cards.

Second, players can never change the order of the cards in their hands. As a result, players will often make trades just to get unwanted cards out of their hands -- or suffer the fate of seeing the cards they need too far down in their hand to use. Bohnanza requires a lot of sacrifice and planning ahead.

Third, the game goes faster as it progresses. The game ends after the deck is gone through for the third time. When a player gets gold, they keep a number of cards equal to the gold they get, so the deck gets smaller and smaller as players earn gold.

Also, like several other games Bohnanza almost forces cooperation with the players who are competing. Whether trying for that next needed card or just unloading unwanted cards, trading is an integral part of this game. Negotiation can get fierce, and offers and counter-offers will happen many times each turn.

Bohnanza is also very enjoyable. There's a light, goofy sense of humor to the cards (take a look at the sample art above), and it's hard to be fully serious when negotiating for Stink Beans.

Luck does play a very important part of Bohnanza (some two-card draws can be harvested for gold instantly, while others can ruin your plans and hopes), but in many games the greatest plans can be ruined by pesky reality. (This is true in life as well.) Bohnanza is truly fun and original, a terrific game to play repeatedly with friends or teach new players.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

Philip Norman, John Lennon: The Life (Ecco, 2008)

He was troubled yet brilliant, eccentric yet endearing, maddeningly difficult yet utterly irreplaceable. He was a flawed character -- in particular, his treatment of his first wife and child left quite a bit to be desired -- yet he brightened the world with his music and idealism to an extent that few people of any degree of virtue can approach. He could be bitterly harsh to those closest to him, yet on a public level he possessed a special kind of charisma that graces this planet once in a century, if we're lucky. To say the very least, John Lennon was a man of contradictions. Philip Norman, whose 1981 book Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation is considered by many to be the definitive biography of the Fab Four, decided that Lennon by himself warranted a thorough and objective analysis. He took on the challenge of digging deep into Lennon's life to try to make the many contradictions and complexities understandable to his readers. The result is John Lennon: The Life, a massive volume containing over 800 pages of text and leaving absolutely no stone unturned.

Norman's work is strongest at the very beginning of the story, detailing the elaborate and somewhat bizarre power struggle that played out between John's parents, Alfred and Julia, and Julia's oldest sister Mimi. Alfred is usually dismissed as the father who left when John was young and didn't resurface until after John became famous, but the truth is more complicated. Julia's family never liked Alfred, and when Julia left Alfred for somebody else, Alfred was effectively pushed out of the way. So, eventually, was Julia -- to make a long story short, Mimi found her too irresponsible and took John off her hands. Mimi was a very controlling figure, at least on the surface, but she had her own secrets, and her determination to raise John to be a proper, respectable middle-class Englishman didn't quite work out the way she planned. The free-spirited Julia still saw John regularly, and encouraged his interest in music as much as Mimi discouraged it. But Julia's tragic death when John was 17 left a scar that would affect everything John did afterwards.

The book goes on to describe the Liverpool rock scene, in which The Beatles were initially very minor players. I knew that their trips to Hamburg played a pivotal role in their development, but Norman makes it clear that The Beatles were really nobodies before their first German excursion, and that everything changed for them in Liverpool on their return. As for the rest of The Beatles' story, I would imagine that anybody interested enough in John Lennon to read an 800-page book on him already knows the details. Norman comments on John's musical contributions, and dwells on his complicated relationship with manager Brian Epstein (yes, John had complicated relationships with a lot of different people), but doesn't really add anything new here. The side story of John's lack of fidelity and genuine love for his first wife Cynthia and indifference towards his son Julian makes for more revealing, if somewhat disheartening, reading.

Of course, the most important figure by far in the last twelve years of Lennon's life was Yoko Ono. Again, Norman reveals that the story of John and Yoko's romance is not as simple as it's generally made out to be. If anything, John was overly controlling of Yoko; it certainly wasn't the other way around. Norman gives Yoko a rare and refreshing sympathetic treatment. She was an avant-garde artist with a sense of the bizarre and whacky that meshed perfectly with John's. While John never wanted Cynthia around when he was busy being a Beatle, he insisted that Yoko never leave his side. The low points in the relationship get aired out in the book as well. Even though John did love her, it would never be easy being his wife, and the pressure from that (and the constant spiteful accusations of breaking up The Beatles that regrettably continue to this day) caused Yoko to send John away in 1973. For all of John's misadventures during the "Lost Weekend" that took up most of 1974 (Norman goes over a few), John remained determined to win Yoko back, and eventually succeeded. Their reunion was followed by the birth of Sean, and then by John obtaining his American citizenship after the government had tried for years to get him thrown out of the country.

Things may not have been absolutely perfect at the Dakota for the next five years, but John was happy and at peace with himself for the first time in his life. Unfortunately, we all know how the story ends.

I know that Yoko ultimately distanced herself from the book, feeling that Norman had been mean to John. One one hand, I can see why she feels that way; while it was necessary for Norman to tell the story warts and all, he did discuss some of the warts in microscopic detail. But at the same time, I feel that the book is ultimately sympathetic, as Norman intends it to be taken. My biggest criticism would be with Norman's frequent analyses of Lennon's songs. I agreed with him sometimes and disagreed with him other times, which is fine, but Norman injected too much of his subjective opinions into the book at places where a more detached tone would have better served.

Having said that, I found John Lennon: The Life on the whole to be very engrossing and compelling. Sure, the size of the book will scare away some readers with only a casual interest in the subject matter, but if you want to know everything there is to know about John Lennon, Philip Norman's book is the one to read.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott


Before Wes Craven made his mark on the horror genre with A Nightmare on Elm Street, he entered the world of the exploitation flick by writing and directing The Last House on the Left. This movie wallows in sleazy sex and gratituous violence.

Mari Collingwood (Sandra Cassel) is a, er, blossoming young girl on vacation at the titular lakeside house with her parents, Dr. John Collingwood (Richard Towers) and Estelle Collingwood (Cynthia Carr). Celebrating her seventeenth birthday, Mari heads to town with her "bad infleunce" friend Phyllis (Lucy Grantham) to see a heavy-metal concert ("Bloodlust") and score some weed.

Destiny has bad, bad plans for Mari and Phyllis. A trio of "murders, drug dealers and rapists" have escaped from prison: cruel leader Krug Stillo (David Hess); knife-wielding Fred "Weasel" Podowski (Fred Lincoln); and Junior Stillo (Marc Sheffler), kept hooked on drugs by his father Krug. These three are joined by Sadie (Jeramie Rain), a bisexual predator who helped them escape. And guess who Mari and Phyllis try to buy drugs from?

After the cruel and graphic encounter between the teens and the predators, the criminals wind up at the Collingwood house. And when the parents find out what happened to their daughter, revenge is swift and brutal.

The Last House on the Left is loosely based on Bergman's Virgin Spring, but Wes Craven's film is content to wallow in sleaze. From the opening shot of Sandra Cassel showering to the final bloody moments of the movie, this movie wants nothing more than to appeal to the basest parts of the audience. The acting is awful, as is the cheesy soundtrack, and the comic relief of two bungling cops is stupid and unfunny. Craven does manage to work in a few well-done moments -- Junior Stillo's nightmare, the contrast of the parents decorating their child's wholesome birthday celebration with the horrors happening to their child -- but The Last House on the Left ultimately fails to go beyond mere titillation and violence.

Overall grade: D-
Reviewed by James Lynch


Coraline (Laika Entertainment, 2009)

Coraline is terrific stop-motion animated movie, directed and co-written by Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas). A great thing about this movie is that it treads on new turf; for example, it's the first stop-motion animation in 3-D, and rarely if ever has cutting edge animation been wedded to such sheer, supernatural 'offbeatness.' To give you an idea of its nature, it's Labyrinth meets 2001: The Space Odyssey, sharing motifs with the former and being as grand, sumptuous, and offbeat as 2001.

At the center of the story is 11-year-old Coraline, voiced by Dakota Fanning (Hide and Seek). She and her parents move into a subdivision of an old house in Oregon. For someone 11, she can be a rather acerbic gal, but that probably reflects that she's chronically ignored by her parents, especially mom. Coraline's also an explorer, but one in training -- she loves mud and the outdoors, but on rainy days when she can't go outside, her dad has to give her a gentle push to explore her new home.

Catching her eye one day is a doorway. It opens to a portal that sends her to a new world, parallel in key respects yet apparently more attractive. It boasts everything from groovier, more attentive parents, better meals, and a model train on the dinner table that delivers gravy for you, to impossibly colorful gardens, a circus of talented mice, and a mute but good-natured version of a pesky age mate she's semi-friends with in her other world. She's sold.

And so was I. This movie can hardly be over-praised. It's not that there are no flaws, but that it doesn't matter. Its 'sumptuousness factor' is roughly on a par with 2001; and, as in that movie, we're treated to enough periods of understated action, offbeat images, and moody music/sound effects that cue us just to sit back and absorb the trip. As for the 3-D, well, I'm an old-school lover of 3-D, and I must say that this movie breaks ground in how skillfully it weaves the 3-D factor into its fabric. There's no gimmick here; in fact, something would be lost by seeing this movie in 2-D. But Coraline would still be excellent.

Kudos should go to all of those who were involved in making this film. Go enjoy the stunning finished product and stay through to the end of credits, where you'll see some mind-blowing 3-D effects. I'm not sure where people come up with this stuff, but I'm glad they do.

Overall grade: A+

reviewed by Dave Nofer



Music covers are fascinating to me: New versions of familiar songs can take music in a wholly different direction, find greater depth or emotion that wasn't there originally -- or, in the case of Punk Goes Pop Vol. 2, add a lot more screaming.

The title says it all: Punk Goes Pop Vol. 2 collects some top 40 tunes and has punk bands putting their stamp on them. Some covered songs are pretty recent (Rihanna's "Disturbia," the Pusstcat Girls' "When I Grow Up," Sara Bareillis' "Love Song"), while others go back a couple of years (Santana's "Smooth," Justin Timberlake's "What Comes Around"). Britney Spears should be honored -- or scared -- that two of her songs are covered here.

The music here is highly mixed. The best songs bring a lunatic energy to the album, be it Four Year Strong's beautifully off-key version of "Love Song" or A Day To Remember beginning "Over My Head (Cable Car)" very close to the original then gradually moving to howls. About half the album is raw, energetic fun.

Oddly, the weaker half of Punk Goes Pop Vol. 2 is split between too much punk and too little punk. Some songs are nothing but yelling and screaming (the worst being August Burning Red's almost unrecognizable cover of "...Baby One More Time"). Several other songs seem more like techno or even pop remixes rather than hardcore tunes. Heck, Breathe Carolina's take on Miley Cyrus' "See You Again" sounds less energetic than the original -- until the screams kick in.

Compilations are often a mixed bag, but Punk Goes Pop Vol. 2 is wildly uneven. If you're looking for some loud and original versions of radio-friendly fare you'll find several very good songs -- and several songs you won't listen to more than once.

Overall grade: C

Reviewed by James Lynch

U2, No Line on the Horizon (Interscope Records, 2009)

Few bands need less of an introduction than U2. The celebrated Irish quartet have kept their original line-up intact for thirty years now, without ever becoming inactive or even adding extra musicians on their tours. And yet, for all the hit records, massive tours, and many accolades they've received over the years, Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr. continue to go about making their records as though they still have something to prove. Their new album No Line on the Horizon is both similar and different to its immediate predecessors, in part a reflection of the band's long history but also a continuation of their willingness to defy people's expectations and their refusal to rest on their laurels.

On their previous albums of this decade, U2 returned to the more anthemic rock that defined their early recordings. Much of No Line on the Horizon follows the same pattern, with similar results. The album is dominated by the upbeat and danceable numbers, however. With the first single "Get on Your Boots," U2 re-embrace the brazenness of the best songs on Achtung Baby and Pop, and take it a few steps further. The album's biggest hit, though, is likely to be the second song, "Magnificent." Bono sings this one with a fire in his voice that he hasn't been able to muster for a while, and the song lives up to its title. The album's lyrics focus on themes of love and beauty, but generally in a much deeper sense than the purely romantic or sexual one. Like most U2 albums, No Line on the Horizon has a spiritual undercurrent as well, punctuated by a very poignant, overtly Christian song near the end of the album called "White as Snow." The band's politics is more implicit than explicit here; the closing song "Cedars of Lebanon," for example, deals with the emotional cost of simply reporting on an awful conflict without actually taking sides.

It's always worth it to check in on U2 whenever they release a new album and see what they've been up to. They've never been dull, which is extremely impressive considering how long they've been at it. No Line on the Horizon ranks in the upper half of U2's discography, and is the best of their three albums this decade by a comfortable margin.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

A live performance of "Get on Your Boots"

The Hard Way, Only If... And Even Then (Come and Get It Records, 2008)

I'm always looking for new bands to listen to, but when you review albums in cyberspace, sometimes the new bands come looking for you. Such was the case with The Hard Way, a band from Olympia, Washington consisting of Scott Taylor (vocals, guitar, keyboards), Tim Diedrich (guitar, backing vocals), Elizabeth Yeager (bass, backing vocals), and Dave Hyatt (drums, backing vocals). While their sound is likely to be tagged with the amorphous label of "indie rock," their album Only If... and Even Then reflects a fairly broad range of influences.

You can hear Seattle grunge, psychedelic power pop, and a lot of stuff in between on this record. The cover shot of the band hanging out in a room full of LP's certainly suggests an affinity for older rock, and The Hard Way frequently do wear their influences on their sleeves. The punkish opening song "Misspoken" evokes the Police's "Message in a Bottle," the nice mellow track "I Like Elephants" is definitely patterned after The Beatles' "Blackbird," and the fast-paced closer "Favorite Song" has Elvis Costello written all over it. There are even echoes of good but lesser known bands like Love and Big Star. Thankfully, The Hard Way sound more flattering of these older bands than derivative.

If I have a criticism of the album, it's that it seems a bit unfinished to me. Their attempts at group harmonies never quite nail it, and the guitar solos can shift from rock solid to tentative rather abruptly. The longest song on the album, "The Bitch," has the album's best riff, but Taylor fills the gaps between lyrics with a little too much screaming. (The song would also benefit from a subtler title.) Having said all that, there's some promising music on here. "Invisible Girl" and "Favorite Song" are solid rockers, and more subtle songs like "I Like Elephants" and "World Falls Down" work as well. My favorite song on the album is "The Universe Is Flat," a fun send-up of Revolver era Beatles with lyrics as spacey as the title would suggest.

The Hard Way produced and released Only If... and Even Then by themselves. Making a record with a homemade feel is not necessarily a bad thing, but their material is good enough to warrant developing it further. I think they're on the right track with their use of group vocals, for example, but their harmonies do need work. For a band that's just getting started and trying to get noticed, though, the Hard Way show quite a bit of promise. With a bit more care, and perhaps the right producer, I think they can go places.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott



Watchmen is one of the seminal comics of the 1980s, arguably one of the greatest comic book series ever, and described as "unfilmable" as a movie. So, how did the movie Watchmen turn out? Fairly mediocre, even granting that the almost three-hour running length couldn't contain much of this very dense 12-issue series.

The world of Watchmen is an alternate-history universe where it's 1986, Nixon is still president, costumes heroes were a fad in the 1940s and are now outlawed, and nuclear tension between the United States and Russia has led to fears of an imminent nuclear war. The murder of Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is investigated by sociopathic hero Rorschach (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a short, brutal vigilante whose mask is an ever-changing series of ink blot shapes. Rorschach learns that Blake was the Comedian, a former ally and horrible human being. Fearing that someone is "killing masks," Rorschach seeks out his old companions to warn them.

The other heroes are all retired. Dan Dreiberg/Night Owl (Patrick Wilson), is a high-tech inventor who's become pudgy and nostalgic for the old days. Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) had revealed his identity to further his success as a businessman and billionaire. John Osterman/Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) is a glowing blue man (the only one with actual superpowers) who is almost omnipotent, won Vietnam single-handedly, and working with Veidt on creating clean energy. And Laurie Jupiter/the Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) is living on a military base with Dr. Manhattan.

The story of Watchmen is told as much in the characters' flashbacks as in Rorschach's investigation. We see how despicable the Comedian was, whether killing Viet Cong (and a woman he got pregnant) in Vietnam, almost raping Laurie's mother, Sally Jupiter/the original Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino), or breaking up rioters by shooting them in the chest with tear gas.
I tried to distance the movie Watchmen from the comic book; unfortunately, this was difficult to do as director Zack Snyder and production designer Alex McDowell seem determined to re-create the comic not just word for work, but also panel by panel. (The exception is the ending, which changes it a bit from the comic but stays in spirit with the comic's finale.) Alas, none of the characters really come alive, staying one-dimensional even when given the chance to react to some horrifying developments. (Ironically, Jeffrey Dean Morgan's character may be the most despicable, yet he seems to be the only one approaching their character with enthusiasm.) And the fight scenes are not only brutal, but also all done with slow motion and exaggeration that was intended as stylish but comes off as artificial. (Considering everyone but Dr. Manhattan is a "normal" hero, all the characters consistently punch through walls, kick characters quite far, and can get up from brutal beatings almost immediately.)
Watchmen isn't unfilmable, but it's too large to contain in a movie, even with this one's running time, that does it justice. Alas, few in the cast stand out, and the dark visual world created is undercut by the unrealistic action. This isn't an awful movie, but Watchmen left me wishing it was a better movie.
Overall grade: C
Reviewed by James Lynch



H.P. Lovecraft created a universe of interrelated tomes, characters, places, and creatures. This "Cthulhu mythos" continued long after Lovecraft's death, with many authors referencing and borrowing Lovecraftian elements in their works. The result is a feeling of unity in these works -- and it can be difficult to keep straight. The Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia: A Guide to H.P. Lovecraft's Universe, Updated & Expanded Third Edition is a reference book to these Lovecraftian elements through literature.

After a foreword where Harms discusses the evolution of the Cthulhu mythos and his criteria for entries in The Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia, the entries begin. From Abbith to Zylac, Harms provides a brief description for the items, followed by a listing of the main source(s) for the entries. The sources are almost always stories, though publications for the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game are used often as well. Appendixes at the end deal with the chronology, locations, and contents of the Necronomicon.

The Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia is a informative but dry reference work. Harms does an excellent job collecting and presenting information on the important elements of the Cthulhu Mythos (though the appendixes at the end oddly mix up fictional and historical information on the Necronomicon). However, Harms' desire to treat the entries objectively strips away the horror and mystery of the Lovecraftian creations and makes the universe... simple. The result: The Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia is a great place to find out sources for elements of the Cthulhu mythos, but it won't inspire the reader to look up new parts of the mythos.

Overall grade: B-

Reviewed by James Lynch


Wonder Woman, the latest animated dvd movie from DC Comics, is an origin/beginnings movie that slightly alters the start of the heroine -- and also makes for a fun, often amusing, quite violent adventure.

In ancient times Ares, the God of War (Alfred Molina), battled the Amazons until he was defeated by Queen Hippolyta (Virginia Madsen). Ares was depowered (unless another god removed his shackles) and kept prisoner, while the Amazons were rewarded for their victory with the island of Themyscira, a paradise hidden from the world. Queen Hippolyta was also allowed to create a daughter from clay and her blood, and this became Diana (Keri Russell).

After centuries of peace and isolation, the world of man comes to Themyscira when American fighter pilot Steve Trevor (Nathan Fillion) crashes on the island after a battle. His presence causes an uproar (not the least of which is because he's a constant flirt), then a contest to see what Amazon is most worthy to bring him back to the outside world, leading Diana to become Wonder Woman.

All is not well in paradise -- well, on Paradise Island -- because Ares has escaped his imprisonment. The god seeks to become more powerful than ever, waging war in the modern world with mythical creatures and plotting revenge on the Amazons. Will Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor manage to stop bickering long enough to defeat the God of War?

Wonder Woman is an enjoyable romp, albeit one with a lot of bloodshed. Keri Russell does a fine job as Diana/Wonder Woman, making her a strong female warrior who also wants to explore a world that's new to her while not quite fitting in. Nathan Fillion, previously the arrogant superhero Captain Hammer in Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, is now an arrogant womanizer with a heart of gold; the tension between Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor works mainly from the interaction of Fillion and Russell. The rest of the voice cast does well, including Molina as the powerful villain and Rosario Dawson as Artemis, an Amazon who loves to fight.

Remember when heroes would protect life, no matter what? That's not the case in this movie. The movie opens with a bloody battle fought between the Amazons and Ares' creatures, and things don't let up when Wonder Woman embarks on her mission to stop Ares: She kills off numerous enemies, both humans and creatures. This is PG-13, and if it were a tad more graphic it might have earned an R rating.

Still, Wonder Woman manages to work pretty well for the most part. The action is exciting, there's a lot of humor at the battle of the sexes going on between the two protagonists (with as much fun had about Wonder Woman and the uber-sexy women of comics as about the relentlessly aroused Steve Trevor), and the modernization of Wonder Woman's origin doesn't radically alter her character. By the end of Wonder Woman you'll understand why this character is one of DC Comics' big three (along with Batman and Superman).

The two-disc special edition from Target (and I work at Target; enjoy the fact, those who enjoy full disclosure!) offers a somewhat odd mix of bonus features. As expected, there are commentaries, two documentaries (Wonder Woman: A Subversive Dream, about the historical background of Wonder Woman; and Wonder Woman: Daughter of Myth, exploing the mythological elements of Wonder Woman), five episodes from Justice League and Justice League Unlimited that focus on Wonder Woman, and a first look at DC Comics' next animated movie, Green Lantern. However, there were a couple of non-DC Comics trailers on here as well, and I can only conclude the documentaries from Justice League: The New Frontier and Batman: Gotham Knights were included to pad out the double disc edition.

If you're a fan of Wonder Woman, or you're looking for a cool adventure cartoon, then get a copy of Wonder Woman -- and enjoy!

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch


Lisa Hannigan, Sea Sew (ATO Records, 2009)

Lisa Hannigan is a young singer from Ireland. She spent most of her musical career to date as part of Irish rocker Damien Rice's band, but her partnership with Rice ended in 2007. Hannigan subsequently began her solo career, and her debut album Sea Sew was released last fall in Ireland and earlier this year here in America.

Hannigan's sound is pretty mellow, but otherwise not easy to define. While she sings and plays acoustic guitar, she is influenced at least as much by jazz, pop, and classical music as folk. Band member Lucy Wilkins is definitely more of a violinist than a fiddler, for example. (She plays very nicely, so I don't mean the distinction in a negative sense.) The album's one cover (Hannigan wrote the other songs herself) is a classic folk song, though -- Bert Jansch's "Courting Blues." Hannigan sings mostly in a subdued manner, although when she does raise her voice she reminds me a bit of the Austrian/Irish singer Pina, who's one of my favorite contemporary artists.

On the whole, though, Sea Sew was just too subdued for me. Lisa Hannigan does have talent, and the ten songs here are all well sung and played, but nothing reached out and grabbed me or demanded my attention.

Overall grade: C+

reviewed by Scott

"Lille," Sea Sew's closing track and first single. I do have to give Hannigan props for a very clever video.