I-CON 29

I-CON returned! And not just chronologically: I-CON 29 was held at SUNY Stony Brook, its home for all the years I've been going, except for last year. Having it back at its traditional home was great, obviating the constant driving from hotel to campus and back to go to different events. And, of course, this is the event that proves what the Arrogant Worms sang: It's great to be a nerd.

I-CON is dedicated to science fiction and fantasy, and the convention covers these and other areas of fandom. I-CON 29 had plenty of sci-fi, medieval fantasy, comic books, anime, horror, costuming (both created by fans and sold by vendors), gaming, video games (plenty of new stuff, though one dealer had games for the Super Nintendo), movie posters, original art, jewelry, and some Twilight items (but more on the backlash to Twilight). Attendees could wander the very full dealer's room and find elaborate costumes, rare and common dvds (one dealer even had bootlegs; I got a copy of a performance of Evil Dead: The Musical), innumerable dice, posters, and much more.

There were several celebrities throughout the convention. In addition to the celebs set up in the Dealer's Room, I also ran into author Peter David at a panel on, of all things, Mad Magazine. I also got a picture of and autograph from Charisma Carpenter, star of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.

The panels were terrific. I learned "How to Achieve World Domination," found out about "Protecting Your Secret Identity," (who gave that panel, anyway?) and heard the competition "Mine Is An Eeeeeeevil Laugh!" I also gave my fourth lecture on "Super(hero) S&M!" and attended several panels on Gamer Sex (not an oxymoron). There was a late-night Cosplay Burlesque performance; I'll never look at Link the same way again... I also attended several panels on Gamer Sex (not an oxymoron) and gave my fourth "Super(hero) S&M!" lecture.

I-CON 29 also had its open gaming area, featuring both scheduled competitions and pickup games. I won twice at Cosmic Encounter, got my butt kicked in The Red Dragon Inn and Saint Petersburg, and participated in the literally shortest losing game of Pandemic possible. This area ran smoothly, in large part to Armchair Critic writer and infrequent haberdasher Scott Gianelli.

I-CON 29 was tremendous fun. I got there as everything was starting and left when they kicked us out of the last panel because the building was closing. Too bad I have to wait another year until I can go again!
Written by James Lynch



Unruly pets are a frequent element in children's movies, from Marley to Lilo to the Tramp, but those animals don't destroy houses and eat people. That's not the case in How To Train Your Dragon, a cgi movie from DreamWorks Animation.

On a small island a town of Vikings suffer from dragon attacks. On a fairly regular basis, a variety of dragons steal sheep, breathe fire on the houses, and attack people. Led by Stoick (Gerard Butler), the Vikings are a burly, warlike people -- except for Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), Stoick's teen son. Hiccup is small, a bit whiny, clumsy, helps blacksmith Gobber (Craig Ferguson), and invents devices he thinks will help battle the dragons. He also has a crush on Astrid (America Ferrera), a skilled young warrior who barely noticed Hiccup.

One of Hiccup's devices works, not just capturing a dragon but capturing the speedy, elusive Night Flyer. Hiccup soon bonds with the wounded dragon, naming it Toothless, creating a makeshift fin for its wounded tail so it can fly again, and making a saddle and rope harness to he can fly it. He also learns much about the habits and traits of dragons, which makes him excel in his training sessions against dragons (with a variety of teens warriors in training -- including Astrid). But while he comes to believe killing dragons is wrong, this goes against everything the other Vikings believe -- especially his father. And there's something far bigger than the dragons out there...

How to Train Your Dragon is a nice little kids' movie. While we've seen this story many times before, the animation of the dragons (from two-headed belchers to fat crashing creatures) is a lot of fun, and the flying sequences are amazing. Baruchel's nerdy voice works far better here than it did in She's Out Of My League, though I wonder why only the adults have Scottish accents in this movie. This is a very pleasant film, a fun way to pass some time.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch


Vampire Weekend, Contra (XL Recordings, 2010)

They may be enjoying quite a bit of popularity these days -- their new album Contra debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts -- but Vampire Weekend remain something of an enigma. On one hand, their grasp of African and Caribbean rhythms is strong, and their ability to put these rhythms into a form that appeals to both pop and indie audiences is undeniable. On the other hand, when your image of white punk/reggae bands is defined by groups like The Clash, the multiple references in Vampire Weekend lyrics to their affluent Ivy League lifestyle seem jarring. The quartet are what they are, though, and Contra has more than enough quality to justify the attention of even the most militant listener.

Musically speaking, Contra picks up more or less where the band's self-titled debut left off. The new album has a bit more electronic effects and programming, but not in an intrusive way. Instead, Ezra Koenig, Rotsam Batmanglij, Chris Baio, and Christopher Tomson provide the same combination of tight musicianship and pop sensibility with a global perspective that made their first album work. The best track is the first single "Cousins," a sped-up, Africanized variant on Elvis Costello's "Pump It Up." "Holiday" and "Giving Up the Gun" are also strong upbeat numbers, and "Diplomat's Son" is some smooth reggae.

I could see why Contra could generate some sort of backlash, though. Some people accused Paul Simon of "cultural rape" when he recorded Graceland; I can only imagine what those people think about Vampire Weekend. This would be unfortunate, as the band are ultimately guilty of nothing more than creating catchy music with more imaginative (and arguably higher-quality) sources of inspiration than you generally hear on a pop recording. Vampire Weekend have a fun sound, and Contra improves on the band's first recording.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott




Did you know that rock and roll was often commercial? And that sex, drugs and booze were often part of the tours? These are some of the "revelations" that are part of The Runaways, a biopic about the first all-female punk band.

The Runaways quickly establishes that 1975 was a tough time for teenage indie women: Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) has a hard time buying a leather jacket or getting electric guitar lessons, while Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) is booed lip-syncing a David Bowie song at a high school performance. Things start looking up when producer Kim Fowley (a terrific Michael Shannon) likes Jett's idea of an all-female rock band. Fowley adds Cherie to the band as jailbait eye candy, trains them in everything from playing to dealing with hecklers, and sends them touring.

The heart of The Runaways is Cherie, the only character with any sort of background. Cherie lives in California with her sister Marie (Riley Keough) taking care of their alcoholic father. For her, the band represents an escape; but the sex, booze, and drugs -- plus fame, to the jealousy of her bandmates -- quickly become part of her life.

The acting in The Runaways is pretty good: Stewart's quiet brooding works very well for Joan Jett, while Dakota Fanning is terrific as a woman who goes from shy teen (nervous about singing "Cherry Bomb") to the self-destructive diva. Michael Shannon has the most fun as the producer who seems pretty abusive (continually insulting his band and hyping up their sexuality to increase sales) but is actually toughening them up for life as rock stars. Kudos to the actors playing the Runaways for performing all the songs in the movie themselves!

The problem with The Runaways is that if you remove the element of this being the first all-female rock band, it's the same story as most rock bands: tough beginning, then success and fame, then excess and downfall. The Runaways is enjoyable while it's on, but it's quite easy to forget minutes after leaving the theater.

Overall grade: C+
Reviewed by James Lynch



If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, what does it mean to beholders from different countries? This is the idea that's explored -- somewhat -- in the show Jessica Simpson: The Price of Beauty.

The premise of this show is pretty simple. Jessica Simpson, along with her friend Cacee Cobb and stylist Ken Paves, travels to different countries, finding out about what is considered beautiful in those countries and taking part in some of their beauty rituals. The first episode had the trip visiting Thailand; future episodes will feature visits to France, Mumbai, Uganda, Morocco, Japan, Brazil, and finally the United States.

Jessica Simpson is an interesting choice to host this show -- and I'm using the word "interesting" in the positive and negative sense of the word. Simpson has been famous for both her great looks and infamous for every deviation from that physical ideal, so she knows the perks and perils that come with an interest in physical beauty. But she's not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, and for a lot of Jessica Simpson: The Price of Beauty she comes across as a gawking tourist instead of explorer.

The show is, from the first episode, fairly superficial. In Thailand, for example, they reduce national beauty to three areas: pale skin (and a woman whose skin was destroyed by toxic makeup), Buddhist beliefs (since the country is mainly Buddhist; I didn't get the connection myself), and a tribe where necks elongated through neck rings are found attractive. There's very little history or discussion of these trends; just Jessica and pals talking to a few people, participating in native dress (they try on the neck rings, briefly) and customs (eating cooked insects), and repeatedly saying how beautiful and lovely everything is.

Jessica Simpson: The Price of Beauty is more reality show than documentary. To its credit, the show does keep an open mind, with Jessica and her companions listening and looking instead of comparing everything to their own standards. (I am curious to see how the show's approach works in the U.S.) In the end, though, this show is a famous and attractive toutist sightseeing.

Overall grade: C
Reviewed by James Lynch

Alex Chilton, 1950-2010

Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes 'round
They sing "I'm in love. What's that song?
I'm in love with that song."

The Replacements

Alex Chilton was born in 1950 in Memphis, Tenessee. While remaining a mostly conservative city, Memphis became the recording base of many prominent performers in the early years of rock and roll, including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Booker T. and the MG's. Chilton jumped into the music scene very early, joining his first group The Box Tops when he was fifteen. While he would become a legendary figure in small circles of music fans for his later work, Chilton's only real commercial success came with The Box Tops. His raspy vocals on "The Letter" helped make that song an international chart-topper in 1967; he may have been only 16, but he sounded very old for his years.

The Box Tops fizzled out in 1970, and after a brief stay in New York where he honed his guitar-playing skills, Chilton returned to Memphis and spent his time hanging out in Ardent Studios. There he met guitarist Chris Bell and drummer Jody Stephens, fresh from the band Rock City, along with a prominent local bass player named Andy Hummel. Bell and Chilton particularly saw eye-to-eye, sharing an interest in the more aggressive side of the British Invasion as well as soul and folk rock. Together they would form the group Big Star. Their 1972 debut album #1 Record, with nearly all the songs co-written and sung by Chilton and Bell, contained a number of stand-out songs. "When My Baby's Besdie Me" is a power pop classic, "Don't Lie to Me" is a screaming rocker, and "Thirteen" and "Watch the Sunrise" are irresistible acoustic ballads. In a perfect world, these songs would all be well-known staples of classic rock radio, like the work of many inferior acts from the same time period. However, their recording label Stax botched the distribution and the promotion, and the album fell through the cracks. The most well-known song from the album at this point is "On the Street," because Cheap Trick's cover of it was used as the theme song for That 70's Show.

After much infighting, Bell left the band, and the subsequent record Radio City was recorded as a trio with Chilton clearly in charge. Sonically this album went beyond the first album, bringing a certain edginess and uneasiness into the sound which proved to be quite effective -- at least for the few thousand people lucky enough to get their hands on a copy. The album contained another power pop classic in "September Gurls," while songs like "Life Is White," "Mod Lang," and "Daisy Glaze" are the compelling work of a talented group audibly struggling to hold things together. But yet again, the dynamics of the recording industry conspired against them. Chilton and Big Star had earned considerable critical praise and a very loyal cult following, but they had nothing at all to show for it.

If Radio City was the work of a group teetering on the edge, Third/Sister Lovers found Big Star, and especially Chilton, fallen over. Their record label was collapsing and taking them with it, and Chilton and Stephens (Hummel had left at this point as well) were cutting records while they could. They had no hope for getting an audience, so they went about things as though they would be the only listeners. While containing some positive songs like "Thank You Friends," Third/Sister Lovers is dominated by the harrowing dissonance of songs like "Kangaroo" and "Holocaust." I would argue that this album is not quite as good as its predecessors, and that Sam Phillips' album Omnipop is a higher overall quality example of the kind of album that happens when everything falls apart and the rules no longer apply. But it certainly has its strong moments, and served as a fitting finale for a band that deserved much better.

Somehow, the story didn't quite end there. Chilton moved to New Orleans and embarked on a very reclusive and low-key solo career, and Bell unfortunately died in a car accident in 1978, but Big Star's legacy only grew. Like The Velvet Underground before them, Big Star didn't sell many records but wound up leaving a disproportionally large mark on subsequent generations of musicians. R.E.M. have always cited them as a big influence, and bands like The Bangles and Cheap Trick have covered their songs. The Replacements even wrote and recorded a song called "Alex Chilton" -- ironically, you're much more likely to hear this song on the radio than any Big Star songs. Eventually Chilton would re-embrace his past, participating both in the occasional Box Tops reunion tour and in a revised Big Star with Jody Stephens and two members of The Posies. This quartet has toured fairly regularly since the early nineties, and recorded an album called In Space together in 2005. It's not quite of the same caliber as the earlier Big Star recordings, but it was good to hear Chilton singing again and sounding like he was enjoying himself. The band was set to play at the SXSW Festival this weekend, but sadly Alex Chilton suffered a fatal heart attack yesterday. He was 59.

It's tough to do justice to a man whose body of work has never been done justice among mainstream rock audiences. The fact that you're still more likely to hear Foghat than Big Star on classic rock radio speaks mouthfuls about the inadequacy of the format. But we don't need radio to find out about anything anymore. I couldn't find any footage of the classic Big Star line-up on YouTube, but people have posted many of the recordings. #1 Record and Radio City are packaged as one CD these days, and I'd definitely consider that required listening. A box set was released last year as well. And to be fair, The Box Tops were a good band too. "The Letter" is certainly memorable, and "Cry Like a Baby" and "Soul Deep" were decent singles as well.

Children by the million may have never really sung for Alex Chilton, but I can't argue with anybody who's in love with his songs.

"The Letter"

The studio version of "When My Baby's Beside Me"

A live performance of "September Gurls" from last year



A true classic, Seven Samurai has gotten the treatment it deserves on dvd as part of the Criterion Collection.

In 1586 Japan, a village of peasant farmers fears for its survival. A large group of bandits have raided them before and plan to return once the barley has been harvested so there's something to steal. The fearful peasants turn to the ancient leader Gusaku (Kokuten Kodo), who sends them into a large town to hire samurai willing to defend them in exchange for rice and a place to sleep. (When told samurai will not work for mere, food, Gusaku responds, "Find hungry samurai.")

After innumerable disappointments and humiliations, the peasants find seven samurai to help them. This diverse group of warriors includes: Kambei (Takashi Shimada), an elderly veteran who's tired of fighting; Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), a young and idealistis samurai; Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), a warrior interest in his skill with a sword; and Kikuchiro (Toshiro Mifune), a loud and comic man who may not even be a samurai but has his uses.

When the samurai arrive at the village, preparation begins for the confrontation with the bandits (including their three muskets, which may foreshadow how guns ended the samurai tradition), from training the peasants to altering the town for defense. This period includes everything from romance to prejudice to courage and cowardice. And then there's the final defense of the town, in which waves of bandits attack the samurai and peasants.

Seven Samurai is one of those legendary movies that deserves its exalted status. This is an epic work that encompasses everything from excitement and honor to the simplicity of nature and the beauty and tragedy of life. The acting is great, the cinematography is wonderful, and long before the days of special effects and cgi this movie captured the chaos and fast of battle.

A movie of this stature deserves extended extras -- and this edition of Seven Samurai delivers. The movie itself has a crisp picture and very good sound, spread over two dvds. A third disc includes a documentary on the movie's influences and an interview with Kurosawa. Finally there's a booklet that has essays on the movie, stills from the movie, and thoughts from Toshiro Mifune on the movie. Seven Samurai is a truly extraordinary movie, and the extras here are a great way to delve deeper into what went into this movie.

Overall grade: A+
Reviewed by James Lynch


Plenty of romantic comedies feature mediocre-looking guys who somehow wind up with absolutely beautiful women. When this is formalized as the plot of a rom-com, can it sustain a movie? She's Out of My League proves that, in this case, the answer is no.

Kirk (Jay Baruchel) is a nice loser. He wants to be a pilot but is stuck working airport security; he's also whiny, clumsy, goofy-looking and suffering from low self esteen. Kirk is hung up on his ex-girlfriend Marnie (Lindsay Sloane), an irritating woman who's still very tight with Kirk's family -- as is her new boyfriend Ron (Hayes MacArthur). Kirk spends his free time with his friend, fellow airport employees: sarcastic Stainer (T.J. Miller), pudgy optimist Devon (Nate Torrence), and good-lucking guy Jack (Mike Vogel).

When beautiful Molly (Alice Eve) leaves her iPhone behind at the airport, Kirk returns it to her --and somehow this leads to the two of them dating. Molly seems absolutely perfect -- friendly, funny, beautiful, successful, even a hockey fan -- but everyone else tells Kirk it won't work Kirk's family thinks she might be a prostitute; Kirk's friends say she's a 10 and he's a 6, and that gap can't be overcome; and Molly's ex-boyfriend Cam (Geoff Stults) is a handsome jet pilot who wants Molly back and (for reasons never explained) thinks Kirk is her gay friend.

There's absolutely nothing original in She's Out of My League -- and very little that's funny. A romantic comedy should have appealing leads, but here Jay Baruchel spends the movie being a nice-but-annoying loser, while Alice Eve giggles sweetly from start to finish. The supporting cast is equally one dimensional (and Lindsay Sloane has the truly thankless role of the evil ex-girlfriend who lacks any redeeming qualities). She's Out of My League tries to be part of the crude-but-sweet series of successful rom-coms, but all this offers is a lot of cursing and two gross-out gags that go nowhere. And Kirk's endless series of misfortunes -- the most to happen to a character since Meet the Parents -- gets old very quickly. There are a few small laughs here and there, but She's Out of My League is neither funny enough nor romantic enough to bother seeing.

Overall grade: D
Reviewed by James Lynch


Social Distortion, GREATEST HITS

Social Distortion has been making punk music since the late 1970s, so a collection of music off their various albums was inevitable. Greatest Hits collects several of their songs, providing a nice introduction to the band for new fans -- and a few problems for longtime fans.

Led by lead vocalist Mike Ness -- the only member of the band from its start to the present -- Greatest Hits shows raucous energy from start to finish. Ness' voice growls through every song, supported by loud electric guitars and smashing drums. This punk sound is melded, quite well, with more introspective songs, as the band tackles living each day like it's one's last ("Reach for the Sky") and the mistakes of one's youth ("Story of My Life") and admitting errors. ("I Was Wrong.") And the band does an amazingly energetic cover of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire."

However, a greatest hits collection should offer something more than just the same songs on the albums -- and here Greatest Hits falls short. There are no live tracks, only one new song ("Far Behind"), no lyrics, and only 11 songs for a band that's been around over 20 years! This album isn't as much a greatest songs collection as an introduction to the band. The songs here are great, and anyone interested in the band will find this a good place to start, but Greatest Hits by Social Distortion should have had included a lot more.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch



A portrait of grief, A Single Man is a look at one person's difficult position at a very different time in history.

George Falconer (Colin Firth) has been in a prolonged state of stasis. An Englishman living in California and teaching literature at college in November 1962, George is still reeling from the death of his partner Jimmy (Matthew Goode) eight months ago in a car accident. Still closeted, though he lived with Jimmy, George feels like he's going through the motions of life. Jimmy's day involves time with his partying friend Charley (Julianne Moore), a run-in with a gigilo Carlos (Jon Kortajarena), and the student Kenny (Nicholas Hoult) who may or may not be flirting with George. And George is putting his affairs in order and bringing a gun with him...

A Single Man is a profoundly personal film. Rather than lecturing on gay rights or commenting on history (the Cuban missile crisis is a footnote in the background of George's troubles), this movie is all about George and his thoughts as he moves through his world.

Colin Firth is wonderful in the lead role. He beautifully makes George a man who seems to say and do all the right things to get by, yet who feels the need for more. When George begins talking with his students about the fear of the minority, you can feel him trying to reach out while maintaining his secret. The rest of the cast is solid, yet there to support Firth. Director Tim Ford has a delicate touch with Firth's portrayal, though I would have liked less extreme close-ups to reflect the character's state of mind. All in all, A Single Man is a very moving and thoughtful movie experience.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch


Landon Austin- Waitin'

I know many of our readers like to discover new music, so whenever an artist wants to share some music wih us, I am all for it. Songwriter Landon Austin spotted one of our blog posts, and wanted to share a track. I found this about the artist:

Landon Austin (born August 8, 1988) is an American guitarist and singer-songwriter originally from Dallas, Texas. In January of 2008 Landon became a top three finalist in the National Doritos Crash the Super Bowl Competition. Austin was then flown to L.A. to record a music video for his original song "Waitin.'" Landon currently is preparing for the release of his new CD which is due to release on iTunes Christmas 2008!

I enjoyed the track, and you can take a listen too. Thanks, Landon, and keep 'em comin'!

Landon Austin


String Sisters, Live (Compass Redords, 2009)

String Sisters are a folk supergroup of sorts, originally established as part of a program at the 1998 Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow. The group consists of six women prominent in the Celtic and Nordic fiddling traditions. Founder Catriona MacDonald comes from the Shetland Islands, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh of the band Altan is from Ireland, Annbjørg Lien represents Norway, Emma Härdelin of the groups Garmarna and Triakel represents Sweden, and Liz Knowles and Liz Carroll represent the Irish fiddling tradition in America. The "sisters" became more active as a group in the second half of the last decade, and their album Live is taken from a concert they performed together in Norway in 2005 with the help of four accompanists. I consider myself a fan of four of the six people involved, so picking this CD up was a no-brainer for me.

Unfortunately, the idea looked a lot better on paper than it sounds in practice. With this many fiddlers, the jigs and reels lose their tightness. Furthermore, at times it sounds like the tunes were selected because they were easy enough for all six fiddlers to pick up quickly, not because they showcase the individual performers at their best. Ní Maonaogh and Härdelin flavor the proceedings with songs, and Lien does a solo on the hardanger fiddle, but otherwise the opportunities for any of the performers to shine are limited, and nothing on Live sticks out as being particularly memorable. Some duets or trios might have allowed the fiddlers to engage in more direct collaboration and interplay, but none of that was forthcoming, either.

A good Irish barroom session involves plenty of spontaneity. Live could really have used some of that. String Sisters have a lot of collective talent, but in this case the whole is much less than the sum of the collective parts. Perhaps this worked better in person, but on disc the performance just sounds watered down to me. The group has been touring more lately, and I hope they're gelling a lot better now than they did when this concert was recorded.

Overall grade: C

reviewed by Scott

"Rumble thy Bellyful"