She & Him, Volume Two (Merge Records, 2010)

Singer/pianist Zooey Deschanel and multi-instrumentalist/producer M. Ward first paired up as She & Him in 2008. Volume One was a pleasant, well-received collection of songs heavily rooted in the American side of the pop music of the early sixties. Deschannel may not have a superior voice, but the same endearing qualities that work for her as an actress also work for her as a singer. Now Deschanel and Ward are back with Volume Two which, for better or worse, is nearly identical to its predecessor.

On one hand, She & Him demonstrate that there's enough substance to the style of female-centered pop songs of the early to mid sixties (think Phil Specter's production and Carole King's songwriting) that the approach can be embraced nearly fifty years later and still sound fresh. If anything, their sound is a welcome alternative to the more electronic and less innocent songs that have dominated the pop charts for a while. Having said that, though, Volume Two will sound a little too familiar to anybody who's heard Volume One. Deschanel's songs all have a catchy charm to them, but they blend together after a while. Nothing on Volume Two really stuck with me.

Volume Two is a nice enough record. I suppose people who really enjoyed She & Him's first record will like this as well, even if they know exactly what to expect. Safe predictability isn't always a good thing, though.

Overall grade: B-

reviewed by Scott

"In The Sun"

Jimi Hendrix, Valleys of Neptune (Experience Hendrix, 2010)

As the most celebrated instrumentalist in the history of rock, Jimi Hendrix needs very little along the lines of introduction. The latter portion of his musical career was more than a little bit enigmatic, however. His 1968 double LP Electric Ladyland, generally regarded as his creative apex, was the last studio album released during his lifetime. This does not mean he spent very little time in the recording studio over the last two years of his life; in fact, the opposite is true. The problem is that he left behind a lot of unreleased recordings, and his intentions for them remained vague. Three albums were released posthumously, but that still left quite a bit of unreleased material, and bootleggers had a field day with the leftovers. It may have taken forty years, but the Hendrix estate has obtained full control of the unreleased recordings, and is making a serious effort to get these recordings out to the public in a coherent manner. The first fruit of their labors is Valleys of Neptune, released in March.

Valleys of Neptune consists primarily of Hendrix's first ventures back into the studio after Electric Ladyland, with most of the recordings coming from the winter and spring of 1969. These recordings are noteworthy as they include the final recordings of the classic Jimi Hendrix Experience trio. Hendrix and bassist Noel Redding had fallen out, and Hendrix would eventually replace Redding with old friend Billy Cox while retaining the services of drummer Mitch Mitchell. Four of the recordings feature Cox as the bass player, including the title song. The album does contain a few familiar songs. "Stone Free" was the B-side of an early single, but Hendrix recorded an edgier version in 1969 for possible use as an A-side. A super version of "Fire," originally off of 1967's Are You Experienced?, is included as well; Hendrix had lengthened the guitar solo for live performances, and the Experience worked through the slightly altered arrangement in the studio between shows.

Otherwise, the new material shows Hendrix heading in a more bluesy and much less psychedelic direction. Hendrix scales back the amplifier gimmickry, focusing more purely on his guitar-playing technique. Hendrix was keenly aware of the degree to which top British guitarists like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck had embraced the blues, and on the recordings here he seems like he was motivated to respond musically. There are no classics like "Purple Haze" or "Voodoo Chile" here, but the music is solid, and of course the guitar-playing is phenomenal. Tracks like "Hear My Train A Comin'" and "Lover Man" show that Hendrix was well ahead of his peers in terms of technique. Hendrix even beats Clapton at his own game, with a scorching seven-minute instrumental cover of "Sunshine of Your Love."

I'm usually a bit leery of posthumous releases. Unless the material was recorded shortly before the person's death, then the person would have most likely released the tracks if he thought they were good enough. Jimi Hendrix recorded so much material that he didn't live to see released, though, that it's hard to figure out what exactly he was planning. At any rate, there's some strong, bluesy rock on Valley of Neptune that fans of Hendrix will want to hear. Forty years later, it still sounds remarkably fresh.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

"Valleys of Neptune"



Back when the Soviet Union was the Evil Empire, there were lots of movies about the evil Russians out to destroy America. This type of simplistic good-vs.evil thriller is back with Salt, a very mediocre action movie.

Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is an undercover agent with the C.I.A. She has a loving husband, Mike Krause (August Diehl), a scientist who studies insects. She gets along with her supervisor Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber). And, apart from her being caught in North Korea and swapped for someone else two years before the movie's main action, that's all we know about her.

Some new information is offered by Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski), a Russian defector who turns himself in to the C.I.A. He says there's a Russian sleeper agent who will kill the Russian leader, in New York for a state funeral, the following day. And he says the name of this agent is Evelyn Salt. Salt, fearing that if her cover has been compromised then her husband is in danger, runs. Agent Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) suspects Orlov was telling the truth, but Winter maintains her innocence. And the chase is on!

Salt feels like two movies strung together. In the first half of the movie Salt spends most of the time fleeing: on foot, on a motorcycle, even hopping along the tops of trucks speeding along the highway. About halfway through the movie, about the same time she dyes her hair, Salt goes on the offensive, able to defeat just about everyone in her path with guns, karate, and numerous flying kicks. Comparisons to Jason Bourne and James Bond are quite appropriate.

Those comparisons don't work for the quality of Salt. None of these characters have any depth or real personality (a pity, as Jolie and Schrieber are very good actors), and the action isn't all that exciting. Worse, Salt employs several cliches like slow-motion and flashbacks -- and uses them often. And the movie's ending feels like someone didn't know how to wrap this up and simply stopped writing. While Salt isn't terrible, it isn't terribly entertaining either.

Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch



Family is tricky -- and even more when it becomes unexpectedly expanded. The Kids Are All Right, written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko, is a both amusing and dramatic take on the joys and challenges of parenthood and marriage.

Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) are a long-married pair who are quite different. Nic is a doctor, a very serious professional. Jules is a bit dazed -- she could easily be a hippy -- and about to start her latest business venture of landscaping. Their 18-year-old daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska) is a few months away from leaving for college, while their 15-year old son Laser (Josh Hutcherson) spends most of his time with his delinquent buddy Clay (Eddie Hassell).

The big change to the family comes when Mia and Laser decide to contact their moms' sperm donor. Paul (Mark Ruffalo) seems like a nice guy: a restaurant owner, an organic gardener, casual in his relationships with women and about life in general. Paul hits it off with Mia and Laser, and the kids start spending more time with him. This has Nic and Jules feeling threatened, yet they don't want to turn Paul away and hurt their kids. But his presence soon has unexpected consequences, putting a lot of stress on the kids and the parents.

Far from lecturing about gay rights or biological vs. adoptive parents, The Kids Are All Right is about people and relationships. Nic and Jules feel like a real couple, whether supporting each other or bringing up old issues. The teenage kids may be filling two broad categories -- the too-serious student and the kid getting in trouble -- but they're not perfect or wise beyond their years. And Paul is just a relaxed guy suddenly feeling like a father. All the acting here is excellent.

Did I mention that this movie is also pretty funny? There's a lot of comedy here, from Jules' almost-dazed rambling to the kids asking too-personal questions of the parents. This isn't random jokes, but situational humor that's as much a part of the story as the drama. The Kids Are All Right is an excellent movie: thoughtful, amusing, dramatic, and ultimately entertaining.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch


Mike Doughty, Sad Man Happy Man (ATO Records, 2009)

New York resident Mike Doughty has been something of an enigmatic figure. The former Soul Coughing singer/guitarist can be very good when he wants, to which plenty of songs on his 2005 CD Haughty Melodic can attest. Consistency is not one of his strengths, though. His 2008 album, Golden Delicious, was muddled and messy. He bounced back fairly quickly this past year, though, with a new album called Sad Man Happy Man that generally sees him back in good form.

For this album Doughty scaled back the arrangements a bit, focusing a bit more on his acoustic guitar. Most of the songs have bass and drums, and some feature a cello played by Doughty's long-time bassist Andrew "Scrap" Livingston, but that's mostly it. As usual, the lyrics tend towards spontaneity and stream-of-consciousness, often with allusions to other people's songs. His rap on "(He's Got The) Whole World (In His Hands)" typifies his style. But for some reason the style works considerably better this time around than it did on Golden Delicious. The song "(You Should Be) Doubly (Gratified)" is particularly strong, even if the title is a bit too parenthetical. Doughty's guitar playing has noticeably improved, too, and Doughty maintains a strong energy level throughout the album.

I suppose you could argue that Mike Doughty should take more time making his albums, focusing on his best songwriting ideas and letting them develop more fully while discarding the weaker ideas, and then his albums would be more consistently strong. That just doesn't seem to be how he operates, though. He is what he is, but sometimes that translates into some good music. Thankfully, Sad Man Happy Man has enough good music to justify the purchase.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

"(You Should Be) Doubly (Gratified)"


Who knew storage could lead to an all-out war? The Knights of the Dinner Table collection The Bag Wars Saga collects the varied strips revolving around a Bag of Holding (for those non-Dungeons & Dragons players, a Bag of Holding is a magical device capable of holding massive amounts without getting full or heavy), adding new material and modifying the original work to make a cohesive story.

In this story, collected from several periods in the KODT issues, the Knights (rules-lawyer Brian playing mage Black Lotus; whiny Bob playing thief Knuckles VI; jock Dave playing warrior El Ravager -- with his Hackmaster +12 sword; Sara playing diplomatic cleric Justina) have gone from solo adventurers to military leaders, amassing an army to kill the dragon Rhautghut ("Rot Gut"). When the dragon is slain, gamemaster B.A. explains that Rot Gut kept all his treasure in a Bag of Hefty Capacity, small and easily moved. Brian, cheap as always, decides to dodge paying their army by getting the army, led by Sergeant Barringer, to enter the bag, then simply not letting them out. Brian then figures the best way to avoid getting penalties for their one million gold pieces in dragon loot is to spend it all, buying everything they could ever want, and storing it in the Bag. (The Bag Wars Saga contains several long lists of items.)

When the Knights eventually need something from the Bag, they make a discovery: Sergeant Barringer and his men are still alive, and they used the Knights' goods to create a fortress and large weaponry. (Several characters who look in the bag get nailed in the face by a catapult.) What follows is a long saga where the Knights engage in all-out wars (Sara: "There was a third war??!! How'd I miss that one?") to try and get their goods back. Along the way are a mysterious HackMaster item called the Jackson Document, some of the worst miniatures ever ("He's got two left hands and no face"), the proper way to treat NPCs, and how to dispose of troll parts.

The Bag Wars Saga is, pardon the phrase, a mixed bag. Since the Knights are, by definition, a party of four adventurers, it's strange to see them spending so much time with an army under their belt, planning complex military maneuvers instead of dungeon-crawling. All the typical KODT humor is still here, though, from Brian's constant rules-lawyering to in-group squabbles and planning (at Tic Tac Taco) to coming up with every loophole possible to get their own way. "Lotus' Journal" gives Brian's character's view of the epic struggle ("We will go in and take back what is OURS -- by FORCE!! Every last man in Barringer's Bag will be put to the sword abd made to pay dearly... Addendum: Add merchant who sold us fake map to list of asses to kick") and there's both a preview "Cries from the Attic" explaining what changes and additions were made, and a "Bag Wurld Cast of Characters" giving the history of the important figures here. The Bag Wars aren't my favorite KODT storyline, but The Bag Wars Saga is still a pretty funny read.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch

One eskimO (Shangri-La Music, 2009)

London singer Kristian Leontiou had some decent success as a solo artist, scoring a UK top 10 single in 2004 and a top 20 hit with the follow-up. But he quickly became disillusioned with the direction his career was taking, and grew tired of tailoring his work to other people's expectations. After a hiatus of a few years, Leontiou has re-emerged as the singer of the group One eskimO, also consisting of Pete Rinaldi on guitar, Jamie Sefton on bass and horns, and Adam Falkner on drums. They released their self-titled debut CD in 2009.

Given Leontiou's history, you might expect One eskimO to be a radical departure from standard pop fare, but that is not the case. Leontiou and his band are perfectly happy making melodic, catchy music, as long as they're allowed to do it on their own terms. And it doesn't take more than one listen to the album to realize that their musical instincts are perfectly sound. The single "Kandi" is first-rate soul, featuring some fine acoustic guitar playing evocative of Beth Orton's "She Cries Your Name" and a very clever a use of a vocal sample. The other really good song on the album is the gospel-tinged closer "Amazing," which manages to be spiritual, romantic, and energetic all at the same time. The edgy "Givin Up" and the inspirational ballad "Chosen One" are particularly strong tracks as well. Most of the rest of the album leans to the quiet side; this might not please everybody, but the songs are all of at least decent quality.

Overall the One eskimO sound is fairly similar to that of Scottish blue-eyed soul singer Paulo Nutini (who actually has a co-writing credit on "Amazing"). Kristian Leontiou doesn't have quite as good a voice or the same kind of charm as Nutini, but he and One eskimO more than make up for it with superior songwriting and production. One eskimO is a finely crafted pop/soul record. It speaks mouthfuls about the current state of the industry that Kristian Leontiou had to withdraw from the music establishment and completely re-start his career in order to make a recording that ought to have fairly broad appeal.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott



Chloe, a sexually tense drama, explores issues of fidelity, connection, and desire. Director Atom Egoyan uses the movie to explore what lurks beneath the surface of society, and even of people's intentions, and how it can rise and consume.

Catherine Stewart (Julianne Moore) should have a good life. She has a rewarding job as a gynecologist, her good-looking husband David (Liam Neeson) is a professor of classical music and opera, and her teenage son Michael (Max Thieriot) is doing better in therapy after some unspecified incident. Catherine has a beautiful house, lots of friends -- and suspicions. Catherine notices David flirting with almost every woman he meets ("I'm just being friendly," he answers), and his missing a plane home for his birthday increases Catherine's suspicions, especially after finding a message from a young female student to him the next day.

What's a concerned wife to do? Catherine comes up with an unusual plan. She hires Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), a streetwalker Catherine sees working by her office, to flirt with David, see if and how he responds, and then report what happens back to Catherine. Chloe is fine with this, treating it like just another business proposition. Things quickly get complicated, as Chloe goes way beyond what Catherine asked her to do with David, Chloe becomes more involved in Catherine's life, and Catherine keeps hiring Chloe even after learning what she said she wanted to find out.

While sexuality is a very large part of Chloe, this movie is more about the passions, or lack thereof, of the various characters. Moore makes Catherine a conflicted and suspicious woman, someone out to discover the truth but not willing to stop once she finds it. As for Sevigny, her character is, first and foremost, manipulative. She rattles off very explicit details of her tryst with a bored voice, yet she keeps drawing Catherine along into her world. Sevigny delivers a nice performance, keeping her character from becoming either a selfish gold digger or a streetwalker with a heart of gold. Liam Neeson has the least to do, spending most of the movie as a cipher: Is he cheating, or is Catherine imagining it as she wades through a world filled with beautiful young women.

The plot of Chloe goes overboard towards the end, as tensions and discoveries get blown up into psycho-obsessiveness, but until then this is an intriguing movie. Chloe uses the possibility of cheating as the opening for what people lack, want, and wind up needing from their partners and for themselves. This movie is very explicit -- both verbally and visually -- but at its core Chloe is about people discovering what they can't even admit they're looking for.

(Dvd extras are standard: interviews with the cast, plus movie commentaries.)

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch



Where do dreams end and reality begin? This is one of the questions of Inception, a movie written and directed by Christopher that blends sci-fi, drama, psychology and the famous One Last Job.

Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) has a unique skill: With technology, he can enter the dreams of a person he's wired to and discover their secrets. With his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Cobb hires himself out for corporate espionage. But Cobb can't return to the United States after the death of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), leaving him missing his two young children. Both Cobb and Arthur are on the run from a giant corporation. And Mal keeps showing up in Cobb's work, sabotaging him.

When Cobb and Arthur do a job for Saito (Ken Watanabe), he has a harder job for them: inception, planting an idea in someone's head so they think it's their own and can't help but act on it. Saito's target is Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy), heir to his father's enormous energy company. And Saito promises if the job is completed successfully, Cobb can return to the U.S. and his family. However, only Cobb thinks inception is possible.

So Cobb puts together a team to create a three-leveled dream. Ariadne (Ellen Page) is the architect, the person designing the dreams. Eames (Tom Hardy) is the "forger," a master at impersonation within dreams. And Yusuf (Dileep Rao) is the chemist whose chemicals will enable them to stay in the dream. Pretty soon they're all heading into dreams within dreams, dodging the armed security that comes from Saito's subsconscious and dealing with ever-changing laws of physics.

The plot of Inception has pretty familiar elements: the criminal doing one more job for the sake of his family; gunfights, fist-fights, and car chases; and a character dealing with the loss of a spouse. Inception manages to rise above the familiar, though, thanks to some amazing visual sequences and tight direction. The dream sequences are extraordinary, unreal yet still adhering to some well-established rules (unlike The Matrix). Nolan even manages to keep three dreams running simultaneously, at different speeds, without becoming confusing or convoluted. Most of the acting is focused on DiCaprio's Cobb, who tries to ignore his demons to complete the job. The other actors are all good, and the story is solid (though it's unclear why Ariadne is the only one worried about Cobb's obsession with Mal when everyone else has worked with him longer and should know the danger Mal poses). Inception is a sci-fi movie that lays out and adheres to its own rules, and between the direction, visuals, and action, it's a very good wild ride.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch



There's a certain fun silliness to the chop-sockey karate movies, with their physics-defying maneuvers, varied fighting styles, and powerful attacks. The feel of these flicks is captured in Kung Fu Fighting, a simple and enjoyable card game from Slugfest Games.

The goal of Kung Fu Fighting is very simple: Be the last fighter standing. Each fighter starts with a Player Template with 20 Chi (think hit points), plus a space for one Weapon and one Stance. Each player starts with seven cards, and can discard and draw back to seven at the start of their turn. On their turn they can play and/or discard a Stance, play and/or discard a Weapon, play cards to regain lost Chi, and, most importantly, make an attack against an opponent. An attack can be made with an attack card (the most common are "Punch!" and "Kick!") and a player can defend with a card that reduces damage or ignores the attack. Some weapons give a bonus to defense or are discarded after use; some attacks make a player discard a Weapon or Stance; Stances give a bonus to some Modifiers and attack types, plus have bonuses against one other Stance; and one or multiple non-identical modifiers (like "Spinning!" or "Running Up the Wall!") can be added to an attack to increase its damage. If an opponent's Chi is reduced to zero by an attack, they're knocked out and gone from the game.

It's appropriate that Kung Fu Fighting is from Slugfest Games, because this game is a slugfest: attack, block, and knock out your opponent before they do the same to you. Like the karate movies this is based on (the subtitle in the rules is "Martial Arts Brawling Hong Kong China Style!") it's ridiculous and fun. Every card name ends in an exclamation point, and while many are straightforward blocks and attacks, some have more flamboyant names: "When Done Right, None Can Defend!" and "Your Kung Fu Is Weak!"

The real fun of Kung Fu Fighting comes from the combos you can put together. A simple "Kick!" isn't enough? Make it an Invincible Spinning Running Up the Wall Wild Kick! (And if you're using the Drunken Stance, you get +3 to Wild and +3 to Spinning -- plus +2 damage if your opponent is using the Dragon Stance!) This isn't as elaborate as many other card games (such as the similarly-themed Shadowfist), but that's part of the fun of Kung Fu Fighting. This is a good game to play when you want to kick back (pun somewhat intended) and relax with the fury of mighty martial arts.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch



One of the nicer trends in kids' animated movies is that, more and more, these movies have as much for adults as for children. Despicable Me had the promise of combining kids' fun with a darker sense of humor -- but lost this potential grown-up element pretty quickly.

Gru (Steve Carell) seems the perfect villain: menacing German-Russian-something accent; long dark jacket; bald head, pointy, nose, and hunched posture; massive vehicles that spew pollution; house towering menacingly over those of his neighbors. Yet Gru can't seem to get any respect (the cute yellow minions that all sound like they've been sucking helium don't help), the Bank of Evil won't loan him money, and newcomer Vector (Jason Segel) is younger and pulled off a great crime. So Gru, with his minions and elderly henchman Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), comes up with the greatest crime ever: Steal the moon!

Unfortunately, the shrink ray Gru needs is stolen by Vector, and the way to get is back is, of all things, a trio of young orphans. Margo (Miranda Cosgrove) is cautious, even cynical, about Gru; Edith (Dana Gaier) has a slightly dark side; and young Agnes (Else Fisher) is the designated cute one, complete with a unicorn obsession. Will they melt Gru's heart? Or will Gru remain truly... despicable?

The early part of Despicable Me has some truly lovely dark humor, from Gru's home decor (lots of stuffed animals, weaponry all over the place) to his massive metallic vehicles that no one seems to notice driving down the street. Pretty soon the kids, as Dr. Nefario points out, are a distraction -- to the movie. The cuteness factor soon overwhelms the movie, turning this into just another kids' movie with lots of aaaawwww moments -- and less laughs.

Despicable Me is a nice movie, but if it had kept its nasty streak it could have been far above average. The animation is good, Carrel's voice (well, accent) is fine, even the minions are cute -- but in the end this one aims its sights squarely at the kids, leaving the adults wanting more.

Overall grade: C
Reviewed by James Lynch

Peter Gabriel, Scratch My Back (RealWorld, 2010)

From his start as the original singer of Genesis over forty years ago, Peter Gabriel has defied categorization and simple expectations.  With Scratch My Back, his first album in eight years, Gabriel has put a new twist on the concept of a covers album -- he covers a number of different performers, and these performers will each in turn cover one of his songs for an album called I'll Scratch Yours.  Adding to his own challenge, Gabriel broke from his usual musical style to make this album accompanied not by a band, but by a piano and an orchestra.

Unfortunately, Gabriel's arranging and singing on Scratch My Back don't always match his ambition.  The tone for the album is set in a negative way with the first two songs, David Bowie's "Heroes" and Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble."  Gabriel tries to calm both these songs down, but winds up sucking the life out of them in the process.  Arcade Fire's "My Body Is a Cage" is badly overwrought, and Gabriel's voice fails him when he tries to be quiet and delicate, as on Radiohead's "Street Spirit (Fade Out)."  Thankfully, though, the album does have some strong moments.  Songs like "Mirror Ball" (Elbow), "The Book of Love" (The Magnetic Fields) and "The Power of Your Heart" (Lou Reed) effectively bring out Gabriel's romantic side in a way that doesn't often come out in Gabriel's own writing ("In Your Eyes" being the obvious exception).  The prescient "Listening Wind" is even more relevant now than it was when Talking Heads first recorded it in 1980, and Gabriel's interpretation brings the song squarely into the present.  (I kind of doubt that the rest of Talking Heads will be joining David Byrne for his contribution to I'll Scratch Yours, but I guess we'll find out.)  Regina Spektor's intriguingly cryptic "Après Moi" is something of a pleasant surprise as well.

Peter Gabriel has built an excellent, highly enviable career out of taking chances.  He overreaches a bit on Scratch My Back, though, and winds up missing more often than he hits.  The effort certainly doesn't diminish Gabriel's well-earned reputation, though, and I'm still very curious to hear how I'll Scratch Yours turns out.

Overall grade: C+

reviewed by Scott

a live performance of "The Book of Love"


Kylie Minogue, APHRODITE

The goddess Aphrodite is the Greek deity of love and beauty. The album Aphrodite by Australian pop star Kylie Minogue is her latest collection of fluffy dance tunes for clubs.

"What's the point of living if you don't want to dance?" This line from Kylie could cover her musical career, and it's a fine summary for Aphrodite. This album has the synthesizers going full blast as Kylie moves from one upbeat, feel-good song to another through the album. Song after song is about love, romance, and the dance floor. (The two exceptions are the willing-self delusion song "Evething Is Beautiful" and the possibly autobiographical title track: "Can you feel me in the stereo... it's the truth/it's a fact/I was gone/now I'm back.")

Aphrodite is occasionally enjoyable fluff. Kylie has a nice voice, if sometimes it tries to sound more cute than passionate. The lyrics are certainly nothing special (though not as painful as on Kylie's last album X) and the songs are occasionally decent and very forgettable. If you're having a party and want to get people dancing or have something light in the background, Aphrodite may be what you need; overall, though, it's unimpressive.

Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch


Back in the 1980s there was a limited series from Marvel Comics called Secret Wars, where several heroes and villains were transported to an alien world for the sole purpose of fighting to the death. Subtract super powers, include the most famous hunting aliens in movies, add lots of guns, and you have Predators.

With an opening reminiscent of Lost, a mercenary (Adrien Brody) finds himself in freefall, frantically trying to deploy his parachute before crashing. He soon meets several other parachuters in the jungle. These characters have no idea how they got there or why, but they're all killers: female sniper Isabelle (Alice Braga), a redneck prisoner (Walton Goggins), a member of the Mexican cartel (Danny Trejo), a Yakuza member (Louis Ozawa Changchien), and assorted military personnel. (The odd exception is Edwin (Topher Grace), a nervous doctor.) Following initial mistrust, the eight characters decide to work together, and they soon discover that they're not on Earth. Fortunately, all of them are well armed. Unfortunately, they're being hunted.

If you've seen Predator or Predator 2, you'll recognize the predator's infrared view, mimicry of people's voices, near-invisibility, and shoulder-mounted energy weapons. If you haven't seen these movies, suffice it to say that the aliens are after worthy sport.

Unfortunately, Predators isn't that worthy of a movie. The characters are all one dimensional (Goggins gets the most laughs and attention just for being disgusting -- and not as generic as the rest). Brody goes through the movie with a low, earnest voice that sounds like a bad Batman impression; between this and Splice it's hard to believe he was in The Pianist. As for the action, there are few surprises and not all that much excitement; the topography of the planet seems to change just to suit the next action sequence. Predators is full of cliches and seldom rises above them.

Overall grade: D
Reviewed by James Lynch



Olivia Munn is the current reigning geek goddess. She hosts the electronics/video game show Attack of the Show, she appeared in Iron Man 2 and on several magazine covers, and she's been at comic book conventions dressed as everyone from Chun-Li to Slave Leia to Wonder Woman. Suck It, Wonder Woman! The Misadventures of a Hollywood Geek is a collection of her writings. "Ramblings" would be more accurate, both in subjects and tone.

There are three types of essays here. First, we learn a lot about Munn's childhood; in summary, it was rough and she was an outsider, teased and tormented by other kids. Second, we learn about her exploits, good and bad, in Hollywood: a disastrous photo shoot for Playboy, her love of pie and subsequent giant pie jump (shown below), horrible people and wonderful people. Third, there are comedy routines, from semi-serious dating tips to "Princess Leia Tweets Star Wars" to "How to Make Love Like a Zombie." There are also fan art of Munn, her dressed as "A Gallery of Great Women" (from Betsy Ross to Jayna from the Wonder Twins -- probably the only time those two will be on the same list), and a photo of her at the bottom right of the pages, making Suck It, Wonder Woman! a flipbook.

This could be the most colloquial book ever written; it really feels like Munn is chatting instead of writing. This also gives Suck It, Wonder Woman! a fairly amateurish feel (and the typos don't help here either). Sometimes Munn is fairly funny, while other times she's just complaining and cursing a lot. There's no great insight into either geek culture (she loves 'em) or Hollywood (plenty of scumbags out there). On Attack of the Show Olivia Munn can be pretty cool sometimes and awkward at other times -- and that is very true for Suck It Wonder Woman!

Overall grade: C
Reviewed by James Lynch


Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Beat the Devil's Tattoo (Vagrant, 2010)

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club first came to my attention nearly ten years ago with their debut single "Love Burns". Their layers of feedback-drenched guitars, reminiscent of The Jesus and Mary Chain but more melodic, made a lasting favorable impression with me. Their lyrics can be hard to get sometimes, but good, aggressive rock and roll is not always easy to come by, and I've willingly cut them some slack. The band improved steadily over the course of the decade, with each of their next three albums improving over its predecessor. Their last album Baby 81 was my favorite album of 2007, in fact. Peter Hayes, Robert Levon Been, and new drummer Leah Shapiro break the ice on the new decade with a new album called Beat the Devil's Tattoo.

People familiar with previous BMRC albums will have a good idea what to expect. There's plenty of heavy, abrasive guitar rock to go around. The acoustic guitars that popped up on most of their third album Howl make some brief appearances here as well. The familiarity in their sound is a mixed blessing, though. On one hand, if you thought they rocked before, your opinion won't change. On the other hand, there's not a whole lot on Beat the Devil's Tattoo that distinguishes it in a particularly favorable way from the band's previous work. The noteworthy exception for me is the album's closing song "Half-State." At ten minutes it's certainly lengthy, but there's something about the dreamy vibe of the song that's hard to resist, and the band made an inspired decision by letting the song keep going.

Otherwise, the gritty, half-acoustic title track, and the punkish "Conscience Killer" and "Mama Taught Me Better" also hold up well next to BRMC's earlier work. The rest of the album is at least decent, and fans of the band certainly won't complain. Beat the Devil's Tattoo might not quite match Baby 81, but it's still worth having.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott

"Beat the Devil's Tattoo"



Few people in show business are more accomplished, abrasive, or driven than Joan Rivers. The documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work gives the viewer a year in her life.

Actually, there's very little distinction here between Rivers' life and career. From start to finish, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is about her working life. We learn more about daughter Melissa when she and Joan were shooting The Celebrity Apprentice together, and Rivers' husband is discussed more as her manager than spouse. Still, since Rivers has been performing since the 1960s to the present, such a career is worth attention.
And how does Joan Rivers come across here? She's a series of contradictions: enormously successful, yet fearful of failing and being forgotten; brash and controversial, yet insecure; complaining about having to work at her age (this documentary includes Rivers' 75th birthday) yet unable to stop or even slow down. The most consistent aspect of Rivers' life is, well, simple greed: She lives like a queen and will do just about anything for the money to pay for this lifestyle.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work collects material both from interviews with Rivers, archival footage from her early days on The Tonight Show and stand-up routines, current t.v. appearances (The Celebrity Apprentice, her Comedy Central roast) and club performances, and her play about her life story. This documentary doesn't shy away from Rivers' flaws, yet it makes her somehow more admirable for them: Joan Rivers comes across as possibly the hardest-working person in show business, even at 75. With all her self-doubts and worries Joan Rivers is still amazing to see perform: edgy, energetic, and funny. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work may be an incomplete look at Joan Rivers' life, but it's a very good look at the world of show business in which she lives.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch



In The Hithchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams wrote: "Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is." Apparently the fifty aliens in the latest version of Cosmic Encounter weren't enough to compete for all that space, as the expansion Cosmic Incursion adds twenty new ones. There are also a new deck of cards and room for another player.

For you xenophiles (who are the most likely players of Cosmic Encounter), there are twenty new aliens introduced in Cosmic Incursion. These aliens are nicely varied. Some are sluggers, like Fury (who gets one token, giving a combat bonus, for each ship lost when attacking or defending) and Leviathan (who can use whole planets to help attack!). Others are far more subtle: Genius can draw cards instead of colonies -- and can win if they collect 20 cards; Sniveller can whine (really, that's their power) when behind the other players and either get compensated or hurt the other players. These aliens work quite well with the original ones.

Apart from new aliens, the biggest change Cosmic Incursion brings is the reserve deck. These are new cards that players can draw when claiming rewards from being defensive allies. The reserve deck offers new artifacts, crooked deals, kickers (that affect combat), and rift cards (that get ships from the warp -- or hurt anyone who steals these cards from you). To keep this from being the only deck players draw from when claiming rewards, it also includes encounter cards that are lower value than the regular cards, so drawing from the new deck is a little risky. Cosmic Incursion also includes a new color (orange), planets, and destiny cards so up to six people can now play Cosmic Encounter.

Cosmic Incursion doesn't revolutionize Cosmic Encounter -- it enhances it. The new aliens are very nice, and the reserve deck is as easy to play with as it is to set aside. Cosmic Incursion isn't required to enjoy Cosmic Encounter, but this expansion does give players a little more variety (and room for one more!).

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch