Carolina Chocolate Drops, Genuine Negro Jig (Nonesuch, 2010)

Carolina Chocolate Drops are an old-time folk group from Durham, North Carolina. At the time of the release of their third album Genuine Negro Jig in 2010, their line-up consisted of Justin Robinson (fiddle, vocals, percussion), Rhiannon Giddens (banjo, fiddle, kazoo, vocals), and Dom Flemons (banjo, guitar percussion, vocals). The album is an intriguing mix of folk standards and more contemporary compositions, done in a quaint but charming style evoking the old black South.

The songs and tunes on Genuine Negro Jig span a broad range of times and places. The title tune (not a jig by the Celtic definition) is an American tune from the 19th century, while "Reynardine" is a traditional English folk ballad. The band learned "Cindy Gal" from a black North Carolina fiddler in his nineties. On the more contemporary side, "Trampled Rose" is a Tom Waits cover, and "Kissin' and Cussin'" is an original composition from Robinson.

The old songs have a distinctive rustic charm to them, especially "Your Baby Ain't Sweet Like Mine." This song, originally written and performed by early 20th-century bluesman Papa Charlie Jackson, has the kind of chorus that will make you sing along with it -- perhaps deliberately, perhaps in spite of yourself, but you'll be singing along with it regardless. The album hits its best stride, though, when Giddens picks up the fiddle. "Hit 'em Up Style" is a fun song about getting even with a cheating boyfriend, but Giddens' superbly rhythmic fiddling of the melody over a drone backed by a banjo and some beatbox percussion really elevates the song to a higher level than any other track on the album. (The fact that it's a cover of a hip-hop song I probably wouldn't have listened to twice makes it even more impressive.)

Carolina Chocolate Drops may come across at face value as a band that got stuck in a time machine and popped out a century later in the present day. Having said that, I found their passion for old music and complete lack of pretense both refreshing and appealing. The band is in a state of flux right now, as Justin Robinson has moved on and two musicians have been brought in to take his place. But Genuine Negro Jig is a worthy effort, and I'm confident that the group will continue to make interesting and fun music in the future.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

"Hit 'em Up Style"



H.P. Lovecraft, a true master of American horror, usually wrote short stories of his beloved New England region. So what happens when his story travels to the Antarctic and becomes novella length? At the Mountains of Madness and Other Tales of Terror presents this atypical Lovecraftian tale, along with three short stories: "The Shunned House," "The Dreams in the Witch-House" and "The Statement of Randolph Carter."

The title tale is a narrator's account of a Miskatonic University expedition to the Antarctic. This expedition was wildly successful, both in the gear created for use and in the discoveries of ancient life and civilization. But only two members made it back, and the narrator gives a full accounting to dissuade others from repeating the journey -- especially an upcoming scientific trip there -- for unleashing the horrors that plagued the original journey.

Lovecraft may be out of his element in At the Mountains of Madness, but his style and skill remain. The strength of Lovecraft is creating a believable world that builds up to unbelievable horror, and that works well in the accounting of the expedition. The narrator begins by warning of horror, but his description of the day-to-day activities of the expedition, from the drill to managing the dogs, provides an excellent sense of realism in the Antarctic. This adds to the terror when it finally arrives, foretold from the beginning and foreshadowed by discoveries whose significance doesn't become apparent until later. I was slightly underwhelmed with the climax of At the Mountains of Madness, but I greatly enjoyed the trip there.

The other three stories are on more familiar Lovecraft territory -- two haunted houses, and on exploration into a graveyard -- and these are also very good. "The Dreams in the Witch-House" stands out for a college student's delving into mathematics leading to unearthly places and angles -- and the terrifying duo of the witch Keziah Mason and her rat-like familiar Brown Jenkin.

None of these are Lovecraft's greatest tales -- for those I recommend The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre -- but At the Mountains of Madness and Other Tales of Terror is a good taste of Lovecraft's style of horror, demonstrating how effective he can be -- even beyond New England.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch


Gomez, Whatever's on Your Mind (ATO Records, 2011)

Fifteen years into their career, the UK quintet Gomez continue to be an impressive if underrated band. In June, the band released their seventh album Whatever's on Your Mind. The album lacks a knockout track, but it's a pretty solid collection of quirky, cerebral pop firmly in keeping with what the band has done in the past.

The band's most distinctive trait is the presence of three perfectly capable singer/guitarists in Ben Ottewell, Ian Ball, and Tom Gray. The previous album A New Tide leaned heavily (perhaps too heavily) on the husky voice of Ottewell, but this album has more balance. (Presumably, whatever extra songs Ottewell had sitting around were used on his solo CD Shapes and Things.) Ball sings the fun opening song "Options," a tounge-in-cheek take on being left with a bit too much freedom after a breakup. Gray has the relatively long and ambitious "The Place and the People," a more somber breakup song in which he tries to resist the efforts of his ex to cut him off from the people and places they shared together. Ottewell contributes a nice ballad in the title track, a song about letting go of the burdens of the past and moving forward. His aggressive rocker "Equalize," though, is exactly the kind of change of pace that his solo album sorely needed.

Gomez are the kind of band that are always worth checking in with to see what they've been up to. Whatever's on Your Mind is consistently pretty good, and continues the band's impressive run of likable music.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

"Options" on Letterman last month


Superfolks - Robert Mayer (1977)

Superheroes are people too, with mid-life crises, romantic troubles and so forth just like the rest of us. This is ground which has been well-trodden in past years in movies like The Incredibles, as well as in comic books and other media. Superfolks, however, may have gotten there first. Originally published in 1977, recent editions feature a 2004 introduction by Grant Morrison, the well-regarded comic-book writer, who calls it "a barely acknowledged contribution to the vivid and explosive evolution of the 'mature' superhero story ..." that arose in the 80s independent comics. How much of a contribution it made, I cannot say, but it has much to recommend it as an a forerunner of many of themes that were explored in those glory days of comics.

Superfolks is laden with cultural referents and in-jokes, concerning both comic books and the mid-70s in general. Our hero, a clear Superman homage, came from the planet Cronk, and was given the name David by his adopted family the Brinkleys. Which means, naturally, that David Brinkley's weakness is Cronkite. Some of the references of this type are a bit dated, of course, but are still rather funny - assuming you get them.

Likewise, the comic book references are sometimes a bit obscure, although most of the iconic figures he gives a nod to are still more or less au courant - Superman, Captain Marvel, and others. All have the serial numbers filed off, and are given more depth than their four-color inspirations usually had in 1970. For the comic afficionado, there is certainly pleasure to be derived from seeing how many of the off-hand references you can identify.

All that aside, however, there is a pretty darn good book underneath that jokieness and seventies kitsch. Brinkley is middle-aged and has been slowly losing his powers for some time, degenerating from a near-god, to a mere mortal. Or, we see as the book develops, is it really degeneration? Is he not, rather, maturing from a flat caricature into a functioning adult, with wife and children? The themes of loss of innocence, personal responsibility and, ironically enough, coming of age, are the actual driving forces of the narrative.

Mayer weaves these threads together into a strong fabric, shot through with strands of humor and pathos, and the final result is very good, indeed. It helps if you remember the seventies and/or are a comic book reader (or were in the 80s), but even without either of those qualifications, Superfolks is well worth a read. If you liked The Incredibles you should definitely read it - after all, the creators of that movie almost certainly did.

Overall Grade: B+


Týr, The Lay of Thrym (Napalm Records, 2011)

Nearly a decade after the release of their first album, Týr have established themselves as a distinctive and creative "Viking metal" band while putting their native Faroe Islands on the musical map. This May, they released their sixth studio album The Lay of Thrym. All of Týr's albums deal in some way with the history and folklore of the Faroese people and their Viking ancestors, and the new album is certainly not an exception. The band members, led by singer/guitarist Heri Joensen, firmly believe that the old Norse myths and legends have lessons that the modern world can learn something from, and The Lay of Thrym follows previous albums like Ragnarok in placing a particular Nordic myth in a contemporary context. In this case, a story preserved since the 13th century in an Icelandic manuscript serves as the basis of a response by Týr to some unfortunate and wholly inaccurate accusations about the band's motivations.

Thrym, in the myth, is a giant who steals Thor's hammer and demands the hand of the goddess Freyja in marriage as ransom. In response, Thor goes to the giant's home dressed as Freyja, while Loki poses as a bridesmaid. Loki provides Thrym with explanations for his bride-to-be's most unladylike behavior, and the ruse is kept up long enough for Thor to get his hands on the hammer and set things right. On Týr's new album, Thrym represents political and moral opression, while Thor is the role model for doing whatever it takes to defeat tyranny in all its forms. While the need to choose freedom over dictatorship might seem like something that shouldn't need an album's worth of explanation, Týr and other Viking/pagan metal bands have had to defend themselves against criticisms from people who have equated their use of old Norse symbology with the Nazis' use of these symbols. Joensen addresses the issue directly on "Shadow of the Swastika," telling both neo-Nazis and those who think Týr endorse any sort of neo-Naziism to stay away and "kiss my Scandinavian ass."

Týr have often been described as "folk metal," and while the metal always outweighs the folk, the Nordic and Faroese folk influences give their sound a distinct and appealing flavor. The Lay of Thrym includes several songs partially or totally taken from traditional Danish and Faroese ballads, and Týr have always excelled at mixing the Medieval with the modern. For example, "Ellindur Bóndi Á Ja∂ri" tells the story of a farmer with thirty children, who comments in the king's hall that it's suitable for dancing. Like many traditional Faroese tunes, the song has a peculiar hitch in the rhythm, but Týr have no difficulty making that work in a heavy metal context. Returning to more contemporary influences, the band pay tribute to the late metal singer Ronnie James Dio on the two bonus tracks. Covering the Black Sabbath song "I" requires no small amount of attitude, but Týr pull it off quite well. "Stargazer," dating back to Dio's days with Rainbow, gets a rock solid treatment as well.

Týr's uniquely scholarly approach to heavy metal always makes their albums interesting and fun, and The Lay of Thrym is merely the latest in a lengthy catalog of albums worthy of a few listens even if you're not normally a fan of metal. They have a growing cult following in the U. S., and with plans in place for a musical based on their songs, they could be approaching a major breakthrough.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

Týr found their way south of the Equator for this recent performance of "Shadow of the Swastika" in Brazil.


Nicole Scherzinger, KILLER LOVE

Apparently, going solo ain't always easy. Nicole Scherzinger was the face (and, let's be honest, body) of the Pussycat Dolls before leaving the group to go her own way musically. Her first album, Her Name Is Nicole, never got released despite two songs off of it getting both airplay and videos. (It didn't help that her performance of "Whatever You Like" at the MTV Video Music Awards was overshadowed by the Britney Spears performance that was the stars of Spears' public breakdown.) Scherzinger's second album, Killer Love, has the song "Right There" getting lots of radio airplay -- but no U.S. release of the album (even after she won Dancing with the Stars). Thanks to eBay, I was able to get a copy of Killer Love ("Weird Al" Yankovic was right: eBay is a worldwide garage sale!) for review.

As one might expect, Killer Love is at its best when Scherzinger goes for the up-tempo songs about dancing, sex, and occasionally love. "Club Banger Nation" is a shameless attempt to get that song played in clubs, but she's at home in the the clubs with "Wet": "I feel like everybody's standing around me watching me now/ I feel like whatever I do tonight would be the talk of the town/ They wanna know how I'm gonna move my body/ When the beat goes/ 'Cause something comes over me/ When the beat goes/ Well, Imma rip my clothes off/ Take a leap and surf through the crowd/ Yeah, yeah/ Drippin' down my neck/ Soakin' wet." She's equally, er, unrestrained on songs like "Right There" ("I like the way that you talk dirty/ don't wash your mouth out, I like it dirty") and the title track ("hold me just like that/ and make them eyes roll back"). And while Scherzinger doesn't hold back with the sex appeal, she also delivers some catchy tunes and has a great voice for this up-tempo music.

Then there's the sensitive side to Nicole Scherzinger, whether heartbroken ("Desperate," "Casualty") or offering support ("Power's Out"). When Killer Love slows down, the album suffers. It's easier to forgive moments of really poor writing (not to mention violent ones at times) during a fast song, but when the music slows the words really shine through -- and that doesn't help this album. "You Will Be Loved" is meant to be hopeful but more saccharine, while "Power's Out" (with Sting, of all people) has the weird metaphor of support with a home power outage: "Don't sit there in the dark/ don't worry your heart/ everything will be fine/ If trees fall on your power line." Most singers feel the need to try a few slow songs -- to show that they're not just party/club tunes, but that they can be sensitive and deep -- but these songs occupy the bulk of the latter half of this album.

While Nicole Scherzinger departed from the Pussycat Dolls, Killer Love shows that her singing and style of music hasn't changed much from her earlier work with her group. While I could have done with a lot less of Scherzinger's slower songs, the upbeat fun stuff is solid enough to make Killer Love a decent album. When it will be released in America, however, is anyone's guess...

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch



A buddy comedy with a sick premise and a lot of cursing, 30 Minutes or Less is an extremely basic comedy. There are no big surprises or innovations, but it often manages to be funny.

Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) is a slacker content to smoke weed, watch movies, and break every traffic law out there as he races to deliver pizzas within 30 minutes (but never manages to do so). Nick seems upset that his buddy Chet (Aziz Ansari) has a real job as a substitute teacher (even if Chet seems most enthused that he has a laser pointer); Nick's also upset that Chet's sister Kate (Dilshad Vadsaria) is moving away to work at hotel management. And Nick and Chet get in a big fight, revealing that Chet slept with Nick's ex-girlfriend and Nick slept with Kate.

Elsewhere in town, there are two far more dangerous slackers. Dwayne (Danny McBride) has dreams of opening a tanning salon/prostitution ring, but all he does is hang out with his buddy Travis (Nick Swardson), who learns how to do things online and follows Dwayne like a puppy dog. Dwayne's father, the Major (Fred Ward), won the lottery -- and Dwayne is afraid that he'll blow through his winnings, leaving Dwayne with nothing. A stripper named Juicy (Bianca Kajlich) tells Dwayne that for a hundred thousand dollars, she'll hire her friend (actually her boyfriend) Chango (Michael Pena) to kill the Major.

So Dwayne and Travis get Nick to an abandoned junkyard, strap an explosive-filled vest (built by Travis) to him, and give him ten hours to rob a bank and give them the money. Nick recruits Chet to help him, and they're off! But Dwayne isn't about to let the "loose end" live, Travis is having pangs of guilt, Chango is running around without knowing what everyone's plan is, and Nick is panicking over the increasing possibility that he'll explode -- if the cops don't catch him first.

30 Minutes or Less is very simple and straightforward. While the plot takes a few turns here and there, the movie doesn't try for any big surprises or cleverness. Fortunately, this movie can be pretty funny. Jesse Eisenberg works pretty well as the straight man (who spends much of the movie in a "I can't believe this is happening" mode), and Aziz Ansari delivers all his lines with a terrific attitude. Danny McBride is also great as the villain, a braggart filled with vague plans who pictures himself as a criminal mastermind. The movie gets violent at the end, and is filled with cursing from start to finish, but 30 Minutes or Less makes up for its straightforward technique with some good jokes and great comic actors.

Overall grade: B-

Reviewed by James Lynch


THE CRYING OF LOT 49 by Thomas Pynchon

It's all a massive conspiracy, or it's all a giant practical joke. This is the world of The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon's darkly comic novel of ancient forces, modern silliness, musical numbers, and self-discovery.

Oedipa Maas is apparently a normal housewife who comes home one day to find that Piers Inverarity, her former lover and a huge practical joker, has died and named her the executor of his estate. She parts from her husband, disc jockey Wendell "Mucho" Maas, and her star and current lawyer who guides her through Inverarity's estate, which includes theshrink, Dr. Hilarius, and heads to San Narcisco, California. Once there she meets up with Metzger, a former child actor and lawyer for Inverarity's estate, which included the Yoyodyne Corporation and apparently majorities or large shares in everything they see. His stamp collection also includes a stamp with the word "potsmaster." And there's a secret mail pickup system called W.A.S.T.E. at a bar for Yoyodyne scientists.

A chance seeing of a Jacobean revenge play, which has parallels to a World War 2 controversy (which, of course, is related to Inverarity's estate), introduced Oedipa to the Trystero/Tristero, an postal movement from the 18th century that went underground. It seems to be behind the W.A.S.T.E. covert mail delivery, and its symbol -- a muted postal horn -- seems to appear all over the place as graffiti and by the unofficial mail drops. Oedipa decides to find out the truth behind this shadow organization and Inverarity, trying to find out what is going on, despite possible danger (one bit of graffiti, DEATH, is written out: Don't Ever Antagonize The Horn) and numerous dead ends.

Or is it a joke? Everything seems to spring from Inverarity, who had the twisted sense of humor (and plenty of resources) to run a former lover through this elaborate maze, and everything seems to connect with him and his business.

The Crying of Lot 49 is a brilliantly twisted, funny, and thoughtful novel. There's a lot of conspiracy theories floating about here, from the ancient mail system to the question of whether Inverarity is even really dead; and we're given information as Maas discovers it, leaving us no more or less certain about what's going on than she is. And while people involved with the conspiracy seem to be removed one by one, there's also a lot of silliness, from a Beatles-style pop group called the Paranoids to just about every name in the book (including the law firm Warpe, Wistfull, Kubitschek and McMingus, and lawyer Genghis Cohen) to a ridiculous strip scene to the Peter Pinguid Society. Pynchon doesn't develop any characters other than Oedipa, but our baffled heroine does grow, trying to figure out the world she never really saw before,

My favorite Pynchon novel is still Gravity's Rainbow, but The Crying of Lot 49 is a very entertaining walk in a world where mysterious patterns seem to coalesce alongside slapstick comedy.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch



Wouldn't life be great if it were like a porno? Wouldn't life be funny if it were like a porno? The answer to the first question: absolutely! The answer to the second question: apparently not, going by the straight-to-dvd movie Deep in the Valley.

The setup for Deep in the Valley is pretty basic. Lester (Chris Pratt, the budget version of Seth Rogen) works as a clerk in a liquor store and apparently watches a lot of skin flicks. His buddy Carl (Brendan Hines) is far more responsible -- and engaged to shrew Tracy (Charlotte Salt), who wants Carl to skip a better job so he can keep working for her daddy. When Lester and Carl are hanging out, they get a strange delivery: a peepshow-type booth featuring the movies of adult film legend Diamond Jim (Christopher McDonald). The two guys step inside -- and are magically transported into an alternate universe where everything follows the rules of an adult movie!

Lester wants to stay and get some action, while Carl just wants to find a way home. Diamond Jim turns up to offer some cryptic (and useless) advice. The two friends are relentlessly pursued by Detective Rod Cannon (Scott Caan) and police dominatrix Suzi Diablo (Blanca Soto). The buddies also find help in the Tri-Pi sorority house from Bambi (Rachel Specter), who seems interested in Carl, and Daphne (Kate Albrecht), who never seems to stop giggling. This movie also has Denise Richards as the sorority house mother, Kim Kardashian as a bouncer (did that feel as weird to read as it did for me to write?), and Tracy Morgan as porn star Busta Nut.

While there have been plenty of advances in scripting in the world of adult entertainment, there's plenty of silliness left to spoof. Unfortunately, Deep in the Valley seems so happy with the amount of topless women it squeezed into one movie (a lot, including movie commentary from a topless woman) that they didn't bother with, well, jokes or humor. Running gags include Lester not being able to get laid in a porno, Lester getting hit in the crotch over and over by Suzi, and Rod Cannon spewing forth an unending stream of barely-coherent cop sayings and cliches. None of these are particularly funny, yet they are repeated over and over in the movie.

Deep in the Valley has plenty of the cliches of porn -- cheerleader tryouts, the pizza delivery man who needs an alternate means of getting paid, the hospital full of sexy nurses -- but doesn't offer more than the stars' reaction shots to them. And since neither Pratt nor Hines are funny (neither is the rest of the cast; not a surprise, except for the criminal waste of Tracy Morgan's talent), all Deep in the Valley gives are painfully unfunny scenes. If your idea of a good comedy is centered around lots of bare breasts, they you might find some enjoyment in Deep in the Valley. As for me, I can see why this clunker went straight to dvd.

Overall grade: F

Reviewed by James Lynch


Kevin Burke and Cal Scott, Suite (Loftus Music, 2010)

Kevin Burke is a legendary Irish fiddler, having been part of The Bothy Band, Patrick Street, and the Celtic Fiddle Festival in addition to a successful solo performer in a 40-year career. Guitarist Cal Scott has a bit more of an eclectic background; he performs with folk bands, records jazz albums, and composes and arranges music for cartoons and commercials. The two current Oregon residents first pooled their talents in 2007 with their CD Across the Black River. Now they return with a new CD called Suite, in which they perform traditional and self-composed Irish fiddle tunes with a bit of a classical twist.

Suite opens conventionally enough, with a set of jigs, a set of reels, and then a waltz. The most interesting section of the album, though, is the four-part "Irish Session Suite," for which Burke leads a string quartet through sets of Irish traditional tunes arranged in a classical style by Scott. It's actually a very unusual take on Irish music, but it's the kind of novelty that works well here in the hands of very capable musicians. The remaining two tracks are sets of hornpipes, the first of which is laid back and the second of which is more punchy.

On Suite, Kevin Burke and Cal Scott take a unique approach to performing and arranging Irish fiddle standards, with pleasing results. Combining two distinct musical styles, whose compatibility is not inherently obvious, is a lot harder than Burke and Scott make it sound.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

"Stella's Waltz"



A few days ago was a non-event that might have been a big deal once: the 30th anniversary of the start of MTV. Once upon a time, MTV changed the face of music, for good or ill (or both). But now...

Back on August 1, 1981, the cable channel MTV launched with a simple goal: play short videos made by musicians, for 24 hours a day (minus commercials). There were VJs --"video DJs" -- Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, J.J. Jackson, and Martha Quinn to introduce and discuss the videos.

And the videos came in a flood, creating trends, stars, and controversy. Madonna wore her underwear on the outside (not in the superhero sense) and began a career of generating more and more controversy with each video. Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith smashed through a wall to "Walk This Way," bringing rap to mainstream America and Aerosmith to a post-1970s fanbase. Boy bands N*SYNC and New Kids on the Block strutted their well-synchronized dance moves in each video. Debbie Gibson didn't have an album, but she did have a video for her song "Only in My Dreams." And Michael Jackson's videos made the one-gloved look and the moonwalk known in every home whose cable owners proclaimed "I want my MTV!"

The music video format became more and more popular (I remember Tower Records having a wall filled with vhs tapes featuring the music videos of the most popular musicians), and the network offered shows for different genres: alternative (120 Minutes), rap (Yo! MTV Raps), metal (Headbanger's Ball). MTV Unplugged had some of the biggest bands going acoustic for an evening. Total Request Live gave a rundown of the top videos each week, along with interruptions by screaming fans. "Weird Al" Yankovic took control of the network a few times, turning MTV into Al TV. And the Video Music Awards offered performances along with the awards for videos, with the former often more significant than the latter.

MTV also delved into what would become its future: non-music shows. Animation hit the network with Liquid Television, which in turn led to cartoons Beavis and Butt-Head (mocking the same videos the network played), Aeon Fluxx, Celebrity Deathmatch and The Maxx. The game show Remote Control introduced America to Adam Sandler and Colin Quinn. And then came the genre that would define the network: reality television. The Real World offered the fantasy of young teens living, fighting, and romancing together in front of the cameras. Punk'd had celebrities playing cruel pranks on each other, Jackass had a bunch of, well jackasses hurting themselves and each other, and The Osbournes offered a comically unflattering look at the family life of a heavy-metal legend.

The network drifter away from music, playing fewer music videos and more original shows. Today the network that once promised "24-hour music videos" has 3 hours slated for music -- with lots of commercials and well out of primetime, of course. MTV is defined not by new artists or hot songs, but shows like Jersey Shore and Teen Mom. If you want music videos, you'll do a lot better on YouTube or iTunes, as even stars like Beyonce, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga don't have a place on MTV to showcase their latest videos.

But what impact did MTV have on music? Quite a lot. For a time, having a great/popular video was as important, possibly more important, than having a great song. Some critics claimed that MTV became a network of borderline softcore porn (not a complaint in my book) and shortened the attention span of viewers by offering not albums from an artist, but single songs with lots of quick cuts. My complaint (apart from keeping the "M" in the name when they all but skip any music) is that they offered no sense of history, playing nothing that hadn't come out in the past year or two. And while some musicians used the videos to make up for a lack of talent (I'm looking at you, Spice Girls), some did manage to make very creative mini-movies to go along with their songs: Johnny Cash's moving video of his life for "Hurt," the Beastie Boys' mock-'70s cop show for "Sabotage," Pearl Jam's haunting visuals for "Jeremy," etc.

I'm not surprised that the network didn't have a celebration for their 30th anniversary, given how far they've drifted from the original goal of playing music videos all day. But whether you love or hate music videos (and we all have those we love to watch, and those that make us cringe), there was a time when MTV both defined and redefined popular music.

Written by James Lynch



What if Camelot was a land not of magic and nobility, but rather a kingdom of political manipulation and very flawed people? And what if it had more than a few parallels to contemporary history? This is the setting for The Camelot Papers, Peter David's behind-the-scenes look at what would become the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

The framework for The Camelot Papers are the recently-discovered journals of Viviana, a slave whose keeps a journal of her day-to-day activities in Camelot. For Viviana, Camelot is filled with perils. Initially they come from the brutish king Uther and the animosity of Rowena, who runs the kitchens. Things become more complex -- and potentially dangerous -- as Viviana becomes an observer of, and sometimes participant with, the rulers of Camelot.

Arthur seems nice, but also forgetful (and sometimes stupid), and he is ill-prepared when Uther is poisoned and Arthur is suddenly king. Merlin is a behind-the-scenes manipulator who continually plots and plans -- and who has Arthur's unquestioning trust. Guinevere finds herself reluctantly married to Arthur and sees him as a way to advance her own agendas. (She's also more comfortable wearing mannish clothes than the dresses expected of a queen.) Guinevere's sister Morgan seems nicer than most and more affectionate to Arthur than his queen -- but could Morgan have her own secret interests? Modred, Morgan's adopted son, is a creepy little boy who seems to appear and disappear from the shadows -- and he is a creepy manipulator in his own right. Lancelot is a mighty warrior, a lecherous womanizer, and a man with his own secret. And there's the filthty, mute stable boy who catches Viviana's interest. All these characters seem very far removed from Gawain, Viviana's ideal and imagined embodiment of the best of the knights.

The Camelot Papers is an intriguing look at the potential reality behind the legends of Camelot. Viviana is the ideal character to report on what happens, whether she's forgotten about as an "unimportant" servant or spying on the characters through the castle's secret passages (which are also traveled by Modred). She also grows as a character, going from someone interested in surviving to trying to improve things for others: the people she knows, and later her whole country. While Mr. David makes the parallels between the past and present a little heavy-handed towards the end of the book (including a war based on faulty intelligence, with no foreign support, to avenge an attack on a parent and with the spectre of a hated opponent who is never seen used to justify torture and atrocities), his does an excellent job creating a web of political intrigues. He also makes it easy to imagine that these very human characters could wind up inspiring the Arthurian legends that we all know now.

From the cover of The Camelot Papers, I expected a Monty Python-esque romp through medieval legend. Instead, we get an outsider's view at the inner workings of a kingdom where legends were born -- from politicians maneuvering and plotting.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch



Many movies that set out to mock or analyze cliches in their genre fall prey to using those same cliches eventually. This is the fate of Friends with Benefits, a romantic comedy about two buddies who decide that romance-free sex is the way to go (not to be confused with No Strings Attached, in which two buddies decide that romance-free sex is the way to go).

Friends with Benefits starts with a meet-cute, as professional headhunter Jamie (Mila Kunis) winds up on an airport conveyor belt dodging luggage while waiting for Dylan (Justin Timberlake), a successful blogger from California being recruited for GQ Magazine. After Jamie gives Dylan a New York tour that has everything from famous landmarks to a flash mob, Dylan takes the job and moves here. The two become buddies and, with nothing going on in their love lives, decide that everything will be fine if they have sex once (which turns into a lot of times) with no emotional commitment or personal attachments. Of course, things get complicated (which Dylan should know, as he mentions watching Seinfeld and they've used this plot in an episode).

To round out the action, we get: Jamie's mother Lorna (Patricia Clarkson), a free spirit who's often drinking and fooling around; Dylan's colleague Tommy (Woody Harrelson), a sports writer who's very gay and very actively looking for a hook-up; and, for a serious dramatic turn, Dylan's California family, including his father (played by Richard Jenkins) who is struggling with Alzheimer's. Friends with Benefits also has too-brief cameos at the opening by Andy Samberg and Emma Stone as two people dumping the film's main characters.

Dylan and Jamie may watch and make fun of a romantic tearjerker, but Friends with Benefits winds up almost the same as that which they ridicule. Mila Kunis has a nice sense of both the acerbic and romantic as the spunky Jamie, and Justin Timberlake is far better here as a regular guy than as his nice-guy parody in Bad Teacher, but Friends with Benefits offers little new in terms of either sex or relationships (or the mixing and separation of the two). There are lots of cute moments but very few funny ones -- which is a pity for a comedy. (I do have to give props to Harrelson for his never-let-up performance.) Friends with Benefits winds up as a very typical romantic comedy.

Overall grade: C

Reviewed by James Lynch