The Gaslight Anthem, HANDWRITTEN

The Gaslight Anthem are back -- and on their fourth album Handwritten the rockers utilize a stripped-down sound that is a terrific blend of classic rock and near-punk sensibility.

As with their previous albums, the Gaslight Anthem sing primarily about loves lost, youth lost, and on "Keepsake" lost family. There's a sense of nostalgia for the old days of music as well: The album opens with "45" comparing an old relationship to a '45 record, and the title track proclaims "and to ease the loss of youth/ and how many years I've missed you/ pages plead forgiveness/ every word handwritten." The band only jumps to the present on the mournful album closer "National Anthem," where the band says, "And everybody lately is living up in space/ flying through airwaves on invisible transmissions/ with everything discovered just waiting to be known/ What's left for God to teach from His throne? And who will forgive us when He's gone?"

Fortunately, the band's looks back at old loves and losses is matched by some pretty powerful music. Brian Fallon's vocals are as strong as ever, as packed with emotion and power as Eddie Vedder at his prime. The rest of the band backs him with a punk-sounding sound filled with catchy guitar hooks and exciting drums. Handwritten isn't as deep as some of the Gaslight Anthem's previous albums, but it is as exciting to listen to as any album you're likely to hear this year.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch


The aliens are coming, the authorities don't believe it, and it's up to a ragtag bunch of amateur heroes to save the day! While this may sound like a children's action movie, it's more one with grown adolescents in The Watch. This movie has big star power but doesn't add much original to the very overdone formula.

Evan (Ben Stiller) is the ultimate fan of his suburban town of Glenville, Ohio. He manages the local Costco store, loves forming assorted groups in the town, and doesn't share the enthusiasm his spouse Abby (Rosemarie Dewitt) has for New York City. When Costco security guard Antonio Guzman (Joe Nunez) is brutally murdered at the store after it closed, Evan feels the local police (Will Forte and Mel Rodriguez) aren't doing enough to find the killer -- or worse, suspect Evan. So Evan does what he thinks he does best: form a new group, this time a neighborhood watch.

The response to Evan's call to arms doesn't get the best applicants. Bob (Vince Vaughn) is more enthusiastic about drinking and having a good time than fighting crime; he's also obsessed with his teenage daughter's social life. Franklin (Jonah Hill) is a young adult who was rejected by the police force and who tends to play with a knife. And Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade) is a cheerful Brit who joined the group with a specific erotic fantasy in mind. The police mock them, teenagers throw eggs at them, and the guys seem to party more than stop crime.

Oh, and there are aliens. A car crash has the guys finding green goo, and then they find a metal sphere that shoots destructive beams of energy. It's not long before deadly humanoid aliens start popping up; and when one says they've infiltrated humanity, the Neighborhood Watch starts, well, watching the neighborhood. Is Evan's creepy, overly friendly neighbor an alien? What about the obnoxious teen dating Bob's daughter? Or the various weirdos at Costco?

There's a lot of potential humor about life in the suburbs and how aliens would fit in there -- and all of that is completely skipped in The Watch. Stars Stiller, Vaughn, and Hill play the same sort of characters they always play; Ayoade is terrific, but he gets much less screen time than his American counterparts. The humor tends to go for "ironic" slow-motion scenes set to rap music, lots of profanity, and (near the end) action movie heroics. There are several gaps in logic near the end, but in this sort of movie there's no attempt (or, really, need) to resolve them. There are some laughs among the stars, but The Watch settles for strictly superficial humor.

Overall grade: C

Reviewed by James Lynch



First, let me note that Witch of Salem from Mayfair Games is set in H.P. Lovecraft's fictional town of Arkham, not Salem; also the "witch" is Robert Craven, who is more accurately described in the rules as a Warlock. With that out of the way, this is a fun, quick, and simple cooperative game for 2-4 players about battling horrible entities trying to enter our universe.

Players are investigators who wander around the town, trying to close all open portals and then banish the Great Old One in R'yleh. Each investigator starts with six sanity, space to hold three regular items and one gate token, and cards to go to each building in Arkham (plus a Secret Passage that lets an investigator spend a sanity to go anywhere). There are six Great Old Ones around the board, with the first one revealed (face-up) and the final one in R'lyeh.

At the start of each turn, a monster card is drawn. If the monster's copy isn't on the board, it goes to the first available open space. If the monster is on the board, the investigators suffer its effects, from losing items or sanity to shuffling the possible portals to advancing Necron. And if the board is filled with monsters, the drawn card is discarded.

Next, players move (they can never stay in the same place for two turns) by playing an avaliable location card; going to Miskatonic University gets them all their cards back. If a player goes to a location where a monster is, the player rolls a die and suffers the effect if possible; if the Witch is there, no roll is needed. If a player has the 2 items needed to dispel the monster, they can discard it; they can also discard a dagger (if they have it) to discard a monster if the Witch is there. Players can trade items with other players there, use items (the Necronomicon reveals the next Great Old One; the Glasses let a player look at a face-down Portal tile at their location; the Elixir gives 1 sanity, or 2 if used when the Witch is there; the dagger can be used to defeat monsters; and the Artifact can seal a portal). Players can also buy an item at their location: Some are free, while others cost sanity, advance Necron, or require a monster or Event card to be drawn.

After players have their turns, the top Event card is drawn. These usually move the Witch around the board, and they sometimes benefit players but often hurt them -- especially if Necron is moved or a Great Old One comes to Miskatonic University as a Shadow (spreading its negative effects across the town).

Players win if they seal all the hidden portals, one player uses the Secret Passage to confront the Great Old One in R'lyeh, and another player seals the final gate at Miskatonic University. Unfortunately, losing is easier. Everyone loses if Necron makes it halfway around his track before the final Great Old One is revealed, or if he makes it to the end of the track. Players lose if all but one player are eliminated (since it takes at least two to confront the last Great Old One and seal the last gate). And players lose if, after banishing the Great Old One, they didn't seal off all the hidden gates -- or if they placed an artifact where there wasn't a gate!

Unlike Arhkam Horror, which was far more detailed but also way too comples, Witch of Salem is easy to start and quick to finish, without being too simple and with the Lovecraftian flavor. Players can work together (trading what's needed, deciding who will investigate which portals, and clearing monsters off the board), but teamwork certainly doesn't guarantee success. The battle with the final monster is far easier than in Arkham Horror, but the multiple ways to lose in Witch of Salem make it quite challenging. The strategy isn't too dense, and it's good to take some time between games, but Witch of Salem is a nice little trip to the horrific entity-infested Arkham of the 1920s.

Overall grade: B

Reviewed by James Lynch



Comic book fans know what happened between Batman and Bane in the Knightfall storyline, and The Dark Knight Rises -- the final film in director Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy -- explores Batman's fall and rise, along with tying Bane to themes from the earlier movies. Too bad it can be boring far too often...

After a brief recap of the end of The Dark Knight (with Batman taking the blame for Harvey Dent's murders), we jump ahead eight years. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has retired the Batman and become a recluse in Wayne Manor, wandering its halls with a beard and a cane; he also spent his half his fortune on a source of clean energy, only to pull the plug on it when he learned it could be turned into a weapon. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) has almost rid Gotham City of crime, largely due to "Dent's Law." Alfred (Michael Caine) is still hoping Wayne will find some happiness in life, while Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) keeps coming up with innovative tech for Wayne. There's also a young "hothead" officer named Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who admires Batman (and knows far too easily his secret identity), and a beautiful rich woman named Miranda (Marion Cotillard) who believes in Wayne's clean energy project even when he doesn't.

Enter the villains. An amoral, acrobatic cat burglar named Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) piques Wayne's interest when she steals his late mother's pearls and copies of his fingerprints. The far bigger threat is Bane (Tom Hardy), a giant of a man with a mask always covering his mouth. Bane has large plans for both Batman and Gotham City, and they involve everyone from Wayne's business rival to Catwoman to an old adversary.

It may not be such a thin line between epic and bloated, and The Dark Knight Rises crosses that line quite often. In giving a lot of time to the supporting cast, the movie manages to forget about its main characters for very long stretches of time; the very long time before Batman even appears on the screen doesn't help either. Anne Hathaway is terrific as Catwoman, bringing a combination of self-centered desire and droll snappiness to the role, but Bane isn't that interesting a villain, and Christian Bale doesn't make Bruce Wayne's fall and redemption all that inspiring. And while I hate to compare Marvel and DC superhero movies, the flying "Batmobile" pales next to the special effects in The Avengers.

The Dark Knight Rises does manage to find more of its footing near the end (even if they take the "ticking clock" to a new and ridiculous level), but it's a long journey getting there. I don't know if Nolan will revisit the Batman mythos (the door is left wide open for another moviei in the franchise), but The Dark Knight Rises is a mediocre finale to a trilogy with a weak beginning and outstanding middle.

Overall grade: C+

Reviewed by James Lynch


Panasonic Lumix ZS19 Digital Camera

The Panasonic Lumix ZS19 is a fine digital camera of the point-and-shoot compact class. It is small, lightweight, and packed with features. It works well for me, but will it satisfy you? That depends on what you are looking for in a camera. A simple point-and-shoot will perform very well in most situations. My 6.0 megapixel Canon Powershot SD600, ancient now, takes fantastic photos and is solidly built. I wanted to step up to something better, while still retaining the size profile of a compact camera. It had to fit into a coat pocket, and so could not be much larger than a bar of soap. I also wanted a better zoom capability than my Canon’s 3x so that I could take acceptable pictures of subjects beyond ten feet in distance. Sometimes, when I snapped on a distant subject with the Powershot, it made everything in the photo look as if it was on the other side of the Atlantic. A DSLR would have given me great shots from a long distance, but it would have been much too large to fit into a jacket. So instead I would go with a so-called travel zoom, which is a compact camera with a telescoping lens that extends far out from the body.



Some say that marijuana is harmless, some harmful -- but it's the cause of tremendous brutality in Savages, the latest film from director Oliver Stone. Friendship, love, loyalty, and business all collide at this look at the highest levels of the drug trade.

It all begins with a seemingly idyllic trio of people in Laguna Beach, California. Ben (Aaron Johnson) is a hippie idealist who helps poor people in third-world countries, believes in developing alternative energy, and creates and grows some of the most potent marijuana in the world. Chon (Taylor Kitsch), Ben's best friend and business partner, is a cynical ex-marine who handles the violent side of their drug business. And then there's O (Blake Lively), short for "Ophelia," the blonde beauty who has an open relationship with the two of them. The three enjoy an opulent life of sun, wealth, and friendship.

Unfortunately, success brings attention. The Baja cartel from Mexico wants Ben and Chon to work for them; and when the two friends offer the business but refuse to work for them, cartel leader Elena (Salma Hayak) decides to up the stakes. She has her enforcer Lado (Benecio Del Toro) kidnap O, and Elena makes a new demand: She'll keep O hostage for a year, and the two men will work for the Baja cartel for three years. But the two friends aren't willing to just roll over, and soon they're stealing, killing, and proving as brutal as the cartel in their attempt to get O back. Meanwhile, Elena seems to befriend O while dealing with her daughter issues, federal agent Dennis (John Travolta) is playing all the sides against each other, and the body count keeps rising.

While Savages is more about a love triangle than the drug culture, it's also somewhat routine. O's narration doesn't add much to the story, and it's overtly stated early on that Ben and Chon complement each other perfectly (as well as both sides calling the other "savages"). There's a large cast of characters that are introduced and then forgotten about for the rest of the movie, and a cinematic rewind that's more showy than necessary. The acting is solid (especially Johnson as the idealist who finds himself becoming more and more corrupt) but the story never really takes off. Oliver Stone does a good job with his actors, but Savages will go down as one of his decent films, not one of his best.

Overall grade: C+

Reviewed by James Lynch


Imagine if Twin Peaks and The X-Files were made for little kids. Well, this sort of light-hearted foray into the paranormal and inexplicable is the basis for Gravity Falls, a new cartoon from Disney.

Young siblings Dipper Pines (Jason Ritter) and Mabel Pines (Kristen Schall) have been sent to spend their summer in the town of Gravity Falls, located in the Pacific Northwest. They're staying with their great uncle Stan (Alex Hirsch), who runs the Mystery Shack. "Grunkle Stan" is a boorish guy, obsessed with money and his hokey, very fake "mysteries" he peddles to tourists. Dipper isn't happy to be there, but Mabel -- a hyperactive "girly girl" -- is thrilled.

But there's more to the sleepy town than meets the eye. Dipper finds a mysterious book with descriptions of the unexplained creatures and supernatural phenomena of the town -- along with the warning "Trust no one." So it's up to Dipper (scared) and Mabel (hyper) to uncover the truth in a town filled with sea monsters, kid psychics, a haunted convenience store, the beheading of a wax figure, and more.

The best cartoons appeal to both adults and children, and while Gravity Falls definitely skews towards little kids, there are quite a few jokes and references tossed in for the grown ups watching. Apart from the standard supernatural references, there are odd sayings ("Sweet! Beaver with a chainsaw!"), surprise appearances (the wax museum has such scary figures as Genghis Khan and Jack the Ripper -- plus Larry King and Coolio), and unexpected cultural references (the kid psychic looks and talks like a televangelist; when Mabel's weird boyfriend says he has a secret to tell her, she thinks, "Please be a vampire! Please be a vampire!").

Gravity Falls is far too cute to scare little kids, and this cute factor may sometimes be a little much for any adutls who watch it. But the show is fun (not to mention the only place you can see a magic gnome barfing up a rainbow), Kristen Schall is a delight as the hyperactive little girl, and even if the show never explains all the mysteries of the town, it has enough twisted fun ("Well, back to my death ray!") to keep audiences entertained.

Overall grade: B-

Reviewed by James Lynch



Before becoming a Hollywood star, Channing Tatum worked as a male stripper. Director Steven Soderbergh has addressed the mundane sides of sexuality in movies like Sex, Lies, and Videotape and The Girlfriend Experience. The two are a perfect fit for Magic Mike, a combination of comedy and drama about a male stripper and his new protege.

Mike (Channing Tatum) has a dream and business plan to start his own company, designing and making unique furniture out of almost anything he finds. However, Mike makes most of his money as "Magic Mike," a male stripper at the club Xquisite in Tampa, Florida, run by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). Mike has several irons in the fire -- auto detailing, roof tiling -- which brings the young Adam (Alex Pettfyer) into his life. Mike introduces Adam to the world of stripping, introducing him to a world of screaming lustful women, lots of cash (in singles and fives), and other perks. But Adam lives with his sister Brooke (Cody Horn), who may have an interest in Mike but also has grave concerns about Adam's new lifestyle. There are a number of other players -- Joanna (Olivia Munn), Mike's casual-sex girlfriend; Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias), the club DJ with some seedy side projects -- but Magic Mike is mainly about Mike and Adam, moving between Brooke's suspicions about the "stripper lifestyle" and Dallas' gleeful embrace of the same.

There are two sides to Magic Mike. On the lighter side, there's copious amounts of prurient displays of male skin, from the comical routines (with lots of thongs, crotch-grabbing, and gyrations) to the casual nudity the strippers enjoy. But then there's the underbelly, that while Mike enjoys a certain fame and definite money, he also knows he's been stripping for six years and not really closer to his dream. Dallas' promise of opening a bigger male strip club in Miami -- promising Mike equity in it -- is either upwards and onwards for Mike, or putting off what he really wants. And it's all new and tempting to Adam.

Magic Mike balances its blend of seriousness and silliness with a terrific cast. Tatum hasn't impressed me before, but here he makes the title character shine, someone who may appear happy and hyper on stage but very reserved (and possibly doubtful) about his life in private. McConaughey is a hoot as the stage owner who's as happy choreographing his stars as whipping the crowd into a frenzy and performing for them. Pettfyer is solid as the newest stripper (his stage name is "the Kid" when he begins), and Horn is a little too serious and reserved as the big sister too worried about her little brother to relax.

While Magic Mike balances the stripper scales by offering men showing skin and shakin' their booty, it's also a solid drama that shows that stripping isn't all fun and games and ones and fives.

Overall grade: B+

Reviewed by James Lynch


An Interview with Marc De Santis, Author of Blood Like Wine

I wanted to take this opportunity to get an exclusive interview with Marc De Santis, author of the novel, Blood Like Wine. Now with epublishing, authors can get their work published for much less cost, and sell via the Amazon store. I have read the first few chapters of the novel, and it is excellent. We look forward to more creations from this author.

Tell me about yourself:

I have had an interest in fantasy worlds for a long time.  That partly explains my interest in ancient and medieval history.  I have an M.A. from NYU in European history.  It is embodied in the world that I created, which is a rough, fantasy approximation of Europe in the time of the Roman Empire.  

Why did you write Blood Like Wine?  

I have wanted to write a novel for a long time.  A very long time.  Ever since I read The Lord of the Rings when I was ten I have wanted to make my own version.  Some have been just mental creations.  Others have found their way into my short stories.  World-building is fun! The East, which is what I call the world of Blood Like Wine, is a civilized place beset by barbarism.  The Danthesians, my analogue of the Romans, are the dominant power in the world, but they will discover that their position at the top is not so secure as they thought.  Their army is strong, but their political class is largely venal and ineffective.

What is Blood Like Wine about?  

Numerian is a captain of the Danthesian army, and a great soldier.  He is also in love with Acronea, the daughter of Danthesia’s foremost general and politician, Marshal Troponus.  They are betrothed, but Numerian can’t marry her without her father’s permission.  When Troponus starts a war with a kingdom of the undead, Numerian dutifully follows his commander, knowing that he can wed Acronea in no other way, despite his severe doubts about the wisdom of the invasion.  The tragedy that ensues is caused in large part because of this ill-considered war.  Numerian, Acronea, and everyone around Marshal Troponus will suffer because of this.    

Who are your favorite authors?

My favorite authors are J.R.R. Tolkien, Michael Moorcock, Frank Herbert, and C.S. Friedman.  They are all great world-builders and truly original in their writing.  Of the four, it is likely that readers have heard of all of them except perhaps for C.S. Friedman, who deserves to be better known.  Her In Conquest Born is one of the best science fiction novels that I have ever read.  

It says the first novel in the series.  How many are planned?

Blood Like Wine is the first novel in the Marshals of the Dominion trilogy.  Of course it is a trilogy! I will continue on with the adventures of Numerian and the other characters and explore how the war has changed them.  

When can the sequel be expected?  

I hope to have it ready within a few months.  It is under way right now. These things take time.  I put a great deal of thought into the plot, characters, and structure of Blood Like Wine. It is not a haphazard creation, as I hope everyone who reads it will appreciate.  The pieces all fit together, and even though I have left the possibility of a sequel open, it is a novel that stands completely on its own.  

Where can Blood Like Wine be purchased?  

Blood Like Wine can be found in the Amazon Kindle Store and at Smashwords for the Nook, iPad, and other devices for $0.99.



Happy Independence Day

A few years back, I noticed that there was a fireworks display that was visible right from my front lawn.  I presume it is put on by one of the local country clubs.  I got to use the "firework scene mode" of my new digital camera, and got some decent shots.  Happy 4th of July to all.




Spider-Man is back: back to the beginning. The Amazing Spider-Man is the reboot of the wall-crawler's franchise, leaving behind the Tobey Maguire films for a darker, more conspiratorial movie.

As a child, Peter Parker was left with Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) when someone seemed to be after his scientist father Richard and mother Mary (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz, appearing very briefly in the film). Jump ahead, and Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is a lonely teenager picked on by jock Flash Thompson (Chris Zylka) and with a crush on Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone). An accidental discovery leads Peter to Dr. Curt Conners (Rhys Ifans), a colleague of Richard Parker. Curt and Richard worked together on splicing together human and animal DNA; Curt imagines this would both let him regrow his missing arm and improve humanity by removing its weakness. Of course, during the visit Peter Parker winds up in an area where experimental spiders are, and when one bites him, it leads to superhuman spider powers -- and, eventually, the spandex-clad Spider-Man. Similarly, Curt's experimenting on himself transforms him into the Lizard: a giant, disturbingly powerful cgi creature with plans for his transformational formula...

Oddly, Gwen Stacey isn't just the romantic interest; she's the center of several plotlines. She's the daughter of Captain Stacy (Denis Leary), the police officer determined to arrest the masked vigilante. She's the intern of Curt Conners, involving her in the movie's scientific endeavors. And she's a "regular" pretty girl at school, turning up in the halls and classrooms to run into Peter.

As with most comic book relaunches, The Amazing Spider-Man spends too much time retelling an origin we largely know. While the parental conspiracy is new (and a led-in to the sequel), pretty much anyone who's heard of Spider-Man knows the fate of Uncle Ben and its affect on Peter Parker. Andrew Garfield plays Peter Parker more as a sullen, rebellious teen than geeky outsider, neither particularly good not bad in the role. Emma Stone is a bit better as the teen with numerous responsibilities, but Rhys Ifans is fairly boring as the movie's villain, who goes from put-upon scientist to cgi monster interested in his own power and transforming others without their consent. The action is well done -- but it doesn't really kick in until quite late in the movie. The Amazing Spider-Man is decent, but amazing it ain't.

Overall grade: B-

Reviewed by James Lynch

Jenny McCarthy in PLAYBOY (again)

Thomas Wolfe wrote that you can't go home again, but sometimes you can go back to Playboy. Jenny McCarthy first appeared in the men's magazine in October 1993, and she makes her latest appearance 19 years later, in the current July/August issue of Playboy.

While the article described McCarthy as "one of the most beloved, famous, and atypical women alive" it doesn't have a lot of discussion with her. The article praises her (and her three previous pictorials), mentions her crusade against childhood vaccines (after her son Evan was diagnosed with autism at 2), and lists her upcoming projects (which include hosting three television shows and finishing her latest book).

But for those who don't read Playboy for the articles (and those people do exist), McCarthy also struts her stuff for a photo shoot that proves that she's as stunning now as she was 19 years ago. 'Nuff said.

Written by James Lynch