PORN AND PONG by Damon Brown

One of  history's dirty little secrets is that most advances in technology have wound up being used for pornography/erotica -- so it's no surprise that sex has made its way into video games.  But did the sex in society affect the games, or did the sex in games affect society?  This is discussed in Damon Brown's book Porn & Pong: How Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider and Other Sexy Games Changed Our Culture.

This book is divided into three sections: "The Porn Era (1972-1995)," "The Lara Croft Era (1996-2001)," and "The Grand Theft Auto Era (2001-2008)."  Brown talks about not just the overtly sexual games -- the ones in the title; the infamous and crude Custer's Revenge; and the Leisure Suit Larry series -- but also what else was happening in the world and technology.  For example, one section begins with a detailed description of the interactive experience NASA provided of images from Mars -- and how they were overshadowed by the online Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee sex tape.  "Porn pundits argue that it was downloaded or bought online several times over any Mars-related paraphenalia," observes Brown wryly.  "In retrospect, it seems that Pamela Anderson Lee was the real uncharted world."

Porn & Pong isn't a consistent look at the intersection of video games and sex.  The book provides some good details and observations of the mix of the two, from the iconic Lara Croft's idealized/excessive measurements (38-24-34) to the fact that Custer's Revenge "sold eighty thousand copies at fifty bucks a pop" to the MMORPG gay pride parade held in World of Warcraft.  However, the book doesn't make a case for these games affecting culture as for their being affected by it, namely through the numerous controversies and attempts to ban them.  Porn & Pong notes that Playboy had its first video game centerfolds in 2004 -- but that it happened after the magazine was losing readers to Maxim.  This book isn't helped either by numerous typos (plus the phrase "a porn," as ridiculous sounding here as when used on Family Guy) and excessive spacing between paragraphs, giving the impression this book needed to be padded out.

The most insightful part of Porn & Pong is in Jon M. Gibson's introduction, where he argues that video games are still stuck in the juvenile, t&a-focused stage of dealing with sexuality.  Brown's book tends to support this view of sex in video games without commenting too much on it.  In the conclusion, Brown says, "...video games and their virtual worlds have rapidly changed our perception of entertainment, of interaction and of human relationships."  While this may be the case, Porn & Pong suggests that when it comes to sex, video games follow societal trends instead of creating them.

Overall grade: C+
Reviewed by James Lynch


Halloween Gaming

Halloween is easily my favorite holiday.  It's the one holiday where you can dress up as literally anything, you can go from house seeking free candy, and you can play tricks and enjoy scares and the supernatural.  These elements are also popular in many games, so it's natural there are plenty of games that are natural fits for Halloween.  Below are some of my favorites.  Enjoy!


One staple of Halloween is the horror movie; and thanks to the Rifftrax folks, a new tradition is the horrible movie.  Kevin Murphy, Mike Nelson, and Bill Corbett have continued their Mystery Science Theater 3000 tradition of comedy wisecracking during bad movies with Rifftrax -- and around Halloween there seem to be bad horror movies given this comically savage treatment.  This year the trio took on a recent, unintentionally comic and definitely terrible movie with Rifftrax -- Birdemic: Shock and Terror.

Birdemic: Shock and Terror tries to present a message about global warming; sadly, the horrible acting, atrocious plot, and terribly fake cgi birds make it as effective in delivering its message as Plan 9 from Outer Space was at warning about the dangers of nuclear war.  The short description: a salesman quickly becomes a millionaire and environmentalist (despite not being able to pronounce "solar panels") starts dating a model (who quickly becomes the Victoria's Secret cover model) when global warming causes birds to start blowing up gas stations and attacking people.

Normally that would be enough said about this movie (except for sympathy for anyone who sat through it),  However, Murphy, Nelson, and Corbett have plenty of fun with the movie, from the star's inability to "walk like a person" to the longtime absence of the birds (and, when they do show, their hovering and sounding more like seagulls than eagles).  The trio performed their riffing live at Nashville, it was beamed to theaters, and it was a lot of fun.

My only complain was with before they got to the movie.  Previously, the Rifftrax movie specials had three-to-four short features that got riffed before the main event.  This time, though, they only had one; and while they did a good job with the "comic" sad sack Norman short, I would have liked to have more Halloween fun.

Still, the trio managed to get the audience laughing a'plenty at the movie where survivors of a killer bird attack arm themselves with wire hangers, fire automatic weapons at a bus (filled with people), and see forest fires that never spread from one small spot.  I can't wait to see what they do next Halloween.  In the meantime, "Keep flailing!"

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch



I'm always wary when I hear the phrase "based on a true story" applied to a movie -- it's so broad it can be applied to just about anything -- but in the case of Argo it comes closer than most.  The movie tells the incredible story of a covert rescue amidst an international standoff.

Argo begins with the tense situation between America and Iran in late 1979.  The Iranian Revolution had put the Ayatollah Khomeni in power, and the country's former leader fled to the U.S. -- with Iran demanding his return for trial and execution.  An angry mob overrab the U.S. embassy in Iran, taking the personnel there hostage and claiming they were spies.  However, six Americans managed to escape, hiding out in the home of the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber).  The six were still in danger, both from the Iranian government that knew six embassy personnel were unaccounted for and from Iranian mobs ready to kill any Americans they find.

The rescue plan for the six comes from CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directed Argo): He'll travel to Iran as a Canadian filmaker scouting locations for a sci-fi B-movie called Argo, provides cover stories and forged documents for the six Americans making them out to be his film crew, and they'll all fly out together.   After working with special effects expert John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to build up some real Hollywood buzz for the fake film, Mendez travels to Iran.  But there are numerous dangers, from U.S state department doubts about the plan (Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston), Mendez' boss, describes it as "the best bad idea we have, by far") to the Iranian government literally piecing together pictures of the six Americans from shredded documents taken from the embassy.  And there's still the very difficult task of getting past customs in Iran to get on a plane and head home...

Argo works well as both a historical document and a drama.  Speaking as someone who was around during the hostage crisis, I can say Argo captures the feel of the time, from the yellow ribbons everywhere in support of the hostages to the inflamatory statement from both the American and Iranian public condemning the other side.  There's not a lot of character development here, but Argo works better as a political and espionage procedural, showing how a desperate plan was put together and executed very quickly.  There's also a surprising amount of humor, namely from Goodman and Arkin as they navigate Mendez through the treacherous world of Hollywood (and their crude, funny slogan for their fake film).  Argo is solid, suspenseful movie magic revolving around a real operation during a tense time in American history.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch


The search for proof of the paranormal has been the subject of many horror movies -- but few have taken as low-key an approach as writer-director Ti West in The Innkeepers.  This horror movie has a small cast, a minimum amount of special effects and costuming -- and unfortunately, not that many scares.

The Yankee Pedlar Inn is nearing its end.  Not enough customers stay there, and after the current weekend it will close its doors for good.  Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) are the only two employees left, dutifully checking the few remaining guests in and out and bringing them clean towels.  They have a different priority, though: Find and document proof of the paranormal at the Inn, so Luke can post it to his website (that so far only has a video of a door "mysteriously" closing).  They want to do a room-by-room sweep of the Inn before it closes, especially since there are legends that Madeline O'Malley was murdered there in the early days of the Inn.  But with Luke's pessimism, Claire being easily startled (and then going for her inhaler), and their camera broken (so they can only try for audio proof), they're not the most dynamic of investigators.

But as Claire and Luke chat, idly investigate, and swap shifts, strange things happen.  Claire keeps hearing noises and almost seeing things.  Their latest guest is Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), a former actress and current spiritualist who senses restless spirits in the Inn.  Will Claire and Luke find the proof they seek before the Inn is gone?  And what if the proof they seek turns out to be malevolent?

Much as I like horror that relies more on atmosphere and plotting than gore and special effects, The Innkeepers goes too far in the opposite direction.  The scares are few and far between, relying on some very rudimentary movie monsters and the frequent combination of a swell of music and a camera zoom-in.  The characters of Claire and Luke are paper-thin : We know nothing about them outside their hotel job and ghost-hunting hobby.  There are a few tense moments as the characters wander the dark, deserted halls of their Inn, but overall The Innkeepers doesn't do enough with its minimal approach to horror.  (DVD extras are the basics: a behind-the-scenes feature and two commentaries.)

Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch


Green Day, UNO

Green Day was the punk band that surprised everyone with their political album American Idiot.  Several albums later they return to their punk roots with ¡UNO!

¡UNO! (the first in a four-part album plan) takes a stripped-down approach to music, blasting out songs of anger and speed one after another.  Romance is reduced to one-night stands ("I got an impulse/so repulsive that it burns/ I wanna break your heart/until it makes your stomach turn"), music criticism becomes a call to "someone kill the DJ/shoot the fucking DJ" and high-school nostalgia becomes "I'd rather go to the funeral/ than to this high school reunion."  The songs are mostly three-chord rapid-fire attacks, only slowing slightly for the album's closer "Oh Love."

While ¡UNO! isn't cohesive as an album -- you could shuffle all the songs and it would sound the same -- the songs do showcase the strength of Green Day as a band.  The songs deliver the punk attitude and energy of teenagers just starting out, but with the skill and timing Green Day have developed over the years.  There's no more commentary here than you'd expect from angry young teens, but the songs still kick ass.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch


What happens when a movie becomes self-aware of itself?  This can lead to original ideas and takes on familiar material -- or a glaring self-indulgent mess.  Both of these happen in Seven Psychopaths, a violent comedy from writer-director Martin McDonagh.

Marty (Colin Farrell) is a Hollywood writer under pressure to finish his latest screenplay: "Seven Psychopaths."  He's distracted by problems with his girlfriend Kaya (Abbie Cornish), his possible alcoholism, and his friend Billy (Sam Rockwell).  Billy is an out-of-work actor who's a bit hyperactive and wants to help with the screenplay.  He and his friend Hans (Christopher Walken) also make money with their "dog borrowing" scheme: They look for rich-looking people walking their dogs, grab up the dog, wait for the owner to offer a reward for their missing dog, then return the dog and collect the reward.

Unfortunately, Billy and Hans grabbed a Shih Tzu belonging to Charlie (Woody Harrelson), a mobster willing to kill anyone at all to get his dog back.  There's also a mysterious vigilante who kills mobsters and leaves a Jack of Diamonds card behind as his calling card.  There's Myra (Linda Bright Clay), Hans' wife who wants him to get an honest job -- and awaits the results of her cancer tests.  And there's Zachariah (Tom Waits, in a terrific cameo), a man who answered Billy's ad for psychopaths to tell their stories for Marty's screenplay.

Seven Psychopaths combines some good acting with an excess of showy cleverness.  Rockwell is very funny as the friend who never seems to stop talking or interfering, and Harrelson does well in the one-dimensional role of the gangster whose only traits are loving his dog and not caring about violence.  Unfortunately, the screenplay-within-the-movie soon becomes a metafictional device for everything from staging action scenes in movies like this, to critiquing the lack of good roles for women.

Seven Psychopaths is often original and provides more than the standard "simple crime gone awry" formula, but McDonagh lets himself fall into the trap of the screenwriter who writes himself into the story.

Overall grade: C+
Reviewed by James Lynch



Ah, there's nothing quite like the the story of a young boy and his dog -- especially if the boy is a mad scientist and the dog is brought back from the dead.  This is Frankenweenie, a black and white, stop-motion Disney movie that allows director Tim Burton to expand his early short film into a full-length feature.

In the quiet town of New Holland, young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) enjoys science, making very low-budget horror monster movies, and playing with his dog Sparky.  Sparky loves being with Victor, playing with the poodle next door, chewing toys and chasing balls, and running around.  When Victor's parents (Martin Sheen and Catherine O'Hara) want Victor to do more, he plays baseball -- which, tragically, leads to Sparky's death.  But inspired by science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), Victor is able to use lightning to bring Sparky back to life (albeit with bolts in his neck and a lot of stitches).  Too bad Sparky isn't content to stay hidden in the attic...
To fill out the movie, and provide some action and tension, there's a school science fair gone horribly awry.  The hunchbacked, creepy Edgar "E" Gore (Atticus Shaffer) sees Sparky and makes Victor show how he did it.  But "E" Gore can't keep the secret, and soon all of Victor's weird classmates are trying to bring animals back to life -- with disastrous results.  This all comes together the night of the town celebration, promoted by Mayor Burgermeister (also voiced by Short) and including cute Goth-girl Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder).  Can Victor save the day?  Will the scared villagers see Sparky as anything but a monster?

Frankenweenie is... a mixed result of a movie.  Tim Burton's love of the old-style horror and monster movies shines through, and this is basically a creature feature that's safe for young kids.  (As a dog owner, I also loved seeing Sparky's boundless enthusiasm and energy -- even if the latter needed to be recharged now and then.)  Still, the movie is largely superficial, with most characters as one-dimensional caricatures and no doubt who to root for and who to boo.  The creatures gone amok felt at times like it was done to pad the original story out so it was long enough for a feature film, and if you've seen the short original (which I'm sure will be included on the dvd) you know most of what happens.  Frankenweenie is a decent film for the Halloween season, enjoyable enough but not all that exciting.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch


While it's said that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, the cover is the first thing a potential reader/customer sees, designed to get their attention and encourage them to make a purchase.  This is probably even more true for a magazine like Playboy, which relies heavily on the promise of beautiful, naked women to attract readers.  Playboy's Greatest Covers, by Damon Brown, traces the history of the magazine through its front covers, discussing along the way the trends of the covers as well as the history of the time.
Following an introduction by Pamela Anderson (who has appeared on more Playboy covers than anyone else), Playboy's Greatest Covers jumps into its combination of photograph and history lessons.  This coffee-table book is divided into five sections: 1953-1962, 1963-1969, 1970-1979, 1980-1991, and 1992-present.  Each section begins with a summary of the years (from the seriousness of the 1970s ("Playboy couldn't be just about drinks, sex, and kicks anymore.  The newly attempted gravitas is shown on both the cover and the table of contents") to the 1980s (with a far greater emphasis on Hollywood stars).  Each chapter has a topic (from "Legs" to different celebrities (male and female) to jazzercise), with the cover or covers reflecting that topic; there are frequent outtake photos shown as well.
Playboy's Greatest Covers does a good job of living up to its title.  While this is a far-from-comprehensive collection of all the magazine's covers, this book provides not just a look at the covers but what went into them, from the first black-and-white cover proclaiming "Marilyn Monroe Nude!" to the current Girls Next Door.  Brown also discusses the techniques and themes of the issues, from the early anthromorphic rabbit who appeared quite a lot in the early years, to the near-omnipresence of the Playboy logo, appearing everywhere from small images in the background to the poses of the models.
As for the writing, Brown does a solid job.  He does a terrific job of linking the history of the times with the photos we see (from the early years: "Here's Playboy's secret: It isn't really about sex, but about being a man of the world"), as well as providing trivia (the magazine was almost called Stag Party; the cover with the first African-American model -- shown below -- was revolutionary in its day and was chosen by the American Society of Magazine Editors in 2005 as one of the 40 most important magazine covers of the past 40 years).
However, Brown's role is more of a cororate tour guide than a critic or objective analyst.  He tells us about the times and the photos from the Playboy perspective, in a way that's universally positive to the magazine.  (For example, when discussing the Playboy Clubs he stresses how popular they were and how no competitors could measure up; but their closing is quickly mentioned without any look at why they failed.)  Sometimes this perspective can come across as bragging (after the last issue with staples, Brown comments, "Playboy would now be 'perfect bound,' which would make it easier for collectors to find and organize their Playboys as if they were an encyclopedia of sex, history, and culture, as indeed they are") or without context (as when using body-paint on naked models is praised, without mentioning that magazines like Vanity Fair and Sports Illustrated had been doing this first).
Still, Playboy's Greatest Covers works pretty well as a chronological, sociological, and mostly nudity-free trip through the history of what may be America's most famous men's magazine.  The photos are high quality and the outtakes are interesting; the writing is well done, if uncritical; and the overall result is a good look at how the magazine evolved and changed with the times.  And if you're embarrassed to have this book on display, you can always repeat the large quote on the back cover: "I only read it for the articles."
Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James