Several years ago the band the Arrogant Worms sang "It's Great to Be a Nerd," and time has proven them right.  Some of the hottest movies and television shows are based on comic books, video games are one of the hottest forms of entertainment, the Internet is bigger than ever, and science fiction and fantasy are wildly popular.  (Heck, one of the biggest shows on tv is The Big Bang Theory, featuring four uber-nerds.)  So does the reality competition show King of the Nerds salute geek culture or mock it?  More the latter.
Hosted by Curtis Armstrong and Carradine (because they were in the movie Revenge of the Nerds), King of the Nerds brings eleven different types of nerds -- from video game pros to scientists to roleplaying game designers -- together at "Nerdvana."  The players are divided into two teams, and each episode has two contests.  The team that wisn the first contest is immune; then the winning and losing team each select someone on the losing team, and those two compete in a "Nerd Off" to see who goes home.  The last player standing will win a big cash prize -- and sit on the "Throne of Games" as the King of the Nerds.
King of the Nerds did a good job by selecting "professional" nerds to play: The players almost all make a living in their hobbies, rather than n just having obsessive pasttimes.  Unfortunately, the players do come off as awkward and socially inept.  And in addition to the usual reality tv show tricks (dramatic cuts just before a commercial, people talking trash and plotting to the camera), there's a sense of randomness here: In the first episode one team "lost" when a person said they seemed weaker, and no one knows what will be involved in the "Nerd Off" when selecting folks to compete in it. And many of the show's geeky elements seem designed for the audience to laugh at the players rather than with them.
There are a lot of terrific elements in different types of "nerd culture," but King of the Nerds goes for the silly side rather than the cooler side.  It's a shame.

Overall grade: D
Reviewed by James Lynch


 I don't know what sort of impact internet porn has had on the phone sex industry, but the latter is the basis for the movie For a Good Time, Call...  This movie is a mix of The Odd Couple and dirty talk, with a strong "chick flick" feel mixed in.

The setup of For a Good Time, Call... is pretty simple.  Lauren Powell (Lauren Miller) is a serious, somewhat boring woman who loses her publishing job at the same time her boyfriend breaks up with her and kicks her out of their apartment.  Katie Steele (Ari Graynor) is a free spirit with multiple jobs whose Manhattan apartment just stopped being rent controlled, so she needs a roommate.  Jesse (Justin Long), their mutual flamboyant gay friend, sees a great solution: have Lauren and Katie move in together!  Unfortunately, the two had a very awkward run-in at college ten years before, so between that and their different temperments life in the apartment is quite tense.

Things change when Lauren thinks she overhears Katie with a boyfriend -- and it turns out to be Katie's work as a phone sex operator.  Lauren is disgusted at first ("I'm better than better than phone sex") but soon sets up Katie to go into business for herself.  And when their first new employee doesn't work out (to put it mildly), Lauren decided to work the phone lines as well.

Sexuality provides plenty of material for comedy; unfortunately, it doesn't here.  For a Good Time, Call... is both predictable and unamusing.  There are the "funny" set pieces, such as Lauren's parents popping in unexpectedly, goofy callers (including several celebrity cameos), a romantic subplot between Katie and a caller, a training montage for Katie, and former enemies turning into best friends.  But there's little humor here -- simply talking dirty and showing sex toys is no substitute for good writing -- and the acting is pretty bad.  (Ari Grayor feels like a budget version of Kate Hudson.)  DVD extras are pretty sparse as well.  For a good time, skip For a Good Time, Call...
Overall grade: F
Reviewed by James Lynch



For better or worse, it's almost impossible to think about politics today without thinking about Sarah Palin.  The HBO movie Game Change, adapted from the book of the same name, takes a behind-the-scenes look at the selection, rise, and problems of this influential woman.

Game Change begins in 2008, when John McCain (Ed Harris) has just won his party's nomination for president.  Unfortunately, he trails Barack Obama by wide margins in the polls.  Campaign Manager Steve Schmit (Woody Harrelson) thinks Obama's success is a matter of style over substance and, in the era of YouTube, they need something different than another white male vice president selection to win.

Schmit's search leads him to Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore), a relatively unknown Alaska governor.  At first, she seems perfect: She's a religious, pro-life, pro-gun woman whose core beliefs will energize the Republican base.  She does a great job connecting with people on the campaign trail, her introduction at the Republican National Convention is akin to that of a rock star, and she raises massive amounts of money for the party.

Unfortunately, the quick vetting Palin recieved missed many of her problems.  She shows an amazing ignorance of politics, both domestic (not knowing what the Fed is) and foreign (not knowing Britain's politics are handled by the Prime Minister, not the Queen).  She's unprepared for the harshness of a national campaign, she's more concerned with her poll numbers in Alaska than nationally, and when she seems to outshine McCain she ignores any advice or suggestions from her campaign staff.

Much of these behind-the-scenes details about the 2008 campaign were already known -- from the original book to reports during the campaign -- so there's little that's surprising or a revelation in Game Change.  This is a pity, given the amazing quality of the acting here.  Moore doesn't just look exactly like Palin, but also brings forth her strengths and weaknesses.  With her performance, it's easy to understand both Palin's rapid popularity and the concerns she raised by anyone who got beneath the surface.  Ed Harris does a fine job making McCain the more pragmatic and experienced politician, while Woody Harrelson shines as the campaign expert becoming more and more exasperated trying to handle the vice-president pick with far more baggage than anyone expected.

The most meta scene in Game Change is when Moore-as-Palin lies in a hotel room, watching bitterly as Tina Fey-as-Palin makes fun of her on Saturday Night LiveGame Change won't end the debates over Palin -- liberals will hail it as revealing truths, conservatives will damn it as a partisan attack -- but it is an entertaining behind-the-scenes look at the campaign -- and the person who changed politics.

(The dvd includes two too-brief features where newsmen and political strategists describe the tremendous difficulties of being in a presidential campaign.)

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch



It's not easy raising kids; apparently, it's harder when a homicidal spirit has raised them for several years in the wilderness.  This is the basis for Mama, a horror movie with a few nice touches and a lot of cliches.

Mama begins promisingly enough with something different from most horror: current events.  During the stock market crash of 2007, Jeffrey (Nikolaj Costas-Waldau) cracked up, killing his bosses and wife and taking his daughters -- three-year-old Victoria, one-year-old Lily -- on a terrifying car ride on an icy road.  They crash, wander to an abandoned cabin, and Jeffrey is going to kill his kids; before he can, though, he's killed by a floating, dark spirit -- who then gives the girls food.

Jump ahead five years, and the searchers paid for by Jeffrey's brother Lucas (also played by Costas-Waldau) have found the cabin and the girls.  Victoria (Megan Charpentier) remembers a bit of society, while Lily (Isabelle Nelisse) only remembers a few words and clings to her older sister.  Lucas and his punk-rock girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain so much better in Zero Dark Thirty) take in the girls.  To keep their Aunt Jean (Kate Moffat) from taking the girls, psychiatrist Dr. Dreyfuss (Daniel Kash) arranges for a house where the family can live, and where he can interview and study the kids.

But the girls didn't come back alone.  Victoria and Lily both mention "Mama" as keeping them safe in the woods and at their new home.  Dreyfuss first thinks "Mama" is a part of Victoria's psyche, but he soon gets investigates a story of a 19th-century mental patient Victoria shouldn't know about but does.  Strange things start happening around the new house, and when Lucas is injured Annabelle becomes the surrogate mother.  And then the killing starts...

Mama works best early on, and the little kids hide and scutter about like animals as they readjust to human lives.  There are nice glimpses of something unusual going on, as the strangeness seems to happen out of the corner of the filmgoer's eye.  Unfortunately, too soon the movie becomes a series of loud noises and sudden camera close-ups, plus a fairly routine cgi critter.  The movie doesn't seem to have any consistency to its own rules (the monster kills people, or injures them, or puts them to sleep, almost at random) and the terrific feral kids are soon reduced to shrieking.  Mama starts strong, but it could have used more of its woodland element and subtle side and less of the rampaging monster.

Overall grade: C
Reviewed by James Lynch


Intel Core i3-3217U

Intel comes out with new processors at a fairly predictable pace.  The latest are the so called "Ivy Bridge" parts, which are the die shrink to the 22 nm lithography process.  This latest chip is known for its more robust integrated graphics, HD 4000 in the faster form.  I recently was looking for benchmarks on the Core i3-3217U chip, and could find little written specific to this processor.  It seems that the faster chips get more of the attention, while the more pedestrian gear is quietly launched.



It can be tough to tell a story where everyone knows the end, but the movie Zero Dark Thirty manages to turn the hunt for Osama bin Laden into an engaging procedural of an international manhunt.
A year or two after the 9/11 attacks, CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain) arrives from Washington to Pakistan to hunt down every lead in order to find and kill bin Laden.  She's paired with Dan (Jason Clarke), a CIA operative who introduces her to the harsh necessities of physical and psychological torture of terrorist prisoners.  Maya soon becomes convinced that the key is finding Abu Ahmed (Tusharr Mehra), who she believes is the courier working directly with bin Laden.  There are plenty of obstacles, though, from her boss Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler) wanting her to focus more on domestic terrorism cells, to the terrorists attacks involving Maya and her team.  But she bounces around the Middle East -- mostly in Pakistan and Afghanistan -- putting together the clues and evidence that leads to the inevitable Navy Seal raid on what is now a familiar compound...
Zero Dark Thirty has become infamous for mixing fact and fiction and coming up with the conclusion that the U.S. torture of prisoners was key in getting bin Laden -- and that's an undeniable part of the movie.  Maya's initial abhorrence at seeing the way prisoners are treated soon becomes forgotten in her quest to piece together information -- what the prisoners lie about, as well as what they reveal -- and find her courier.  Indeed, characters acknowledge that they'll be taken to task for torture but they never feel any regret or remorse over doing what they felt was necessary.    
But Zero Dark Thirty is a work of fiction, and it's a credit to the movie that it feels so much like a factual account.  Director Kathryn Bigelow (who looked at the addictive nature of war in The Hurt Locker) takes us into a place where Maya's whole world is the unrelenting pursuit of what she believes is her biggest lead.  When a higher-up asks what else she's done for the CIA and she says "Nothing.  I've done nothing else," it's not an exaggeration: We know nothing about her family, friends, or life at all before her quest.  Her whole life -- from friends to world outlook -- is the hunt; even when Dan leaves to try and life a somewhat normal life, she can't think of anything but staying behind.  This world isn't glamorous (sources betray their cause for money, while coverage of real-life terrorist attacks remind us of the continual danger) but it all leads up to the final raid -- which is somehow ironic, given that all the street planning and moral sacrificed led to a clean, high-tech assault.  Jessica Chastain is terrific as the woman of absolute determination; there are a variety of actors making brief appearances (from James Gandolfini, to Mark Duplass to John Barrowman), but for all the teamwork, deals, and betrayals, it's Maya who is at the center of everything.

Zero Dark Thirty has stirred up controversy and discussion -- which is something a good movie does -- but even those who disagree with its methods will be hard pressed not to feel gripped by its unrelenting realism and pursuit of America's most wanted villain.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch


John W. Campbell, WHO GOES THERE?

Ah, the terrors of the antarctic and the paranoid.  John W. Campbell's novella Who Goes There?  is a classic mix of suspense and science fiction that has inspired two movies (and one prequel) and stands up pretty well today.

Who Goes There? is about the accidental discovery of the ultimate infiltrator.  A variety of scientists are working at an isolated research station in Antarctica when they stumble upon an amazing discovery: an alien creature, and its spaceship, frozen in the ice.  The scientists accidentally destroy the ship trying to remove it from the ice, but they do manage to get the frozen creature -- an evil-looking thing with three red eyes, blue skin, and tendrils for hair -- back to their camp.  After debate, the biologist Blair gets to thaw part of it out in order to perform tests on it.

Unfortunately, the next day the scientists find that the creature has escaped from its icy prison and was in the process of killing and duplicating one of the dogs when the scientists found it.  The scientists conclude that the Thing can copy its prey both physically and mentally -- and it may have already replaced one or more of the scientists.  Blair had to be locked away from the others because in his paranoia he might have tried to kill them -- but is he really paranoid if some of the humans aren't really humans, but the Thing waiting to replace them?  It's up to the other scientists to create a test to determine who's human, before the copies can conquer the remaining humans -- and leave the base to absorb and copy more and more people...

Who Goes There?  was first published in 1938, and it's easy to see how the fears it inspires remain timeless: eliminate the alien factor, and you have the question of how good, intelligent people behave when they can't trust one another and can't leave the place they are.  The dialogue can be a little stiff and the scientific "proof" of telepathy certainly feels dated, but otherwise Who Goes There? is quite comelling and suspenseful.

This edition of Who Goes There?  also includes an introduction from William F. Nolan, along with Nolan's unused screen treatment of the original novella.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch


Peter David --update

Peter David is a self-proclaimed "Writer of Stuff," and that's certainly true: He's written comic books, television episodes, screenplays, movie novelizations, original novels, franchise novels, and a weekly column called "But I Digress."  Several of his writings have been reviewed here.

Unfortunately, at the end of 2012 Peter David had a terrible stroke.  Updates on his condition and recovery are being posted on his website (currently updated by his wife Kathleen) and everyone is hoping for his recovery.

In the meantime, anyone wanting to help Peter David can buy any of his books from Crazy 8 Press (the publishing imprint Mr. David co-created) or through online sites or bookstores.  It will help him with his upcoming medical bills (and doesn't hurt him as an author, either!).

And please keep a good thought for Peter David and his family.

Written by James Lynch

P.S.  Since the post, Peter David has been improving day by day, and today he was cleared to go to rehab.  Woot!



Remember when it seemed that everyone in the world was constantly washing their hands with Purell and worried about bird flu?  Well, add three diseases, have them appear and spread through the world an alarming rate, and you have Pandemic.  This cooperative game from Z-Man Games has 2-4 players working together to cure these diseases before they ravage the globe.
Pandemic is played on a board reminiscent of Risk, where major cities are connected by lines and wrap around from one side to the other.  Four diseases -- represented by yellow, red, blue, and black wooden cubes -- are breaking out and spreading through the world.  At the star of the game, three cities have three cubes, three cities have two cubes, and three cities have one cube each.  These cities are picked from cards the Infection Card pile, and their cards go in the Infection Discard Pile.  (This will become significant shortly.)

The players all select a random role, get a number of Player Cards (usually a location on the board, though sometimes a useful Special Event card) based on the number of players, and place their pawns at the Research Station in Atlanta.  On each player's turn they can perform four actions: move from one city to a connected one; discard a card from their hand to move to that city; discard the card of their current city to move anyplace on the board; discard the card of their current city to build a Research Station there; move from Research Station to another one; discard five cards with the same color to cure that disease; treat a disease in their city by removing a cube from that city; or giving another player in the same city the card for that city.  Each role has a unique benefit; for example, the Medic can remove all the cubes from a city with one action, while the Scientist only needs four cards of the same color to find a cure.  If all four diseases have been cured, the players win!  If not...

After a player takes their actions, they draw two cards from the Player Draw Pile, then act as the Infector, drawing a number of cards from the Infection Draw Pile equal to the Infection Rate (which starts at 2 and can go up to 4), putting a cube in each city and putting the cards in the Infection Discard Pile.  And if a player ever has more than seven cards, they have to immediately discard down to seven.

Then there are Epidemics and Outbreaks.  The Player Draw Pile has a number of Epidemic cards (four in an easy game, six in a normal game, eight in a hard game) that make things much, much tougher.  When an Epidemic is drawn, the Infection Rate counter goes up, then the bottom card of the Infection Draw Pile is drawn and that city gets three cubes.  Then all the cards in the Infection Discard Pile get shuffled together (including the card just drawn) and put on top of the Infection Draw Pile.  This makes an Outbreak much more likely.

Any time a city would have four cubes, it has an Outbreak.  This means every city connected to that city gets a disease cube of that color from the stockpile; and if one of those cities has three cubes, it has an Outbreak, spreading a cube from the storkpile to each adjacent city (though a city can only have one Outbreak per turn).  In addition, each Outbreak moves the marker down on the Outbreak Indicator.

There are three ways to lose, and all are very possibe.  If you ever need to draw cubes of a certain color but no more are available (usually to Outbreaks), the players lose.  If the Outbreak Indicator reaches eight, the players lose.  And if the Player Draw Pile runs out of cards, they lose.

Pandemic is a very challenging, tense, and thoughtful game.  If players focus solely on finding cures, the diseases can spread and make the number of cubes run out.  If players spend their turns getting rid of the cubes on the board, they won't find the cures they need to win.  The cards played to move around the board are same ones needed to cure the diseases, and they don't return to play once used, so card usage is critical.  (The seven-card hand limit is also a problem, as you discard cards someone else might have needed.)  And the game ending when the Player Draw Pile runs out puts a very real ticking clock in front of all the players.  Pandemic is a fun challenge for the players to work together and figure out how to win, while watching out for the multiple ways they can suddenly lose.  It's possible to think victory is assured and then find things take a turn for the much worse, and no matter how often it's played there is no one clear path to victory.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch


There's a certain allue to the bad girl, and comic books are full of female villains with perfect bodies (if frequently top heavy) and revealing and/or spandex outfits.  So the folks ar Comic Buyer's Guide decided to put together a collection of these female foes, and former foes, with Dangerous Curves: Comics' Sexiest Bad Girls, a magazine-type collection of their favorite characters in this genre.  Surprisingly, the result is a little disappointing.

Dangerous Curves has a very simple format.  Each character (mostly from Marvel and DC Comics, though there are a few from independent comics) has a few sentences about them -- a brief history and their appeal -- plus two or three pictures of them from their comic book covers or inside art.  And that's about it.

So what's wrong with this simple approach to comic-book cheesecake of the villains?  For me, it's a lack of information.  The introduction warns that "We provide brief summaries of (in some cases) thousands of panels," so it's undertsandable that Dangerous Curves can't give a whole history of each character, especially those who have been around for decades.  The introduction also defines "curves" as adult and sexy, setting the tone for this as an assemblage of eye-candy.
But what constitutes a bad girl here?  There are lots of villainesses and reformed villainesses -- but not all.  Why did the Invisible Woman's brief turn to the dark side make the cut, but not those of Supergirl or Mary Marvel?  Does Storm really deserve to be here because she briefly sported a leather jacket and mohawk?  The brief descriptions don't really describe what makes these selections bad girls.

But going beyond who is and isn't on this list, there's more ambiguity.  The introduction says "The characters in this volume are our choices" -- but how many people got to choose?  Why select 60, when 50 and 100 are more common amounts for best-of lists?  How did they determine who ranked where in the listings?  And don't the folks at CBG know it builds suspense to work toward number one instead of starting there and going, by definition, downhill from there?  And couldn't they procure some original art to go along with the comic-book appearances?

Dangerous Curves is a slightly too-simple collection of comics' female eye candy (much like its predecessor from CBG, 100 Sexiest Women in Comics).  While the selections are nice to look at, the lack of more information on the selection or criteria for this work leaves it feeling a little subjective and superficial.

Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch