Since the game Smash Up started with popular battling factions and added everything from science fiction critters to geeks, where could they go next?  The answer: cute.  Smash Up: Pretty Pretty introduces four new adorable factions to the game -- and their cuteness doesn't detract in the slightest from their effectiveness.

So what (seemingly) sweet factions can go toe-to-toe with ninjas, dinosaurs armed with lasers, and Lovecraftian horrors?  Mythic Horses have a variety of horses -- including, naturally, My Little Pony-type colorful ones -- that gain benefits from being with their fellow minions.  Fairies have a wide and varied range of abilities that makes them very tough to anticipate.  Kitty Cats use their cuddly nature to control their opponents' minions.  And Princesses -- clearly inspired by Disney -- have a lot of power and powerful abilities, at the cost of having fewer minions than other factions.  Each action also has its own bases, matching their themes.

Pretty Pretty maintains the humor, usefulness, and balance of all the Smash Up factions (base set and expansions).  The Mythic Horses cards usually show the friendly, cavorting horses -- often destroying members of another faction in the background or somewhere else on the card.  The Princesses follow the sweet Disney theme -- along with the appropriate "Direct to DVD Sequel" card.  Kitty Cats are recognizable from motivational posters and internet memes, while Fairies are nicely unpredictable.  Each faction is extremely useful, but none are so powerful that they unbalance the game and give those playing them an unfair advantage.
I wouldn't have guessed that prettiness fit in so well with the battling factions of Smash Up, but Pretty Pretty works very well.  This expansion doesn't change or add to the rules, but it creates lots of new possibilities for victory.  (I won with the Mythic Horses - Geeks combination.)  Pretty Pretty is a (ahem) pretty good addition for Smash Up.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch



Director Brad Bird loves retro themes and images, as shown in his movies such as The Iron Giant and The Incredibles.  So he would seem to be the perfect person to direct (and co-write) Tomorrowland, a movie based on the 1960s version of a science fiction future and a Disneyland feature.  The results, though, are less than one would hope for.

Tomorrowland opens with Frank Walker (George Clooney) and teenager Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) recording a video, while a countdown winds down on some glass tubes.  We then get their backstories.  At the 1964 World's Fair, a very young Frank brought his homemade jetpack to a science contest.  Nix (Hugh Laurie) dismisses him, but a young British girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) believes in him and slips him a pin, which leads him to a futuristic place called Tomorrowland.

The movie then jumps to the present -- and Casey's story.  She's a science genius who lived with her father and little brother; her biggest hobby seems to be sabotaging a demolition team that's taking down a rocketship launch setup.  After she's arrested, her personal items now include a Tomorrowland pin -- and when she touches it she's seemingly transported to a futuristic paradise.

When the pin runs out of energy, Casey goes searching for any clue to where it comes from.  This leads to killer robots with laser weapons -- and Athena, who turns out to be a martial arts-performing robot herself.  She leads Casey to Frank, who wants nothing more to do with Tomorrowland.  But the killer robots are in hot pursuit, the reasons behind Frank's leaving are revealed, and naturally there's something threatening the whole planet...

Tomorrowland is alright, but it could have used a lot more of its fantastical technology that opens the movie.  The main characters are pretty one-dimensional (He's grumpy!  she's optimistic!) and there aren't many surprises or variations through the movie.  There are story problems (like why the robots casually kill people who come close to learning the truth -- and try to kill Frank and Casey -- but their murder is hardly the endgoal of their creators) and as many lulls as moments of excitement.  (At least a half hour could have been successfully trimmed from the movie.)  It's nice to see a movie where the protagonist is a female who loves science, but Tomorrowland would have benefited more if Brad Bird had let his love of fantasy fly more here.

Overall grade : B-
Reviewed by James Lynch



Cheapass Games always has creative premises for their games, whether it's zombie fast food workers (Give Me the Brain!), sous chefs trying to scale a skyscraper while a demonic rabbit tries to knock them down (Devil Bunny Needs a Ham), or faking stories about foreign travels (Captain Park's Imaginary Polar Expedition).  The company went to 1997 for Unexploded Cow, where players try to solve two problems with a common solution -- mad cows in England and unexploded cows in France -- and make some money in the process.

At the start of the game, a City card is flipped over, everyone gets 5000 francs, antes 500 francs to the pot,  and players draw three cards.  On a player's turn, that player draws two cards and can buy cows (for the price on the card) and add them to their own herd.  All cows have a value (if they explode), and some have special skills: stealing a bomb from another cow in the herd, passing a bomb to another cow in the herd, blowing up themselves and the cows on their left and right, or defusing a bomb for 200 francs.  A player can also play events (some of which have a cost) or play cows into other herds, forcing a player to pay that cow's cost and possibly suffering from a bad cow (which costs a player money when it exploded) or a spy (which "works for" the player who put it in another herd).
Once a player has played all the cards they want to play, it's time for the bomb roll!   The player rolls a six-sided die and goes clockwise from the right side of their herd, into other herds if the roll is high enough.  If one of the the current player's cows explodes, the player earns the money for the cow (or pays the cost for a bad cow) from the pot, scores the current City card, and gets the benefit from the city.  If a cow in another herd explodes, that player gets the money from the cow (again, from the pot), but not the City (unless it's a spy, in which case the spy's owner gets the money and, if the current player, the City as well).  If the roll is higher than the number of cows in play, or goes back around to the starting cow, no cow explodes and the turn ends.  If the player rolls a six, the die is passed to the next player clockwise, who makes the bomb roll.  And if the pot ever runs out, everyone antes 500 francs again on the next turn.

When the last City card is claimed, players start taking turns making bomb rolls, beginning with the player who has the most points in City cards.  The game ends when there's no money left in the pot, or when there's one cow left (who gets whatever's left in the pot).  Players than add up all their money, and whoever has the most money wins!

Unexploded Cow is silly fun.  While there's not a whole lot of strategy (buy good cows for yourself, send bad cows to other herds), event cards and the variety in the bomb rolls keep the game from being anywhere near predictable.  The deluxe edition has the colored cards that the original Cheapass Game eschewed, but the artwork is funny and every card has all the information about each cow readily available.  The game plays quickly, and everyone involved should have a good time (as long as they don't think about the fact that they're blowing up cows).  Here's to bovine madness and a quick buck, er, franc with Unexploded Cow!

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch


They Might Be Giants, GLEAN

They Might Be Giants began back in the 1980s with their Dial-a-Song promotion, where people could call a number and hear one of their songs on their answering machine.  TMBG started that up again (though with a far more sophisticated "answering machine") -- and 16 of those songs made it onto Glean, their new album.  Who'd  have guessed such a disjointed origin could result in a pretty consistent album?

As with most TBMG albums, Glean tends towards quirkiness, both lyrically and musically.  There are rock and pop songs ("Erase," "All the Lazy Boyfriends"), almost spoken word ("Madam, I Challenge You to a Duel"), jazz ("Let Me Tell You about My Operation"), and the instrumental title track.  The lyrics are usually strange, often clever (and sometimes too clever), and have both a sense of humor and an undertone of darkness to many of them, whether it's the worst-romantic-song "Answer" or the paranoid "aaa."

I enjoyed Glean.  While not all of the songs are good, there are far fewer terrible songs than on the past few TMBG albums, and quite a few catchy ones.  Glean is a pretty good return to form for They Might Be Giants, often capturing their strangeness, darkness, and funniness together.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch



There are very few dishes that I can cook, and I don't watch cooking shows (except for Masterchef), but I can still enjoy a game about cooking -- especially when the chefs are psychotic and the dishes are disgusting.  A la Carte is that game, a virtual parody of cooking that is just as easy/challenging for little kids as for adults.

The players start A la Carte with a stove (set to zero), pan, a random cup of coffee, a crepe, and a tray for finishes dishes.  On the table are different dishes (in five colors), along with four containers filled with condiments -- lemon (yellow), pepper (black), paprika (red), herbs (green) -- and salt (clear).  There's also a trash can for spoiled dishes, two sinks for used condiments, and three spoons.

Each player chooses a dish and puts it in their pan; dishes have the required condiments, point value (more ingredients mean more points), and required heating level (and, if exceeded, burning level).  A player gets three actions (represented by the spoons).  A player can try to heat their stove, rolling a die; this can heat their stove by 1, by 1-3, heat everyone's stove by 1, or get them a new cup of coffee.  Players can also try to season their dish.  To do this, they tilt the container over their pan and hope the right condiments fall out; they can't shake the container once it's turned over!  If a dish has three or more of the same condiment (including salt) or the stove it too high for the dish, it's ruined: The dish goes in the trash, the ingredients go in the sink, and the player scores no points.  If the player did get all the ingredients in (as long as there aren't three of the same condiment they can have extra condiments) they score the points, choose a new dish (from a color dish they didn't make, unless no more are available), and continue with their turn, if they have any spoons left.  And if a player makes the dish perfectly (no extra ingredients), they get a star; if a player earns three stars, then win immediately!

Oh, coffee cups and crepes.  Coffee cups are one-use items that let a player do things like swap stoves and pans with another player, lower their stove's heating level, or even sabotage another player's dish by seasoning their dish.  And crepes are different (and fun).  First, a player uses all their spoons to put the crepe in their pan.  On the next turns, the player has to roll the die to heat their pan; they then use actions to flip the crepe.  If the crepe lands in the pan on its opposite side, the player scores the points for it; if not, the player keeps trying until they succeed or the stove reaches 7 and the crepe burns.

A la Carte ends when a player earns their third star (and they then win immediately), a player can't put a new dish in their pan, or a player has completed five dishes (not including crepes).  If no one earned a third start, the points for the dishes (and possibly the crepe) are added up, and whoever has the most points wins.

A la Carte is both simple and difficult.  The rules are pretty simple, so younger players will do just fine competing with adults here.  However, the condiments are almost as large as the container opening, so the biggest danger isn't pouring out too many ingredients, but rather them all getting stuck at the opening.  There's a nice sense of humor to the dishes, whether it's the Octopus a la Marseillaire (an octopus wearing a beret, holding a French flag, and smoking a cigarette), Cuban Breakfast (no condiments -- just a cigar and a cup of coffee on a plate), or Rabbit a la King (which looks like a whole rabbit wearing a fur-lined cape).  There's not a lot of strategy involved (except for using the coffee cups), but the physical activity of the game (trying to get the condiments out or flipping the crepe) is a lot of fun.  A la Carte won't be the main entree at a game session, but it's a very enjoyable appetizer.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch



Here's a sentence I never thought I'd write: The Crappening has begun and it's off to a great start.  The next four-movie set from the Rifftrax folks (Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett) began last night with one of the most famously infamously bad movies of recent years: Tommy Wiseau's The Room.  This piece of cinematic dreck got the treatment it so richly deserves (no, nor ironic midnight screenings) at Rifftrax Live: The Room.

After riffing on the final "At Your Fingertips" short (best described as sad children making crappy toys that float out of garbage), the trio take on The Room.  That movie is a virtual parody of itself, from writer-director-star Tommy Wiseau's inability to write, direct, or even speak clearly with his incomprehensible European accent, to the terrible plot and acting, to an actor being replaced halfway through the movie.  The Room even has its own famously bad lines, such as "Oh hi Mark" and "You are tearing me apart, Lisa!!!" (both delivered by Wiseau).

This much self-parody is amusing in itself -- and it supplies the Nelson, Murphy, and Corbett plenty of material to work with.  There are numerous pop culture references, from the present (Bill Cosby, Obama and Biden) to the past (the Red Shoe Diaries show).  The trio have a lot of fun with Wiseau's accent ("I'm going back to BrazilaRomaniSlovakia!"), the numerous and terrible sex scenes (which lead to the creation of the sadly accurate phrase "hip-dick"), the people wearing tuxedos playing football, and lots, lots more.  When all is said and done, The Room is so terrible that comments like "And now, some cars" and "I have cancer!" seem perfectly reasonable.
Rifftrax Live: The Room was tremendous fun with a tremendously bad movie.  To conclude with another sentence I never thought I'd write: I can't wait for the rest of the Crappening.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch



The Avengers may be Marvel's most powerful superhero series -- and with their movie, Marvel's biggest box-office hit and focal point for the plot threads begun in other Marvel movies.  Avengers: Age of Ultron brings the team back together for another round of saving the planet and battling their personal and team demons.
Age of Ultron starts with a bang, as the team -- Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), and Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) -- is attacking a Hydra base to obtain Loki's staff, and the Tesseract it contains,.  However, in addition to Hydra's weapons, they have a special project: the Maximoff twins.  Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) can move faster than the eye can see, while his sister Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) can throw energy bolts, read people's minds, and show them their worst fears.  The twins have a hatred of Tony Stark, and Wanda uses her power to show him the other Avengers all dead.

Thor wants to take the staff back, but Tony gets a few days to experiment on it.  He learns the Tesseract has a gem that has a sort of program, and he (with Bruce's help) wants to use it to make a program to protect the planet -- without telling his other teammates.  Unfortunately, it creates Ultron (voiced by James Spader), an artificial intelligence who wants to create "peace in our time" by driving the Avengers to extinction (and a lot more).

The rest of the movie is a combination of the Avengers fighting Ultron, his nigh-innumerable robot duplicates, and the twins -- as well as dealing with their fractured spirit after Wanda shows everyone but Hawkeye their fears.  There's also more fighting between Captain America and Iron Man, a possible romance between Bruce and Natasha, a lot mote character development for Hawkeye, and cameos from night-innumerable supporting characters from almost every other Marvel movie.  Oh, and Paul Bettany goes from being the voice of Jarvis to the character the Vision.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is both enjoyable and frustrating.  The regular cast is quite good as always, James Spader is suitably creepy as the evil robot, and the twins are decent (even if Olsen's character is almost all defined by her accent).  At the same time, the movie feels over-long at times, lots of characters "leave" when we know they'll be back for the sequel(s), and there's a bit too much slow-motion in the action sequences.  Avengers: Age of Ultron is entertaining, but it isn't as quotable, exciting, or fan-fantasy-fulfilling as, well, the last Avengers movie.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch



Today was Free Comic Book Day, a day when comic book stores and publishers give out free comics to those who love both superheroes and comic books in general.  This unofficial geek holuday -- the first Saturday in May -- was an opportunity for comic book stores to draw the interest of both potential new readers and those who have collected comics for years or decades.  And several stores had additional ways to celebrate -- as did the fans!

I was able to get to two local comic book stores (Apocalypse Comics and Players Choice; both in South Carolina) before work.  Alas, getting to Apocalypse Comics 10 minutes after the store opened meant, today, a long wait on line.  Fortunately, it was worth the wait: The store had large stacks of different titles, and while I'm sure they didn't last the day, I was able to get one of every one I wanted -- or that looked interesting.
As with most years, there are a wide variety of genres and publishers.  Marvel Comics had a preview for its upcoming Secret Wars special, while lots of independent publishers used the day to roll out their titles.   There are also lots of books based on television shows (The Simpsons, Bob's Burgers), video games (Street Fighter), and even movies (Fight Club).   And in addition to new characters, old favorites like the Tick, Judge Dredd, and others appear in comics released during the day.

 Both stores and customers got into the spirit of the holiday.  Stores had different events and incentives to draw customers of all ages and get them to spend as well as load up on freebies.  Apocalypse Comics had lots of discounts on various books, games, and figures; they also had lots of other events through the day, from bouncy castles (below) to radio folks doing a live show to "pro" wrestling events.
 As for customers, there was lots of cosplay (glad to see Squirrel Girl [below] is growing in popularity) and discussions about everything from the comics there to the current and upcoming superhero movies.  The little kid behind me had a toy Wolverine claw, while folks dressed as various heroes, villains, and groups.

Free Comic Book Day was, as always, a lot of fun and left me with lots and lots of comic books to read over the next few days.  Now I just have to wait for the first Saturday in May, 2016...

Written by James Lynch