So, how good of a salesman are you?  Can you pitch just about anything to "sell" your strange products?  Snake Oil -- Elixir from Out of the Box Publishing is a fun, cute, simple party game similar to Apples to Apples (which is also from Out of the Box Publishing); it's also a successful Kickstarter that plays the same as the original Snake Oil, but with all new cards.

At the start of the game, players draw a hand of six Word Cards.  Next, one player becomes the Customer and draws a Customer Card, which has a profession or character (Party Animal, Ghost, Villain, Little Red Riding Hood) on each side; the Customer decides which side to use.

Going clockwise from the Customer, each player selected two of their Word Cards, "mashing" them together into a product.  The player pitches their product to the Customer, explaining why that Customer needs or wants the product.  (The Customer can stop a pitch after 30 seconds.)  After everyone makes a pitch, the Customer gives the Customer Card to the player whose pitch was liked the best.  Players draw back to six Word Cards, the next player clockwise from the Customer becomes the new Customer, and after everyone has been the Customer the player who earned the most Customer Cards wins!

Snake Oil -- Elixir is quick and fun.  There's a lot of opportunity for humor in the card combinations, and the game goes very quickly (a little too quickly; I recommend letting everyone be the customer twice).  You have to trust the judge will reward the best product and not avoid giving a Customer Card that would guarantee a win to a player.  Apart from that possibility, Snake Oil -- Elixir is a funny, enjoyable party game.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch



One of the questions we all seem to ask at times is: What's going on inside a person's head?  Pixar attempts to tackle this with Inside Out, their latest animated movie that personifies emotions and their interactions with the world.

Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is a happy young kid.  She lives in the midwest, enjoys playing hockey on a frozen lake, has lots of friends, and goofs around with her (unnamed) mom and dad (Diane Lane, Kyle MacLackhan).

We also get to see what's inside Riley's head as well.  Her brain is run by five emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), the de facto leader and perpetually optimistic and chatty; Sadness (Phyllis Smith), a sad sack who sees the negative in everything; Anger (Lewis Black) a literal hothead whose easily riled up; Fear (Bill Hader), a perpetual worrier; and Disgust (Mildy Kaling), the part of her mind who dislikes things and also critiques fashion.  They take turns operating a control panel that determines Riley's actions, create memories (glasslike orbs the color of the dominant emotion at the time), and at the end of the day the memories get dumped into long-term memory.  There are also core memories: a few special memories that power Riley's "Islands of Personality," such as Goofball Island and Family Island.  Everything seems perfect and, as Joy cluelessly wonders, "What could possibly go wrong?

 A move.  The family moves to San Francisco, and everything that could go wrong does.  The new house is dreary and in the middle of a crowded street.  Dad is too busy doing business on the phone to play with Riley.  And the moving van keeps getting delayed, leaving Riley with none of her stuff and sleeping on the floor.  This situation is matched with chaos inside Riley's head: They discover that Sadness can turn memories sad/blue bu touching them, and when Joy tries to keep the core memories from being infected, Joy, Sadness, and the core memories all get sucked out of the control panel and into the distant memories.  Now Joy and Sadness have to try and get back to the control room, along with Riley's imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind), to make things right again.

There's a lot to enjoy in Inside Out.  This movie has a terrific visual imagination (from the glowing emotions to the nightmares and abstract parts of the mind) and lots of great voice talent.  (Lewis Black was born to play Anger.)  There's plenty of humor for both kids and adults through the movie (love the unforgettable chewing gum jingle!) and some heavy emotional hits near the film's end.  Inside Out is another hit for Pixar -- and an example of a summer movie that's smart and funny as well as visually stunning.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch


Agnes Obel, Aventine (Play It Again Sam, 2013)

Originally from Copenhagen but based in Berlin, Agnes Obel has a style that is more distinctive than most. Her sound focuses around her piano work, which is heavily influenced by classical music in general and the Impressionistic era in particular, and most of her songs also include some accompaniment on strings. Obel’s second album Aventine came out in 2013. Written, produced, and mostly arranged by Obel herself, the album’s ostensibly conventional reliance on artistry and performance is both striking and refreshing. The album opens with a dark, minor-key instrumental that segues into “Fuel to Fire.” The lyrics reflect doubts in a romantic relationship — it could be really good, or it could go up in flames — but the ominous tone of the music really brings out the tension. Another strong tracks is the title song. The word “Aventine” comes from a mountain range in Italy; like Enya, Obel picks words that fit the mood of the music. This fairly upbeat waltz features a lot of pizzicato strings and that give the song a distinctive rhythm. My favorite track is another waltz, called “The Curse.” The “curse” is a metaphor for living safely within the confines of what’s expected of you.

Aventine is an exceptional work from a rare talent. Agnes Obel’s embrace of classical music in an era of increasingly electronic (and increasingly disposable) pop comes across as a stubborn act of defiance. But when you can let your skills as a creator and performer speak for themselves as well as she can, there’s really no good reason not to.

Overall grade: A

"Fuel to Fire"

A live performance of "The Curse"



For those of us with a sweet tooth, dessert can be better than the main meal.  But someone has to serve those sweet treats to people, and that's where waiters come in.  Just Desserts from Looney Labs is a card game about giving customers all the desserts that they want.

There are two types of cards -- Dessert and Guests -- and the former are used to satisfy the latter.  Dessert cards have a few types of tastes (such as pie, veggies, cookies) on them.  Guests have one of six suits/colors, two or three favorite tastes, a favorite dessert (some have two favorites, some have none), and sometimes a taste they won't eat.  To win, a player has to serve three guests of the same suit, or five guests of all different suits.

At the start of the game, every player gets three Dessert cards and three Guests go face up in the center of the play area.  On a player's turn, they first draw a Dessert card and add a Guest card to the play area,  Next, they can either satisfy up to two Guests (by playing Dessert cards that match their tastes (and don't have any tastes they don't eat); playing a Guest's favorite gets you a tip of an extra Dessert card), draw an extra Dessert, card, or discard their Dessert cards and draw the same number of cards.

After a player does one of those three actions, the player discards any guests with duplicate suits until there's only one customer with one suit in the play area.  But the next player can serve whatever Guest is on top of the discard pile, so choosing the order of discards is important.

Just Desserts is a simple and fun little game.  There's a bit of strategy involved, but the gameplay is pretty straightforward.  The game is easy to learn, and it plays very quickly.  Just Desserts is a game that you'll play for something fast and easy before a longer, more complex game -- but it's still fun.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch


Russell James, ANGELS

Once again, I find myself in jealous awe of Russell James.  The professional photographer not only takes pictures of supermodels for a living, but he gets them to pose casually (and often naked) for him as well.  His book Angels is a collection of these photographs -- and it is stunning.

Unlike James' last book, V2, Angels is less focused on the settings and backgrounds and more about the models.  There's a wide number of subjects here; almost all are some of the biggest names in Victoria's Secret, plus singer Rihanna.  The photographs have a diverse feel to them, whether narrowing in closely on one body part, or celebrating the look one a model's face, or even bringing in the background of reflective glass or an exotic lake.  And the pictures are both single-and two-page works.
Once again, the combination of James' talent and the models' beauty results in some truly spectacular photographs.  These aren't cheesecake pictures or rejected catalog shots, but rather varied and breathtaking images of beauty, cloaked in shadow or luxuriating in the light.  And the large number of models and substantial page count of this coffee table book (304!) provides much to enjoy.

Alas, Angels is not perfect.   When a photographs is a single page, the page to its left is completely black; this may be artistically pleasing, but it also means a lot of the book is, essentially, blank pages.  (In this 304 page book, there are 171 photographs.)  There's also a problem with organization: The photos aren't arranged by model or chronology -- and there are no page numbers.  While there is an index in the back with thumbnails of each photo, its model and age, and the "page number" for the photo, it's a bit of a task flipping back and forth from book to index trying to learn or find a specific photo.  But the latter issue is like complaining about the music in a porno: It's not why you're there, and it's a very small issue in light of what you're getting overall.

Angels is a hefty and wonderful collection of beautiful photography of beautiful women.  For those who enjoy the visual celebration of the female form, this is a worthy addition to your library, and certainly worth having on display on the proverbial coffee table.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch



Most of us know the elements/cliches of the James Bond-type spy: expensive clothing, beautiful women, international travel, elaborate fights, rogue agents, complex villainous plots.  But what happens when someone who's not quite ready gets put into that world?  That's the beginnings of Spy, a comedy from writer-director Paul Feig that has a lot of fun and laughs skewering these familiar espionage trappings.

Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) trained to be a field agent for the CIA, but she wound up sitting at a computer in a vermin-infested basement, giving information to super-suave field agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law).  Susan has a huge crush on him, while he takes her for granted: having her take care of his personal tasks, giving her a tacky cupcake necklace instead of jewelry, etc.  His current mission is tracking Rayna Boyanov (Rose Bryne), who has a portable nuclear bomb for sale, and Sergio De Luca (Bobby Cannavale), who's brokering the sale.  But it's not long before Rayna kills Bradley and reveals that she knows the identity of all the CIA's biggest field agents.  So Susan has an idea: Send her into the field, where she can follow and track Rayan and hopefully find the nuke.

At first Susan's assignment is a huge letdown -- she has a series of frumpy cover identities and embarrassing special gear -- but soon she's kicking ass, cursing up a storm, and getting in deeper and deeper with killers.  Complicating her assignment is big-talking CIA agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham), who's somewhat inept and prone to rambling about the horrors he's endured as a spy.  And she's "helped" by her nervous friend Nancy (Miranda Hall) and randy agent Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz) who never stops groping or hitting on Susan.

There is a lot to enjoy in Spy.  Feig has worked with McCarthy and Byrne before, and her gets terrific comic performances out of both of them: McCarthy is terrific as she transitions from a fish out of water to her own super-agent, while Byrne gets plenty of laughs as the delicate, spoiled, arrogant slightly European villainess.  Statham is especially great as self-proclaimed rogue agent who never stops spouting exaggerations about his work; and Allison Janney has a brief-but-funny turn as the head of the CIA.  The writing treats the spy movie elements with both affection and awareness of its silliness; and while there are a few lulls, the humor is pretty consistent throughout the movie.  Spy is a nice bit of comedy fun for the summer.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch



H.P. Lovecraft's story "The Call of Cthulhu" is a classic of horror fiction, and his monstrous Cthulhu has appeared everywhere from comic books and video games -- not to mention innumerable cute plush figures.  But how would this horrific tale of death, madness, and monstrosity fare as a children's book?  Littlest Lovecraft: The Call of Cthulhu by Tro Rex and Eyona Bella gives us this tale as an illustrated work -- one that's definitely not for children.

 Littlest Lovecraft: The Call of Cthulhu is extremely faithful to the source material, providing the reader with all the characters and action of the original story, from the sculptor Henry A. Wilcox and his nightmare-inspired sculpture, to Inspector Legrasse's raid on a backwoods cult, to the frightful events that befell the ship the Alert.  What's new is the fact that the story is told in four-line stanzas with alternating rhymes ('Odd hieroglyphs clearly showed some sort of phrase,/but Wilcox had no clue just what they could mean./The Professor then asked him from where it had come,/and Wilcox just said, "I made it last night in a dream.")
Littlest Lovecraft: The Call of Cthulhu  is an interesting take on one of my favorite stories.  The rhymes work well in giving this scary story an almost sing-song element, and the artwork is good.  The fidelity to the original story is almost too great, though, as instead of creating additional humor or mixing things up for comedic purposes, this book sticks to the narrative of the original story.  The tag "littlest" implies that this is in a style for kids, but this book could have easily been a faithful adaption featured in a comic book.

 Littlest Lovecraft: The Call of Cthulhu may have benefitted if it had taken some more liberties with the story or gone further with its artwork, but it's still a solid, enjoyable re-telling of this classic tale.  I'll certainly be keeping my eyes open for more "Littlest Lovecraft" adaptions.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch



I do not believe any movie has featured as much driving and vehicular action as Mad Max: Fury Road -- and that includes movies about racing!  This reboot/continuation of the Road Warrior franchise is concerned almost solely with driving action, and it certainly delivers.

The movie opens in an all-desert post-apocalyptic world with Max (Tom Hardy) alone, haunted by memories/visions of a little girl he couldn't save -- and captured by a bunch of bald albinos.  They obey Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a warlord with a skull mouthpiece who rules a small kingdom by sparsely doling out water to the people there.  He's created a green oasis in the desert - but up on a mountain, and only for him.  Max is kept as a living blood bag.

Joe's trusted servant Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) is supposed to take the heavily-armored War Rig out on a munitions run, but she changes course without telling anyone.  When Joe finds out she's freed and is transporting his five wives/breeders (one of whom is about to give birth), he sends his whole army out to retrieve his "property," no matter the cost.  And young driver Nux (Nicholas Hoult) straps Max to the front of his vehicle, still drawing blood from him while in the chase.

Through a series of events, Max winds up freed and helping Furiosa and the five wives travel to "the Green Place" Furiosa promised them.  Meanwhile the group is relentlessly pursued by Joe and his army, assorted bandits and groups, and even Nux hangs around.

While the leads are good (and Theron is the real star of the movie), the real key to Mad Max: Fury Road is the action and the spectacle.  Director and co-writer George Miller loves pushing things far pat the normal, whether it's cars covered in spikes, a vehicle covered with speakers while a blindfolded musician plays a guitar that shoots flames, Furiosa's bare-bones but functional prosthetic arm.  The action almost never stops (there is a brief lull about two-thirds into the movie) and the audience is treated to innumerable explosions, car crashes, and flying bodies.  A lot of the movie's feminist elements get lots on the cacophany of the chaos -- but Mad Max: Fury Road is undeniably one of the most exciting movies to hit the theaters in a very long time.

 Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch