Reviews for Dec. 17

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Timbaland — Shock Value II

Timbaland’s overwhelming success as a producer and songwriter has landed his once-unusual space-age, percussion-heavy style of hip-hop square in the mainstream. Good for the bank account but bad for the creativity, it seems. Shock Value II feels mass-produced, from the name to the way pal Justin Timberlake uses fast-food ordering as a come-on in “Carry Out” and the dreary rocktinged pop served by One Republic (“Marching On”) and The Fray (“Undertow”). Only on the infectious “If We Ever Meet Again,” with Katy Perry, and the playful “Morning After Dark” and “We Belong to Music,” with Miley Cyrus, do we get flashes of the mad-scientist Timbaland who once seemed unstoppable. — Glenn Gamboa, MCT

Blakroc — Blakroc

Last year, blues-rock revivalists the Black Keys teamed with left-field hip-hop producer Danger Mouse for the sorely overlooked Attack & Release. That concept continues with Blakroc, a collaboration born out of the Keys’ friendship with Roc-a-Fella co-founder Dame Dash.

Here, though, lead vocal duties have been turned over to a random helping of MCs — Mos Def, Q-Tip, Jim Jones, Jay-Z sound-a-like NOE, and M.O.P.’s Billy Danze among them — and R&B crooner Nicole Wray. All of it unlikely, sure, but what looks like a mess on paper is rather impressive on record. The drums are thick and the rhythms — driven by jarring guitars and organs — are warm and woozy, giving things a psychedelic feel. It’s a backdrop that fits well with lyrical warnings on sex, love, money and betrayal, themes owned by the blues long before rap gave them a fresh makeover. — Michael Pollock, MCT


You Better Not Cry: Stories for Christmas by Augusten Burroughs

Burroughs is the master of making tragedy funny, with memoirs of a dark childhood in Running With Scissors and alcoholism in Dry. You Better Not Cry is no exception. Burroughs follows his own strange relationship with Christmas from his early memories of Santa (who was the same person as Jesus) to holiday disasters in adulthood in his terribly funny, tragically honest style.

In one story, Burroughs wakes up in an unfamiliar house — and is horrified when he discovers Santa Claus lying next to him. In another, he kisses a plastic Santa/Jesus then bites his lips off. Such things rarely happen to normal people, but Burroughs has never claimed to be normal.

A Wolf at the Table, Burroughs’ last memoir, was much darker than his previous books, but here he’s back in fine form. You may not cry, but you’ll definitely laugh. — Sara Frederick, MCT

Wishin’ and Hopin’: A Christmas Story by Wally Lamb

Felix Funicello has a new lay teacher at his strict Catholic school.
Madame Frechette teaches class in French, wears tight sweaters and
doesn’t seat students according to grade-point average.

is the cousin of the famous Annette Funicello — Lamb’s story is set in
1964 — and for some reason, when he looks at her wearing a white
two-piece swimsuit in a poster on his family’s bus station diner wall,
he feels something that he doesn’t understand quite yet. But his best
friend Lonny, who was held back a couple grades, and a fiesty new
student from Russia, who may be a Communist, help him figure things out.

Wishin’ and Hopin’ culminates
in a tableaux vivant organized by Madame Frechette, which predictably
ends in disaster. But Lamb’s vividly detailed portrait of the 1960s and
the inner workings of a Catholic schoolboy’s mind put his first
Christmas book on par with his previous three novels. Fans — and Lamb
newbies — will love it. — Sara Frederick, MCT


Assassin’s Creed II

Assassin’s Creed II is
the sequel to the critically acclaimed 2007 hit video game and upstages
it in every single way. The historical fiction remains the foundation
of the game, this time in 15th-century Italy, as does the parkour-style
gameplay and remarkable graphics. There is now the ability to purchase
armor and weapons, bribe locals to help you during escapes, and even
the ability to jump in a river and hide underwater.

story, which takes place both in the present and back in time, is both
captivating and intriguing. And along with the huge open-world
environment and the hustle and bustle of an old Italian city, Assassin’s Creed II is giving Grand Theft Auto IV’s Liberty City a run for its money. Without a doubt, Assassin’s Creed II is one of 2009’s best titles. — Quibian Salazar-Moreno, Boulder Weekly

James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game

Usually gamers
avoid video games having to do with a movie, since most of the games
are just a part of the film’s marketing machine. But for James
Cameron’s upcoming film, Avatar, there was a concerted effort to make sure the game had the quality of a top-tier title. Too bad they didn’t get there.

Avatar: The Game was
supposed to act as a sort of prequel to the movie, but the game hardly
tells a story. Most of the time you’re fighting an enemy, trying to
obtain an item, or meeting someone to tell you to do one of those
things. You have the choice of playing as a human or a Navi character,
but both paths are the same just with different perspectives. The
third- and firstperson gameplay is run-of-the-mill and is done much
better in games like Gears of War or the Call of Duty series.
While the game does a solid job of showcasing the nature of the Pandora
moon and its lush environment (especially on a 3D TV), it’s just
another sub-par movie game. — Quibian Salazar-Moreno, Boulder Weekly