Fear Factory – Demanufacture (1995)

June 16th, 2015

The mid-90s were a time of growth for heavy metal. Arena-filling bands of the 80s wearing eyeliner and lipstick had been recently dethroned by guys wearing cargo shorts and flannel shirts — hair metal was out and grunge was in. In an attempt to stay relevant, metal began to splinter and diversify. In 1994 we saw the birth of nu-metal with Korn’s first album, debut albums from Emperor (In the Nightside Eclipse) and Mayhem (De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas) and another power metal release from Pantera, Far Beyond Driven. I had no idea where 1995 would take heavy metal, but I knew it would be interesting.

Fear Factory was not a new band in 1995, but their 1992 debut Soul of a New Machine had failed to break through to the mainstream. It wasn’t until the release of 1995’s Demanufacture that the world began to take notice. The world has been taking notice — and ripping off this album — ever since.

While Soul of a New Machine had its roots in death metal, the opening of Demanufacture introduces listeners to an entirely new soundscape. Fear Factory introduces itself in the opening/tital track. “Demanufacture” opens with a few sounds of heavy machinery firing up before quickly bringing in keyboard samples, almost robotic kick drums, and a heavily gated guitar. It’s our first exposure to the this new factory of fear, and it feels mechanical and evil. Vocalist Burton C. Bell sings the song’s first two lines before breaking into his traditional throaty screams. If you needed a shout-along anthem to get your blood pumping, “Demanufacture” delivers:

“I’ve got no more goddamn regrets
I’ve got no more goddamn respect”

Demanufacture paints a dystopian story of man vs. machine directly inspired by the Terminator films, most notable in “H-K / Hunter Killer” (robotic Skynet soldiers from the Terminaotr franchise) and “Zero Signal,” which contains samples from Terminator 2: Judgement Day. While Demanufacture is technically a concept album, most of the album’s themes can be applied to any conflict of power. In “Replica,” Bell howls “Every day I feel anonymous hate,” and later admits, “I don’t want to live that way.”

The mechanical element of the story is portrayed by the music itself. The brutality begins with Raymond Herrera’s heavily syncopated drum beats, so fast, crisp and accurate they were rumored to have been programmed (they weren’t; they were triggered). Dino Cazares adds to the machine with staccato guitars (Cazarez handles most of the albums bass duties as well as bassist Christian Olde Wolbers was just coming on board). Rhys Fulber and Reynor Diego bring atmosphere to the best with layers of keyboards and samples, with Burton C. Bell screaming over the whole mechanical beast.

Demanufacture defined the genre of industrial metal and may have perfected it. Fear Factory has continued to dabble in the theme of man vs. machine with their unique mix of bone-crushing rhythms and has inspired an army of imitators, but nobody has done what Feat Factory does better than when Fear Factory did it here. Not even Fear Factory.

June, 2015 marks the 20th anniversary of Fear Factory’s Demanufacture. It sounds as crisp and sharp as it did twenty years ago. If you only sample one album from Fear Factory, this is the one to taste.

Jurassic World (2015)

June 14th, 2015

(This review contains minor spoilers, most of which are revealed in the trailer.)

Can we all agree by now that a theme park that puts people near unrestrained carnivorous dinosaurs is a bad idea?

2015’s Jurassic World skips over the past two installments in the series (1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park and 2001’s Jurassic Park III, neither of which took place on the original island) and picks up where the 1993 original film left off.

Twenty-two years later (both in real time and movie time), John Hammond’s dream of bringing Jurassic Park, a theme park filled with real live dinosaurs (grown from extracted dinosaur DNA), has been fully realized in the form of Jurassic World. Just like in the first film, dinosaurs have been restricted to various zones on the island be large barriers made of concrete. Also, like in the first film, visitors to the park are allowed to be precariously close to these giant beasts in various vehicles and viewing areas. Finally, like in the first film, everyone is assured that nothing could possible go wrong… until it eventually does.

By now Jurassic World’s gates have been open for ten years and the visiting public has grown tired of the same old dinosaurs (really?), so the park’s DNA wizards have decided to create their own dinosaur. The all new Indominus Rex was created much in the way Willy Wonka designed the Everlasting Gobstopper — a pinch of T-Rex here, a dash of Giganotosaurus there, and so on. The end result is a dinosaur that is bigger, meaner, smarter, and more aggressive than any dinosaur the park has seen to date. My nine-year-old whispered to me, “That sounds like a bad idea.” How this fact eluded the park’s board of directors is a head-scratcher.

While only DNA master Dr. Henry Wu returns from the original film, Jurassic World’s new cast of characters are cut from similar molds. Clair is the driven business woman, so dedicated to running Jurassic World she doesn’t even know how old her two adolescent nephews are (Zach and Gray) when they come to visit. Then we’ve got Simon Masrani, the rich backer behind the new park, and Hoskins, the greedy leader of the park’s security team who has other plans for some of the park’s assets. Finally there’s Owen (Chris Pratt), who brings the whole thing together. Navy retiree Owen has established himself as the park’s animal behavioral expert by becoming the “alpha” of a small team of velociraptors and getting them to stop eating people long enough to do a few tricks.

If you’re counting “bad ideas,” add these to your list: sending your teenage kids to a dinosaur theme park in hopes that their career-driven aunt they haven’t seen in seven years will watch over them; attempting to train velociraptors; anything the park’s board of directors has approved in the past 22 years.

Within twenty minutes of its introduction the Indominus Rex has outsmarted every member of the park’s security team, which launches the film’s events into motion. Will our kids be the heros or the victims? Who will save the day and who will be dinosnacks? Ultimately it doesn’t even matter — there’s enough dinosaur-on-man attacks and dinosaur-on-dinosaur battles to keep you cheering and jumping for the film’s run time. Long gone are those slow, tense moments from the first film; we know what these monsters are capable of, and the movie wastes little time in showing us. While Jurassic Park had elements of horror mixed in, Jurassic World is more action-comedy. I laughed outloud at least half a dozen times, mostly to Owen-delivered one-liners. For the record, I also jumped at least twice.

If your brain is bigger than a Stegosaurus’ you’ll laugh at some of the film’s goofy plot decisions and characters’ actions, but the action is so loud and fast that you won’t have time to think about them until you’re back at home, checking your bedroom closet for velociraptors before bed.

Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. (1990)

June 13th, 2015

Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. is a pretty safe way to wade into the world of Troma Films. It’s got a little bit of everything that makes Troma what it is without going to extremes. If you like this film there’s a chance you might like other Troma films — and if you hate it, just know things are only going to get worse from here.

Now it’s time to tighten your gi, stow your katana, and prepare for the kookiness that is Sgt. Kabukiman.

Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. is the story of Harry Griswold, a NYPD detective who witnesses an onstage slaughter during a local Kabuki theater production. During the massacre, elderly Kabuki master Mr. Sato is shot and must pass on the ancient spirit of Kabukiman. Sato’s grandaughter Lotus hopes to inherit the spirit but instead it enters Detective Griswold.

Griswold does not fully understand the changes his body begins to take after inheriting the ancient Kabukiman spirit. He develops a taste for sushi and occasionally his shoes magically transform into sandals, but as any of us would he simply writes these things off. It’s not until Griswold’s co-worker is brutally attacked while jogging in Central Park that the spirit completely takes over and Griswold is transformed into Sgt. Kabukiman. What follows this transformation is a lengthy battle between Kabukiman and at least a dozen thugs.

Prior to the beginning of this epic battle viewers have already been treated to two sets of boobs, two murdered children, and multiple gunshot wounds to the forehead. Seriously, almost everybody who gets shot in this movie gets shot in the forehead (one guy who gets shot in the crotch). But the Central Park battle raises the stakes. Along with his samurai sword, Kabukiman blows two baddies into the air using his fans and shoots sushi rolls into a lady’s mouth to shut her up. Just when you think one punk gets off light by being beat with a metal fan, Kabikiman turns his head into goo by stomping on it. Three times.

There’s the thinnest of plots involving government corruption and there are continuity errors abound, but this isn’t the kind of movie you watch for details like that. This is the kind of movie you watch if you think a criminal getting impaled to a tree by a hundred chopsticks is funny business.

After being whipped into shape by Lotus, Detective Griswold plans to bring down the evil Reginald Stewart who has been in cahoots with the corrupt Reverend Snipes, but in fact Lotus has been preparing Sgt. Kabukiman to do battle with The Evil One. All of this has something to do with an ancient prophecy that involves getting a bunch of things together including a jaguar, a tiger, a monkey and a virgin. (Turns out, the monkey (“Toyota”) may be the best actor in the film.) If you think an NYPD detective randomly turning into an ancient Kabukiman (and occasionally a circus clown) is weird, wait until you see what Reginald Stewart turns into.

Right. He turns into that.

If none of this sounds entertaining or funny then best keep walking. The acting, editing and special effects are all what you would expect on a budget roughly the same as two venti lattes from Starbucks. Yeah, there’s sort of a plot, but more importantly for 100 minutes you’ll get to hear a grown man in a clown suit say “ka-BU-ki-man!” before pummeling bad guys all over New York City, occasionally while riding a tricycle. If that sounds like fun, it’s time to invite your friends open, break out the saki, and enjoy the madness that is Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D.

Star Wars: Card Trader by Topps

June 4th, 2015

If there’s one thing Topps knows, it’s trading cards. Topps began packaging baseball cards in with their gum back in the early 1950s, and the rest is history. Along with baseball and football cards, Topps has also had success with pop-culture related cards, including Star Wars. Topps launched their line of Star Wars cards in 1977, igniting a “collect ’em all” mentality that’s been going strong ever since.

These are my original Star Wars cards that I acquired throughout the 1970s and 80s. I say “acquired” rather than “collected” because I don’t remember specifically setting out to collect them all. Instead I picked up cards when and where I could — a few cards here from the convenient store, a few cards there from a friend at school.

Along with collecting and reading those cards, I also traded them. Every kid who ever collected cards kept track one way or another of the cards he needed and the cards he had duplicates of. Sometimes you would get lucky and plug a hole in your collection by opening a new pack of cards and finding a missing treasure, but more often than not those missing cards would be acquired on the school bus or on the playground, trading one card for another. Back then we had no concept of a card’s financial value; the “valuable” one were the ones you were missing and the “worthless” ones were cards you had two or three of.

Recently I became excited when I heard that Topps was releasing new cards for the new Star Wars movie and re-releasing cards for classic characters, but I felt the wind rush out of my sails when I learned that these cards would only by digital. Pictures of cards? Who wants to pay real money for and collect picture of trading cards?

I decided to give it a go anyway, and so what follows is my trepidatious review of Topps’ new Star Wars: Card Trader application for Apple iOS devices.



Star Wars Card Trader is an application that allows you to collect, buy, and trade digital Star Wars cards. Digital Star Stars cards are essentially pictures of Star Wars characters. Like real cards, each card contains information on the backside (the cards can be flipped over and read).

Each day, users receive 25,000 free credits. Credits (as those who are familiar with the Star Wars universe) are the common form of currency (except for Watto). The packs I’ve seen for sale range from 1,000 credits to 30,000 credits. Additional credits can be purchased with real money. The lowest amount you can purchase is 3,000 credits for $0.99; on the other end of the scale, $99.99 will land you 900,000 credits. Free credits can also be earned in the app by performing certain tasks (more on that later). You can collect a lot of cards with those free daily 25,000 credits, but if you want or need more, there are multiple ways to get them.

The app has five icons across the bottom of the screen, so discussing those seems to be the most logical way to explain all the functions of the app.



The first icon (a small satellite) reveals your Transmissions. This is where you will find new announcements from Topps. The announcements are mostly about new cards, new series, and new virtual collectibles. I just opened the app and there have been six new announcements today alone. Users can receive these announcements through e-mail or push notifications from the app as many of the offers are time sensitive, but if you (like me) already have enough beeps and buzzes coming at you throughout the day, you can opt out and simply check them manually — however, limiting yourself to manual updates assures you will miss time-sensitive offers.

There are lots of references to card colors I’ve never seen before. Right now if you pull a green Sy Snootles card, you get a free orange pack! (I’ve never seen a green card or an orange card.)



The second icon from the left consists of four stormtrooper helmets. I didn’t know what this icon did for the first week because every time I pressed it the app simply crashed. The app has since been updated and I now know that this is the Fan Feed section.

In this area, people set up potential trades by listing what cards they are looking for and what cards they are willing to trade. It’s an attempt to keep conversation “in house,” but as you can see with all the emoticons and caps it’s already starting to look like MySpace.



The Deathstar icon leads to your Home screen. Here you will find all your personal statistics including the status of your trades, any awards you have received or things you have unlocked. You can also see how many cards you have, what percentage of all the cards you have collected, and so on.



The Cantina is where you buy card packs and can earn free credits. Let’s talk about the cards first.

Card packs (that I’ve seen) range from 30,000 credits to 1,000 credits. The pack values reflect both the number of cards in the pack, and what types of cards are included.

The base card collections are the white and blue series, which describes the border color around the card. The Mace Windu Base Pack (the cheapest pack available) costs 1,000 credits and contains three cards. The odds are listed as 10% blue and 90% white. The Asajj Ventress Base Pack is essentially the same pack times three, but with red cards included as well. The odds in this pack are 86% white cards, 13% blue, and 1% red, and you get 9 cards for 3,000 credits. As you can already see, “rarity” is built in to the app from the very beginning, with white cards as the most common, followed by blue, followed by red, followed by a lot more.

Here you can see two packs priced the same at 5,000 credits but with different cards inside. The Firebrand Pack only contains 5 cards, but also includes yellow cards, while the Boba Fett Base Pack includes 15 cards. Note that the Boba Fett pack does not say “includes all yellow series 1 base cards,” and that your odds of getting yellow and red cards increase with the Firebrand Pack that only includes five cards. THINGS ARE GETTING SERIOUS.

Again I’d like to point out that so far, all of the series I’ve mentioned contain the same people on the same cards. “Rarity” here is all based on the color of the border drawn around the card’s picture. I’m a huge Star Wars collector and I will be the first to admit that Star Wars collectors are idiots.

After purchasing a pack you’ll be presented by a quick animation of a pack opening followed by the cards you just received. You can flip through the cards and see the fronts and backs of each one. I just bought the Firebrand pack and would really like to get a Boba Fett card, so here goes!

Nope. Instead I got “Dorme,” one of Queen Amidala’s hand maidens. I also got Garindan, Captain Tarpals, Shaak Ti, and Hobbie Klivian. Unless you have a Star Wars tattoo I’ll bet you $20 you don’t know who Hobbie Klivian is.

Just when I thought this pack was going to be a bust, I got my first official red card!!! Hooray!!!

At least it’s somebody who had a speaking role in the original Star Wars I suppose. Also note the number at the bottom of the backside of the card. There are only 117,505 digital pictures available of the red version of Admiral Motti, and I’ve got one!

You can also earn additional free credits by performing tasks in the Cantina. Here are just a few I saw available.

Watching a 15-second video commercial will net you roughly 150 free credits, while a 30-second clip can get you up to 300. Most video clips can only be watched once per day. If you’re willing to download and install a random game app, you can earn anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 credits. I earned 11,550 for downloading the free game “Cooking Fever!” You can earn big credits if you’re willing to sign up for real life services. Call for a free life insurance quote and you can earn 103,083 credits. Sign up for a free 7-day trial of Videostripe to receive 138,600 free credits. Join Disney’s Movie Club and you’ll earn 375,375 credits. Disney ain’t playin’ around.

There’s also a second button that simply says “Watch To Earn” that will serve you a 30 second commercial and reward you with approximately 300 free credits, give or take. I just watched a commercial for Summoners War for 322 credits, one for Retail Me Not coupons for 194 credits, Road Riot for 259 credits, and Empires & Allies for 307 credits. Each ad ends with a link asking you to download the advertised program from the app store. After earning 1,080 credits for watching 2 minutes worth of videos, I headed back to the Cantina and bought the Mace Windu base pack for 1,000 credits and got the following cards:

Worth it? Only you can decide.



The fifth and final icon (a stack of cards) leads you to My Cards, where you can view, sort (kind of). and trade your cards. The default sorting method for your collection is by Faction, which sorts your cards by affiliation. So far I have cards with the Galactic Empire, the Galactic Republic, Independent, Rebel Alliance, and Separatists. Many characters appear in multiple categories (I have R2-D2 and C-3P0 cards in both the Galactic Republic and the Rebel Alliance, for example).

In the picture above you can see that I have three Moff Jerjerrod cards (in white, blue, and red) and three Aayla Secura cards (in white, blue, and yellow). The “2” displayed on Bail Organa’s card lets me know I have two copies of that card. It doesn’t take long, especially when buying the more common packs, for the duplicates to add up. I’ve been using the app for a week and I already have six Emperor Palpatines and five Sy Snootles. And since I am only using the free daily allotted credits and already have this many duplicates, who exactly would I trade them with? Someone who has only been using the app for… three days?

In this view you can touch each card to enlarge it to full screen. While viewing the card in full screen, tapping it will flip the card around so you can read the back. When viewing thumbnails, if you touch and hold an icon and swipe left or right it will give you the basic information. Sy’s card reads “White / Sy Snootles / Max Rebo Band Singer”.

There are four sort orders to choose from. Along the default “Faction,” there’s “Parallel” which sorts your cards by color, “Duplicates” which sorts them by the number of each card you own, and “Date Acquired.” I think what the app is missing is a way to simply drop and drag the cards around in any order you want. That’s how I used to sort my physical cards, and not being able to move things around is another reminder that at the end of the day you are simply looking at pictures inside someone else’s app.

My collection sorted by Duplicates and by Parallel (color)

At the bottom of each card are a few additional icons. One is a padlock that allows you to “lock” a card so that people won’t ask you to trade it. In the past seven days no one has asked me to trade for any of my cards, so to date this has not been a problem for me. You have the ability to lock up to 25 of your cards. You can also attempt to initiate a swap here. Pressing that icon allows you to “Trade Away” or “Get Another.” I tried trading off some of those duplicate Sy Snootles cards to unsuspecting Younglings, but so far no dice.

What I really wish is that you could do more automated trading. I’d love to just say, “I will trade my Sy Snootles cards for any cards I don’t have” and then let the app take care of that for me. The trading process is much to hands-on for casual users.

Along with viewing your own cards, you can also view a checklist of all cards listed by name, and also view all cards. While I like the idea of a checklist, it’s a bit depressing to see just how many cards are available and how many I don’t have. This is multiplied when viewing All Cards. Personally I don’t think you should be able to see the cards you don’t own… I mean, that kind of ruins the entire experience! And it doesn’t take long to see just how many free credits you would have to burn though to collect them all. I don’t even have an Anakin card yet. Time to watch some more commercials and earn some more free credits!



I’ve been collecting video games essentially my whole life, but somewhere around the time things went to digital downloads, I stopped caring. I don’t own a PS4 or an Xbox One for that very reason. I don’t like paying real money for digital and virtual things that I don’t really own. I don’t like the concept that a company halfway across the globe could go bankrupt and flip a switch that would cause me to lose access to games I’ve paid money for.

With that in mind, Star Wars: Card Trader has two things going against it (for me). The first is, you’re not collecting cards. You’re collecting digital pictures of cards. I’ll never ever ever pay real money to collect digital pictures. And the second strike is that these digital pictures of cards are locked into this app. I had lots of apps on my iPhone 3 that didn’t run on my iPhone 4, lots of apps that worked on my 4 that didn’t work on my 5, and so on. This app works great on my iPhone 6, but will it work on the 7? The 8? What happens when the day comes that this app is no longer profitable and Topps turns off the back end servers? Will I still have access to my Hobbie Klivian card when that happens?

Two other disappointments for me. One, my favorite old trading cards were the “behind the scenes” cards that showed the making of special effects in the films. There’s nothing like that here. And the other thing is, there are so many characters in this app that it’s almost ridiculous. I’ve been playing it for a week now and still don’t have a Boba Fett card! But you know who I do have? San Hill, Garindan, Admiral Motti, Admiral Ozzel, Hobbie Klivian, Moff Jerjerrod, Toryn Farr, Rune Haako, Aayla Secura, Asajj Ventress, Cliegg Lars, Dorme, Jan Dodonna, General Tagge, Mas Amedda, Sly Moore, Tarfful, Adi Gallia, Agen Kolar, Arvel Crynyd, Can Bane, Captain Typho, Chief Bast, Even Piell, General Madine, General Rieekan, Luminara Unduli, Tion Medon, Poggle the Lesser, and literally dozens of other peripheral characters from the Star Wars universe you have never ever heard of. No kid ever opened a pack of Topps Star Wars cards before and exclaimed, “Oh boy! Jocasta Nu!”

I asked my thirteen-year-old son what he thought about the idea of collecting digital collecting cards and he said it sounded like a great idea, so I suspect my disdain of the entire concept has less to do with the concept and more to do with, like Obi-Wan, my outdated ideas. If you’re the type of person who loves visiting garage sales and antique malls in search of old memories of yesteryear you’re going to hate this app. If, like my son, the idea of buying and collecting digital pictures of trading cards appeals to you, you’re going to love it.

And if you’re the type of person who thinks that after seven days of spending free credits you ought to have a Boba Fett card by now, you’re really going to hate it.

I take it back I love it I love it I love it this is the best app ever! Time to go watch more commercials!

PS: The Fan Feed section (the stormtrooper icon) has gone back to crashing the app repeatedly. I’m never going to get rid of all these Sy Snootles cards.

I Was Geeky When Geeky Wasn’t Cool by Marc Allie (2015)

February 13th, 2015

The introduction to Marc Allie’s eBook I Was Geeky When Geeky Wasn’t Cool references multiple things I can relate to. He mentions Juice Newton’s “Queen of Hearts” (I had the 45), a blue, rubber UFO from a McDonald’s Happy Meal (I own the whole set), playing Dungeons and Dragons (I still have all my old manuals) and riding around in the back of his mother’s station wagon without wearing a seat belt (I think we all did that).

In the first of Allie’s stories he shares the terror he experienced the time he thought his mother had left him behind at Sears. I can relate to that too. I’m sure all of us have a memory of “that one time” we got separated from our family, whether it was at the mall or a grocery store or out in public. That primal feeling of panic that takes over in those situations leaves a lasting impression. It happened to me when I was four years old inside a TG&Y store, almost forty years ago. I can still tell you what my mom was wearing when I finally found her.

I Was Geeky When Geeky Wasn’t Cool contains ten stories that weave nostalgia with Allie’s memories and experiences. Sometimes being terrified as a kid makes the strongest impressions on us, leaving unforgettable memories. When Allie accidentally shoves his foot into a wedding cake his mother has baked (with no time to make another one), we can all relate to the chain of feelings that came next: terror, embarrassment, and that pit in your stomach that arrives just before the punishment does.

Even if Allie’s interests aren’t universal, the themes in the stories are. In one story, one of his friends form the exclusive “DD Club,” a club where all members are required to both listen to Duran Duran and play Dungeons and Dragons. In another one, Allie recounts his typical Saturday morning cartoon schedule. Whether or not you watched the same shows as the author (Superfriends, Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Dungeons and Dragons) is irrelevant; the core of the story, of going through the TV Guide and agonizing over which Saturday morning cartoon to watch, is an experience all of us from the 80s remembers. (Unless you were one of those kids that played league sports on Saturday morning, in which case this book almost certainly is not for you.)

While some of Allie’s stories recall the good times (like wearing Batman Underoos), most of the good ones don’t. In one particularly memorable story, Allie recalls his first day of seventh grade. Throughout the story Allie awkwardly drags his saxophone case down the school bus aisle, from class to class, and eventually the lunchroom. That feeling of “I know this is stupid but I don’t know what else to do” resonated with me. It’s the spirit of a kid trying to solve a problem the best way he can. I’ve done similar things; my kids have, too.

As someone who “grew up geeky” myself, I enjoyed Allie’s book. It has the typical rough edges that we tend to see with self-published works, but there’s an awful lot of heart crammed in there for only $2.99. Today, geeks are mainstream (if you’re reading this on a computer, be sure to thank one), but in the 70s and 80s we didn’t have it quite so easy. I Was Geeky When Geeky Wasn’t Cool took me back to that era, both the good times and the bad.

Link: MarcAllie.com
Link: I Was Geeky When Geeky Wasn’t Cool (Amazon Kindle, $2.99)

Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters (2011)

December 14th, 2014

My sister Linda is the best Tetris player I have ever watched play in person. Tetris is simple. It consists of seven different rotating pieces (trivia fact: “Tetriminos”) that must be placed in rows to prevent them from reaching the top of the screen, thus ending the game. When the pieces are dropping slowly and you’re getting the ones you need, anyone can play the game; it’s when things start speeding up and you hit a “drought” (a long period of time in which players do not receive straight pieces) that separates the men from the boys — oh, and the women from the girls. If I’d had any since at all I would have pulled my sister out of school and driven her cross country, hustling Tetris players for cash in seedy 80s arcades.

Even at her prime, I’m not sure my sister could have out-Tetrised the players that appear in the 2011 documentary Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters, which follows Robin Mihara’s attempt to find the world’s best Tetris player by establishing a national tournament.

The documentary begins with Mihara tracking down the country’s best Tetris players, who have all declared the NES version to be the de facto version of the game. This is done by searching Twin Galaxies (not getting a quip from Walter Day seems like a glaring omission). Unsurprisingly, most of the country’s best Tetris players look and act exactly what one might imagine adults in their 30s and 40s who have dedicated their lives to mastering a Nintendo game might look like. Along the way we meet a guy who mastered solving Rubik’s Cubes “in order to pick up women,” a girl who often ignores her spouse while playing Tetris, and another girl who plans on wearing a sweatshirt that says “I > U” along with Nintendo-branded pajama bottoms to the tournament. None of the potential contestants come off as annoying, but none are particularly charismatic either.

The dark horse of the tournament is Thor Aackerlund, one of the winners from the 1990 Nintendo World Championships who became a spokesman for Nintendo before turning into a recluse and walking away from the industry. For a while the film teases a Billy Mitchell “will he or won’t he show up,” but eventually he does and although a bit hesitant to reenter the limelight, he turns out to be a nice guy.

Like the Donkey Kong kill screen from The King of Kong, Tetris too has its own mythical achievements: one involves maxing the game out at 999,999 and the other involves reaching level 30. Thor claims to have done both but doesn’t feel the need to take or share any photographic evidence of his achievements. A few of the other competitors timidly hint that they have their doubts about Thor’s achievements, but no one goes as far as to call him out. In fact, it turns out that for the most part people who spend 10-12 hours a day mastering a Nintendo game tend to like one another.

After establishing the fact that there’s going to be a tournament, Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters spends the next 45 minutes introducing us to the contestants. During this part of the film you’ll be exposed to a lot of people who play a lot of Tetris, and also a lot of Tetris. Along the filmmaker’s journey he got to watch a lot of Tetris footage, and you’ll get to see some of it, too. Some of the footage is impressive and a lot of it goes by too fast to tell what’s going on. All the footage made me think (a) all these people deserve to be in a Tetris tournament, and (b) I hope it happens soon.

The final third of the film covers the tournament itself. Some of the players do well and some don’t go as well as they had hoped. Will one of our new friends win the tournament or will Thor reclaim his former title?

During one of the film’s interviews, Thor explains that shortly after winning the 1990 Nintendo tournament, his house burned down and his family became essentially homeless, their only income being his endorsements and paid appearances. “In one way life is a lot like Tetris,” he says. “It throws random things at you, but what you do with them is up to you.” For me, this was the film’s takeaway moment.

While The King of Kong transcended Donkey Kong and perhaps video games in general in its simplified (and in many cases, forced) “good vs. evil” theme, I don’t think Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters does the same. While it’s a good film, I’m not sure it would appeal to those not interested in Tetris or at least video game tournaments. If you’ve ever played Tetris so long that you’ve dreamed about the game or attended a classic video game expo, no doubt you’ll enjoy this film.

In 10 minutes I’m about to go wake my sister up, get her out of bed, and start her Tetris training regimen for the inevitable sequel.

WNUF Halloween Special (2013)

December 1st, 2014

The WNUF Halloween Special is a copy of a copy of a VHS recording of a live news broadcast that took place on October 31, 1987. For those of you unfamiliar with the incident, during a live broadcast, news personality Frank Stewart along with acclaimed psychics Louis and Claire Berger and a Catholic priest (Father Joseph Matheson) were broadcasting live from the supposedly haunted Webber House (the site of a double murder) when they experienced paranormal activity. The live broadcast went dead, and none of the four were ever seen again.

The rest of this review is chock full of spoiler. If you plan on watching this movie, don’t read past the picture below. If you’re okay with spoilers, continue… if you dare.

If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of the Webber murders, Frank Stewart, or WNUF for that matter, is because they’re not real. This film goes to great lengths to appear to be a VHS recording from the 1980s, but it was actually created and released in 2013. The filmmakers went as far as to record dozens of 80s-esque commercials which are sprinkled throughout the recording, and made multiple VHS copies of the movie to give it the look of a second-(or third or fourth)-hand tape that’s been copied and passed around among friends.

The film begins with a live news broadcast from October 31, 1987. After a few news stories presented by a couple of stereotypical broadcasters from the 80s, we get to Frank Stewart, who is doing a live remote broadcast from the Webber House. In the 1960s, Donald Webber, guided by a Ouija board, murdered his parents in the house and drug their decapitated bodies down into the basement. After the trial, the house was boarded up remained abandoned for 20 years. Twenty years later on Halloween night, the house is being unsealed (a’la “Geraldo and Al Capone’s Vault”) during a live broadcast. Joining Stewart during his broadcast are husband and wife psychics Louis and Claire Berger, their cat, and Catholic priest Father Joseph Matheson.

It’s pretty clear up front that Frank doesn’t believe the house is haunted, the psychics do, and the priest doesn’t know quite what to think. The psychics brought along their third partner, Shadow, a cat that is also psychic. Shadow quickly runs off which causes the four humans to go searching for him. They do eventually find Shadow — er, parts of Shadow, anyhow — which is one of our first signs that something is going on in the Webber house. During their search for the cat, the psychics’ EVM recording equipment is also smashed off screen.

Each of these segments are interrupted by commercials, which were created explicitly for this movie. As someone who grew up in the 80s I can tell you most of them are spot on. Some of them, like the ones for a local monster truck rally and the anti-drug ads (sponsored by “Parents Against Partying”) are spot on. The biggest giveaway that none of them are real is that none of them are for shows or products or businesses that you’ve ever heard of. Obviously the point is to add to the authenticity of the recording, and they certainly do that.

Anyone who has ever sat through an episode of Scooby-Doo should be able to predict the ending. While I won’t give everything away, the last five minutes contain more f-bombs than I was expecting. As viewers, we ultimately get to see footage that did not make it to the live broadcast, which makes one wonder just whose tape we are watching…

Part The Last Broadcast/Blair Witch, part retro-80s fun, the WNUF Halloween Special is better in theory than it is in production, but if you’re in to low budget thrillers and the 1980s, give it a watch. Expect it to become a Halloween cult classic in years to come.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

October 31st, 2014

The first time I saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was at a friend’s birthday party. I was in ninth or tenth grade. There were girls at the party so when the movie started only half of my attention was on the film. By the time the movie ended, 100% of my attention was on the film. I don’t even remember who else was at the party. But I sure remember that film.

A common theme from this month’s list of films has been that supernatural films don’t scare me as much as realistic ones. There’s nothing supernatural about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and yet it’s the worst kind of evil I can think of — people hurting other people for no reason. Revenge, no matter how brutal or violent, I can understand: that’s hurting someone else for a reason. But in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, there’s no rhyme or reason or motive to the brutality. There’s just a family of deranged maniacs who simply attack people when the opportunity arises.

And one of them has a chainsaw.

Opportunity arises in this film with a van load of teenagers who happen to pick up the wrong hitchhiker. I wouldn’t be surprised if this film single-handedly had an effect on hitchhiking. Our teens end up stopping at the wrong gas station and end up at the wrong house and pretty soon they start ending up on the wrong side of a chainsaw. I think one of the scariest things about this film is how few choices lie between us and a horrible death on any given day.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a gruesome, timeless classic. There’s a reason it became the archetype for these types of films. Many of the tropes still appearing in horror films today can be traced back to this very film. Classic, classic, classic.

And still scary as hell.

(This review is a part of my month-long October 2014 A-Z Horror Reviews.)

Sleepaway Camp (1983)

October 30th, 2014

Have you ever taken a bite of terrible food and immediately turned to the person next to you and said, “Here, try this!” Have you ever seen a disgusting video on the internet only to show it to someone else just to see their reaction? This, I suspect, is the reason people are still talking about Sleepaway Camp today.

Thanks to the success of Friday the 13th, like several other slasher films of the 1980s, Sleepaway Camp takes place at a summer camp. After her father and brother are killed, young Angela goes to live with her Aunt Martha and cousin Ricky. Ricky and Angela go off to summer camp together, which seems like a good idea until Angela begins getting picked on and people begin dying. Is sweet, innocent Angela the killer? Is it her over protective cousin Ricky? Or is it someone else?

All of this is difficult to focus on because there’s so many other creepy things going on. And I don’t mean creepy like spiders crawling on people, I mean creepy like camp counselors who continually make remarks about which thirteen-year-old campers they want to have sex with. And then there are the death scenes, which sound disturbing (one involves a beehive; another, a curling iron) but are so bizarre that it’s hard not to laugh at them.

Yes, every part of this movie is bizarre. And then there’s the ending, which is so bizarre that it makes the rest of the movie… I don’t want to say “seem normal,” but it’s so earth-shattering bizarre that no one will be talking about the beehive or curling iron scenes afterwards. It’s so jarring that I guarantee you will rewind however you are watching the film and watch it again. It wouldn’t surprise me back in 1983 to hear of people marching right back into the theater to watch the film a second time. Like Sixth Sense, this film is entirely different upon a second viewing.

When this movie was pitched, I can imagine the studio asking “what sets your movie apart from all the other slasher films?” and then the producer shows him the last page of the script and they all say, “yup, that’ll do it!”

If you’re ever up for watching a messed up movie, come on over and we’ll watch Sleepaway Camp. I can’t wait to see your reaction.

(This review is a part of my month-long October 2014 A-Z Horror Reviews.)

Ricky 6 (2000)

October 29th, 2014

On June 16, 1984, Ricky Kasso murdered Gary Lauwers over a $50 drug debt in the woods outside Long Island, New York. Ricky Kasso was a self-proclaimed Satan worshiper, a fan of heavy metal music, a drug addict, and schizophrenic. Kasso was arrested for the murder less than a month later on July 5th, and hung himself in his jail cell two days after that.

Several books and films have documented Kasso’s case. Ricky 6 (also known as Ricky Six and Say You Love Satan) is unique in that it’s a film “based on a true story.” Only the names have been changed (yeah, right). In this film Ricky Kasso becomes Ricky Cowen (aka Ricky Six), while his real life partner-in-crime Jimmy Troiano becomes Tommy and Gary Lauwers’ name is inexplicably changed to Tweasel.

Director Peter Filardi’s biggest challenge with Ricky 6 was making the character Ricky remotely likable. He does this in a number of ways; one, by picking a somewhat attractive actor (Vincent Kartheiser, better known as Pete Campbell from television’s Mad Men).

In a rare case of making the fictionalized version of a news story less (instead of more) violent, Filardi also toned down a number of the facts from the case. In the film, Ricky stabs Tweasel and shouts “Say you love Satan!” In real life, Kasso’s victim was tortured to “three or four hours,” according to witnesses. Also in real life, Kasso shoved rocks down his victim’s throat and carved his eyeballs out with a knife.

Despite leaving out some of the more violent details, the film loosely parallel’s Kasso’s real life. Both stories show a troubled teen’s life spiraling out of control as he falls into heavy drug use (lots of mescaline and PCP-laced joints) combined with schizophrenia (hearing voices). Although Kasso was originally arrested wearing an AC/DC shirt and some press at the time mentioned the “heavy metal” angle, it’s not presented strongly in the film. Instead what we see is a fall from grace (and sanity) by a kid with some definite mental and chemical issues. We see Ricky go from a kid on the football team to a kid who dabbles in Satanism to a kid strung out on dope to a murderer to a kid who hangs himself in his own jail cell in under two hours. Forget those ABC after school specials; let your kid watch this and he’ll “just say no” on his or her own.

After making a brief visit to a few film festivals, Ricky 6 was shelved and never released. Some online sources say that the Columbine shootings played a part in that; others report that the film’s owner is now in prison himself (I could not verify this). Ten years ago this is the type of movie that, without distribution, would have dropped off the face of the earth. Fortunately for anyone interested you can watch the entire movie on Youtube.

I don’t know that I would watch Ricky 6 again or that I would even classify it as a horror movie. If you want to really be scared, read David St. Clair’s non-fiction account of the murders, Say You Love Satan. It’s a hell of a lot scarier than any fiction film.

(This review is a part of my month-long October 2014 A-Z Horror Reviews.)