The Long Hard Road Out of Hell by Marilyn Manson (1998)

February 20th, 2016

I was scared to death of Alice Cooper as a child, a man I thought was the devil himself. After putting on black leather and distorting his face with makeup, Alice Cooper would prance around the singing about hell and murder and all kinds of things that gave me nightmares. KISS fell into the same category; I assumed they were all in league with the devil, and I was afraid that by listening to them, I would be too.

And then one day I saw KISS on television without their makeup, doing an interview. Not long afterwards I saw Alice Cooper — real name Vincent Furnier — participating in a golf tournament. Alice Cooper, the Devil’s right hand man, playing golf! That was the day I realized that these guys were just performers. It was all an act.

In The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, Marilyn Manson goes to great lengths to prove that what he does is not an act, and that the scary and dangerous guy you see on stage is the same scary and dangerous guy he is off stage as well. If everything in this book is to be believed, the off stage one is the one to avoid.

Born Brian Warner, it doesn’t take Manson long to get to the goods. By page two of the book Warner and his cousin have already discovered their grandfather’s basement and its secrets, including his collection of hardcore pornographic photos, his cross-dressing wigs and dresses, and much, much worse. Manson spent the majority of his junior high and high school days running, both away from bullies and toward girls and alcohol.

In its earliest incarnation, Manson’s band (known then as Marilyn Manson & the Spooky Kids) was a bunch of guys performing bad music and worse performance art, known more for filling the stage with chickens inside of cages and whipping a woman at the end of a dog leash while spitting on her. By the way, on a scale of 1-10, whipping a woman on a leash while spitting on here, compared to what Manson and the rest of his goons do to their fans, girlfriends, and each other, is at most a 2. Trust me, this girl got off light.

Manson and his pals don’t waste much time turning things up to 11. On any given day, Marilyn Manson has snorted more cocaine, drank more alcohol, and had more sex than everybody on this planet you personally know, combined. Have you ever met someone at a party who tells you a completely unbelievable story, only to follow it up with another one, and another one after that? Now imagine if that person did it for 288 pages…

As time goes on, Marilyn Manson becomes more and more numb. During one story in which one of his friends may die from an overdose, he notes that he cared less about his friend dying than having to deal with the cops afterward. Each story is worse than the last, with Manson and his pals increasingly tormenting and torturing their fan base. Woe to the teenage girl who ended up backstage at a Marilyn Manson show.

Fortunately for those in search of debauchery, Marilyn Manson has no qualms in dishing dirt on every single person he met along his journey. Although Manson occasionally blacks out from drugs and alcohol, his memory is as sharp as a tack when it comes to retelling the dark secrets of friends, girlfriends, family members, band members, and anyone else he happened to cross paths with. At one point, Manson goes back to his hometown to attend a wedding and is legitimately surprised that his family is upset that he has aired the family’s dirty laundry. It must not have upset him greatly, based on the contents of this book.

Look — I’m not a prude, and I realize there’s truth behind the saying “sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” but if this book is taken at face value, that’s literally all there was. And the really upsetting part is that he doesn’t talk nearly enough about the rock and roll!

In regards to the band, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell covers his early days with the Spooky Kids through the release of Antichrist Superstar in 1996. Since then, Marilyn Manson has released seven more albums and, no doubt, accumulated another 20 years worth of stories for the inevitable sequel.

God help you if you told him any secrets.

Cast the First Stone (1989)

January 15th, 2016

For a guy who had to build additional shelves to house his horror and kung-fu/ninja DVD collection, I realize reviewing a sappy made-for-television special from 1989 isn’t something I would normally review. And to be honest, it’s not something I would normally even watch, must less review. However, while combing through thrift store VHS tapes in search of commercials to rip and upload to my YouTube playlist, I ran across this movie and (somehow) got sucked into watching it.

(The first movie on the tape (labelled “?? – John Goodman”) turned out to be The Big Easy, starring Dennis Quaid, Ellen Barkin, and Ned Betty. Good luck finding three people who would describe this as a “John Goodman” film.)

Type Cast the First Stone into IMDB and the site’s search engine suggests 2000’s Cast Away and 1966’s Cast a Giant Shadow (starring Kirk Douglas and John Wayne) before offering up the “Cast of Baby Daddy.” Performing the actual search reveals four television episodes and another movie with the same name. Google also turned up a band and a Slayer song with the same name. In retrospect I wish I had watched or listened to any of those things rather than watching this movie.

Our story begins with Diane Martin (Jill Eikenberry, L.A. Law), an innocent (and perhaps naive) school teacher, returning from a Catholic retreat. During her drive home Diane sees and picks up a random hitchhiker, Andy (Sandy Bull). The two of them have a conversation about how Diane picks up hitchhikers because she and her friend hitchhiked across Europe back when they were in college.

Things are set in motion that evening when Diane stops at a motel, lets Andy out, and gets a room for herself. Later, during a rainstorm, Andy locates her room and asks Diane if she will let him sleep on his floor. Reluctantly, she lets him in. In the middle of the night, unable to sleep, Andy retrieves a knife from his backpack and rapes Diane.


Diane, feeling embarrassed, ashamed, and humiliated, does not report the rape to the police. Instead, she returns home the following day and, over time, attempts to resume her life. Things become complicated, however, when Diane’s doctor informs her that she is pregnant.

At first, Diane is reluctant to tell anyone she has been raped, and when she does begin to tell people, nobody believes her. Her sister doesn’t believe her, the principal of her school doesn’t believe her, the parents of her students don’t believe her, and the school board doesn’t believe her. All of these people think Diane has made up the rape story to cover up the fact that she is having a child out of wedlock. And when people find out that she plans on keeping the baby, that’s when the townsfolk really begin to revolt.

Let me state that again. When the parents of her students and the school board learn that Diane the Catholic plans on keeping the baby instead of aborting it, that’s when they turn on her.

In one scene, we see Diane concerned about a student who obviously has dyslexia. A meeting with the student’s mother goes south when the parent demands her daughter not be labelled as a student with a learning disability. Later in the year, the same parent complains about Diane when her daughter’s grades haven’t improved. Eventually every parent who has any complaint at all about the school bands together in a motion to have the tenured Diane dismissed.

While Diane is in labor with her son, the school board finds her “guilty of immorality.” (This was back before Facebook.) Diane does return to the school, but after multiple parents and fellow teachers continue to complain about her lack of morality, she is fired. (Diane is by far the most moral person in this TV film.)

Because Cast the First Stone takes place in the late 1980s, we have the typical problems that would be easily resolved by today’s technology. In one scene, Diane attempts to set up an appointment with a counselor but is forced to hang up when students approach the pay phone she is using to make the call. In another scene, we are told that the local police are helpless to track down whoever has been prank calling Diane and calling her a whore because they can’t keep the caller on the line long enough to stay on the line. I’m as nostalgic about the 1980s as the next guy, but life before cell phones and Caller ID had its limitations.

After being fired, Diane teams up with an attorney (Refson) who takes her case in an attempt to help Diane get her job back. From a moral and I suppose legal aspect I understand this, but why would Diane want to work at a school (or in a town) where literally every single person hates her? The only thing missing from this film is a scene where a convicted child molester walks by Diane and spits on her.

After going on trial for “violating moral codes,” where she is (again) accused of making up her story, Diane is eventually successful in getting her job back. Sorry if I just spoiled an 80s TV movie that you will never watch.

Although Cast the First Stone was released in 1989, the actions, thoughts and values of the characters in the film seemed like they were from an earlier time, and after a bit of digging I think I’ve discovered why. The character of Diane Martin and the events in this film were “inspired by a true story” that originally took place in the late 70s.

(For the record, other films listed as being “inspired by a true story” include the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, The Mothman Prophecies, and The Fourth Kind, a film that claimed hundreds of people missing from Nome, Alaska had been abducted by aliens, so there’s that.)

Diane Martin’s story was inspired by the story of Jeanne Eckmann. Like the fictional Diane, Eckmann too was a school teacher who claimed to have been raped and was later fired from her job. Unlike Diane, Eckmann won a $3.3 million dollar settlement from the (then) past and present school board members. (I was surprised when that article named Eckmann’s four year old son by name — another case of “how things used to be done,” I suppose.) I know nothing about the real life case that inspired the fictional television movie, and can only say that real life is complicated and there are three sides to every story. Jeanne Eckmann died in 2001 and took her side of the story with her.

As for Cast the First Stone, I’m not sure if any of that was covered in an epiloge or not. After the verdict of Diane’s trial is announced, my copy abruptly jumps to an episode of Star Trek: The New Generation. I found used VHS copies of the film available on Amazon for as low as $4, but it’s not worth that to me to find out.

Twin Peaks (Definitive Gold Box Edition)

January 10th, 2016

In 1980, the question on television viewers minds’ everywhere was “Who shot J.R.?” A decade later in 1990, the new question everyone was asking was, “Who killed Laura Palmer?” I didn’t watch Twin Peaks when it originally aired on television, but even those of us who missed out on David Lynch’s beautiful yet eternally confusing show the first time around were aware of its cultural impact. Several months ago I ran across a used copy of the Twin Peaks Definitive Gold Box Edition for $10, and decided to find out for myself, who killed Laura Palmer.

The Twin Peaks Definitive Gold Box Edition contains 10 DVDs, and on those discs you get almost everything you could ever want related to the television show. For starters, on discs one through nine you get all 29 episodes of the show — that’s seven episodes for s one and 22 episodes for the second season. You also get two different versions of the pilot episode: the version that originally aired in the US, and a second version containing an alternate ending that essentially wrapped up the story in case the show itself wasn’t picked up by networks. Disc nine also contains deleted scenes from the series.

The final disc of the box set contains a large collection of extras. First up is A Slice of Lynch, a four-part documentary that covers the making of the series and David Lynch’s thoughts about the show. It’s a great documentary that gives viewers a view into the making of this groundbreaking show. You also get Return to Twin Peaks (footage from the 2006 Twin Peaks Festival), an interactive map of the town, a couple of Twin Peaks-related Saturday Night Live clips, a couple of music videos, and a few other random bits and pieces. The greatest inclusion here is Secrets from Another Place, a documentary about the show that includes lots of interviews with people from both in front of and behind the camera.

The video on the discs is great, remastered from the original negatives, and the audio is presented in both 2.0 and 5.1 soundtracks. For a television show that aired years before we knew what HD was, the show looks and sounds great.

Now, the bad news.

Despite being labelled as the “Definitive Gold Box Edition,” it’s not — at least, it’s not any more. The biggest omission is Lynch’s follow up film, 1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, a prequel that shows the events leading up to the beginning of the television series. Normally I wouldn’t think of an additional film as an omission, except that it was included in Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery, release on Blu-ray in 2014. (Is anything really “definitive,” anymore?) The newer Blu-Ray release includes a few new cast interviews, 90 minutes of missing footage originally cut from Fire Walk With Me, but lacks the Saturday Night Live skits and a few other minor extras.

That being said, especially if you can find an inexpensive copy like I did, Twin Peaks Definitive Gold Box Edition is a fantastic way to experience the television series from beginning to end — although with talks of a new season of Twin Peaks set to begin filming later this year, the word “end” is subjective. Expect a new “DEFINITIVE definitive” version in years to come.

Joe Dirt 2 (2015)

July 24th, 2015

Joe Dirt 2 answers a question nobody ever asked: “Whatever happened to Joe Dirt?”

After a wrap-around introduction that serves no purpose other than to shoehorn Dennis Miller into the sequel, we one again meet our old mullet-headed friend, Joe Dirt. (The mullet is back, despite the fact that it was surgically removed at the end of the original film — then again, if consistency or logic are your “thing,” you’re watching the wrooooong film.)

At the end of 2001’s Joe Dirt, Joe got the girl and lived happily ever after, or so we were led to believe.

Almost fifteen years later in this completely unnecessary sequel, we learn that much like Rodney Dangerfield, Joe Dirt gets no respect. This is shown to us in a scene in which Dirt’s co-workers take time out of their lunch break to fart in Dirt’s face. Unfortunately for Joe his wife and kids happen to visit him at work that day and witness this complete lack of respect. I’m sure he didn’t want them to see that. I didn’t even want to see it.

A few minutes later the tornado from The Wizard of Oz arrives and whisks Joe Dirt into 1965. There we meet Patrick Warburton, who plays both Foggle (an evil imaginary biker) and Joe’s guardian angel trying to earn his wings a’la It’s a Wonderful Life. By the way, everything that happens in the past is being told by Dirt to a random woman sitting on a bus bench (a’la Forrest Gump) which itself is being told to two hillbillies by Dennis Miller. There are more layers to this horrible film than Inception, and you’ll constantly be wishing someone would kick your chair to wake you up from this nightmare.

In another less-than-timely homage, in Back to the Future-style Joe meets the mother of his wife (both played by Brittany Daniel) and later messes up his first meeting with his future wife (in which Dirt romantically helped unstick his future wife’s dog’s testicles from a cold porch). This time around, man’s best friend is rescued by Jimmy, Dirt’s rival played by Mark McGrath. (Joe’s nemesis from the first film “Robbie” (Kid Rock) was apparently the only person with enough sense not to return for this train wreck. And when Kid Rock is the smartest guy around, look out.)

Joe Dirt spends the next fourteen hours (or however long this film is) running around, getting beat up, running into characters from the first film, and repeating jokes over and over again. Remember when Joe Dirt used to introduce himself as “Deer-te?” He does it another dozen times here. And although the jokes are dumb, somehow, the plot is dumber. In one part of the film, Joe Dirt gets stranded on a “desert island” for twelve years after having his organs harvested in a back alley by two thugs. Later, to liven things up, he flushes his testicles in an airplane toilet. Five or six times.

These are the jokes, kids.

Along with David Spade and Brittany Daniel, Clem (Christopher Walken), Zander Kelly (Dennis Miller), Kicking Wing (Adam Beach), and even Buffalo “It puts the lotion on its skin!” Bob (Adam Eget) all reprise their parts, which means the folks at Happy Madison Productions must have some serious blackmail material on these folks.

Ultimately Joe Dirt is forced to navigate through time to fix the mistakes of his past. After the release of Joe Dirt 2, one has to wonder if David Spade and the rest of the film’s ensemble cast wouldn’t love to be able to do the same.

Link: Watch Joe Dirt 2 for free on

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: 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.