Maniac Mansion (1990 - NES)

The NES version of Maniac Mansion is the only one I've ever completed, and as such, I have certain biases for it. Despite how often it gets criticized for Nintendo's heavy censorship, there are just certain things I still like better about the NES version as opposed to what I played of the DOS version. Foremost is the excellent soundtrack, which is mostly unique to the NES. The NES version of the house explosion, which scared the crap out of me when I first caused it years ago, is my favorite version of it by far. And for reasons I can't really explain, I just like Weird Ed better with a beret. I'm not even sure why that change was made, other than that someone must have agreed with me.

Where this differs from other NES point-and-click adventure games like Shadowgate and Deja Vu, is that you command a trio of kids (selected from a group of six), instead of just one unseen character, to enter the Edison family mansion and look for a way to save their kidnapped friend. This also adds an element of replay value since the kids have different skills and must solve the game differently depending on their abilities, which can even result in multiple endings. The house is full of strange things, like a nuclear reactor in the basement and a flying Edsel, and even stranger inhabitants, such as disembodied, talking tentacles. Interacting with these objects and characters is how you make progress, but figuring out what to do isn't always easy. There are what I'd call four "hidden difficulty levels" in this game depending on what kids you take (and maybe even a fifth if you choose the two kids who have identical skills). Ending the game might be as simple as making a phone call, but dealing with a publishing company takes a much longer, more elaborate sequence of steps.

So, yeah, it's censored, but the game has so much atmosphere, quirkiness, humor, horror, and originality, that it's impossible for it to have been completely suppressed. One of the most unique NES games. Don't be a tuna head! Play it!
Rating: 4.5/5

Horrible Bosses (2011 - DVD)

Of all the "silly comedy" movies I've seen lately, this one was the weakest, both in terms of how often it made me laugh and the storytelling. I think many people have had an encounter at some point in their lives with a crappy boss, but the caricatures in this movie are so over-the-top, they're more like cartoons. Some exaggeration for comedic value is acceptable, but Kevin Spacey's character in particular is so excessively unlikeable, with nary a redeeming value, that even after a surprising plot twist, there's no place for him to go but into complete absurdity. Maybe the beginning of the movie was more realistic in how it dealt with its situations, but by the end we've got car chase scenes and a resolution that felt like something out of Scooby-Doo.

It's funny to me how so many reviews praise this movie on the strength of the cast alone, when all the while I was watching it, I felt like it was a Hangover movie with a different cast. It's not that they're bad. They're good. But it also seems like you could've replaced them with the three guys from The Hangover and had almost the same results. Although I will say that Jamie Foxx's character, a conman named Motherfucker Jones who swindles the guys out of their money, yet is not completely heartless, was my favorite thing about the film.

Rating: 2.5/5

Spider-Man 2 (2004 - DVD)

While this movie is a massive improvement over the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man film, viewing it now, I can see where I have either become a much more cynical, or much more observant person than I was when I first saw it in a theater years ago. The CGI was not as obvious to me back then as it is now. I believe that figures into a problem I have with resolving the Peter Parker/Spider-Man character in my head. It seems like, for most of the time, this movie is a drama about a college kid, Peter Parker, whose life and relationship with his girlfriend is falling apart. I have a hard time thinking of that as being the same character as Spider-Man. It's like every now and then the drama is interrupted by this cartoon character who shows up to fight Doctor Octopus. I did not have this problem with the Spider-Man cartoon I used to watch in the 90s, and I think the difference is that in the cartoon, voiceovers were used for both Peter Parker and Spider-Man to express what he was thinking to the audience. The movie doesn't use this technique, leaving an element to connect the two noticeably absent. Also, since the whole cartoon was animated, the look was always consistent. While Toby Maguire did do a lot of his own stunts, he still doesn't quite look the same as the CGI being who moves in ways not possible for a real human to do.

Doc Ock is very brilliantly played by Alfred Molina, and is the best thing about the movie. Sam Raimi had rewritten him to be a much more sympathetic and motivated villain than what I remember from the cartoons (and what the DVD special features informed me about the comic book version). If Doc Ock hadn't been cast so perfectly and written so skillfully, the movie probably wouldn't have worked at all for me.

While I generally agreed with the movie's morality that Mary Jane should have a say in whether or not she wants to carry on a relationship with Peter despite the complications brought on by his alter-ego, I'm not sure it was the best idea to bring in separate love interests for these two before that moment occurs. As much as we're supposed to feel happy for them in the end, I just end up feeling sorry for the people they ditched (especially the Russian girl who liked Peter because she has so little else in her life).

On one final note...I do generally appreciate the role humor can play in stories, even if they aren't comedies. But it usually only works if the tone of the comedy is consistent with the feeling of the drama and/or action. I am able to accept that there's a kid jumping around with the powers of a spider, and I am able to accept that there is a scientist who fused a bunch of robotic tentacles to his back and became utterly controlled by their AI. I'm fine with all that, and the movie had me up until the point Doc Ock throws Aunt May up the side of a tall building and she saves herself by hooking her cane onto a statue. At that moment, all sense of urgency and tension fell away, leaving me dangling, along with Aunt May, in the middle of a Three Stooges routine. A few scenes earlier, Ock's mechanical arms slaughtered an entire operating room full of people. To have elderly Aunt May thwart the same horrific fate in such a ridiculous manner is jarring and inconsistent.
Rating: 3/5

The Best Hits 2011 (2011 - Digital Album)

Oh boy, why the hell did I borrow this? Hopeless curiosty, maybe? What this album actually is, despite the misleading title, is a reggae tribute to the 2011 hit songs from popular artists like Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Lil Wayne, Jennifer Lopez, and others. (Well, mostly reggae, a few are really bizarre country-style renditions.) I guess I wasn't paying much attention to Top 40 in 2011 because I didn't recognize a single one. The Lil Wayne rap songs are especially weird to hear sung this way. I'm sure it's inappropriate to laugh at the epithets being repeated over and over again in such a matter-of-fact, monotone manner, but no other reaction escapes me.

So, either these are really bad recreations (even considering the blunt change in style) or 2011 was a bad year for music. Why do I get the feeling it's a little of A and B?
Rating: 1.5/5

Big Game (1989 - Digital Album)
Artist: White Lion

When I first started listening to this album from 80s hair metal band, White Lion, I began to think - gee, maybe this band is better than I've previously given them credit for. The only song I was familiar with from them was "When the Children Cry", which I really don't like, but Big Game seemed to be following more in the style of Van Halen - just good, fun hard rock with the typically nasal hair metal vocals toned way down.

And then it happened. The child abuse song. Fourth track in. Killed the whole thing flat.

Maybe this is an important topic for the band's songwriter, and maybe I'm being a hypocrite for being inconsistent about criticizing songs for having lyrics about tough issues. But c'mon. Hair metal doesn't come across to me as being the most appropriate medium for this sort of thing. It's a shame, because there's actually a decent cover of Golden Earring's "Radar Love" on here and much of the rest is quite rockin'. Even if you could just skip that track, there's another sappy one about children near the end. And what was up with them quoting Diamond Head's "Am I Evil?" Were they just not able to secure rights for a full cover of it?
Rating: 2.5/5

Brothers and Sisters (1973 - Digital Album)
Artist: The Allman Brothers Band

By now it should be getting pretty darn obvious that I have a love for blues-rock and southern rock, as well as bands, like the Allman Brothers, that combine the two. Maybe it's because a lot of it is so gosh darn good. If you spend any amount of time listening to a classic rock station, then you've probably at least heard "Ramblin' Man", which is my runaway favorite on this album, but much of the rest is just about as good. I especially like "Jessica", a 7-1/2 minute long jam session. This, along with Metropolis (see below), is the first album I bought after listening to it on the digital service first.

What I actually borrowed was the Super Deluxe Edition (4 discs in physical format), which has a ton of live and demo tracks, many of which are extremely long. I'm talking several over 10 minutes in length and one over 25. Despite the obscene amount of music present on this edition, it never got boring to listen to. However, I don't strongly recommend it, except maybe to collectors and hardcore Allman Brothers fans. The tracks are good to listen to once, but considering the $30-$50 price tag on the thing, I think for most people, just the original 7-track album will suffice.

Although... what I bought was the original album and I seem to have received a digital version of the Super Deluxe Edition along with it... I don't know whether it's complimentary or in error, but I'm not complaining.
Rating: 4.5/5

Love Will Keep Us Together (1975 - CD)
Artist: Captain & Tennille

I have some pretty darn ridiculous guilty pleasures in my music collection, not least of which is Captain & Tennille's 1975 Grammy Award-winning album, most famous for its popular title track. Those who read this site regularly will probably recognize "The Good Songs" for its use in the RAU Gallery, and those who attend the forums might remember me making ridiculous jokes about the resemblance of the band's name to a popular 80s video game-themed cartoon. And, cripes @ that album art! Prime example of why I always tell people to never force anyone to smile, especially not open-mouthed, at the camera. Take natural photos (see the kid on Brothers and Sisters from last month), not things that look obviously staged for the sake of the photo.

Anyway, back to the music. No, this album is not for everyone. But as much as I like the two songs I've mentioned, some of the others are big question marks. I mean, what the hell's a Broddy Bounce or a Disney Girl?? I don't know and I'm not even sure the songs know.

And Troy Demetrius colored "I Write the Songs" for me in much the same way he did Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman" (or maybe it was actually Barry Manilow's cover that ruined it first, I'm not sure anymore).
Rating: 3/5

Metropolis (1997 - Digital Album)
Artist: Sister Machine Gun

When I found out TVT Records was being pulled from the digital service, I did a quick check to see if they owned the Wax Trax label. Yeah, they do. So, I quickly took out the three Sister Machine Gun albums I hadn't yet listened to before it was too late. I've been a fan of Chris Randall's obscure industrial project since I first heard "Burn" on the Mortal Kombat movie soundtrack CD (which actually wasn't used in the movie). I bought the full album the song originally came from and thoroughly enjoyed it.

As fond as I am of that album (which is also called Burn), I almost think Metropolis one-ups it. This might very well be Randall's crowning achievement. Along with having the same great, but even more refined, techno/blues/rock sound as before, the album reaches into new, bold territories with "Admit", a song that uses symphonic and Celtic orchestration for a real epic feel.

SMG often got criticized for sounding too much like Nine Inch Nails, but even Allmusic (who often made that complaint) capitulated to the greatness of this album. That, and well, there's been speculation that Trent Reznor borrowed from Wax Trax Records, so who knows who really copied who?
Rating: 4.5/5

Miss the Mississippi + These Days (1979 - CD)
Artist: Crystal Gayle

Another Crystal Gayle double album that I would be very tempted to give a perfect score to, if not for a nagging issue with this particular release - the last song, what should be Track 20, "What a Little Moonlight Can Do", refuses to play or rip. I've seen complaints from other people in the reviews on Amazon who had this same problem, so I know it's not just my copy. Apparently, it's a bad pressing. Some people also have trouble with Track 19, "Lover Man", and I did with my old computer, but my new one was able to rip it. Track 20 is still lost, though.

Anyway, I've had Miss the Mississippi on vinyl for years and it's generally been my favorite Crystal Gayle album with one exception: I don't care for the title track. It's the last song on the vinyl album, so I would always just stop it after "Danger Zone" (not the same as the Kenny Loggins song). But I'm not kidding, I have (or at least used to have) every other song on this album memorized word-for-word.

I had some of the tracks from These Days on vinyl greatest hits collections, but sans Track 20, this was the first I had acquired the entire album. Remember how I said in my last Crystal Gayle review that she had greater variety in her songs than some other female artists I had reviewed? No kidding here. I was surprised by "Ain't No Love in the Heart of the City", which is far more of a rock song than anything I'd heard from her before.

So, if you're a fan, I can definitely recommend these albums, but you might want to buy them separately if you care about getting all 20 tracks.
Rating: 4/5

Plastic Planet (1995 - Digital Album)
Artist: G//Z/R

Just like with Sister Machine Gun, I was first introduced to G//Z/R (or GZR, G/Z/R, or Geezer Butler, or whatever the former Black Sabbath guitarist is calling himself now) via the Mortal Kombat movie soundtrack. "The Invisible" was featured on there (even though, also like SMG's "Burn", it wasn't in the movie itself), and right before it was pulled with all the other TVT Records stuff, I managed to track down the album it originally came from on the digital service.

Truth be told, "The Invisible" is not my favorite song from that album, but I thought I'd give the band a chance, anyway. It features Fear Factory vocalist Burton C. Bell (Fear Factory also had a song on the Mortal Kombat soundtrack), who alternates between singing normally and using "Cookie Monster" death growls. That's true for the duration of this album, which provides some measure of variety, but much like how "The Invisible" sits in with the songs I'd classify as "okay" from the MK soundtrack, I'd say this album is just that, "okay".

On a side note, it seems that some Black Sabbath fans really liked this album, but the possibility exists that if you go into it expecting it to sound just like Black Sabbath, you might be disappointed. It's much more like depressing grunge/black metal than what I remember from the Ozzy Osbourne band.
Rating: 2.5/5

Richest Man in Town (1988 - Digital Album)
Artist: Bruce Carroll

Yeah, I borrowed a Contemporary Christian album. No, I don't know why. Yeah, I got what I deserved: a guy singing a bunch of songs about Jesus. I mean, couldn't we have at least one song about someone else? Moses? Abraham? Noah? Adam and Eve? Anyone else?

If this music is your thing, well, okay, but there's nothing about this album to make it appealing to someone who doesn't see automatic appeal in a man singing songs about another man who's been dead for several thousand years. I have, despite my generally secular nature, enjoyed some country and folk gospel from years past. But those songs that I've made part of my personal canon both have more musical appeal and poetic metaphor to their language. Like, for example, Jackson Browne's "Rock Me On the Water", or "Samson and Delilah", a traditional song whose most famous version is probably the Grateful Dead's, though Shirley Manson (of Garbage) also did an excellent cover of it for Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles.

While Bruce Carroll did not seem to be a bad singer or performer, I can't imagine anyone but the most religious of religious having much interest in this recording. If you're trying to spread "the good word", you can't just preach. You've gotta be entertaining, too.
Rating: 2/5

Sins of the Flesh (1992 - Digital Album)
Artist: Sister Machine Gun

This was the second-best Sister Machine Gun album I borrowed from the digital service. While it was much better than The Torture Technique (see below), I don't think it's quite as polished as Burn and a notch or two below Metropolis. I liked it enough to consider buying it, although I haven't yet because it's more expensive than Metropolis, which seems to almost make no sense to me, except that maybe that's because it's older and a little harder to come by. In short, if you're interested in SMG at all, try Burn or Metropolis first, and then go for this if you liked them and want more.
Rating: 3.5/5

Soundtrip Uruguay (2009 - Digital Album)

There is a whole series of these Soundtrip albums, each featuring music from a different country. I took out the Uruguay title, not wholly knowing what to expect, and it turns out that it's thirteen tracks of Latin pop/rock from, well, Uruguay, I presume. One issue I've been having with many of the albums from unknown/obscure artists is a lack of variety, which is one reason I think it might not be a bad idea for someone like me who is not used to hearing this type of music to start with an album such as this that has tracks from various different artists. Different artists have different styles, even within the confines of the chosen genre, which keeps it sounding fresher and more intriguing.

So, yeah, I liked this. I even think I liked it more than that Marc Anthony album I borrowed earlier in the year. I may eventually try more Soundtrip albums, so long as the digital service continues to offer them.
Rating: 3/5

These Guys Sound Like Pink Floyd ...But Where is the Pig? (2011 - Digital Album)

So, um, someone thought it would be a great idea to find a bunch of songs from a bunch of obscure/unknown artists (and, really, I've never heard of a single one of them) that kinda, sorta sound like Pink Floyd and put them all on one big digital album (I can't find any evidence that it's ever had a physical release). However, a few of them sounded more like David Bowie to me, and considering that one of them even references Major Tom in the lyrics, I don't think it's just me. And at least one of them sounded more like the style of The Doors. Many of them are instrumental and quite lengthy at that.

But all things considered, it really wasn't that bad. Maybe if you're trying to emulate something good, there's a chance you'll end up sounding good as a result. While the album didn't answer the question of where is the pig, and nor did it explain why we should even be looking for one, it wasn't a terrible means of whiling away an afternoon at work.
Rating: 3/5

The Torture Technique (1994 - Digital Album)
Artist: Sister Machine Gun

Of all the Sister Machine Gun albums I've listened to, this one is the weakest. A weird gimmick was used for the entire recording that makes it sound like it's either playing on an old victrola or inside a cave. Maybe if they had done that for one or two songs, I wouldn't have minded it, but the whole album?? Perhaps that's the "torture technique" its title speaks of. Lyrically and musically, I didn't find it as good as their debut (Sins of the Flesh), and it's outshined by later offerings Burn and Metropolis.

It also seemed to me like more than one song on here had lyrics that were dropping the F-bomb every other word. I don't have a problem with the F-word, and SMG used it to good effect in the rap/rock song "Snake" from Burn, but remember that scene in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home when Spock tried using "colorful metaphors"? Yeah. There's a fine line between creative license and overindulgence.
Rating: 2.5/5

Vivaldi: The Four Seasons & Concertos on Authentic Instruments (1988 - CD)

There are few classical pieces that I enjoy more than Antonio Vivaldi's ever-popular "The Four Seasons", and this performance by Musici Di San Marco, conducted by Alberto Lizzio, is mind-blowing. The first movement of Spring is the part most people will recognize, but there is plenty else to worth discovering in the entire suite. The third movement of Spring especially brings out the type of emotion in me that only a passionate piece of music like itself can. The heavy storms of Summer are executed with such intensity that it's both easy to feel a sense of dread during the second movement when the thunder is only intermittent, and to breathe a sigh of relief at the onset of the more playful Autumn concerto... only to end with the blizzard of Winter swaddling everything in its relentless fury.

This double-CD release contains another Vivaldi set, Concertos on Authentic Instruments. These works are not as well-known, but are still deserving of a listen, especially for anyone who likes The Four Seasons as much as I do. Interestingly enough, even though Vivaldi is most known for being a violinist and composer for the violin, there are concertos on here for flutes, cellos, oboes, and even something as unorthodox as a mandolino. So, there's some variety. too.

The only problem is that this is a very old CD set and is likely going to be difficult to find now, but the discs have been reissued either separately or together a few times since 1988 (almost always with different package art). I'm sure there are other performances of these pieces that are worthy, but if you want this specific one, just look for Alberto Lizzio or Musici di San Marco on the label.
Rating: 5/5



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