Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Most American Thickburger!

The fact that it even exists in the first place isn't the only astonishing thing about the new product ... it's also a pretty damn good fast food burger, too. 

As soon as I heard about the Most American Thickburger, I simply had to be there for its day one launch. This wasn't just a new fast food item release, it was the veritable zenith of fast food excess; unless McDonalds starts selling Turducken around the holidays, there's just no way any burger joint can outdo what Hardee's and Carl's Jr. has done here.

Of course, the 1,000 calorie-plus abomination is really nothing more than a shameless publicity stunt. In this, the era of Sriracha Quesaritas and Dr. Pepper bubblegum and suburban-white-girl-flavored Oreos, the Most American Thickburger -- henceforward referred to as the "thickburger" -- stands out as the final punchline to a cruel, commercialized joke that's been running rampant since the late 2000s.

This isn't food designed to be eaten, it is food designed to be ridiculed and absorbed in a smarmy, ironic manner. The marketing angle for the burger isn't the burger itself, it's the sublime absurdity of the product even being thought of; it's like some big, fat, post-modern, self-reflexive commentary on the general excess of American spending habits and the unconscionable guiltlessness of corporate marketing practices. Instead of shying away from the fact that high-calorie slop of the like is literally killing people en masse, the advertising wehrmacht behind this thing is openly mocking both the inherent unhealthiness of its literal bread and butter (and ketchup, iceberg lettuce and probably safe-for-consumption beef) and the unbelievably tasteless (and reckless) palates of the American fast food consumer.

The release around Memorial Day is no coincidence. The entire shtick behind the marketing of the product (and indeed, the very product itself) is a self-deprecating ode to American overconsumption, a gimmick that scornfully embraces the grandiose ridiculousness of both American patriotism and American waistlines. The thickburger really is the ultimate post-911 social commentary; we now live in an ecosphere so detached and so devoid of existential meaning that corporate entities can come out and call its consumers fat-ass, nationalistic slobs in their own advertisements and instead of being offended, the general public embraces it like some sort of loving Don Rickles zinger. Welcome to the new world order, folks: we are literally eating contempt and disdain of the common man for dinner.

Before we even get into the burger itself, the packaging alone is probably enough to be considered a hate-filled critique of fast food culture. The carry-out bag proclaims "eat like you mean it" in a bold, aggressive font that almost feels like it weighs 300 pounds and wears a CPAP mask at night. The strangely confrontational motto almost seems like one of the blunt advertisements of "Idiocracy" carried over into the real-world ... or even more unsettling, one of the Reptilian 1-percent mind-control coded messages from "They Live." And to think ... those pus-faced alien totalitarians wouldn't even have to make their threats subliminal to be effective in the wonderland of 21st century marketing.

As something of an homage/deconstruction of the old "Made in the USA" iconography, the thickburger paper container also comes with a special sticker proclaiming that, yes, it is indeed quite "American." I am not totally sure if this is something that is being done coast-to-coast or if it's just the brilliant, lone actions of my local Hardee's, but it's such fantastic, unintentional commentary. That same emblem thousands upon thousands of our fellow countrymen have died for, relegated to a piece of sticky art, plastered on a greasy cardboard cube so high-school-aged cashiers won't confuse it for a chicken sandwich. And of course, after we're done ingesting our monstrous hamburger? We just toss Old Glory into the refuse bin, where it takes up residence alongside discarded, half-eaten milkshakes and cigarette butts. God bless these United States, no?

Odds are, if you stumbled across this blog, you already know what a Most American Thickburger is. Alas, for those in South Africa and the former Soviet bloc states that somehow get redirected here after trying to figure out why American college students are so dense and why "Daikatana" on the Game Boy is so fucking great, here's the gist of it.

In America, there is a fast food chain called Hardee's. Actually, that's just one of its names; on the east coast, the franchise goes by that moniker, but on the west coast, it's called Carl's Jr. Now, one minute on the Wikipedia would probably explain in full why the corporation uses two distinct operating titles, but just taking a wild guess, I'd say that's probably to save money on taxes or something. And if that's not confusing enough? The parent corporation also has two extra Mexican restaurants, called the Red Burrito and the Green Burrito, stapled onto some of its Hardee's/Carl's Jr. locations.

If you've ever read "Fast Food Nation," you know the story of how Hardee's came to be. While today it is not really considered one of the heavier hitters of the U.S. fast food racket, it's probably a top ten franchisee. Again, I could look up factual data to confirm or disprove my guesstimations, but how has time to fact-check when Google let's you play "Pac-Man" on its virtual maps? That's right, not a single damn one of us.

So, uh, anyway, Hardee's. Their big claim to fame is this thing called a thickburger, which is allegedly fatter, plumper and juicier than your standard McDonalds or Burger King offering. I am not sure if such is truly the case, but it probably is -- the last time it was at each of those restaurant, the patty I received was about as flimsy as a sliver of store-branded bologna. The burgers are a bit pricier than the average offering, and considering the staggering volume of the Most American Thickburger, the $5.49 MSRP seems pretty understandable.

As stated earlier, if you got here, you most likely know what this thing is all about. Alas, for those of you not in the know, I'll just let the product visually introduce itself...

That's right, amigos y amigas -- it's a split hot dog wiener on top of a cheeseburger patty on top of lettuce and tomato on top of potato chips, with ketchup smeared on both buns. That sounds revolting/incredible/delicious enough on its own, but take this into consideration, folks -- the pictures above and below are actually the smaller of two different Most American Thickburger variations the restaurants are hawking.

The social scientists we are, however, how about we take a look at the product more in-depth, why don't we?

Layer one is a catsup-coated hot dog. To the untrained eye, it may look like two wieners, but it is actually just a wiener halved down the middle. I mean, do you really think a restaurant would have the audacity to release a product with two hot dogs resting atop a hamburger patty? Get real, folks.

Layer two is your standard American-cheese coated hamburger patty. For an extra dollar, they will actually throw on another patty for you, in case you just goddamn demand two hamburger patties to go along with your hot-dog and potato chip sandwich. I am not sure if they will throw in another wiener for you, though ... next time I am around one of the restaurants, that is something I will be sure to bring up to the store manager.

Beneath the beef, we've got your hippie-liberal-vegetarian nonsense, in the form of tomato slices, onions and iceberg lettuce. There's really not much to say here, so let's just travel to the final layer, which consists of a vegetable we actually give a shit about ...

That's right, fellas, this thing concludes with some extra-crispy Lays kettle potato chips, which is capped off by some pickle slices and about half a bottle of Heinz squeezings. Keep in mind, readers, that this isn't just a random screencap of the bottom of a compost pile ... this is actually the shit Hardee's is jamming between two buns and selling to people for actual money. How in the bluest of hells stuff like this got past the FDA is simply beyond me, folks.

You know, you never really notice just how gross the stuff we eat is until we look at it up-close. For example, is the above a picture of the final layer of the Most American Thickburger, or is it an up-close biopsy photo I scammed off a medical website? The fact that you even have to second-guess yourself tells you so many things about modernity that quite frankly, we just don't want to have to acknowledge.

All of that said, as conceptually disgusting as the Most American Thickburger may sound, the product itself -- as much as I loathe myself for typing this -- is actually, shockingly decent-tasting. You would assume that what is virtually an entire picnic lunch between two buns would taste about as pleasing as prune juice frozen yogurt, but somehow, this thing actually tasted fairly yummy. Logistics, as to be expected, were a problem. As huge as the burger was, I had a hard time actually fitting the thing in my mouth for a first bite, and it was hard to snag a piece without watching about four pounds of lettuce fall out of the side. Needless to say, this is an extraordinarily greasy burger, which was so soppy I actually had to eat it with a cloth towel underneath me, lest ketchup-coated chunks of wiener rain down upon my carpet. 

Is this "great eating" by any stretch of the imagination? Absolutely not. However, as a stand-alone experiential product (there's no way anyone should be allowed to eat more than one of these in a human lifetime), it ain't too shabby. As strange as it may sound, it actually tasted a little bit crispier and more verdant than most fast food burgers, which is most definitely not the thing you would expect to say about a hot-dog-potato-chip burger. Additionally, it really wasn't as salty as you would think it would be, and the mish-mash of textures and flavors really didn't clash at all. 

You know, it is not often that a fast food product gives you something philosophical to think about when you eat it. Sure, the theory of the burger may be utterly repugnant, but think of it this way: what's the difference between eating this burger and eating a big plate of the individual components of said burger? Ultimately, they all wind up being a jumble of chewed up mush awaiting an acid bath in your tummy, so who cares if you eat the ingredients as stand-alone offerings or as one mass-marketed clusterfuck of a sammich? Really, this product is just as much a critique of our cultural perspectives on eating as it is a criticism of our collective consumer penchants for more. Yeah, it's gross and over-the-top and indicative of our further deterioration as a social body, but at the same time, we can't help but enjoy what we're being served

The Most American Thickburger, then, is perhaps the ultimate decadent and degenerative foodstuff for a society hellbent on becoming more decadent and degenerative than any culture before it. We've no wars to wage, no gods to worship and no empires to build ... but goddamnit, we have hamburgers with hot dogs and potato chips inside them. I'm pretty sure our grandfathers would have preferred having that to fighting Hitler and Hirohito, wouldn't they?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Sega’s “Spider-Man: The Video Game!”

It’s a really fun beat-em-up from 1991, featuring a star-studded line-up of villains, some inventive platforming sequences and some really odd choices for supporting cast members. 

The early 1990s were really the heyday of the side-scrolling-beat-em-up genre. What started with “Double Dragon” and “Bad Dudes” blossomed into an array of all-time arcade classics, including Capcom’s “Final Fight” and “Captain Commando,” Konami’s “The Simpsons” and “X-Men” and SNK’s “Burning Fight” and “P.O.W.: Prisoners of War” -- and that’s not even taking into consideration all of the weird-ass, one-off coin-op brawlers, like “Night Slashers,” “Ninja Baseball Bat Man” and both “Sonic Blast Man” games.

While Sega released arguably the most iconic console beat-em-up series of the 1990s, they sadly had few forays into the arcade brawler market. While most of their genre offerings were fairly forgettable (anybody remember “Arabian Fight?”) they did wind up releasing at least one really memorable beat-em-up title in 1991 -- and seeing as how it starred arguably the greatest comic book character of them all, you really have to wonder why it never gained the widespread popularity of some of its contemporaries.

Released in 1991, “Spider-Man: The Video Game” was a very well-made little side-scroller, with a ton of things going for it. Obviously, it had the Spidey license, and it is clear that the designers of the game held the property in high-esteem. It’s filled to the brim with iconic villains, there are a ton of neat little nods to the comics (Spider-Man’s webbing comes complete with a corresponding “thwikt” sound effect bubble) and it even incorporates some inspired platforming levels into the mix for good measure. Outside of the fact that the game just wasn’t as ubiquitous as its more famous genre kin, I just can’t figure out why this one isn’t universally hailed as a mini-masterpiece.

A perfectly reasonable retort when goosed by a Putty from
"Power Rangers."
Since beat-em-ups are more or less designed to be multiplayer experiences, the game allows for up to four players simultaneously. Since it would be weird (although not unheard of) to have four different Spider-Men at your disposal, the designers included three additional playable characters, and my goodness, are they ever the mixed-bag. I suppose it makes sense for the Black Cat to make an appearance, and even a good bit of sense for Hawkeye to make the roster, but you really have to wonder what the suits at Sega were smoking when they decided to throw Namor the god-damn Sub-Mariner into the fray. I’m sure he and Spidey have had their fair share of adventures together in the comics, but for the life of me, I just can’t figure out why they didn’t choose a more orthodox character, like Iceman of the Human Torch (or Firestar, if we’re aiming for the “Amazing Friends” trifecta here.) Alas, as weird as the playable character choices may be, it’s the gameplay itself that matters most, and you better believe Sega’s coin-op “Spider-Man” brings it in spades.

After you watch the character bios scroll in attract mode, the first thing you will probably notice about the game is the faithful-to-the-comics aesthetics. The backgrounds have a very pulpy, washed out texture to them, and the characters speak in text bubbles -- heck, you even get some very melodramatic cut-scene intros before each stage! Much like the iconic Genesis “Spider-Man” game from Sega (which was made even better in a criminally underappreciated Sega CD port), this is definitely a game made by people with a reverence for the source material, and their attention-to-detail is to be lauded.

Chapter One (i.e., the first level in the game) is titled “The Mystic Power Stone.” As does 90 percent of all 2D beat-em-ups ever made, it begins on a city street, which is suspiciously devoid of pedestrians … and even more suspiciously, populated solely by ninja warriors in matching robes. After being taunted by the Scorpion, you make your way to the right, beating up assorted no-goodniks, including purple and blue glad henchmen carrying stun guns who look like Putties from “Power Rangers” and coo like quails when you hit them and really, really fat dudes with mohawks who literally roll at you like boulders. After pummeling 1,500 of them into submission, you engage in fisticuffs with the Scorpion, in front of a gigantic semi-truck. After besting him in battle, the tractor trailer collapses and reveals none other than Eddie Brock in a hyperventilation chamber. This being a video game, of course he escapes from the containment unit and emerges as Venom.

It's not everyday that you see a guy with a starfish head zapping a
naked dude with electricity. Even if you live in Venice Beach.
After duking it out with him for awhile, he becomes absolutely massive (easily three times your character’s sprite size) and all of a sudden, the game switches genres from beat-em-up to vertically-scrolling platformer. With the in-game camera panning out, the title turns into the most kick-ass “Ice Climbers” rip-off ever, as you continue to battle Mega-Venom. Eventually, you find yourself boarding a gigantic green aircraft, which drops you atop a different building. At that point, the camera pans closer to the action and we once again go into full-on brawler mode. You beat up some more cooing Putties, and you encounter a new enemy -- a bunch of ethnically diverse, really tall dudes with hammerhead haircuts wearing khakis and basketball jerseys of various hues. Before long, you wind up starring down the Kingpin and his goons (in matching pimp suits, no less) standing over a fallen Venom. Mr. Fisk tells us the “Sorcerer Stone” has worn off, which cues up yet another boss fight with the Symbiote (who, this time, is flanked by an army of skinny dudes in Kingpin/Colonel Sanders outfits and grey tuxedos.)

Once Venom is bested (and you can tell, because he makes this really weird, garbled noise that sounds like a duck quacking) we head to chapter two, titled “Big Brother Kingpin.” The stage, which takes place primarily on a green and grey metal catwalk thingy, immediately throws the Green Goblin at you, who quickly flies off-screen almost as quickly as he enters it. Once you make it through the next wave of rank-and-file, non-canonical cannon fodder, the metal platform beneath your character’s feet starts moving. You get an opportunity to pick up some health (taking the form of red hearts in mustard-colored jars), and then you encounter a dude in a white lab coat, who is violently shaking. Why, who would have guessed, it’s the Lizard, and you have to fight him, too.

Are Hawkeye and Kingpin still refusing to speak to one another?
Once that bout is over, the camera pans out and things once again get all “Metroid” final-stagey on us. This time around, there is a bit more horizontal exploration, with plenty of new bad guys (including flying robot drones and guys in red lugging around shotguns) to dispose of. With your feet and fists replaced by a standard projectile attack (Spidey shoots web globs, Namor shoots electricity blasts, etc.), the game really does feel a bit like “Mega Man” during these sequences. After navigating your way past some falling ledges (it’s very reminiscent of  the platforming sequences in “Super Smash Bros. at this point), you encounter the next boss, Electro, who shoots really hard to evade energy bolts at you.

Next, you climb abord Kingping’s zeppelin, and the camera zooms back into beat-em-up-a-vision. Much like Konami’s “X-Men” arcade game, the playable characters in this game also have a finite number of “super-attacks.” Hawkeye launches arrows, the Black Cat swings a grappling hook, Spidey shots a big web blast and Namor hits people with lightning. They are quite useful for getting yourself out of jams when enemies swarm on you, but more importantly? They also look cool as fuck.

A boss battle with the Green Goblin ensues. As you’d expect, he chunks pumpkins at you and zips around on his glider, meaning you can only damage him with jump kicks. He also has this really weird glowing orange-arm wrist-flick attack, which to the best of my knowledge, I have never seen him actually do in the comics.

This brings us to chapter three, “The Lair of the Kingpin.” After crashing into a casino, you fight more fat dudes and guys who look like Mitt Romney, before facing the Scorpion yet again. He’s a lot harder this time, swinging his tail at you like a helicopter propeller and ensnaring you in his vice-like grip. Fortunately, he’s pretty predictable, and you can probably beat him just by spamming him with the jump kick. Interestingly enough, all of the playable characters have their own “swinging attack” and at least one throw -- for an arcade brawler, they really do give you a surprisingly high number of attacks to monkey around with.

Forget the pumpkin bombs ... those carbon monoxide fumes will
kill you just as fast.
And it’s platform time once again! You work your way past more red shotgun guys, drones that zap you with electric-onion-rings and Putties tossing hubcap-sized boomerang ninja stars, and then, it’s time for a boss battle against Doctor Octopus. Old Otto is hard as fuck in this game, with a tentacle attack that is all but unavoidable. Really, the only strategy that works here is getting in close and hitting him with a constant barrage of projectiles. Yeah, you may die a time or two, but it’s WAY easier than trying to dodge all of that shit. And, an aside: have you ever noticed just how many of the Spider-rogues are green? The Lizard, the Green Goblin, the Scorpion, Dock Ock, The Vulture, The Sandman … all known for their emerald duds. A subtle anti-environmentalism statement from Marvel, perchance?

Once you cross lava pits, laser traps and rising platforms trying to crush you, the camera zooms back in and you fight the Kingpin in his office (you can tell its his office because he has a gigantic portrait of himself hanging over the desk.) A platoon of multi-hued fat people (Fisk’s illegitimate children, maybe?) roll at you while the Kingpin himself charges at you, laughs, and chokes you, Homer Simpson-style. By the way, the animations in this game are just tremendous. Every character walks with a different hunch (they even appear to breathe differently) with enemies dropping their weapons in all sorts of weird ways once you knock them out (for extra LOLage, some of them even lose their hats once getting punched unconscious.)

There are a lot of things you expect out of a Spider-Man game. Namor
fighting the Lizard and monkey people in hell probably isn't one of them.
This segues into a totally, unexpectedly awesome battle against the Sandman (you are so jacked about “beating” the Kingpin that you don’t even notice the floor turning into a beach for seemingly no reason whatsoever.) He has all the attacks you’d expect (absorbing himself into the dirt and floating around the floor, turning into a giant hand and transforming his fists into anvils to beat you mercilessly), but unlike in the aforementioned Genesis classic, you don’t have to defeat him by dropkicking a fire hydrant and turning him into a mud puddle.

Another platforming sequence follows. After climbing up some metal girders (they even have these faint little support pillars, explaining how they can appear suspended in mid-air), you hop aboard a green helicopter with a fa-jillion blades and BAM! Sneak attack from the Hobgoblin!

Good old Spidey, spraying volatile chemicals on minorities before 
it was the trendy thing to do. 
As machine gun turrets fire at you from every direction, the Hobgoblin does his fruit-tossing shtick. The strategy here is the same as it was against the Green Goblin -- just jump kick the hell out of that mother, while firing periodic projectiles you just hope will connect. Afterwards, the camera zooms back in and we get our final, for real this time duel with the Kingpin. Granted, it’s not as tough as the concluding battled in the Genesis game, but he’s still tough as fuck. And once you defeat him, you are greeted by a hologram message from none other than DR. FREAKING DOOM!

The final chapter, “Doom’s Day!” takes place in Latvia … or whatever the hell Dr. Doom’s country is called. After working your way through an underground cavern (complete with lava pits and an armada of half-man, half-monkey abominations wearing teal pants) you fight the Lizard once more.

I guess now is as good a time as ever to discuss the game’s biggest flaw -- the audio. The music, while decent, seems really out of place (it’s this weird jazzy stuff that feels more at home in the stage select menu of a racing game) and it is quite repetitive. Furthermore, the audio samples are used over and over again, so if you are playing as the Black Cat, you will literally hear “you’ve hit the jackpot!” every five seconds. Since arcades were usually a cacophony of noises and bleeps anyway, I suppose that’s an issue you could’ve written off in 1991, but when you are ROM-ing this shit on your laptop? Trust me, it gets annoying fast.        

The final battle plays out exactly as you'd imagine -- with Dr. Doom
trying to find his contacts. 
You emerge from the hellish caverns and go into platform-mode. Then, you enter the rocky mountainside of Doom-land, working your way downhill while pummeling the usual baddies and avoiding water obstacles. Eventually, you zoom back in as you enter Doom’s castle, which is littered with landmines that are virtually impossible to leap over. You battle through a few more chambers, beating up more fat dudes before a mid-level return engagement with the Green Goblin -- and this time, it’s even harder than the first go-around, since there are scores of basketball-jersey goons to deal with while you are kung-fuing Norman O. Afterwards, you fight a couple of more monkey people, and since the foreground begins to look a little sandy all of a sudden, take a wild guess who you fight next? That’s right, Hydro-Man.

This leads to our first battle against Dr. Doom, who has this really annoying “Psycho Crusher” type attack that’s really hard to avoid. After you beat him, however, he explodes, as another Doom hologram appears in the background to taunt you.

We go into platform mode, as we make our way up a huge staircase while evil cow skulls puke magma and the soundtrack turns into a really bad variation on the casino level theme from “Sonic 2.” You jump over some more mines, and you fight Dr. Doom in mini-sprite mode again, this time while he commandeers a very Dr. Robotnik-like flying device. Then things go into full-sized brawling mode, as you go toe-to-toe with Dr. Doom inside his murky chambers. Avoiding his mean backhanded slap and jet-propelled clothesline tackle of death, the background eventually crumbles, revealing a lab with electric bursts going everywhere. Now he has this powerful orange-pink laser attack … and its revealed he’s just another damn Doom bot! You step aboard a moving platform, and we come to the game’s grand finale … a climactic boss fight against not one, but three different Venoms, who keep re-spawning after you kill them. Hang in there long enough, though, and eventually, the last Symbiote will go down (you are notified of this by a mean electric guitar shriek and the quacking duck death gurgle from earlier.)

And the game formally concludes with all four playable characters watching Castle Doom implode from a safe distance, with the ominous post-script suggesting that Victor is still out there somewhere, probably plotting some mean Hitler-caliber shit.

Clearly, there is a lot to like about this game. Yeah, the visuals may not be as good as some of its genre competitors, and the music definitely leaves a lot to be desired, but in terms of presentation and sheer gameplay, this one is just a hoot and a half to slog through, especially with an amigo or amiga or two. As has been the fate of most licensed arcade games from the era, the title never had a shot at an official re-release on the newer home consoles, and it never actually made it to the 16-bit consoles from its own timeframe. Alas, the unique blend of platforming and brawling, in tandem with the excellent license use, has made this one something of a retroactive classic, an unsung gem from the George Herbert Walker years that's definitely striking a chord with fans today -- many of whom were not even born when the game first came out!

As good as the game was, you really have to wonder what Sega would have been able to do with a follow-up. Imagine, a six-player cabinet sequel, with Nova and Speedball joining the fray ... or possibly even the Prowler, or Power Fist! Oh, my goodness -- what dreams could have come, no?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Jimbo Goes to the Movies: "Pitch Perfect 2" (2015) Review

It's pretty much the exact same as the first movie. Yeah ... that's just about it. 

A lot of people erroneously refer to the first "Pitch Perfect" as a sleeper hit. In reality, the 2012 film severely under-performed at the box office, and it wasn't until Anna Kendrick and a set of plastic drinkware became an out-of-nowhere pop radio sensation that most people even discovered the movie. Thanks to the Netflix and constant cable screenings, the movie has indeed gone on to become something of a neo cult-classic, despite the fact that -- beyond a few fairly funny bits -- the motion picture itself just isn't all that good.

Well folks, "Pitch Perfect 2" isn't a worse film than the original, but it's certainly not an improved offering, either. The plot this time around is virtually interchangeable with the storyline from the first flick, and it even seems as if most of the jokes have just been reheated from the original and sprinkled with a bit more cheese to persuade us that we're seeing something new.To be fair, there are some decent moments in the film, but by and large, this is an astonishingly predictable, by-the-numbers, made-for-mass-consumption Hollywood sequel even for an industry that has more or less become wholly dependent on nothing but the formulaic.

The film begins identically to the original, with Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins trading un-P.C. barbs while announcing an a capella performance. Things are going just dandy for the reigning, defending national champion Barden Bellas, who have been asked to do a routine in front of the President and the First Lady (via some fairly unconvincing editing and even less believable stand-in performers) ... that is, until the crew's idiosyncratically obese singer ends up splitting her britches during an homage to Miley Cyrus, resulting in a "Muff Gate" scandal that puts the team on performance probation.

From there, we catch up with the mostly one-dimensional ensemble cast, who are in their senior year at the university. Team leader Beca (who is virtually indistinguishable from Kristen Stewart) is neglecting her a capella duties to focus on a new recording studio internship, while control freak Chloe (who looks about 15 years too old to be a sorority girl) tries to keep the rest of the ragtag group of stereotypes in line. As was the case with the latest "Avengers" flick, there are so many different characters to trudge through that hardly anybody gets an opportunity to truly develop or even demonstrate a broad array of emotion. In fact, there's such a surplus of characters in the film that two of the primary protagonists wind up having a combined one shared line of dialogue.

While the antagonists in the first film were a bunch of metrosexual preppies, the bad guys this time around are a gaggle of German nationalist techno-singers known as Das Sound Machine, which is actually commanded by a Dane (the admittedly gorgeous Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, whose statuesque Aryan-ness is almost enough to drive Beca to reconsider her sexuality.) While the Bellas are barred from national competitions, they are conveniently not prohibited from participating in a World Cup style international championship, which wouldn't you know it, just so happens to be occurring right then and there. After some abysmal warm-up shows (including a way too lengthy impromptu battle that, somehow, also involves David Cross and the Green Bay Packers defensive line-up), the Bellas decide to take a nature retreat to get back to basics, where they eventually learn that the only way to defeat post-modern German uber-efficiency is with some good-old-fashioned, multicultural soul-singing (which may or may not include guest appearances from Robin Roberts and Peg Bundy.)

Although the cast of "Pitch Perfect 2" is mostly female, I really wouldn't call this a movie that embraces anything even remotely resembling a feminist ideology. That's very strange, seeing as how it was both directed and written by women, and much of the humor seems to be derived from an understanding of flagrant misogyny is opposed to a criticism of it. Instead of celebrating the quirks and foibles of the main characters, the film almost seems to relish making fun of them; the characters are even formally introduced to the audience with one of the most mean-spirited jokes I've heard in a recent non-R-rated film, as an announcer describes them as a inspiration to "girls too ugly to be cheerleaders" across the nation.

If the odd tinglings of misogyny don't rankle you, the almost cringe-inducing ethno-racial  humor probably will. As often the case with Hollywood comedies of its ilk, the sole black protagonist in the movie (who also represents the LGBT masses) is pretty much reduced to nothing more than a prop for the other characters to display "humorous" ignorance, while the filmmakers waste no opportunity to trot out as many malaria, deportation and diarrhea jokes as possible at the expense of a Guatemalan character. The crew's token Asian -- whose moment of triumph in the first flick was making snow angels in a puddle of vomit -- does very little of note, other than utter creepy throwaway lines about sleeping like a bat, traveling in time, hiding pennies under her tongue and having all of her teeth come from different people. But it's Rebel Wilson's "Fat Amy" character who suffers the worst, with virtually every second of screen time connected to her never relinquishing an opportunity to make a crack about her weight (although this does lead to arguably the film's best line, when she says her obesity trumps her Australian accent when it comes to making here a true-blue U.S. citizen.)

You really don't need me to tell you how this one plays out. Of course, the Bellas make it to the international championships (it's supposed to be in Copenhagen, but to me, it looks a lot like Louisiana) and they best the Krauts in battle. With the graduation subplot leaving the door conveniently open for a number of cast members (most noticeably, an observably bored Anna Kendrick) to exit the franchise, it also gives ample room for new lead Hailee Steinfeld to become the focal point of "Pitch Perfect 3" (and seeing as how the film made $70 million domestically it's first weekend, you goddamn know there's going to be a "Pitch Perfect 3," and there's nothing any of us can do to stop it.)

Not all of the jokes in the film fall flat (frankly, I loved the bit about Natalie Imbruglia literally producing "white shit" and who doesn't want to see more Euro-trash, crypto-fascist German villains in contemporary cinema?) but as a whole, this movie struggles throughout. There's only so many jokes you can do with the a cappella shtick, and it seems like all of the good ones were already exhausted in part one. It's obvious that  the film wants to be a really aggressive satire a'la "Revenge of the Nerds," but the PG-13 rating really prevents the producers from going all-out. Frankly, there's not a whole lot more the filmmakers could have done with the premise, but at least pushing it into bawdier territory would have opened the creative floodgates open just a smidge wider.

Try as they may, "Pitch Perfect 2," as was its predecessor, is a below-average work. Glimmers of hope exist, but you can only get so many miles out of such a one-joke premise. Considering today's hyper-techno-social-media-diversity-uber-alles zeitgeist, there are plenty of opportunities out there for new-wave musical comedies (a sterling example would be Troma's unironically amazing "Poultrygeist!"), but the series to this point really hasn't made much of an effort to tackle any of today's truly pressing issues.

Alas, while the "Pitch Perfect" films may flirt with a few socially conscious notions, the franchise itself is just too cowardly and uncertain to live up to its own potential. Instead of having the ovaries to confront the hypocritical and hyperbolic moral outrage of today's college-aged social justice warriors, the film instead feels more like a Nickelodeon version of "Girls," this soft-serve ode to Facebook era ennui and Apple-branded consumer nihilism. Instead of reflecting and critiquing the times, "Pitch Perfect 2" feels content with simply celebrating its characters' own one-dimensional vapidity -- in short, turning itself into precisely the sort of instantly outdated pop cultural runoff that more sure-handed satires will no doubt mercilessly tear apart in the future.

My Score:

Two Tofu Dogs out of Four.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Cotton Candy Flavored Oreos?!?

It's an all-new kooky-flavored offering from Nabisco ... that for some reason, tastes nearly indistinguishable from all of the other kooky-flavored offerings the company has already released. 

It's been a while since I last reviewed a weird-ass Oreos permutation. I was tempted by the red velvet variation released around Valentine's Day, and in hindsight, I reckon I will always rue not getting an opportunity to taste the root-beer flavored cookies, but for the most part, Nabisco just hasn't released anything strange enough lately to get me to open up my wallet.

With the newfangled Cotton Candy Oreos, however, the intrigue was just too much. How exactly was Nabisco going to replicate that puffy texture, and could they truly get that grainy sugar aftertaste down? Was it going to taste like an amalgam of bubble gum and blueberry, as the image on the product box teases? Indeed, these are all questions that cannot be answered by a third party -- they were all riddles I would have to solve on my own.

As far as the product aesthetics, it's pretty much what you would expect. Instead of the midnight black hockey puck discs, Nabisco instead opted for the golden sandwich tops, which is probably for the best -- I mean, who among us wants to walk around with coal-colored chunks of debris in our teeth, let alone said coal-colored chunks coupled with a mean case of cotton candy breath?

The scent of the cookies are strong, but I wouldn't exactly consider it cotton candy-smelling. It's pretty hard to describe precisely what the cookies smell like, but if you've ever tried the watermelon or fruit punch-flavored Oreos before, that's a fairly comparable scent. And as you will soon see, that isn't the only commonality these newer cookies share with its weirdbeard predecessors from 2014 and 2013, respectively.

In terms of texture, there is really nothing to talk about here. Unlike some of the other seasonal cookies shilled by Nabisco, there's really nothing of note printed on the cookies themselves. They are basically your standard Oreo cookies, which admittedly, is a pretty big disappointment. I mean, with the cotton candy hook, the whole carnival gimmick was right there in front of them -- you mean you guys couldn't engrave us a trapeze artist or a dude fighting a lion with a stool?

The biggest slight against the new cookies, however, is the taste. Granted, the actual creme hue is pretty neat looking (really, with that off red and off blue pattern, these things could easily be mistaken for Pepsi Cola Oreos), but frankly, they just don't taste enough like cotton candy for my liking.

Strangely enough, the most comparable flavor I can liken these things to is artificial blueberry, which is we all know by now, is one of my all-time favorite flavors/scents/textures. The thing is, it's not a really pronounced, overwhelming blueberry flavor like with Boo Berry, it's this really faint semi-blueberry flavor that just feels inundated with sugar. The more I chewed on these things, the more I began to realize just how similar they tasted to last year's Fruit Punch Oreos, which in turn, tasted nearly identical to the Watermelon Oreos released a year before that. At the the end of the day, it was pretty hard to differentiate this product from all of the stuff Nabisco has already released -- sure, it may not taste EXACTLY like the aforementioned products, but it tastes similar enough to them to make me think that Nabisco is just slightly tweaking its formula every year and doing the bare minimum amount of food engineering to pass this stuff off as something "entirely" new. I wouldn't call it "consumer fraud" quite yet, but I would indelibly call it something just as bad -- lazy.

To be fair, the cookies themselves were not horrible -- meaning, that if you ate a handful, you probably would not immediately want to upchuck. For what they are, they are quite flavorful, and weird enough and familiar enough at the same time to be considered something refreshing. In fact, if you have never tried the Fruit Punch or Watermelon Oreos before, you may be inclined to consider these cookies quite the gustatory experiences. Alas, I already have experienced such, and I am guessing most of the people reading this have too (only the hardcore, of course, would ever mull Googling "Cotton Candy Oreos negative review" in the first place.) 

I've kind of touched upon this before, but ultimately, I think Nabisco is just hitting the "refresh" button over and over again with these things. Since they are limited-time-only products, you really don't have to spend that much time on a long-term marketing plan -- in fact, the inherent oddness of the products themselves is the marketing plan. Instead of developing distinct, high-quality products, they just seem content on releasing the craziest sounding shit they can, and since Gen Y kids have a taste for bad taste and don't ultimately care where their money winds up, it's been an overwhelmingly successful approach thus far. The thing is, the allure of the "novelty Oreo" is quickly fading away, and instead of appearing "odd" and "kooky," these things are now starting to come off as tired, forced and predictable. Instead of quirky, these things are now seen as just sad and formulaic and nothing more than shameless cash-grabs. To be sure, Nabisco can indeed craft novel cookies that are also delicious (seriously, I should have hoarded a truck load of the Pumpkin Spice Oreos from last autumn), but stuff like this just isn't going to fly. What's next, lime-flavored Oreos, or red Sour Patch Kids Oreos or, god help us, Nutella-flavored Oreos

From here, there is nowhere to go but down, Nabisco. Well, that is, until you make me those damned Mountain Dew Code Red Oreos I've been sending you e-mails about for the last three years, anyway...

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The War on the War on Drugs

Why "victory" over the "War on Drugs" is a losing  scenario for all of society.

My name is Jimbo X. American, and I am a drug addict.

Oh, it’s true. For the last 15 or so years, I have been a slave to that hideous demon, coffee. Every morning, I crave it, and if I go without it for just  a few hours, I become physically ill.

Nowadays, I limit myself to two cups a day. About five years ago, however, I was putting away two pots every twenty-four hours. It was a hard process, no doubt, but over time, I was able to downsize my daily intake and at least partially control my cravings for Lord Folgers.

About a month ago, I decided I needed some extra energy, so I made a pot in my mini-brewer around 6 p.m. By 8 p.m., I had finished the entire thing, and by 10 p.m., I was about ready to throw up. The excess caffeine had literally sickened me, and I spent pretty much all night with a horrendous dual headache and tummy-ache.

That morning -- despite feeling like a had contracted malaria -- I woke up pretty happy. You see, that sleepless sickness meant that I had exceeded my own physiological boundaries, which means that I had not built up as high a tolerance for the stuff as I had thought. I may have a dependency for caffeine, but I still had a threshold for how much caffeine I could safely handle.

Another glimmer of hope? When I drink the really hard stuff -- your super-dark roast coffees -- it really, really messes me up. You think I’m joking, but when I down a cup of Black Silk after subsisting off that pussified Maxwell House Morning Blend for a few weeks, it feels like my brain is being jolted by a car battery. I can literally feel the epinephrine rushing through my skull, gang assaulting my neurons. That’s the ingenious trickery of caffeine -- ultimately, it works by limiting the amount of oxygen reaching your brain.

Not to fully exculpate my addiction, but I at least know my limitations, and take great caution to keep from going beyond what I know I can handle. That’s why I never, ever plan on going anywhere near Monster or any of the other high-grade, super-caffeinated energy drinks -- sometimes, the absolute easiest way to surmount dependency is to never even go near what you KNOW is going to cause you trouble. Furthermore, the extent to which the drug impacts both my neurological processes and how I interact with the world around me is pretty muted compared to the internalizing and externalizing effects of other drugs. For example, I can drink a Men in Black-themed Dunkaccino and safely navigate my way through traffic, whereas I doubt hardly anyone would feel A-OK with their kids being chauffeured around by a dude high on PCP. Similarly, as much as I love the occasional Starbucks espresso, I’ve never robbed a liquor store or performed fellatio in order to satiate my jonesing for java.

Without question, I can relate to all of the “real” drug addicts out there on the most basic of levels. Chemical addictions are very much hard to break, and I both sympathize and empathize with all of the hopheads, juicers, stoners, pill poppers, smack junkies and rampaging alcoholics out there to some degree.

Alas, understand is most certainly not the same thing as tolerate.

For years, we’ve heard activists and advocates drone on and on about how the War on Drugs has done nothing but make drug dealers more violent and prevent drug addicts from getting much-needed rehabilitative therapies. The line of thought, of course, is that legalization of drugs will instantly eradicate any and all violence related to the drug trade, while court-ordered treatments will do far more to “straighten out” substance abusers than an infinity amount of time behind bars ever would.

Odds are, you’ve heard some pretty damning statistics about both the War on Drugs and the overall response to drug crimes by the U.S. legal system. For example, you’ve no doubt heard that old chestnut about the United States leading the world in incarceration rates, and that statistic about non-violent drug offenders comprising a majority of the nation’s prison system. Of course, rehabilitative therapy has been proven time and time again to be more successful at reforming drug users instead of incarceration, but although it is less costly, we still find ourselves opting for imprisonment instead. And, as we all know, a disproportionate number of minorities make up the majority of those jailed for drug offenses, with the War on Drugs itself embodying a draconian, almost openly-racist protocol.

Indeed, those numbers are quite startling. Unfortunately, each and every one of them is complete bullshit, misleading propaganda endlessly circulated by pro-legalization stooges, left-wing opportunists and all shades of pro-reform (read: anti-victim) lobbyists.

To begin, even in terms of sheer imprisonment rates, the U.S. isn’t the world leader in per-capita-incarceration. Per United States Bureau of Justice Statistics data circa 2011, the United States imprisons about 2.2 million people annually. Keep in mind, that’s ACROSS the entire incarceration spectrum, from county jails (where the average inmates are housed less than six months) all the way up to federal super-maxes. With 313 million people in the nation, that means that, on any given year, the total percentage of the U.S. population behind bars is less than 1 percent (approximately 0.7 percent if you want to be a stickler.) That’s roughly the exact same national percentage of incarcerated individuals posted by St. Kitts and Seychelles, but when was the last time you heard anybody decry any of those nations as prison-industrial complex exemplars?

Furthermore, the overall per capita U.S. incarceration rate tends to look a lot less aberrational when you factor in the number of people sentenced to forced labor and administrative detention throughout Eurasia, the Middle East and Africa. Each year, China alone puts nearly more prisoners than the U.S. has altogether through “re-education through labor” camps -- which is a rather genteel way of saying "they send dissidents to gulags." That’s also discounting the high number of individuals throughout the same regions who are simply executed in lieu of being imprisoned. And as bad as the nation’s prisons and jails may be, I assure you, the experiences of the incarcerated in Honduras, Indonesia and Zimbabwe are far, FAR harsher than even the worst of days at San Quentin or Riker’s Island.

Interestingly enough, the U.S. has twice as many people on parole and probation than it has individuals who are actually locked up. That means that even if the United States is deemed the world-wide leader in incarceration, it's also the world-wide leader in community-based alternatives to incarceration ... which, of course, is a little tidbit you NEVER hear anyone touting.

Per Federal Bureau of Prison statistics, about 48 percent of the U.S. incarcerated population is made up of drug offenders. However, per BJS statistics, the number of crimes actually committed by illicit drug users is rather startling: they make up two thirds of all burglary, robbery and larceny offenders, a half of all homicide perpatrators and about a third of all those arrested for sex crimes. And in case you were wondering? Why, yes, there are indeed four timeas many Americans with drug convictions on parole or probation than there are those imprisoned for said offenses -- meaning just one-fifth of those convicted of drug offenses are actually given jail-time as a state-sanctioned punishment.

Per the National Institute on Drug Abuse, general population rehabilitation programs fail for as many as two-thirds of all patients. Elsewhere, a University of Missouri-St. Louis study came to the rather unexpected conclusion that probates who entered, but did not complete, drug treatments were actually likelier to recidivate than substance abusers who did not have ANY kind of rehabilitative services. Granted, I haven't exactly been scouring the Internet night and day trying to find the concrete data, but as far as I know, there simply aren't any reliable, longitudinal numbers out there from an unbiased, third party demonstrating that any form of taxpayer subsidized drug treatment really has that much more of an impact on reducing recidivism than standard prison sentences.

In terms of racial discrepancies, even in trying to address the problem, groups like Human Rights Watch wind up disproving their own point. In 2009, the group released a suspect-at-best document demonstrating irrefutable proof of disproportionate minority arrests. Using Seattle as a case study, the report states that although a majority of drug users in the city are Caucasian, approximately two-thirds of those arrested within the city for drug offenders are black. However, trotting out some national Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration data, the same report lets us know that a statistically larger percentage of the African-American populace uses illegal drugs on a monthly basis than whites, with the total percentage of African-Americans admitting to selling drugs over a given year TWICE that of Caucasians. With that little data nugget in mind, it's pretty obvious why a greater percentage of blacks get arrested for drug offenses compared to whites ... because there's simply a greater overall percentage of drug dealers and drug users within the black national population compared to the overall percentage of drug dealers and drug users in the white national population.

And as far as the War On Drugs being an inherently racist initiative, it's not doing a very good job of it, seeing as how whites today represent nearly 70 percent of all those arrested on drug offenses in the United States. Even during the zenith of the crack cocaine crackdown, whites remained a majority of those cuffed for illicit substance violations -- is it crazy to think that, instead of merely targeting people of color, the War on Drugs simply targeted those who were using and selling drugs?

Quite frankly, the $25 billion a year the federal government spends fighting the War on Drugs is a rather paltry amount considering the total economic impact substance abuse and the drug trade has on the nation. According to NIDA, the financial toll of illegal drug addiction on U.S. taxpayers is about $181 billion a year while one report estimated the societal cost of drug trafficking in 1999 alone to tally up about $200 billion.

For all the highfalutin jibber-jabber we hear from civil libertarians about the inherent evilness of the War on Drugs, we never really hear them say anything the inherent evilness of  the drugs themselves. Punching that whole "non-aggression principle" claptrap directly in the balls, damn near a fifth of all state and federal inmates said they committed the crimes that put them behind bars just to purchase more drugs. And per the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 41 percent of ALL violent attacks against college students (including two-fifths of all reported rapes) were perpetrated by individuals high at the time of the offense. Along those same lines, the BJS similarly chalks up anywhere from a third to half of all workplace violence incidents to the handiwork of individuals under the influence.

And add to that the growing body of emerging research indicating that prolonged drug use is linked to long-term mental and behavioral health issues. It's a lose-lose scenario; if they turn to crime, they suck up our tax dollars in the form of jail cells, and even if they remain non-violent, we still wind up footing their Medicaid bills.

The nonsense about illicit drug use being a conscious, individual choice with no external ramifications is an utter load of it -- if you honestly believe substance abuse is a victimless crime, try telling that to the family of any drug addict.

Alas, our is a hedonistic, narcissistic culture, where people want all the freedom in the world to do whatever they want without having to take any of the responsibility for their own actions. The whole "treatment trumps incarceration" argument itself is a tautological failure, an attempt to exonerate the conscious wrongdoings of others based on some sort of immutable, ungovernable "sickness."

If the only punishment you are going to mete out for drug offenses is tax-payer subsidized physician visits and sessions with guidance counselors (in which, irony of ironies, the final treatment ordered is almost always some different kind of drug than the ones the arrestee is already hooked on) than what the hell is the incentive to stop using the damn drugs at all?

We can bicker about the philosophical right to use drugs until the cows come home, but unfortunately, the United States legal system isn't beholden to metaphysical natural rights, it's beholden to the U.S. legal code -- which explicitly says drugs have a negative social impact, and are worth combating as a service to the U.S. citizenry. With well over 17,000 people being murdered in drug-related crimes since 1987, only a truly corrupt federal system would take a laissez-faire approach to the matter; if you want to see what "victory" over the "War on Drugs" resembles, all you have to do is take a glimpse at what's happening south of the border.

If anything, the narrative should be that the "War on Drugs" hasn't been intensified enough. Frankly, compared to the super-harsh policies in places like Singapore (interestingly enough, a country that is oft-considered a free-market utopia among neo-cons), the U.S. is taking a rather lackadaisical stance against substance abuse. Several states have already decided that it's just easier to let people toke up than it is to obey federal law, with such favorable outcomes as more homeless migrants, an uptick in vehicular deaths and a mass influx of readily available Mexican-made heroin and meth flooding the market. Keep in mind folks, those are just the social consequences of legalized weed ... I can only dare fathom the culturally corrosive ramifications of free-to-all opiates or narcotics dispensaries.

Honestly, I don't think all of these much-celebrated "recovery" techniques are all that effective -- in fact, the most popular system of them all, the '12 steps' approach, has all but been verified as a scam. While drugs no doubt have a profound physiological affect on an individual, the only way for a person to successfully wean him or herself off the stuff is to actually want to stop using the shit. That's why incarceration tends to be a much better overall solution (in theory, at least) to rehabilitation -- if a dope addict is locked inside a box he or she can't escape from for a couple of months, that at least gives him or her a biological shot to actually get the junk out of his or her body. As simplistic as it is, stimulating the neural reward system is no doubt a successful strategy -- if the auger of having all of your freedoms stripped from you in exchange for giving up that one theoretical freedom of drug abuse isn't enough to get you to reconsider your habit, than odds are, you probably don't deserve that fundamental freedom in the first place.

Of course, I know many jail administrations are corrupt in and of themselves, but maybe that's the real problem of the "War on Drugs" -- that our federal and state stakeholders just aren't taking the initiative seriously enough. Making state and federal prisons absolutely drug-free zones may in fact be the single most important policy decision our legislators could make today in terms of actually reforming drug criminals, but instead, we are continuing to see a push for "community treatment" alternatives that, at the absolute best, are unproven, and at worst, more likely to facilitate drug abuse than solve it.

The easiest way in the world to prevent drug crimes is to convince people to not use them in the first place. Unfortunately, our pop cultural Wehrmacht all but screams to kids that smoking weed and getting drunk is the cool, adult thing to do, while a new wave of drug-apologist propaganda -- cable programs such as "Intervention" and "Nurse Jackie" -- are now taking great stride to normalize pill popping and drug manufacturing as understandable, if not even wholly acceptable, ways of life. With products like "Breaking Bad" and "The Wolf of Wall Street," today's Hollywood entertainment leviathan is going out its way to glamorize substance abuse and the drug trade. At the same time, the far-left media perpetually pounds us over the head with accusations that the drug policies are "draconian" and racially-biased, despite the aforementioned statistics revealing neither to be the case.

The end result, I fear, is an entire generation of youths (already doped up to the gills on psychiatric medications) who believe things like "dirty Sprite," "robotripping" and "fishbowl parties" are not only harmless fun, but required rites of passage. Through endless indoctrination, they will come to celebrate drug use as some sort of anti-statist protest, completely oblivious to the myriad physical, neurological and social havoc indisputably correlated to such irresponsible excesses.

That's not to say that the War on Drugs hasn't had its regrettable miscues. Alas, for every baby who has his face melted off by a flash grenade or for every old white dude in middle Georgia who gets capped by the DEA, I assure you there's about 1,000 times as many babies out there who are experiencing extreme neglect due to drug-addicted parents and 1,000 times as many innocent people living in crime-soaked hellholes directly because of the drug trade. Whatever ills of the supposed "militarization" of the police you can rattle off are downright microscopic compared to to the death, destruction, misery and madness that drugs have brought to the nation's urban epicenters, an undeniable plague that has transformed once thriving cities like Detroit, Newark and Baltimore into more or less third world countries.

However, the cultural barometer seems to be moving against the War on Drugs. A large throng, perhaps even the majority, of young people today consider the police to be the real bad guys, and drugs the last great unmet natural need verboten by the government. The amount of money spent on fighting the drug trade will almost certainly decrease over the next few years; with national policy becoming more and more liberal, a good twenty or thirty years down the line, we may not even have a formal War on Drugs budgeted anymore.

As a nation, we may very well be on the verge of the end of the War on Drugs. And if that's truly the case, it's only a matter of time until we all realize that the far greater of two evils emerged victorious.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Hubba Bubba Dr. Pepper Bubblegum!

Have you ever been sipping on a Dr. Pepper and thought to yourself, "man, sometimes I just want to chew this stuff instead of drink it?" Well, it looks like Wrigley's has finally answered your prayers...

Let's talk about the art of criticism for a moment. Social commentary is pretty easy, since everybody has an opinion on culture and politics. Literature, film and music are also pretty easy to critique, as are video games, food and drink. Other things however, are a bit more challenging to review -- like, say, pens or hotel rooms. I mean, yeah, you can probably iron out a couple of paragraphs if you really apply yourself, but in general, we have so few experiences with such things (compared to watching movies or eating out at restaurants, anyway) that comparatively ranking those experiences is difficult.

Which brings me to one of my tallest orders to date as a subversive anti-consumerist satirist fan of mass manufactured culture. How do you, precisely, review bubblegum?

Over the years, I've probably chewed tens of thousands of pieces of gum. Hell, I may even be up to the sextuple-digits by now, actually. As much experience as I have had with the semi-foodstuffs, however, I have yet to really develop anything even remotely resembling a qualitative personal gauge for what makes gum superior or inferior to others. Surely, you cannot just rely upon simple flavor here -- you also have to figure in things like the duration of the flavor, how long it takes before the gum becomes too soggy to thoroughly chew and of course, its overall mouthfeel (if it has a gel center a'la Freshen Up, that's obviously automatic bonus points.) And that's not even accounting for variations in texture -- can you really objectively compare the flavor of  your basic stick of Juicy Fruit to that of a Hobgoblin-themed gumball, anyway? With all of those factors taken into consideration, maybe it actually isn't surprising why I haven't come up with a ranking system yet.

And then, along comes something like Hubba Bubba's Dr. Pepper-flavored bubblegum, which makes you reevaluate your entire philosophical outlook on things. What an amazing corporate syncretism going on here, no? It's Wrigley's meets Cadburry Schweppes (by way of corporate spinoff) -- it's not quite the Mountain Dew-flavored Oreos I have always dreamed of, but as far as cross-promotional Frankenfoods go, I'd say this one is definitely one of the finest I have seen in a while.

Of course, this isn't the first time somebody tried to convert Dr. Pepper into gum.Way back in the 1980s, the popular beverage was transformed into a fancy bubblegum with a fancy, quasi-liquid core. Ostensibly, that meant you could feasibly chew and drink the product simultaneously, although from what I recollect, the molten gunk in the middle didn't taste all that much like any kind of soda ... unless there is a cola out there somewhere that tastes like melted confectioner sugar.

This newfangled gum, I am afraid, is sans that semi-liquid gimmick. Admittedly, that's a pretty big letdown, seeing as how synthetic soda flavoring technology has had to have certainly made leaps and bounds since the Reagan years. Alas, as its own individual product, I reckon this here Hubba Bubba/Dr. Pepper chimera (henceforth referred to as BubbaPepper) isn't too bad.

As soon as you open the wrapper, the first thing you are going to notice is the smell. Give the engineers at Wrigley's credit, because the scent of this stuff is almost indistinguishable from that of the actual cola. Go ahead, crack open one of these bad boys in a crowded room, and I guarantee you someone will soon be asking if someone spilled a Dr. Pepper on the floor.

Probably the biggest problem with the gum, however, is its appearance. I guess the brown hue is a nice ode to the color of the beverage, but I am definitely not a fan of the ridged, obese Tootsie Roll aesthetic. I know it sounds like me trying to be funny, but it actually DOES start smelling like a Tootsie Roll after awhile. Yeah, at first, you may be smelling nothing but soda, but once the Tootsie Roll thought enters your head, there's no way you will be able to smell anything other than gooey chocolate. It's just like that dress meme that took the Internet by storm earlier this year -- as soon as you see black and blue (Tootsie Roll smell), you'll never be able to go back to seeing white and gold (Dr. Pepper smell.)

As far as the product's taste is concerned, it's all right. To me, it didn't really have that much of a Dr. Pepper vibe; I mean, a slight hint was palpable, but it was fairly faint, and after about five minutes of chewing, the flavoring seems to dissipate altogether. Maybe it's just the power of suggestion, but I started getting a Tootsie Roll taste as well after a few gnashes -- can anybody else out there who has tried this stuff go to bat for me, or am I just flat out going bonkers here?

It really seems to be a golden era for novelty gum right now. In addition to the Dr. Pepper blend, Hubba Bubba has also released a Hawaiian Punch-flavored tie-in, while other manufacturers have releases gums that (allegedly) taste like, among other things, Sour Patch Kids and assorted Starburst candies.

At the end of the day, though, I guess I just can't give you folks a solid interpretation of this stuff. Sure, I can give you kind of an overview of what the the product looks, smells and tastes like, but I really can't describe to you how the gum feels swirling around in your mouth, or the rubbery friction that results from pounding the gum between your back row bicuspids. Ultimately, this is just the kind of stuff you are going to have to try and dictate for yourself -- and seriously, if you dictate anything other than "Tootise Roll," you better shoot me a damned e-mail.

Lastly, I just wanted to comment on how much of a joy it was to see the "mouth-wrapper-trash-can" sequential pictograph above. It does the heart good to know that, more than a decade after I graduated high school, today's youths are still bearing witness to the same text-less, anti-littering hieroglyphics that my generation grew up with. Dr. Pepper flavored things may be scrumptious, but even that doesn't hold a candle to the sweet taste of continuity...