Monday, July 30, 2012

JIMBO GOES TO THE MOVIES: “Moonrise Kingdom”

Critics have touted Wes Anderson’s quirky comedy as THE art house triumph of the summer, but does it really deserve such lauding? 

A lot of times, when you review a movie, you’re not only reviewing the film, but the theater and its surroundings, too. As good as a movie may be, the X-factor for any great movie going experience is a confluence of factors, a majority of which have absolutely noting to do with the actual film itself.

Occasionally, these outside variables take the form of current events. A good example, I suppose, would be the Aurora shootings - I honestly cannot imagine someone walking into “The Dark Knight Rises” and not having that embedded in the back of their skull during the screening. Another example would be “The Watch,” a film about a gaggle of heavily armed citizen guardsmen - a comedy that’s pretty hard to accept, considering not only the Colorado incident, but the Trayvon Martin shooting from earlier this year.

One’s mood, and even his or her company, clearly has an impact on how we interpret and assess the films we watch. For example, if you and your girlfriend just broke up, you probably wouldn’t enjoy “Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist” as much as the guy that just got to second base with his GF in the parking lot before the movie started. Similarly, being in a particularly rowdy audience can either heighten or diminish a film’s personal impact - audience interaction may be a positive for something like “The Raid: Redemption,” but it would probably ruin a showing of “Schindler’s List.”

I bring all of this stuff up, because the “art” of film criticism is so dependent on one’s perceptions of the externalities surrounding a film. No matter how isolated a viewing experience may be, there’s no such thing as movie watching in a vacuum; there’s always some sort of static between the filmgoer and the film itself, and how one keys into that static is often THE element that determines whether or not one finds a movie enjoyable or insufferable.

I caught “Moonrise Kingdom” - according to some, the hipster/art house crowd cinematic event of the summer - at Atlanta’s Midtown Art Cinema recently. Midtown Atlanta is pretty much ground zero for Atlanta’s “creative class” denizens, and the environs is equal proportions invigorating and annoying. You can score vegan ice cream and shop around a secondhand store with cutouts from Atlanta’s crappiest “alternative newspaper” taped to the windows. You can hang out with chain-smoking SCAD students, who brush elbows with 70 year old liberals at Indian cuisine hot-spots. People take their parents out to have cappuccinos at pseudo French-bistros, and broke-ass Georgia State kids try to impress their dates by spending upwards of ten dollars on rice bowl dishes at a fusion Japanese place adjacent to the theater. Alike when the octopus baby monster sodomized the giant alien bodybuilder guy at the end of “Prometheus,” the citizenry of Midtown Atlanta are these ungodly, hippie-yuppie xenomorphs that inspire equivalent feelings of awe and horror. And even now, I don’t know if I hate their guts with a fiery passion or fully embrace them as my one true kin.

You see, I have to go into this sort of stuff, because “Moonrise Kingdom” is a movie tailor-made for such an audience. I am convinced that Wes Anderson constructed the film using some sort of Google algorithm that collected every single kooky, kitschy thing that appealed to pretentious hipster dingle berries and molded all of it into what became this movie.

Admittedly, I’m not a fan of Anderson’s work. I really liked “The Royal Tenenbaums,” but “The Darjeeling Limited” or “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou?” That’s cool, I’d rather have a hedgehog take up residence in my prostrate instead. While I wasn’t necessarily the biggest fan of “Moonrise Kingdom,” I have to admit that I did enjoy the film for the most part - although towards the second half of the film, it completely deteriorates into hyper annoying abstractness for the sake of hyper annoying abstractness.

First, the good things about this film. Number one, the cast is downright excellent, from Ed Norton as a Boy Scout leader that takes his job absurdly seriously to Bruce Willis as a grizzled cop that feeds beer to 12 year olds to Bill Murray, who drifts through this movie so effortlessly it’s like he just wandered on to the set one day and they decided to keep all of his interruptions in the final print.

The film revolves around Sam and Suzy, two apparently troubled children that concoct a plan to runaway from their oppressive home lives and build their own personal wonderland on the shores of a nearby island. The kids here - Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward - do a really good job of carrying the film along, and in many ways, put on better performances than House of Coppola stalwarts like Jason Schwartzman and Tilda Swinton.

The first half of the movie is downright terrific, with the adults of the community trying - and mostly faltering - in their efforts to “rescue” Sam and Suzy. Ed Norton’s character deputizes several Boy Scouts to recover the children, which results in a downright amazing (and disturbing) scene in which Suzy stabs one of them with a pair of scissors. While the two are on the lam, it’s an utterly engrossing picture, and really one of the year’s most unique cinematic experiences.

And then, there’s the second half of the picture, where pretty much everything great that was established in the first act is done away with for a less-than-satisfying conclusion.

Eventually, Sam and Suzy manage to embark upon a second adventure - this time aided by several Boy Scouts, who feel the need to help them escape from the boring, tyrannical, adult-dictated world they are forced to live in. This ultimately leads to a second troupe of boy scouts chasing after them, and that’s when Anderson just calls it quits and begins throwing in as many goofy tricks as he can. Sam thwarts his would-be captors by getting zapped by lightning, Ed Norton’s character manages to reclaim his honor by saving his commander from an exploding log cabin (complete with intentionally-shitty-looking CGI flames), and the big dénouement has the kids about to leap from the steeple of a church, while a hurricane swells in the background.

You know, Anderson came VERY close to making this one of the year’s best pictures. If he had decided to keep the human drama of Suzy and Sam’s puppy romance going along instead of reverting to the usual wacky shenanigans, it really would’ve been a contender for best flick of the summer. The set design is terrific, the soundtrack isn’t too shabby, and the movie, as a whole, is quite well-acted; the problem is, the plotline takes a nosedive at the midway point, and it comes dangerously close to completely negating the tremendous first hour or so of the flick. (Also, the theater kind of smelled like pee, and there was this one guy standing in the back of the room holding a grocery bag for the first twenty minutes of the film that I was kind of afraid was going to go postal on us, so that may or may not negatively influenced my reception of the film, too.)

Critics love the movie, but I just kinda-sorta liked it. It is enjoyable, and there are some pretty funny parts, and if you go see it, you probably won’t hate yourself, but it is certainly not the quirky, artistic masterpiece that so many are proclaiming it to be. It’s a better than average flick in comparison to MOST of the season’s blockbusters, but if I had the option? I think you’d enjoy yourself a whole lot more if you just grabbed a pizza and saw “Beasts of the Southern Wild” again instead.


Friday, July 27, 2012

JIMBO GOES TO THE MOVIES: “Beasts of the Southern Wild” Review

The summer’s most spectacular film is one you can’t see on IMAX screens or through 3D goggles

Every now and then, a movie comes along - seemingly, out of nowhere - that gives you hope for the future of cinema, that the medium may survive as a genuine artistic canvas as opposed to a means of generating billions in revenue.

Needless to say, this summer has really disappointed me, movie-wise. From truly atrocious, aimless warm-overs like “Madea’s Witness Protection” and “The Raven” to the hyper-overrated juvenilia like “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Men in Black 3,” there really hasn’t been all that much to crow about at the box office over the last three months. When the highlights for moviegoers thus far have been flicks about misconceptions surrounding Arabian culture and the potentiality of creationism, you KNOW it’s been a particularly weak season for Hollywood.

And - as almost always the case - it took one intrepid filmmaker, with a literally vacant resume - to save us from what, otherwise, would have been one of the most disappointing summer movie seasons in recent memory.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a film that I only heard slivers about. From what I pieced together from a few reviews and the trailer, the movie was something along the lines of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” albeit with Hurricane Katrina as its backdrop as opposed to Franco-era Spain. Going into the film, I really didn’t know what to expect. Walking out, I was convinced that I had just witnessed something magical, a rare cinematic event that reaffirmed my faith in the motion picture industry. Very, very rarely do films of the like get released, let alone widely distributed - like “Toy Story 3” two years ago and last year’s “A Separation,” this is an absolutely riveting film that nails you with the emotional force of a typhoon. And alike those films, this is an outstanding work of artistry that you can - and quite honestly, SHOULD - take your children to go see. I assure you, whatever difficult discussions that may arise after the movie are certainly more beneficial for your child’s intellectual development than if you were to take them to see some brain-rotting, pandering dreck like “Spider-Man” or “Ice Age,” most definitely.

Although there’s still six months left on the calendar, I highly doubt a better movie will be released this year than “Beasts.” The film is an absolute lock for a Best Picture nod, and I can think of almost a half dozen other areas where the film absolutely SHOULD take home an Oscar.

It’s amazing to me that, in an industry tailored to fit IMAX screens and 3D glasses, the most beautiful looking and sounding film of the year eschews all of the novelty hooks that have become prerequisites for summer blockbusters. From the very first scene of the film - in which a six year old rummages through the jungle-like environs of Louisiana - it’s clear the cinematographer Ben Richardson is practically guaranteed an Oscar for his work in this film. There are close-up shots of crabs wriggling around, and mealworms crawling through hornet nests, and even a scene in which a lake dries up, revealing mushy mounds of discarded junk and broken tree branches. The world shown to us in “Beasts” is so wonderfully ugly and devoid of gloss and splendor, so naturalistic and unsullied by technological tricks that even rusted huts and filthy kitchen sinks pop and crackle as visual delights. It takes an extraordinarily talented person to make locales so dirty and grungy appear so lively and majestic; a feat, to me, that is worth more than all of the CGI effects in the year’s multi-million (and multi-billion earning) superhero movies combined.

“Beasts” is an absolutely stellar looking film, and it sounds just as spectacular. The audio editing is downright tremendous (without having to resort to eardrum-rupturing crashes, clanks and explosions), with a positively amazing original score produced by Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin - the latter being the film’s director. Amazingly, this is Zeitlin’s first directorial undertaking, and he additionally shares screenplay credit with Lucy Alibar. And if Zeitlin doesn’t find himself taking home Academy Awards for all three of his roles in the film’s production, I’d consider it a downright travesty of justice.

Technically, “Beasts” is a remarkable film, but that’s not necessarily what it makes it such a fantastic movie-going experience. That, I suppose, can be attributed in part to its stellar, wholly unique storyline and presentation - directed with staggering bravado and sure-handedness, despite the “greenness” of its helmer - and the powerful performances turned in by the - largely, amateur- cast.

Quvenzhane Wallis is a virtual no-name at this point, but something tells me it’s a name we are all going to be quite familiar with come Oscar season. The nine-year-old actress isn’t just guaranteed a best actress nomination for her performance in this film, there is a very strong likelihood that the 9-year-old may become the youngest Academy Award winner in history next spring. As fantastic as her performance is - and this is quite the testament to “Beasts” - it’s perhaps not even the strongest acting on display in the movie. That honor would go to Dwight Henry - a baker in “real life” with virtually zero acting experience - who puts on a clinic as a single father with a terminal blood disease. If he gets slighted by the Academy (which, let’s face it, he probably will), it would be an absolute disgrace, fundamentally a repeat of  “Hoop Dreams” not even getting nominated for Best Documentary back in 1994.

Zeitlin’s film reminded me a great deal of the work of Jan Svankmajer, the Scandinavian artisan whose films used repetition, sensatory provocation and a synthesis of documentary style and the fantastical to create a dreamlike world that - despite its illusory visuals - never felt like it happened “beyond” the realm of human experiences. In that, it’s somewhat comparable to “Pan’s Labyrinth,” although I would say “Beasts” is much more in line with a Tim Burton film - albeit, “Beasts” is a movie that absolutely outshines anything in the oeuvre of the “Hot Topic” crowd’s favorite director by oceanic margins.

It’s difficult to accurately synopsize the film, because so much of the plot is expressed -as opposed to told - to us. Even in the film’s darker moments, it retains this childlike sense of wonder and hope, a naïve spirit that is simultaneously uplifting and disheartening. People that view the trailer may wonder how a film about post-Katrina life in New Orleans could possibly entail plot points about climate change and prehistoric beasts, and that’s precisely the point. I could tell you how those aspects tie into the greater narrative of the film, but it wouldn’t exactly explain it to you, either. Alike “The Spirit of the Beehive,” or “The Tin Drum,” this is an aesthetically-driven film that no second-hand account could properly recreate.

“Beasts,” topically, seems like the kind of film that would fall into the trappings of melodrama. Early on in the film, we assume the father of the main character is a violent, loveless, abusive, alcoholic…as is the case in so many films about growing up in poverty. While the film doesn’t exactly go out of its way to paint him as a more compassionate figure, over the course of the film, we come to understand his actions and behaviors, as the character morphs from what could have been a trite stereotype into the literal heart of the motion picture.

“Beasts,” at the end of the day, is a movie about simplicity. The culture celebrated in “Beasts” is a rather simple one, a society of impoverished whites and blacks that live in a makeshift community endlessly destroyed and rebuilt after floods. The film isn’t exactly celebrating their vices and rejection of modernity, but it at least gets us to understand their ways of life, and especially their sense of community.

There is a fantastic scene in which the denizens of the bayou community wind up in a FEMA-hospital, where everything is white, and lifeless and sterile. The main character, who is clad in dirty clothes throughout the duration of the film, is suddenly clad in grey, drab school clothing, with her hair tied back in the usual schoolmarm style. The background blurs out, as she just stares at the platoon of sick old men, resting in beds, with their noses hooked up to oxygen machines. It’s a virtually dialogue-less scene, but one that has untold emotional impact. A later scene, in which the main character and her friends run from a thundering herd of aurochs, seems to tie directly into what we saw in the hospital - the inevitability of weakness, the inevitability of failing health, and the inevitability of what we once knew slipping away, chasing us down like lesser animals.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild,” ultimately, is a film about confronting reality - that is, eschewing the fantastical and the escapist whimsy and staring down our own frailties, our own mortality, and finally, what makes us living, human beings. Films of the like are becoming increasingly rarer in this day and age - and certainly, uncovering a “Beast” this rare is well worth treasuring.

My Score: A+ 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises SUCKED.

Man-Children Comic Book Fans May Have Made It A Blockbuster, But Nolan’s Long-Anticipated Finale Simply Fails As Cinema In Virtually Every Regard

Odds are, if you thought “The Dark Knight Rises” was a great movie, you’re probably a moron. Now, I know a lot of you that enjoyed the film may have high-paying careers and years of education. You may be a doctor, or a lawyer, or be in some other profession that is generally looked upon by society as significant and valuable, but at the end of the day…you’re still a moron. An educated, well-paid moron, perhaps, but a moron nonetheless. To genuinely enjoy the film, your idea of what constitutes “great art” or even “great entertainment” can be boiled down to loud noises, flashy lights and melodramatic, paint-by-numbers action scenes, where sequential plot more or less resembles an exploded graphic novel. “The Dark Knight Rises,” much like “The Avengers,” and “Brave” and “Dark Shadows” and “Men in Black 3” and “Madea’s Witness Protection,” isn’t so much art as it is a theme park hamburger. There may be a modicum of enjoyment you procure from ingesting the content, but at the end of the day, it’s nothing more than greasy placeholder that you’ll just end up blasting out of your rear-end, a little more out of breath and several dollars poorer than you were before you ate it all up.

Look, I’m no movie snob. There are plenty of big-budget, stupid-ass action movies that I really enjoyed, including “Terminator 2,” “Aliens,” “Spider-Man 2,” “Robocop,” and even the last Nolan Bat-movie. The thing is, while I would consider all of them “great films” without hesitation, I wouldn’t consider ANY of them fine works of human art, at the best, looking at them as pop culture artifacts that are more well-constructed - or subtext-laden - than a majority of popcorn flicks.

While “The Dark Knight Rises” is certainly subtext-filled, it’s so sloppily done that you really have no clue what the director’s trying to say with the movie. Throughout the film, there are indirect references to all sorts of recent events, all of which are so poorly expressed that that it just seems like the producers were trying to be “timely” for the sake of being “timely.”

Bane’s gang of henchmen - an army of janitors and delivery boys, apparently - seem to be a reference to the Occupy Movement, whereas Bane’s quasi-socialist rhetoric (condensed into stereotypical, undeveloped “CAPITALISM IS THE REAL EVIL” nonsense) seems to be a form of awkward commentary on the rise of social democracy in Europe over the last few years. There’s even an out-of-place jab at WikiLeaks, when Bane begins reading a secret memo from Commissioner Gordon over a PA system at a pro football game (and if there’s anything out there that better describes a patently American form of mass consumption than the NFL, I can’t think of it.)

My favorite sliver of blunt-as-a-sledgehammer commentary comes in the form of Bane’s super-duper “doomsday weapon,” which, at several times in the film, can be construed as a stand-in for everything from the national debt to Obamacare to green energy programs. In fact, Bane’s entire “reign of tyranny” may more or less be a paranoid critique of the Obama Administration, as eight years after “change” came to Gotham City, it turns into a fascist, poverty-ridden hellhole that looks suspiciously like Eastern Europe circa 1988. The fact that Gotham City is instantly doused in an out-of-nowhere blizzard when Bane takes control isn’t just hammy writing - it’s almost assuredly a knock on the “socialist regimes” that have begun sprouting up all over Eastern Western Culture as of late. All the movie is missing, really, is a scene where an old man looks into the camera and proclaims “I never thought it could happen HERE” while looking at the empty shelving at Costco.

In 1920, this man - an ardent anti-capitalist - allegedly perpetrated an on-horseback bombing of New York's Financial District. Clearly, Christopher Nolan has never heard of such an event...

“The Dark Knight Rises” isn’t just a pro-capitalist film, it’s a GLORIOUSLY pro-capitalist film, the kind so wrapped up in the “virtue of wealth and commerce” that you wonder if the Koch Brothers didn’t have a hand in writing its screenplay. In the film, the “downfall” of the rich and powerful constitutes the collapse of society as a whole, a not so subtle suggestion that as long as corporations and bankers stay rich and successful, it’s totally OK for the huddled masses to be starved and unemployed. The line of thinking here would be tragic, if not for the fact that so many people believe it to be a truly moral argument: yes, people are poor and starving now, but they would be even poorer and more starved IF the knights of Wall Street took a tumble, too. That’s pretty much the “gist” of Nolan’s new film - in that, it’s one of the most cheerfully fascist movies released by the Hollywood-Industrial Complex in quite some time.

If the heavy-handed politics weren’t enough to make “The Dark Knight Rises” a laborious undertaking, the film also flails and falters as popcorn-entertainment. My, where to begin here? Should we start with the absurd running time, or the hackneyed dialogue, or the countless plot holes that make the movie feel like a piece of Swiss celluloid? How about the rapidity in which the film leaps from action sequence to pseudo-philosophical monologues back to action sequence? This movie is basically a three hour long Nirvana song - loud part, quiet part, loud part, ad infinitum.

This is just a clumsy movie, from start to finish. Batman and Catwoman’s “crime fighting” relationship comes together so seamlessly that it’s utterly contrite, and the emphasis on Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character - who TOTALLY isn’t Robin guys, really - just slows the movie to a crawl. Not that it really needs to be said, but nobody in the film puts on a performance on par with Heath Ledger’s in the last flick. Hell, for that matter, nobody in the film really puts on a performance on par with Jack Nicholson’s in the 1989 movie, either.

Perhaps the movie’s greatest flaw is, shockingly, a technical one: the audio. In most scenes, there are so many explosions and gun prattle going on that very rarely can you understand what the characters are saying. Even worse is Bane, who is pretty much inaudible for 95 percent of the movie. Whenever Bane and Batman were on screen, I seriously had no clue what the hell they were saying to each other - it was like listening to Rocky Balboa and John Rambo have a rap battle with marbles in their mouths.

There are lesser problems, to be sure, but so many of them that they end up harpooning the movie entirely. I loved the fact that the plot didn’t even BOTHER explaining how Bruce Wayne managed to get back to Gotham from the Pakistani mountainside, let alone how he was able to SUCCESSFULLY SNEAK into a demilitarized zone flanked by police from all sides (and monitored by both NORAD and the bad guys that took over the town) without being noticed by anybody. Really, Bane’s “hostile takeover” was just absurd in general - you mean one dude manages to take over New York City, and the ONLY officials that respond to the crisis are LOCAL POLICE OFFICERS? You mean the military, the national guard and the federal government just REFUSED to insert itself into the equation, when the nation’s largest city was being threatened with nuclear weapons? Shit, when one dude in Texas claims to be Jesus and has too many Uzis, the ATF shoves a platoon of tanks up his ass less than a week later. It’s not just unrealistic - it’s comically absurd.

Another thing I loved about the movie was when the city’s police force - trapped in the city’s sewer system for about a week - were finally rescued, and what do you know? All of them were rocking speckless, unsoiled uniforms. The only thing stupider was the big finale, with Batman tasked with disposing the nuclear weapon in a matter of minutes - clearly seeing the urgency of the moment, he spends a good minute or two making out with Anne Hathaway and giving a philosophical lecture to Commissioner Gordon instead of hopping into his CGI Transformer-plane and flying the WMD out of harm’s way. Some outstanding, self-appointed, authoritarian protector that Bruce Wayne fella’ is, huh?

Not only is the political philosophy here just jumbled, it’s kind of hypocritical, too. I suppose one of the movie’s key messages is that we need “law and order” (but only on the LOCAL level, apparently), but didn’t this Batman asshole literally come about BECAUSE he didn’t think the local police were effective enough? There’s a mention of this thing called “The Dent Act” - apparently, a piece of legislation that gives the GCPD a little more wiggle room to ignore federal and state mandates - which gives Batman a “reason” of sorts to go into retirement. It’s a completely contradictory message, on several fronts: is one supposed to take the law into his or her own hands because the “powers that be“ can‘t get anything done, or is the path to “true order” only obtainable by suspending one’s rights and liberties to authorities so that their job can be done? It’s something that just doesn’t vibe with the movie’s anti-Federalist message - really, is “local” fascism any more “moral” than fascism on the state or national level? So it’s all right to cede authority to the neighborhood cops, but HORRIBLY UNAMERICAN to cede power to federal legislators? It just doesn’t make any sense to me, folks.

Remember kids: the police are your friends. Also, your friends may sometimes kill you, because they feel like they really have to. 

And THEN there’s that whole thing about “the citizenry” being dependent on high-rolling capitalists. Bane, that federal moocher he is, just ups and takes away Batman’s weaponry, even though he paid for it with his own money. Well, technically, he used investors’ money to purchase weaponry that some dude stole from the military (which is NOT AT ALL an act of treason, if you were wondering), but clearly, that’s nowhere near as wrong as GOVERNMENT DEMANDING THE SAME COMPENSATION FROM BUSINESSES AS IT DOES CONSUMERS. Cue a scene with Commissioner Gordon declaring Bane’s “people’s government” a “failed state,” and this thing’s political agenda becomes painfully apparent.

As a philosophical text, “The Dark Knight Rises” is juvenilely simplistic. Batman and the police force represent “social order” and are therefore good, whereas Bane and his cronies represent “social disorder” and are bad. Anybody that talks about the “pathos” and “existential” aspects of the movie are probably idiots, children, or the kinds of losers that sent death threats to critics that gave the film negative reviews (not that there can’t be any overlap between the three, of course.) Sure enough, there are some people that think the film’s “humanity” is the core of the movie’s perceived “greatness,” and I find such an opinion not only absurd, but downright insulting. How anybody can look at “The Dark Knight Rises” and see anything that resembles flesh and blood humanity - human emotion, human insight, human character, human anything - is simply astounding, and quite frankly, a little horrifying. Right now, adventurous cinema-goers have the option of seeing films like “Bill W.”, “China Heavyweight,” and “Whore’s Glory,” all remarkable films about truly adult issues and complexities that are dealt with and explored with the complexity associated with being an actual adult. These are all great films that stand out as authentic works of art, because of their complexity, and their realism, and their refusal to childishly simplify things for the sake of titillation and half-assed politicking.

Simply put, “The Dark Knight Rises” is nothing more than mass-marketed, infantilized claptrap for the unsophisticated and the undemanding. It’s perhaps acceptable amusement for children that need their moral tones and themes severely simplified, but if you’re over the age of sixteen and consider this artful commentary on the human experience…well, let’s just say you have a lot more to worry about than bitching about some dude telling you that a movie you like isn’t that any good.


A lot of people may be wondering if there is ANYTHING I liked about "The Dark Knight Rises." Well, if there is ONE THING I can praise the film for, it's probably the fact that it inspired this AWESOME blueberry-flavored Mountain Dew variation. Here's a video of me trying out the newfangled soda - I suppose many, many Nolan fan-boys likewise require a sip or two to get the taste of this review out of their mouths...

Monday, July 23, 2012

Why the Internet is Slowly Destroying Civilization

How “New Media” is leading us towards an inevitable breakdown in both human interaction and civility

Simply put, I don’t think I could live without the Internet. Never mind the fact that I spent about half of my life devoid of any and all online applications or resources, the reality is that the genie is out of the proverbial bottle, and there’s no way civilization can continue functioning, as is, without Internet technologies.

My job depends on the Internet, my schooling depended on the Internet, and a good 90 percent of my recreation likewise stems from the Web, or other Web-born applications. The Internet isn’t just a computer tool, it’s an inescapable aspect of reality - it’s on our gaming consoles, our televisions, our phones, our cars and, in a few years time, it’ll probably be embedded in our very skulls. We literally never leave the Internet anymore…it’s not just a vital component of our daily lives, the Internet pretty much IS our lives nowadays.

The ironic thing at this point is that while the Internet is clearly responsible for the modern world we live in today, there’s a very good chance that the Internet could - perhaps much sooner than later - lead to at least a partial collapse of society itself. I’m not talking about technical scenarios, like Y2K or some global virus phenomenon, but rather, the ways in which “New Media” negatively influence our abilities to communicate, reason and interact with one another as human beings.

Let me preface this article by saying that it is really, really long, and gets pretty intricate and complex regarding communication theories and a few logical presuppositions (but don’t worry, I still managed to sneak in some sophomoric humor whenever I could.) My main argument here is a rather simple one; that the proliferation of an “online culture” (which is ostensibly different than “popular culture”) has lead to a mini-crisis of sorts regarding how people debate, reason and express ideas to one another  - an effect that has clearly had negative repercussions for both civil conversation and democratic discourse.

You probably won’t agree with half of the things I say, but it will at least get you thinking a bit, which is really a lot more than you can say about a good 99.9 percent of the stuff you’ll find on the Web these days (and that’s a figure that can be ratcheted up to 100 percent if you still use Digg.) So, without further ado, here’s my ridiculously in-depth essay on how the ‘net is at least somewhat to blame for our cultural woes…and even more terrifying, how it could portend some future miseries on the horizon.


It reduces EVERYTHING to high school behavior

High school is about as close as most of us ever get to being incarcerated. You’re stuck in a place you really don’t want to be, with people you don’t want to be around, while beholden to the rules and regulations of people you really don’t like. Every day, it’s the same old, same old, and the only diversions are extremely stupid pranks, stunts and possible felonies conducted by your peers. It’s life inside a cinder-block, with thousands upon thousands of generally boring and mundane people - a sizable portion of which are almost assuredly mentally insane - standing between you and the accomplishment of whatever it is you are assigned to do. For most of us, escaping high school is one of the greatest days of our entire lives - primarily, because it’s supposed to signal an end to juvenility and all the irrationality and idiocy that accompanies it.

But thanks to the Internet, however, we never HAVE to leave that wonderful world of perpetual harassment and herd mentality. If you’re a part of any social networking system - be it Facebook, YouTube, a blog, a forum, whatever - your basically reenrolling in the 10th grade. Or, at least, that’s about the level of maturity you’ll be working with, anyway.

We’ve all heard the horror stories - mostly, the extreme cases, where kids get bullied so much online that they just up and kill themselves. While severe stories of the like are rather aberrational, it’s pretty much a given that, at some point, you’re going to get chided, cursed out and/or threatened by some troglodyte on the Web that just can’t TOLERATE the fact that someone has the audacity to believe something different than they do. It doesn’t matter how innocuous one of your postings may be, SOMEBODY out there will find a reason to call you a racial slur, just because. A lot of times, just being female is enough to get targeted, often by basement dwelling lunatics that are one deleted DeviantArt account away from going on a murder spree. I’d say that on any given social networking site, at least a quarter to a third of its users are genuine psychopaths - which, oddly, is just about the same ratio of “normal” people-to-sociopaths you’d find at the average American high school.

As in high school, you see LOTS and LOTS of cliques on the Web, with people with niche interests forming enclaves - whether its moms that like to turn pickle jars into crafts projects, or art school dropouts that think they’re vampires. It’s probably for the best if you avoid anything that resembles a “forum,” because the hive mind levels there are particularly severe. That, and let’s just call it like it is - if something is being hosted by ProBoards, odds are, it’s probably only for people obsessed with something really, really stupid, or something really, really gross anyway.

The absolute worst offenders are sites like Reddit or 4Chan, which are pretty much FILLED with single-ideology proponents that lack any and all ability to think for themselves, which probably explains the popularity of meme macros - which, at any given moment, represent about 75 percent of the “posts” you’ll find on sites of the like. In a way, it reminds me of the bad old days of high school, where one kid would say something stupid/offensive at lunch one day and for the next two weeks, it was all anybody ever talked about. As an online culture, that STILL seems to be how things work, with one generally inane/pointless Web artifact becoming absurdly “popular” and being propagated all over the place. As with high school, there is a perpetual dependency - a worship, really - of what is perceived to be popular, meaning that things that are original, contrary or generally well though-out are discarded while the familiar, the vulgar and the completely commonplace reigns supreme.

So, if you’re wondering how innovations and enlightenment is supposed to arise from such a climate…well, that makes two of us.

It makes discursive democracy an impossibility

The term “discursive democracy” is a pretty simple idea to grasp; in a certain venue, people are allowed to promote and explain their ideas, beliefs and values, and although those things may differ from person to person, nobody flat out rejects, alienates or chastises someone else based PURELY on the fact that those things are perceived to be different. That’s because there’s a mutually agreed-upon “social contract” of sorts signed by all parties, with the implicit agreement of “hey, I won’t monkey with you, pending you won’t monkey with me.” Debates and criticisms are allowed, but they are dictated by things like reason and logic, with an ample seasoning of respect and, if absolutely nothing else, personal restraint. Unless you’re advocating something really, really extreme or just being a general dick about things, your opinion is considered merited, and despite its’ perceived unpopularity or unfamiliarity, nobody will chide you for “just” being different from the perceived “group consensus.”

Now, here’s a complete list of the number of intelligent, reasonable and intellectually-open debates I’ve had on the Internet: zero.

Honestly, you can’t have discursive democracy on the Internet, because very few people on the ‘net view the Web as a genuine souk for ideas and concepts - and even more so because EVEN LESS people on the Web know how to have intelligent, reasonable adult conversations about ANYTHING.

At some point, someone is going to take offense at something you say, do or post on the Web. Generally, this results in a generic putdown, in which the fellatio skills of your mother are called into question by some person you will never, ever see in real life. A good 90 percent of the time, “Internet criticism” consists of sophomoric name calling and several empty threats of bodily harm, but every now and then, you get lucky and somebody CALLS YOU OUT for debate. At this point, the best thing to do is hit the “block” button and log their ISP, but sometimes, the gravitational pull is just too much. It’s like getting challenged to a fist fight with a kid that has epilepsy - you know things are going to end horribly, but damn it, you want to see JUST how horrible it can get.

In my Internet forays, I’ve noted four “modes of logic” that seem to pop up time and time again. In a good 99 percent of occasions, Internet “criticism” routinely takes one of the below paths:

1.) The “Failure-to-Recognize-a-Tripartite-Argument” Argument

In the real world, lines of logic follow a three-part path. If A is B, then it’s because of C. Here’s a really simple example: Smoking (A) is bad (B), because it can give you cancer (C). It’s a really rudimentary model, but one you almost NEVER see on the Internet. That’s because, rarely (if ever), do Web critics feel the need to include a THIRD element (C) to explain why (A) IS (B).

Take, for example, the most fundamental of Internet criticisms - “you suck.”

The arguments consists of an (A) element - that being “you” - and a (B) element - being “suck.” The criticism here becomes tautological, with (A) being (B) WITHOUT a conditional that MAKES (A) something that is (B). That’s about as basic as logical failures get, but a good goddamn, do you almost NEVER encounter people that go that extra mile and explain WHY “you suck.” Then again, that’s not really the worst case scenario here, because when the infrequent Web critic DOES decide to go that extra mile…

2.) The “Uncited Claim” Argument

If most people on the Web are incapable of stringing together logically sound tripartite arguments, then the number of people that actually throw out logically sound tripartite arguments that actually have merit is roughly the same proportion of Mensa members in the cast of “Jersey Shore.” So, you make the assertion that A is B, because of C, but what do they almost always forget to do?

That’s right, they never give you PROOF that C is what causes A to B! This sort of fallacious argument, you’ve no doubt encountered many, many times before during your Internet sojourns. Perhaps you make a statement, using tripartite reasoning, to which some random yahoo on the same network responds to by saying “this claim is stupid,” or “[insert celebrated figure] here has never [insert negative deed here].” Both sorts of responses lack that important “C” component, the causal agent that makes the “A is B” argument coherent. So, one’s opinion may be considered “stupid,” but the reasons as to WHY one’s opinion is stupid is never elaborated upon. Even worse is the second example, in which some dweeb on the ‘net makes a factual statement (that is clearly based on biased personal opinion), with NO sorts of secondary information that makes his or her assertion valid. Por exemple: If I were to say that “President Obama, in his youth, had a part-time job playing Grimace in a series of McDonalds commercials,” the first inclination any rational human being may have is, I don’t know, where the hell that sort of “info” came from, not withstanding supplemental information that makes the claim behind the claim even remotely feasible. At best, you might get an out of context quote (which is usually erroneous or wrongly attributed to begin with), or a long string of references to events, acts and transpirations that the critic says to be true or have a certain sort of effect….although, he or she never really provides solid, confirmed, dry-to-the-bone proof that what he or she is posting is even remotely glued into the fabric of reality, let alone connected as a single idea. (Recipe for Fun: say something negative about Alex Jones or Ron Paul on the Web, and watch a litany of “uncited claims” arguments get tossed at you like fleas shaken from a junkyard dog.)

3.) The “Magic Word” Argument

Sometimes, Internet critics don’t even feel the need to string together responses that resemble language, choosing to ignore all of that logic, reasoning and cause-and-effect bullshit to shoot down your opinion, your worldview and everything about you as a human being using one key term or two that, supposedly, blanks out everything about your opinion and completely negates whatever weight or merit your argument may contain. Here’s an abridged list of terms commonly used to “magically” counter controversial opinions on the Web:

- “Racist” (may also substitute “misogynistic,” “homophobic,” or “bigoted”)

- “Illogical” (or “irrational” or “unreasonable” or any other terms that are used to espouse mental coherency on part of the people that foster the same perspectives as the person using said terms, while immediately discrediting any and all other viewpoints as mathematically invalid)

- “Biased” or “Unprofessional” (even though there’s really nothing biased or unprofessional about what one posts or submits - it’s just that some single-issue ideologists take THAT much offense to anything that shines light on what it is that they feel strongly about that they end up seeing imaginary criticisms or, yelp, “censorship” in places where no such things are actually happening)

- “Laughable” (or “mistaken,” or “erroneous,” or “invalid,” or “untrue” - essentially, whenever people want to complain about something, but have no coherent basis for said complaints, these sneaky snakes come into play)

Yes, these responses are wholly irritating, and make actual debate all but impossible online. Alas, it’s still not THE death knell for civic conversation on the Web…

4.) The “Verbal Assault” Response 

This is where any and all notions of Internet civility and discursive online democracy get shot to shit in front of our very eyes. It’s a real simple - and almost entirely unavoidable - phenomenon: you say something that someone doesn’t like, and he or she responds by threatening to kill you, rape your mother or insist that everyone within your ethnic or racial demographic be the victims of genocide. Clearly, going after religious or political elements is a good way to get people fired up, but it amazes me how some of the most stringent, verbally abusive “criticism” I’ve ever received has been from totally pointless issues, like entertainment (as in, the one guy that said he was going to kill me for not liking John Lennon’s music - just think about that one for a minute.) Things get worse, because where there’s one human cockroach, there’s bound to be a thousand more literally waiting to pounce upon anyone that says things that are negative about whatever it is that they believe in. Ayn Rand fanatics, Libertarians, Nintendo fan boys, comic book nerds - it’s almost as if they do NOTHING but sit around hitting the refresh button on Reddit and YouTube, just WAITING to harass anyone that goes against their ideologies. Upon checking out some Goggle analytics for my media projects, it recently dawned on me that, yeah, there really are people that just sit around on the Web, down voting and leaving mendacious comments all over the place because their “object of endearment” has been even remotely slighted. (And a reminder, pricks and puds: I’ve got your IP addresses logged, too.)

I suppose the only thing more irritating than such verbally abusive responses from ideologue nutcases is when people leave completely context-less responses, such as “meh” or “tl;dr,” or if you’re very unfortunate, some reference to a meme that a good 99 percent of the real world wouldn’t get (and even less would find funny, even understanding the origins of said meme.) A vast portion of Internet denizens are in the field of criticism for the sake of just being critical…which, in case you haven’t observed, is a pretty big damn barrier to having anything that resembles actual human communication on the ‘net.

It distorts our vision of reality

Workers at Ground Zero, clearly unaware that what they're cleaning up was perpetrated by Zionist reptilians.

It’s not really a new observation that most people that spend inordinate amounts of time in cyberspace (an exception can be made for those that actually use the Web for industrious purposes, as in actual, physical, I’m getting paid real-people-money for this work and constructive media projects) are losers and general failures of human beings. The thing is, there’s such a pervasive influence from these dorks and dweebs that the “online world” begins to take a shaping that is decisively unlike the real world outside of our laptops and tablets.

Let’s begin with a really obvious one: the fact that the Internet gets us to believe that majority opinions ARE majority ones. If you spend any amount of time on the Web, you’ve probably incurred the wrath of adamant atheists, religiously devoted Ron Paul supporters or individuals that truly, deeply believe that 9/11 was an “inside job” and that a mysterious shadow organization known as the “Illuminati” controls world commerce. If what you see at user-generated-content sites like YouTube, Reddit and Wikipedia are any indication, than atheists are CLEARLY outnumbering all of those bothersome theists, Ron Paul is universally adored and adulated by all peoples and that EVERYBODY knows the Bilderbergs are the root cause of all of humanity’s problems.

The thing is, while there is an inordinate amount of influence from believers and supporters of the above on the Internet and popular Internet applications…they’re not really speaking for the world at large. In reality (and despite all of the Internet hoopla) Ron Paul has never won a single goddamn presidential primary or caucus, less than 2 percent of the total U.S. population consider themselves “atheistic” and only 15 percent of the U.S. population thinks that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by secretive ops within the U.S. government (and not that there may be any crossover here, but according to the Anti-Defamation League, the exact SAME percentage of Americans also harbor “deeply anti-Semitic propensities,” so make of that information what you will.)

Similarly, the congregation and virtual weight of niche interest enthusiasts has made it seem like things with limited popular appeal are indeed “mainstream” tastes. The Internet is glutted with hardcore anime, comic book and video game aficionados, so much so that it feels like every person under the age of 30 has seen “Paprika,” knows who or what a Joe Quesado is and/or is deeply, deeply outraged that “Mother 3” has yet to be ported to an American console.

The thing is, the contrast between “geek news” and actual news is a rather stark one. For example, the fact that a large fan fiction service disallowed sexually explicit entries may be an earth-shattering event for a select few, but outside of the “amateur journalists” at Wikinews (read: people that have no idea what they are doing), the event means pretty much nothing to the world at large. Even the mega, hyper, super-duper pop culture events (like “The Dark Knight Rises” or the “Call of Duty” games) get only a brief mention on the front page of The New York Times or The Washington Post, because as fate would have it, all of that meaningless bullshit people go nuts about on Reddit and IGN don’t seem to have an actual affect on global events. Surprisingly, the fact that Syria may or may not have nuclear weaponry, or that Israeli officials may or may not be abusing the civil rights of Muslim citizens, or the fact that there may or may not be a secretive “resource war” going on right now in Africa between the U.S. and China is considered just mildly more significant to humanity as a collective than the announcement of a redesigned 3DS or the Green Lantern relaunching as a gay superhero. Hey, I’m just as shocked as you are.

Thanks to popular Internet culture, what we’re experiencing is something of an inversion of the agenda-setting principle, in which niche interests within new media are, in essence, forcing mainstream media to cover and focus on niche interests (even though an overwhelming majority of the mainstream audience could give less than a shit what all those dorks and dweebs on 4Chan or Something Awful care about, anyway.) So, online culture is pushing us into not only believing that minority, niche perspectives are mainstream (or even majority) ones, but ultimately goading us into finding “cultural significance” in things that have either limited or virtually zero REAL significance to society at large.

A lot of you are probably thinking “so, who cares if stupid bullshit on the Internet begins permeating culture en masse?” Well, it’s because it’s creating a perfect storm for a wide scale, cultural “breakdown” in social values and civility. Hyperbole? Let’s examine a few adverse effects of “Internet culture” on real world culture, shall we?

Problem One - It’s Turning All of Us Into Schizophrenics 

The influence of the World Wide Web on actual human life is so severe that, in many ways, its forcing us to develop two separate identities - a real world “self,” and the “self” that exists in cyberspace. The problem here is, people are never “who they are” in the Internet as they are in “real life” -  so a bunch of scrawny geeks in the “real world” turn themselves into Internet bullies and trolls and dull, hyper-ostracized college kids “transform” into some charismatic online “persona” in a series of YouTube videos. You don’t really need me to tell you this, but the rift between “Online Self” and “Actual Self” is frequently pretty damn wide. I direct you to the story of “Kiki Kannibal,” a super popular, new media personality that has scores of online admirers/stalkers…despite being nothing more than a minimum-wage paid cashier in the “real world.”

The problem here is two-fold: possibility one is that people get so sucked into developing their “online selves” that they completely neglect their real world responsibilities (as common with oh-so-many a WOW player), and possibility two - which, if you can believe it, is even more horrifying - is that people get their “online” and “real-life” selves so jumbled and confused that they legitimately have no idea who it is they are or what they believe in anymore. And from there, it’s really only a matter of time until they appoint themselves a “real-life” Travis Bickle or show up on the evening news bare-ass naked, swinging a katana at a SWAT team.

Problem Two - It Gives People the ILLUSION of Having Social Significance, Worth or Value

Thanks to the Web, people can sit around being unemployed, malnourished and in various stages of decay WITHOUT feeling bad about themselves anymore. That’s primarily because human beings can now achieve an illusory sense of “social acceptance” via online applications; that is, gaining a modicum of power, influence or respect online, when nobody in the real world would give two shits if they lived or died the next day.

You all know what kind of people I’m talking about. The kinds of people that made $37 dollars last year selling shitty homemade jewelry on Etsy, while the rest of their annual income was derived from welfare checks. Or how about the people that have high scores on Minecraft, at the cost of having two kids without diapers or formula? And then, there are the kids that have YET to even receive a paycheck from Google that think they’re the next Mark Zuckerburg because their blogs or YouTube accounts are equipped with AdSense. Oddly enough, these are the same ass hats that bicker and moan about the “dilution of their civil liberties” whenever their accounts get shut down, usually after posting 12 and a half hours of hentai that made them heroes to thousands upon thousands of miserable, misguided sons of bitches the world over for about a day or two.

Even more pathetic are the pitiful souls that seem to NEVER leave certain social bookmarking sites or message boards. These are people that do NOTHING but post link after link of other people’s work under the auspices that it will increase their forum scores, because…well, in some galaxy, that surely has to mean something to some form of intelligent life, right?

And good god, the power tripping prima donnas that somehow find themselves “moderators” of certain message boards or sub-channels. Despite having a nominal “authority” over a microscopic percentage of humanity, they all SEEM to believe they are the Pope or something, wielding such a monumental amount of influence and responsibility that the ENTIRE WORLD would collapse sans their oversight…a dire predicament indeed, seeing as how the only thing standing between an orderly Web and rampant anarchy seems to be them and their ability to pick up a steady Wi-Fi signal while in their parents’ basement.

Problem Three - It Causes People to Celebrate and Embrace Acting Like an Asshole 

The online world is glutted with ironic celebrations, incessant politicking (frequently, over the most trivial of issues) and the complete and utter rejection of civil communication. YouTube is filled with pointless vlogs hosted by “attention whores” that clearly have mental health issues, sick and depraved “stunts” conducted by new-wave circus geeks, the “humorous” musings of hate-filled sociopaths, and is a general haven for any and all varieties of sickos, scumbags and sexual degenerates. Meanwhile, numerous websites - and in some instances, full blown wikis - have been established by people that take joy and amusement in ridiculing and harassing other human beings, in particular people that are quite obviously impoverished and/or individuals with autism spectrum disorders. In short order, virtual “lynch mobs” form and target those that are perceived to be “weak,” in the process destroying people’s livelihoods and reputations just for laughs and guffaws. This is behavior that is not only standard Internet procedure, but a “ritual” that is pretty much ordained and encouraged by many, many websites - in essence, breeding a culture in which people find nothing at all “wrong” in mocking the miseries and misfortunes of their fellow man. Clearly, such a mentality has no bearings on the “real world” whatsoever, and the potentiality for crossover surely has to be absolutely zilch, right?

Did you know that prior to becoming an Internet meme, this man was responsible for the deaths of at least 12 million people?

Problem Four - It Encourages Hive-Minded Thinking

There’s this thing out there called “groupthink,” which is a disorder in which people stop thinking as cognizant individuals and begin thinking as members of a certain group, which has a discernable “greater significance” than the individual him or herself. It’s a spooky prospect, because it means people are willing to VOLUNTARILY stop acting as a cerebral human being and adopt the mindset of some higher entity or organization, simply because they find it more productive (or more likely, because they are scared shitless by how that same entity or organization would treat them if they thought for themselves.)

Groupthink is rampant pretty much everywhere. If you work at an organization, you develop a certain “mentality” that everybody else has, because you have a shared goal and a shared communal experience. ALL religious and political leaders exploit the hell out of this, which in turn, creates extremely dogmatic individuals that have completely lost the ability to form their own lines of thinking WITHOUT having their thoughts filtered through some book, lecture or individual’s ideology. It happens at home, at school, in college, everywhere…and while “order” may arise from such mindsets, it’s almost ALWAYS incurs the penalization of free thought as an after-effect.

In an online context, this means but one thing: that which is unpopular is clearly bad, and must be eradicated. A good example would be Reddit, where accounts are penalized when user posts receive “too many down votes.” This isn’t an objective call mind you - to the best of my knowledge, there is no great ombudsmen that dictates what has “worth” as a post - but rather, an algorithmic process that simply eliminates content that is routinely unpopular with certain masses. Never mind the fact that it’s a horribly ill-planned model - it doesn’t matter if 100 people like your post, if 101 DON’T like it, you’re automatically penalized - it’s a systematic measure that pretty much ENSURES that controversial, contrarian or non-conformist ideas are kept out of the public eye, or at the very best, relegated to specific niches (in this case, “sub-reddits”) that will only be seen by like-minded individuals, anyway. In that, there’s no defensive safeguards in place that promote or encourage the challenging, questioning or criticizing of popular ideas and ideals - a malady that afflicts every social-aspect of the Web and ensures “hive mind thinking” will go utterly unopposed, no matter which recesses of the Internet one travels to.

So,  back to that “perfect storm” of factors I was talking about earlier - you know, the confluence of “online behaviors” that could possibly leap over to “real life” and expedite a wave of mass incivility and antisocial activity? It’s a hard sell, I know, but really, just how bad can it get when people, many of which are economically hopeless and easily moldable to perceived popular causes, not to mention prone to herd mentality and deathly afraid of social rejection - and also willing to latch on to any fringe political or social movement that offers them a modicum of social meaning - in addition to being calloused to the emotional wellbeing of others - with no ability to form their own ideas or values - become a vocal majority in "real life?”

I mean, what’s the worst that could possibly happen?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

My Review of the Taco Bell Cantina Menu!

Taco Bell rolls out its answer to Chipotle’s line-up of “gourmet” burritos and rice bowls, but do the “Cantina Bell” offerings really live up to all the hype? 

I’ve said this many, many times before, but it bears repeating: there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t thank the heavens above that Taco Bell exists.

At this point, I’m pretty much 99.8 percent certain that if the establishment wasn’t around, I probably would’ve starved to death halfway through my junior year. There were weeks - weeks, I say - when the franchises’ cheesy bean and rice burritos and potato tacos were the only form of warm food that entered my body, and only their seven layer burritos and Mountain Dew Baja Blast slurp cups stood between me and certain death (probably, from some Pop-Tart related illness.) As a vegetarian (the GOOD kind, not the kind that’s all preachy about it), it’s pretty much the only fast food eatery I can walk into and KNOW that I will walk away with something quasi-digestible - and since there’s at least one or two new products being unveiled every month or so, there’s ALWAYS a reason for me to stop by and check out their latest offerings.

Indeed, when Taco Bell unveils a new product, it’s something of a mini-holiday for my generation. And seeing as how the franchise has knocked it out of the park with its last few menu annexations, I definitely had high hopes when I heard about the chain’s new “cantina menu.”

Right off the bat, the big Internet hubbub is that the menu is nothing more than a rip-off of the Chipotle Mexican Grill line-up. The thing is (and man, am I going to be losing some street cred here), I’ve never actually had anything from Chipotle before, so whatever criticism you’ll hear from defenders of that chain, I just can’t respond to. Secondly, I don’t know a damn thing about Lorena Garcia (apparently, she’s some sort of TV chef that helped design the products), so I can’t really say anything about her or her influence on the new items, either.

For my trial run, I decided to pick up one of the Veggie Cantina Burritos and the Veggie Cantina Bowl. If I had known that the chain also offers Cantina Tacos, I would’ve picked up one of those as well, but alas…that’s just the way fate works itself out.

Both of the items were rather expensive for Taco Bell stand-alones (after taxes, you’ll be plopping down $5 for both offerings,) but you can vouch for a meal package that includes a soft drink and some nachos and guacamole that, I suppose, makes it a more frugal experience. For all of you health-conscious folks out there, take note  that these things are pretty damn heavy, calorie-wise; the Cantina Bowl will run you almost 600 calories, while the burrito is pushing about 800. And remember; these are the VEGGIE versions we are talking about here, so if you load your entrée with steak or chicken, you could easily be stretching this thing out to an easy 1,000 plus calorie meal.

There really isn’t too much to say about the Cantina Veggie Bowl. The rice is definitely richer than the stuff you’ll find in most Taco Bell items, and the corn and guacamole actually tasted flavorful (which is weird, because I’ve grown to sorta’ like that “thawed-out paste” flavor that most of the restaurant’s products have). The key variable in the bowl was the inclusion of a very nice chipotle sauce, which is totally different than the kind they use on their veggie burritos. There was some sour cream sauce in there too, but the thing was definitely lacking in cheese content. The lettuce tasted like, well, lettuce, and the Southwestern-style beans were had a nice, spicy texture to them, which is something you really don’t get with anything else on the Taco Bell menu. Overall, the dish reminded me a lot of a similar rice bowl item offered by Moe’s Southwest Grill - albeit, the chipotle sauce here makes this one a markedly superior item, in my humblest of opinions.

The Veggie Cantina Burrito, as expected, was pretty freaking huge. Clearly, the company is using a different formula for its tortillas, as it tasted like nothing I had ever had at a Taco Bell before. For those of you accustomed to the restaurant’s “Play-Doh” tortillas, this crisp, lightly roasted wrap will definitely prove something of a mini-surprise, although at the end of the day, I still think I prefer that old mushy tortillas to this variation.

The interior of the Veggie Cantina Burrito was pretty much everything you would find in one of the chain’s Veggie Cantina Bowls, only with a distinct lack of the chipotle sauce that made the latter product such a remarkable gustatory sensation. That’s not to say that the burrito is bad by any means - in fact, it’s a really, really damn good item, just one that I believe would be improved by the suggested addition.

As far as the other aspects of the menu goes, it’s sort of a mixed bag. Apparently, the “Cantina Bell” line-up is one that is drastically devoid of cheese, which is most definitely a bad, bad thing. In fact, the entire time I was chowing down on my meal, I couldn’t help but feel as if something very, very important was missing - and although the smokier rice and tastier produce is a nice addition, the subtraction here seems to have a heftier impact than any of the pros the items have going for them. And although I’m pretty sure it was just an isolated mix-up (or at least, I really hope it was), the “nachos” doled out at my visit seemed to have been the kind of the cinnamon variety. Needless to say, “cinnamon and guacamole” isn’t exactly the next “peanut butter and chocolate,” either.

All in all, it’s really hard to make a final verdict regarding the products. While they are definitely very good and flavorful (certainly, they taste unlike anything else you’ll find at the Bell), there are more than few marks against it, including some notable ingredient skimping (burritos should be required by law to be drowning in shredded Colby and green jalapeno sauce, as far as I am concerned) a pretty steep price and the positively absurd calorie-count entailed.

I guess my biggest complaint is a rather weird one: it just doesn’t taste enough LIKE Taco Bell for my liking. Maybe it’s because there’s a distinct lack of seasoning, or the texture of the tortillas is different, or perhaps something way more intricate and complex is going on, but I’m just not getting that “Taco Bell Taste” from the offerings. It’s no doubt a good line-up, but it’s not exactly what you’d expect out of a typical Taco Bell product. As before, that certainly has some good attached to it, but at the end of the day, I’d much, much rather have something a tad more Loco on my plate, wouldn’t you?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

My Dollar Tree Shopping Spree Bonanza!

Featuring bizarre Chinese toys, books from five years ago that nobody read, several food items being sold past their expiration dates and totally out-of-place commentary on the exploitation of impoverished consumers!

I have what you could consider a  “love/hate” relationship with the Dollar Tree. On the positive side of things, there are the occasional moments where I need AAA batteries and a pouch of grape Big League Chew at  8 P.M., and being able to purchase said items with only a handful of dimes and quarters is unquestionably a pretty great feeling. Now, as far as the things I don’t like about the store: everything else.

The neighborhood Dollar Tree is far and away the most depressing locale in any town in America. In fact, just having one seems to create this seismic effect where everything within a 200 foot radius of the building is a cone of human misery. No joke; in college, whenever I was feeling unmotivated, I would just stroll down the aisles of the nearest Dollar Tree - after seeing the 20 year olds with EBT cards, the cashiers with blackened eyes and at least two or three homeless individuals just hanging out in the parking lot, I guarantee you my ass got all sorts of motivated come homework time.

The Dollar Tree has become something of a cultural whipping boy, that go-to-insta-joke whenever someone wants to mock the poor and the disadvantaged. In the process, that means people tend to overlook the fact that the Dollar Tree is a multi-billion dollar a year, Fortune 500 company listed on the NASDAQ 100, with a 2009 net income that’s staggeringly fatter than those fostered by more “reputable” companies, including Sears and Whole Foods Market.

Lead-soaked, shoddily made Chinese toys + impoverished U.S. consumers = CAPITALISM CLEARLY WORKING.

If you’re wondering whether or not there’s a non-ironic/non-Schadenfreude reason to ever walk into one of these stores, there really isn’t. Yeah, you can laugh at the hastily whipped up book section, or the toy section littered with dozens upon dozens of lead-infused, knock-off action figures from China, but the palpable gloom and despair emanating from every human being within a good block of the business is just too much for anybody that isn’t an out and out nihilist. All in all, you’re likelier to walk out of a Pol Pot exhibit with a smile on your face than you are a Dollar Tree anywhere in the continental U.S.

The only (and I do mean ONLY) major positive I can think about visiting a Dollar Tree is that it sort of makes you feel like a higher evolutionary being whenever you get the hell out of there. Even in today’s downcast economy, you can waltz into a DT with a $20 bill and amble out with a good week’s worth of produce (and for me, produce means $16 worth of frozen cheese sticks and a composition book or two). Hell, you can even create a virtual smorgasbord of foodstuffs for about a fraction of the cost of eating something that was, you know, good. The rationalization process, I imagine, is that people that go into a Dollar Tree do so with this inflated sense of self-superiority - as in, “I don’t REALLY have to buy my stuff here, but I’m going to, just for the LULZ.”

Which, ironically, is exactly what you will do if you ever go into one of these stores...

I guess you’re wondering why I would even bother doing a blog post about something so utterly irrelevant. Well, that short answer is that there’s a pizza place with a rare Sega “Airline Pilots” cabinet in it, but since there was a 300 pound man with Down Syndrome and a family of five playing DDR (no, seriously), I couldn’t wedge myself through the human fiesta and get around to recording it. And since there’s a Dollar Tree right next door…well, I might as well take pictures of SOMETHING, right?

Every Dollar Tree in America is different, but at the same time, they’re all pretty much the same. The actual in-store products may vary, but on the whole, you’re getting the exact same kind of stuff no matter which store you walk into. I’ve never visited a Dollar Tree in Spokane, Washington, but I’m pretty sure, they too, have a dizzying array of turkey basters and travel sized deodorant on display. I guess the biggest variable is that some stores feature frozen goods, and some have expanded grocery sections. For a while, there was one in town that advertised “bread”…as in, with the full quotation marks and everything. I guess now is a good time to remind you that when you eat Dollar Tree produce, you pretty much are taking your life into your own hands.

Just look at all of that VALUE! And by "value," I really mean "crap I don't need."

Since I really, really needed change for a ten, I decided to take a walk around the local Dollar Tree, and pick up as much useless crap as necessary to ensure that I got at least four singles in the aftermath. In a store consisting of nothing but absolutely superfluous overstock, what did I burn an exact $5.27 on that evening? Well, since you asked, here’s what I picked up on my impromptu visit to the “Tree of Woe…”

A Book Written By That Guy That Started RegretTheError.Com!

The book section at Dollar Tree is always a total crap shoot; most of the time, the aisle is littered with stuff nobody in their right minds would ever want to read, but every now and then, you get lucky, and find yourself that book O.J. Simpson wrote about killing his wife, or one of the myriad discounted Ron Paul manifestos, or if fortune is really smiling upon you, perhaps even a book written by John Walsh, who looks really, really vengeful and constipated on the front cover. That said, nine times out of ten, you’ll probably find a grand total of nothing worth a damn on your visit - but since you’re only spending a measly one dollar, American, on something that was originally hawked at about 25 bucks, who cares if you end up taking home a brick in literary form?

On my trip, “Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech,” was far and away the most interesting sounding title I uncovered. Actually, it was the ONLY interesting sounding title I uncovered, and since I direly need something to read after I finish “The Hobbit,” I figured what the heck - I once spent $50 plus tax to play “Brute Force,” so throwing down a one dollar bill for a five year old book is relatively sane behavior in comparison.

The author of the book is a fellow named Craig Silverman, who founded the website RegertTheError.Com. Admittedly, I’ve never heard of the site before, but then again, I didn’t find out that the guy that played the principal in “Ferris Bueller” was a registered sex offender until a half hour ago, so consider me WELL out of the loop when it comes to contemporary culture.

By and large, Silverman’s book isn’t my typical reading fare, but I have this thing where I can’t go to sleep unless I read something of considerable substance and weight. And since the thing is about 350 plus pages, it’s most definitely of both considerable substance AND weight. And if it proves an entertaining read, I’ll get back to you on its contents…probably.

Extreme Fighting Action Figures from China!

By now, we all know that I am a huge mixed martial arts enthusiast. By now, you should also realize that I have a fondness for both low culture, consumer-grade crap and finding any reason at all to discredit the Chinese as an economic superpower, so consider this “Extreme Fighting” play set to constitute an early Christmas gift for me.

I really don’t know where to begin here. First off, it seems to me that the Chinese notion of “cage fighting” is culled entirely from “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome,” with the “adversaries” decked out in war paint and safety goggles. The figures themselves are lawsuit bait, with the guy in the glasses looking a LOT like former WCW grappler “Buff Bagwell,” while the other toy is, essentially, an African-American version of Kratos from the “God of War” games.

Apparently, the "Vale Tudo" days were a whole lot more hardcore then we imagined them...

There were actually quite a few variations of this set on sale, including one that featured a dude in a lucha-libre mask packaged with a more Caucasian-looking Kratos and a piece of guardrail. Obviously, this set became an absolute must-buy for me, since it features the most bizarre MMA-accessories in history. Granted, the early days of the UFC were pretty brutal, but I don’t seem to recall Tank Abbott ever breaking out a baseball with spikes in it, or Keith Hackney finishing off a foe with a goddamn chainsaw. Then again, I haven’t seen EVERY PRIDE FC show, so who knows? Maybe there’s a rare Frye/Takayama bout out there with the two pummeling each other with power tools or something.

Aim Toothpaste!

Because I have teeth, and periodically, I like to clean them. Umm…yeah, I guess there’s not too much to add to that, I suppose.

A Four Pack of Freedent Spearmint Chewing Gum!

Once again, not really an exciting product, and a purchase made more out of basic utility than guffaws, but I still got a laugh out of the fine print that PROMISES that the gum won’t stick to “most dentures.” Also, I noted that the expiration date on the package was about two weeks ago, so…uh-oh. 

A Bottle of Brisk Raspberry Tea (That Was Really, Really Warm!) 

You know, I don’t normally drink giant-assed bottles of tea, but then again, it’s not normally 117 freaking degrees in Atlanta, either.

I guess the peculiar thing is that the staffers at the DT didn’t feel the need to refrigerate the bottles…so these things were jutting out of the middle of the aisle, while some nice sunshine radiation heated the beverages to the point where the things were basically Pasteurized. Needless to say, my first swig of this stuff wasn’t a pleasant one…a notion that I will blame partially on the drink’s inherent warmness, and the other half because the beverage was CLEARLY past its expiration date.

...and what's the worst that can come out of beef stored at inadequate temperatures?

So, what did I ultimately learn on my recent expedition to the Dollar Tree? Well, absolutely nothing, outside of the fact that the place sucks, is an unfathomably depressing environment, and a great place to purchase products that are not only out of date, but possibly filled with volatile chemicals that could cause your children to explode.

Some people say that stores like the Dollar Tree are a boon to the economically disadvantaged, providing them with cheap products that they, otherwise, couldn’t afford. I tend to think it’s the opposite case, with a bunch of corporate masterminds taking advantage of the downtrodden and selling them damaged, shady and in some instances, life-threatening goods at a monumental profit…

…but, since they DO have pretty good deals on batteries and bubble gum sometimes, I guess I can overlook the whole “exploiting/kinda’ poisoning the poor” thing. Hell, eight AA’s for a dollar is worth an incinerated crib or two, I imagine…