Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A Review of Five, Free Nonfiction iBooks Selections

A random sampling of a few fee-less downloads -- there’s some good, some bad and some WTF. 

Last Christmas, my beautiful, remarkable and outstanding girlfriend of half a decade bought me an iPad. Next to the Sega Genesis I got Christmas of 1992, it’s easily the most amazing Jesus Day gift I have ever received. Yes, even better than the Dr. Dreadful make-your-own gummy set I got XMAS 1993 and the PlayStation 1 version of “Alien Trilogy” Santa brought me in 1998, even though I only had a Saturn at the time.

Granted, I am a bit late to the party -- if I am not mistaken, the iPad first hit store shelves in 2010 -- and while in the past I have displayed a certain distaste for a certain deceased, high-ranking Apple executive, I have to say I am really wowed by the device. Sure, I may not be able to stick SD cards inside it and upload videos from my gloriously vintage Kodak Zi8 like I can with a laptop (nor can I use it to play Adobe-fueled Super NES in-browser applications, unfortunately), but holy hell, does it do everything else and then some. It’s so portable and lightweight, and there’s a bajillion apps to tinker around with -- really, it wasn’t until I got my hands on the unit that I truly understood the majesty of mobile technology. The Internet and all of its various wonders can ALWAYS be by my side now, and as such, the much loathed adversary known as circumstantial ennui has all but been slain and buried.

Of course, we’ve been an a trajectory towards complete media atomization for awhile now. For years, I’ve eschewed DVD movies for streaming content on Netflix and Hulu, and instead of even bothering with CDs, I just hop on over to YouTube and play whatever the hell I want, just as long as it isn’t something made by Prince. Perhaps the biggest epiphany I have experienced as a post-tablet human being, however, is realizing just how much of an anachronism paper media is. As a dude who loves, loves, LOVES to read, it never dawned on me just how outmoded the idea of books really are -- those heavy, tangible beasts could EASILY be shrunken down into downloadable form, with one little USB card holding entire libraries worth of material. Of course, I never really bought into the eBook hullabaloo as a PC user, because who wants to lay in bed with a computer and read all of that weirdly formatted text and possibly irradiate their reproductive organs? Even as smartphone technology made leaps and bounds, it just seemed like the old school hardback and softback approach was still the best way to enjoy the written word. Even on an iPhone, the text is just way to small, and it’s pretty hard to situate yourself in full-on read mode while holding something about the same size and weight as a billfold.

However, with the tablet, you can FINALLY read electronic media in a fashion virtually indistinguishable from the real deal. And with literally one consumer device, you have access to basically every written text that has been or ever will be produced, and you can get access to it in just seconds. With devices like the iPad and the Kindle and the Nook, humanity has finally triumphed over what has been one of our most venerable oppressors -- the book shelf. Personally, I am now using my vacant racks to hold towels, and irony of ironies, a fuck-ton of spiral bound notebooks I just have lying around.

While you can purchase pretty much anything you want via Apple’s proprietary iBooks store, what’s the fun in that? Thus far, my iPad library is stuffed to the brim with material that didn’t cost me a dadgum dime, and I’ve had quite the diverse literary experience over the past half year. Unsurprisingly, most of the stuff in the free nonfiction section is relegated to older stuff that has lapsed into the public domain (there’s at least 40 different versions of “The Prince” on there, I swear) but there is also some fairly modern-ish works in the mix too. Ever the one with a desire to expand my knowledge of the world and its rich histories via the written word, I picked five completely random works from the “free section” the day after Christmas and slogged my way through them over the course of winter and spring. So, what titles did I churn through, and what were my general impressions of said works? Well, I am glad you asked, guys …

Title Number One:
“The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. du Bois (1904)

Key Quote: He had emerged from slavery, not the worst slavery in the world, not a slavery that made all life unbearable, rather a slavery that had here and there something of kindliness, fidelity and happiness - but without slavery, which, so far as human aspiration and desert were concerned, classed the black man and the ox together.

Next to “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that does such an outstanding job of describing the true black experience in America. Du Bois -- basically, the Ken to Booker T. Washington’s Ryu -- does a bang-up job here describing the core problem African-Americans face in U.S. society, a cultural “double consciousness” -- that being, the state of having to live as both self and the stereotypical depiction of self held by others -- which also ties into a secondary identity conflict of being American citizens and freed black men and women. The end result, he said, is a self-defeating social complex that prevents blacks from ever thinking about gaining a foothold in the economic rat race against the whites -- an ingrained cultural problem that he said no amount of legislation can truly correct.

Ultimately, “The Souls of Black Folk” is a tale of two books. The first half is dedicated to Du Bois’ thoughts on academia, and why education -- not enfranchisement -- is the key to black advancement. The second half might just be the greatest sociocultural analysis of black America written before or since, as Du Bois richly describes the post-emancipation rural south and how the after-effects of slavery have created, rather unintentionally, a reactionary culture of sexual looseness, vice, violence and shiftlessness. Ominously citing race as “the problem of the 20th century,” Du Bois neither seeks excuses nor pinpoints any true answers as to the emerging intra-community problems, which as apparent by any cable news broadcast, is still just as much a riddle today as it was pre-World War I.

This is just a stellar account of how a cultural neurosis develops, and as an anthropological work -- Du Bois even explains in great detail how today’s black pastors are practically carbon copies of their African shaman forefathers -- it’s just about the best of its type. With Du Bois bemoaning the abject failure of the Freedman’s Bureau social programming after the Civil War, you just have to pinch yourself to recall that this was a book written in 1904, not 1994. Don’t let the copyright date fool you; for those who truly seek to understand contemporary American culture, this is an absolute must-read.


Title Number Two:
“The Communist Manifesto” by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848)

Key Quote: “The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with awe … the bourgeoisie has torn family away from its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.” 

Although, irony of ironies, “The Communist Manifesto” has been a public domain offering for more than a century, I never really got around to reading the screed, despite its ubiquity and the fact that it’s really more of a pamphlet than a real book (it’s basically the cliff notes version of “Das Kapital,” which I promise, I will read at some point before I turn 80.)

There is no denying the significance of this treaty, regardless of your political standing. Simply put, no treatise of any kind has done so much globally as what “The Communist Manifesto” did. Sure, you could rightly argue that The Holy Bible and the Koran have had a greater impact, but those tracts are also hundreds-times the size of Marx and Engels’ work. Based on sheer cover-to-cover word count, this book is undeniably the most influential in human history.

Obviously, everybody is going to have their own thoughts on the morality/immorality of communism as a political ideal, so it’s kind of a moot point to even consider reviewing its contents. Personally, I think it’s a jumble of interesting -- if not flat out undeniable -- concepts, including its central thesis that structural classism has been the inherent problem of humanity from which all other cultural maladies arise. While the proposed solutions of centralized state banks and calls for “industrial armies” may not exactly float your boat, there’s really no reason to at least flip through “The Communist Manifesto” once, if nothing else to understand what all of those kids at your college are misquoting.

SHOULD YOU CHECK IT OUT? Since it’s a historically important work and its only a few pages long, why not?

Title Number Three:
“The Hacker Crackdown:  Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier” by Bruce Sterling (1992)

Key Quote: “Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive … that tension will not go away.” 

As one of the first real “e-books,” Sterling’s “The Hacker Crackdown” is a fairly biased, yet gripping, look at the birth of cyber-crime … or cyber-activism, or cyber-social-justice, or however the hell you choose to reflect on what the folks at Anonymous are up to these days.

The author, who is actually one of the titans of cyberpunk fiction, does a surprisingly thorough job explaining not only the emergence of the “hacker” subculture in the 1980s, but really, the entire history of telecommunications security. Written just a few years after the 1990 MLK Day AT&T crash -- which led to the much-maligned Operation Sundevil federal stings, including such whimsical episodes as the infamous raid on Steve Jackson Games -- Sterling spends the bulk of the book focused on the trial of Craig Neidorf, who was starring down a 31-year prison sentence for leaking an E911 document … which legal defense successfully tagged as a document costing no more than $13 dollars, while far more detailed information on the AT&T cyber security systems were already out in the public eye.

It’s a lengthy book, and it’s obvious which side of the aisle Sterling sits on, but as an overall literary experience, I really enjoyed it. It’s a very good primer on the roots of “hacktivism,” and there’s a ton of weird shit you will learn along the way, like how Alexander Graham Bell had an early telephone prototype featuring a real human ear, and how protesters once stuck it to Southern Bell by reconnecting random phone calls to sex lines. It may not sound like something you would ordinarily be interested in, but with Sterling’s research and smooth delivery, it becomes a surprisingly engrossing little read.

SHOULD YOU CHECK IT OUT? It’s going to take you a while, but for what it is worth, it is really well-written and enjoyable throughout. Give the first chapter a read, and you will know whether or not the rest of the book is your cup ‘o tea.

Title Number Four:
“The Disasters Darwinism Brought to Humanity” by Harun Yahiya (2001)

KEY QUOTE: “Now, if someone told you that the television in your room was formed as a result of chance, that all its atoms just happened to come together and make up this device that produces an image, what would you think? How can atoms do what thousands of people can not?” 

When it comes to anti-evolution agitprop, we all like to take turns beating up on the Christians. However, as apparent by the works of Turkish apologist Harun Yahiya (the pen name of guru Adnan Oktar, whose other claims to fame include Holocaust denial screeds and literally trying to restore the Caliphate in Ankara) it’s quite clear that some Islamists ain’t taking it from this Darwin fellow laying down, neither.

As you would expect, the book is pretty much your standard tirade against materialist philosophy, reverting to the tried-and-true “don’t you know that Darwinism always leads to social Darwinism?” chestnut. Per Yahiya, Darwinism is the root cause of virtually every ill humanity experienced in the 20th century, from Jim Crow laws in the American South to the rise of Nazism in Germany to the mega-death perpetrated by Communist regimes throughout Europe and Asia. And oh yeah, capitalism itself is actually the perfect social Darwinism state, which means it is … worse than all the other shit he was talking about earlier? To be honest with you, I’m not really sure what kind of message Oktar is trying to send on that one.

Granted, you will learn some fairly interesting things along the way (the saga of Ota Benga and the hilariously ironically-named Carleton Coon are the standouts), but for the most part, there really isn’t anything in this one you haven’t heard from somewhere else, even if the lines of scripture are yanked from a different holy book. Amid all of Yahya’s accusations that Mendel’s discoveries invalidate Darwinism and that micro-evolution is simply unproven, you’re getting precious little new in the way of creationism rhetoric -- I’d stick with the abridged and easier-to-digest Jack Chick tract, if I were you.

SHOULD YOU CHECK IT OUT? Eh, not really.

Title Number Five:
“Liberalism and the Social Problem” by Winston Churchill (1909)

KEY QUOTE: “The character of the organization of human society is dual. Man is at once a unique being and a gregarious animal. For some purposes, he must be a collectivist, for others he is, and he will for all time remain, an individualist.”

No matter your thoughts on conservatism or even the man himself, there is no denying that Winston Churchill was one hell of an orator. In fact, I would feel confident listing his autobiography “The Second World War” as arguably the third best book ever written about humanity’s most compelling event, with only Keegan’s phenomenal book of the same name and Shirer’s unparalleled “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” as its superiors on the subject.

Alas, I cannot say I was a big fan of “Liberalism and the Social Problem,” a collection of speeches and essays from the early 20th century first published n 1909. Indeed, Churchill is ever the skillful penman, but to be frank, I just could not find myself getting absorbed in his myriad rants about unions, mining legislation and governmental pension plans.

As a whole, it does a fairly serviceable job of explaining Churchill’s proto-neo-con social policy philosophy, but my goodness, do you have to slog through a lot of fat before you get to the all-too-teensy cuts of meat. While it’s always fun to hear Churchill rail against socialism and promote liberalism with the gusto of a crank-snorting Tea Partier, it never really feels like any of the essays collected in this volume do an adequate job of explaining his hybrid neo-liberalism model. I mean, yeah, bits and pieces of it are embedded throughout the transcripts, but it never really comes together in a satisfactory narrative. In fact, that’s really the big problem with the entire book -- it’s one of the premier story tellers of the 20th century, without any real story to tell. Even if you are hardcore Thatcher conservative, I have a hard time believing anyone will find this lengthy collection a joyful read.


And on top of that, there are literally thousands of other free-to-download literary works on the service, in addition to a plethora of titles that cost 99 cents that I am still too cheap to pick up. Along with my girlfriend's Amazon account that I hack into sometimes my very own Kindle Unlimited account that I pay for with my own money, I'm also privy to a ton of additional free titles via their service, which includes some real heavy hitters from the likes of Fromm and Orwell. While I will always love the scent of a Barnes and Noble store, the frank reality is that this is going to be the way to read from here on out, and me and my wallet couldn't be happier. The revolution has indeed been digitialized folks, and if you love to read, you best hop on the iBandwagon soon.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

B-MOVIE REVIEW: “The Pope Must Die” (1991)

It’s a low-budget comedy from the early 1990s starring Hagrid as a rock and rolling priest accidentally named the head honcho of a major world religion. It’s not really that good, but it has its moments. 

These days, the Weinstein brothers are among the most powerful men in Hollywood. Before they achieved their breakout success with the one-two combination of “Pulp Fiction” and “Scream,” however, Bob and Harvey cut their teeth on some pretty admirable b-movie fare -- lest we forget, these ARE the men whose film career’s practically started with “The Burning,” which as we all know by now, is easily one of the greatest unsung summer camp slasher flicks ever made.

Alas, the Weinsteins did wind up hitting some bumps along the road to movie moguldom, however. Their slate of mainstream-but-not-really-that-mainstream flicks throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s were very much hit and miss, and “The Pope Must Die” really demonstrates the overall “meh-ness” of their productions from the period.

All in all, “The Pope Must Die” is a pretty forgettable film, and as a comedy, it’s pretty forced and hokey. In fact, the only thing anyone really remembers about it, honestly, is that it was renamed in some theaters to “The Pope Must Diet” so as to not offend Catholic patrons. It’s not a truly terrible movie, but it never really goes anywhere with its promising premise -- really, all this is is a watered-down version of “King Ralph,” saved only by some out-there sight gags and a few surprising appearances by some familiar faces and voices.

As you would expect, the film begins with the papal council standing around the outgoing Pope on his deathbed. After he croaks, we cut to a small Italian village, where the local priest (played by Robbie Coltrane, aka Hagrid from the “Harry Potter” movies) is working on a car and explaining to local children why his religion forbids him from marrying. Meanwhile, CNN assembles outside the cardinal conference, while schemer Rocco (voiced by the dude who played Roger Meyers, Jr. on “The Simpsons”) makes a pitch for Cardinal Albini (effectively, a puppet for the mafia) to become Catholicism’s new big cheese. As fate would have it, the data entry specialists in Vatican City make a typographical error, and instead of listing Albini as the new pope, they accidentally appoint Coltrane’s rural priest, Albinizi, as the religion’s new leader.

So yeah, it's basically "King Ralph," only worse ... somehow.
To demonstrate Albinizi’s kookiness, we immediately cut back to the Italian village, where he is shredding a guitar at an orphanage fundraising concert. Of course, all of the nuns think rock and roll is the tool of the devil, so they ask Albinizi to exit the priory … only to catch word that he’s been given a big promotion right before he steps on the Italian equivalent of a Greyhound out of town.

Obviously, Rocco is none too pleased that his hand-picked successor was screwed out of the position by a clerical error. At a meeting with some mafia big wigs, he starts work on a plan to oust Albinizi, and since this is a screwball comedy, the segment concludes with one of the mob’s more incompetent goon’s getting his noggin set ablaze … because “physical” is the only kind of comedy that exists, you know?

After Albinizi gets bonked on the head (again, with the low-hanging physical comedy fruit), he meets with the cardinals, who tell him he better do exactly as they tell him or else he’s a goner. For insurance, Rocco arranges a deal with two bumbling hitmen (whose calling card is literally leaving a dead fish alongside their victims) to get Albinizi out of the picture for good.

Albinizi then is shown the lavish papal suites, complete with a full bar and a sweet (for 1991, anyway) entertainment center. At his coronation, he keeps being denied access to the snack platter, because he’s fat and fat people being deprived of their unhealthy addictions to superfluous consumption is also funny. From there, we are introduced to a seemingly irrelevant subplot about a mafia big wig’s daughter sleeping with an entire heavy metal band, and Albinizi does a poor job of handling tough questions at a media presser. Following a hit attempt on the Pope Mobile, Albinizi starts reading some fan mail and slowly but surely begins to unravel a huge conspiracy inside the Catholic Church’s banking system -- he responds by ordering a full investigation of the Church’s books and turns over some of his cash to start a global orphan relief fund program.

So, the Pope, the music teacher from "Rock N Roll High School"
and the son of the dude who made Itchy and Scratchy walk into a
 bar... and also, the Pope is Hagrid from "Harry Potter."
OK, those bumbling hitmen from earlier … remember them? Well, they’ve been ordered to put a hit on
the heavy metal band the mafia kingpin’s daughter has been sleeping with, but OOPS! They accidentally blow up an RV with the daughter inside of it, and wouldn’t you know, the lone survivor of the explosion is the lead singer … whose mom is Beverly D’Angelo … and whose father is … wait for it … Pope Albinizi! Yeah, I know it’s a really hard to swallow plot mechanic, but we’ve had to suspend our disbelief even higher for other movies, like ones about JFK Jr. using military weapons to fight a one-man war against militant 99 percenters after they take over New York City and the federal government doesn’t even do anything about it.

After finding out about some arms dealing, Albinizi defrocks Rocco, and posing as a nun, D’Angelo slowly slinks her way into the papal suite to inform him of his long-lost son … who then promptly dies right in front of him. This leads to a great “Jesus vs. the money changers” allusion in which Albinizi walks into the Catholic bank and just starts wreaking shit; alas, his Buford Pusser days are short-lived, as the scandal about his bastard child makes the media rounds and costs him his crown … err, Pope hat, I guess?

And so, Rocco re-enters the church and his made-man Albini becomes the new pope. Albinizi finds himself reduced to playing guitar on the streets of Rome for extra change, and encounters a street urchin who, as fate would have it, just so happens to be the exact same orphan from the village he used to work at! Once again, I know it’s a difficult plot twist to take seriously, but as before, we have forced ourselves to embrace even more absurd things at the cineplex, like movies about the Koch Brothers turning themselves into android vigilantes to fight Silicon Valley venture capitalists who want to take over the world using impossible nanotechnology and Ben Kingsley pretending to be Chinese in YouTube videos.

So, Albinizi and his baby’s momma make out in a one-room shack while the orphan just stares at her chest, which isn’t creepy or anything. This leads to Albinizi going all John McClane for the grand finale, where he does the absolution for Rocco after he’s gunned down in a mafia double cross and literally brings down the new pope by getting him to admit he’s an arms dealer on live TV and shooting a ceiling down on top of him. Now, even though Albinizi just murdered the head of a religion with one billion plus followers, he surprisingly doesn’t wind up behind bars for the rest of his life. Instead, he gets to return to the orphanage from earlier, where he presumably spends the remainder of his days playing “Speedy Gonzalez” for parentless children and boning Beverly D’Angelo nonstop. So, uh, I take it that means he’s not a priest anymore? Oddly enough, the film’s dénouement never explicitly spells that out for us.

As I was saying at the top of the post, this really isn’t a great movie by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a one-joke premise through and through, and unfortunately, it was not even that good of a joke to begin with. Granted, there are a few (regrettably) humorous moments, but for the most part, the film is relegated to goofy sight gags and clumsy anti-Catholicism jokes that are just too weak-kneed to be considered subversive or even sarcastic. This is the kind of movie whose idea of cutting-edge, taking-it-to-the-man humor is for a character to whip out a cellular phone shaped like a crucifix -- heretical, it may be, but hilarious? Hardly.

Despite a pretty decent cast -- including Balthazar Getty as the rock and rolling bastard Pope son and Paul Bartel of “Eating Raoul” fame as a subservient mob priest -- nobody really turns in anything remotely resembling a solid performance here. Sure, Beverly D’Angelo looks hot as always, but beyond that? Everybody seems to be on cruise control, and if there’s one thing you definitely don’t want in a balls-out comedy critical of religion, it’s staid acting jobs. I’m not really sure what director and writer Peter Richardson had to work with, but it’s clear that a much, much better film could have arose from such an interesting concept; this ain’t no “Wise Blood,” I am afraid, and it’s certainly no “Four Lions,” either.

And so, “The Pope Must Die” falls into that most tragic of commons -- it’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s just mediocre. You won’t hate yourself for squandering an hour and a half on it, but frankly, there are a whole lot more productive things you could be doing with your life as well -- like spending an hour and a half of writing a blog post on why others probably shouldn’t spend an hour and a half of their lives watching an obscure, crappy comedy from the 1990s that nobody’s ever heard of before.

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...