Thursday, January 31, 2013

JIMBO GOES TO THE MOVIES: “The Twilight Saga - Breaking Dawn Part 2”

It’s the end of an era…and after watching this steaming turd of a movie, it’s a farewell much appreciated

I ended up seeing the last installment in the “Twilight” pentilogy almost two and a half months after it was released in the U.S. My screening (which I caught, only because I was twenty minutes to late to get tickets for “Lincoln”) was on a Saturday afternoon, and despite the fact that film had been out for so long - in this day and age, a three month run is equivalent to a movie getting shown for eight months straight in 1988 dollars - the theater was fairly packed, the darkened room filled to the brim with tweens, their parents, and for reasons that I actually don’t want to know, more than a few middle-aged, childless couples.

It’s pretty much a national policy that everyone makes fun of the series, calling into question the franchise’s horrible acting, atrocious visuals, hackneyed plot and downright cruddy action sequences. That said, for something that’s (seemingly) universally loathed, it sure is quite the money-maker; Laugh (or cry) all you want about the series’ quality, the stone cold fiscal reality here is that the series is extraordinarily lucrative; the final film in the series has already grossed more than $800 million across the globe, making it - as of late January 2013 - the 34th highest earning movie of all-time. In case you were wondering, that makes the last “Twilight” movie more successful than “Star Wars,” “E.T.,” or “Spider-Man 2.” As a collective series, “Twilight” has also generated almost $3.4 billion dollars - a higher sum than the combined franchise profits of such heavy hitters as “Toy Story,” “Indiana Jones,” “Star Trek” or “Transformers.”

You can go back and forth about why the movie is so profitable - some people say it’s because the same hardcore group of filmgoers keep seeing it over and over again, while others claim that it’s successful just because people want to ironically partake of its awfulness - but the points are sort of moot. It’s pretty much unavoidable now; the “Twilight” phenomenon, for better or worse, has become a hallmark of our pop culture, the sort of  iconic Americana on par with “Superman” and “I Love Lucy.” It’s stupid and crappy, but it’s emblematic of America’s special stupidity and crappiness. 400 years from now, anthropologists will probably have an entire field dedicated to the film’s import on American culture, with excavators unearthing long-forgotten trash heaps of Twi-tard memorabilia with utter jubilation.

Say what you will, but the impact of the “Twilight” series is impossible to downplay. With its Victorian-by-way-of-Mormonism tinges, the franchise has single-handedly resurrected the Gothic romance - and in a lot of ways, both directly and indirectly - the “romantic” genre altogether. Well, that is if you want to call stuff like “Fifty Shades of Grey” - derived from an X-rated “Twilight” fan-fiction site, by the way - “romantic.” There’s stuff coming out now that, had “Twilight” not proven successful, would have had zero chances of being green lit, let alone getting big studio backing and national releases. A decade ago, there’s no way in hell something like “Warm Bodies,” or “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters,” or even “Beautiful Creatures” would have gotten a go-ahead, and in a post-“Twilight” filmscape, we’re pretty much guaranteed at least one semi-“Twilight”-inspired national release per week.

For the franchises’ grand finale, you would think the producers of the film would have, you know, tried, but the end result is a film that is arguably several times WORSE than anything the series has churned out so far. As a guy that was particularly floored by how bad the last flick in the franchise was, I was literally aghast at how bad this movie was; not only is it significantly crappier than its already awful precursor, the film is even lamer than most of the watered-down knock-offs it’s inspired. Walking out of the theater, I declared the film to be even suckier than “Red Riding Hood” - a movie about Gary Oldman lugging a wooden rabbit through the woods while wearing silver finger nail polish, with Amanda Seyfried dropping lines like “there must be a god, because you’re the devil” for ninety minutes straight.

After thinking about it for some time, I’m pretty much convinced that the director of the last two films - Bill Condon - actually made the movies intentionally atrocious out of spite. I recall thinking the first film in the series was bad, but it was an innocuous, rudimentary kind of bad - i.e., the work of an inexperienced filmmaker that just didn’t know how to make a better movie. With these last two entries, however, it’s quite apparent to me that Condon - a guy with a suspiciously decent looking resume, outside of the “Twilight” films - probably went out of his way to make the flicks as hokey, bland and sarcastically unctuous as he could, just to piss of the world for the fact that the series even exists in the first place. Far beyond a self-parody, “Breaking Dawn 2” feels more like the world’s most understated, satirical critique of the series’ stylistic failings. This film isn’t just awful - it seems to me to be subversively awful, as if the director made the movie so shitty on purpose as some sort of political slight against the source material’s hetero-centric, pro-“family values” leanings.

The series just goes into all-out, cuckoo-bananas mode for its final chapter, with Edward and Bella - now an immortal bloodsucker herself - shacking up with their suspiciously Latter Day Saints-resembling extended family to take care of their half-human, half-vampire child, which just so happens to have an accelerated aging disorder. And with that little plot point in mind, perhaps we can screen this alongside failed Robin Williams vehicle/Francis Ford Coppola tax write-off  “Jack” and the Eric Stoltz-y sequel-to-a-remake “The Fly II” as part of a made-up, rapid-aging -syndrome triple feature of sheer suck.

Hey, did I mention that the Mormon stuff in this movie is incredibly heavy-handed? Castigated by the rest of society, the Cullens decide to pick up their stakes (get it? It’s because they’re VAMPIRES!) and haul out into the middle of nowhere, where their newfound peace and tranquility is shattered by the arrival of a bunch of “Italian” (read: Catholic) illuminati types that want to cut up Bella and Ed’s daughter because they think she’s evil incarnate. Yeah, I’m describing the plot of “Breaking Dawn Part 2,” but that same summary could just as easily be used to synopsize the latest episode of “Sister Wives.”

Everything that sucked about the last four movies is here in full force, multiplied a couple of times over thanks to a mildly increased budget. That said, the special effects in the film remain inconceivably underwhelming, with some green screened sequences - especially the opening scenes of the film, with Ed and Bella “running” through the Pacific Northwest woodlands - look about as amateurish as a made-for-SyFy movie.

The dénouement is particularly unimpressive, with the Cullen clan assembling a ragtag group of Mormon…I mean, vampire…mercenaries to go into battle with those Roman nosed evildoers. By the way, Camp Cullen now includes a couple of borderline-racist super-heroes, including an Arabic dude that can “manipulate” the elements and two Afro-Brazilian tribeswomen with mind control capabilities. Outside of “Street Fighter II,” I don’t think there’s a larger accumulation of super-powered stereotypes anywhere to be found in popular culture.

The climactic scene - an illusory “battle” sequence - is just about the crappiest climax you could imagine. It’s not just unsatisfying, it’s literally a non-event, with the two warring tribes just standing out there in the snow, looking all aggressively at each other until they decide to let each other live and let live. Cue a completely unneeded montage/retrospective scene that recaps the entire franchise, and thankfully, this one is done for good.

The day the very last first-run screening of “Breaking Dawn: Part 2” is shown in America, it ought to become our next federal holiday. Alike the day smallpox was eradicated, we should all celebrate, knowing that our cinemas and theaters will never again have to bask at Ed Cullen and Bella Swan’s forced, plastic and emotionless facsimile of what human feelings look like. Never again we will have to watch Kristen Stewart strain her way through performances with the vivacity of Keanu Reeves doing his best impersonation of an ice cube. Away with the semi-bigoted depictions of Native Americans (complete with the heroes of the film calling their scents “repugnant”), and that atrocious-looking werewolf CGI, and those long tracking shots of Dakota Fanning, just standing there, wearing blue and red eye shadow and not saying anything.

As horrible as the franchise’s ending may be, it at least a guarantees us that we won’t be inundated by such insincere, artificially-flavored and blatantly-misogynistic Puritan-sex-fantasies - targeted at junior high schoolers, no less - for quite awhile.

…well, at least until “The Host” comes out, anyway.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

JIMBO GOES TO THE MOVIES: “Zero Dark Thirty” Review

Alternate Title: “How Half-Drowning Detainees and a Lamborghini Helped Kill Osama Bin Laden”

I went into “Zero Dark Thirty” with some pretty lofty expectations, and as she did with “The Hurt Locker,” Kathryn Bigelow pretty much kicked every form of cinematic ass imaginable with her latest release. The film is only slightly controversial, with members of the CIA and Congress claiming that the flick is a wheelbarrow of lies and exaggerations, while conservative pundits (read: the ramblings of madmen) accuse the film of being pro-Obama agitprop of the highest caliber. Granted, the film is probably more malarkey than historical fact, but I think you can say the exact same thing about every other supposed “historical drama”, too. Consider the new Lincoln biopic, for one: dude, everybody knows vampires didn’t even make it to the U.S. until The Spanish-American War!

As for the film itself, it’s pretty much the greatest movie James Cameron has never made. Don’t let the Oscar-bait hubbub convince you this is Merchant-Ivory fare, because at heart, the film is much, MUCH more in line with “Terminator 2” than “The King’s Speech.” In fact, the film, in at least some ways, is almost a parallel for “Aliens,” with a kick-ass yet fairly stoic female lead being enmeshed into a circle of technologically-adept grunts, fighting a mysterious, underground enemy while simultaneously weaving herself in and out of bureaucratic collusion. Of course, one of the movies has the dude from “Mad About You” being eaten by eight foot tall lizard people, but beyond the aesthetics, we’re pretty much dealing with the exact same plot here.

The film begins with some actual telephone calls recorded from inside the WTC on 9/11, so literally a MINUTE into the film, you’re already sweating and feeling uncomfortable and kinda’ sick at your stomach. After that, we’re whisked away to some black site out in the middle of god know’s where, and watch a couple of CIA operatives waterboard this one dude that may or may not know who Osama Bin Laden’s courier is. From there, we’re introduced to the main character of the film, which just so happens to be Celia Foote from “The Help.” A lot of people are saying that she put on a tour de force performance in the film - and yeah, she probably did - but the only thing I could really pay attention to was just how pouty her lips were. We’re talking Angelina Jolie levels, really, and if you pay real close attention, you can actually observe how most of her upper lip is actually the same color as her flesh as opposed to your normal lip hue. It’s a little hard to describe in words, but as soon as you see it, you’ll know what I’m talking about - and for the rest of the movie, it’s just going to distract the hell out of you. I promise.

So, the CIA spends a good four years stuffing dudes into four foot-by-four foot boxes and forcing hairy dudes to drink orange stuff through a funnel, and then, 7-7 happens, and everybody gets all morose and hopeless again, but Celia just ain’t giving up and continues to relentlessly pursue this one dude that’s allegedly bin Laden’s delivery boy, because she reckons that if they peg him, finding the al-Qaeda big cheese really wouldn’t be that hard to locate.

And, we get more terrorist attacks. There’s a particularly unnerving scene in a hotel that gets rocked, and there is an INSANELY intense scene dramatizing the 2009 Camp Chapman attack that might just go down in history as one of the most nerve-shredding moments in film history. With her BFF done-in by a suicide bomb, Celia decides that it is time to REALLY clamp down on her lead, and eventually comes to find out that the dude that they thought was bin Laden’s delivery boy was in fact the brother of bin Laden’s ACTUAL messenger, and that for the last nine years, the CIA has been in hot pursuit of a dude that’s been dead for almost an entire decade.

Now we get to the part of the movie that I would LOVE to see some heavy duty historical research on: according to the film - which, itself, seems to be based on several different accounts of the Kill-Bin-Laden campaign - the CIA was able to locate OBL’s delivery boy by procuring the telephone number of the delivery boy’s mother in Pakistan. It’s not really an unusual premise, but it’s more or less how the film said the deal went down that has me shaking my head in simultaneous awe and bewilderment: the CIA, allegedly, picked up the tab for some rich Kuwaiti dude’s Lamborghini, and THAT was the key turning point that lead to the assassination of the world’s most wanted fugitive.

From there, it becomes the procedural movie to end all procedural movies, as Jessica Chastain and her un-lip-colored lips keep pushing the CIA to pursue this lead, eventually to the point where they not only find the supposed OBL delivery-boy, but even find an Abottobad compound with a mysterious tenant that may or may not be old Blowy-Up-Stuff hisself.

How this thing hasn't been turned into a commemorative Lego set, I'll never understand...

We get some more “down with the bureaucracy” subplot, and eventually, Barack Obama gives the green light for the raid, and everybody flies out to Area 51 to get a look at some experimental helicopters and then…it is ON.

Folks, the last 45 minutes of this movie absolutely SEALED it for me (and uh, no pun intended, of course.)You think you’ve seen some awesome action scenes in movies before? Forget it, because the actual raid sequence in “Zero Dark Thirty” puts just about everything you’ve seen at the Multiplex over the last 25 years to shame. Yeah, yeah, we all know how it ends, but with that in mind, it just seems to make the sequence all that more harrowing and intense. Granted, some of the helicopter CGI looks a little crappy, but beyond that? It’s a dénouement that, in my opinion, outdoes everything in Nolan’s Bat-Trilogy COMBINED times twenty.

The finale is also pretty fantastic, ending on one of the most morally ambiguous notes you could imagine. In a way, I guess you could say that the final sequence - involving a young woman, wondering what she will do now that the main target of the “War on Terror” has been eliminated - is kind of a metaphor for the U.S. as a geopolitical titan. We’ve spent so much money and wreaked so much havoc to “avenge” the 3,000 killed on 9/11 that now that the “revenge” mission is complete, what sort of ideological and moral value do we have anymore? Alike the main character in the film, all we can do is cry, reflect, and wonder what the hell’s next. (Take your pick, folks: Iran, Syria, Russia, China…they’re all wonderful choices!)

I guess there are two ways of looking at the film, and depending on which lens you go with, you’ll net two totally divergent outcomes. First off, if you’re just catching the flick for its popcorn value, than you will assuredly get your money’s worth. Not only is it an outstanding, intellectual action-flick, it’s also one of the most riveting movies to come out in 2012. Very rarely do you get mainstream flicks that are both fantastic works of cinema - with outstanding acting, direction and a literate plot - AND tremendous movie going experiences - you know, with loud exploding sounds and hyper-tense “OH SHIT” moments and the like - and with “Zero Dark Thirty,” you’re getting the best of both worlds.

Now, as a 100 percent reliable, historical drama, though…well, I wouldn’t exactly suggest taking this shit as the gospel. While several of the characters in the film are pretty obvious stand-ins, a majority of the characters appear to be composite figures, and actually ID-ing who several of the more prominent characters - including the central figure of the film - are as actual people seems to be next to impossible. You get some fact, but for the most part, the flick is all dramatization, with artistic licenses doled out to seemingly everybody involved in its production.

I guess you don’t really need me to tell you this, but the film is freaking fantastic and you probably need to see it. As far as I am concerned, it’s definitely one of the best films of 2012, a flick easily on par with stuff I utterly adored like “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai” and “Samsara.” I probably enjoyed “The Hurt Locker” a little bit more, but the scope of this film is a whole lot wider and as such, makes the film all that more impressive to take in. Considering the gargantuan amount of terrain the film covers - really, ten plus years, over the course of three different presidential reigns - the film could have easily collapsed under its own ambitions, but to Bigelow’s credit, the film remains captivating from start to finish - no small feat for a film that flirts with a running time of almost three hours.

How good is “Zero Dark Thirty?” Well, I can’t predict the future, but I can tell you this: if we ever get a movie about the “War on Terror” that’s better than this one, we ought to drop to our knees and thank the movie gods for giving it to us…

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Rocktagon Recap of UFC on Fox: Johnson vs. Dodson!

Featuring exploding eyeballs, lethal liver kicks and two jockeys engaged in mortal combat! 

I’m not really telling you kids anything you don’t know, but there sure are a lot of UFC cards going on these days. In fact, I almost forgot there was a UFC show going on a few hours before the thing kicked off, so there’s an outside shot that instead of reading this, you’d probably be reading about my latest trip to Alabama, and me getting the opportunity to see the world’s largest fireworks store and hold a bottle of “Dr. Wham” in my hand for like five seconds.

But, uh, it looks like we’ve got one of them there UFC on Fox cards, and since they are free events, I figured why the heck not and drove down to the local Chicago pizza place to catch the C-level mayhem on display. And ironically, this card is emanating from the land of Deep Dish, itself. Actually, that’s not even remotely ironic, but what the hell ever.

All right, fellas and gals, how about we jab our forks in the Alfredo-pesto-shrimp pie and get this recap a-going? Break out the extra sauce and rap music performed by teenage heroin-dealers, ‘cause it’s time for UFC on Fox: Johnson vs. Dodson!

Our hosts are probably Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg. I really don’t know, because the managers couldn’t find the channel clicker until almost 8:20 PM, EST.

Featherweight Bout
Ricardo Lamas vs. Eric Koch 

At one point, Koch was scheduled for a title shot against Jose Aldo. That was a long, long time ago. In his first fight in about a year and half, Koch squares off against Ricardo Lamas, a Chicago native on a three fight winning streak in the Octagon. And, uh, no relation to Lorenzo, I think.

Lamas comes out looking for a head shot, and taking his cues from the Virtua Fighter 4 fighting engine, Koch responds with some low kicks. Lamas looks for a takedown, and lands some elbows in the process. Lamas can’t land a spinning back fist, but he manages to get Koch in a clinch before the round expires. With a few seconds left on the clock, he lands a takedown.

Koch with the low leg kick strategy to begin round two. Lamas takes a fall, and Koch swarms him (which I hear is also what happens if you fall down in a shower prison.) Lamas manages to get on top, and he starts raining some nasty elbows on his opponent. The first shot to the skull basically causes Koch’s eyeball to explode, as blood squirts halfway across the cage. The ref jumps in, and the hometown boy celebrates a stoppage victory.

Lightweight Bout
Anthony Pettis vs. Donald Cerrone

An interesting turn of events here, with the former WEC mainstays duking it out for a chance to go toe-to-toe with Benson Henderson…a guy both dudes have battled back in their World Extreme CageFighting days.

Right out the gate, Pettis tries for a cartwheel kick. Pettis throwing pretty much everything at Cerrone, including a couple of knees. At one point, he even does sort of a miniature version of the famed “Super Kick” when he springboards a knee off the cage and whacks Cerrone. Pettis rears back and drops Henderson with a nasty liver kick, swarms him with a few punches on the ground, and this one is all over.

Light Heavyweight Bout 
Quinton Jackson vs. Glover Teixeira 

It’s supposedly Jackson’s last fight in the UFC, while Teixeira is one of the hottest prospects in the division. Glover nails a takedown right off the bat, and the two swing wildly once things get vertical. No offense, but both of these guys look, well, a little flabby to be championship material. Some more exchanges, with Glover getting the best shots. Jackson’s attempt at a takedown fails miserably. Glover drops Rampage with a left. The Brazilian rattles of some good shots, but it’s not enough to completely take out the former UFC Lightweight champion.

Glover with a takedown to begin the second. Jackson trying to find a rhythm. Glover cuts him open with an uppercut. Jackson still looking for a takedown, and he’s still getting nowhere. Jackson taunts Glover a little, and Glover responds by peppering Quinton with shots until the round expires. 20-18 for Glover.

And another takedown from Glover as the third opens. Jackson fires back, but nothing substantial. Glover with a head kick, and another takedown. Glover throwing a grab bag of knees, uppercuts and low kicks now. Jackson looks extremely tired. Glover with yet another takedown, and he’s in the full mount. Glover just hammer fists “B.A. Baracus, 2010” as time expires.

A 30-27, across the board unanimous decision victory for Teixeira. Probably not the stellar performance he needs to earn title considerations anytime soon, but more than enough to make him a top ten light heavyweight fighter.

UFC Flyweight Championship Bout
Demetrious Johnson (Champion) vs. John Dodson (Challenger)

“Wow, those guys are really small,” says every single person at the pizza place when these two walk out. Dodson gets bonus points for wearing a Pop Rocks tee-shirt to the cage. Johnson with a high kick, and Dodson stuffs him. The two trade, and Johnson scores a takedown, feeding his diminutive foe a couple of knees as the round concludes.

Johnson with another takedown in round two. And another. Some high speed exchanging going on, and Dodson drops the champ with a left. Johnson looking for another takedown, but nothing. Dodson drops him again, and keeps battering the champion with lefts. Johnson tries desperately for a takedown, but Dodson simply ripostes with some knees, and we have ourselves a dead even fight heading into the third.

These two dudes, who combined weigh about 200 pounds, are fighting at hyper speed now. LOL moment of the night comes when Johnson knees Dodson right in his sack. Dodson misses a flying knee, and Johnson replies with a billion knees and right hands. Johnson with another takedown. A second takedown blocked, and Dodson rattles off a few good shots as the third ends. I’d give the slight edge to Dodson here.

Johnson with a quasi-illegal knee on the ground that isn’t called. Time out to give Dodson a vision test. Dodson comes out swinging, but Johnson is landing the better blows. Johnson just tearing up Dodson with those knee shots. Dodson bleeds pretty badly, as Johnson totally decimates him in the last minute of the round. The final round will ultimately determine the winner of the bout.

Johnson with a takedown, but he can’t do anything on the canvas. Both men back up, and Johnson looking for another attempt to grapple. Now Dodson with a takedown, but Johnson easily responds with a surplus of knee shots. Johnson has Dodson in the Thai clinch, and it’s knee-city. Johnson pretty much knees Dodson to death as the fight concludes. It’s a unanimous decision victory for Johnson, as the judges score the fight 48-47, 48-47 and 49-46 for the defending Flyweight Champion.

The Verdict? Eh, it was a pretty disappointing show, in my opinion. You can give the flyweight dudes all the technical props in the world, but the reality is that it’s kinda’ hard to get casual fans interested in watching dudes that are 5-foot-nothing wail on each other, with minimal threat of knockout, for half an hour. As talented as they may be, dudes like Johnson or Dodson will never get to headline a PPV, and they’ll never be a top draw for the business. The slow, flabby co-main event, I believe was a much more entertaining fight, with some historical antecedents in place that the main-fight just didn’t have. The hyper-violent finishes for the first two bouts were kinda’ cool, but they both ended so abruptly that you didn’t have time to soak in the true awesomeness of what you encountered. At the end of the day, this show will probably be remembered for how it set up some potentially awesome fights (Pettis vs. the Henderson/Melendez winner, Lamas vs. the Aldo/Edgar winner, Glover vs. somebody in the light heavyweight division that’s actually worth a shit, etc.) but as far as what you got out of this evening’s slate of fights?

All I’m going to say is, I reckon I got what I paid for.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Daikatana: One of the Best Game Boy Color Games Ever?

Or, “How in the hell did a notoriously awful P.C. shooter get turned into one of the greatest 8-bit action-adventure games of all-time?” 

The long, tragic back story behind “Daikatana” is one of video gaming’s greatest cautionary tales. For those of you unfamiliar with the grade-A train wreck that was Ion Storm’s 2000 first person shooter, here’s the abridged yarn: back in 1997, John Romero, a dude that had become rich as hell off all of that “Doom II” money, decided to build the FPS game to end all FPS games, an insanely ambitious, content-loaded title using an already obsolete engine, with an understaffed crew, in a comically brief amount of time. Originally scheduled for a Christmas 1997 release, the entire game had to be scrapped and rebuilt, once the Ion Storm team realized that everything they had been working on for the last year was utter shit. Spring 1999 rolls around, and the only thing the developers have to show off is a crappy deathmatch demo. By the way, the company promised the game would be on store shelves just a few months before that. In an absolute snafu of biblical proportions, the developers then decided to show off the software at E3 later that year, running at a molasses-slow 12 frames per second. The demonstration was so embarrassingly awful that it led to the founders of Ion Storm getting shit canned and Eidos buying up the company, to make sure the guys calling the shots there wouldn’t set fire to the ashes of what was left of the game. To make matters worse, once the game finally was released - almost three years late - it was promoted via a downright disastrous marketing campaign, in which oblique ads that didn’t even state the NAME of the game were released, stating that “John Romero’s about to make you his bitch.” The reception of the gaming masses, unsurprisingly, wasn’t all that positive.

Alas, I would like to turn your attention towards an entirely different “Daikatana” - and not that shitty Nintendo 64 port, either. Believe it or not, there was a Game Boy Color version of the ill-fated PC game released - albeit, only in PAL countries - and the truly shocking thing here is that not only is it NOT a bad little handheld game, it’s actually one of the most awesome GBC games to never make it stateside. So, how did a notoriously underwhelming, ego-fueled FPS disaster turn into a super-awesome Game Boy Color offering? Well, primarily, by changing the entire genre and format of the source material.

Released the same year as the PC iteration, “Daikatana” on the GBC was published by Kemco, the guys that are probably known best for the “Top Gear” series - and a whole slew of crappy GameCube games, like “Universal Studios Theme Parks Adventure” and “Batman: Dark Tomorrow.” After spending the better part of a month playing through it, I’ve pretty much determined that it’s one of the best 8-bit action-adventure games I’ve ever played - a game that’s probably even on par with such GBC titans as “Metal Gear Solid” and the two Capcom “Zelda” games. It’s a lofty claim, and one that sounds bat-kaka insane on the surface, but trust me; once you play through this one, you’ll be hard-pressed to disagree with my assertions.

Granted, it’s a pretty hard game to track down, but as a bonus, since the Game Boy Color is region-free, if you do so happen to encounter a copy, your North American GBC should have no problems converting all of that Euro-only fun into 8-bit ecstasy. And yeah, you can ROM this one, but the purist I am, I STRONGLY suggest you try to play this one the way the gaming gods originally intended.

So, why is this hyper-obscure title worth going out of your way to experience? Well, I’ve come up with four distinct, concise reasons as to why the Game Boy Color version of "Daikatana" is something every retro gaming fan worth his “Sonic the Hedgehog” cartridges should play, at least once…

Reason Number One:
It’s Pretty Much Everything You Love About Old School, 8-Bit Gaming Crammed into One Cartridge

A subtle allusion to the discography of Otis Redding?

The GBC iteration of “Daikatana” immediately, and obviously, reminds me of two 8-bit classics: “The Legend of Zelda” and “Metal Gear.” In fact, the game is pretty much a perfect synthesis of the two titles, creating one of the most finely tuned, exploration-based action-adventure games in the history of handhelds. That said, the game also amps up the experience by including some “StarTropics”-like platforming, “Crystalis”-like roaming and even an emphasis on story and character development, which easily puts it on par, as far as narratives go, with the absolute best Square and Enix were squeezing out on the NES. Similarly, you’ll find the occasional touch of “Metroid” and “Blaster Master” in there, too, in turn, making this essentially what happens when you take every single action-adventure title found on the Nintendo Entertainment System and puree them into a single experience. For serious old-schoolers, this is a game you simply HAVE to experience, and for all of you young Turks that weren’t born until after the PlayStation came out, this is a fantastic introduction to the gloriousness of 8-bit adventuring.

Reason Number Two
The Atmosphere is Just Awesome

Fun fact: the game actually began life as a VERY loose adaptation of "Onibaba." 

“Daikatana” shows us just how much life 8-bit gaming had in it, even as recently as the year 2000. The visuals are crisp and detailed, and the music is just downright tremendous. A lot of times, we tend to discount just how much influence sound design has on a game’s overall feel, and the audio-philes at Kemco went out of their way to bring the aural awesome in this title. From the ambient, droning hum that picks up while you’re navigating dungeons to that awesome, Optimus Prime-meets-Knight Rider chime that tunes up when you solve a puzzle, there’s just so much to love about the game - and that’s not even taking into account the game’s exquisite chip-tune score, which sounds sort of like an 8-bit mash-up of Danny Elfman’s “Batman” soundtrack as performed by The Prodigy. I don’t want to say that the aesthetics of the game are minimalist, but the game is also refreshing devoid of clutter. Everything in the game is detailed, but none of the sprites are too elaborate; it’s just a smooth looking game, sans any gimmicks that would slow down the game play. In other words? It’s NES-era gaming, the way it ought to be.

Reason Number Three
The Dungeons!

What the? An adventure game, with dungeons that aren't populated with red stalactites and killer bats?

The dungeons in “Daikatana” are among the best I’ve ever visited in an 8-bit world, and that’s including heavy hitters like the first “Zelda” and the afore-mentioned (and stupidly underappreciated) “Crystalis” and “StarTropics.” For one thing, there’s actually a pretty fair amount of variation among the dungeons, so you’re not just trekking through purple and blue caves over and over again. Throughout the game, you’ll explore futuristic barracks, a feudal Japanese dojo, a HUGE monastery and an ocean-side cavern (well, I guess you have to have at least ONE spelunking level in an 8-bit game). Not only are the dungeons surprisingly large, the challenges therein are pretty damn intense, with some of the most brain-bending puzzles and thumb-numbing boss fights you’ll encounter in a GBC title. A lot of times, level design can make or break a title, and in the case of “Daikatana,” we’re dealing with some of the best laid-out dungeons in the annals of portable gaming.

Reason Number Four:
The Story is Surprisingly Enjoyable and Nuanced 

Racial profiling, Game Boy-style. (Note the gigantic prescription pills and naked dude just casually chatting it up with you.)

OK, so maybe expecting a Tolstoy-esque narrative in a handheld game from 13 years ago is a little dumb, but I have to say I was really surprised by the (relative) quality of the narrative in “Daikatana.” Yeah, it starts off pretty generic - some dude named Kage has unleashed a killer virus, and only you and your time hopping buddies can prevent it from destroying humanity - but the presentation here totally transforms it into something exceptional. For one, I LOVED how the story was so seamlessly woven within the gameplay itself, with several triggered flashbacks - displayed in a black-and-white tone, which was a really nice touch, in my humblest of opinions - actually tying into what you were doing in the level. Furthermore, there actually IS a fair amount of character development among the three avatars you take turns controlling, and each of the three have their own, somewhat fleshed out personalities. Yeah, maybe it is a little blunt to have a main protagonist literally named “Hiro,” but like I’ll ever complain about commanding a virtual ass-kicker named “Superfly.” The time-hopping hook is also pretty cool, as it whisks you away to a whole bunch of diverse gaming landscapes. It’s not too often that you can visit feudal Japan, ancient Greece, a futuristic San Francisco and (for some peculiar reason) Norway in one game, but that’s PRECISELY the kind of globe-hopping that awaits you in “Daikatana.” And without giving away too much, let’s just say there are plenty of great twists and turns as the story unfolds, including several out-of-the-blue boss fights and a twist-ending that TOTALLY blindsided me. And I will leave the spoils of the final boss fight up to you to find out, dear reader…

And also: it has some of the coolest-looking rugs in video game history.

I really can’t think of a reason why you shouldn’t at least make an effort to hunt this one down. Granted, it may not be worth a trip to a PAL country to find, but if you’re ever just hanging out in Wolverhampton, it may be worth your time to scour the Mom and Pop’s, you know, just in case. A game like “Daikatana” is really the kind of title that old school purists like me are absolutely enchanted by: a no-frills, straight-up, hyper-fun game that seemingly NO ONE is aware of. It’s “Zelda” meets “Metal Gear,” with shades of Kurosawa and “Logan’s Run” thrown in there, just because; in short, it’s pretty freaking amazing, and you need to experience such awesomeness with your own two thumbs and eyes, folks.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Book Review: "Hot, Flat and Crowded" by Thomas Friedman (2008)

According to the New York Times columnist, nothing short of a “Green Revolution” is going to keep America competitive in the Era of Globalization. Do Friedman’s energy concerns have merits, or are his suggestions just a load of fracking nonsense?

Thomas Friedman envisions a brave new world where energy consumption is such a major social priority that parking garages PAY individuals to park their hybrid electro-cars there, so the owners of the complexes can suck excess energy out of their batteries and sell them back to the power companies for an extra couple of pennies a month. And the power companies themselves will run on entirely different models than they do now, offering customers a la carte options that result in charges based on how much total energy per month a home uses, which, in a total affront to Henry Jenkins’ “black box fallacy” theory, is regulated by some super-duper, high-tech “Smart Box” that’s connected to literally EVERY energy sucking product in one’s home. And as far as energy policies go, Friedman sees a future where state and local officials aren’t messing around anymore, with the Department of Transportation charging insanely expensive debits to single-car users on the nation’s highways.

There’s no denying the (seeming) far-fetchedness of Friedman’s post-Green society, what, with it’s personal energy plans and congestion pricing models and net zero energy usage mandates and dual use schools and rolling energy storage units (what we currently call “cars,” in case you were wondering.) But amidst all of the futuristic hubbub, the heart of Friedman’s 2008 manifesto - not so subtly subtitled “Why We Need a Green Revolution - And How It Can Renew America” - is a pretty hard-to-debate argument that unless major, MAJOR changes occur to how America views its energy supplies, we’re in for a whole heap of trouble in both the immediate AND long-term future.

While the United States has been gripped in battle over the last decade with that two headed menace, the recession and global terror, Friedman notes that one of the major geopolitical flashpoints we’ve overlooked is just how were going to keep our energy usage rates consistent when natural reserves are being sucked out of the ground left and right by developing nations like China and India. Conservative estimates put the global population at about 9.2 billion people come 2050, and economic growth - and with it, net energy usage - is expected to skyrocket in the “big four” developing nations (the other two, in case you’re a dummy, are Brazil and Russia.)  As more and more global societies develop more American-like appetites for energy - which in turn, inevitably leads to more deforestation and urbanization - Friedman believes that we’re staring down both an environmental and economic disaster; and since so little emphasis has been placed on renewable energy and energy conservation policies, we have approximately five minutes to fix things up or else...uh-oh.

Problem numero uno, per Friedman, is our dependency on what he calls “fuels from hell,” that being rapidly diminishing natural energy sources like coal, natural gas and most especially oil. U.S. dependency on these fuels are bad, he says, because for one, it gives extraordinary political power to anti-pluralistic Islamic regimes in the Middle East. In fact, he argues that petrodollars, a good $200 billion of which went to Saudi Arabian officials ALONE in 2008, are pretty much responsible for the rise and expansion of extremist Islam, noting that predominantly Islamic countries like Bahrain and Lebanon, which aren’t oil-exporting monoliths, seemed to embrace pro-democratic movements much tighter than their Scrooge McDuck-rich OPEC kin. At one point, Friedman breaks out a bar graph, demonstrating what appears to be an indisputable push-pull effect regarding oil prices and democratic movements. In short? When gasoline prices go down, oil-rich countries become less authoritarian, and when gasoline prices increase, “freedom” gets a whole hell of a lot less “free” just about every major oil exporting country on the planet.

The second issue, of course, is global warming. Friedman says that since the modern industrialization era began, the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have leapt from 280 PPM to about 384 PPM (when an increase to 550 PPM, he states, would trigger a 3 degree Celsius increase in global temperatures). Now, seeing as how a temperature shift of about 5 degrees Celsius might just kick off another Ice Age, you can see why this Friedman fellow is just a little concerned about all of that noxious waste in the sky. And believe it or not, that long-held “urban legend” about how cow flatulence supposedly destroys the atmosphere is actually pretty damn true, with EACH of the planet’s three billion cows farting out about 600 liters of methane gas per day. Methane, by the way, is also about TWENTY times denser than CO2, so…yeah, steer queefs apparently ARE that detrimental to our ecology.

And of course, Friedman sees these two issues converging in a perfect storm of geopolitical and environmental upheaval, with conflicts destined to break out over resources and new mega cities sucking up so much energy that constant blackouts - which, clearly, would result in higher crimes, loss of food and a whole slew of other really bad things - would be going on all across the “developing world.”

Friedman’s response to this daunting future is two-fold. First off, we need some renewable energy out there, damn it, and the only way to ensure that renewable energy becomes sustainable is to get some hot and heavy regulations and legislation on the books. It’s at this point that Friedman starts throwing out some REALLY wild ideas, like establishing a fixed floor price for oil so that investors will have an incentive to pump moolah into renewable energy programs. More than anything, though, he says we need some “revolutionary bureaucrats” to get into the game and goad entrepreneurs and upstarts to invest in renewable energy, via feebates, legislative mandates and government loans out the yin-yang. Surprisingly, the guy he turns to for inspiration here is none other than George W. Bush, specifically citing his 1999 Texas Renewable Portfolio Mandate as just the kind of forward-thinking’ our national energy planners ought to have in mind when it comes time to decide whether they want to put up a wind-mill farm the size of Wyoming or just another coal-burning plant in the Ozarks.

Volunteerism, Friedman believes, will result in “carnage,” so by Job, we’ve GOT to start introducing some new regulations to keep ourselves from turning the planet into a giant snow ball. One of the examples he notes is how Honda’s compound vortex controlled combustion engine revolutionized vehicle production in the automobile industry. Had the Federal Clean Air Act not been passed in 1970, he argues, there wouldn’t have existed an impetus for Honda - or really, any other major manufacturer - to look at ways to create less polluting goods. And before you start calling bullshit on Friedman when he suggests unplugging soda machines at night might save us a ton of money in the long run, just remember - the recent SEER 13 air conditioner mandates, which made such products about 30 percent more energy efficient - ultimately ended up saving enough energy that a DOZEN 400mW power plants never had to be built.

And of course, Friedman’s book just HAS to conclude with a chapter on China, the natural resource devouring titan that he compares to the time-bomb-equipped bus in “Speed.” Basically, Friedman says that China’s economy HAS to grow by eight percent a year, or it’s automatic recession time. Where the U.S. can gain an upper hand here, Friedman believes, is getting a jump on renewable energy projects, so that by the time all of the Chinese and Indians are choking to death on car exhaust fumes, we will be able to sell them renewable energy goods at retardedly high prices.

Two of the final points Friedman makes in the book seemed the most profound to me. First, he said that for all of the Chinese government’s faults, they can pass regulation like mofos when shit gets real. You know how it took the U.S. 20 years to officially get all of the lead out of our gasoline? Well, the Chinese were able to do that in just two years. Friedman argues - and boy, is it a solid one, at that - that China’s ability to actually CARRY out top-down regulations might give them an advantage in the upcoming energy wars - and since the United States Department of Energy has only spent about 20 percent of it’s R&D funds on renewable energy since 1948, you can kind of see where bad turns to worse here.

Friedman’s final argument - which he lays out using some pretty clumsy allusions to the civil rights movement and World War II mobilization efforts - is that unless the government gets behind renewable energy, we are effed, and firmly. While Germany is passing solar feed-in-laws, we here in the States are passing on hybrid cars designed by MIT kids that get 200 miles per gallon. His ultimate call to arms - the consolidation of our nation’s numerous departments into a comprehensive, federal energy behemoth - comes attached with this nice little quote; that when it comes time to truly adopt green energy policies, it’s our leaders, not our light bulbs, that we’ll have to end up changing.

Friedman is one of my favorite contemporary sociopolitical writers, and while his green energy ra-ra can become annoying after awhile, there’s no denying that the dude has laid out a pretty solid argument in favor of his “only renewable energy can save America!” thesis. It’s mildly outdated, but still pretty entertaining, and loaded with tons of facts that you probably never would have learned about, otherwise. For example, did you know that the term “rival” originally meant “people that had to share a river,” and that in Indonesia - a country with almost 250 million people - only about 6,000 of its residents have PhDs?  At 400 pages, it does have its moments were it hit’s a few skids, but overall? If you’re looking for a quick manifesto about what all this green energy hullabaloo is all about, I doubt you’ll find a more thorough - and more importantly, readable - treatise out there.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The New Pop-Tarts Oatmeal Delights!

Are they Pop-Tarts, Oatmeal, or Something in Between? Plus, HEART-SHAPED Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Just Because!

I often find myself writing about Pop-Tarts, which is pretty peculiar, since I don’t necessarily like them all that much. Even so, I find myself picking up a box at least every other month, because Kellogg’s releases some newfangled, limited-time only toaster pastry virtually every thirty days. I keep telling myself I can resist the temptation, but without fail, those criminal geniuses out of Battle Creek ALWAYS find a way to get me to pry my wallet upon yet again.

Case in point; these newfangled OATMEAL Pop-Tarts.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Are these things Pop-Tarts that TASTE like oatmeal, or are they actually Pop-Tarts FILLED with oatmeal? One glance at the box, and that’s the immediate question I think just about any consumer would have. And perhaps trying to instigate some curiosity buys, the wording on the box itself doesn’t really tell you whether these are traditional, sugary goo filled pastries or some experimental breakfast item that’s loaded with oats. I think I was able to walk by the gigantic display at the local super market twice before I realized the enigma was too great, so on my third visit, you best believe I waltzed home with a bag filled with el Nuevo Tart-os.

First things first, we need to know what flavors we’re talking about here, and for the initial Oatmeal-Tart goods, Kellogg’s decided to go with two fairly safe choices - brown maple sugar and strawberry. The designs of the tarts seem to be pretty much identical, with each pastry speckled with oats and given this zig-zagging frosting stripe. Much to my disappointment, the interior goo of the products seems to be your standard artificial fruit flavoring. And yes, I actually was kinda’ excited to find out what liquefied oatmeal filling would have tasted like.

There’s nothing too exciting about the packages, which are identical, except for a few photographs of the Pop-Tarts themselves. I am particularly awed by the insanely lengthy toaster oven directions on the back of the boxes, which seem to contain about 956,000 more words than necessary to tell the general public to just push them sumbitches down until they pop back up again.

And with that in mind, there’s nothing at all exciting about the pseudo-aluminum foil sleeves the individual Tarts come wrapped in. Unless of course, you have a thing for silvery packages and bad breakfast food puns, which considering you’re reading this, might just be the case.

I reckon the best way to address the products is to give you a thorough review of both flavors. I’ll start with the brown maple stuff first, because come on, we’ve all had artificial strawberry stuff wedged down our throat holes before.

The very first thing I thought when I saw the Tarts up close was, “wow, these things look kinda’…naked.” Usually, Pop-Tarts are just lacquered with multi-colored frosting, but these, more or less, resemble oversized Graham crackers. Yeah, you get a teeny bit of frosting, the afore-mentioned icing racing stripe and a couple of oat flakes, but beyond that, you’re basically staring at a bare-ass nude ’Tart.

The toasted product ended up looking, well, just like an untoasted Pop-Tart. It’s impossible to know this from looking at the picture, but one of the huge positives about this one is the smell. I mean, it really smells like someone just poured a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth’s on the kitchen floor, and if you touch ANY portion of the pastry, your hand will smell like the bottom of an IHOP mixing bowl for the rest of the day. Sure, that can be construed as a negative by some people, but like I’ll ever complain about smelling like a pancake for any prolonged period of time.

The interior goop looks sort of like jelly, but it tastes like practically every other kind of pseudo-fruit filling you’ve ever tasted before. I love the fact that in this photo, you’re probably bearing witness to at least ten or twelve different shades of brown. The russet icing on top of that sorrel filling, not to mention the natural burnt sienna hue of the pastry itself, makes for one hell of a mahogany-hued hootenanny.

As for the strawberry version, I suppose there’s even less to say than there is about the brown maple iteration. Like it’s maple kin, the Tart looks especially bare, with only that ‘80s-esque, neon pink zigzag making it look like anything other than a really, really big saltine.

The smell of a fully toasted strawberry-oat Tart isn’t as appealing as a brown maple sugar one, and I was honestly a little nauseated by this one’s scent. I guess that’s more or less because I spent an entire year eating NOTHING but strawberry Pop-Tarts, so that’s probably some bias creeping in, but whatever. If you’ve ever smelled something strawberry and burny, than you’ve smelled what this thing smells like before.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the taste, either. Granted, it wasn’t bad, and the oat flakes made it taste a little bit different, but all in all, it’s the same thing you’ve been begrudgingly chowing down on for the last twenty years of your life. Hopefully, the suits at Battle Creek will opt for a more experimental flavor come round two. I, for one, would love to see a mozzarella-flavored one on store shelves.

So, are these new oatmeal-themed Pop-Tarts worth going out of your way to experience? Eh, probably not, but if you are a regular toaster-pastry enthusiast, I suppose you could pick up a box or two as a viable substitute for your regular S'mores or Hot Cocoa flavored breakfast items. I highly doubt consumer reaction to these things are going to be overwhelmingly positive, so for once, we might actually be dealing with some limited-time Pop-Tarts that actually REMAIN limited-time only goods...

Reese’s HEART-SHAPED Peanut Butter Cups!

While we’re on the subject of limited-time only foodstuffs, you’ve probably encountered these babies on your ambles around the candies section of your favorite grocer or big box mart. There’s not a whole lot to say about them, but I think there’s enough here to elicit at least two or three paragraphs of impressions.

Reese’s, as we all know by now, are no strangers to holiday-themed variations, having released peanut butter and chocolate Jack O Lanterns, Christmas trees and Easter Eggs to in the last few years. I guess introducing heart-shaped candies for Valentine’s Day was inevitable, especially considering how much easier it is to bend chocolate into fat “V” shape as opposed to pointed firs and peanut butter-stemmed pumpkins.

Anybody that can write more than 300 words about these are much better penmen than I, so I'll just leave you with the obvious here. The new Reese's hearts are delicious, they actually resemble what they're supposed to, and if you get particularly bored, you can pretend you're eating a giant chocolate tooth or even a peanut butter-filled tongue. And if these things aren't harbingers of 4th of July candies shaped like the head of Abraham Lincoln, I think I might be ready to stage a coup at The Hershey Company.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Taco Bell’s New Loaded Grillers Review!

Ever wondered what it would be like to eat a Hot Pocket stuffed with tater tots and sour cream? Apparently, Taco Bell got your memo…

One of the great, unreported tragedies of 2012 was Taco Bell’s ill-advised decision to discontinue the half pound cheesy bean and rice burrito. For broke-ass college kids across America, that value-priced offering was the equivalent of a 1-up mushroom from “Super Mario” - you could be on the verge of death, and with about two bucks in change, you could be rescued from the clutches of starvation via a flour tortilla and at least six or seven ounces of melted cheddar. It saved my half-famished derrière on numerous occasions, and with it officially axed from the line-up, I was almost ready to begin a nationwide boycott.

I never, ever send in consumer complaints, but by golly, as soon as I found out that the half pound cheesy bean and rice burrito was no mas, I sure as heck did. And apparently, so did every other American in the 18-34 age range, because Taco Bell was super-quick to trot out a new line-up of value-priced, oversized burritos, called “Loaded Grillers.”

The more I think about it, the more I think that these “Loaded Grillers” are the most criminally insane (but genius) ideas ever trotted out by a fast food organization. The basic concept of the items is relatively simple: “Hey, you know how people go to places like T.G.I. Friday’s and Applebee’s, and order appetizers like mini chicken wings and potato wedges?” I imagine the madman/visionary that dreamed up these new burritos pitching to the main menu guy at Bell HQ. “Well,” he must’ve continued, “how about we take all of that shit and dump it into a tortilla, and hawk it for 0.99 cents a piece?”

It’s an idea that’s one part incredibly gross, and one part undeniably appealing. It’s cheap, it’s greasy, it’s oversized, and it you just KNOW it’s going to be filling. It’s such a brazenly stupid idea that it kinda’ turns the corner halfway and starts looking like the marketing strategy of the century - in other words, it appears as if we’ve found ourselves the spiritual successors to our beloved half pound cheesy bean and rice burritos, all right.

To begin with, there are actually three -- count ‘em, THREE -- value-priced burritos being offered here, all of which are modeled after your standard appetizer staples, like chicken wings, tater tots and nachos. And yes, I know that making a nacho-flavored burrito is a little redundant, but if you’re complaining about a chunky, cheese and sauce stuffed burrito for less than a dollar, than you sir, must be a communist.

The price point is absolutely inarguable. For about $7.92, you can pick up eight burritos - you know, the kind of deal that almost makes you think you’re kicking it, 1992 style. Not only is it the products’ strongest selling point, it’s pretty much the products’ ONLY selling point. The tagline for these things might as well be “because they’re cheap and they won’t kill you,” and they would still sell like hotcakes.

Now, I want you to pay REAL CLOSE attention to his menu placard. As you can see, the “Loaded Grillers” are supposed to look like you’re standard burritos - that is, a piece of tortilla with stuff of fluctuating color, texture and smell flowing out of it. Needless to say, the final product I ended up with looked…well, let’s just say, a wee bit different than what I was advertised.

Even though these new items are loaded with more animal byproducts than Revlon’s lipstick factory, I simply HAD to give these things a taste-test, anyway. You just know these things will never become a permanent menu item, and truthfully, it’s probably only a matter of time before the FDA cracks down on the Bell for releasing such a gloriously unhealthy product. No shit: when I ordered my burritos, the cashier kept asking me if I really wanted to go through with it. When the check out boy is trying veto your lunchtime decision, you simply KNOW peculiar things are afoot at America’s favorite synthetic Tex-Mex eatery.

Although the contents of the burritos are all fairly different, I think it’s important to note that, as far as externalities go, these things are practically identical. You get a flour-wrap tortilla that’s mildly blackened, to insinuate actually grilling - but come on, this is Taco Bell we’re talking about here. We know better.

So, uh, yeah, the burritos don’t look too much like the items you see on the window cling-ons. I guess the most obvious deviations is that the burritos are of the “closed flap” variety, so no cornucopia of sour cream will ooze out of your meal when unwrap them. I’ve got to say, though, the folks at the local Bell did a bang-up job on sealing these things shut; I’d surmise that prying open King Tut’s sarcophagus with a crowbar would require less effort than completely de-shelling a “Loaded Griller.”

For those of you in need of up-close burrito biopsy images, well, here you go, people. The “Loaded Potato” burrito was far and away my favorite of the bunch, an absolutely scrumptious smorgasbord of nacho cheese, sour cream, tater tots and bacon bits. It sounds gross - and it kinda’ is - but it’s the “homiest” kind of gross you can think of. It’s so simple yet flavorful, and it has a nice, lingering taste that definitely makes it stand out from the 800 quesadilla variations you’ll find on the Taco Bell menu. It’s fantastic, and you need to try one.

The “Spicy Chicken” burrito, however, was a little less thrilling. True to the nomenclature, it was indeed rather spicy, and the goulash of cheese and buffalo sauce - this smoky blend that was sort of like chipotle sauce, only a little less zesty - was quite tasty. The problem is, the chicken tastes like plastic, and it has this weird, way-too-moisturized texture that makes it feel like the meat has been marinating in lukewarm water for a couple of hours. And let’s not even talk about those pathetic little black bean chunks. I mean, seriously, that’s what passes for bean chunks nowadays?

The “Beefy Nacho” burrito was unquestionably my least favorite of the trio. I haven’t tasted Taco Bell beef in well over half a decade, and good lord, was I shocked - SHOCKED, I SAY - by how gross the stuff tasted. I sorta’ take back calling the Taco Bell chicken “plastic” tasting, because I’m at least partially convinced that the Taco Bell beef isn’t made out of normal, god-made animals. If you ask me, chowing down on one of these things is like gulping down a handful of Silica beads, only doused in chili seasoning and cheese sauce. If you’re wondering what those little red things are, they’re supposed to be tortilla strips - and if you’re not mildly concerned by how much the inside of one of these things resembles a diarrheic explosion, heaven help you, son.

So, what to say about the “Loaded Grillers?” Well, one out of three ain’t bad, but all in all, wouldn’t it be much, much better if the Bell was to eliminate the chicken and beef ones and replace both products with a returning half pound cheesy bean and rice burrito? I mean, the savings in inventory costs alone would be worth it, and the revenue brought in from making the potato burrito a full time offering would only sweeten the pot. Your mileage will certainly vary here, but compared to some of the Bell’s previous menu stunts - snack food flavored tacos and wannabe Chipotle’s, anyone? - it’s hard for me to be anything but disappointed in this latest annexation to the Taco Bell lineup.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

JIMBO GOES TO THE MOVIES: Les Miserables Review

Wolverine sings, Russell Crowe does his best Cap’n Crunch impersonation and a WHOLE lotta’ French people throw furniture at stuff in arguably 2012’s best musical

I’m not exactly what you would call a big fan of musicals, but even a proletariat soul such as myself rather enjoyed this newfangled “Les Miserables” movie. And before you even THINK about picking up two tickets for this one, be advised: this movie is depressing, the kind of depressing normally reserved for Mandy Moore romances. Funny, I know; who’d thought that a movies called “Les Miserables” would be so unrepentantly miserable?

The film begins with Wolverine hanging out by the waterfront, as he and approximately half of Paris try to pull a massive ship back to port. Overseeing the action is the primary villain of the film, a particularly chunky Russell Crowe, who, as an added bonus, wears a Cap’n Crunch hat for almost a totality of the movie. At one point, Wolverine picks up a three ton mast, just because it has the French flag on it, and Russell Crowe takes note of his apparent superhuman strength. This is kinda’ relevant, a little bit later.

So, we come to find out that Wolverine was a prisoner for a couple of years, because he stole a piece of bread for his nephew, and after 20 years of hard laboring, he’s officially on parole (albeit, for the rest of his natural born life.) Fast forward about ten years, and a clean shaven Wolverine is now the mayor of some shantytown filled with prostitutes and textile factories, with Russell Crowe serving as the town’s chief of police. Now, I know it seems a little far-fetched to assume that Crowe would have NO idea that the dude the runs the city is the very same dude that was his slave for about two decades - even after Wolverine flips over a carriage with one pinkie - but this is a musical after all. In a movie where an entire metropolis stops everything they’re doing and breaks out into pitch-perfect song and dance, I guess you have to suspend your disbelief halfway to Mercury.

After that, we’re introduced to Anne Hathaway’s character, who ends up selling herself on the street to pay for her daughter’s room and board. And when I say “selling herself,” I mean quite literally “selling herself,” as she lets some decrepit skank shave her bald and some gummy street urchin yank her teeth out with pliers for the modern day equivalent of three nickels. Of course, she ends up turning to prostitution to make a living, and as most French hookers prior to the Napoleonic Wars did, she winds up dead in a gutter, but not before telling Wolverine that he needs to take care of her now orphaned daughter. And since Wolverine is such a nice chap, that’s precisely what he does.

The thing is, Anne Hathaway’s daughter lives in an inn with Borat and Helena Bonham Carter, who at this point, looks like Gollum in a Richard Simmons wig. The couple are a bunch of con-artists (at one point, they even get Santa Claus liquored up so they can rob him), and they treat Anne’s daughter like total crap. So, Wolverine waltzes in there one day, and says I will take care of the girl, and he strolls on out, while Russell Crowe can’t help but shake this funny feeling that he’s seen this Wolverine fella’ before.

And we fast forward another ten years, and by god, we are on the brink of LA REVOLUTION in France Town. Anne Hathaway’s daughter has grown up to be that blonde chick from Red Riding Hood, and these two wannabe revolutionary dudes compete for her affection. Meanwhile, the actual daughter of Borat and Helena Gollum Carter is all jealous, because all the dudes want to bone her best friend instead of her. So, the King of France kicks the bucket, and everybody decides then and there is the best time to kick off round two of the French Revolution, and before you know it, people are tossing pianos and dining tables into the cobbled streets of Paris, just waiting for some shit to get real. And since this is Europe we’re talking about here, it’s only a matter of time until six year old kids get shot in the face with muskets and milk maids are sent out into the streets, singing songs about the futility of war, while mopping up small oceans of plasma on the city roads. And after that? That’s when things get really bleak looking.

Wolverine and Russell Crowe have their climactic throw down, which pretty much ends and begins with Hugh Jackman dragging the half-dead body of his adopted daughter’s boyfriend through a lake of doo-doo underneath Paris. After a philosophical epiphany of sorts, Russell Crowe realizes that he’s wasted his life trying to bring a spiritually innocent man to justice, so he decides to take his own life by taking a 100 foot leap into a cement pool, culminating in one of the most sickening thuds I’ve ever heard in a motion picture. I know a lot of high profile movies came out this year, but if the Academy overlooks this one for best sound editing, it would be a downright crying shame.

And because we need one last tragedy to close the show, we watch an elderly Hugh Jackman (remember, back in the mid 1800s, being 45 constituted “senior citizenship”) slowly and dramatically punch his ticket to the Great Beyond, as a crop topped Anne Hathaway courts him to heaven - which, apparently, is a Parisian wonderland with home furniture barricades stacked 300 feet in the sky. You know how during a comedy, there’s that one part where everyone in the theater laughs in unison, or when you watch a scary movie, and everybody jumps at the same time? Well, the conclusion to this one resulted in a similar scenario - trust me, you don’t know the meaning of the term “poignant” until you’ve heard an entire room full of middle-aged women blow their noses in a full blown chorus of sniffles.

Not that you really need me to tell you this, but this movie was pretty freaking great. I like the fact that this is a hardcore musical, where pretty much every line of dialogue is sung instead of uttered. And holy shit, I had NO idea that Hugh Jackman could belt out show tunes like a champ - if the next “X-Men” movie doesn’t have at least one heartfelt ballad on it, then 20th Century Fox has no idea what the hell they’re doing with their franchises.

The only real problem I had with the movie, and seeing as how this is a musical, it’s kind of a biggie, was that the music was, well, kinda’ forgettable. Whatever you do, don’t come in here thinking you’re going to have a “Hakuna Matata” or a “Me Party” stuck in your head for a couple of days afterward, because as fantastic as the singing is, the songs themselves are rather…meh. It’s really a double-edged sword here; one of the major appeals of the movie is watching Catwoman and Maximus go all “American Idol” on us, and while it is certainly impressive, there’s nothing on the sheet music that really sticks with you. I imagine people having the same conversation once the movie is over. “Man, that Amanda Seyfried chick can really carry a tune, huh?,” says party one. “But yeah,” party two will no doubt say, “I can’t think of a single damn lyric from ANY of the songs, can you?”

Alas, it’s a minor quabble, and nothing that should prevent you from seeing this movie. Somehow, it kinda’ got lost in the Christmas shuffle, and if it’s playing in your neck of the woods, it’s definitely worth checking out. Plus, if you take your girlfriend to go see it, she’ll think you’re all cultured and sensitive and stuff, which ought to be just enough to let you slide by with watching an estimated 47 hours of playoff football between now and Groundhog Day.

In short? “Les Miserables” is a terrific movie, and you should probably see it. Hell, it might even be the best musical since “Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead,” which, in case you couldn’t tell, is really, REALLY saying something.

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Jupiter Menace!

In 1982, a “documentary” was released warning the planet that doomsday would occur in 2000. Thirteen years after the end of the world (and 30 years after the movie was released), I decide to revisit the hysteria….

You know, the Mayan doomsday that didn’t happen last year wasn’t the first time a bunch of apocalyptic dingbats ended up with egg on their collective faces. There’s one doomsday theory in particular that I would like to turn your attention to - one that, while completely proven false more than a decade ago, remains something I have deep recollections and remembrances of.

Picture it: metro Atlanta, 1994. I’m in the third grade, and my mom - who, for whatever reason, is going through her survivalist, Book of Revelations phase - brings home this VHS cassette called “The Jupiter Menace.” I honestly can’t tell you how many times I watched this stupid thing during my elementary school years - and since I was like eight years old and therefore an impressionable moron, I sincerely believed that a grand alignment of the planets in six years’ times was going to trigger a tectonic shift that reversed the earth’s polarity and kill us all.

So, um, maybe a super-conjunction of ring planets DIDN’T result in an automatic ice age back on May 05, 2000, but that still doesn’t mean that the video doesn’t have at least SOME inklings of value today. Looking back on it, it’s downright amazing how naïve I was, and since we have this thing called the “Internet” that allows us to fact check shit, revisiting the movie 30 years later becomes a TRULY entertaining experience. If you haven’t had a bunch of pseudo-apocalyptic junk science dropped in front of you in a while, then I reckon this here “Jupiter Menace” VHS will give you your fill until you’re able to uncover a used DVD of “What the Bleep Do We Know!?” on sale at GameStop.

"I'm George Kennedy, and I needed the money."

The film begins with some tribal dancing 5,013 years ago, with Indian warriors sacrificing this one dude while everybody moshes while dressed up like Putties from “Power Rangers” and wearing severed coyote heads as toboggans. Unfortunately, an earthquake interrupts the quacking duck-techno music, as the opening credits for the “documentary” begin to scroll.

Our narrator for the evening is George Kennedy, as in…that George Kennedy. I’m not really sure why he agreed to be in the film, outside of probably owing some mean back taxes in the 1983 fiscal year, so five minutes in, and your mind ought to already be effectively blown. This leads to a scene back in the days of the Old Testament, with some ambassador of the Abrahamic faiths mocking a bunch of idol worshippers playing flute music for their statue monkey god. The Judeo-Christian dude makes some rocks explode, which is a nice segue into a vignette about the Dome of the Rock, and how it’s destined to be torn apart for a third time, per biblical decree.

From there, we meet this one church dude that sits around a bunch of old computers and prints out spreadsheets that he believes predict a Jupiter-triggered, worldwide earthquake that would rattle the Dome of the Rock off its foundations - and yeah, kill most of humanity in the process, too. According to Kennedy, a gaggle of unnamed “reputable scientists” all agree that an alignment of the planets in 1982 was to trigger a 20 year cycle of “cataclysmic” events, culminating with DOOMSDAY, FOR REALZ YA’LL in 2000. By the way, the movie was released in 1982, and based in part on a theory published in a book printed ten years before that. To the uninitiated, it’s the year 2013, and yeah…still waiting, guys.

Professor John Holmes demonstrates the Chandler Wobble/turns an invisible doorknob.

Next, Kennedy takes us for a tour of the San Andreas fault line, which leads to a bizarre sequence in which 1980s CGI takes us INSIDE an earthquake, which apparently, looks kind of like “Tempest 2000” on the Atari Jaguar. A brief interview is conducted with the author of a book called “We are the Earthquake Generation,” while one of the co-authors of “The Jupiter Effect” - the aforementioned tome from the '70s that served as the inspiration for this movie - says that sunspots and solar flares are responsible for triggering most of the planet’s earthquakes. Meanwhile, a second opinion from an actual scientist reveals that claim to be kinda’ bullshit.

Tokyo, New York City (which rests on seven crisscrossing fault lines per the producers, even though this much more reliable Wiki article says it’s just four) and especially Los Angeles are royally screwed, says the movie. Which somehow transitions into a montage of people frequenting a “survival store,” complete with an elderly women flipping through the pages of a kung fu manual.

From there, we take a tour of Stelle, Illinois, a close-knit community of survivalist weirdoes that teach their children to be math geniuses so they can float away from the apocalypse on homemade zeppelins (no, seriously.) And because the creepy factor needs to be ratcheted up a bit, we then visit the C.S.A. Zarephath Horeb compound in Arkansas, where religious fundamentalist militia men practice for when the Antichrist comes to power and turns on the big Earthquake machine. By the way, the C.S.A. there stands for the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord - as in, the white nationalist organization that’s probably best known for having a throwdown with the ATF in 1985.

Ask any domestic terrorist, white nationalist apocalyptic Christian radical: homeschooling works.

We’re in dire need of some B-roll, so cue a lengthy scene with a dude buying an amphibious tank and an even longer sequence featuring a televangelist that may or may not be Jerry Falwell yammering on and on about false messiahs, the prospects of World War III breaking out in Europe and a “scientific” report indicating that 90 percent of the world’s population was destined to starve to death by 2000. Cue footage of Mount St. Helens erupting and body bags in Algeria and Naples, and it’s time for a chit chat with a psychic, who predicts that by 1999, half of California would be submerged underwater while an additional 400 million people die in earthquake-related events across the globe.

The next sequence is definitely my favorite part of the movie, as state of the art computer graphics (read: an Atari 5800) shows us what the world will look like in 2000, after Japan, the U.K. and California gets submerged. After that, some scientists using cutting edge Tandy 1000 computer software simulate what a 12.0 earthquake would look like - and admittedly, it looks kinda’ awesome.

Next, we’re introduced to a shaman, who says some folksy sounding bullshit, and then we hear about Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky, a researcher that decided to invent his own dating system so his completely stupid “catastrophic evolution” theory would sound plausible despite staggering, overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Man, I can't wait to visit West South America next summer!

After that, we meet ANOTHER psychic, this time around a dude that claims that he astral projected himself to Atlantis one time. He talks about the Bimini Road ruins off the coast of Florida, citing the find as PROOF that the planet has experienced a catastrophic “pole shift” in the last 10,000 or so years. This, despite the fact that radiocarbon dating pretty much verifies that the LAST major pole shift of the like happened AT LEAST 200 million years ago, but, hell, who needs things like “facts” at this juncture, anyway?

More pseudo-scientific “evidence” of recent pole shift activity follows. Did you know maps from the 1500s PROVE that explorers knew about Antarctica before the 1800s? Never mind the fact they were almost assuredly describing “South America” instead, but what about all of those “flash frozen” mastodons in Siberia? Once these guys figure out what “continental drift” is, expect some befuddled looks a plenty.

Apparently, a 12.0 earthquake would cause "Tron" to happen.

And so, all of that to bring us to the film’s conclusion, in which numerous “experts” say that a “grand alignment” of the planets on May 5, 2000 would trigger a massive, global earthquake that would destroy the holy hell out of humanity. Following an excerpt from the Book of Luke, Kennedy concludes the “documentary” by saying “all we can do…is wait,” all dramatically and ominously, as awesome, spooky synthesizer music rolls over the scrolling end credits.

Well, I guess I don’t have to tell you how astoundingly off the mark just about every prediction in the film was. A good thirteen years after Judgment Day, we’re still all here, kicking and keeping it real, while most of the people involved with the movie are dead, unemployed or in jail. A quick YouTube search indicates that instead of ushering in global ruin, the only thing that seemed to happen on May 05, 2000 was a Steely Dan performance on “The Today Show,” which, I suppose, is a fate only SLIGHTLY more desirable than the complete destruction of civilization by earthquakes.

In a bizarre way, it’s actually kind of fun to go back and watch “The Jupiter Menace,” miring in all of the absurd hysteria therein. It’s not everyday that you can say you watched the dad from “Wacko” drive around the California desert in a jeep, talking about the Chandler Wobble while professors from the College of Metaphysics (believe it or not, a real thing, in, of all places, Indiana) prophesize that the Great Lakes will merge into a new ocean and drown all of Chicago. And if absolutely nothing else, you have GOT to hear the movie’s score, which was performed by unheralded synth icon Larry Fast under the non-existent band name “Synergy.”

“The Jupiter Menace” is batshit insane, semi-scientific paranoia at its most entertaining, and a captivating look at early 1980s fringe culture, with all of the uncertified professors, wannabe clairvoyants, TV evangelists and soon-to-be domestic terrorists you’ve come to expect telling us all a whole bunch of bullshit that was destined to never happen, with the sort of radical, reality-be-damned gusto that even the craziest Alex Jones supporter couldn’t muster. If you’ve got a hankering for agitprop utterly unassociated with anything even remotely resembling reality, then this is video cassette well worth tracking down - and in case a cataclysmic pole shift ever DOES go down, well, you’ve got something neat to show off to all of your friends once the planet thaws out, too.