Thursday, July 30, 2015

Jimbo Goes to the Movies: “Pixels” (2015) Review

Yeah … you are better off saving up your quarters, kids. 

By: Jimbo X

“Pixels” has such a tremendous premise that it’s hard to not get just a wee bit enthusiastic about its potential. Imagine “Ghostbusters” meets “The Last Starfighter,” featuring scores of officially licensed old-school video game characters -- how could an idea like that possibly falter?

Well, I can explain how in two words, folks: Adam Sandler.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Sandler, but I’ve never really hated his films, either. Even as a middle-schooler, however, I knew “The Waterboy” and “Billy Madison” were pandering, juvenile, paint-by-numbers comedies. As a world-weary high school student, I saw “Mr. Deeds” and “Anger Management” as nothing more than unrepentant studio tax write-offs and product-placement-strewn Trojan horses. Meanwhile, his more recent work -- “Click” and “Blended” and all that stuff -- just seems unabashedly formulaic, to the point where you can almost set your watch to the next predictable Happy Madison productions trope.

Even as a high-concept film on par with “Space Jam,” the latest Sandler vehicle feels astonishingly (and frustratingly) indistinguishable from his last dozen or so movies. Once again, he plays a self-deprecating everyman, whose deadpan humor is buttressed by hoarse shouting and the occasional goo-goo-ga-ga nonsense. Once again, his love interest is a temperamental bombshell way out of his league, whose initial disgust towards his character quickly -- and almost inexplicably -- transforms into incomprehensible lust. Flanking the central character are two chubby foils, still playing the Chris Farley and Norm MacDonald typecast Rosencratzes and Guildensteins to Sandler’s Hamlet. Outside of the appearance by Peter Dinklage as a Billy Mitchell-inspired pro video game champion, the film is more or less Sandler stock character-a-palooza, with the 8-bit intergalactic invasion serving as little more than a slight change in background scenery.

The film begins with Sandler’s adolescent character frantically peddling his way to the local arcade, to the dulcimer tones of Cheap Trick. There, he wows his peers with his impressive “Missile Command” skills, while his conspiracy-theory-loving best bud ogles a fictitious arcade vixen named “Lady Lisa.” Meanwhile, Sandler’s other best pal retrieves a Chewbacca mask from one of those claw machines -- a plot point that we just KNOW is going to be recycled at some point in the picture. Later, Sandler goes toe-to-toe with the afore-mentioned Billy Mitchell analogue, who -- for some bizarre reason -- no one ever acknowledges as being a midget. Oh, and the championship affair, hosted by Dan Akroyd, no less? It’s being recorded by NASA, so they can send it into space along with videos of Tammy Faye Bakker to let hypothetical extra-terrestrial life know what the 1980s were like.

…and flash forward to Washington, D.C., current day. Adam Sandler is a jaded Geek Squad technician (never called that by name, unfortunately -- I suppose some companies would be hesitant to lend their logo to a film that fundamentally describes your employees as lifeless losers) and his claw-machine wunderkind amigo? Well, he grew up to be Kevin James, who -- as fate would have it -- is also the President of the United States. We meet Sandler’s love interest -- a wishy-washy DARPA executive played by Michelle Monaghan whose husband left her for a 19-year-old Pilates instructor -- and soon learn that something horrible has happened to a military installation in Guam; namely, the fact that it was attacked by what appears to be the rhythmic bombardiers from “Galaga.”

Of course, James calls in his old video-game virtuoso pal to verify the obvious. Later, Sandler’s other childhood pal (played by the guy who voiced Olaf in “Frozen”) takes him back to his basement apartment to show him a mysterious alien signal he recorded during an episode of “One Tree Hill.” Unbelievably, a higher life form intercepted the NASA recording of the video game championship from 1982 and believes it to be a challenge for alien warfare. Why the aliens decide to use an outmoded form of antenna broadcasting to inform humanity of this -- nor the reason why they decide to use facsimiles of Hall and Oates and Max Headroom to relay the information to the masses, or even WHY they are using the goddamn video game avatars to attack humanity instead of other weapons -- is never given a second thought.

Thankfully, Sandler’s DARPA squeeze has been hard at work on an experimental laser ray weapon, which seems to be the only thing on earth that can stop the onslaught of “Centipede” and “Joust” invaders. Springing Dinklage’s character out of the pokey, he decides to join the motley crew only after he’s granted both a generous tax break AND a menage-a-trois with Serena Williams and Martha Stewart.

Unfortunately, they deleted the scene with K.C. Munchkin
actually attacking Kansas City. 
Following an admittedly entertaining game of “Pac-Man” on the streets of NYC, the movie slowly cruises towards its Apocalypse porn denoument, in which the eponymous “Paperboy,” the chef from “Burger Time” and a whole bunch of generic pixelized ninjas go cuckoo-bananas in our nation’s capitol. Inevitably, this concludes with the fate of humanity hinging on a live-action game of “Donkey Kong” -- a rather interesting development, since the film itself was actually released by Nintendo arch-rival Sony. Oh, and there’s also a subplot in there about a man having sex with Q*Bert, but trust me, the less said about that, the better.

“Pixels” clearly owes a lot to two films -- “Wreck-It Ralph” and “The LEGO Movie.” Alas, while those two films were utterly fantastic crossover fiction works, the video game dynamic never really gels together in this flick. Hardly any of the video game invaders have lines of dialogue, and some of the action sequences -- especially the “Galaga” Pearl Harbor scene -- fail to generate any excitement at all. Worst of all, there are LONG doldrums in between battle sequences, with a nearly twenty-minute stretch of nothing connecting the “Pac-Man” battle with the big finale.

In terms of general special effects, they are decent, but nothing truly impressive. Considering the pedigree of director Chris Columbus -- the same man who directed "Home Alone" and the first couple of "Harry Potter" movies, in addition to co-producing "Gremlins" and "The Goonies" -- that cannot be considered anything other than a major celluloid disappointment.

As far as laughs, don’t expect much here. You get your usual low-key soft “homophobia” jokes en masse -- mostly, via Josh Gad’s groan-inducing interaction with an elite crew of military men -- and a lot of political humor that just doesn’t seem to fit in with any type of film context, such as when a rescued soldier tells the Prez about his admiration of Obama. Unless you think the idea of a deaf English lady interacting with the dog from “Duck Hunt” is hilarious, you probably won’t be guffawing at any point in “Pixels.”

Really, the problem with the film is its PG-13 rating. Had it been a PG movie, the subplots would have been excised for more video game-themed action, and had it gone for an R (as unlikely as that would have been), the more risqué humor would have been much more effective. Alike the film’s characters in a pivotal Hyde Park showdown with a gaggle of insectoid vector graphics, there are just too many targets for “Pixels” to hit, and it winds up missing almost all of them.

On the whole, “Pixels” isn’t an atrocious film, but its certainly a disappointing one. With such an outstanding concept, a really, really great popcorn film could have emerged. Unfortunately, Sandler and company have left us with a watered-down, unforgivably boring “event” picture that completely squanders its vast potential.

Looking for nostalgic, arcade fun? Frankly, you’re better off spending two hours with the ancient “Ms. Pac-Man” machine in the theater lobby than you are this film, I am afraid.

My Score:

Two Tofu Dogs out of Four

Monday, July 27, 2015

SECRETLY CONSERVATIVE MOVIES: “The Ninth Configuration” (1980)

The unofficial sequel to “The Exorcist” has a lot to say about spirituality and the limitations of psychiatry; in that, it might just be one of the greatest Christian apologist works in cinema history. 

By: Jimbo X

"Now, obviously, much of this new political and social consensus I've talked about is based on a positive view of American history, one that takes pride in our country's accomplishments and record. But we must never forget that no government schemes are going to perfect man. We know that living in this world means dealing with what philosophers would call the phenomenology of evil or, as theologians would put it, the doctrine of sin."

-- Ronald Reagan (1983)

I don’t think evil comes from madness. I think madness comes from evil.” 

-- The Ninth Configuration (1980)

All of the greatest movies share a common theme: in some way or another, they are about extraordinary faith, or an extraordinary lack thereof. From “Intolerance” to “Ikiru” to “The Illusionist” (the 2010 animated one, not the overrated live-action film of the same name from a few years prior), the question of whether or not belief is worth it is at the heart of all truly great cinematic works. While many of these films are certainly rooted in religion (“The Passion of Joan of Arc,” “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” “On the Waterfront” and “The Last Temptation of Christ,” among other heavy hitters) most tackle an entirely different kind of faith -- that is, a faith not in a celestial father residing beyond the limitations of time and space, but faith in one’s own humanity. Are we just nasty, brutish animals at heart, despite our high-tech creations? As a collective, are we a worthy throng, or just a jumbled assortment of liars, cheaters and maniacs? I am immediately reminded of the line from the first “Human Condition” film -- “Man is not poetry or morality,” a hardened bureaucrat states to the idealistic young man, “he is just a mass of lust and greed.”

Strangely enough, perhaps the most resounding humanistic riposte to that statement can be found in a scene excised from “The Exorcist” (later restored in the 2000 director’s cut.) In the scene, Father Karras and Father Merrin discuss why young Regan has been bedeviled. The elder priest informs the younger man of the cloth that the target isn’t her, but the people around her; the idea, he said, was for them to become dejected and despondent, to ultimately view themselves as animalistic and irredeemable. Karras’s ultimate display of faith comes at the end of the film, when he sacrifices his own life to save Regan. Much to author William Peter Blatty’s surprise, that scene -- meant to unequivocally mean that humanity was worth saving and that unconditional altruism can overcome even the foulest displays of evil -- instead was interpreted by most filmgoers to suggest that Satan had triumphed. That rankled Blatty so much that he soon sought to helm a film of his own to get the point across a little more bluntly -- alas, that film wouldn’t bear a number 2 in its title.

“The Exorcist II: The Heretic,” isn’t just one of the worst horror films of the 1970s, it’s one of the worst mainstream Hollywood releases of all-time. The absurd pell-mell script was the exact opposite of the iconic 1973 original, focusing on external supernatural hokum instead of the internalized Manichean battle each and every one of us face a on day in, day out basis. The abject failure of that film, in tandem with Blatty’s desire to reiterate the humanistic message from the first movie, is the focus point of “The Ninth Configuration,” a 1980 film based on one of the author’s earlier works, “Twinkle, Twinkle ‘Killer’ Kane.”

Needless to say, “The Ninth Configuration” is a very unorthodox film. While it’s not canonically considered a sequel to “The Exorcist,” it is often considered a spiritual successor to it, having a very similar tone and even a few shared characters. Undeniably, it is a MUCH better film than “The Heretic.” It may not have the blunt power of William Friedkin’s original, but it is definitely one of the finest genre films of the 1980s, regardless -- even if it is a tad difficult determining precisely which genre the film falls under.

On one hand, “The Ninth Configuration” is an absurdist comedy. The film revolves around a ragtag group of high ranking military officials, who appear to have come down with onset bouts of Ganser syndrome -- a.k.a, PTSD-borne madness. They are locked inside a castle-like facility in the Pacific Northwest, where top-tier federal researchers investigate them. It’s very much a literal case of inmates running the asylum during the film’s first half, as the new military psychologist Kane -- played by Stacy Keach, long before he resembled Wilford Brimley’s stunt-double -- tries to make sense of the patients’ madcap musings. For the first hour, the film is a collection of weird non-sequiturs (there’s a minstrel show, a guy running around in Superman regalia and the dude who played Karras trying to stage Shakespearean performances with all-dog casts) and quite a bit of philosophizing. On a second viewing, many of these seemingly throwaway exchanges actually portend what happens later on in the film, additionally reinforcing the film’s primary Aesop about humanism. Early on, we encounter a man pummeling a wall with a hammer, because he couldn’t walk through it. When asked what’s he doing, he tells the doctor he’s punishing the wall’s “atoms” for not giving him enough space to squeeze through. It’s a very, very subtle way of commenting on the trifles that arise from our organic inability to transcend our mortal shells; when one cannot embrace who they are, as lowly and weak as they may be, whatever external thing he or she does to “overcome” such a hiccup might as well be the same remedy as banging one's head against a brick wall.

The film begins to take a series of more serious turns once the psychiatrist begins seeing Cutshaw, an astronaut who flipped out before embarking upon a lunar mission (it’s not the same actor, but its heavily implied that it’s the same character Reagan spoke with in “The Exorcist.”) Their chats began with a discussion of death, which segues into a discussion about theology -- “an all-knowing foot,” the astronaut considers the alleged almighty. Turning the tables on the shrink, Cutshaw suggests that there are no rational explanations for altruistic, sacrificial acts, such as military men hopping on live grenades to save others in their brigade. To want to betray one’s rational self-interests for a greater good, Cutshaw suggests, is true madness, a hard-to-refute assertion that rankles the psychiatrist a lot more than it seems a professional therapist would be.

After a discussion about “Hamlet” with another patient, the shrink decides to use some reverse-psychology and indulge in his patients’ madness. He orders dogs and costumes and all sorts of props so they can stage some grandiose production of “The Great Escape.” That way, he says, the patients can address the inherent terror that drove them to the brink of psychosis to begin with in a safer, less anxiety-producing manner.

Without spoiling the rest of the movie (which includes a HUGE plot reveal), let’s just say the second half of the flick gets a lot more serious, with a lot more exploration of the mortal condition. In essence, the last hour of the flick focuses on the duality of man, and really, the duality of insanity; if through madness one can become evil, is it possible that man can likewise become good through the same mental distortion?

That’s the meaty center of “The Ninth Configuration.” If there exists the potentiality for good in all of us, what must we do as individuals to realize that better half? When Cutshaw says that he is besieged by thoughts of dying in orbit (“just empty space … circling alone forever”), the religious allegory is painfully apparent. We also see that in perhaps the film’s most striking sequence, a reverie in which the astronaut lands on the moon and sees a gigantic crucifix looming over the rocky, lifeless satellite surface, all while Kane drones on and on about the incredible statistical improbability of man getting here via meager evolutionary processes. Yes, it’s blunt, but many times in life, the most significant revelations aren’t delicate kisses, but sledgehammer shots straight to the schnoz (and psyche.)

“A good shepherd gives his life for his sheep,” Kane says at one point. We see this manifested at least twice in the picture, the first being a sequence in which he retrieves Cutshaw from a bar where is being endlessly berated and bruised by a biker gang. Another display marks the conclusion of the film, but to say anything about that effectively ruins the entire picture for those who haven’t seen it.

While the pro-altruistic message of the film doesn’t necessarily gel with the mentality of your rank-and-file Randian right-winger, the film does contain and promote at least two elements that are central planks of the social conservative platform. Obviously, there is the veneration of spirituality, but there is also a fairly caustic antagonism on display against psychiatrists, modern institutionalized medicine, and really, the entire federal bureaucratic system.

Blatty clearly believes that the only worthwhile “faith” man can have is an all-encompassing faith in the concept of man’s better half. Furthermore, “The Ninth Configuration” champions the notion of this “better half” emerging triumphant, even against the most heinous forms of evil in existence. That “faith” -- that not only does moral man exist, but he has more power than immoral man as a social influence -- is embodied in the film by a St. Christopher medallion, which Kane delivers to Cutshaw early on in the film. The message there is not complicated: per Blatty, the way to moral man is via religion, in particular, the Westernized Judeo-Christian philosophies.

Throughout the film, we see that incarnation of spirituality pitted against a host of secular “opponents.” Obviously, the big “antagonist” of the picture is psychiatry, the notion that man can attain “his better half” via self-actualization and a host of pharmaceutical souvenirs. To Blatty, the idea of man “improving” himself through addressing long-held grievances against others and downing pills is fundamentally absurd. Indeed, the core message of “The Ninth Configuration” is more or less the idea that man can only improve himself internally by his external actions. To redeem one’s self, one must help others find redemption -- a classical hallmark of evangelical Protestantism.

At its heart, the film is just as critical of the idea of medicinal technology being used to treat man’s existential worries as “The Exorcist.” In that film, a series of needless spinal taps and brain scans were used to personify the “uselessness” of modern science in aiding Reagan in her spiritual battle; in “The Ninth Configuration,” the idea of psychiatric medicine and talk therapy doing the same is portrayed as similarly worthless in man’s quest for  existential worthiness.

Although not as pronounced, there do seem to be a few signs of anti-federalism in the film. If you are one for hyper-literalism, you can take the basic concept of the movie -- that is, a bunch of isolated lunatics run amuk on the taxpayers’ dime -- as a general allegory for the excesses of Washington. The fact that the military brass would even bring Kane in for psychiatric services (and fund his semi-cockamamie “treatments”) is in and of itself something of a slight against the department of defense brain trust -- how ignorant these men must be, Blatty seems to be stating, of not only the philosophical condition of man, but the ineffectiveness of their own departmental programming.

No matter your interpretation, the film is defiantly against the concept of governmental service (military duties included) representing a bridge between man and the best that man can be. Only through man’s acceptance of his inert frailty, Blatty states, can the journey to true self-actualization begin, and only through Christian altruism can that sad sack of bone and nerve endings become fortified as something beyond organic matter. It’s a strangely delivered political message punctuated by more than a few touches of the proto-Marxism that is The Book of Acts, but it is one that nonetheless waves the flag of post-Reagan social conservatism with great zeal.

Many, many films resonate with a veiled sense of Republican political ideology, but very, very few resonate with a sense of Republican metaphysical political ideology. Their rank may be few and far in-between, but there is no denying that “The Ninth Configuration” is one of the best movies of the type -- and quite possibly, the one that delivers that somewhat abstruse philosophical message the most coherently and effectively.

Friday, July 24, 2015

B-MOVIE REVIEW: “Million Dollar Mystery” (1987)

Have you ever wondered just how good a movie made by a trash bag manufacturer can be? Well … wonder no more, fellas. 

By: Jimbo X

Back in the 1980s -- no matter how stupid the premise -- it seemed like film studios had a hard time saying “no” to any movie script. This, of course, is the same decade that gave us “Megaforce,” “Leonard Part 6” and a Superman movie featuring both a robot devil woman and Richard Pryor visibly high on cocaine in every scene. Apparently, the producers figured there was no such thing as “too much” for movie-going masses in Reagan’s America. That philosophy, along with the aforementioned cocaine, explains how we wound up with big budget adaptations of both “Howard the Duck” and the motherfucking “Garbage Pail Kids,” I’d presume.

Which brings us to a guy by the name of Dino De Laurentiis. One of the most iconic producers in the history of Hollywood, he began his career by helping import world cinema classics by the likes of Fellini, Mario Bava and King Vidor to the U.S. Then, he just went off the deep end in the 1970s, alternately producing some really great flicks (like “Serpico,” “The Serpent’s Egg” and the first “Death Wish” flick) along with some really misguided, bloated misfires (most notably the 1976 “King Kong” remake, but also, the notorious slave drama “Mandingo.”) By the early 1980s, he was stuck producing mostly B-level genre-fare, which included some respectable offerings (“Halloween II” and the first “Conan” movie) and an absolute shit-ton of crappy Stephen King adaptations.

It can be argued that Dino hit his career nadir in 1987, when his distributing company released one of the absolute weirdest concept movies of the decade … and considering the out-there shit that DID prove lucrative at the box office in the ‘80s, that’s saying something.

At heart, “Million Dollar Mystery” is little more than a brazen rip-off of “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World,” only without the appeal of a star-studded cast. But much more than that, it’s one of the most mystifyingly bad marketing ploys in mainstream film history. You see, the title “Million Dollar Mystery” is no joke -- the producers of the film actually DID offer $1 million to viewers who could solve a puzzle posed at the end of the movie. And helping put up the financing for the flick -- and with a premise like that, who wouldn’t? -- was the Glad trash bag company. So, yes, this is a film that LITERALLY had rubbish built into its celluloid.

So, yeah, it's pretty much the exact same thing as "Fury Road."
The film begins with Tom Bosley (when THAT’S the biggest name in the cast, you know you’re working with scant materials) hiding out in a safe-house, stuffing wads and wads of cash into … you guessed it, Glad trash bags. After that, he hightails it to a hole-in-the-wall diner, which just so happens to be populated by the following: an angry family complete with a dad with a mullet haircut, a rock and roll dude and his blonde bimbo harem, a just-married nerd couple that want to bone bad (the dude is played by the guy who voiced Mandark on “Dexter’s Laboratory”) and an old cowboy fellow and his … sister? Wife? Girlfriend? Daughter? Honestly, I‘m not sure what the relationship there is supposed to be. Anyhoo, Bosley flirts with the ginger waitress for a bit, then he suffers a heart attack and keels over. However, before he punches his ticket to that great Mattress Firm in the sky, he lets all of the patrons know that he’s scattered $4 million in cash throughout this great county o’ ours. And the first cool million? Apparently, it’s located somewhere in “the city of the bridge.”

Oh, by the way, Tom Bosley is actually a bit of stunt casting here, since he portrayed a character known as “The Man From Glad” in a series of old school trash bag commercials. Forget being remembered as Howard Cunningham or a Tony Award winning stage actor -- this dude will forever be linked to plastic sanitation consumer goods in my mind.

From there, we’re introduced to the tertiary members of the cast. There’s a duo of bumbling federal investigators hot on the trail of Bosley’s loot and a Vietnam veteran commando-for-hire named Buzzard. Following a way-too-long sequence in which a pick-up truck rolls down a plateau, the family from earlier drives their station wagon into a retention pond … which nearby lab techs note is actually a toxic waste pool. As their Volvo disintegrates in the caustic chemical (apparently, it can depressurize metal but doesn‘t do shit to human skin tissue),  one of the lab workers decides to drink the stuff, and automatically turns retarded. Interestingly enough, the character is referred to as “the toxic werewolf” in the film’s closing credits.

After that, the rocker dude and his comely lasses get arrested, while the family sans a ride gets a lift from an RV commandeered by two pro wrestlers pretending to be evil Ruskies and Iranian sympathizers (an oblique nod to the infamous Iron Sheik/Hacksaw Jim Duggan weed incident, perhaps?) After that, the extremely nerdy (and horny) couple try to make the sign of the three-legged Armenian mud weasel, but since they can’t figure out how a Murphy bed works, they just run around in fast-forward mode for a few minutes. In the pokey, the rock and roller dude and his lady pals trick an officer into doing a series of horrific impersonations (complete with arguably the worst Woody Allen imitation you’ve ever heard) so they can escape.

Strangely enough, all of the treasure seekers wind up at the secret location (a pipe bridge out in the desert) at the same time. The clues are written on a few eggs, but since one of the eggs got dropped, the hunters are left with an incomplete puzzle piece. After nearly plummeting to his death, one of the treasure chasers notices something wedged inside an actual pipe near the bridge. As it turns out, it’s a briefcase filled with one million dollars! But, uh, a strong wind picks up, and all of the cash flies off into a ravine. Thankfully, there is a SECOND one million dollar briefcase located elsewhere, an enigmatic clue in the briefcase reminds us.

It's a LOT queasier when you realize a stunt like this KILLED
one of the actors in the movie.
From there, its subplot city. The federal investigators show up and mill about for awhile, then the local
police arrive and an overweight female cop gets stuck in a hole in the bridge because, shit, that’s funny. A woman being a police officer … har-har! We meet a new character -- a private investigator -- whose scenes are filmed in a black and white filter. Eventually, he sets his own office on fire because he is a nitwit … such highbrow humor, I know.

So, Buzzard attempts to hotwire a truck, can’t, and decides to jack a fire truck instead. The family steals a rental car (which, for some reason, speaks Spanish) and their kids decide to team up with the pro ‘rasslers following a hammy, forced anti-materialist spiel (played entirely for laughs, of course.) The rock and roller’s blondes pull the old “American Graffiti” trick on a few squad cars, and a bunch of Boy Scouts watch the nerd couple bump uglies in the bushes. The blondes, some old fellows and the now corrupted local po-po decide to join forces, and they arrive at the second hidden money site -- a random houseboat -- just in time to watch all the money get chewed up in a paper shredder. There’s also a great bit with the money-hunters discovering the loot inside a fish tank. How’d they manage to keep the bills from getting soggy, you may be wondering? Well, you will never have to worry about the money you stole from the U.S. government ever getting damp when you stow it away in aquarium displays, thanks to the magic of Glad-Lock trash bags.

But wouldn’t you goddamn know it, there just so happens to be a THIRD million dollar briefcase, hidden somewhere in the London Bridge (which is actually in Arizona, in case you didn’t know.) Next up, we see the federal investigators attempt to jack civilian aircraft (the joke is, everybody onboard has a gun and is secretly part of some sting operation), and the cops decide to steal a tour bus filled with Asians (although I spotted a couple of Italians near the back of the Greyhound.) Some motorbikes and even a hot air balloon gets stolen, while the nerds engage in more horny shenanigans. Following a long motorcycle chase in which soccer balls play a prominent role, the little kid discovers some mysterious markings on the bridge, revealing the location of the third briefcase. Of course, the hot air balloon owner decides to yank  the money away from him, and in his getaway, he accidentally unlatches the briefcase and watches all of his dough flutter away. The impersonator cop then imitates Bill Cosby (it’s every bit as awful as you’d imagine it to be) and all of the money-seekers start swimming after a boat that floats by called “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” Then, the federal agents speak DIRECTLY to the audience, letting them know there’s one more million dollar briefcase out there. As the credits roll, they talk about Styrofoam ice chests and cherries -- completely worthless banter, or subtle clues about the location of the hidden million? As it turns out … yeah, it’s actually just worthless banter.

According to the Internet, the unquestionable repository of knowledge that it is, the theatrical version of the film actually had a completely different end credits sequence, in which the federal investigators gave out clues pertinent to the location of the real-world hidden loot. As it turns out, the million dollar prize was hidden inside the bridge of the Statue of Liberty’s nose -- as determined by some dame out in Bakersfield, who was then given pretty much the film’s entire box office take as part of the contest/marketing stunt. On a side note, some theaters supposedly handed out a couple of mock, promotional dollars for the film, featuring Dino’s mug in lieu of a deceased president or Benny Franklin. My goodness, the absurd amount of actual money I’d pay to get one of those on my bookcase.

Despite producing the second and third “Evil Dead” movies, Dino never really had another “hit” movie after “Million Dollar Mystery.” During the ‘90s, he was relegated to making stuff like “Rumplestiltskin” and the ironically titled “Unforgettable,” and it really wasn’t until the early 2000s, when his production company took over the reins of the Hannibal franchise, that it seemed like Dino’s fortunes were reversing. And then, he dropped dead in 2010.

Unsurprisingly, the film was a critical and financial flop. Despite taking $10 million to make, the film barely recouped a million in ticket sales; this more or less ended the career of director Richard Fleischer, whose resume up to that point -- having directed “Fantastic Voyage” and “Soylent Green,” among other works -- was very impressive. Even worse, this movie KILLED Dar Robinson, the man universally recognized as one of the greatest stuntmen in Hollywood history. Considering the ungodly damage this movie wreaked (for heaven’s sake, even the Glad brand itself got bought out shortly after the film’s release!) maybe we ought to start referencing it as “The Conqueror” of the ‘80s, no?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

“Stanley: The Search for Dr. Livingston” on the NES!

In 1992, Electro Brain released a Nintendo game that was part Mario, part Metroid and part Pitfall. It was also kinda’ racist, and may or may not have endorsed colonialism. 

By: Jimbo X

Even though first-party support for the NES stopped 21 years ago, the console’s software library remains robust enough that old-school gamers are still uncovering rarely-played titles for the platform today. Of course, most of the long-forgotten Nintendo cartridges are obscure for a reason: who cares how kooky a game like “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!” and “Bad Street Brawler” is, when the core gameplay just flat out sucks?

That said, there are definitely some hidden gems out there. “Nightshade,” the two “Power Blade” games, “Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom” -- all really fun, unheralded games that deserved way more attention than they initially received. In that vein, I’m not really sure I would call a game like “Stanley: The Search for Dr. Livingston” great, or even very good. In fact, the 1992 release has some pretty big problems working against it, but alike titles like “Home Alone” and “Platoon,” it does have some structural things going in its favor, including a few mechanics that I don’t believe I’ve seen replicated by any other title on the system.

Really, there were only three kinds of NES games. There were “evergreen” titles centered around sheer gameplay that could be played over and over again (sports games like “Tecmo Super Bowl” and puzzlers like “Bomberman II”), “experiential” titles that often took weeks or even months to complete (most of your RPGs and any battery-powered game, like “Zelda,” “StarTropics” or “Crystalis”) and the “one-and-dones” -- i.e, the relatively short/unchallenging games you could complete in one weekend, if not one sitting (see just about every platformer and SHMUP on the system.)

“Stanley” is unique in the sense that it’s a “one-and-done” style game that I am convinced no one could beat in less than five days. To even think about completing this one, you have to sink hours upon hours of trial-and-error gameplay into the endeavor, and unless you are using some sort of online guide, it’s going to take you at least a week before you know what the hell you are doing. It actually took me three months to conquer a ROM version of the game, complete with save states and the ability to look up cheats on YouTube … had I tried to do that same feat in 1992, it likely would’ve taken me half a year to do so, if I hadn’t just given up on the fucker and traded it in for something better.

The game begins with a brief cutscene introducing our avatar -- mild-mannered reporter Stanley -- mulling the whereabouts of Dr. Livingston, a high-society type who apparently got lost in the jungle and was either eaten by cannibals or become some sort of feral Buddhist naturalist. I probably don't need to tell you this, but this is one of the few NES games that is thematically based on a real-life story ... albeit, with a TON of creative liberties taken, as you will soon see.

The game begins with Stanley stepping off a boat. Rocking a brown and red ensemble that sorta’ resembles Mario’s fire flower regalia in “SMB 3,” you have this really weird marching animation that makes it look like you are trying to knee assault everything in your path. Before entering the jungle, you get to roam around the port city for awhile, chatting with locals “Castlevania II” style. During this section of the game, you will do all of the following:

-- jump off the roofs of hotels, gliding around on a gyrocopter that pops out your hat like Inspector Gadget
-- break into people’s homes to steal knives and spears
-- hit on dames carrying umbrellas, and periodically engage in fistfights with giant spiders (complete with Stanley putting up his dukes like the Notre Dame logo when it comes time to engage the enemy)
-- Punch black people two dozen times and wait for them to explode

You know, there's unabashed racist subtext, and then there's "hey, let's make one of the enemies a monkey-man who LITERALLY chunks spears at you!"

Probably the big “innovation” in this game is that, unlike seemingly every other game on the NES, merely walking into enemies doesn’t hurt you. Instead, your character can only be injured if they directly attack you -- I could be wrong, but I think this is the only game in the 800+ console library to implement that feature.

So, you enter the jungle, which is divided up into dozens of small stages. Using an overworld system of sorts, every time you “discover” a level, you can add it to your literal game map, which also acts as a compass. Unfortunately, much like the map system in “Friday the 13th,” it doesn’t really adhere to the normal cardinal directions and laws of motion, so using it as a proper navigation aid is often a hassle. However, it does give you the ability to teleport from discovered spot to discovered spot, which is immensely handy for the latter portions of the game.

Eventually, you will encounter the village elder -- a dwarf rocking one of those huge Tiki masks -- who tells you to travel north to uncover a “grapnel,” which is basically a grappling hook you can’t do shit without, anyway. Once you initially enter the wild, you will come nose-to-nose with the following foes:

-- multicolored snakes who poop out hearts and gems after you puch them
-- more goddamn giant spider enemies
-- giant beetles
-- disappearing then reappearing platforms
-- lightning bugs that literally shoot lightning at you
-- guys who jump out of the background and shoot you with blow darts
-- possessed tribal masks that shoot, uh, rocks at you?
-- tigers that can jump 40-feet in the air (some which are green)
-- alligators and barracudas, who take chomps out of the game infrastructure while you are walking across bridges
-- and lastly, but most certainly not least, EVIL BUTTERFLIES!

Gameplay-wise, the title feels like a menagerie of classic NES offerings. Obviously, there’s a lot of “SMB” and “Pitfall” in here, but the combat, at times, has a “Castlevania” and “Bionic Commando” vibe. That, and the item-collecting motif definitely gives the game a certain “Metroid” air, even if I’m not really sure I would label this one as a classical “MetroidVania” experience. Oh, and the vine climbing sequences? That shit is such a rip-off of “Donkey Kong, Jr.,” but since the controls are actually better, I’m not going to complain there.

...if the peach-colored cobras don't get you, the horribly insensitive caricatures will.

The game geography is pretty repetitive. You have your jungle sequences (accompanied by a droning, tribal bongo beat), some generic underground cavern sequences, and a few romps through some above-ground ruins. There are also some very, very brief beachside stages (with monkeys tossing coconuts at you and lobsters trying to pinch your 8-bit ball sack), but they are few and far in-between. While mostly linear, the stages often have at least two or three floors to explore, and as an added bonus? There seems to be something of a day-night cycle mechanic in play, so the sky in the background is always changing.

After throwing down with some purple-skinned natives (literally, they look more like California Raisins than people,) a village elder asks you if you have a key to enter a subterranean palace. Of course, he can’t just come out and give you the key, so instead, you have to embark upon the first of many fetch quests. So, you go to a different village, and a different village elder tells you to find these super rare gems to fight evil spirits in the jungle. So, after you find those, you enter the jungle and use the gems to kill the evil spirit warriors, and you go back to the second village and the gatekeeper there gives you a magical seal so you can go back to the first subterranean cavern you couldn’t get into to begin with. Then you have to traverse your way across some ruins until you make it back to super-secret entrance to the first cave, then you uncover some special voodoo power, and THEN you use that to enter the underground temple. But, uh, didn’t they say I needed a key to get in there, and need magical Zulu dust?

So after you get all that shit situated, you have to make it towards your next fetch quest sequence. Thankfully, you can employ the “run like hell past your enemies” approach, and for the most part you won’t take any damage. Oddly enough, no matter which weapon you select, it seems that most foes take the same absurdly high number of hits to finish off … which means you have to whack that green tiger about 18 times, no matter if you’re using a machete or your fists. Sort of like “Castlevania,” the game also employs a “currency” mechanic for your weapons, so in order to punch effectively, you have to keep collecting these little fist icons. It took me two days of playing to figure that out, by the way.

That's called "symbolism," kids. Really, really misplacedsymbolism

So, back to Kelka, the ORIGINAL subterranean labyrinth you were supposed to rummage through. Inside it, you will find some more “spirit magic,” allowing you access to a mountain range filled with deadly, venomous butterfly hordes. After that, you enter a village with an old tribesman giving you a seal to access yet another temple. In the village, it hasn’t rained for two years, and he won’t let you go any further until you make some precipitation happen.

Much like every other action-platforming game on the NES, the cave levels are just grey rocks and a pitch black background. They are also confusing as hell, with completely useless dead-ends a plenty. Eventually, you find the fabled “water stones,” chuck them into a fountain, and what do you know, water starts spouting out of it. For your good deed, the village elder (dressed in traditional Arab get-up) starts performing a happy dance for you.

From there, you enter another chamber, using your shield to kill these super-fast warrior skeleton people who kind of look like the killer Zulu doll from “Trilogy of Terror.” Next screen, you do some platform jumping on some floating skulls and encounter some Venus fly trap, uh, traps. After navigating the labyrinthine temple, you embark upon another journey, this time to retrieve some “lightning stones.” You are told they are in the northern-most tip of the over world screen -- you talk to another village elder who says he knows where Dr. Livingston is, but if you pursue his trail, you will wind up meeting the same ghastly fate he did -- something about pissing off the Mayan gods or something, I really wasn’t paying attention.

Needless to say, some of the stages can be just a wee bit confusing.

Some of the levels can be very, very befuddling. Half the time, you don’t know if the abysses you encounter lead to more game space or an instant kill, so you will be doing a LOT of trial-and-error dying throughout this one. Eventually, you meet a monk who tells you that he doesn’t know who the fuck Dr. Livingston is, but he does “commune with the Cranis for his own reasons.” What is the “Cranis,” you may be wondering? Well, it’s a giant pink afro cotton candy monster you have to fight. After you kill off a few of them, the same monk finds out you have absorbed the beast’s power, so you have to fight him, and then some MORE Cranis monsters. This results in you acquiring a key to a portal underneath a lake, which is accessed via a giant levitating rock that, inexplicably, looks just like a monochrome sombrero.

And so, we’ve made it to the final quest. First, we do battle with these big green fuzzy monsters that look a lot like Broby from “Yo! Gabba-Gabba” and then you encounter ANOTHER dude in a robe outside a Tiki statue who tells you to give him EVERY SINGLE FUCKING ITEM you’ve collected thus far in the game. Then, he sends you out on a fetch quest to retrieve more powerful items, so you can enter the last hidden temple.

First, you give a shield to a temple guard, who gives you a golden fist power-up that allows you to shoot projectile punches a’la Mega Man. Then, you climb over some blinking Tiki statutes, fight three Zulu warriors with bows-and-arrows and retrieve a golden breast plate. This grants you access to the final portion of the game, a multi-story temple that, for an NES offering, is actually really damned big.

While levitating around with your gyro-hat, you have to evade pink electricity barriers, which is absolutely freaking impossible. Then, you battle more Zulu doll on meth hyper speed running enemies, avoid random arrows that just fucking launch themselves out of random walls and try not to get crushed by an elaborate rock-on-a-pulley system death trap.

Once you make it to the VERY bottom of the temple, a cutscene is triggered, in which your arrival awakes (and irks) Dr. Livingston. From there, you are sucked up into a UFO(!) and enter what is presumably Nirvana. An emaciated looking Livingston says some pseudo-philosophical-sounding stuff about the god Amuk, and Stanley asks him to come back home with him. He says no, so you … just take off into the clouds with your gyro-hat, as the end credits scroll.

Yep, that’s right, the game concludes WITHOUT a climactic boss battle or any real denouement about why Livingstone disappeared, or even what he’s doing in the jungle now. And after risking life and limb and facing down God knows how many supernatural demons, Stanley just nonchalantly heads back home without once attempting to convince Livingston to reconsider his idea. That's either the absolute best or the absolute worst ending in video game history, depending on your perspective.

Coincidentally, that'll probably be the expression you make at following the game's non-ending.

The game was published by Electro Brain, a small, Salt Lake City based company that's probably best known for its niche sports games (like "Best of the Best Championship Karate" and "Boxing: Legends of the Ring") and its cult NES offerings "Eliminator Boat Duel" and "Ghoul School." They also did a couple of SNES games, like "Vortex" and "Jim Power," but let's face it, nobody ever played any of those. Believe it or not, the game was actually developed by Sculptured Software, i.e, the same guys that made the trilogy of "Star Wars" games on the Super Nintendo. They are also responsible for a couple of mid-90s WWF and "The Simpsons" game, but for my money, they will always be noteworthy for producing that tremendous"The Punisher" beat-em-up, which was every bit as awesome on the Genesis as it was in the arcade.

As far as the content of the game, there are quite a few things we need to address in the post-script. For one thing, the concept of the title alone is pretty bizarre -- it's a Nintendo game that's more or less serving as a high-concept adaptation of a nonfiction memoir. Of course, it doesn't really stick closely to the accepted historical narrative as it pertains to Henry Morton Stanley's quest to "rediscover" the famed Scottish explorer, who not once mentioned "lightning stones" or having to hack flying voodoo masks to death with a Jason Voorhees knife in his articles. Then again, if you pay real close attention, you would have noted that the title of the game is either a crass typo or it's a really, really lazy effort to "fictionalize" the character of David Livingstone (not the "e" at the end there, folks.)

Seeing as how the early 1990s wasn't the same swarming bed of political correctness overkill that we live in today, it's probably a bit shocking to see some of the less-than-noble portraits of Africans in the game. Indeed, the entire game paints a portrait of the Dark Continent that's about as glowing as that one episode of "The Simpsons" where they went to Brazil. Sure, kids today may look at "Stanley," punching spear-throwing natives who are the same hue as literal eggplants and view it as racism personified, but back then, in pre-Internet America? We just didn't give a fuck -- that, and we were too busy earning $4.25 an hour to buy $129.99 "pump-up" shoes to think that a game intended for children involving karate fighting tigers had anything worthwhile to say about anything, politically or socioculturally.

As before, it's a stretch to call "Stanley" a great game, but I would feel somewhat comfortable labeling it as a better than average offering for the NES, especially considering it came out towards the tail-end of the console's lifespan. The presentation was OK and while the map system produced a lot of headaches, it also had a lot of interesting mechanics and, by and large, the controls were fairly solid. It didn't reinvent the wheel, per se, it just spun really, really well. If you're a hardcore platformer enthusiast, this is also one of the more challenging to be found on the platform -- as long as you're cool with backtracking and having no idea where the hell you are supposed to be going for a good 95 percent of the game, you might actually enjoy this one quite a bit.

Monday, July 20, 2015

A Tribute to the LTO Dunkin’ Donuts Products of Summer 2015!

A celebration of the co-branded pasties and beverages that made DD the place to be over the sweltering summer months…

By: Jimbo X

The Starbucks/Dunkin’ Donuts dichotomy is one of our culture’s finest contemporary corporate rivalries. On the whole, I think most folks would agree that although Starbucks beverages are more expensive than those at DD, said beverages are also of a much higher quality. However, I also think most fellas would agree that the food offerings at DD kick the crap out of those lame muffins and cold dishes you’ll find at the ‘Bucks. Really, picking a victor here hinges on what you expect out of a java shop. If you want a place to chill, browse the Web and take furtive glances at barista side-boob, then Starbucks it is. If you want a coffee and a handful of doughnuts for five dollars and be left the hell alone for a couple of minutes, then DD is for you. Ultimately, your aversion to second-hand college student smoke and/or guys with paint all over their sweatpants who smell like lawn clippings might just be the decisive factor in picking one chain over the over.

Personally, I prefer Dunkin’ Donuts, because that’s the coffee shop of the proletariat. While junior college dorks and squeaky-clean youth group people populate Starbucks chains from Hartford to Tacoma, every Dunkin’ Donuts in the continental U.S. is staffed, operated and frequented by real Americans. It’s the third generation Chinese immigrants who put boxes of China Daily right next to the local newspaper, just because. It’s black dudes wearing camouflage hunter caps and Hispanic laborers and cashier girls from the Virgin Islands hobnobbing with Jersey-transplant vet clinic workers who wear too much green eye shadow and 40-year old men in raggedy Slayer t-shirts who literally mouth “fuck” as soon as the walk through the store’s double doors. Dunkin’ Donuts doesn't need to ask you to talk to them about race relations -- all things considered, Dunkin’ Donuts IS the ultimate statement on U.S. race relations, anyway; an entire nation of people, of all tongues, hues and hair colors, coming together to bask in that which makes America truly great -- mass consumption of sugar and fried stuff.

Speaking of irresistible high-calorie slop, the chain wheeled out a couple of newfangled Oreos and Chips Ahoy!-themed products over the summer. Ever one to bask in the ephemeral glow of corporate branded food products flavored to taste like other corporate branded food products, I spent May through July sampling virtually EVERY Nabisco-licensed permutation the chain had to offer. Needless to say, these were some damned fine limited-time-offerings, and stuff my tongue already misses.


Now here is a seasonal delicacy that only me and my regional kinfolk got to experience. As the official bakery of the Atlanta Braves, I suppose it just makes sense for the chain to also produce a doughnut bearing the official MLB team insignia.

As far as the accuracy of the caked-on logo, it’s pretty respectable. To me, it kind of looks more like the University of Alabama “A” than the Braves symbol, but hey -- decorating shit with a squeeze tube of frosting ain’t easy, y’know.

Granted, it’s a neat idea and all (if nothing else, it’s worlds better than those dumb Major League Baseball Pop-Tarts currently collecting dust on store shelves across America,) but the fundamentals are working against it as a breakfast time offering. To begin with, the metric ton of blue frosting really makes it off-putting for an on-the-commute nom, since it dyes everything it touches -- tongues, teeth and whatever cloth it unfortunately assails -- a deep green hue. Surely, some sap working in Alpharetta or Suwanee has ordered one of these things on a whim, chucked it down his gullet and ignorantly walked into a boardroom meeting, with a mouth looking like he just made out with a Swamp Thing cosplayer.

That said, it is a pretty tasty product, overall, and it gets bonus points for really sticking to the team paint job. Guess what kind of jelly is contained inside the pastry’s shell? Oh, that’s right, a nice, goopy red strawberry jam -- such lovely attention to detail, right there. That got me wondering: for folks who live in other MLB markets, does Dunkin Donuts offer similar MLB-themed products? If so, I’d love to see what a Houston Astros doughnut looks like. Or a Florida Marlins one. Got pictures of ‘em? Feel free to pass them along, folks.


The Chips Ahoy! Crunch Doughnut is pretty much what it sounds like. It’s a big, chocolate pastry, topped by a big, heaping handful of chopped up cookie. It’s not the most nuanced culinary exhibition in the world, but who cares how a product is made just as long as it tastes good?

Thankfully, this sugar-laden cross-branded item brings the goods. Combining a flaky fried husk with high octane chocolate is always a recipe for enthusiasm, but once you add crumbled up store-bought cookies into the equation, things really get taken to another level. Sure, it may not be as exciting as the Ghostbusters doughnuts released by Krispy Kreme last Halloween, but it's nonetheless a tasty, limited-time-only treat. The question now is, do you think DD can work out some kind of arrangement with Keebler for some E.L. Fudge donut holes by next spring?


On the outside, the Chips Ahoy! Crème Doughnut is virtually identical to the Crunch variation. Same pastry base, same chocolate exoskeleton, same dollop of crumbled up cookie … they’re kissin’ cousins if there ever were ones. Alas, once you bite into the Crème permutation, you’ll notice something very, very unique about the offering … if not something outright brilliant.

Before I took a chunk out of the doughnut, I was expecting a chocolaty interior. I mean, it just made sense -- the exterior frosting is chocolate, and that would give it a nice layered texture and mouthfeel. Imagine my surprise, however, when I discovered the gooey, molten core of the product wasn’t Bosco’s syrup, but god-damn mother-fucking cookie dough! What an incredibly ingenious idea for a fast food item. You’re eating something with a cookie motif on the outside, and on the inside of said product, it’s even more cookie, this time in its larval/embryo form that we can all agree actually tastes better than the finished product.

This is just a beautiful product, all the way around. Although I’m far from a Dunkin’ Donuts regular, if the chain offered stuff like this on a regular basis, I’d probably swing by at least once a week. After all, these are the same folks who gave us cookie themed pastries with cookie dough goop inside them … that alone just demands reverence, if not flat-out allegiance.


Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the chain’s co-branded seasonal beverages, as well. Basically, the big two newfangled offerings over the season were Oreos and Chips Ahoy! flavored takes on the company’s pre-existing iced coffee and Coolatta beverages. For the sake of diversity, I decided to try one co-branded item per, uh, co-brand. Up first, we’ve got the Oreos Iced Coffee which tasted like … well, an iced coffee, loaded with sugar, with bits of Oreos crème mixed into the cup. Obviously, there weren’t any actual chunks of sandwich cookie floating around in the mix (I think?), but the product did indeed taste quite a bit like the candy section staple. Frankly, it’s a bit difficult to spiel on and on about the drink … it’s an iced coffee that just tastes like damned Oreos. As long as you like Oreos (the normal kind, not the kind that taste like esoteric fruits), you’ll probably dig this, too.


I’m still not 100 percent sure what a “Coolatta” is supposed to be, honestly. It’s kind of a hybrid iced slush cappuccino thing, but with a ton of whipped crème up top (and, in this case, sprinkled with tons and tons of cookie dust.) Really, it tastes more like a milkshake than any cup o’ Joe I’ve ever tasted, and that’s a good thing. In the summer months especially, you just want to try something different, and this here Chips Ahoy! Coolatta bring the “different” in spades.

The “coffee” aspect of the beverage is rather minimal, but that’s probably for the best. There’s not a particularly pronounced cookie taste, either (except towards the top of the drink), but its nonetheless a yummy little offering. Visually, it’s quite the sight, as the swirling vortex of cookie bric-a-brac and vanilla run-off almost resembles a lava lamp … or the surface of Jupiter. And any time a coffee shop offering reminds me of ill-conceived apocalyptic predictions, you know I’m going to give ‘em a thumbs up.

See! I wasn't bullshitting about the China Daily box, neither.

Well, there you have it, folks. Throughout the sweltering summer months, Dunkin’ Donuts was there, providing us with a whole slew of products that cooled our innards and probably gave us gingivitis. While nothing on tap over the last few months was world-changing, at the same time, it’s pretty hard to not get just a wee bit excited about coffees and pastries that taste like Oreos. The template for a long-running, pumpkin spice latte-like semi-annual tradition is quite strong here -- maybe next year, they can wheel out the long-desired Cotton Candy Oreos frappucinno we all had no idea we secretly yearned for? Ultimately, the chain’s partnership with Nabisco proves limitless co-branding opportunities. That smell you’re detecting in the background, dear reader? That’s just the proverbial money truck, rolling by Dunkin’ Donuts’ headquarters as we speak

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Jimbo Goes to the Movies: “Minions” (2015) Review

It’s the kind of hyper-kinetic, quasi-anarchic, counter-cultural comedy that would’ve made Buster Keaton proud. And in terms of social commentary, it might just be one of the smartest -- and most caustic -- films of the summer. 

By: Jimbo X

It may seem implausible at first, but “Minions” is very much a subversively clever work. Don’t let the jokes about bananas and fire hydrants fool you, the “Despicable Me” prequel definitely has some sociopolitical bite to it -- how could a film that features a character calling Queen Elizabeth a “cockroach” not?

To the untrained eye, “Minions” might appear to be a soulless cash-grab, but it’s actually a very good “disruptive comedy” in the vein of Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. Indeed, the same way the Little Tramp gave a coy “F-U” to technological displacement in “Modern Times” and Groucho and company gave an even coyer “F-U” to the inane aristocracy in “Animal Crackers,” the (largely) indecipherable titular characters in “Minions” likewise wreak havoc for the social good. Over the course of 90 blazingly fast minutes, the little saffron-hued mischief makers mock the idealized, Disney-iteration of the nuclear family, the utter absurdity of geek fandom, pretentious modern art enthusiasts and pre-Thatcher English society literally without uttering a single intelligible line of dialogue.

Somewhere between Al Capp’s utopia-parodying Shmoos and Warner Herzog’s anarchic midgets in “Even Dwarfs Started Small,” the eponymous “Minions” take residence. Whereas the characters were largely used as background comedic relief in the “Despicable Me” movies, they are given a bit more personality here -- no small feat, seeing as how they speak entirely in a patois a’la Pootie Tang.

At the beginning of the film, we’re given a quick history of how the minions evolved from single-cell, lemon-colored blobs to T-Rex worshippers in the Triassic period. After accidentally killing hundreds of innocent Hebrews while supervising the construction of the Pyramids, killing Dracula and blowing up Napoleon, the little fellows -- perfectly described by one character in the film as “bald, jaundiced children” -- take refuge in the Antarctica, where they lament not having an evil master to control their every waking moment.

...and you would not believe the astounding number of
"Illuminati" conspiracy theories out there
surrounding the characters
You know, you really have to write that down to fully grasp just how messed up the general concept of “Minions” is. Somehow, some way, a mainstream, multinational conglomerate was able to transform the core idea of voluntary slaves in pursuit of master criminals and despots to endlessly toil for into an almost ubiquitous child-targeted brand. Needless to say, it took a whole lot of chutzpah (if not an envious amount of morbid ingenuity) to transform “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” into an adorable mass consumption icon, now plastered on everything from Twinkies to Tic-Tacs to sun block spray. (It’s also worth noting, perhaps, that unofficial “Minons” tampons have also been released.)

Kevin, one of the more adventurous minions, decides to leave the icy environs to find the world’s greatest criminal mastermind. On his daring quest, he is joined by two others -- a Lilliputian teddy-bear cradler named Bob and the rock-and-roll-obsessed Stuart. Eventually, they make their way to NYC circa 1968, where they are greeted by campaign billboards for Richard Nixon, Velvet Underground-inspired dresses and, of course, plenty of reruns of “The Dating Game.” Donning their trademark denim overalls (an oblique homage to the Soviet industrial worker or the American coal miner?), they become ecstatic over that year’s “Villain-Con,” an almost exact facsimile of the yearly “Comic-Con” event in San Diego -- only instead of celebrating the grandiloquent mayhem wrought by fictitious madmen, the in-universe masses flock there to celebrate authentic, real-world carnage and chicanery. Trekking to Orlando (the pre Disney-fied, swampy iteration of it), they are given a lift by a family of psychotic bank robbers, including a dad voiced by none other than Michael Keaton.

The trio are enamored by Scarlett Overkill (voiced by Sandra Bullock), a bee-hive hairdo-coiffed super-villainess who has come to the expo to find some new henchmen. Of course, the minions wind up winning a contest by fluke, and they are ushered to the U.K., where they met Scarlett’s proto-hipster mad inventor husband (he likes Warhol’s work, he tell us, because somebody has finally captured his own personal love of soup in an artistic medium) and get a debriefing on her latest nefarious plan. It’s not long before the minions are sent on a mission to retrieve the crown jewels, but a mishap leads to Bob (the diminutive, most-childlike minion) yanking out Excalibur and becoming the new King of England by default.

Obviously, that doesn’t sit very well with Scarlett, who hires practically every villain on earth -- ranging from sumo wrestler stereotypes to anachronistic black metal Vikings to a Creature from the Black Lagoon pastiche -- to do the minions in. By that point, however, the rest of the minions have punched their tickets from the south pole to England, so by the time we hit our dénouement, we’re literally working with a cast of hundreds of protagonists.

I don’t want to give away the ending (nor the sequel-bridging post-credit sequence), but rest assured
it’s a very satisfying conclusion which, not unlike the finale of the first “Ghostbusters” film, does a phenomenal job mocking the standard “Apocalypse porn” blockbuster endgame.

I always thought the Minions resembled the Servbots from the
"Mega Man" games. That, and a certain spongy comestible
I just can't recall. 
The mastermind behind the “Despicable Me” franchise is a Frenchman named Pierre Coffin (the perfect surname for a kids flick auteur, clearly.) He told Variety that the original idea for the now-omnipresent spokescharacters were orc-like brutes, before settling on the more Oompa-Loompa and Ewok-like designs we all know and love today. Their bumbling ways, he said, was meant to make Gru more relatable -- in effect, to give him a whole platoon of Steve Urkels to his Carl Winslow. That inherent incompetence, Coffin said, was also why he decided to make the minions all-male, as he couldn’t imagine any women being so goofy.

The mere fact that Coffin is a Frenchie goes pretty far in explaining the film’s sassy anti-Anglicanism. By portraying the royal guard as a bunch of easily fooled dummies and literally depicting the Queen of England as a boorish sort who knows how to fist fight and can demolish an entire pitcher of beer in one swallow, is there some sort of veiled jab at the British patriarchy and classism going on here? Considering co-director Kyle Balda’s track record with Pixar, mayhap the entire film itself is sort of a deconstruction of the contemporary CGI kids flick? Certainly, “Minions” goes out of it way to position itself as an anti-Disney flick -- there are no saccharine soliloquies, no Electra Complex subtext and towering castles serve only to personify the dark and regrettable Medieval epoch in jolly old England. In essence, “Minions,”is about as diametrically opposite a film can get from “Frozen” in tone while still maintaining a PG rating.

Yes, I am just as shocked as you are that I have
somehow yet to review this cereal.
Of course, the comparisons are all but unavoidable. Dollar for dollar, I’d consider “Inside Out” to be a better overall film, but then again, “Minions” sets out to do something entirely different as an animated offering. As a mad-cap, pop-culture-skewering CGI opus, I’d feel quite comfortable labeling “Minions” as a better film than either of the “Despicable Me” flicks -- and since I really, really enjoyed those, it’s saying quite a bit.

It’s astounding how, in a summer glutted with “adult” action yarns and ribald comedies, mere kiddie fare like “Minions” and “Inside Out” have proven the season's most comprehensively entertaining and subtextually interesting offerings. Sans the need for constant slam-bang action sequences and tired dick jokes, the filmmakers behind both films counter-intuitively found themselves with far more to work with in the allegedly “restrained” PG category, having been “forced” to sprinkle their films with more nuanced narratives that go beyond a few superficial millimeters of celluloid. While the onslaught of “Minions”-branded everything may rightly turn you off to the film, the flick itself is very amusing and much, much smarter than it had any right to be.

There’s quite a bit to those mustard-colored, anti-lingual troublemakers, you know. And believe it or not, they just found themselves front and center in what has to be one of the best mainstream movies of the summer -- if not the entire 2015 calendar year.

My Score:

Three and a Half Tofu Dogs out of Four