Wednesday, June 27, 2012

B-Movie Review: “Season of the Witch” (1972)

If you ever wondered what it would have been like had George Romero scripted “Desperate Housewives,” well…here you go. 



Every now and then, you’ll encounter a movie that really, really straddles that fine line between being a cheesy, amateurish B-movie and a no-budget indie wonder that almost (almost!) accomplishes what it sets out to, despite being filmed for what appears to be five or so nickels.

Well, folks, “Season of the Witch” just so happens to be that kind of movie. Before we begin evaluating the movie in-depth, I must preface this review by reminding all of you that this IS NOT the 2011 Nicholas Cage movie, but rather, a supernatural horror flick directed by George A. Romero from the early 1970s. Outside of having the same title, the movies have absolutely nothing to do with each other - and before you ask, this movie has nothing to do with “Halloween III: Season of the Witch,” either.

As we all know, George Romero is the mastermind behind “Night of the Living Dead” and “Dawn of the Dead,” the two most influential zombie movies ever. The rest of his directorial oeuvre, unfortunately, ranges from incredibly underappreciated (“Martin”) to pretty overrated (“Creepshow”) to EXTREMELY overrated (“The Crazies”) to why-god-why, why-do-these-movies-exist (“Monkey Shines,” “Bruiser,” and “Survival of the Dead.”) “Season of the Witch,” filmed in 1971 and released in 1972, was Romero’s third film, and a movie that clearly suffered from major under-budgeting issues. While most parts of the movie are really cheap and corny looking, it’s also sort of evident that if Romero had more money and a cast that actually gave a shit, this thing could’ve turned out to be a really fantastic little horror flick. As a result, “Season of the Witch” stands out as one of those rare bad horror movies that, at certain junctures, manages to transcend its own campiness and cheesiness, resulting in a movie that, despite all of its shortcomings, is almost enjoyable in a non-ironic manner.

Our movie begins with a middle aged woman walking through a graveyard (not that it’s exactly how “Night of the Living Dead” started or anything.) After awhile, she starts getting assailed by tree branches (think, a “PG” version of the tree attack scene from “The Evil Dead") while some funky sound effects start ringing all over the place. As the scene progresses, she begins following a guy in a business suit, who smashes her in the face with a brick, leads her around on a leash and locks her in a doggy kennel. Of course, it’s the main character of the film having a dream about her husband, which is followed up with a brief psychiatry session shortly thereafter.

From there, the main character - named Joan, by the way - heads over to brunching session with the rest of the housewives in the neighborhood. They gossip awhile about some people they know being witches (that’s kind of important to the plot) and then play a game of Mad Libs. And, uh, the Mad Libs part isn’t as important to the plot of the movie.

I've heard of "branching out" before, but this is ridiculous!

In the next scene, Joan envisions some old hag starring at her in a mirror, while her husband does sit-ups. From there, we’re introduced to their daughter, and gauging from the insane amount of make-up she’s wearing, I’m guessing that about half of Romero’s budget for the film went towards eye shadow expenditures. Following that, we have a brief tarot reading scene, which segues into a scene where Joan, her daughter, her boyfriend and one of Joan’s friends sit around getting sloshed and talking about voodoo. From there, the boyfriend tries to convince Joan’s friend that she’s smoking a marijuana cigarette in a scene that goes on forever, although it’s sort of funny because not only does the boyfriend look a little bit like Topher Grace, Joan’s daughter sort of looks like a blonde version of Donna from “That 70s Show.”

So, Joan’s friend has a freakout, and she confronts her daughter’s boyfriend about that mean-ass prank he just pulled. There’s a brief mother-daughter talk, and Joan gives her friend a ride home. Once she gets back to her house, she starts thumbing through a book called “How to Be a Witch” (remember kids, subtlety wasn’t invented until 1973) and starts listening to her daughter have the S-E-X during a thunderstorm. Joan’s daughter walks in on her being all voyeuristic and creepy, and in the next scene, we’re informed that she was so weirded out by her mom’s behavior that she ran away from home.

We get another psychiatric session, and Joan tells her husband about the night before. He responds by slapping her and threatening to “kick some ass.” We’re introduced to some detectives that searching for the missing daughter, but since this is the only scene in which they’re in the movie, it’s not really that important. Joan decides to meet with her daughter’s boyfriend - a dude that works at a nearby college - and he accuses her of trying to “put the make” on her. So, yeah, I guess you know EXACTLY where this movie is headed from here. After that, Joan has another dream, this time one where she’s getting chased around the house by some guy wearing the shittiest rubber mask you’ve ever seen. She wakes up, and surprise! She was just having another reverie about how much she hates her husband.

"Hi, honey, I'm home! And wearing a shitty Halloween mask, just because!"

The next scene is probably the best in the entire movie, a montage sequence where Joan walks around town accumulating spices and herbs for some sort of Wicca ritual while Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” plays in the background. She goes home, rubs some ashes on her forehead, and does this ceremonial thing with a teapot. Her husband comes home and threatens to kick even more ass, while she does some sort of written spell. A few moments later, he walks back towards her, and apologizes for smacking her around the evening prior.

From here, we cut to a bridge game, and then to a scene with Joan walking around under the moonlight, in a bright yellow robe while holding a candle. Apparently, she’s doing some sort of ritual to conjure up her daughter’s boyfriend, but after waiting for a few hours, she decides it’s easier to conjure him up via the phone, instead. SPOILER: when he arrives, they don’t spend the evening playing Boggle.

Who wouldn't want to buy their parsley and sage from a suave fellow like this?

Next scene, Joan is talking to a tarot reader about joining the local coven. She has another dream about the masked dude, which is followed up by a scene in which her daughter’s boyfriend (in a fisherman’s hat and the goofiest red, white and blue jacket you’ve ever seen) decides to come on over for some…uh, company. She tells him that she’s a witch and she convinces him to partake of some kind of conjuring ritual. Her daughter’s boyfriend laughs her off, and suggests that they do some “ballin’” instead. And man, do we need to bring that term back into the American lexicon, or what?

So, Joan does this really lengthy paper-burning ritual, which results in a cat coming into their basement. Her daughter’s boyfriend gets bored, so he decides to force himself upon her instead. We get a series of confusing quick cuts after that, which involve Joan doing some gardening before the shitty mask man makes another appearance in the movie. After pulling a shotgun out of the laundry (isn’t that a line from an Army of the Pharaohs song, btw?) she blows the demon away, but what do you know? The masked intruder was really just her husband. The odds, huh?

Eric Foreman, seen here sporting his most patriotic ensemble.

The movie concludes with Joan officially joining the neighborhood coven, while some cops at the crime scene say misogynistic things. The final image of the movie is Joan (with an absolutely awe-inspiring bouffant ’do) at another women’s meet, just starring into the camera.

So…yeah, “Season of the Witch” ain’t exactly on par with “Dawn of the Dead,” but as far as bad horror movies go, it really isn’t all that terrible. There’s a smidge of suspense as the movie progresses, and the narrative is at least solid enough to keep your interest until the flick concludes. However, there is simply no denying the cheapness of the flick, which is obviously the results of Romero being severely underfunded for the project. Rubber masks, sorcery scenes with virtually zero special effects and especially the hokey acting - this film is a case example of a director being seriously hindered by a lack of project capital, and in virtually every scene of the movie, you can tell Romero was hurting for money.

Eh, Eye will believe it when Eye see it...

Romero has gone on record saying that this is the only movie he’s made that he would like to go back and re-shoot, and after watching the flick, I think that’s something we can all agree upon. While not necessarily being a horrible movie in any regard, “Season of the Witch” is the kind of flick that could’ve been SO much more than what it ended up becoming. At times enjoyable, but stilted as an overall picture, Romero’s movie is a moderately entertaining oddity from the early 1970s - pending you have a taste for the off-kilter, you may find yourself entertained, but at the end of the day? Yeah, you’ll wish Georgie had waited a few years until he had all the resources necessary to make the flick, too.


Two and three-quarters stars. Jimbo says check it out.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

JIMBO GOES TO THE MOVIES: "Brave" Review

Has Pixar rebounded from the underwhelming “Cars 2,” or does “Brave” officially make it two disappointments in a row from the House Buzz and Woody built ?


I can summarize the movie “Brave” for you in just one word: “bears.”

Lots of bears, actually. There probably hasn’t been this much per capita screen time for bears since “Grizzly Man,” only this one doesn’t have the added pleasure of watching some hippie nutso get eaten by a Kodiak at the very end.

There was a movie from 2003 - ironically, also released by Disney - called “Brother Bear.” It sucked. And if you’ve seen that movie, you’ve pretty much already seen “Brave.” Granted, the movies aren’t completely alike, but there’s enough commonalities between the two that you would get the gist of either film from watching just one of them.

I guess the first question anybody would ask going into a review of “Brave” is whether or not it’s better than the company’s last movie. Well, while “Brave” is mildly better than the absolute disaster that was “Cars 2,” it’s still one of Pixar’s most underwhelming offerings to date, and most definitely a far cry from their previous outstanding works, such as “Wall-E” and “Toy Story 3.”

Where to begin with this one? For starters, it’s much more of a “classical” Disney film than a Pixar release, having more in common with something like “The Princess and the Frog” than it does “Ratatouille” or “Up.” While the animation is nice, and the voice acting is mostly decent, the story in this one is very lacking and devoid of the nuance you’ve come to expect from the company’s films. For the most part, the characters are pretty flat and underdeveloped, with most of the cast serving as one-dimensional background noise. I really didn’t develop an emotional attachment to any of the characters in the flick, nor did I find a single figure in the film to be relatable, or even sympathetic. As far as characterizations go, this may very well be Pixar’s blandest, most generic picture to date.

When I say “Brave” is a basic premise for a film, I mean it. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a teenage princess, against her mother’s wishes, wants to break from tradition and be an independent woman. They bicker and argue while a bunch of inconsequential stuff happens in the background, before coming to accept the merits of each others wishes. Not exactly pioneering territory, is it?

Well, “Brave” does manage to turn that old chestnut into something of a new-ish idea: by transforming the mother figure into, quite literally, an unbearable presence.


So, yeah, as I was saying at the beginning of this review, bears. Lots and lots of bears. Half the goddamn cast of the movie turns into bears, Had Pixar been more forthright with the movie’s marketing, they probably should’ve just called the whole movie “A Shit Load of Bears and A Redheaded Chick.” It would have made more excited about the movie, anyway.

The main character, Merida, is your basic annoying teen stereotype, barring two exceptions: she’s pretty good at archery, and oh yeah, she’s a princess. Her family is royalty in some Scottish enclave, and the central plotline of the movie involves a series of rivaling clans battle for her hand in marriage. While her mother wants her to just go along with it, she decides to be all independent and whatnot by running away from home and striking up a deal with a hag in the woods for a quick-fix that “changes her mother.” Well, she changes all right…into a bruin with some decisively human-like tendencies. But of course, Merida only has two days to find a way to reverse the curse, or else her mom is going to be a bear for ALL OF ETERNITY. Making matters a little more problematic is that back home, all of the clans are still pummeling the hell out of each other, and apparently, everybody in Scotland has a major, major anti-bear bias. Now, I’m not saying that there’s any sort of unconscious, allegorical material going on here, but you might want to take note that there are zero black people to be found in the movie.

I guess you could say that the movie is basically what would happen if you merged “Braveheart,” “Terms of Endearment” and “The Country Bears” into a single narrative, but that makes “Brave” sound like a far more interesting picture than it really is. The dialogue in the film is especially grating, to the point that virtually every scene between Merida and her mother sounds something like this:

Merida: “Why won’t you let me life my OWN LIFE, MOM!”

Mother: “Because you have a sacred duty that you MUST UPHOLD!”

Merida: “But I DON’T WANT TO UPHOLD any secret duties, I WANT TO LIVE MY OWN DESTINY!”

Mother: “But this IS YOUR destiny, Merida! You must fulfill your duties!”

Merida: “But I don’t WANT TO!”

Mother: “BUT YOU MUST!

Merida: “BUT I DON’T WANNA!”

I’m not joking, folks, that’s pretty much every exchange the two characters have in the movie. It’s an annoying thematic that doesn’t even really go away even AFTER Merida’s mom turns into a grizzly, as the two keep sniping at each other over things like how to get back into the castle and how to fish for salmon.

The primary “villain” of the film is the absolute weakest I’ve ever seen in a Disney flick, a figure so underdeveloped that I guess the company threw him into the movie at the very least minute because the suits wanted some kind of clear-cut antagonist in the picture. His screen time is limited - which is probably for the best - but it’s still such a superfluous element of the film that I couldn’t help but find it distracting from the rest of the flick.

The biggest slight I have against the film, however, is the amount of crude humor in the flick. Believe it or not, there’s some pretty cheeky material in “Brave,” and by “cheeky,” I mean multiple jokes about men’s bare asses. There’s even a scene in which a toddler hops face first into the cleavage of a milk maid - really, the sort of cheap humor that you’d expect to find in something like “Monsters vs. Aliens” or “Megamind” as opposed to a freakin’ PIXAR release.

SPOILER: They turn into bears. Everything in this movie turns into a bear. If you watch it, your popcorn will probably turn into a bear. 

Clearly, “Brave” is a polarizing movie - like seemingly every other mainstream release to hit theaters so far this summer - with some viewers considering it one of the company’s best, and others deeming it one of Pixar’s least inspired offerings yet. While there are some good things to say about “Brave,” I’m definitely leaning  more towards the “it sorta’ sucked” camp, especially when compared to Pixar’s finer releases - or hell, even something like “Despicable Me” or “How to Train Your Dragon,” for that matter.

At this point, Pixar is beginning to remind me more and more of the recently retired MMA fighter Fedor Emelianenko. For a good decade, he was considered the industry’s absolute best, but following one failed performance, he quickly tail-spun into utter mediocrity. If “Cars 2” was Pixar’s equivalent of Fedor’s first major loss (which many people, at the time, considered a “fluke”), then Brave is most definitely comparable to Emelianenko’s follow-up fight - a disastrous performance which proved that the former “pound for pound best” was clearly past his prime.

And if the Fedor/Pixar analogy holds true…let’s just say “Monsters University” is going to be all sorts of painful to experience.

MY SCORE: C

Monday, June 25, 2012

Why Burton’s “Batman” is Better than “The Dark Knight”

Five reasons why the original 1989 flick is a better movie than Nolan’s highly revered 2008 film



In a few weeks, the last installment of Christopher Nolan’s “Bat-Trilogy” will hit theaters, and conservative estimates have the movie making approximately infinity dollars at the box office this summer. Obviously, there is an absolute tsunami of hype behind the movie - not at all being fanned by the director himself, who said that the movie is the most epic film since the heyday of silent cinema - and since outdoing the last installment of the series (if not commercially, than most certainly critically) is about as likely as Mitt Romney naming a half-eaten turkey sandwich as his running mate, it looks like “The Dark Knight Rises” is absolutely destined to be a disappointment. And if you ain’t buying that, try reading some of the spoilers out there - apparently, the entire freaking movie is a blatant metaphor for the rift between capitalist bankers and the 99 percent…with Bane quite possibly serving as an oblique stand-in for a certain black dude in the White House.

Before we go any further here, I guess I have to say something that really shouldn’t have to be stated, but since people on the Internet like to go into tizzies over the most trivial of things, I suppose I have to. “The Dark Knight” was a fantastic movie. In fact, it was a great movie, one of the best comic book films ever and really one of the best action movies of the 2000s. That said, it’s greatness really can’t compensate for a lot of flaws the film had, especially now that we’ve had a good four years to look things over. In fact, now that I’ve had time to let everything sink in, I’m pretty damn certain that, as good as Nolan’s 2008 flick was, Tim Burton’s 1989 original is STILL a better overall picture.

Yes, Internet dorks, I said it. Not only is “The Dark Knight” not the best movie ever made (as a LOT of fan boys claim), I’m completely convinced that it’s not even the best movie featuring the Batman character. As a matter of fact, I’ve compiled five succinct reasons as to why “Batman” from 1989 is a better movie than the highly praised film from 19 years later…and I think even the most hardcore of Nolan fans can’t argue against these claims.


REASON NUMBER ONE: 
Michael Keaton was a way better Batman than Christian Bale will ever be. 

I don’t know if anybody has noticed it, but the character Christian Bale plays in “The Dark Knight” is essentially the same character he played in “American Psycho.” His intonation, his mannerisms, the way he interacts with the cast; essentially, he’s doing the exact same role, albeit with a lot less hooker-killing and a whole lot more groveling and running things over in space-age tanks.

The growling criticism is pretty played out by now, but Bale’s over-the-top chewing, grunting and generally sore-throated performance in “The Dark Knight” was, at the absolute best, distracting, and the absolute worst, completely self-parodying. Considering all of the muttering and snarling that he did in the movie, I’m kind of surprised Ricola didn’t sign on as a chief sponsor of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Michael Keaton, obviously, brought a whole lot more humanity to the Batman character with his performance. Throughout “The Dark Knight,” I never really thought of Bruce Wayne as being this paranoid, hyper-traumatized nutso, which, really is the great, unheralded reality behind the Batman character: the dude’s a freaking psychopath. With Keaton, you could feel a palpable sense of insanity, this pulsating undercurrent of flat out lunacy pretty much every time he was on screen. Bale’s performance, however, turned the character into a figure that was WAY less amoral, essentially painting the character as a self-righteous messiah as opposed to some crazy ass rich dude with a lot of weapons. Bale’s Batman, you saw as this almost deified hero, whereas with Keaton’s Batman, you saw the character as this obsessed guy on a power trip, making the figure almost as horrifying as the Joker. Not only was Keaton’s performance as Bruce Wayne more intricate and complex, it was a far more interesting take on the character than what we saw in “The Dark Knight.” Which, in turn, brings us to a statement that might just prove mildly controversial…

REASON NUMBER TWO:
Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker was truer to the comics than Heath Ledger’s. 

At this point, it seems almost sacrilegious to say anything negative about Heath Ledger’s performance in “The Dark Knight” - which isn’t at all ironic, considering the hissy fits fan boys threw when it was announced that he would be playing The Joker to begin with.

Like everybody else, I though Ledger’s performance was very, very good. Unlike a lot of people, however, I quickly realized that Ledger’s Joker was, in essence, nothing more than a slight tweaking of Alex DeLarge and Sid Vicious - compare Ledger’s performance in “The Dark Knight” with Gary Oldman’s in “Sid and Nancy" or check out “A Clockwork Orange,” and you will see EXACTLY where the inspiration for his performance stems from.

That, and Ledger’s Joker really wasn’t all that comparable to the Joker presented in the Batman comic books, either. The intrinsic beauty of the character is the inversion of the intrinsic beauty of the Batman character - whereas the hidden reality behind Bruce Wayne is that he’s genuinely insane (and doesn’t realize it), the hidden reality behind the Joker is that he knows he’s incredibly intelligent and, compared to most of the people in Gotham, quite stable-minded. You never really got that with Ledger’s performance, but you sure as hell get it with Jack Nicholson’s, who played the character as an egotistical - and brilliant - criminal mastermind that knew how to bend the public’s support to him instead of Batman and the police force. I’m not necessarily saying that I thought Nicholson’s performance was better than Ledger’s, but this much is absolutely incontestable: Nicholson’s performance, no matter how you slice it, was much, much closer to the comics than what we saw out of Ledger in “The Dark Knight.”

REASON NUMBER THREE:
“Batman” embraced the inherent goofiness of the concept and STILL managed to be a more believable movie than “The Dark Knight.”

The next time someone calls a Nolan Bat-movie “realistic,” I’m going to punch a wall. Let’s summarize “The Dark Knight,” shall we? A really, really rich dude - with weaponry and technology he stole from the military - appoints himself as protector of New York City (while wearing S&M bondage gear, no less) and does battle with a homeless dude dressed up like a clown, who is somehow able to take an entire metropolitan area hostage using a workforce comprised primarily of escaped mental institution patients. Clearly, this is something we see every time we turn on the evening news, isn’t it?

I’m certainly not the first person out there to say, hey, maybe the plot devices in “The Dark Knight” were just a little unrealistic. For example, just how in the hell did The Joker manage to plant twenty gajillion tons of explosives in the basement of a hospital without ANYBODY noticing? For that matter, how exactly did he manage to rig two ferries (generally, government property that’s prone to extremely thorough inspections, several times a day) to explode? Did the shipmen just sort of forget to check the ship’s hull that afternoon or something?

Burton’s “Batman,” unlike “The Dark Knight,” is a movie that doesn’t try to abandon its comic book roots, and fully embraces the total absurdity of the premise. And even though “Batman” wasn’t constructed as a “this could potentially happen” story, it still somehow managed to provide a more believable narrative than Nolan’s flick. When, precisely, was the last time a single person managed to ensnare an entire U.S. city in the grips of panic via threats of mass terrorism? In the real world, The Joker would have had the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms right outside his hideout the week after he robbed that bank, ready to David Koresh his ass as soon as the ATF noted movement through their night vision goggles. Oddly, it’s The Joker’s much more “comic-ish” plot in the first “Batman” movie that gives us an actual, real world precedent. Poisoning the city’s food supply? Using nerve gas to wipe out massive throngs of people? Hell, even the idea of using balloons as weapons of mass destruction? Not only are such actions more believable than the scenarios presented in “The Dark Knight,” all of the above instances actually HAVE happened before. A dude put cyanide in Tylenol bottles in Chicago, a bunch of crazy ass Japanese nationalists tried to launch a chemical attack on subway riders and I’ll let you do your own research on “the fire balloon” programs of World War II. Of course, there are some aspects of “The Dark Knight” that are very much rooted in reality, but as we will soon see, that’s not necessarily because the producers wanted to make a more “believable” film - it’s because they wanted to promote their own political agendas.

REASON NUMBER FOUR:
Burton’s movie wasn’t bogged down in all of the socio-political commentary that Nolan’s film was. 

If you didn’t read “The Dark Knight” as a clear parable for the “War on Terror,” you must have been accidentally watching “Mamma Mia!” instead. Clearly, Nolan intended for The Joker to represent any number of Islamic fascists, most notably the recent departed OBL. A guy, using suicidal human bombs, that targets major metropolitan infrastructure, who frequently records videos of murder and mayhem and sends it to U.S. media? Yeah, that doesn’t sound familiar. At all.

The really controversial aspect of “The Dark Knight,” however, seems to be that the entire movie serves as an  apologist statement in support of the Bush Administration, with a band of super-rich, super-secretive, self-ordained “protectors of the people” deciding to do away with that whole “civil liberty” thing and do whatever it took to eliminate Gotham’s terrorist threat. Suspension of habeas corpus, interrogations that border on torture (you know like, having your head slammed against a table by a dude dressed up like a rubber owl), and wiretapping an entire city - or we talking Bruce Wayne here, or the NSA? 

And don’t even get me started on the parallels the movie makes between Harvey Dent and a certain guy who may or may not be President right now. There is absolutely ZERO doubts as to whether or not Nolan intended to make a political statement with “The Dark Knight,” which is yet another reason why I prefer Burton’s generally agenda-less 1989 flick to the later offering. If given the choice between watching “homeland security” agitprop or Bob the Goon vandalize modern art while Prince plays in the background, I think you definitely know which one I’m going to vouch for.

REASON NUMBER FIVE:
There was never a VHS release of “The Dark Knight,” so you never got to see awesome, ephemeral stuff like this…


This is sort of an off-kilter reason, but I stand by it. While both films resulted in a pop cultural sensation, I’d have to say that “Bat-Mania” circa 1989 was way, way more enjoyable than “Dark Knight-Mania” circa 2008. If you look at how the two films influenced American culture, I think it’s a downright obvious assertion that Burton’s film had the greater - and most definitely, more prolonged - influence on Western entertainment.

It’s really hard to overstate how important “Batman” was. Not only did the movie basically create the summer blockbuster (an idea that had been dead since “Jaws”), the mega-multimedia-bombardment campaign behind the film totally revolutionized the concept of marketing in entertainment. Really, Burton’s film was only a sliver of the total product experience - after watching the movie, you could go play your kick-ass NES game, eat a bowl of your kick-ass Bat-Cereal and if you were lucky, pick up a Bob the Goon action figure on your way home from the Revco. Hell, a year after the movie came out, the influence was still pretty palpable - there were Batman jokes on “Tiny Toon Adventures,” you could watch Batman hawk Diet Coke over and over in the intro to the VHS version of the movie and in a few years time, we were given “Batman: The Animated Series,” - arguably the single greatest animated program of the last 25 years. Needless to say - that’s an absolute shit-ton of influence for one movie to have on contemporary culture.

The extent of “The Dark Knight” influence on pop culture, I am afraid, was rather limited, and for the most part, annoying as all hell. Really, the greatest impact the movie had was a two-fold celebration of the Joker - first, as Heath Ledger’s posthumous performance (as before, not really ironic considering the outrage of the Batman fan boys when the casting announcement was made), and secondly, as this made-for-the-Hot-Topic-crowd anti-hero counter-cultural brand name. Whereas “Batman” gave us a renaissance in multimedia experiences, the “Dark Knight” gave us nonstop Internet memes and a pseudo-idol for dumb teens that like to commit petty vandalism.

That, and the cultural reactions to both films were quite drastic. Compare the two news reports below, and tell me which one sounds like it created a more entertaining, enjoyable social phenomenon:

What a mass-media social phenomenon resembles - 1989

What a mass-media social phenomenon resembles - 2008

So, in 1989, “Batman” produced this mass-media, super-spectacular trans-cultural sensation the likes of which have never been seen before, and in 2008, “The Dark Knight” gave antisocial nerds something to obsess over and revere, while the rest of normal America scratched their collective chins and wondered how nobody else noticed that the movie bore so many resemblances to “Heat.”

“The Dark Knight,” while still a fantastic movie, was obviously insanely overrated by fan boys and critics alike, with most filmgoers overlooking its generally uncreative narrative and plot structure. That, and let’s just come out and say it: had Heath Ledger NOT died during filming, there’s no way in hell his performance would have been vaunted as much as it was, and that Oscar win was most likely just an opportunity for the Academy to capitalize on a maudlin moment.

Every time “The Dark Knight” is shown on cable, I skip it. But every time “Batman” is on? I just have to watch it. There’s something so fun and free-spirited about the flick, and it’s certainly a more enjoyable motion picture than Nolan’s movie. Like “Willy Wonka,” Burton’s movie is the kind of flick you can watch over and over, and still walk away with a smile.

Almost a quarter century later, “Batman” is every bit as fun and captivating as it was in ‘89. And just four years down the road, “The Dark Knight” is already showing signs of temporal rust. Will we be able to look back on Nolan’s movie, 25 years from now, with the same amount of timeless splendor we have while watching Burton’s movie today?

That, my friends, I highly, highly doubt.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Why the Wii-U is Destined for Failure...

...And what Nintendo can do to prevent it


Following this year’s E3, it’s apparent that Nintendo is making a giant gamble with its upcoming Wii U hardware. As the first “next-gen” console out the gate, Nintendo is yet again banking on the appeal of non-traditional gaming markets as opposed to “hardcore” gamer demographics, a strategy that, obviously, proved very, very successful with the Wii.

However, Nintendo’s Wii U has several problematic aspects, which, combined, could result in the system seriously underperforming in the “next-gen” market. There are five very apparent reasons why the Wii-U could be destined for failure…and five equally apparent solutions the “Big N” would be wise to look into before the product gets launched later this year.

CAUSES FOR CONCERN

Factor Number One - THE PRICE

While we North American gamers will not likely know the MSRP of Nintendo’s new console until later this year, there have been some leaked numbers as it pertains to other markets. Nikkei reports that the unit will cost about 30,000 yen, which equals out to about $383 USD. Meanwhile, EuroGamer estimates the unit will drop at 280 pounds in the UK, which translates to about $435 in U.S. dollars.

Simply put, the launch price of the Wii U could potentially be double that of the Wii’s launch price, and that’s not factoring other components, such as the price of additional controllers, let alone standalone games (which, according to Amazon, are estimated to be about $60 a pop.) Feasibly, a Wii-U unit, with an extra Wii U ControlPad, two “Pro Controllers” and two games, could cost launch day consumers anywhere from $700 - $1,000. Although just about everything regarding the console’s price is mere speculation at this point, it’s almost certain to be a costlier system than the Wii - a console whose success can be attributed, quite largely, to its reduced marketplace cost.

The Wii U's online service emphasizes social networking elements over multiplayer, a move which could alienate a sizable "hardcore" gaming audience.

Factor Number Two - THE TECHNICAL SPECS

The potential problematic areas with the Wii U are twofold. First, it’s an absolute guarantee that the machine will be the “weakest” of the next generation gaming consoles, with current tech specs that are less powerful than Sony and Microsoft’s current-gen consoles. The secondary problem arises when considering the Wii-U ControlPad, which Nintendo claims has a battery life of 3-5 hours.

Combined, these two problems could result in massive problems for gamers, as well as alienate third party developers that may feel “limited” by the technical restraints of the hardware. The graphical capabilities of the system - coupled with the control schematics of the hardware - could keep many “traditional” gaming franchises off the system, and severely hamper the variety of games that arrive on the console. This could mean that while PS4 and XB720 owners enjoy next-gen Madden and Call of Duty, Wii-U owners could be stuck playing watered down ports and rehashes of current-gen titles - a crisis exacerbated by Nintendo’s inability to strike up deals with prolific developers and publishers, such as “Grand Theft Auto” maestros Rockstar Games.

"Non-games" like "SiNG" may make up a bulk of the Wii U's expected launch titles - and this time, Nintendo may not have the same "casual market" appeal that it had with its last console release. 

Factor Number Three - THE LACK OF QUALITY THIRD PARTY SUPPORT

Since the days of the Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo has relied a tremendous deal on consistent third-party support, with companies like Square-Enix and Rare Studios providing the “Big N” with stellar, console-exclusive material for the Super NES and Nintendo 64. Since the release of the GameCube, however, the company has seemed to be drifting away from this model, instead focusing on first-party titles and outsourcing franchising rights to other developers. As a result, the Wii received scant “console exclusive” titles from third parties that were commercially successful - a trend that could very much continue with the Wii U.

While Nintendo executives have “guaranteed” a greater emphasis on so-called “hardcore” games with the upcoming console, the company has announced very little to back up their claims, as a majority of the third party titles shown off for the upcoming system at E3 this year where either non-exclusive, multi-platform games, or “original” IPs that hardly looked like killer apps in any regard. It’s extremely unlikely that Nintendo will gain the support of third party publishers and developers that ignored the Wii with its latest console - in fact, at this point, it’s looking quite likely that the company will actually lose third party support in the next generation of console gaming.

Factor Number Four - THE ONLINE INTEGRATION COMPONENTS

It’s not exactly breaking news that Nintendo’s online gaming network is considerably less impressive than those promoted by Microsoft and Sony. And instead of remedying the myriad online gaming problems the Wii had, it seems as if Nintendo is moving towards even more integration of that same experience for the Wii U.

Nintendo’s far-reaching online network - debuted at E3 earlier this year - is more or less a visualized Facebook application, which allows gamers to hop in and out of centralized experiences, such as chatting and playing mini-games. The one thing the new network doesn’t seem to do, however, is rectify its predecessor’s many online gaming difficulties, including a clunky user-interface that requires “friend codes” in order to play over an Internet connection. Ominously, a number of supposed “launch titles” have been announced without online integration compatibility - perhaps portending some major, major R&D problems even this late into the console testing cycle.

So far, the third -party titles announced for the Wii U have been rather lacking , consisting mostly of ports and very unpolished I.P.s, such as the underwhelming "ZombiU" from Ubisoft. 

Factor Number Five - THE EMPHASIS ON CASUAL GAMES

The single biggest complaint lobbed against the Wii was its overabundance of “casual games” - in other words, titles catering to mostly “non-gamer” audiences and small children. Taking this complaint to heart, Nintendo executives promised that the Wii U would have a greater emphasis on more traditional, “hardcore” gaming experiences, but when the console was demonstrated at E3 this year…well, the results were a whole lot more “casual” than “hardcore.”

Lego City?

SiNG

Wii Fit U?

No matter what the suits at Nintendo may be saying, this much is evident; the company is still centralizing its market strategy around games that appeal to “non-gaming” audiences. Their may be more of a focus on “hardcore” titles, but it is quite apparent that the company’s primary target demographic is still a decisively “non-hardcore” demographic.

Clearly, there are some major areas of concern regarding the Wii U, but the company still has ample time to rectify some of these issues in time for the product launch. If Nintendo wants to counteract a lot of first-year woes, they would be wise to mull over my five recommendations for their marketing of the Wii U.

PREVENTATIVE MEASURES

Nintendo's attempt to lure in a "casual" gaming market (such as those that play Farmville)  may end up backfiring on the company.

Step One - ENSURE QUALITY THIRD-PARTY TITLES LAND ON THE CONSOLE

Unless Nintendo can secure a healthy number of quality, third-party exclusives, the console is in deep, deep trouble.

The “Call of Duty,” “Grand Theft Auto” and EA Sports series have made billions upon billions of dollars over the last five years, and these gargantuan series - in a “proper” iteration - have been MIA on the Wii. As fun and entertaining as “Mario U” and “Pikmin 3” may turn out, it’s quite clear that neither of those games have the sheer, instant-revenue appeal of a “Black Ops II” or a “Halo 4” or even a “FIFA 13.” As such, it is absolutely imperative that Nintendo does what it can to make certain that major franchises like “Call of Duty” and “Need for Speed” and “Bioshock”  end up on the console, if not in iterations comparable to the PS4/Xbox720 offerings, then at least in quality, console-specific editions that don’t sacrifice game play for novelty (if you’ve ever tried playing a Madden game on the Wii, you will know precisely what I’m talking about.)

And even if the “Big N” can’t get GTA V or “Watch Dogs,” they can at least strive to secure console-exclusive titles from those big name publishers. Maybe the Wii U isn’t powerful enough to host the next GTA or the next Final Fantasy, but that doesn’t mean Nintendo can’t get Rock Star or Square-Enix to get their B-houses working on miniature, Wii-U exclusive titles. It really goes without saying here, but it’s oh-so important: the Wii U needs awesome, third-party games, and it needs them very, very badly.

Step Two - IMPROVE ONLINE GAMING EXPERIENCES

It’s pretty much a given that Nintendo has the worst online integration components of the big three. While Sony and Microsoft have given gamers robust and reliable online gaming networks, Nintendo has struggled to provide Wii and 3DS owners with a halfway manageable online-play system, and the results have fluctuated from just merely passable to downright pathetic.

Nintendo has already said that the Wii U will once again feature “friend codes” for online play, with a centralized focus on social networking in non-gaming online play. We all remember the ZombiU trailer - apparently, Nintendo’s idea of online gaming is the ability to access Twitter and look up cheat codes while playing a single-player title….not actually playing against and with other people via the Internet. Clearly, this is something that needs to be remedied as soon as possible.

It’s very unlikely that Nintendo will ever foster an online gaming system as versatile and dependable as what MS and Sony offers, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to fix what they currently have. My advice would be to abandon the whole “Nintendo Land” / “Waru Waru” interface and hire some third party firm (boy, wouldn’t an Apple or a Google love to capitalize on such an opportunity?) to reconstruct the console’s online program. More multiplayer games are a given, but first things first: if the Wii U doesn’t have an online network at least twice as consistent as what the 3DS currently has, they are really shooting themselves in the foot from the get-go.

Titles like "Wii Fit U" are expected to capitalize on largely non-gaming audiences, but are consumers willing to shell out hundreds of dollars for mildly re-tuned experiences of the like?

Step Three - REFOCUS TARGET DEMOGRAPHICS

Nintendo made a ton of money off casual gamers with the Wii. Unfortunately, that’s an audience that has grown tired of “Wii Sports,” and it’s quite apparent that the “Big N” isn’t going to be able to strike gold with the same kind of players again.

Simply put, Nintendo will have to place a greater emphasis on the traditional gaming market - 18-34 year old males - if it wants to remain in the next gen console race. Yes, eight year old kids and their shovel ware-purchasing mothers may appear to be a more lucrative demographic, but it’s the traditional gamers that are the greatest “bulk” consumers of video games. Seeing as how they have more disposable income than most other demographics, it would be very, very unwise to ignore their wants out of the Wii U - in fact, the system’s very survival may hinge on the support of the traditional gaming demographics.

Step Four - ABANDON THE “ALL IN ONE” MEDIA MACHINE AMBITIONS

If I want to send a text to someone, I will send them a text. If I want to send them an e-mail, I will send them an e-mail. If I want to watch a YouTube video, I will log onto YouTube. While the emergence of smartphones have coalesced a lot of electronic communications together, it’s a fairly unwise move to assume that a gaming console - a stationary thing connected to a television set - requires the same “all-in-one” versatility that a phone or a tablet provides. Obviously, it’s not just Nintendo that’s trying to merge all of the electronic mediums together, but in the case of the Wii U - a system that’s already underpowered - pursuing “the Swiss army knife” approach could be a downright fatal move.

The major appeal of the Wii-U should be games, not social networking. Yes, people like to multitask, but gaming experiences - like movies and books - have always been experiences centered on a single, uninterrupted event and the individual reacting to that same event. Multiplayer gaming (and certainly, online gaming) has made that a more social experience, but the core appeal of games really hasn’t changed since the days of “Asteroids” and “Pac-Man.” By throwing in all of these secondary applications, the core appeal of the gaming experience gets diluted, and when your console can’t provide solid gaming experiences…well, history hasn’t exactly been kind to such consoles.

The Wii U ControlPad is supposed to be the big selling point of Nintendo's new console - and inadvertently, it may also lead to the system's under-performance in the marketplace. 
Step Five - PUT THE SPOTLIGHT ON GAMEPLAY, NOT GIMMICKS

Really, it’s the simplest - and most executable - idea imaginable; instead of making games centered around proprietary technologies and gimmick-anchored gameplay, just use the technology you have to make better, more enjoyable and more nuanced games. Think of the leap from “A Link to the Past” to “Ocarina of Time” - Nintendo harnessed the power of a new console to create a more in-depth, more engrossing and more immersive experience than the previous franchise offering. With the Wii U, Nintendo seems to be eschewing this idea for rehashes and re-releases that just simply integrate new hardware controls instead of giving gamers more intricate and complex experiences. In other words, instead of giving us the natural progression of gaming - as they did with “Ocarina” - it’s as if they feel that just giving us what we’ve already experienced, with some funky new control set-up - is good enough.

Look, I love Mario and Link and Samus as much as the next guy, but those franchises really haven’t done all that much evolving since the days of the Nintendo 64. “Super Mario Galaxy 2” and “Skyward Sword” may have been terrific games, but they really weren’t groundbreaking games in the least - and most definitely, they weren’t titles that pushed the technological boundaries of what gaming could be. The likelihood of the Wii U getting games like “Bioshock: Infinite,” “Watch Dogs,” or “The Last of Us” is very unlikely, because of the technological limitations of the hardware. While there’s very much a chance that some terrific games land on the Wii U, it’s much, much likelier that the system will be glutted with crappy, casual games, spat out by companies that know people will buy what’s formulaic and widely available.

Certainly, great first party titles like "Pikmin 3" will make it to the Wii U - but unless Nintendo makes some major changes to its marketing strategy, its execs may not be smiling for much longer. 
Because of the Wii-U control set-up, it’s very unlikely that the console will ever see a quality simulation racer like “Forza,” or a quality sports game like “FIFA,” or a technical fighting game like “Virtua Fighter,” or a straight-up shooter like “Half-Life” or “Deus Ex.” While the Wii U ControlPad could lead to some interesting experiences, it is more likely that the controller will just hinder developers from making quality titles. For the console to excel, Nintendo will ultimately have to move away from the gimmick-based gaming experience, and focus more on creating complex, immersive gaming experiences, like “Skyrim” or “Diablo III.”

And if Nintendo can’t accomplish that?

They’re going to be enjoying a third-place spot in the console wars for a long time to come.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man Cereal!

Because deep down, you’ve always wanted to eat a bowl of The Lizard for breakfast…


Spider-Man fruit snacks. Spider-Man Rice Krispy Treats. For crying out loud, there’s even Spider-Man Pop-Tarts. So does it really come as a surprise to anybody that there’s an “Amazing Spider-Man” breakfast cereal out there, too?


There have been a number of Spider-cereals released over the years, and this newfangled offering from Kellogg - like the tie-in breakfast items before it - probably isn’t going to be a mainstay at your local grocery store. In fact, there’s a pretty good chance that this limited edition cereal will be whisked away to no-man’s land by the time Labor Day rolls around, so if you’re itching to give this stuff a try…well, the clock is certainly working against you.


A couple of things jump out at me upon first looking at the box. Well, two things in particular, actually, the first being that the cereal is labeled as “Spidey-Berry” flavored. Now, I’m no horticulturist, but I’m pretty sure that outside of the R&D labs at Wonka Corp., “spidey-berries” are most certainly not a naturally occurring substance. Then again, the idea of mutant hybrid food does sort of tie into the Spider-Man mythos quite nicely, so if you want to call “artificial strawberry” flavoring whatever you feel like, I say go right ahead.


The other thing that really catches my attention about the packaging is that it includes, direct quote from the box here, folks, “Lizard villain marshmallows.” The marshmallows themselves, of course, more closely resemble the visage of Kermit the Frog than Curt Connors monstrous alter-ego, but really, who can complain about that?


The rest of the packaging is pretty standard, if not somewhat boring. Like most cereals, there’s a whole bunch of junior activities to fiddle around with on the back, including some really, really effortless word puzzles. According to the box, the official name of the movie’s primary villain is “The Green Lizard,” which if you ask me, sounds more like a third-rate Mexican restaurant than a rogues gallery regular.

I guess the most impressive thing about the packaging is that it contains an absolutely massive maze puzzle on it. Puzzles of the like are quite commonplace in the world of cereal, but you really have to give the guys at Kellogg some props for including something so grandiose on its packaging. And if your spatial skills are lacking?


No worries, because they have the solution set mapped out on the interior portions of the box. And yeah, you would probably need a cheat sheet to solve that behemoth, too.


Alas, nobody really cares about the packaging, because it’s the sweet stuff on the inside that we’re really concerned about. And upon ripping open a bag of “Amazing Spider-Man” cereal, I don’t think anybody  out there will be disappointed.


Ah, such a festive color scheme: red, green, and just a little bit of yellow. If nothing else, this stuff would make excellent snack tray lining come Christmas time.


As you can see, the cereal is shaped like spider webs, presumably because rice puffing technologies haven’t gotten advanced enough to give us bite-sized Andrew Garfield heads yet. The aroma of the cereal is especially striking, since as soon as you rip open the bag, a super-powerful strawberry scent just erupts out of the packaging. I really can’t adequately express just how strong the strawberry scent is here, so if you have an aversion to the odor, you might want to avoid this stuff at all costs.


All in all, I’m not really sure if I am disappointed by these Lizard “Villain” marshmallows or not. Granted, it’s not like marshmallows have ever been a template for great art, but I guess I was expecting something just a little bit more, um, defined, than just a green circle with smaller yellow circles inside it. That said, the contrast with the red webs is pretty nice, and it’s pretty difficult to feel glum about anything when you have a spoonful of puffy iguana faces staring at you. As an aesthetic experience, I’ll give Kellogg two out of my six thumbs up.

But who cares about all of that stuff, right? The important thing is whether or not the stuff is actually tasty, so for dramatic effect, I decided to record my very first taste-test of the cereal (and thankfully, I didn’t grow sticky bristles out of my fingers afterwards.)


I guess there’s not much to add to that, I suppose. As previously addressed, the stuff tastes just like Frankenberry, which as we all know, is one of the greatest cereals ever in history. As a gustatory experience, I have to say that “The Amazing Spider-Man” cereal is a pretty enjoyable one, albeit nothing you probably already haven’t experienced with some other strawberry-flavored item. I guess my biggest complaint is that the Lizard marshmallows are just too marshamallowy, with no real distinct flavor to them. And if this cereal had lime-flavored chunks to accompany the strawberry puffs, it probably would have been the greatest thing ever.

So, all things considered, I don’t think it’s a bad pick-up for either cereal aficionados or Spidey-fans. In fact, it’s a really good, above-average tasting cereal, so not only does it have some pop culture appeal, it actually has the added incentive of being a decent foodstuff.

That, and I can’t wait to see what permutations come out as the new Spider-franchise ensues. I can just imagine the cavalcade of “villain marshmallows” rolling out now. Lemon Electros, Blueberry Rhinos, Raspberry Hypno-Hustlers…the possibilities are literally without end.

Monday, June 18, 2012

JIMBO GOES TO THE MOVIES: "Prometheus" Review

Ridley Scott makes his long, long anticipated return to the “Alien” universe - but is “Prometheus” really worth the three decade wait? 


I caught “Prometheus” a few weeks ago, and I still don’t know what the hell it was supposed to be about. Was it supposed to be a thinly-veiled defense of creationism, or some sort of commentary on medical technologies, or some sort of statement about our scientific inability to conquer death, or what?  All I know is, that movie left me with a serious case of the “huhs?” and the “what-the’s?”, which I will presumably still be suffering from when the thing gets released on Blu-Ray.

Let’s take things from the top, shall we? The very first scene of the movie, I guess, is supposed to be a metaphor for the creation of man. Well, I guess that means we can burn both “The Holy Bible” and “The Origin of the Species,” because in the world of “Alien,” humanity seemed to have come about when some time-traveling, nine-foot tall bodybuilder with a Roman nose drank sulfuric acid and deteriorated in Loch Ness, getting all his chromosomes and shit scattered about the Scottish hillside. Of course, one could read this as a parable for the sacrifice of Christ (not that the movie is rife with heavy-handed religious symbolism, or anything), or maybe it’s a direct reference to the Prometheus myth itself, with that lumbering, decomposing grey guy giving humanity it’s “fire” in the form of DNA particles. Of course, Ridley Scott just can’t come out and tell us what’s what, so for the time being, pretty much all of those theories can be deemed acceptable explanations for the film’s opening. Well, that, or it’s just an inconsequential red herring, which, let’s face it, is a pretty likely rationale considering the director’s track record.

This much, however, I did get out of the movie. So, Lisbeth Salander and her boyfriend find some cave paintings, which are remarkably similar to artwork drawn up by all sorts of ancient cultures. Using some high-tech star-mapping program (I hear it’s going to be included in Windows 8), Weyland Industries  manages to find that very locale in the universe, which is an Earth-like planet in a solar system really, really far away from us. Seeing as how the film takes place in the 2090s, our interstellar travel technologies are, apparently, going to get really advanced in a real hurry, since extra-solar system travel isn’t just feasible, it becomes a common practice (alongside the existence of hyper-sleep chambers and medic-bots units) by the end of the century. Admittedly, it’s a far-fetched premise, but what the hell; I suppose guys in 1912 couldn’t have predicted the Internet, the A-Bomb or Ricky Martin, either.

So, Weyland is paying for this expedition, because…well, we really don’t know, at first. We have our usual cast of future alien-chew-toys, who are hired hands to help Lisbeth and her boyfriend find whatever it is that they’re looking for. Calling the shots onboard are Charlize Theron (playing an icy bitchy-bitch so frigid that everybody on the ship thinks she’s a robot) and Michael Fassbender as a “Lawrence of Arabia” loving android named David. The crew hop in their “Mass Effect” cosplay uniforms, crank up their dune buggies and travel inside this old ass temple, which is filled with the following; a bunch of really tall dead dudes in insect helmets, ceramic vases filled with this icky black stuff and what appears to be penis monsters that, when in the presence of humans, turn into va-jay-jay shaped cobras that like to hop in people’s mouths and impregnate them with octopus monsters. All of this, of course, should seem very, VERY familiar to you.

Well, things get particularly icky after Lisbeth’s boyfriend starts coming down with alien flu (probably because the on-ship robot gave him champagne tainted with alien goop, but the film never really comes out and tells us that’s the case.) So, Charlize ends up flamethrower-ing him when he tries to come aboard, which makes Lisbeth and her impossibly high cheekbones super-sad for like a day or two. The problem here is two-fold; first off, Lisbeth’s boyfriend, despite being barbecued alive, is still very much alive, and very, very angry (cue the dude’s SECOND death scene in the film shortly thereafter) and much more importantly, Lisbeth herself is PREGGERS with what appears to be some sort of slug alien mucus monster - and apparently, the gestation period for slug alien mucus monsters is about 45 minutes.

This segues into a particularly gruesome scene where Lisbeth hops in one of those medic-bot units and has an impromptu C-section, culminating with her squid baby getting yanked out of her by what appears to be the lifting mechanism of one of those arcade claw games. She manages to escape having her face chewed off by her octopus offspring, only to run smackdab into the president of Weyland Industries, this dude that’s supposed to be like 150 or something (the make-up job here, I might add, is absolutely horrible-looking.) As it turns out, the whole point the company sanctioned the voyage was so that this dude on his deathbed could meet God, and somehow get a couple of more years tacked on to his life expectancy. So, the remaining crew treks back down into the underground temple, where they come face-to-face with one of those giant grey alien guys. Without giving away too much, let’s just say his idea of “granting eternal life” involves, uh, the opposite of granting eternal life, I suppose.

This bring us to the film’s climax, where Lisbeth is running from the grey guy - who, as it turns out, is no match for a fully grown octopus monster. This leads to Lisbeth taking David’s severed head on a trip to Planet Sequel, but not before we see what emerges from the grey giant guy -on-squid alien love scene from earlier - and surprise, surprise, the offspring sure does bare an uncanny resemblance to a certain, iconic sci-fi/horror monster legend, no?

By the time this thing came to a conclusion, man, was my head achy. So many unresolved questions, and so many questions that never even got asked during the movie; what the hell were all those giant grey guys running from in the twenty bajillion hologram flashback sequences that played throughout the movie? For that matter, if the planet the Weyland folks visited was just a military outpost for the race of alien giants, then how in the hell did the aliens get there in the first place? Hell, for that matter, how did the aliens find earth, and what was their motives for wanting to destroy it at the end of the movie? And just to make things even more meta, the very end of the film concludes with a viral tease of some kind, with the Weyland Corporation announcing something for 10-11-12. Walking out of “Prometheus” was sort of like trying to piece together five separate jigsaw puzzles at the same time, when all you really wanted to do was play KerPlunk. Look, I’ve got nothing against movies that make you think, but watching “Prometheus” is like being thrown into an industrial washing machine for half an hour and being forced to take the SAT while “Who Let The Dogs Out?” plays at sonic boom levels in the background. There’s a fine line between “intellectual stimulation” and “David Lynch,” and “Prometheus” is a  movie that straddles that line a bit too closely for my liking.

As you can see, the greatest influence for Ridley Scott's film was clearly "Pokemon." 

Ready for some cranial punishment? Let’s examine the hereditary makeup of the xenomorph that shows up at the end of the movie. Apparently, to create an “Alien,” you need one part giant body-builder space man and one-part evil alien octopus baby. BUT, the parents of that evil alien octopus baby are actually human, or at least, half human, seeing as how Lisbeth’s boyfriend (played by Paco from “Across the Universe,” oddly) was infected with some sort of alien bacterium at the time of the evil alien octopus baby’s conception. And since that alien bacterium was derived from some sort of organic pottery sludge, it’s at least reasonable to assume that the bacterium was of the same genus as one of those dong-cobras from earlier in the movie, so that makes the alien half space bodybuilder, at least one quarter human and at least one quarter space cobra. But, since the movie tells us that space bodybuilders and humans have the exact same genetic code, that means at least half of the alien is half whatever it is that humans and the space bodybuilders are, which, presumably, is a subset of some life form that wasn’t mentioned in the film. So, in other words…“ow, my freakin’ skull.”

As you can see, Scott has made a film that’s really, really difficult to review, because it’s kinda’ hard to give a film a quality judgment when blood is leaking out of your ears from an aneurysm. As a sheer visual experience, the movie is pretty damned cool-looking, and pretty much a lock for Best Set Design/Costume Design come Oscar season. While the film is pretty light on action sequences (there’s probably only about three or four in the entire movie), the action sequences that are there are pretty entertaining, and I’ll give Ridley props for some fairly suspenseful moments here and there. The storyline is interesting, but the acting is pretty ho-hum, with only Fassbender really turning in a performance worth talking about. And then, there are the many, many loose ends the film leaves lying around all over the place. Yeah, we really don’t need to talk about any more of those, do we?

As an entry in the “Alien” franchise, “Prometheus” is pretty disappointing, but as a standalone flick, I suppose it isn’t all that bad. That said, the end result is a far cry from the franchise we all know and love, and ultimately, a lost opportunity to bring the venerable series back to its former glory. Shit, can you imagine how awesome this thing would have been if James Cameron would‘ve directed it? It would have been 30 minutes of blatant Iraq War commentary, followed up by two solid hours of exploding bug guts and multicultural stock characters getting acid thrown on them while rocket launchering things. But instead, we get an overlong, laborious flick about barren wombs and religious allegories, with people occasionally getting their esophagi eaten by lizard monsters.

As your standard Hollywood blockbuster, it’s a mildly better than average offering. But for an installment in the “Alien” franchise? There’s really nothing you could consider “Prometheus” other than a disappointment.

My Score: B-

Friday, June 15, 2012

B-Movie Review: “Murder, Set, Pieces” (2004)

A neo-Nazi hooker-killer is terrorizing Las Vegas, and only a middle schooler can stop him. It’s been called one of the most disturbing movies of the last decade, but is it ultimately more sucky than shocking? 


Every now and then, you’ll hear about someone calling “random movie X” the “most disturbing” movie he or she has ever seen. The prurient-interest sorts we are, we usually have a bizarre itch to catch these movies, if only to wallow in the depravity of the experience. The problem is, that’s almost always all movies of the like have to offer - they have to go over the top with sex and violence, because, honestly, that’s all the movies have going for them.

Yeah, yeah, there are a few movies that can be labeled as both degenerate cinema classics as well as genuinely fantastic film-making, but it’s certainly a short list. “Salo,” “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” maybe some of Gaspar Noe’s movies, and from there? I have a hard time thinking of anything that’s been praised by Internet shock-enthusiasts while simultaneously receiving critical acclaim.

Well, Nick Palumbo’s 2004 flick “Murder, Set, Pieces” is the kind of movie that might gain a small cult following around horror-hounds, but it’s certainly not a great movie by any means. In fact, it’s not even a good bad movie, as you’ll spend more time trying to figure out what the hell’s going on than enjoying the hyper gory schlock going on around you.

Before we begin analyzing the flick, a few notes; first, there are several cuts of the movie floating around out there, including an R-Rated version (the one I caught), an unrated version and a super-duper un-rated director’s cut that’s almost a half hour longer than the R-rated print. Needless to say, a lot - and I do mean a lot - of the film’s most famous scenes get hacked out in the R-rated version, so if you just absolutely have to see people having their heads chainsawed or want to watch seventh-graders get murdered in public bathrooms, it looks like you’ll have to hit up Amazon and plop down about 20 smackers.

Meet the protagonist of "Murder, Set, Pieces," seen here in one of his more reserved moods throughout the film.

The film begins two middle-school aged girls ditching school and hitching a ride with the film’s primary character - a photographer with this ridiculously hard to describe accent that yammers on and on about how great 35mm film is. We later find out that the main character is dating the older sister of one of the girls he picked up, who just so happens to work at a hair salon (which, I guess, explains the main character’s penchant for slashing people’s throats with barber equipment, anyway.) We get a quick cut in which the main character (who is never named, by the way), which is followed by a scene in which he has a menage a trois with two hookers while generic-sounding techno music plays in the background. Needless to say…the hookers don’t stay in the movie too much longer.

After that, we jump to a scene in which the younger sister tells the older sister that her boyfriend’s kinda’ creepy. This leads to a dinner scene where it appears as if the main character is chowing down on some barbecued call girl, before saying some really, really gross things about menstrual cycles. Oddly, the older sister finds nothing at all unusual about that, for some reason. In the next scene, the younger sister starts snooping around the main character’s house and uncovers some Nazi memorabilia. Apparently, the main character is the son (grandson? nephew?) of a Nazi officer. Huh, a descendant of an SS officer with a thing for weightlifting - if he keeps that up, he might be governor of California some day.

So, the main character has some murder dreams, which leads to him walking around Las Vegas for awhile. He runs into some generic chick playing slots, and takes her back to his place so he can photograph her while Sega CD music plays in the background. Cue a brief montage of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” visuals meshed with work-out footage. And after that, a brief scene where it looks like the main character is spying on the middle schoolers, and another scene involving the photographer cruising the Vegas strip. He finds himself another hooker, takes her home, and shows her his bathtub. SPOILER: when the scene’s over, it’s a far, far redder bathtub than it used to be.

Never have sideburns been THIS terrifying before...

I guess now is a good time to bring up all the cameos in the movie. There are a ton of B-horror icons that show up throughout the film, including Gunnar Hansen (the original Leatherface, for all of you newbs) as a neo-Nazi mechanic that lives in a trailer. Unfortunately, he’s only on screen for about a minute or two, as we jump straight into another strip-club scene, which is followed up by a montage of sex scenes and the main character philosophizing about society - all the while, with shitty, shitty nu-metal playing in the background. In fact, shitty nu-metal makes up about half of the film’s soundtrack (not score, I mean the entire audio portions of the movie), so if you have a distaste for the Spineshank…yeah, have your finger on the “mute” button throughout the picture.

All right, now things cut severely confusing, as jump cut after jump cut ensues. There’s a scene of the main character throwing a head out of window (and if you want to know - and you probably don’t - what he was doing with the head, check out the unrated version) followed up with flashback scenes of the photographer playing with a doll when he was a kid. We get another photo shoot sequence, and then, the only genuinely awesome thing in the movie  happens.

Seriously folks, even if you don’t watch the movie, you’ll want to catch the next scene on YouTube or something, just because it’s so awesomely bad. So, the main character walks into an adult book store, and starts harassing the cashier (played by Tony “Candyman” Todd) about a snuff movie. The two engage in the most hilariously awful shouting match in the annals of cinema, before a couple of robbers just show up out of nowhere and start shooting up the place, ultimately resulting in a sequence in which the main character offs everybody that survives the shootout. It’s hard to describe what makes it so hilariously bad, but once you see it, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

More “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” inspired-shots follows. And more nu-metal crap. And MORE montages of the Vegas Strip, followed by MORE flashbacks of the killer’s childhood. After that, another murder scene in the basement occurs (this time, involving hammers and, if you can believe it, homemade dentures.) And then, things get excruciatingly hard to follow. The main character kills a psychic and beats up this hitherto unmentioned German broad, while the film’s soundtrack just starts pumping white noise with tons of treble. Then, we have a scene with the main character sun tanning(?) while having visions of 9/11(??) The camera then pans on some plastic Jack O Lanterns, so we know its Halloween. This is followed up with another workout scene, as the photographer does push-ups while watching “Triumph of the Will.”

This man takes the phrase "shave and a haircut, two bits" very, VERY seriously. 

Completely lost yet? Well, so am I. I’m not sure how much of the censored footage ties into the narrative of the film, but the R-rated version is choppy to the point of incoherency. For all of the arguments we hear against censorship because of First Amendment reasons, perhaps this film can establish a second one - because with all of that missing footage, all we have here is a Dadaist facsimile of a film as opposed to an actual movie.

And so, we reach the climax of the movie. The younger sister finds a key to the photographer’s basement, and hitches a ride with the dude that played the crazy ass hitchhiker in the first “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” movie. And prepare to have your minds blown, kiddos: that same actor also played Lord Zedd on “Power Rangers.” Now that’s a crazy fact-of-the-day if there ever was one.

So, while the heroine of the film explores the seemingly vacant house, the photographer is busy flaying some chick alive with power tools downstairs. This instigates your paint-by-numbers, chase-throughout-the-house finale that’s been a staple of slasher movies since “Halloween.” Eventually, the younger sister manages to put down - but not kill - the main character with a pair of scissors and a convenient piece of lumber that was just lying around the place. And the film concludes super-anticlimactically, with the photographer donning a cowboy hat and flirting with some random gal en route to Los Angeles on a Greyhound. So yeah, like I said - very, very anticlimactically.

Tony Todd, seen here denying any responsibility for the film whatsoever. 

Taken as a whole, “Murder, Set, Pieces” is a very lackluster movie, filled with bad acting (even for the genre), a narrative that resembles a scatter plot diagram and a soundtrack that’s absolutely maddening. The ONLY reason I can think of for anyone to see this film is for the shocking-for-the-sake-of-being-shocking gore effects, which are almost completely eradicated in this version of the flick. Admittedly, I’ve never seen the director’s cut, but I really can’t imagine all of that additional mayhem and carnage improving the film as a standalone effort. The gruesomeness may make it more interesting, but I doubt that it would make it a better movie in any regard.

The movie has developed quite a reputation over the years, but if you ask me, most of it is unwarranted. In regards to “Murder, Set, Pieces,“ I believe we should all take the advice of that sage social philosopher Chuck D, and not believe the hype on this one.



Two stars. Jimbo says check it out…or don’t.