The Mad Magazine Board Game: Contender for Best or Worst Game Ever

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I bought the Mad magazine board game, originally released in 1979, several years ago at a thrift store.  It was a little beat up, and missing the original “Mad Money” notes, replaced by Monopoly notes.  Overall the game was well intact, though, and the game board features well-rendered Mad artwork, including the always wonderful Spy Vs. Spy characters.  The game is basically a parody of Monopoly, although in classic Mad anarchic style, everything is reversed, skewed or turned upside down, inside out.  The goal is to lose all of one’s cash, and it’s damn hard to do.  So difficult, in fact, that players may find themselves going a little insane in the attempt.  As a picture of Mad icon Alfred E. Neuman says in the game’s instructions: “CAUTION: Play at your own risk – especially if you don’t yet know the object of the game.”   

Not long after my purchase of the game, some friends and I played it and found it to be quirky but fun.  I can’t recall the fate of that match.  That was years ago and recently I thought it may be time to break it out again.  I played the game with my girlfriend, my dad and one of my brothers.  We started Mad earnestly, early in the evening with a few beers, and had a go at it.  First of all, there are crazy idiosyncrasies to the game, like rolling with one’s left hand.  If you roll incorrectly you are forced to accept $500 from each opponent player.  Counterclockwise players go, on a Monopoly-like track around the edges of the playing board, while two inner tracks off the main drag provide further exploration.  Most of the spaces upon which a player lands involve accumulating more and more cash, to the inevitable dismay of the player.  The worst spot to hit may be “Tough Luck,” which is similar to “Free Parking” in Monopoly and serves as a place to hoard cash.  Thankfully each time around the board when players hit the “Start” space, they lose money, but when you launch from “Start” at the beginning, the game warns: “You lose only your sanity and/or your pride.”

From the get-go the silliness is on.  And the distractions and diversions will entertain for a good long time.  But eventually the game turns from fun, bizarre nuisance into an alarming conundrum.  Like with Monopoly, players are sometimes instructed to draw a card.  The cards are found stacked in the center of the board, and as the instructions helpfully point out, “the center is in the middle.”  These range from the absurd: “This card can only be played on Friday” to the downright asinine: “Change money with anyone.”  The “only on Friday” card cannot be played on Friday or any other day, because all it says on the card is that statement about what day the card may be played.  That’s it…that’s the joke.  I kind of like that one.  As for changing money with other players, that’s where the existential crisis of Mad begins to creep in. 

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Players pile up such large amounts of cash that no end to the game is visible.  The frequency with which players must either literally change seats with other players or exchange monies makes for a hectic, brainless shuffle.  That’s part of the fun, of course: how chaotic and madcap, if you will, the game is.  This game is not for the fainthearted.  This game may make children cry.  A lot of laughter will result from Mad, but after awhile we were seriously questioning how to end the game, because the game offered no exits.

We kept plugging away at it, and every time, once a player got close to shedding all of their cash, they’d get nailed and pick up a small fortune.  Or they’d be forced to change money or seats with another player, thereby seeing hope for victory dashed in an instant.  Then a few minutes later they’d be right back in the driver’s seat, only to lose it all again.  Folks named Alfred E. Neuman beware: if you draw a particular card and that is your name, you will be privy to the special green bill, which is worth $1,329,063.00 in Mad Money.  At the rate the game does suck up your cash in various contrivances, in increments of $500, $1,000, and up to $5,000 at a time, whatever unlucky player ends up with the $1-million-plus Neuman bill in their stash would be a guaranteed loser.  That hand would be cursed, never to be free of the game’s blasted currency, doomed. 

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After more than an hour at the very least, our party was starting to get desperate for a way out.  We’d laughed, cried a little and done a fair amount of shouting.  We’d pantomimed, playacted and used a healthy number of expletives along the way.  Many beers were depleted.  We began to get worried that the game would never end and that we’d be consumed by it all night.  So we worked together on a plan, one the game allows via its well articulated and merciful “majority rule.”    

The “object” of the game, as Alfred E. Neuman warned, is actually not to lose all of one’s money, because that’s an improbable feat.  The object is to end the game successfully in some fashion without just quitting.  After learning that the game’s twists and turns wouldn’t allow one of us to lose all our cash and win the game, we resolved to only penalize three of the four players with cash accumulation, thereby preserving one player’s hand as the one which would never again accrue additional cash.  We, not as the majority, but unanimously, as a whole, devised a ruse to trick Mad into allowing us to anoint a winner.  Even with our clever plan, it took a bit to finish the game.  I’m not sure if we would have been able to finish Mad otherwise, even if we’d spent hours in the attempt.  It’s that kind of game.  There’s little middle ground; it’s either one of the best or most awful games ever.  It messes with you.  Time flies and stops still.  It’s sly, sickly and smart.  Beware of the Mad magazine board game.  It wants to make you a loser, not a winner.  It just might blow your mind.

Milwaukee Bucks Turn Back the Clock with “Y2K” Coolio Performance; Milwaukee Needs to Turn it Ahead with New Arena

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The Milwaukee Bucks have the worst record in the NBA at 9-43, which translates to a putrid .173 winning percentage.  They are 31 games back in the Central division, 8-24 in a very weak Eastern Conference and 5-21 at home this season.  They have lost four in a row and are 1-9 in their last 10 games.  The Bucks are also one of the worst-drawing teams in the NBA, but fans can be forgiven for not rushing out into the cold Wisconsin winter to see a team boasting those abysmal numbers.  The Bucks also haven’t won a postseason series since the 2000-01 season, having lost in the first round of the playoffs five times since then. 

Still, the Bucks are important to the city of Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin.  Considering how bad the team is, pulling in an average of over 13,000 in attendance is pretty decent, particularly in a cold-weather city.  Thankfully, the team’s front office and owner Herb Kohl seem to finally have embraced the fact that the Bucks need to start from scratch and go young; really young.  They have started to shed the contracts of older players and have refrained from making reactionary trades that would send out young players to improve the roster for the existing season.  In addition, this time of transition to a hopefully sustainable future for a Bucks franchise that was established in the late 1960s is marked by efforts like Save Our Bucks (@SaveOurBucks), a grassroots effort devoted to trying to imagine the parameters for a new blueprint for the Bucks, to re-establish the winning tradition of the past and to form a template for a successful future in Milwaukee.   

The Bucks haven’t had an All-Star in 10 years.  So where do they go from here?  Their future is further clouded by Milwaukee’s need to build a new arena for the team, as the current BMO Harris Bradley Center doesn’t bring in the kind of revenue needed in today’s NBA.  Lacking in pizzazz and amenities, the league itself has deemed the Bradley Center outmoded.  New NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who took over from longtime head honcho David Stern at the beginning of February, spoke frankly about the BradleyCenter in September of 2013.

Via Probasketballtalk:

“One obvious issue we all have to deal with is we need a new arena in Milwaukee,” said Adam Silver, deputy National commissioner, speaking of the BMO Harris Bradley Center….

“At the end of the day compared to other modern arenas in the league, this arena is a few hundred thousand square feet too small,” Silver said. “It doesn’t have the sort of back-of-house space you need, doesn’t have the kinds of amenities we need.

“It doesn’t have the right sort of upper bowl/lower bowl (seating) configuration for the teams frankly that Milwaukee wants to compete against,” he said.

The need for a new arena in Milwaukee puts the Bucks, their management and ownership in a tough spot.  Not only do the Bucks need to figure out how to fix the present and future in terms of the basketball roster, they also must navigate the future of the franchise’s existence in the city.  It’s not easy political sledding, and while I don’t feel bad for billionaires or millionaires, I would feel bad for people in Wisconsin who could lose their NBA team to the dreaded “relocation” factor, should the local government not find a way to rescue the Bucks from the aging Bradley Center, which opened in the late 1980s.  It isn’t really fair that the city should have to replace the building already, but that’s the reality of today’s sports leagues.  Old, outdated buildings put teams on the chopping block of relocation or contraction.  Just ask the Minnesota Twins to the west in Minneapolis, who were nearly eliminated from Major League Baseball in the early 2000s due their tenancy is the decrepit Metrodome.  Incidentally, the Metrodome is now being pulled down to pave way for a new Minnesota Vikings stadium. 

Whether one agrees with the demands of buildings as imposed by modern sports leagues, or the means to procure those buildings (often taxes), the bottom line clearly is that Milwaukee needs to figure out a way to build a new arena to preserve the NBA in the city for the present and future generations of Wisconsinites.  As Save Our Bucks notes, currently “the team can’t give away the product.”  Still…they are certainly trying to give it away, and rightfully so. 

The Bucks are generous with giveaways.  Of course, a team as bad as the Bucks will want to dangle a little something extra to entice potential ticket-buyers.  But the Bucks historically have offered great deals that either involve discounted tickets, memorabilia/keepsakes, or special events.  All of this leads me to the inspiration for this tirade on the need for Milwaukee to wake up and take action to keep the Bucks in town: the Bucks are throwing a Y2K Night bash on Saturday, February 22 during a home game versus the mighty Indiana Pacers.  Not only does one get tickets starting at “Y2K-era” prices of a measly $7, all fans will receive a free retro Bucks pennant.  But here’s the real treat: a half-time performance by hip-hop hero Coolio!  Seven bucks for a Bucks ticket, free pennant and a “Fantastic Voyage” to downtown Milwaukee: that is truly a “Gangsta’s Paradise.”  Support the Milwaukee Bucks!

IN WHICH I BEMOAN THE DEATH OF BLOCKBUSTER VIDEO AND THE LOSS OF THE ONION

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“It’s not necessarily Blockbuster specifically that I’ll miss so much as video stores and video store culture in general.  The fact that there were still a few
Blockbusters standing gave me some hope that this piece of our culture was not
yet dead and buried and may one day be capable of resurgence.” 

By R. David

The world – or perhaps more accurately, the world of pop culture nostalgia – was dealt a double-whammy blow last week when Blockbuster Video announced on November 6th they would (finally) be shuttering the remaining operating locations of the once-dominant mega-rental chain.

If that wasn’t enough to make people in their late 20s/early 30s die a little inside, two days later The Onion, the iconic satire rag, said it would (also finally) cease production of its physical newspaper in the paper’s remaining markets.

Admittedly, both announcements have been a long time coming; and depending where you live, you may have been without either property for several years now (maybe even close to a decade in the case of Blockbuster).  But hearing such definitive news – the finality of these announcements – means having to finally acknowledge and accept what many of us have long known but tried to optimistically ignore: The entertainment world as we once knew it is indeed dead.

It happens to every generation, of course. Out with the old modes of entertainment, in with the new. I guess we shouldn’t be afraid of – or try to discourage – progress. But is further removing our physical means of shopping for and enjoying entertainment necessarily “progress”?  Is an all-computerized, all-online-based model really where we want to end up as a society.

Sure, the dissolve of these once-omnipresent entities will actually have very minimal impact on our lives, as other (and some would argue better and easier) ways of enjoying the product provided by these outlets still exist. And complaining about how we rent movies and read our humorous news stories is practically the definition of a First World Problem. It really doesn’t matter.

Except for those of us it does matter to, of course.

Count me as one.  Why, you ask?  Call it nostalgia, call it resistance to change, or call it being anal and snobbish about how I choose to consume my entertainment; but there are several reasons seeing these staples of my generation fold as physical entities – and in the grander scheme of things, what it says about the future of how we will be limited in our options and selection of entertainment choices – that I feel is cause for alarm.

As much as I dislike watching these staples of my youth fade away because it feels like, well, my youth is fading away – an era is ending – I can accept it as the natural course of things. Things change, eras end, and I am getting older (as we all are). Fair enough, I’ll embrace my mortality. But beyond making me feel old or as if I’m losing a chunk of my youth, watching these two iconic giants surrender – admitting defeat to an increasingly internet-driven culture – and give in to the increasingly accepted notion that online everything is OK is a disheartening glimpse into the future.  Online everything licks my balls.  (He said in a blog post he shared with people via Twitter.)

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I get it.  This all smacks of the old man shaking his fist at random passersby and complaining that things aren’t the way they used to be in the good old days.  Well, to quote Billy Joel, “The good old days weren’t always good.”  Like everyone else, I bitched and moaned about Blockbuster – or any video store – being out of the title I was looking for, having to run across town or to multiple stores to find specific flicks, late fees, long lines, membership cards, etc.  And of course I use online services for their general ease and convince; whether it’s to buy products, stream content, or download an article in seconds.  It used to be that if my local Walgreens was out of the week’s edition of The Onion, I’d have to schlep across town to find another, or I simply missed it altogether that week, because the locations that stocked the paper were so few and far between (depending on which part of town you lived and how mobile you were).  I love having the online option (and all the options online services provide).

But I don’t want online to be the only option.  I don’t want the selection of what I am able to stream to be determined by which movie studios Netflix or Amazon or Hulu were able to strike a deal with, or have to wait two months after a movie’s DVD release for it to become rentable from Netflix or Red Box.  I don’t want streaming glitches, loading errors, cropped aspect ratios, e-mail-based customer service. I don’t want lack of internet access or “Smart” devices to determine whether or not I can watch a movie tonight.  I don’t want to watch the first movie in a series of films only to find none of the sequels are available.  I don’t want to start a film and then come back to complete it or revisit it only to find it is no longer streaming.

Whatever my complaints about Blockbuster back in the day, there was rarely a title I couldn’t find there and I can’t recall an incident where they carried the first entry in film series but were missing random sequels.  And if these issues did come up, another Blockbuster, or any number of smaller video stores in the area, likely would come to the rescue.  My biggest complaint about Netflix is their poor and inconsistent streaming selection.  Sure, you can opt to also pay for their physical DVD plan (they’d love you too!), but as of right now, my queue lists no less than “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2”, “White Lightening”, “Gator”, and “Sorority House Massacre” and its sequel – in other words, 5 of the 10 movies in my entire queue – as “Very Long Wait” or “Availability Date Is Unknown”; both of which are code for “We don’t have them and don’t hold your fucking breath.”  (I’ve had those first 3 titles in my queue for over a year and they still are listed as “Very Long Wait” – I’ll say.)  Now, granted, none of those films are exactly “Avatar” in terms of customer demand or notoriety in the public consciousness.  But, Netflix has every other movie with “Chainsaw Massacre” somehow in its title; you’d think the series’ first sequel would rate at least as high as any of the others in terms of stocking priority.  “White Lightening” and its sequel, “Gator,” are “classic” Burt Reynolds vehicles.  They are repeatedly referenced in the FX series “Archer”, supposedly one of Netflix’s most-streamed TV titles.  I can’t be the only one who caught the references while watching the series on Netflix, became curious about the real thing, and then tried to dial them up on the very service essentially promoting them, only to still be “waiting” on their availably over a year later.  According to Amazon, the movies retail for about six bucks (in other words, less than I pay for one month of my Netflix DVD subscription), so come on, Netflix; get a copy already, you cheap bastards.  The same goes for the “Sorority House Massacre” movies, by the way.  And those I can guarantee you Blockbuster would have had back in the day.  Shit like that is 90% of what I used Blockbuster for when I was about 14 years-old.

The whole notion of a queue and waiting for DVDs to be mailed, while undeniably convenient, is also irksome.  If I get it in my head I want to see a specific movie because I have just heard about it or was recently reminded of it, I want to be able to go get it right now.  I don’t want to go online, put it in my queue and get it in a few days.  This entire process promotes the phenomenon of Netflix envelopes sitting on the coffee table for two months at a time.  I wanted the movie when I put it my queue.  I had the interest in it and the time to watch it then.  Three days later when it finally shows up, maybe not so much.  Granted, my disorganized life or fickle interests are not Netflix’s problem, but neither of us would have a problem if I could have just driven down the street when I decided I was in the mood for said film, got it, watched it, and been done with it.

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And actually, what is simpler than that?  The whole notion that Netflix and its contemporaries are making our lives easier and saving our precious time is something of a misnomer.  Yeah, I don’t have to drive anywhere, but how much time am I going to waste browsing through what’s available to stream after I discover they don’t have the movie I actually wanted to watch, only to throw my hands up and ultimately not watch anything at all (again, see: Netflix’s shitty and limited streaming selection)?

That is the practical side of my argument.  The personal side comes down to the fact that it just ain’t right, I tells ya, to deprive people of the experience of going to a video store, browsing the isles and narrowing down your selection from the five boxes you have in your hand.  I will never forget being barely 13 years-old and riding my bike from my house on the 4400 block of N. Woodburn St. in Shorewood, WI, across the bridge, over the Milwaukee river to the Blockbuster and Pick ‘N Save video stores (“Pick ‘N View”) on E. Capitol Dr.; and spending hours studying the artwork and plot summaries on the VHS boxes I had already looked at a thousand times before, shooting the shit with the video store clerks (probably annoying the hell out of them), silently judging other customers for their selections, killing time waiting for someone to Please, for the love of God, just return one copy of “Harley Davidson and the Marlborough Man” before I have to get home!, digging through the bin of old promo posters they were always trying to get rid of by selling for a few bucks, and waiting with bated breath for “Lethal Weapon 3” to finally be placed on the Previously Viewed sale rack so I could add it to my ever-expanding home video collection for a bargain price (back when a used VHS tape for 15 or 20 bucks could be considered a bargain).  Blockbuster and the surrounding neighborhood video stores have at least 80% of the money I made as kid from chores and my earliest jobs.  The video store experience and dynamic were as responsible for my love of film today as movies themselves.

The irony here – I know – is that the behemoth that was Blockbuster Video quickly forced a lot of smaller video stores out of business, depriving many people of the alternative selection and location that those mom and pop neighborhood outlets often provided (not to mention those jobs).  Blockbuster was essentially the Netflix of their day.  But, with all due respect to the under-severed Foreign, Indie and other niche film fan communities at the time, Blockbuster largely had the goods to compensate for and justify being the only game in town.

And there was a time – a short, but glorious and wonderful time – where a ton of different size, shape and style video stores were all able to coexist.  I would delight in bouncing from one to the other, each providing their own flavor and ambience so distinct that when I think back to those specific stores I can still smell the air in each one of them.  If Blockbuster was out of a certain title or didn’t stock it, no matter, I had five other options.  Sure, some of them were quite the bike ride for a kid barely in his teens – and much further than he should have been riding as far as safety (and his mom) was concerned – but that was part of the fun.  The thrill of the hunt.  The variety of people, locations, selection, and products throughout all these distinct rental store locales.  Blockbuster was polished, shiny, and attractive.  Some of these other places were in the basements of malls that had no business promoting themselves as a mall; and in addition to renting videos, they sold used books and vinyl records, bootleg concert tapes, and of course more than a few places had that, ahem, “special” section I was trying to always steal a peek into.

And it was amazing.  If you never experienced this, it’s hard to properly convey the allure of it all.

Of course convenience will always trump nostalgia, so it’s hardly a surprise something came along that streamlined and simplified the home video experience.  I guess I should just be glad that I lived in a town where so many different video store options were able to survive as long as they did; several of them well into the back half of the aughts.  Certainly now one of the last stores standing after last week’s news, the Shorewood Blockbuster on N. Oakland Ave. is still operational.  But the general reaction to Blockbuster’s closing this month is mostly of the “who cares?” or “I thought they went out of business years ago” variety. I’m sure I’m in the minority of folks who think this is big news.

It’s not so much that it’s news as what this news means.  As you can probably tell, it’s not necessarily Blockbuster specifically that I’ll miss so much as video stores and the video store culture in general.  The fact that there were still a few Blockbusters standing gave me some hope that this piece of our culture was not yet dead and buried and may one day be capable of resurgence.  And it indeed may be.  Everything is cyclical, and what was cool then and not cool now is often cool again tomorrow.  A generation from now, perhaps video stores will be all the rage once more.  I’m hardly the only person who bemoans the Netflix experience, but with the internet being so omnipresent in our society, even in our individual everyday lives, it’s unlikely that people will go against the on-demand grain any time soon.  Hopefully there will come a time when the novelty of getting our entertainment exclusively in this fashion wears off, and a move back to physical mediums of entertainment will once again share equal shelf space, as it were, with streaming services and online retailers.

After all, if I can grow up with 5 different video stores in my town, all finding room to coexist with Blockbuster, surely the video rental business pie is big enough for Netflix and the traditional video store to each get a slice.

In the case of The Onion, things are not quite as dire.  People seem to be just fine with making the move to reading newspapers on computers, tablets and other mobile devices.  If nothing else, going paperless saves trees and lowers publishing costs.  Ever the traditionalist, however, I still subscribe to a daily paper (though, admittedly, even I have come to a point where I can no longer justify the several hundred dollars per year it costs me and will regretfully be dumping it when my subscription expires) and I still look forward every week to seeing the latest edition of The Onion waiting for me at my local Walgreens or Subway.  Why?  It’s simple, really.  In this case nostalgia doesn’t play nearly the role for me as in the demise of Blockbuster.  While The Onion was a constant of my teenage years and has remained a weekly staple ever since, frankly, I have enough clutter in my home, car and office without tripping over 3 month-old issues of The Onion that seem to enjoy multiplying like Gremlins around my person.  I’d be fine to see the paper go all-digital if it weren’t for the fact that everything is going digital.  Just as video rentals, retail and host of other industries are becoming online-only commodities, so too is print.  Again, ostensibly not a terrible thing from a logical perspective; but rather more for the fact that I follow so damn many news and entertainment sites which all report on the same stories and say essentially the same thing, none of them really stand out from the pack.  A newspaper that still prints a physical paper gains (or maintains) a certain weight, stature, validity, and distinction (yay for superlatives!).

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Now, you’re probably thinking, “The Onion?  But that’s just a free, fake, humorous paper.”  Perhaps.  But as important to me as The Onion itself is the inclusion of The A.V. Club that comes bundled with each week’s installment.  The A.V. Club offers smart analysis on a wide spectrum of arts and entertainment and is loaded with movie and music reviews, interesting nostalgia and trivia pieces, as well as previews of and commentary on local entertainment events (and it hosts a print source for Dan Savage’s “Savage Love” column, which justifies the section’s existence all by itself).  The A.V. Club features some of the best writers in the business whose pieces are always gloriously detailed (yet somehow also amazingly succinct) and fervently relevant.  When you are forced to wait for the issue to arrive and have time to anticipate what the writers will tackle each week, and look forward to picking it up and reading it front to back, the trade ensures a certain loyal excitement.

The A.V. Club only dolling out its reviews on their website or to Twitter followers just makes them another dust mite in the blogosphere vacuum (that’s not a knock against the talented writers and staff of the A.V. Club; they deserve to not simply have their voices lost in the shuffle of so many similarly snarky pop culture sites).  Getting everything at once in a nice weekly package the reader can pore over rather than having to keep up with or search for piecemeal updates throughout the day and week is far more appealing.  The same thing goes for The Onion proper.  As pure entertainment, the paper is a fabulous tool to take with you into the john or keep handy for slow patches at work.  Now granted, most people will opt to peruse the internet during these moments as much as any physical time-killing accessory, but there are times and places where it’s just not convenient or allowed to whip out your iPad or Kindle.  And if you do jump on your mobile device, chances are there are far too many app options, Facebook notifications, or sites you’re following on Twitter to readily focus on any single one of them.  I am willing to wager nobody reads any online site as intently and inclusively as they would read a newspaper, magazine or any site’s physical counterpart.  Making The Onion and The A.V. Club nothing more than part of all that background noise cheapens its existence and dulls its impact, practically guaranteeing their audience won’t discover half the content they produce.

We’ve actually reached the point where having a physical, print edition of your paper is what sets you apart.  You’d think The Onion would see that very fact as a positive and move to capitalize on it.  Any organization as savvy, cynical and sarcastic as The Onion/The A.V. Club has to see the great irony in all this (they’ve ran more stories and headlines chastising the internet age than any reader could count); and you’d also think they would be the one organization that would hold out – even if simply for nostalgia’s sake or to appeal to the hipster in its core demographic – and refuse to succumb to the demise of print media.  I’d also argue that it’s loyal fan base wouldn’t be opposed to plunking down a quarter or 50 cents each week if that’s what it took to keep for the powers that be to justify the physical paper’s continued existence.  Maybe not, but if money’s an issue, it’s worth a try, right?.

Well, apparently not.  I get it.  Business is business and if The Onion has indeed reached a point where it simply doesn’t make economic sense to continue its print edition in the lone market of Milwaukee (I guess Milwaukeeans should take some pride in the fact that they outlasted every other market that The Onion used to print in), I can accept that.  But, again, it is simply another ugly reminder that everything is making the move away from the physical and to the digital.

Look, guys; it’s not just Blockbuster and The Onion.  I could bemoan how Best Buy’s CD and DVD aisles and inventory shrink dramatically with each passing year as the push to shop online becomes more and more ubiquitous (their music and film selections are truly pathetically limited at this point – I don’t know who these people are who are content to house their entire music an movie collections on a hard drive, but I hope I never meet any of the sick fuckers).  And when Best Buy announces it will become an exclusively online entity or that it’s shuttering its stores altogether, I’ll likely write another longwinded, pissy diatribe about how our society is going to hell in hand basket (because old man phrases!), and blame Amazon or some other online retailer of the day, while fully acknowledging the irony that I also patronize the competition.

I see the value and convenience in online retailers, video rental services, and print publications.  But I also value the experience in their – unfortunately increasingly scarce – physical counterparts.  There has to be room out there for both.  I simply can’t accept that we are on the brink of a generation that will not know what a video store or newspaper (or perhaps any physical media at all) is.

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Me (right) and @MichalskiNick hard at work at North Shore Video (R.I.P.) In Milwaukee, WI circa 1997. Livin’ the dream…

(Blockbuster Image: Courtesy USA Today, Onion and AV Club Image: Courtesy theonion.com)

A WORD OR TWO ABOUT ‘BATFLECK’

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photo credit: npr.org

By R. David

On August 22, 2013 – a date that will live in internet infamy – Warner Bros. announced that Ben Affleck will be the new Batman in director Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” sequel.  And immediately, as is now universal custom whenever a major pop culture casting decision is revealed, the Twitterverse and blogospheres lost their collective shit.

Frankly, no matter who was named the new Batman, things likely would have gone down pretty much the same way.  After all, what else is social media for if not to bitch about pop culture news?  Well, okay; that and shit like Grumpy Cat.

Actually, for once, I’m not sure the Internet had come together in agreement on the perfect choice for the new Dark Knight.  I don’t think there was even a fanboy Top 5 that formed something resembling a general consensus.  I heard Ryan Gosling’s name floated a bit (which would have been a terrible pick) and there was some (apparently premature or flat-out false) indication that Josh Brolin was the front-runner (I can see that).  Beyond that, there was a lot of talk about virtual unknowns and guys that you’d only want to be Batman because you watch “True Blood” getting the part.

Ultimately, Warner Bros. decided to go with a big name star and someone who’s career is on a critical and commercial hot streak at the moment (if you’ve forgotten, the last movie Affleck was in – which he also directed – just won the Best Picture Oscar).  If nothing else, from a business standpoint, I can’t fault their logic.

Oh, but the all-knowing fanboy masses apparently can.

Early internet chatter on the casting news has been overwhelmingly negative; with comic book fans, movie buffs, and even people who clearly don’t really give a shit who plays Batman caught in some weird Twitter competition to determine who can deliver the zaniest pun.  The real crazies went so far as to say things like “I’ll never see another Warner Bros. movie again,” and wishing harm to Affleck so the role would have to be recast.  Hell, within 24 hours there was already a change.org petition protesting Affleck’s casting.  Petitions, fer cryin’ out loud, people!

Most of the outrage comes from people who, ten years later, still feel burned by Affleck’s turn in “Daredevil”.  I’ll grant you guys, he wasn’t exactly an acting powerhouse in that one, but it was a shitty movie all around; a Marvel Comics’ movie before Marvel started making decent movies about their second-tier characters.

daredevil

image credit: tasteofcinema.com

Also, Affleck was a much different actor – and all-around person, some would argue – 10 years ago.  So this also goes for the people bringing up “Gigli”, “Reindeer Games”, or “Pearl Harbor”:  Whatever work the guy did at the height of his “Next Big Thing”, paycheck(no pun intended)-cashing, “Beniffer” days is probably not the greatest barometer with which to judge his acting skills – never mind his ability to portray Batman/Bruce Wayne.

I used to be as big an Affleck-hater as the next guy.  He seemed incapable of giving a performance without projecting an irksome air of bland smugness into every role (because, I figured, he probably was an irksome, bland and smug dude and just too shitty an actor to hide it on screen).  And nearly all of his film choices in the first two-thirds of the 2000s were utter crap (except for the time – ironically – when he portrayed “Superman” actor George Reeves in “Hollywoodland“).  But he has made a career turnaround in the last 6 years or so that is right out of a classic Hollywood comeback tale.  “Gone Baby Gone”, “The Town” and “Argo” is as impressive a trilogy as any current director has delivered, never mind as their first three films out of the gate.  Granted, his directorial chops say nothing about his ability to play Batman, but it’s worth noting that he also starred in “The Town” and “Argo” – both brooding character dramas, not unlike Batman thematically– and to great dramatic effect.

image credit: film.com

image credit: film.com

Also, Superhero movies have a way of chewing up and spitting out the guys who seem perfect for the job, while proving those initially thought to be miscast as revelations.  Michael Keaton, generally a comedian and in no way physically imposing, as the first cinematic Batman; Heath Ledger, untested in anything resembling dark, psychological drama, as The Joker in “The Dark Knight”; relative unknown Hugh Jackman as Wolverine; and to one generation Robert Downey Jr. was a Hollywood punch line and to another he was, “who?”, when cast as Tony Stark/Iron Man – all were met with the same sort of venom-spewing indignation from obsessive comic book fans as Affleck is receiving at the moment .

Conversely; George Clooney, an up-and-coming Hollywood A-lister, was seen as the perfect choice to carry on the  Batman torch; Eric Bana was supposed to bring a certain gravitas to the role of the Hulk that often proved unattainable in big, Hollywood blockbusters; Nicolas Cage – still doing better-than-average box office numbers on his name alone at the time – in “Ghost Rider”; and Ray Stevenson (here’s your argument for – or against, depending on how you want to look at it – casting a relatively unknown TV actor as the titular hero in a comic book movie) was supposed to be the guy that saved “The Punisher” movie franchise.

Obviously, how those supposed bone-headed casting decisions worked out VS the supposed sure-things says a mouthful about trying to predict what type of actor will make a great superhero.

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image credit: nerdacy.com

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image credit: www.telegraph.co.uk

But choosing a quality Batman doesn’t simply boil down to bold, eyebrow-raising casting decisions. Michael Keaton and Christian Bale were the only Batmen to make an impression because they shared one simple but generally overlooked trait that Val Kilmer and George Clooney lacked: the ability to give two separate and distinguishable performances – one as Batman, one as Bruce Wayne.  Keaton was (surprisingly) effectively stoic and heroic as The Caped Crusader, but had a completely different attitude and demeanor as Bruce Wayne; convincing as both the shrewd business man and cocky playboy of Wayne’s public persona, but also as the tormented recluse of the character’s true self.  So successfully inhabiting both sides of the Batman/Bruce Wayne character is what made Keaton arguably the best Caped Crusader yet.  It’s a shame Tim Burton’s two Goth-deco epics with Keaton never truly mined the depths of the Wayne psyche the way Christopher Nolan’s films and – to an even greater and darker extent – Frank Miller’s comic adaptions of the character did. I would have loved to see Keaton dig even deeper into the Batman/Bruce-public/private divide.

Christian Bale pulled off a similar feat in Nolan’s Batpics, though I was never as convinced of his fun-loving playboy persona, of course that was no doubt an intentional choice on his and Nolan’s part to portray and explore a much darker Bruce Wayne. That makes Bale’s Wayne less removed from his titular alter ego, however he was no less convincing in drawing a line of distinction between the two.

The two Joel Schumacher Batman films of the mid-90s had many problems beyond the choice of actors to play Batman. Perhaps if they had been in films less cartoonish, poorly written and overstuffed with supporting characters; and that were less of a gaudy, fetishistic visual nightmare – maybe in completely different movies – Val Kilmer or George Clooney could have been a quality Batman/Bruce Wayne. As it is, their portrayals offer no distinction between the two personalities and no exploration into the mind and motivations of the two alter egos.  They give the same performance out of the Batsuit as in, and mistake both characters for fun-loving, gadget-obsessed thrill-seekers.  James Bond in a rubber suit (and this time with nipples and a codpiece, everybody!)

image credit: www.avclub.com

image credit: www.avclub.com

image credit: comicbookresources.com

image credit: comicbookresources.com

I have no reason to assume Ben Affleck – or Zack Snyder for that matter; he is the guy giving Affleck his direction after all – understands this distinction and will not make the same mistakes that Schumacher, Kilmer and Clooney did.  However, I have no reason to assume he will make the same mistakes either. Christopher Nolan (you know, the guy who gave the world what is overwhelmingly considered the most complex and narratively ambitious rendering of the Batman universe on screen so far) is producing Affleck’s first stab at the character; Warner Bros. would never allow another debacle the likes of the Schumacher Batflicks; and Affleck has grown by leaps and bounds as not just an actor but as a true filmmaker who, by that very definition, should understand the necessity of character development and giving an in-depth, multilayered performance.

As much as I’ve come around to accepting The New Ben Affleck, I too admittedly have some concerns about him being the right guy for the cowl. Something about his demeanor just doesn’t scream Batman to me. And even though I think he’s been good in several dramas, I have yet to see Affleck go really dark, or tackle any psychologically complex characters. And I fear as Bruce Wayne, he will simply pull out the same smirky, smug, smart-alecky posturing he coasted on for so much of his early career, before donning the Batsuit and then simply grimacing his way through the action sequences.

benaffleck2

But honestly, those are concerns I would have of nearly any actor set to take this role.  But that’s why they call it acting.  Ben Affleck may not have a lot of the necessary cred under his belt to justify him landing this gig; but then again, neither did Michael Keaton or Christian Bale or Heath Ledger. Producers and directors have to be trusted to know which performers embody what they are looking for in their characters and give them the part based on how they fit into that mold – and hopefully how capable they are of breaking it. My hope is that Warner Bros., Snyder and Nolan genuinely see that in Affleck, and not simply a big name to potentially beef-up grosses when a lesser-known actor may have brought a more complex performance to the table.

Only time will tell and I may eat my words (and I will gladly admit fault if that time indeed comes), but I say Ben Affleck will end up surprising us all, and his Batman will be the next step in his impressive career evolution.

Frankly, I’m more concerned that Snyder and Co. botch the whole ‘Superman VS Batman’ concept and set Affleck up to fail by sticking him in movie that treats Batman as an afterthought or stunt-casting coupe simply to get people to pay for another bombastic-yet-empty “Man of Steel” flick.  We’re assuming Snyder’s take on Batman will even want to be as dark and morally complex as Nolan and Burton’s renderings. They could be shooting for a much more family-friendly, Marvel-like take on the character(s) simply to set-up the inevitable “Justice League” behemoth and position it as an “Avengers”-style, easily accessible crowd-pleaser.

Christ, I hope not.

There too, though:  deep breath, remain calm, positive thoughts.

From a Galaxy Very Close By (California): Star Wars Pet Fans Collection

petcojabba

(Jabba looks a lot like a flattened pot holder.)

Just when you naively thought the universe had dispensed with any and all Star Wars-related merchandising opportunities, Star Wars™ Yoda™ ears are here for your dog or cat!  The ears were given away at Booth 2913 at the San Diego Comic-Con in July and beginning September 1, you can join in the obsessive fun only at your local Petco store (or online) with the Star Wars Pet Fans Collection.  Per a release on StarWars.com, Elisabeth Charles, chief marketing officer from Petco Animal Supplies, notes that in years past, many fans have created their own pet costumes inspired by Star Wars but these new products are “not only creative and fun, but also safe for pets”.  And what a line this proves to be…the Yoda ears are merely an introductory freebie with purchase of one of the many other Star Wars items up for grabs: cat toys, collars, headpieces, pet beds, dog hoodies, dog and cat neckwear, and even a lovely Darth Vader Fair Isle sweater, which is touted as being “vintage style”.

petcoyodaears

(Photo: A. S. Gage)

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Star Wars fan going back to my childhood, and I have spent money on Star Wars stuff that’s clearly as much of a merchandising cash grab as this offering.  Still, it’s only natural to have a laugh at some of the descriptions that accompany these products.  For example, the dog hoodies are catered to whatever Star Wars character best fits your pet, “whether your dog is more a Chewbacca, Jedi, Sith, or mysterious bounty hunter.”  I’m guessing dogs who truly resemble the Sith would be a little too punishing to fit into these costumes, but that’s just me.  The dog and cat neckwear, which includes neck and bowties oddly enough, gives pets the opportunity to show off “their” Star Wars love, not just yours.  There are also the following choice nuggets:

“Cats can have a good time without a trip to the Mos Eisley cantina.”    

Well, I can only imagine how much trouble my cats would get into in that wretched hive.

“Now your collars and leads can clearly indentify your pet…as a Star Wars fan.”

I think the recognition from strangers would probably be directed more at me personally.   

“You used to play with Star Wars toys – so should your dog.”

By that logic, my dog should also go to university, get a job and pay the bills.

All kidding aside, I do have pets and while I don’t get into dressing them up and such, there are some toys here that might be fun if I really wanted to go all out and express my Star Wars fanboyism in the world of pets.  I think I’m OK on that right now, but I don’t blame Star Wars or Petco for this campaign.  If there’s a market for it, why not?  Some of these pictures are just too precious for words.      

petcoleiaears