Monday, October 28, 2013

Mental Health Care Runs Amuck in Psycho-Pass Anime Series

One of the best things about Japanese anime is that as a means of storytelling, it is not limited to specific areas of subject matter. Whereas most American animation is usually limited to kid-friendly material, anime can be applied to just about any genre (drama, romance, horror, etc.). Thus, when I heard about the anime Psycho-Pass, a hard-boiled cyberpunk crime thriller series that spans 22 half-hour episodes, I just had to see it for myself. I'm glad I did--it's one of the smartest sci-fi shows I've ever seen.

The overall plot of Psycho-Pass will sound familiar to anyone who frequents the crime thriller genre: a group of law enforcement officers searching for an elusive suspect who is connected to a series of brutal, gruesome crimes. Yet where Psycho-Pass differs greatly from other crime thrillers is in its setting, a futuristic Japan that is constantly monitored by an omnipresent computer network called the Sybil System. Such a setting puts a unique spin on standard crime thriller character types and conventions, resulting in a challenging and engaging narrative that sci-fi fans will relish.

It is difficult to describe Psycho-Pass without explaining the rules of the world in which it takes place:

* Each Japanese citizen has a "Psycho-Pass", a psychological profile that is routinely read by the Sibyl System. If a citizen's "Crime Coefficient" (a particular value within a Psycho-Pass) rises to a certain level, the Sibyl System will require that citizen to get state-approved psychiatric counseling to lower the Crime Coefficient. If the citizen refuses counseling and/or his Crime Coefficient stays at a high level, he will be identified as a "Latent Criminal" and face a life sentence of institutionalization.

* A person's Crime Coefficient can rise due to stress, anger and trauma, so citizens are strongly encouraged by the state to avoid situations where such emotions can be triggered. For example, artists (musicians, writers, sculptors, etc.) are required to get a state license to prove that their work does not cause the Crime Coefficients of their spectators to increase. Unfortunately, even though the Crime Coefficient is a measurement value that was devised to predict and deter criminal activity, victims of violent crime can also become identified as Latent Criminals due to the trauma they experienced at the hands of criminals.

* Law enforcement duties are divided between two classes of officer: Inspectors and Enforcers. Enforcers are Latent Criminals who show an aptitude for law enforcement work and are tasked with the violent and stressful aspects of law enforcement. Enforcers have more freedom than other Latent Criminals (such as their own living quarters and permission to visit the outside world with the accompaniment of an Inspector) but they are still held in low regard by the general populace; characters frequently refer to Enforcers as nothing more than "hunting dogs" for the Inspectors. It is also not uncommon for an occasional Inspector to be downgraded to an Enforcer.

Psycho-Pass reminds me of other sci-fi TV shows such as Dollhouse and Orphan Black in that it centers on an advanced form of technology and then uses a series of episodes to examine the daily lives of the people who are most immediately impacted by it. As such, Psycho-Pass poses many thought-provoking questions about the relationship between society, law and technology. In particular, it frequently ponders whether it is more important to have a society that is truly just or a society that is successful at convincing its citizenry that it is just. If this is your kind of science fiction, then I can't recommend Psycho-Pass highly enough.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Dark Knight Disappears from Cartoon Network

It's official: Beware the Batman, the animated series that makes up half of Cartoon Network's DC Nation programming block, has been pulled from the network's schedule. For the immediate future, the DC Nation hour will consist of two episodes of Teen Titans Go! There has been some speculation that Beware the Batman will return in January, but nothing has been confirmed as of yet.

If anything, I think that this development speaks volumes about Time Warner's inept handling of the DC universe. Some of the scuttlebutt that I've heard is that the executives at Cartoon Network weren't happy with having DC superhero cartoons "forced" on them by their parent company of Time Warner, so they were happy to get rid of the under-performing Beware the Batman cartoon as soon as they could. If that is true, then that would indicate that Time Warner's current plan to promote DC superheroes in media formats outside of comic books is poorly organized and will mostly likely sputter along for a while without generating any memorable hits.

For those of you who are keeping score, here's how things stand between DC and Marvel when it comes to movies and TV:

* DC has one TV cartoon (Teen Titans Go!) currently on the air, a Superman/Batman movie in the works, and a live-action TV series (Arrow) that is on its second season on CW and has nothing to do with any of the of the DC superhero movies.

* Marvel has three cartoons on the air on Disney XD (Avengers Assemble, Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H., and Ultimate Spider-Man) and a live-action TV series (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) on ABC that's a spin-off of the Marvel superhero movies. Marvel also has Thor and Captain America movies scheduled for release (November 2013 and April 2014, respectively), another Avengers movie in the works, and movies based on superheroes such as Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy and Fantastic Four currently in pre-production. This list does not include upcoming Spider-Man and X-Men movies, movies that are being made without direct supervision from Marvel and its parent company Disney.

I may not be the most well-versed superhero fan, but it looks to me that DC is getting its butt kicked by Marvel. Thanks, Time Warner!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Zombie Babies Infect Spirit Halloween Product Lines

Being a horror fan, I naturally consider myself to be an aficionado of the Halloween holiday season. Nevertheless, my recent visit to a Spirit Halloween store revealed to me how far I am behind the times in recognizing Halloween awesomeness, an awesomeness that's so awesomely awesome that it's criminal for it to be limited to just one season. The awesomeness that I'm talking about is Spirit Halloween's line of "Zombie Baby" props and costumes.

Watch your back, Anne Geddes--they're coming to get you!

Sure, the fusion of horrific imagery and themes with children and things aimed at children has long been a staple of horror art, merchandising and storytelling. What Spirit Halloween has done is take this to a new level by providing a wide selection of props and costumes (some motorized, some not) that make little bundles of joy look like newborn nightmares. When I say "wide selection", I mean just that--it felt like all that was missing from Spirit Halloween's insane zombie infant inventory were replicas of the Crawler and Lurker Necromorphs from the Dead Space video game series. Click below to see a selection of Spirit Halloween Zombie Baby items that will add an extra layer of delirium to your Halloween festivities.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Dawn of the Dead Cupcakes

The Mrs. and I were visiting family over the weekend when one of the young geeks-in-training surprised us with a terrific Halloween treat: zombie cupcakes.

It's rare that a food item combines two things that I really love--zombies and pastry--but these cupcakes had it all. With pretzel sticks for arms, Tic Tacs for fingers, marshmallows for heads, and thick icing for skin, eyes, mouths and hair, these desserts of the damned can cause an epic sugar high that any horror fan would love. All that was missing were a few hapless gingerbread men (with sweet gumdrop brains) for these carnivorous confectionaries to terrorize.

Click below to see more pictures of this horde of undead delights.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Imperial Items I'd Like to See in the Star Wars: Rebels Animated Series

This year's New York Comic Con (NYCC) came and went last weekend, and it had the usual geeky fanfare: panel discussions, celebrity appearances, cosplay, and previews of upcoming films, TV shows, and merchandise. From this particular NYCC event, the one event that really stood out from the others was the preview presentation of the upcoming Star Wars: Rebels, a CGI animated series that will debut in the fall of 2014 on Disney XD. The presentation was given by Lucasfilm’s Pablo Hidalgo, and it gave many tantalizing glimpses into the series that will show fans what the Star Wars universe was like during the rapid growth of the Empire after the Clone Wars and the early days of the Rebel Alliance.

Of the many details that were revealed during the presentation, one in particular caught my attention: the inclusion of vintage Star Wars toys as part of the series' vehicles and weapons. In particular, the Imperial Troop Transport, a vehicle toy that was released by Kenner as part of their toy line in the late 70s, will be used by the Imperial characters in Rebels.

The original Imperial Troop Transporter toy by Kenner ... 

... and the Imperial Troop Transporter that will be seen in Star Wars: Rebels.

With that in mind--and the fact that toy companies love to reissue old toys to save on production costs--Rebels could bring back many previous toy designs into official Star Wars canon. Read on to see some additional Imperial vehicles and Stromtroopers that could be returned to the spotlight through Rebels.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

DC and Marvel Superhero Cartoon Report Card, Fall 2013 Edition

Last fall, I did a report card post about the DC and Marvel superhero cartoons on Cartoon Network and Disney XD. Since almost all of the cartoons from last year have been replaced with new cartoons (Ultimate Spider-Man is the only one that's still on the air), I think that now would be a good time to take a look at where things stand for animated DC and Marvel titles and how they reflect larger expansion plans to push both classic and obscure superhero characters from the comics onto multiple media platforms. Read on ...

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Nintendo Goes Retro in Wii Party U

Oh, Nintendo ... I just can't quit you. Even though I don't have the Wii U console and probably won't for a long time to come, I still like to keep an eye on what Nintendo is doing to see the new ideas it brings to the world of video games. With the upcoming minigame collection title Wii Party U, not only will players get the unique experience of asymmetrical game play but they will also get a high-tech flashback to a concept that was popular during the early years of portable video games: "head-to-head" tabletop gaming.

From what I have seen in the ads and articles about Wii Party U, 15 of the two-player minigames will be limited to the Wii U GamePad's display screen and require players to share the GamePad controls to play competitively or cooperatively. The picture below provides an example of what this kind of game play would look like, and the minigames that fall into this format include foosball, baseball, and slot car racing.

When I saw video footage of these kinds of two-player Wii Party U games in action, it reminded me of how early portable video game producers such as Mattel and Tiger would produce battery-powered tabletop games that two players could play together. Most of these games were sports games although there were some exceptions, such as the Star Wars Electronic Laser Battle Game.

To give you a better idea of what these games were like back in the late 70s and early 80s, here are two commercials for portable head-to-head electronic games:

Monday, October 7, 2013

A Self-Made Superhero Gets an Upgrade in Iron Man 3

Due to financial problems beyond my control last summer, I have begun to catch up on all the box office fun I missed just a few months ago. First up: Iron Man 3, the concluding chapter in the trilogy about Marvel's resident techno-genius Tony Stark and his super-powered alter ego.

Iron Man 3 opens with Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) still reeling from the events in The Avengers movie. Overwhelmed by the many possible threats that could doom humanity, he has become obsessed with upgrading Iron Man--and himself--to counter any and all future menaces. Further complicating the picture are the appearances of the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a terrorist mastermind who has been orchestrating a series of surprise attacks around the world, and Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a corporate rival who threatens to topple Stark Industries through his own "think tank" called Advanced Idea Mechanics (AIM). When a surprise attack by the Mandarin forces him away from home and friends, Stark has to rely on his intelligence and resourcefulness to stop the Mandarin and uncover AIM's secret agenda.

Long story short, I loved Iron Man 3 and I regret not seeing it in 3D on the big screen. It's everything a high-octane superhero film should be: witty without being campy, compelling without being ponderous, and thrilling without being shallow. It succeeds as a sequel, building upon the events in The Avengers and the previous Iron Man movies to reflect how Stark and his two closest allies Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) have changed over the course of the stories. It also has a plot that makes ample usage of many characters and ideas from the Marvel universe (e.g., AIM, Extremis, the Mandarin, etc.). If Iron Man 3 is any indication of how Marvel plans to develop more movies based on its vast universe of characters and settings, then I think that superhero movie fans are in for many more blockbuster treats in the summers to come.

As I mentioned in my review of Iron Man 2, superhero stores are at their most compelling when they act as parables of power. As such, Iron Man 3 brings Stark's personal crisis about his responsibility towards others to a complete circle. In Iron Man, Stark bowed out of the international arms race because he felt that he could do more good as a superhero; in Iron Man 3, Stark has to come to grips that he never really left the arms race at all, that by becoming Iron Man he just exchanged his participation in one arms race for another. This is an intriguing dilemma for a superhero movie to portray, and Downey's performance as Stark is up to the challenge. (In light of the film's plot, I think that putting Stark on movie's poster as a falling Icarus was a nice touch.) The fact that the film is able to tell an entertaining story by largely keeping Stark outside of his Iron Man armor--working out his problems without routinely resorting to superheroics--speaks to how well made Iron Man 3 is. I also liked the film's jab at how the modern military-industrial complex needs to create villains for the sake of maintaining profit. In fact, given his role in RoboCop, I suspect that the inclusion of Miguel Ferrer in the cast of Iron Man 3 was a deliberate wink to Paul Verhoeven's dark satire of America's militarism.

I'm sure that Hollywood's current infatuation with superheroes will eventually reach a point of diminishing returns, but Iron Man 3 indicates to me that we are far from that right now. Until DC and its corporate masters at Time Warner come up with a better series of superhero movies, I'll be happy to make mine Marvel.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Great Moments in Video Game Licensing History: Alligator People and Planet of the Apes for the Atari 2600

Since early days of their history, video games have been used like any other form of merchandising--as the recipients of licenses for popular characters, movies and TV shows for the sake of making money based on name recognition. It didn't matter how limited the graphics and game play options were in early video games; as long as gamers were willing to associate vague shapes, garbled noises and repetitive tasks with famous characters such as Buck Rogers, Dracula, Popeye and Superman, entertainment companies were willing to add video games to their vast inventories of licensed merchandise.

Yet as with most things in the entertainment industry, some oddities were bound to surface in what would appear to be a straightforward system. Case in point: unreleased games based on The Alligator People (1959) and Planet of the Apes (1968) for the Atari 2600. I can understand why Atari, Intellivision and Coleco were looking for new game content to promote their respective consoles in the early days of home gaming, but using licenses as obscure as Alligator People or in decline as Planet of the Apes to develop games doesn't make much sense even by today's standards. Read on for more details about these strange artifacts from video game history.