Tag: Star Wars

Day 994: The Game Of Milton Bradley’s Life

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I confess: I am but one week away from commemorating my 40th year on this planet, and I have yet to ever play The Game of Life. This is not due to some ethical or existential objection to simulating the course of one’s existence upon a square slab of cardboard, but rather due to my friends and I having spent our youthful recreation time with Star Wars toys and kindly ol’ Super Mario. I never got around to playing Candyland either.

As beloved as this board game may be, with its plastic minivans, its cruel cash-drains and generous paydays, buried deep within its roots is a transformative story. The original version of the game, concocted by Mr. Milton Bradley himself, elevated the concept of gaming from prescriptive quests for moral elevation to a more practical and modernized measure of success. More importantly, it came packaged with choice.

The Game of Life as we know it (well, as you probably know it, since I’ve never played the thing) features one early decision: go to school or get a job. After that, each soul is subjected to the whim of the spiteful spinner, suggesting that life is but a cavalcade of random collisions, and that we are always at the mercy of the fickle flick of fate. Mr. Bradley’s outlook on destiny was far more empowering.

Milton Bradley, 1860s

Tracing the Bradley lineage would suggest that a rather dreary definition of “life” could have taken center-stage in his outlook. The family tree was planted in America in 1635, and since then its bark shows the hatchet-marks of murder, Indian attack, kidnapping, and at one point hot embers being poured into an infant’s mouth. When Milton finally squeezed his way onto the planet in 1836, the Bradleys were a little less prone to being butchered, but far from being economic titans. Read more…

Day 970: How One Woman’s Bad Advice Helped To Crumble An Empire

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A modicum of historical investigation, along with a smidge of fact-manipulation in order to build a semi-credible opening sentence has revealed a morsel of data heretofore unknown to me: the Roman Empire – the most mighty and triumphant political juggernaut of the early A.D.’s – was tipped over to a partial crumble, all because some guy listened to his mother.

That may seem like an exaggeration. A slight inflation of documented truth or the set-up for a bit of shtick. But history will back me up on this. By 476, the Roman Empire in the west had been sneezed into debris. It kept up appearances out east for another millennium, but the west had shuffled on to the Middle Ages, where the nightlife was more vibrant, despite the clothes being far less stylish.

History recalls the events of 235 AD as the start of the Crisis of the Third Century. Rome became a land with no leader, and with no one able to pick up a phone and coordinate their collective shit, the Europe-spanning Empire fell into troubled confusion. And the wheels were all set into motion by one guy’s mother, who passed on what could be viewed as some of the crappiest historic advice ever given.

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The story begins with Mark Antony, that kook from all those wacky Shakespeare movies. When he was smited by Octavian in 31 BC, the table was set for what’s known as the Pax Romana – a 200 year period of unprecedented peace. The Roman Empire inflated to the Atlantic, deep into the Middle East, and south into Africa, all with relatively little military flexing. Then along came Emperor Alexander Severus. Read more…

Day 937: Hollywood’s Hollywood Ending – USA vs. Paramount Pictures, 1948

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For those who wax nostalgic about the Golden Age of Hollywood, who swoon over the catchlights dazzling in Rita Hayworth’s dark chocolate eyes, who are pushed to the brink of their seat cushions by a stabbing violin score, or who treasure a film’s complete batch of credits before the story gets rolling, you may need to taste that era’s whole truth. Sheltered in the oligopolic thatch of corporate hubris, the Big Five studios were paying themselves twice, fortifying their sweet-spot on the dais of celluloid art with soggy sandbags of nefarious business practices.

When the chips finally fell on the Golden Age, they landed with such a clatter the movie business crumpled into a slump the likes of which we’d never see again; even the modern age of easily-snatchable torrents and duplicitous street vendors pitching bootleg blockbusters hasn’t throttled the industry like this.

For the struggling filmmaker or the tiny fledgling production company, adrift without financial paddle in a sweaty sea of studio bullies, the Golden Age of Hollywood was an ordeal. It took until 1948 for the United States Supreme Court to peel the wings off the sleazy sideshow of backdoor studio arrangements, and they managed to pack the full heft of their punch into one near-unanimous decision.

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Piecing together the components of a relatively new art form required some experimentation, allowing a few different business models to walk the industry’s catwalk while the studios toyed with the best way to maximize profits while maintaining the high aesthetic of the art form itself. I’m kidding of course; they wanted to make money, and it was clear from the moment Tommy Edison’s industry stranglehold was quashed by the feds in 1915 that the best way to do that was to keep everything in-house. Read more…

Day 914: Retching At The Wretched – Worst Films Part 7

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There are certain cinephiles – and I’m proud to call myself one of them – who take pleasure in the savory low-hanging fruit known as bad movies. This is my seventh (and most likely final) installment in my Worst Movies series, and I believe it to be an opportune moment to discuss the semantic differences between a bad movie and a shitty movie. A bad movie invites an unintentioned hilarity. A bad movie accidentally reveals the fishing line holding up the rocket ship, spills an unlikely twelve gallons of blood from a victim’s abdomen or demonstrates an extraordinary aptitude for stilted, unnatural dialogue.

A shitty movie either sets out to be a shitty movie from the start, or else it has no pretentions whatsoever. Making a bad movie on purpose will inevitably result in a shitty movie. Take a gander at the insufferable (but sincere) madness of Manos: The Hands of Fate, an exercise in bungled horror, then sit through last year’s Sharknado. Yes, the latter is bad. But it knows it’s bad.

Sharknado, and indeed the bulk of films released by The Asylum, a film studio that specializes in ‘mockbusters’ and monster movies that pay an almost Mystery Science Theater-esque tribute to the monster flicks of the 50s and 60s, are shitty movies. It’s hard to find enjoyment in sitting with friends and making derisive jokes about these flicks when the creators, cast and crew of the films have probably already made the same jokes.

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The mockbusters genre began with movies that would almost certainly fit more snugly into the ‘bad’ category than the ‘shitty’ one. Unlike the modern direct-to-cable excursions into over-the-topsville, mockbusters were legitimate attempts to ride someone else’s box office coattails into a modest profit. When The Creature From The Black Lagoon became the go-to monster epic of 1954, a couple of contract employees at Universal – one of whom was Jack Kevan, the guy who had designed the aforementioned Creature’s costume – decided to produce a knock-off called The Monster of Piedras Blancas. Read more…

Day 902: The Guy Who Made Movies Sound So Damn Good

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If I were to venture west (okay, mostly south and just a little west) to stake my claim on a Hollywood career, I might end up as Channing Tatum’s body-double (or, more likely, Danny DeVito’s), or if I’m lucky, as Steven Spielberg’s on-set beard-groomer. Either way, I’d be looking at professions that have existed for decades – hardly anything original.

But when Jack Foley moved west to Los Angeles, he couldn’t have possibly foreseen the mark he’d have on the industry, especially since the industry as we know it didn’t technically exist yet. There were movies being made, but none containing the element for which Jack would come to be known: sound.

I think most people are aware by now of the existence of Foley artists – those inventive folks who stomp in gravel pits and slap cuts of steak in real-time in order to sprinkle our movies with legit-sounding effects. This sounds like a job that should be streaked with sepia, a faded relic from a time when Mothra destroyed model cities and spaceships still sported a thin line of fishing wire as they cruised through the stars. But despite the omnipresence of meddling computers, these guys still exist. And they still function behind the scenes as some of the most inventive and unheralded geniuses in the movie game.

And it’s all because of this guy:

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Jack grew up in Yorkville, New York, attending public school with James Cagney and Arthur Murray. He moved to California with his wife for the same reason most people did – the weather. He hooked up with the movie business for the same reason so many Californians did – it was the most exciting thing going at the time. Well, that and necessity. When the farmers of Bishop, California sold their farms to the City of Los Angeles for water rights, Jack helped to save his local economy by promoting the area as a sweet location for shooting westerns. Jack had his first film career: a location scout. Read more…

Day 893: The Weird Cocoon-Like Prison Of The Gibbons Twins

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Growing up as an only child, whose only companions were the top-notch offerings of prime-time network television, I always wanted a sibling. But beyond that, I was downright fascinated with twins. That unspoken connection – some even say psychic communication – poked at the crusty, ashen embers of my imagination with a tempting stick. I always wanted that intrinsic bond, and I just wasn’t finding it with Mr. Belvedere.

Researchers have found that as many as one in eight pregnancies starts off as a twin pregnancy. One in eight. Sometimes one of the little zygotes dies so early in the pregnancy it isn’t detected, other times they might fuse together and form a single embryo. That’s a creepy thought, that there’s a real possibility that I might be made up of two pre-people.

But I’m interested in actual twins, those who split the rent on their womb with a view. And there’s a particular set of twins that has piqued my interest today, a pair of Barbados-born, Welsh-raised girls named June and Jennifer Gibbons. Their story grabs hold of the symbiotic closeness of twin lore and twists into something remarkably strange.

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Language development in twins has always been of interest to those who like to poke and prod at young’uns. There is a higher rate of delay among twins in grabbing hold of language, and not because of any hiccup in their cerebral wiring. Twins often exhibit something called idioglossia, which is a made-up language (okay, I suppose all languages are ‘made-up’ if you want to be picky about it) spoken by only a few people, sometimes only one. Read more…

Day 889: Palming, Swinging And Sungazing Your Way To Perfect Vision!

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The day I acquired my first pair of eyeglasses – those big, clunky 80’s frames that cock-blocked so many teens in the throes of inescapable hormones. I was thirteen and wholly displeased. Sure, now I could read my Star Wars poster from across the room and I no longer had to squint at the TV to see which blur was Maddie and which was David, but at what cost? A life sentence of either sticking lenses into my eye socket or plunking a clunky plastic-glass-and-metal accessory onto my face?

If only I had known about William Horatio Bates and his patented (well, not really, but he wrote it down) method of eyeball therapy. According to Bates, no one needs eyeglasses. We merely have to train our eyes not to strain, and they will eventually obey us and restore our perfect eyesight. Bates was – pardon the pun – a visionary. Plus, he was a legitimate ophthalmologist.

Unfortunately he was also a notable peddler of theories that were so lacking in scientific merit and validation, you could probably get a decent shvitz from the steam rising off the bullshit in his teachings. But Bates had a golden shovel, and his theories received a wide swath of attention. If only he’d been right.

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Bates believed that our most common eye problems – nearsightedness, farsightedness, astigmatism and presbyopia (the deterioration of close-up vision due to aging) – were caused by the tension of the muscles around the eyeball. These muscles were acting wonky because of our mental strain. If we could relieve our strain, our eyes could be cured. It’s all in the mind, you see. Even blood circulation problems, which Bates linked to glaucoma, cataracts, double-vision, as well as crossed and lazy eyes, was all mental. Read more…

Day 864: Mu-vin’ On Up From The Lost Continent

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“The antediluvian kings colonized the world; all the gods who play in the mythological dramas in all legends from all lands were in Atlantis.”

This is an excerpt from the legend of Atlantis – or more accurately from the 1968 Donovan song “Atlantis”, but it makes my point. Since the days of Ancient Greece when Plato wove the notion into his dialogues Timaeus and Critias, humans have postulated on the possible existence of a great civilization that sunk into the sea. Once the European jet-set (or large-boat-set, I guess) discovered the New World, the concept of Atlantis was used to explain some of the wonders of the tribes they encountered. The sunken island has a glorious history.

All of it completely fiction, of course. Atlantis is not one of our planet’s uncovered mysteries like the Bermuda Triangle or the physical content of a McRib. Europeans tried to use it as justification for the existence of the Mayan culture because there was no way those indigenous doofuses could have concocted such an elaborate civilization on their own, right?

If you have to invent an entire continent to justify your inherent racism, maybe it’s time to give it up.

Atlantis is not the only slab of land that Mother Earth has misplaced. We should also look to that other massive ocean and the lost island of Mu.

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We can blame the so-called Mu mystery on Augustus Le Plongeon, a 19th-century writer who had investigated the Mayan ruins in Yucatàn and allegedly translated some of the ancient writings. Actually he was working off a mistranslation of a piece of Mayan literature then called the Troano Codex, and he interpreted the name ‘Mu’ to mean a land that had sunk after a catastrophe. It was a tiny leap of connection for Le Plongeon to decide that Mu was Atlantis, or something just like it. He claimed that the magnificence of Ancient Egypt was founded by Queen Moo (probably not a cow), a refugee of Mu. Read more…

Day 852: The Greatest Toy On Four Wheels

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I may have had a slightly distorted sense of value when I was a child. If I’d been on a sinking boat with the ability to save only a family of four or my Star Wars toys… well, I’m just glad it never came to that. And while I’d have leapt between a bullet and my cherished Kenner Greedo, my collection of Hot Wheels and Matchbox die-cast cars were a close second. It was hard concocting narratives more complex and engaging than a Fast & Furious movie, but dammit I tried.

My Hot Wheels cars convinced me that a giant staircase was navigable terrain, provided I stick to slow-motion jump moves. They taught that treadless tires could propel a Datsun 280Z through thick shag carpeting. And while I knew back then that I’d never become the kind of guy who would stand and nod knowingly at a 455 crate engine with Edelbrock aluminum heads, I would certainly be the kind of guy who likes to roll stuff down ramps and watch them crash.

There are other brands, of course. Corgi, Husky and Lledo made passable mini-vehicles (though I always felt uncomfortable grabbing hold of a Dinky), but Hot Wheels and Matchbox made the superior products. Just as I wasn’t going to accept a Star Striker Spaceship in place of a Millennium Falcon, I had no use for a lime-green Husky-brand Studebaker station wagon. I wanted the good stuff.

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The original Matchbox cars debuted in 1953 and were sold in – surprise! – matchboxes, or tiny replicas of matchboxes. Like Corgi and Dinky, their main competitors, Matchbox was a British company. The early models didn’t feature windows or interiors; they were looking to keep costs down, and assumed that British kids had enough imagination that they could formulate their own mental bucket seats if necessary. They were well-made and outrageously popular. Matchbox dwarfed the competition by 1968. Read more…

Day 832: The Anti-Farting Law That Nearly Was

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Every so often a story wanders down the legal footpath, leaving in its wake the floral stench of incalculable weirdness. In the case of the 2011 Air Fouling Legislation in the tiny southern African country of Malawi, the scent is remarkably different. This is the smell of post-legume discipline and puckered determination. This is the smell of one nation doing its best to think green, to live clean and to do right by its citizenry.

This is Malawi telling people: thou shalt not fart.

Well, not really. But for a brief period this was the government’s message, and it was this message that scooted around the globe and lit up the grins of news editors everywhere. It might have all stemmed from a misunderstanding, and deeper still from a genuine desire for a nation’s self-improvement, but it was one of the first pebbles in an eventual landslide that would throw the country into chaos and prematurely end the lives of several people.

I’m sure the backstory to the violent 2011 protests in Malawi can be traced much further than an anti-farting legislation. But this all happened right at the soil level, where the roots become the tree. It’s a strange tale with a downright cheek-clenching twist.

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Malawi in 2011 was not about to challenge Disneyland’s claim to being the happiest place on earth. There were fuel shortages, electricity shortages, corruption, nepotism, a controversial new national flag and a general distrust of democratically-elected President Bingu wa Mutharika. The press was struggling with partial suppression, and the tenuous thread of democracy that was holding the country together was beginning to fray from the constant pull of the people’s discontent. Read more…