Saturday, March 26, 2011

From the Mouths of Cereal Boxes

For as far back as I can remember breakfast cereal has been a source of wonderment and anticipation.  This is not because I particularly enjoy soggy, sugar-infused grains formed into flakes or squares or whatever as opposed to a good solid meal of eggs, bacon, french toast, a bagel, home fries and baked beans (although most mornings I get the big, soggy bowl of Frosted Flakes because that's typically all I have time for).  In North America this is not unusual as breakfast has really become synonymous with cold bowls of milk-drowned cereal I can only assume is due to extensive marketing on the part of the major cereal companies and our own laziness as a culture that prevents us from getting up half an hour earlier to cook up some good eats.  I can personally attest to the laziness, but I can only speculate on the marketing strategies used by Kellog and Post though it doesn't take a Harvard grad to figure it out.  Marketing at its core is not that complex and it generally follows two (hopefully separate) lines of thought: sex and children.  In the case of cereal the marketing has typically been targeted at children in the form of flashy cartoon characters (except Count Chocula who lacks both flash and an appetizing hook.  I mean, a shit-coloured vampire?  Dark, depressing and the colour of feces.  Fantastic.) and cheap, plastic prizes inside.  The second one was fucking genius.

There were some days when the thought of getting the prize in the cereal box was all that got me out of bed in morning.  There were some even worse days when the thought of that useless hunk of plastic was all that kept me going through the whole day.  Kindergarden can be a harsh mistress.  And for me it wasn't even a sure thing.  Having three siblings gave me (at best) a one in four chance of getting my hands on that motherfucker.  There came a point where intervention on the part of mom and dad simply didn't cut it any more.  First of all, they couldn't keep track of who's turn it was, because (and righfully so) they probably didn't give a shit about hunks of plastic shaped into barely recognizable characters or shapes in the bottom of boxes of Shreddies.  So it became a battle royale, survivor of the fittest, secret, stealth, preemptive military strike scenario.  You had to be a fucking cereal prize sniper in my house to get your hands on the goods after a while. 

There used to be more of a random element because the cereal companies would just kind of toss the prizes into the box haphazardly.  I always imagined some dude named "Miguel" with a ratty moustache and a hairnet whose grasp of the English language consisted of "Yes", "No" and "Fuck you Eddie Murphy" with a stupified look on his face tossing those prizes into the boxes as they went by on a conveyor belt.  Sometimes you'd get the prize with the first bowl.  But then the cereal companies got craftier and started maing sure the toys were located securely at the bottom of the box.  This necessesitated a change in strategy.  You couldn't just wait until the box was empty.  We played the "trying-to-take-exactly-the-right-amount-of-cereal-to-time-it-so-you-emptied-the-box-next-time" game for a while but quickly realized we could just skip all that bullshit posturing and just reach down into the bottom of the cereal box.  But you couldn't just reach in when the box was full and you couldn't do it in full view of anyone else in the family.  There was a point of critical mass when the box was empty enough that you could reach in and quickly snatch the prize and draw your arm out without making a mess and thereby drawing attention to your covert operation.  If any of your brothers or sisters saw what you were doing there would immediately be a rush to claim the prize and usurp all the time and ffort you put into stealing it from them in the first place.  Penultimate worst case scenario was a call for arbitration from mom and dad almost guaranteeing that the person who had preemptively seized the prize would be excluded from the selection process entirely thereby negating days of careful planning.

Still it made breakfast something more than just picking through your bowl of Lucky Charms for all the marshmallows and then secretly dumping the soggy, brown, bloated, tasteless cereal pieces into the garbage when nobody was looking so you wouldn't get the "kids starving in Africa" bullshit speech.  We must have gotten hundreds if not thousands of these fucking toys.  I remember several campaigns in particular.  There was the monsters in my pocket era which was small plastic figures of famous monsters such as the Yeti and the Loch Ness Monster.  There was the Star Trek campaign (that one I remember pretty vivedly was found in boxes of Shreddies) which allowed millions of prepubescent geeks, nerds, and fanboys to collect tiny models of the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-D of course.  The sad thing is I didn't even have to look that up on Wikipedia), the Borg cube, the Klingon Bird of Prey and the Romulan warbird that they could either display proudly on their windowsills or engage in riveting interstellar battles on the playground with their friends before being beaten up by bullies with seemingly Gorn-like strength.  The warbird in particular I remember being particularly rare.  There was a host of other shit too like some kind of strange disk shooter with pictures of Darkwing Duck on them.  They got discarded pretty quickly.  

Breakfast cereal is such an integral part of our culture that one can't but be conscious of it and over time I've noticed a shift in ideology particulrly with the types of prizes they've put in them over the years.  I remember a gradual shift away from the toys to various other prizes.  With the advent of DVD's movies were now small enough to put inside -or even stick to the outside of- cereal boxes, although only the shittiest movies need apply for this position.  Can you say AIRBUD or THE MASK?  Yeah, it got that bad.  Those were some dark days for cereal eaters and free-thinking people the world over.  For a while there I noticed that small books were becoming popular prizes, though I was in university at the time so breakfast for me usually consisted of waffles, leftover pizza, or some raw Pilsbury choclate chip cookie dough and a glass of orange juice so luckily I never experienced the disappointment of finding a fucking book in my cereal that must have emotionally crippled an entire generation of children.  Then there was a drastic shift in breakfast cereal marketing ideology that focused not on the children who -I imagine it was always assumed- would theoretically bug the shit out of their parents until they caved and bought them whatever sugary, cavity-forming crap had the prizes they wanted, but on the adults who were actually spending their hard-earned cash on said sugary crap.

This ideology shift led to such things as send-away offers.  Now I suppose there were always send-away offers, though now they seem to occur with more frequency and as an adult I pay attention to that shit now.  My wife and I got, like, five free shirts thanks to boxes of Cheerios after the 2010 Winter Olympics.  Now they had stupid Olympic shit on them, but they were full size, decently constructed shirts that cost me no money so I'll suck it up and wear a stupid hockey score on my chest.  The best thing, though, is now some cereal companies have made some kind of deal with Cineplex Odeon and every so often they print these coupons on the inside of boxes of cereal like Oatmeal Crisp (get the almond, it's fucking delicious) that -depending on the month- get you either a free general movie pass or a free small popcorn or drink.  To me this is worth its weight in gold and was perhaps the most brilliant marketing device in the history of cereal.  Two cultural icons coming together.  I say "breakfast", you say "cereal."  I say "default social activity," you say "the movies."  Either way this new prize really brings back those feelings of excitement and anticipation I had as a kid waiting for the next hunk of plastic to fall out of my box of Fruit Loops.

Like most things in life, however, the free movie pass cereal prize has been a mixed blessing at best.  Over the past couple years these coupons have driven me to use them up before they expire on movies I might not otherwise have seen.  This has led me to watch such disasters as OBSERVE AND REPORT and FIGHTING.  Although I didn't pay any money to see these films I paid a much higher cost.  I can't recall any of the good movies I've seen because of these coupons, though I do recall using many of them and I it wasn't all on shit.  Most recently, however, I was bombarded by another salvo of these coupons and for whatver reason was unable to use them up until the very end of February and so ended up going with my buddy Ryebone to watch UNKNOWN on a Sunday evening.  It's kind of strange looking back that my social callendar was dictated by the back of a cereal box.  Perhaps that's kind of pathetic or perhaps Dr. Ian Malcolm was right about all that chaos theory stuff.

I wasn't too worried about UNKNOWN, though, simply because it starred Liam Neeson.  Yes, he inspires that much confidence.  I wasn't expecting a sprawling cinematc opus by any means, but I envisioned something along the lines of TAKEN 2 or at least TAKEN 1.5 judging by the thankfully misleading trailers.  What I got was something entirely different.  UNKNOWN is not an action-packed thrill ride by any stretch, although it does have some requisite Liam Neeson kicking some serious ass scenes.  What UNKNOWN is really about is how we construct our identities, although it lacked the subtlety of other movies that have dealt with the same kind of themes like MEMENTO. 

UNKNOWN follows a scientist by the name of Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) who is in Germany to give a lecture at some kind of green energy summit.  Almost immediately upon arriving at the hotel with his hot wife Elizabeth (January Jones) he leaves her to go back to the airport to retreive a lost briefcase.  To get back to the airport he enlists the services of perhaps the hottest cabbie in the history of the universe (Diane Kruger).  On the way back to the airport, however, Harris and his cabbie get into a freak accident and he wakes up from a coma a few days later with extensive memory loss.  He tracks down his wife only to discover that she seems not to know him and some other poser (Aidan Quinn) has taken over his identity.  Now on the run from the law and from some other mysterious agents with obviously sinister motives Harris and the hot cabbie have to fight for his right to party... and exist.

Now the logistics of literally stealing someone's identity as opposed to traditional identity theft (ie. using a person's identity via credit card or some other piece of identification to impersonate them for monetary gain)are mindboggling, and under normal circumstances would be completely impossible (ie.making your wife willingly believe that somebody else who looks nothing like you but starts using your name is the man she's been married to for the last fifteen years, assuming of course that she's been sexually satisfied that whole time, which isn't necessarily your fault, I mean sometimes you just want to go to sleep after a long day) however in the context of this movie it all makes sort of perfect sense.  I say in the context of the movie because the entire premise of UNKNOWN is compltely ridiculous and only makes sense within the realm movie logic where a cranial injury can selectively destroy a man's real identity leaving a recently constructed one still in tact and not affect his fine motor skills or his libido and that simply learning the truth about himself is enough to trigger the ass-kicking portions of his memory, but nothing else.  But, I mean, you can (and countless loses on the internet do on a daily basis) pick apart just about any movie so I won't condemn the ridiculous because that's what I go to the movies to see: the ridiculous become probable.

UNKNOWN was a strange beast: a B-list action movie maquarading as an A-list psychological thriller with an A-list cast.  And it was slightly successful.  Liam Neeson basically carries the film, though the rest of the cast did a great job too.  The great thingabout Neeson -besides the fact that he's an amazing actor- is that he is totally aware of the type of film he's making and even though he plays a role like Martin Harris completely straight.  He knows the type of film he's in and doesn't try to make it more than that.  He is a completely unpretentious actor which really helped save the film.  UNKNOWN really raised some fascinating questions -albeit awkwardly- about how one's identity is constructed, but it never goes into any real depth exploring those themes which was only slightly disappointing.  UNKNOWN seemed to be having an identity crisis of it's own: was it a spy action thriller or was it a psychological exploration set within the context of the spy movie archetype?

In the end UNKNOWN was a lot like those prizes I used to get in cereal boxes as a kid: eagerly anticpated, briefly enjoyed, and quickly discarded.  It was a nice distraction and (in my case at least) worth the price of admission (because it was free!  Get it?).  It was a nice little distraction on a Sunday afternoon, but it will definitely go on my "Won't Buy It Myself But Will Accept It As AGift And Might Not Sell It For a Few Years" movie list.  Still, UNKNOWN was by far not the worst thing I've ever found in a box of cereal.  I give UNKNOWN a 5/10 = One Confused Looking Head Getting a Cab Ride From a Hot Cabbie On His Way To Foil An Assassination               


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