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by Tyler Gould

6 Jan 2010

This song would probably be really fun to play on Rock Band, if you can get a bunch of expert players together. The drums alone would be more exhausting than P90X. Some lunkhead playing on medium would kill the mood, but that’s what you get for associating with lunkheads. Someday, I hope all songs will be evaluated based on how fun their video game approximations might be to play. Contra comes out next week, if you don’t make it far enough in the video to hear it from Dave himself.

by PopMatters Staff

6 Jan 2010

You’ve heard Ludovico Einaudi’s music in the trailer for The Reader, in an ad for American Airlines with Kevin Spacey, in the 2009 NBA Championship Playoffs advertisements in the US, a number of television placements as well as 17 of his tracks used in the upcoming film Dirt! The Movie

Einaudi has written 15 film scores, several which won prizes as best soundtracks in a variety of European film festivals, including the BAAF award for his soundtrack for Shane Meadow’s film, This is England

Einaudi was the only classical artist invited to play the iTunes Festival in Europe and on his last live tour, he performed more than 120 concerts all over the world including India, Europe, Japan and the US. His first US release, Divenire (2008), debuted at #1 on the iTunes Classical Chart and at #78 on their pop chart. The release was also nominated for “Album of the Year” by the Classical Brit Awards.

Formerly trained in Conservatorio Verdi in Milan, Einaudi now lives on a vineyard in the Italian region of Piedmont where his latest CD, Nightbook (released in the US this month), was conceived.

by G. Christopher Williams

6 Jan 2010

I sometimes wonder if the Hayes Code and the FCC has led us to believe that sex never occurred before the advent of color.  Much like the film Pleasantville, Pandemic’s new game The Saboteur leans on the conceit of liberation being represented by transforming a black and white world into color.  More specifically and also much like Pleasantville liberation is marked initially by sexual freedom being the most obvious form of liberation.

The game’s opening sequence represents this concept visually as the player is greeted by a bare chested woman in black and white whose darkened form is slowly lit by the glare of stage lights and the camera pans back to takes in her whole hip swinging burlesque performance at La Belle Nuit.  Behind her emerges a backdrop featuring a fully colorized Paris cityscape.  It is, after all, the City of Lights.

The camera continues to pan back revealing a group of drunken Nazis enjoying the view, who are interestingly the only Nazis in the game not programmed to respond with suspicion to Sean Devlin’s (the game’s protagonist) any deviance from normative behavior while on the Paris streets (like climbing a building, drawing a weapon, or lighting a stick of dynamite).  Devlin himself is revealed at the bar and the player is quickly immersed in the first mission of the game, whose goal is to light up and colorize the currently black and white Paris streets by liberating the city from Nazi oppression.

That La Belle Nuit is in the first neighborhood that is colorized, the red-light district, is telegraphed by the stage performance.  The Parisian heart apparently beats to the sexual freedom embraced in its bordellos and strip clubs.  Later missions will also serve to free areas of the city associated with French culture and more traditional arts (like freeing the neighborhoods containing the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower or stopping a book burning occurring beneath the Arc de Triomphe), but the freedom of expression that Nazi rule would stamp out ostensibly begins with this most basic expression of a liberated libido.

However, the game does not necessarily begin as described if the player has not purchased a copy of the game and downloaded a free add-on to the game called “The Midnight Club” or rented a copy of the Xbox version (for example) and purchased this addition to the game for 240 MS points (about $3.00).  A player loading up The Saboteur without the “Nudity” feature on will instead be witness to the same scene, but the stripper will be just barely clad in pasties, which in and of itself seems to have little bearing on the implications of the sequence that I have described above, particularly in terms of the game’s themes and those themes’ relation to the game play.  Additionally, though, a room in La Belle Nuit will be missing, an underground speakeasy featuring additional burlesque dances and a game that allows the player to unlock an additional pimped out ride for the game.

Now I realize that breasts can sell a product, but “The Midnight Club” is an interesting way of selling product as it depends on such a prurient interest on the player’s part in an interesting way. The literal value of “The Midnight Club” is contingent in part on the permanency of ownership.  As I see it, as a marketing device, “The Midnight Club” download suggests a different value than the one implied by the opening cut scene’s thematic purposes.  Indeed, rather than liberate the player, it encourages a very specific action based on the player’s own libidinous propensities: purchase of the game, especially a new copy of the game. 

While one could certainly rent and play The Saboteur and still get the vibe of the game, it seems unlikely that most players interested in the nude sequences are likely to want to purchase a download online if they intend to later turn the game back in to the video store.  Though $3.00 might be the value of temporary virtual nipples (assumedly one would drop a little more on real ones at a real club?).  However, it is probably a cost that is close to doubling the cost of the rental itself. 

Alternately, players looking for a copy of the game on the cheap could purchase it used, but since the code that ships with the game will only allow for a download to a single console itself (and assuming the original owner of the game would have wanted to see pixelated nipples), any used version of the game will be lacking the free version. Thus, once again the value of nudity is a few bucks more.  Making this purchase for $3.00 more sensible practically since the content would be relevant throughout ownership of the disk, but it still might be easier to simply buy the game outright, newly packaged with fresh, free nudity. 

It seems to me then that “The Midnight Club” rather than being a download intended to make some additional money on the basis of fans willing to purchase a game (as most downloadable content seems to exist for the purposes of gathering “a few dollars more”) that instead it might intend to serve as one of the primary basis for sales (as opposed to rentals) to begin with.  It seems an interesting gambit to maximize copies that go directly to the player as a single serve game rather than sitting on the shelf of some video store to be pawed at promiscuously by a heap of players whose money is being thrown at the rental agency rather than at the publisher and developer. 

If such thinking was part of the thinking about the distribution model for “The Midnight Club” (and certainly the club could simply have been included on the disk without the histrionics necessary for downloading the content if the only thought was to protect people from questionable content that they didn’t necessarily want—the club can be turned off in the Options menu simply by selecting Nudity to off), it does raise questions about the thematic or narrative necessity for these sequences at all in The Saboteur.  If the nudity is at all essential to telling the story, shouldn’t it already be there?  Doesn’t this inclusion suggest pure gratuitousness?  Or, does the fact that the pasties covering these characters act to only narrowly alter what is going on in the scene suggest that the scene’s message can be clearly conveyed with obscured nipples or covered up nipples? What purpose then does nudity serve in telling a story?

I recently watched a documentary called Sex and the Cinema in which a variety of directors discussed the purpose of gratuitous sex scenes in movies, suggesting that the best sex scenes serve the additional purpose of speaking to the characters relationships and identities in the story (ironically, I had also just watched Desperado again and had been thinking how the gun fight that follows the sex scene in that film actually speaks more about the relationship between that film’s main characters—all the pushing and shoving and stepping protectively in front of one another done by Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas speak more clearly to how they feel about one another then the dialogue or sexuality in the film—nevertheless, like a sex scene all of this information is communicated by seeing it visually through the bodies of the characters).  If sexuality and sexual images speak in any way to the themes of The Saboteur is the nudity necessary to understand those themes?  If so, are those themes compromised by this sales technique?  It would be interesting to know how the developers feel about the marketing of the game and whether or not it “obscures” their sense of the usefulness or mere gratuity of the scene.

Assuming there is any merit to understanding La Belle Nuit as an expression of the spirit of liberation in the wake of the “colorlessness” of oppression, one way or the other the metanarrative of the game complicates the message of the narrative.  The libertine theme is confused by a marketing campaign depending on a sense that restricted sexual imagery can pay off in the short term at least.

by Brontë Mora

6 Jan 2010

Editor’s note: Our special contributor for this review is seven years old.

At the beginning of Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, the Chipmunks go to Paris to perform in a huge concert. Alvin (voiced by Justin Long) shows off, like always, even though Dave (Jason Lee) warns him to stop. Inevitably, Alvin causes big problems: the stage crashes and Dave ends up in the hospital. So, Dave’s out of the story and the Chipmunks have to go home and stay with Dave’s cousin, Toby (Zachary Levi), who plays video games 24/7. Toby mostly lets them do whatever they want, which they think is phenomenal, at least at first! But Toby does make them start school like Dave wanted them to, even though that’s the last thing Alvin, Simon, and Theodore want to do. At West Eastman High School, they meet bullies who pick on them and give them swirlies—gross!—and the principal, Dr. Rubin (Wendy Malik), who is secretly a big fan of the Chipmunks.

In the meantime, three girl Chipmunks come to Hollywood looking for Ian (David Cross), the producer they think made the Chipmunks stars. Brittany, Jeanette, and Eleanor don’t only sing and dance. They also look exactly like girl versions of the boys: Eleanor (Amy Poehler) is chubby like Theodore, Jeanette (Anna Faris) wears glasses like Simon, and Brittany (Christina Applegate) has an attitude, much like Alvin. On seeing the Chipettes, Ian—who was disgraced in the last movie, Alvin and the Chipmunks—thinks he’s back in business. He sends them to West Eastman High School to compete against the Chipmunks in a singing contest. Ian wants the Chipettes to win so he can be a famous producer again.

A lot of things in this movie are exactly like the first one. Alvin, Simon, and Theodore think Dave sets too many rules until they live without any. In the first movie, this happened when they moved in with Ian and in this one, it happens when they live with Toby. At first, they are like, “YES!” But then they miss Dave and they miss his rules, too. Ian treats the Chipettes the same way he treated the Chipmunks in the first movie: he is nice at first, but then he gets mean, working them too hard and not caring about them. He just wants to make money off of them. Another idea that comes up again is Alvin’s selfishness. He thinks about himself more than his family and so he has to learn to appreciate them and understand that family comes first.

Even though a lot of the Squeakuel is like the first movie, it is still fun to watch the Chipettes and the Chipmunks perform. The singing is always the best part of a Chipmunks movie and this one had lots of good songs like “You Spin Me Round” and “Single Ladies.”

by Rob Horning

5 Jan 2010

Price discrimination is economics lingo for the retail practice charging customers different prices based on what they are willing to pay. Economists generally have no problems with this; that’s just how fairness is defined in capitalist societies. Many consumers, I suspect, find the practice as unpleasant as I do, not merely because it can seem unfair to pay more than somebody else for the same good, but possibly because price discrimination undermines the cherished ideological tenet that there’s a “true price” for goods, that useful goods are really worth something definite, and that fundamental use value is indexed to a good’s cost. Instead, we learn that the price of many goods is indexed to our gullibility, to our negligence, or to retailers’ ability to dupe us.

The price-discrimination game works best when pricing is not transparent—visit a carpet warehouse, for instance, and try to find a price tag. Consumerism puts an end to the norm of haggling, however, since shopping in a consumer society must function as entertainment, and the shifty confrontations, the agonistic bartering with salespeople unnerves a lot of people. It makes us aware of all the asymmetries, makes us wary of bad deals, makes us aware that we must be willing to walk away with nothing oftentimes to not get ripped off. But consumerism requires a far more passive consumer who feels licensed to say yes to everything, to indulge in the pleasures of impulse purchasing, and take pleasure in the gratification of that impulse as mush as in the thing purchased, which more and more becomes a mere alibi for luxuriating in the retail world, where flattery and fantasy blend and become more salient to us. Shopping becomes an escape from conflict.

Hence, we have become more comfortable shopping with fixed prices, but retailers typically require prices to be less sticky in order to make a profit. They need to increase margins wherever and whenever they can. So there is constant tension between broadcasting a price to draw consumers in, and masking prices to charge consumers according to their class. Several strategies have evolved to address this: They can routinely reprice goods (easier now with automated systems), they can use various menu tricks to get consumers to choose more-expensive options (i.e., offering a ludicrously expensive option to make the second-most expensive option seem reasonable), they can offer loss leaders, they can bury additional fees in the fine print, they can sell the same crap with different labels to different customer classes, they can advertise a discount but not register it at checkout.

I encountered a blend of all this when I bought a TV this past weekend. I first went to P.C. Richard in College Point, in Eastern Queens, and tried to wrap my mind around the profusion of makes and models, all of which seemed largely the same, except for screen size and resolution. Various bells and whistles seemed tacked on to certain brands, but the flat-screen TV basically seems like a commodity to me—any one would do, and I’d feel best about the one I selected once it was separated from all the others and began to become mine. Still I couldn’t bring myself to simply buy the cheapest one on offer. The sale price for a particular model by a brand I have heard of was prominently displayed. I made a note of it, then went to Best Buy, where similar models were far more expensive (Best Buy is not always the best buy, apparently; they seemed to be banking on their mere reputation as a bargain retailer at this point.) So I went to the P.C. Richard in my neighborhood, and was baffled to find that the same sale model from the College Point store was priced $100 higher. I asked about it, and the salesman immediately matched the price I had seen at the other store. Then he tried to sell me a set of cables for $50. (It turned out I needed the cables to connect my laptop to the set, but you can get them on Amazon.com for under $20.) I was also buying a humidifier that was advertised on the showroom floor at $19, but when it was rung up, it defaulted to $25. I had to look over the salesman’s shoulder at the register to notice this and have him correct it.

My point is that the TV purchasing process was riddled with opportunities for me to be lazy and get charged more as a result. My need for perpetual vigilance is no less than it would have been had I been required to haggle for it, only the illusion of stable prices was there to discourage me from worrying about anything. Should I yearn for a return to a haggling economy? Should I feel like I beat the system, or is that just more ideology reconciling me to the system? Should I point to the metaphoric scoreboard and celebrate the “bargain” I received at others’ expense? Should I shop exclusively at flea markets and bazaars? Can any sort of regulatory intervention stop deceptive practices, or will retailers always find a new loophole or semi-deceitful practice to differentiate customers and dupe them according to their ignorance? Was it me? Was it you? Questions in a world of blue.

Corporations seem designed to maximize profit by exploiting every possible opportunity in a depersonalized economy. Any accommodation a big company happens to give a customer is the probably result of a probability calculation modeled on an analyst’s spreadsheet. The message that corporations “care” about us is cooly manufactured in marketing departments as a sales tool and is blended with efforts to expedite price discrimination, to separate us into a million individuals cutting our own deals with that much less collective bargaining power.

If all competitors in an industry de facto collude to make customers miserable, so much the better—just look at major U.S. airlines and cell-phone-service providers, or at the banks and credit-card companies. And look at health care, in which pricing transparency does little to contain costs. (“The evidence suggests the benefit of transparent pricing is limited, particularly when insurance companies are involved.” Hmm—I guess that’s probably coincidental.)

Mike Konczal’s recent post about businesses preying on the “cognitively weak” looks at some of the antisocial incentives of financial firms. Imagining himself an evil bank executive, he surmises he might be thinking along these lines, targeting old people whose brain function is fading:

Hitting up people with a lifetime of savings suffering from dementia is some real, serious money we can tap as a revenue source. Indeed, someone who forgets what they were doing between reading “Bullshit Surcharge: $40″ on their statement and calling the customer support number to complain is our ideal customer—it’s the person who will be most profitable to us going forward.

To hard-liners free-marketeers, who tend to argue that companies are ethically bound to take advantage of their customers’ foibles when they can get away with it, this is just price discrimination working its magic. The weak are punished, and the wise are thereby subsidized. It’s financial innovation at its best. As Konczal explains,  those who

are excited about how the current financial service industry excels because it punishes the ignorant and irresponsible: on what specific grounds could you not have to embrace, much less oppose, the Evil Rortybomb Plan above? I got a sense of proportionality in those arguments, that the most ignorant should have to pay the most. I don’t think anyone would argue against the idea that those suffering from dementia will be the most ignorant of their actual situations and most irresponsible in the sense that they aren’t capable of being responsible. The extra fees and traps they pay will in part also go to those enjoying extra bonuses and continued free financial services. It’s a win-win from this point of view, no? One must be consistent.

It doesn’t take much for price discrimination to become plain old discrimination. Businesses want prices to differentiate the smart from the foolish to maximize the exploitative potential in society, whereas the rest of us want prices to indicate the social value of things so we can make more of what we need and stop making stuff we don’t want. The result is a war over the meaning of prices, played out in the medium of information. Companies use disinformation and marketing to conceal beneficial or money-saving information from consumers, resulting in prices that can’t be relied upon to mean much of anything.

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