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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.

by C.E. McAuley

5 Jan 2010

Bruce Wayne is dead. Bruce Wayne is alive. Long live Bruce Wayne.

No matter what side of the dead or alive controversy following Bruce Wayne’s apparent death during the events of Final Crisis one may be on, the return of the character is inevitable and if the talk around town is correct will be the first major Missed Direction of 2010 for the DCU.

While it seems likely that the character will be returned to life or, at least, to our time period using the mechanism of ‘Oh Darkseid used the Omega Sanction on Bruce Wayne and that doesn’t really kill the person just displaces them in time’, using such a wellworn plot device to bring the character back would immediately suck the integrity out of not only the “Battle For The Cowl” arc, but all the existing Batman storylines (along with any emotional investment readers have put into the new world of Dick Grayson as Batman).

Since the return of Bruce Wayne in 2010 seems inevitable, here are a few scenarios to help keep the DCU Powers That Be on track.

1) Don’t bring back Bruce Wayne. Wait. That’s inevitable.

2) Don’t bring Bruce Wayne back as Batman. This is an excellent opportunity to show the personal growth of the character and explore storylines that take Wayne beyond Batman.

3) Don’t bring Bruce Wayne back in a series of stories that have him traveling through time until he reaches the present or have him be saved by Booster Gold. Remember, to those in the present moment he’s already dead if he’s in the distant past.

Instead, consider this: a new ongoing series that has Bruce Wayne in a time period set in the past using his skills to fight evil in a different place and time permanently.

Just a bit of out-of-the-cowl thinking can turn what will look like a marketing ploy into new mythology. The DCU Powers That Be should be urged to avoid taking this wrong direction with ‘The Return of Bruce Wayne’ in 2010.

Now, if only the Justice Society of America and Justice League can be saved. But that’s the subject for another tomorrow.

by Tyler Gould

5 Jan 2010

Continuing a long tradition of women getting their big break in music videos (Alicia Silverstone, Tawny Kitaen, etc), Michael Cera, a hot up-and-coming actor making the L.A. scene, gets the movie star treatment in the new video from that hip young indie-pop outfit, Islands. If you want to laugh, watch this video closely. Direct your attention toward Cera’s flailing arms as he runs about. Boffo!

by Tyler Gould

5 Jan 2010

American Gong
(Kill Rock Stars)
Releasing: February 23

People like Quasi, right? They’ve been around for a while, their music is cute enough, yeah? There’s got to be somebody somewhere who wouldn’t be embarrassed to throw “Repulsion” on in the company of others.

01 Repulsion
02 Little White Horse
03 Everything and Nothing at All
04 Bye Bye Blackbird
05 The Jig Is Up
06 Black Dogs and Bubbles
07 Death Is Not the End
08 Rockabilly Party
09 Now What
10 Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler
11 Howler

Repulsion [MP3]

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