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Monday, Apr 28, 2008

In my local grocery store the other day, I was flabbergasted to find that it was stocking no generic brand breakfast cereals among the Fruit Loops and Special K and whatnot. Sure, it was a city grocery store and space is at a premium, but this still seemed odd. I didn’t crack and pay the extra money for the branded product; I have been years without cereal and nothing but whim (and soy milk left over from a cooking project) was prompting me to move to end that embargo. And the brand is adding especially little to my enjoyment of cereal—I never could taste any difference, and I wasn’t going to score any style points with anyone or in my own imagination for eating Kelogg’s instead of Jewel-T. I didn’t expect my cereal brand to project any sort of message to anyone or to myself. I just wanted it to be cheap or else I was going to forgo. However, cheap is a relative thing—the absence of generics made me assume that all the cereals were overpriced, though someone else might draw the opposite conclusion.


As someone who enjoys the illusion of saving for its own sake, I always look for off-brand goods, and the unanticipated absence of generic cereals made me wonder if I was hallucinating or having false memories when remembering having bought unbranded Corn Flakes in the past. It never occurred to me that generic products at the supermarket come and go with economic conditions, as this post at Calculated Risk details. CR links to a NYT story about the recession driving consumers to come up with “creative ways” to save money on shopping: Apparently these crafty innovators are starting “to switch from name brands to cheaper alternatives, to eat in instead of dining out and to fly at unusual hours to shave dollars off airfares.” How very ingenious. I wonder how these consumers came up with these radical ideas!


The underlying assumption is that consumers only think to cut back on branded goods when they can’t afford them—that generics are what economists call inferior goods, demand for which rises as income falls. They are “inferior” because they are not the preferred option but the substitute for when the preferred option becomes prohibitively expensive. Grocery stores respond the shift in demand—or rather to the downward shift of the trigger point at which people will buy—and stock more off-brand goods, protecting their volume of sales, which are of crucial importance to their low-margin business. It’s a little disorienting to realize that they don’t automatically supply cheaper options until necessity forces them to, that is, consumers don’t ordinarily demand the cheapest options and grocers get away with stocking only expensive goods. Why they do this is probably a matter of positioning themselves in the marketplace—too many generics out of season and you risk being mistaken for Aldi.


But there is something significant though in the impulse that drives the NYT business reporters to call this sort of switching between goods “creative.” Such a rhetorical move makes it seem as though there is a huge mental leap necessary to abandon brands, when in fact it seems more natural to assume generally that a huge intellectual jump is necessary to believe that there is value in brands, that they bring enough added value to leave in their wake a category of inferior goods—generics. In other words, we default to branded products, a stance that we must learn through ideology, through subtle cues that branded goods are “normal” and the unlabeled products are suspect, inferior. Thanks to how well I’ve absorbed that ideology, I can feel rebellious and subversive when I shop generic—and keep on shopping, which is the essential upshot of the NYT piece: Consumption continues despite the diminishing consumer confidence as the recession takes hold and people grow more and more economically insecure. That people might consume less, not just in dollar terms but in terms of time spent shopping isn’t directly considered, and is hinted at though it were some insane option, rather than a typical choice made at the margin. This may be a semantic conundrum; I have a hard time getting it through my head how broad and flexible a concept consumption is for economists, and that it is different from consumerism, which is the orientation of society toward maximizing consumption for its own sake. Still, I wonder if this indicates some lump-of-consumption fallacy—that there is always some raw amount of consumption determined by the size of a population, and all that varies is the value in dollar terms assigned to it—being promulgated to make us interpret the rational choice to spend less time on consumption as a crazy whim, a desperate measure.


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Monday, Apr 28, 2008
Kotaku's gone back to the WiG, so we're keeping the TWiG...Here are the new releases for the week of 2008-04-28.

You know, you have to give Iron Man some credit.  Not only is Sega’s adaptation of the soon-to-be blockbuster film being released on every single major console and portable system this week, but it single-handedly ensured that every single system had at least one game to show off this week (thus avoiding the fate of withstanding a surely snarky synonym for “zero” in its release column).  The demo that Sega released on Xbox Live isn’t even all that bad, even if its all-too-short play time does cut out right when it seems as though the game might just get exciting.


No matter—if you’ve been at all privy to the world of gaming journalism in the past week, you know that anything on this list that isn’t Grand Theft Auto IV is being seriously, seriously overshadowed by Grand Theft Auto IV.  You’ve seen the exclusive review (and while I won’t begrudge them for it, I hope IGN thought long and hard about dishing out that 10 when they knew they’d be under scrutiny for being the only outlet allowed to break the dated review embargo that the rest of the media has had to follow), and heck, you’ve probably seen the rest of the reviews so far as well.  That Metacritic wall o’ 100s is awfully impressive, if not altogether unexpected.


The sheer magnitude of Grand Theft Auto IV‘s release is enough to make one wonder: why in the world would Nintendo choose to release Mario Kart Wii a mere two days before perhaps the most highly-anticipated release of 2008?  One could make the argument that the audience for the two games is different, but it intersects in enough places that the buying public for Mario Kart can’t help but be affected, at least a little bit.  One could also say that Mario Kart is a strong enough franchise that it’ll get its sales over the long-term, and it will be fine.  This is probably true—and I do expect that Mario Kart will sell gobs of product and little plastic wheels regardless of what other releases happen to coincide with its own—but still.  Mario Kart Wii got one, maybe two days of serious publicity when the journalists got their copies, only to be swallowed almost immediately by the Grand Theft Auto behemoth.  Pushing off the release (or moving it up, even) by a week or two might have been able to ensure a solid stream of publicity surrounding its release.  As it is, it’s going to have to rely on an admittedly sizable established fanbase.


Of course, one could also argue that that fanbase has been what has been sustaining Nintendo all along, but it wouldn’t hurt to try like hell to expand that fanbase, especially when there is such a sizable new install base just sitting there, waiting to be taken advantage of.  Nintendo apparently sees Mario Kart as a “bridge game”—that is, a game that could help casual players transition to more involved gaming experiences—and having had a day or two to play the game, this makes sense, given that it had the four game-playing members (that is, myself, my wife, and my kids) playing a game together for the first time since Wii Sports first invaded our home and free time.  Still, it’s not going to be a bridge for anyone who doesn’t notice its release.


Other releases this week include the happily budget-priced SNK Arcade Classics Volume 1 (a much cheaper way to get your Neo Geo fix than the Virtual Console, as it turns out), and Konami’s contributions to the Nintendo DS’s continued dominance as a lifestyle machine (as opposed to a simple game machine), called Let’s Yoga! and Let’s Pilates!.  I would be sarcastic about these things, but I may buy them.  Somehow, these activities seem more palatable when you plug them into a DS and pretend they’re games.


Perhaps I’ve said too much.  Go take a look at this week’s release list, after the jump…


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Monday, Apr 28, 2008
by PopMatters Staff
John Andrew Fredrick of the Black Watch owns Donny Osmond's guitar and he's really happy about it.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
I dropped an unabridged Random House dictionary on my foot while wearing flip-flops. Needless to say, the tears welled up big time.


2. The fictional character most like you?
I am Holden Caulfield.  My penchant for italics proves it.


3. The greatest album, ever?
The greatest album ever is Revolver, but if you quote me, The White Album and Rubber Soul are going to be seriously miffed.


4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Starsailor. (Just kidding: they’re the worst.)


5. Your ideal brain food?
I’ve never tried the sesos tacos at any truck in Los Angeles.


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Monday, Apr 28, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet
Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet, releasing 20 May on Nettwerk Records [Streaming]
Video [Strange]


Flight of the Conchords
Ladies of the World [MP3]
     


Amy LaVere
That Beat (Sun Studio Sessions series) [Video]


Jef Stott
Lamaset (Miami Mix) [MP3]
     


Buy at iTunes Music Store


Sleepercar
Stumble In [MP3]
     


Thalia Zedek Band
Lower Allston [MP3]
     


Eric Avery
All Remote and No Control [MP3]
     



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Sunday, Apr 27, 2008


With the faux infighting of Baby Mama and Harold and Kumar 2 making the 25 April weekend as anticlimactic, cinematically speaking, as possible, it’s time to take a look back at the movies that made the last four months a Bataan Death March of motion picture torture. Of course, bad is in the eye of the beholder, but sometimes, it’s impossible to deny the dearth of imagination and originality cascading off the screen. Frequently, we chalk it up to needing a paycheck. In other instances, it’s the marketing minds that determine retardation, and that redundancy equals receipts. Of course we, the audience, are somewhat culpable. We claim to hate how Hollywood throws us the same old slop every year, and yet we turn out in droves for the carbon copy comic book movie, or the indistinguishable slacker comedy.


Yet looking over this quintet of crap, this fivesome of flotsam, it’s clear that some studios aren’t even paying attention. Even worse, the mindbending mediocrity of some of these choices seems to indicate that highly paid industry bosses think we’re drooling, dunderheaded morons. How else would you explain giving Uwe Boll more production value, offering up yet another J-Horror remake from a pair of Frenchmen? Does Larry the Cable Guy really need more beer and chew money, and could someone please stop the terrible, tedious lampoons before the genre sees fit to actually eat itself? Of course nothing could save us from the Spring’s worst endeavor, a purposeful slap in the face by a foreign filmmaker who believes the West loves movie violence a bit too much. Nothing like fighting fire with foolishness.


So here they are, SE&L‘s selections for the titles that made the first quarter of 2008 such a trying theatrical experience. And don’t think we forgot about you 88 Minutes, Doomsday, Untraceable, or Jumper. It’s just that, with only so much bile to go around, it’s better to reserve one’s jaded judgment for a future feature than to come out shooting blanks. Let’s begin with number five:



# 5 - In the Name of the King: A Dragon Siege Tale dir. Uwe Boll


Dr. Uwe Boll. What more needs to be said, really? True, his past motion picture output has more or less destined him to take over Ed Wood as the worst director who ever lived, but there were actually people who pointed to this production (and his summer stool sample, Postal) and argued that he has the potential to make good movies. Apparently, he’s reserving that ability for sometime in the future. When you consider his cast here is made up of Jason Statham, Leelee Sobieski, Ron Pearlman, and Ray Liotta, the omens of awfulness seem rather slight. Then Burt Reynolds shows up as the title ruler and any artistic authenticity gets flushed down the toilet.

But the acting is not the only oddball element in this Lord of the Rings redux-ulousness. The CGI is sloppy, to say the least, and the narrative lacks the kind of creative context that keeps us wondering about the next plot point. Instead, we are merely dropped in the middle of this Dungeons Without Dragons dreck and asked to buy every unconvincing moment of it. The pacing is schizophrenic, the editing clearly from the “meanwhile, in another part of the film” school of cutting. In fact, while there are some improvements shown along the way, it’s clear that Boll is only getting worse when it comes to mastering the language of film.



#4 - The Eye dire. David Moreau and Xavier Palud


Beyond disheartening, this was just plain abysmal. Anyone lucky enough to see David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s brilliant Ils (released in the US as Them) knows that this French filmmaking duo can really deliver the shivers. Their simple set-up, involving a secluded Romanian estate and a couple victimized by some unseen invaders was a stark, suspenseful romp. It literally rekindled one’s faith in the subtler forms of the horror genre. This rancid remake re-killed it. Granted, the mere presence of Jessica Alba in the lead guarantees a groan inducing time (Sin City aside), but our directors also seem to suffer from some kind of cinematic amnesia. They seem to have forgotten everything that made Ils so wonderful.

Instead, we get the standard J-Horror junk…unseen phantoms, lots of spooky noises, scenery that shifts between the supernatural and the just plain stupid realms. Even worse, Moreau and Palud rely on gimmicky cinematic stunts to sell this story of a blind musician who ends up with the corneas of a rural clairvoyant. While the narrative mirrors its Asian counterpart rather closely, the usual cultural inconsistencies occur. Americans like to think of themselves as much less superstitious than some other world citizens. Sadly, this is the kind of movie that relies on such made-up mumbo jumbo to work.



#3 - Witless Protection dir. Charles Robert Carner


It’s time to put this sleeve-less, malapropism prone menace out of our misery once and for all. This is by far the worst film the former Blue Collar Comedy tour titan has ever made - and that includes the despicable Delta Farce and the disposable Larry the Cable Guy - Health Inspector. Sure, NASCAR nation can’t get enough of his cornfed cornball cracker-isms, a combination of the Ku Klux Klan and observational humor. But that doesn’t mean it translates successfully into a 90 minute movie. Unfortunately, this cesspool extends said running time by another 7!

The truth be told, there is nothing really wrong with pandering to a narrow demographic. Tyler Perry does it all the time, and his movies literally print their own payouts. But for some reason - maybe it’s the melting pot make-up of the human race - such blinkered bullspit doesn’t wind up being universally hilarious. Sure, there are moments when a chuckle may unexpectedly pass from your lips, but it could be yourself you are laughing at. After all, just think about it - you paid $10 to see this Gomer geek show, and you ain’t ever getting that money (or those brain cells) back.



#2 - Meet the Spartans dir. Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer


Gene Siskel once said that the greatest sin a big screen comedy can commit is not being funny. Actually, the late great critic was wrong. A pointless parody positioned as an all out laughfest is the true Hitler of humor. One would assume that after Scary Movie, Date Movie, Epic Movie (and most recently, Superhero Movie), all genre in-joking would be covered. Apparently, the homo-erotic spectacle of 300 needed tweaking as well. Enter the talentless twaddle that passes as ability from screenwriters/directors Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. These guys seem capable of taking any current pop culture trend and turn it into the most tired of token takes.


Indeed, hack burlesque comedians are more witty and inventive than this dung - and referring to half-naked musclemen as closeted gays is not the height of satire. Nothing here works - not the timing, not the acting, not the all-important cinematic spoofs. Instead, the pair’s poisonous grab bag approach makes sure that no one subject survives unscathed. Oh, but it is unfunny. Very unfunny indeed. As a matter of fact, rumor has it that the motion picture category of comedy itself has filed a restraining order against these two spoof stalkers.



#1 - Funny Games dir. Michael Haneke


There is nothing worse than an ex-girlfriend who hates you so much that she becomes obsessed with you (it happens with ex-boyfriends too, so no gender baiting, okay?). In that regard, Austrian director Michael Haneke is such a jilted lover. You see, he clearly was enraptured by American moviemaking at some point in his career, but as with most foreign entrants into the industry’s boudoir, he was rejected. So what does he do in return? He takes all of his anger and aggression out on his former paramour with a little experiment in shite called Funny Games. This is supposed to be a deconstruction of the deconstruction of the standard serial killer thriller. Instead, it’s garbage.


By augmenting the very confines of cinema, but subverting our expectations out of a clear egomaniacal drive to make a point, Haneke’s hate permeates every frame. Like arguing that abuse is unhealthy by beating someone over the head, this movie wallows in the very genre excesses that the filmmaker wants to foil. Even worse, he purposefully insults the audience, asking them to accept his treatise as truth even when he doesn’t have the balls or backbone to support his stance. There have been few films as irredeemable as Funny Games. It’s not only one of this year’s worst - it’s a worthy competitor to the “all time” title.


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