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by Ryan Smith

14 Oct 2008

This seems as good a place as any to put a Gears of War 2 chainsaw battle pic.

This seems as good a place as any to put a
Gears of War 2 chainsaw battle pic.

Perhaps it seems a bit ridiculous to lament the embarrassment of riches we have in the next two months as far as video game releases go.  Looking at the release schedule right now, there are a ridiculous amount of great games that have either been released recently or will be in October and November. Here’s the murderer’s row of releases: Guitar Hero: World Tour, Rock Band 2, Fable 2, Left 4 Dead, The Last Remnant, Dead Space, Gears of War 2, LittleBigPlanet, Fallout 3, Far Cry 2, Resistance 2, Prince of Persia and Wii Music. I’m sure there are others I missed, but the bottom line is that this is arguably the best season ever for gaming.

Still, there are two major problems with this.
First of all, with so many triple-A titles coming out in such a short period of time, there are bound to be great titles that slip between the cracks. Last fall’s deluge of games like Mass Effect, The Orange Box, Halo 3, Bioshock, Super Mario Galaxy, Assassin’s Creed, and Call of Duty 4 meant that titles like Conan and Kane and Lynch were overshadowed and underrated. I know personally that I didn’t even get around to playing some of these games until this spring. Sure, Hollywood has their big summer blockbuster season in which a lot of the big budget movies are sandwiched between May and August, but the difference is that you can pay $10 to watch a Batman movie and be done with it in two hours. With games, there’s much more of a time and money investment.

Could something like Mirror's Edge get left behind?

Could something like Mirror’s Edge get left behind?

The second issue is that the big game release season is coming at a time when the economy is looking a little scary. Though we don’t know all the ramifications right now of the whole mess, it’s possible that unnecessary entertainment purchases like video games will suffer (Of course, an argument could be made that escapist entertainment will actually increase in popularity because people are trying to not think about the economy). In that case, with so many titles to pick from this holiday season and less money to buy them with, we could see some big budget titles disappoint and others go by the wayside.

I predict, though, that Rock Band, Guitar Hero, Gears of War 2 and anything Wii-related will do fine. It’s some of the other, lesser known games I’d be worried about.

by Rob Horning

14 Oct 2008

This Economist article updates the music business’s evolving relationship with the subscription model, in which users could have all the music they wanted indiscriminately, as long as they paid a regular fee. For a while it has seemed to me that such a model was inevitable, given the ease of digital distribution and the fact that music can no longer be played without being, in a sense, copied. But reading this article I started to wonder how it’s possible for record companies to compete with each other if all their goods are available for one lump sum. I suppose the intermediaries who run the subscription service would track which songs were acquired and pay the companies accordingly, or one would need to subscribe to each record companies library individually, in which case it would be easier to go on pirating.

But overall, does the existence of all-you-can-eat subscription services eliminate the record companies’ incentive to pick and choose the best music to try and sell? Can’t they overwhelm us with quantity rather than work for quality, since we end up getting it all anyway? It seems like the fruits of A&R efforts accrue to the artists themselves, who can leverage their brand better, rather than the companies themselves. I wonder if the record companies, recognizing the hopelessness of their moribund business, will effectively give up, become a cabal that collects residuals on its past accomplishments—just collect the steady income that can be had leasing the use rights to recorded music, 1900 to 2008.

Of course, someone will have to take over the promotional duties for pop music, otherwise it will cease to perform its function of uniting people in the excitement of hype and giving fresh and relevant-seeming expression to common and quotidian feelings. Not sure if individual bands will be up to it, given their tradition of fueling their fires by complaining about commercialism, though they will learn if they want to make money. But maybe if we are lucky, the world will revert to a culture of amateurism with regard to music.

by Nikki Tranter

14 Oct 2008

His book is the best of the lot, and so is his smile. Just look at Aravind Adiga. He’s the second youngest Man Booker Prize winner, so states the Guardian, but can we make him the first cutest? A happy man with a bright future who’s entirely unafraid to show some teeth—it’s that face that makes me want to go out and grab his book. That and his passion for his subject ... of course.

Adiga, who’s just 33, won the prize for his first novel The White Tiger, about an Indian cab driver who winds up a swindling businessman. Over at Untitled Books, Adiga fires up about his home country and the issues and injustices that led him to write the novel. Here’s a sample:

What is important for Adiga is that the stories are told. Having the advantages of education and financial security is merely ‘an extra obligation to write about people without those benefits’. Repeatedly described as angry by the press, he counters ‘there is a lot to be angry about.’ He returns again and again to the big questions of education, healthcare (hospitals are ‘mind-bogglingly bad’) and legal protection, and he has been accused of betraying his country by focusing on India’s corruption and problems. ‘I can’t see what could be more patriotic than making a passionate plea for the better treatment of two thirds of my countrymen,’ he retorts. His anxiety to protect his country is palpable and his great fear is that crime and social unrest will explode to South African proportions unless reforms are carried out.

The Mail Online has a great and detailed story about Adiga and his work. There’s a wonderful interview with the author on Book Browse, in which he discusses his influences, his career in journalism, and India’s difficult future.

And a basic Google Image search will get you more pictures of that smile.

The White Tiger is published by Free Press.

by Bill Gibron

14 Oct 2008

Some horror movies can live solely on their carefully crafted hype. Others actually deliver the goods the studio staged ballyhoo promises. And then there is Pieces. Back in 1982, distributors desperate to continue the coattail ride started with Halloween and Friday the 13th took the Spanish splatter film Mil gritos tiene la noche (“The Night Has a Thousand Cries”, roughly), renamed it, and added the intriguing tagline “You Don’t Have To Go To Texas For A Chainsaw Massacre!” With a final carnival barker punchline - “It’s exactly what you think it is.” - the results were unleashed on an unwitting world.

Thanks to VHS and the thriving home video market, the sleazoid shocker became an instant cult classic. The question remains, however, does the movie match the marketing - or is this just another case of carefully chosen words speaking a heckuva lot louder than the action on the screen. The storyline is dead simple. We are introduced to a young boy, tormented mercilessly by his blousy whore of a mother. After a particularly gruesome showdown, we flash forward forty years. On a small college campus, young girls are being viciously vivisected by an unseen killer. Using a chainsaw to carve up the bodies, the police are baffled by the murders.

Detective Lt. Bracken (a nicely cheesy Christopher George) hopes to crack the case with a two fold approach. First, he will elicit the help of student Kendall James (Pod People‘s Ian Sera) to snoop among the student body. This BMOC knows all the angles - and the ladies. Secondly, seasoned cop and star tennis pro Mary Riggs (Lynda Day) will go undercover as one of the faculty. This will allow her greater access to suspects like groundskeeper Willard (Paul L. Smith, with Lawrence Tierney’s voice) and the slightly fey Professor Brown (Jack Taylor). As the body count rises, Bracken grows desperate. Apparently, the murdered is making some kind of trophy out of the ‘pieces’ of his victims…and he’s almost done.

Pieces is the kind of fright film that sneaks up on you. It is really nothing more than your standard slasher effort with a chainsaw doing all the slice and dice (well, there are a couple of knife kills thrown in for good massacre measure). Director Juan Piquer Simón digs deep into his fellow Europeans bag of terror tricks and comes up trumps more times than not. The opening is an obvious homage to Dario Argento’s classic Profundo Rosso, down to the deadly dynamic between parent and child. Once we move to modern times, Lucio Fulci’s full bore gore conceit comes into play. While most of the killings occur off camera, their nasty results get full view visits. Even the ending is unrelenting, delivering not one, or two, but THREE false jolts.

As with much of the Mediterranean macabre geared toward Western audiences, Christopher George gives his Cheshire Cat capped grin a good workout as Bracken. While not as active here as he is in such gems as City of the Living Dead, The Exterminator, and Mortuary, he provides the necessary despotic smugness that makes these movies work. Bracken has to be self assured and clueless, otherwise, the villain’s reveal gets shortchanged. Sure, we see who the bad man is almost immediately, but the cops have to fumble a bit before pulling out their pistols. Similarly, then wife Lynda Day is nothing more than eye candy, reduced at 38 to playing pseudo-paramour for the wispy lothario Sera. 

And speaking of Kendall, it is clear that Simón sees him as the calm within the monster movie maelstrom. Instantly cast off the isle of suspicion, he gets to hit on Day, act as an inspector substitute, emote over various F/X corpses, and show off his larger than average “assets” during a laughable love scene. For fans of the unflappable Mystery Science Theater 3000, seeing the musical prick Rick running around san shorts may explain his angry male animal arrogance. But as a romantic lead, he’s rather limited. According to IMDb Sera’s career was also rather short lived. What started in 1979 was soon over five years later. Google offers up a similar overview.

Even with the cast’s uneven facets, Pieces manages to work. It’s a shame that so much talent takes a backseat to naked babes being butchered. Smith, fresh from playing Bluto in Robert Altman’s Popeye, does little except smirk and speak like a certain Joe Cabot. Crusty Dean Edmund Purdom has to get by on clipped British courtesy and a nasty five o’clock shadow. Thanks to the dubbing - everyone’s voice is redone (even if it was their own in the end), as was the standard for most import productions - Pieces takes on an amplified exploitation feel. We sense this is a movie that will do almost anything, including substitute actor accents, to get its gruesome point across. Oh, and one thing about the gore. It is plentiful, but clearly culled from an early ‘80s limit of realism.

Indeed, very little of this fright flick plays like an authentic police procedural. A premise is devised, a killer walks among his potential prey, Greed decade fashion victims disrobe with alarming regularity, and soon - it’s power tool time! The Georges chew up the scenery and all is right in the domain of dread. Grindhouse Releasing, a company started by cinema schlock lover Sage Stallone, is promising a two disc “UNCUT” DVD release of Pieces come Halloween. As they have done with other splatter masterworks (Cannibal Holocaust), they assure us fans that we will experience this otherwise mistreated movie as it was originally intended. Some will scoff no matter the digital dressing. Pieces is that kind of perverse product. But don’t be surprised when, after it’s all over, you’re more than a little unnerved. It is that kind of movie - exactly.

by Rob Horning

14 Oct 2008

Like Ezra Klein, I’m puzzled by this cranky screed by Louis Menand about text messaging in the New Yorker. It’s enough to reaffirm the magazine’s “public image as a parochial, old-World-wannabe bastion of upper-income hauteur,” as Vance Lehmkuhl puts it in a slightly different context,  discussing the magazine’s baroque copy editing style.

The piece is triggered by the review of a book about texting, Txtng: The Gr8 Db8 by linguist David Crystal, which seems to have been written to reassure those grammar pedants who worry about language being “destroyed” by people using it in new ways. Crystal’s conclusion seems to be that of any sane descriptive linguist—language will be fine. Nothing is worse for the health of a language than dogmatism about usage.

Menand, though, seems so utterly clueless about texting, I almost expected him to defend voicemail: “In some respects, texting is a giant leap backward in the science of communication. It’s more efficient than semaphore, maybe, but how much more efficient is it than Morse code? With Morse code, to make an “s” you needed only three key presses.” The point of comparison for texting is not Morse code, but talking, which is highly inefficient, not only because it carries with it requisite codes of politeness that slow communication down but also because conversation allows for all sorts of back-channel feedback and non-semantic cues (tone of voice, etc.) that clutter the message. Texting allows people to relay information without having to talk, and frankly, I don’t understand who wouldn’t prefer that in most mobile situations. I like to text not because it’s a “game” or because it imposes formal compositional constraints on my expression (two things that Menand emphasizes in Crystal’s account) but because it preserves the sanctity of real conversation. Menand notes that “People don’t like to have to perform the amount of self-presentation that is required in a personal encounter,” but then fails to draw the conclusion that texting liberates us from the burden of all sorts of unnecessary performance. Not every act of communication needs to be so personal and performative. It’s not the Algonquin round table every time we have something to communicate. Sometimes you just want to confirm that you are meeting at 8:00. And when Menand claims that “Texting is so formulaic that it is nearly anonymous” he reveals his lack of experience with the medium or the witlessness of his texting correspondents. Many text messages I’ve received have made me laugh out loud, and they often reveal a great deal about the person sending them.

Conversation is a practice best reserved for face-to-face encounters; texting helps restore conversation to its natural habitat by making the phone conversation necessary only in rare circumstances. I suspect lots of people share that view, which is why virtually all phones will have a keyboard in a few years, and the only phones without them will be held by the preliterate and technophobes who haven’t got over their resentment of cell-phone culture altogether.

I used to be one of those haters, and I still resent the idea that I should be accessible at all times. But in practice, it hasn’t worked out that way; texting allows me to be not present but still communicating—which is actually quite refreshing. Menand thinks that the appeal of texting is speed, but that’s not how it is for me, anyway. It’s about escaping the hassles of reciprocity in communication. Something is certainly lost in this; much is communicated incidentally in conversation as people wend their way to what they want to say and react to the seemingly extraneous information that enters in to the exchange. But much is gained in the way of emotional efficiency when you can broadcast your intentions and proceed. This seems like a main shift in the way we communicate—social networks and cell-phones and such encourage us to broadcast information about ourselves without particular concern for reciprocity or the particular context our audience might be dealing with. It grants us the gift of impersonality, which is not the same as anonymity—it’s instead a heightened performativity; the posture of a writer toward a public. It requires us to assume a certain self-centeredness, to be sure, but it also respects the audience as well, in that it doesn’t demand their immediate attention. So I think Menand is totally wrong when he claims that “delay is the only disrespect.” The whole point of texting is that delay is your prerogative. You are not required to hold this radiation-emitting device to your ear waiting for a response.

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