MoviePass relaunches nationwide with a new pricing model

MoviePass has been gearing up for a wide relaunch since 2022 when it started beta testing a new subscription format in several cities, and now it’s here. Introducing MoviePass 2.0, or 3.0 depending on who you ask. The phoenix has risen from the ashes to once again offer you access to a bunch of theatrical films for a monthly subscription cost, and just in time for Memorial Day weekend.

The nationwide re-launch includes over 4,000 movie theater locations throughout the country, such as those operated by AMC Theaters, Regal Cinemas, Cinemark and a slew of smaller regional chains. So what’s the catch? The subscription model now costs more, likely because the company figured out the hard way that charging $10 per month for unlimited in-person movies makes it tough to turn a profit.

This latest iteration of MoviePass offers several subscription plans to suit how often you like sitting in a darkened movie theater. Plans still start at $10 per month, but this is only good for up to three movies each month, instead of one each day like the MoviePass of old. Subscription tiers go all the way up to $40 per month, which allows for up to 30 theatrical screenings. In other words, it’s four times as expensive as the OG plan. Still, $40 for 30 movies is a great deal, considering a single ticket costs $10 to $14 in most places.

Just like before, you can make arrangements to see a film right on the MoviePass app, as long as the theater has partnered directly with the company. You should be able to reserve a space and even select your seats, just like you were buying an actual movie ticket. It also looks like MoviePass reservations are exclusive to 2D screenings, so toss those 3D glasses in the trash.

The movie-reservation subscription app has had a long and storied history, capturing the hearts of theater-goers upon its launch in 2011. This love affair couldn’t last, however, as it ceased operations in 2019 and filed for bankruptcy in 2020. Since that time, original co-founder Stacy Spikes acquired the company’s assets, brought on new investors and went ahead with this re-launch. Cheaper movies are never a bad thing, so here’s hoping the app has some staying power this time.

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Get three months of the Paramount+/Showtime bundle for $18

The big streaming story this week is the confusing launch of Warner Bros.' Max service, but the artist formerly known as HBO is not the only game in town. Paramount+ has been steadily gaining subscribers, thanks in part to a unique bundle that also includes cable stalwart Showtime. This combination platter typically costs $12 per month, but a new promo halves that price for new subscribers.

In other words, you get a full Paramount+ Premium subscription with Showtime for just $6 per month, though this discount vanishes into thin air after three months. The company is hoping you’ll keep the bundle after that, as the combined might of the two streaming services offers a whole lot of content.

Paramount+ is home to all things Star Trek, including the second season of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds that premieres on June 15th. It also airs next-day CBS content, live news, plenty of sports, and original dramas that aren’t set in space, like Sylvester Stallone’s Tulsa King and that weird Fatal Attraction reboot. The service also hosts a bunch of hit movies not based on comic books, like Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves and Top Gun: Maverick.

Showtime may not have the content stable of main rival HBO, but it does have plenty of standout shows like Yellowjackets, Twin Peaks: The Return, Billions and Dexter, in addition to recent theatrical hits like The Fabelmans and Everything Everywhere at Once. The deal is live right now and lasts until June 4th.

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Universal Music Group partners with Endel for AI-generated wellness soundscapes

Universal Music Group (UMG) is partnering with Endel, an “AI sound wellness company” specializing in personalized algorithmic soundscapes, the companies announced today. The partnership aims to let UMG artists create machine-learning-generated sounds for activities like sleep, relaxation and focus. Endel previously partnered with synth-pop artist Grimes on a lullaby app.

The record label “will use Endel’s proprietary AI technology to enable UMG artists to create science-backed soundscapes,” the companies said. The soundscapes can contain new music and updated versions of back-catalog tracks. The companies emphasize that the project “will always respect creators’ rights and put artists at the center of the creative process,” adding that musicians and their teams have the final say on the results. UMG and Endel say they’ll announce “the first wave of soundscapes” from the partnership in the coming months.

Endel uses artist stems to make soundscapes “driven by scientific insights into how music affects our mind-state.” The companies describe the collaboration as a way to “provide artists and rights holders new opportunities to generate additional revenue for their catalogs” while letting performers dip their toes into new areas and “support wellness for the listener.” But it’s hard not to see the irony of UMG quickly stomping out AI-generated music that threatens its business model — like when fake Drake and The Weeknd tracks went viral — while putting out rapturous press releases when it sees a potential profit. (Although, to be fair, cloning artists’ voices without their permission would never fly for long, regardless of UMG’s response.)

“At UMG, we believe in the incredible potential of ethical AI as a tool to support and enhance the creativity of our artists, labels and songwriters, something that Endel has harnessed with impressive ingenuity and scientific innovation,” said Michael Nash, EVP and Chief Digital Officer at UMG. “We are excited to work together and utilize their patented AI technology to create new music soundscapes — anchored in our artist-centric philosophy — that are designed to enhance audience wellness, powered by AI that respects artists’ rights in its development.”

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Comcast launches $20 live TV streaming service with 60 channels

Comcast is launching a live TV streaming service to rival Sling, FuboTV, YouTube TV, Hulu + Live TV and all the rest. It’s called Now TV and it has something competitors lack, an extremely attractive price tag. Now TV includes 60 live channels and a Peacock subscription all for $20 each month.

There’s a slight catch. Now TV will only be available to Comcast Xfinity Internet customers and will operate as an add-on to any pre-existing service plan. A bare-bones Comcast cable plan costs $50 to $60 each month and doesn’t include Internet, so this is still a decent bargain.

The platform gives access to 40 premium cable channels, including standouts like AMC, Discovery, A&E, IFC, The History Channel, TLC, Lifetime and many more. It also comes with 20 hours of DVR storage and allows for three simultaneous streams. You also get 20 free ad-supported television (FAST) channels, like NBC News NOW, Sky News and a slew of genre-based channels. The service has some glaring omissions, however, as it doesn’t feature local broadcast TV or sports channels.

Of course, Now TV also includes a premium, though ad-supported, subscription to Peacock, so you can watch the deliriously bonkers Mrs. Davis, the hangout comedy Grand Crew and nearly 1,000 SNL episodes.

When the service launches in a few weeks, it’ll be accessible through the Xfinity Stream app and supported gadgets like Xfinity flex, Amazon Fire TV, iOS devices and Android devices. As for why Comcast would undercut competitors here on price, the cable arm of the company has been hit particularly hard by cord cutters, losing over 600,000 subscribers in just the first quarter of 2023.

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Moog celebrates 70th anniversary with musical web app

It’s hard to believe, but iconic synth manufacturer Moog is turning 70. Synthesizers didn’t become mainstays in popular music until the 1970s, but Bob Moog started manufacturing and selling theremins in 1953, with actual synths following in 1963. To celebrate the anniversary, the company launched a web app filled with interactive experiences for music historians and casual fans alike.

The app places a distinct focus on the company’s iconic Model D synthesizer, which was first released in 1970 and recently reissued for $5,000. To that end, there’s a jukebox with nearly 50 of the most influential songs that feature the synthesizer, including disco, reggae, hip-hop, pop and more. The theater page goes a step further by showing a full range of videos of the 50-year-old synth in action, with both live stage performances and in-studio sessions. The archives section is for true historians, with interactive information chronicling the entire history of the Model D and the people who designed it.

History is nice and all, but synthesizers are made to be played. The app’s practice room let you do just that, choosing from famous leads, bass sounds and percussion sounds via a faithful digital recreation of the Model D. You can fool around with sounds, sure, but the app even lets you save and share original recordings using riffs from famous songs as a starting point. These creations can only be around a minute long. For the ultimate digital Model D experience, there’s a $30 app for iOS devices, though it sometimes goes on sale.

Finally, the app includes a couple of quirky little add-ons. You can print out a PDF for making your own Minimoog decoration, so long as you have enough tape. The Instagram filter, codenamed Face Synth, quite literally turns your face into a musical instrument. Use facial expressions and body movement to trigger the Model D’s control parameters. The web app’s available today, so have at it.

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Warner Bros.’ Max streaming service launches with new $20 4K tier

HBO Max is completing its transformation into Warner Bros. Discovery's "Max" streaming service today, and it's launching with a new tier especially made for 4K ultra HD viewing. The Ultimate Ad-Free tier will set you back $20 a month or $200 if you're paying for a whole year, making it the service's most expensive subscription option yet. A subscription will give you access to over 1,000 4K movies and TV show episodes, which is nearly eight times more than previously available 4K content. It will also give you the ability to stream on up to four devices at the same time and to store up to 100 offline downloads.

Ultimate Ad-Free's arrival, however, spells the end of 4K availability if you stick to regular ad-free subscription. According to the company's announcement, "existing HBO Max subscribers will still have access to their current plan features for a minimum of six months following launch." After that, you'll no longer be able to stream 4K content on the service. To note, Warner Bros. raised its subscription prices in January, so you now have to pay $16 a month for the ad-free tier and $10 for the ad-supported one. 

For the Ultimate Ad-Free tier, Dolby Atmos and Vision will also be available for select content and devices. The company plans to keep growing its 4K library every month going forward, but for now, those 1,000 ultra HD shows and movies you can stream with a subscription include Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon,The Last of Us, the Harry Potter movies, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Dark Knight trilogy and The Matrix films. Further, all Warner Bros. movies released this year and in the future will be added to the tier's 4K library when they arrive on Max.

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LinkedIn starts rolling out new verification and anti-scam features

After previewing new verification features last month, LinkedIn is now rolling them out to give job-seekers confidence that they're dealing with real companies and jobs. At the same time, the work-oriented social media site has introduced warnings for messages that may look like scams. The latter feature arrives amidst a spate of fake accounts on the site, according to LinkedIn's latest transparency report

The first type of verification tool is related to job postings, displaying information about the posters and their companies. For instance, it can display verifications for a company page and job poster work email, and whether their government ID was verified by CLEAR, the same company that gets people to the front of security lines and airports and other venues. 

LinkedIn adds some new verification and anti-scam features

"When you see verifications on job posts, that means there is information that has been verified as authentic by the job poster, LinkedIn or one of our partners," the company wrote in a blog post. Verifying with CLEAR is free but requires sharing a US phone number and government ID. You can also confirm your employer via a verification code sent to your company email address, and some users can verify both their identity and employer via Microsoft Entra, for companies enrolled in the program. 

LinkedIn pointed out that it recently launched the About This Profile feature to show when a profile was created and last updated, and whether it has a verified phone number and/or work email associated with the account. The aim is to flush out fake accounts, but LinkedIn is also rolling out new messages that warn users about high-risk content. 

LinkedIn starts rolling out new verification and anti-scam features

"We now also alert you if messages on LinkedIn include high-risk content that could impact your security. For example, we will alert you if a message asks you to take the conversation to another platform, as that can sometimes be a sign of a scam. If something doesn’t feel right, these warnings will also give you the choice to report the content without letting the sender know," the company wrote. 

The new features arrive in the wake of LinkedIn's latest transparency report, which showed a large increase in scam accounts. Between July and December 2022, the company blocked more than 58 million accounts, up from 22 million in the previous six months. LinkedIn is even seeing profiles with fake photos created by AI, something it wrote about last year. Though it said its new "deep-learning-based model proactively checks profile photo uploads to determine if the image is AI-generated," a recent study identified over 1,000 active profiles using AI-generated photos, The Financial Times reported. 

LinkedIn noted that verifications on job posting have just started rolling out, so while you may not see them yet, the tools will be more prevalent as the company expands access. In the meantime, it recommends you check out its tips on how to spot and avoid suspicious job postings. 

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With ‘Final Fantasy XVI’, the series tries a new direction

Square Enix wants a hit Final Fantasy game that’s just as popular as any game in the storied history. It’s taken seven years to get from the tepidly-received Final Fantasy XV to Final Fantasy XVI, and the company continues to wrestle with what a FF game is in 2023.

The company courted nostalgia with FF7 Remake (and the Pixel Remaster series). At the same time, its MMORPG, Final Fantasy XIV, continues to be a huge success – but what about the prestige title? It has a plan, and it involves giant-summoned monster battles with different styles of play, a single controllable protagonist with guest-star allies, a support dog that grows up with you, horny antagonists, wicked moms and several bleak plot twists to help establish the plot and characters relatively early on. I won’t spoil the story much, but the early segment covers warring nations, vicious family dynamics, slavery and more. I spent six hours playing through the game's opening chapters, and thought: This plan might work. Although heavy in battle tutorials, the opening of the game does a good job of teasing the narrative beats and major players, which is crucial not only to JRPGs like Final Fantasy, but to modern games in general. It’s just a shame the main character is called Clive.

I played some early chapters, which focused on the childhood years of Clive, flanked by his younger, ailing brother, Joshua, who was chosen to house the power of the Phoenix (giant mythical flaming bird, usually wielding healing powers in Final Fantasy lore). This is the game’s first example of an Eikon; magical summoned beasts that seem to live through their wielder, passed on through lineage and seemingly the cause of uneasy peace between nations. Each is assigned to an elemental beat of a fantasy RPG.

During the demo, I got to see roughly six Eikons in action. Sometimes they were going toe-to-toe. Other times, their human host channeled them for upgraded moves and damage. I particularly enjoyed the opening beats of Clive’s adulthood chapter, where you’re forced to navigate a cliffside as Shiva and Titan hurled giant glaciers and boulders at each other. I caught a glimpse (or fought with) beasts representing fire, ice, earth, lightning and wind. However, as you’ve probably gleaned from the teasers and snippets up until now, Ifrit, another fire-based beast, is setting things aflame. That’s not allowed, apparently. Why? I do not know.

Blessings from these Eikons form the basis of Clive’s skills and magic. Equipped with “a blessing from Phoenix” (his brother), the protagonist starts with sword skills, including lifting, rushing, and elemental attacks. Square Enix claims this is the first fully-fledged action RPG in Final Fantasy history, and it doesn’t play like any of its predecessors.

Final Fantasy XVI preview
Square Enix

There is no menu. All your items and attacks are done through button combinations and assigned shortcuts, with some degree of customization. I had my doubts from Final Fantasy XV, but Clive proves to be surprisingly agile and most battles were fluid and, honestly, exciting.

While allowing you to swap between enemies, the battle system shines brightest when you’re pitted against big solo enemies or boss fights. As soon as multiple enemies are dashing around, and the camera’s spinning, it’s a bit chaotic – a lot like Forspoken, another game from Square Enix.

Like Forspoken, there’s a smoothness and style to combat here that comes as more moves and skills are added. Clive can switch between Eikon-based movesets, not only differentiated by elemental attributes but by playstyle, too. For example, earth-based Titan attacks offer up a shield and counter system, while wind-based skills manipulate the distance between you and each enemy. If you can counter, or make a well-timed dodge in battle, you’ll be rewarded with a star. At the end of the fight, those stars will translate to battle spoils: extra accessories, items and resources.

My demo was almost exclusively controlling the heroically named Clive. However, there are support actions you can trigger from the d-pad, which directs your faithful hound, Torgal, to heal, strike or distract enemies. I also briefly fought alongside allies, but there didn’t seem to be any way to guide their behavior.

As you’ve probably seen teased in several trailers, FFXVI offers up different styles of battles when giant Eikons go head to head, razing castles, literally creating canyons and glaciers. Sometimes these played like rhythm action games, carefully timed evasions and attacks, while another was like an on-the-rails shooter. Hopefully, this variety spreads across the entire game.

Beyond the Eikon battles, all ofthe boss fights are where this system shines most. And if you’re wary of the notion of a live-action Final Fantasy, the game does feature an intelligent way to make the game more accessible through special accessories.Some of these will auto-heal you (if you have the potions for it) while others can widen the timing window for counters and parries. These offer a way to tailor the game to keep it challenging but avoid difficulty walls – and there were a few even in this early demo.

Outside the fights and the main campaign, there were hints of fetch quest horror, but the ones included in my demo were blissfully nearby, working more to show where to get your supplies and do more lore-building – which is what side quests should do. Still, there wasn’t anything reaching Witcher 3 levels of side quest hell just yet.

Final Fantasy XVI preview
Square Enix

Another feature introduced in FFXVI is Active Time Lore (a play on Active Time Battle, the turn-based battle system of older FF games). Here, you can pause during the game and cutscenes and dive into who’s talking, where they’re from and even the region you’re in. It’s a fantastic way of transmitting the plot and everything without overwhelming the player – it reminds me of the X-ray feature on Amazon Prime Video.

FFXVI producer Naoki Yoshida has pointed out that he sees the latest entry as heavily inspired by the likes of God of War, mentioning both the books and TV show Game of Thrones in the same interview. There’s a lot of the latter here. Also, I think this is the first time I’ve seen Final Fantasy characters show… lust? There are some horny people here and for once it’s not tongue-in-cheek, so to speak. So far, this appears to be a different kind of game – I’m intrigued to see how the whole thing turns out. Square Enix has added that it'll be launching a demo featuring the opening beats of the game ahead of its release.

Final Fantasy XVI launches on 22nd June 2023.

Square Enix noted this was a special preview build of the game built for press. Content may differ from the final version.

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Here’s a first look at ‘System Shock 2: Enhanced Edition’

With its long-awaited System Shock remake slated to arrive later this month, Nightdive Studios has shared a first look at System Shock 2: Enhanced Edition. The game doesn’t have a release date yet, but those who pre-order System Shock will get a copy of the remaster at no extra cost when it’s released by publisher Prime Matter.

On Friday, Nightdive said System Shock 2: Enhanced Edition features updated cinematics, textures, character and weapon models. The developer also partnered with so that it could integrate the best community-made patches and mods into the remaster. Thanks to the fact Nightdive brought the game’s original source code over to its in-house engine KEX engine, System Shock 2: Enhanced Edition will be available on current generation consoles. Judging from the teaser trailer, the studio did a commendable job of preserving System Shock 2’s art style and atmosphere while increasing the quality of the game’s assets. Here's hoping Nightdive can avoid a repeat of Blade Runner: Enhanced Edition.

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Hitting the Books: How music chords hack your brain to elicit emotion

Johnny Cash's Hurt hits way different in A Major, as much so as Ring of Fire in G Minor. The dissonance in tone between the chords is, ahem, a minor one: simply the third note lowered to a flat. But that change can fundamentally alter how a song sounds, and what feelings that song conveys. In their new book Every Brain Needs Music: The Neuroscience of Making and Listening to Music, Dr. Larry S Sherman, professor of neuroscience at the Oregon Health and Science University, and Dr. Dennis Plies, a music professor at Warner Pacific University, explore the fascinating interplay between our brains, our instruments, our audiences, and the music they make together. 

White backbround with a red illustrated, stylized head filled with musical items with black and red title lettering above and below.
Columbia University Press

Excerpted from Every Brain Needs Music: The Neuroscience of Making and Listening to Music by Larry S. Sherman and Dennis Plies published by Columbia University Press. Copyright (c) 2023 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

The Minor Fall and The Major Lift: Sorting Out Minor and Major Chords

Another function within areas of the secondary auditory cortex involves how we perceive different chords. For example, part of the auditory cortex (the superior temporal sulcus) appears to help distinguish major from minor chords.

Remarkably, from there, major and minor chords are processed by different areas of the brain outside the auditory cortex, where they are assigned emotional meaning. For example, in Western music, minor keys are perceived as “serious” or “sad” and major keys are perceived as “bright” or “happy.” This is a remarkable response when you think about it: two or three notes played together for a brief period of time, without any other music, can make us think “that is a sad sound” or “that is a happy sound.” People around the world have this response, although the tones that illicit these emotions differ from one culture to another. In a study of how the brain reacts to consonant chords (notes that sound “good” together, like middle C and the E and G above middle C, as in the opening chord of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”), subjects were played consonant or dissonant chords (notes that sound “bad”together) in the minor and major keys, and their brains were analyzed using a method called positron emission tomography (PET). This method of measuring brain activity is different from the fMRI studies we discussed earlier. PET scanning, like fMRI, can be used to monitor blood flow in the brain as a measure of brain activity, but it uses tracer molecules that are injected into the subjects’ bloodstreams. Although the approach is different, many of the caveats we mentioned for fMRI studies also apply to PET studies. Nonetheless, these authors reported that minor chords activated an area of the brain involved in reward and emotion processing (the right striatum), while major chords induced significant activity in an area important for integrating and making sense of sensory information from various parts of the brain (the left middle temporal gyrus). These findings suggest the locations of pathways in the brain that contribute to a sense of happiness or sadness in response to certain stimuli, like music.

Don't Worry, Be Happy (or Sad): How Composers Manipulate our Emotions

Although major and minor chords by themselves can elicit “happy” or “sad” emotions, our emotional response to music that combines major and minor chords with certain tempos, lyrics, and melodies is more complex. For example, the emotional link to simple chords can have a significant and dynamic impact on the sentiments in lyrics. In some of his talks on the neuroscience of music, Larry, working with singer, pianist, and songwriter Naomi LaViolette, demonstrates this point using Leonard Cohen’s widely known and beloved song “Hallelujah.” Larry introduces the song as an example of how music can influence the meaning of lyrics, and then he plays an upbeat ragtime, with mostly major chords, while Naomi sings Cohen’s lyrics. The audience laughs, but it also finds that the lyrics have far less emotional impact than when sung to the original slow-paced music with several minor chords.

Songwriters take advantage of this effect all the time to highlight their lyrics’ emotional meaning. A study of guitar tablatures (a form of writing down music for guitar) examined the relationship between major and minor chords paired with lyrics and what is called emotional valence: In psychology, emotions considered to have a negative valence include anger and fear, while emotions with positive valence include joy. The study found that major chords are associated with higher-valence lyrics, which is consistent with previous studies showing that major chords evoke more positive emotional responses than minor chords. Thus, in Western music, pairing sad words or phrases with minor chords, and happy words or phrases with major chords, is an effective way to manipulate an audience’s feelings. Doing the opposite can, at the very least, muddle the meaning of the words but can also bring complexity and beauty to the message in the music.

Manipulative composers appear to have been around for a long time. Music was an important part of ancient Greek culture. Although today we read works such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, these texts were meant to be sung with instrumental accompaniment. Surviving texts from many works include detailed information about the notes, scales, effects, and instruments to be used, and the meter of each piece can be deduced from the poetry (for example, the dactylic hexameter of Homer and other epic poetry). Armand D’Angour, a professor of classics at Oxford University, has recently recreated the sounds of ancient Greek music using original texts, music notation, and replicated instruments such as the aulos, which consists of two double-reed pipes played simultaneously by a single performer. Professor D’Angour has organized concerts based on some of these texts, reviving music that has not been heard for over 2,500 years. His work reveals that the music then, like now, uses major and minor tones and changes in meter to highlight the lyrics’ emotional intent. Simple changes in tones elicited emotional responses in the brains of ancient Greeks just as they do today, indicating that our recognition of the emotional value of these tones has been part of how our brains respond to music deep into antiquity.

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