Wednesday, January 31, 2007

So I guess I was wrong...

Damn it! So Marcel didn't win. I guess that sucks for my forecasting skills. However, I think that I actually agree with the rational of the judges decision. Before announcing Ilan as the winner they said that one of the chefs will go on to be a better chef. One is better now. So yes, Ilan may have made the better meal however, I imagine that he will end up making that same meal for the REST OF HIS LIFE! That was the last time Marcel will ever make that. He'll be on to better things. Marcel is truly the most talented. He's a scientist. I'd eat the things he makes for sure.


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Scariest Movie Ever...?

Never before have I been more scared by a movie than when I sat down to watch John Carpenter’s classic horror picture Halloween. If films are to be graded by the scale of the finished product’s ability to accomplish the task of delivering and provoking a specific emotional response from the viewer, then you will find few movies as effective as this one. Halloween is a perfectly paced emotional punch to the gut that never backs off of its intensity, from the opening sequence through to the credits. One viewing was all it took to firmly entrench this on my list of all time favorites.

As one would imagine from the title, this film focuses on events that take place in the small town of Haddonfield, Illinois on Halloween evening. It follows the day of three high school babysitters as they are stalked by, and eventually fight for their lives against a recent escapee from a mental institute with a violent link to Haddonfield’s past, named Michael Myers. 15 years earlier, at the tender age of six, young Michael murdered his sister on Halloween night, sending him to a mental institution where he had remained until the present. After his escape, the older Michael returns to Haddonfield in a stolen brown station wagon and takes a particular interest in young Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis in her first film role) and her friends.

Today, the basic plot of the movie would not do much to raise eyebrows. It’s a story that we have seen in some variation over the last two-plus decades. All of the elements of a typical slasher film script are seen here: the unstoppable villain, the attractive young teenagers looking for a good time, the virginal heroine, the driven character in search of the villain whose warnings fall on deaf ears. So, with so many of these elements taken as commonplace in today’s horror films, why does this movie stand out? Well, this is the film (along with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) that all of its followers owe a debt to for establishing these conventions. Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and countless others have all tried to follow in its footsteps with varying degrees of success.

Simply being first is not what makes this movie great. Working with a tiny budget of $320,000 forced the makers to rely more on their wits than high tech effects to provide the scares. This is in fact a blessing to the movie. Watching other horror and slasher films would lead a person to believe that there may be giant pools filled with fake blood just off camera. Not so in Halloween. In fact, nowhere in this movie do you see the gore and violence that is typically associated with this genre. I can in fact only recall two scenes where we see actual blood on screen. This is not to say that the movie is not violent. When Michael dispatches his victims no punches are pulled, and the deeds are committed on camera. However, unlike the movies to follow in Halloween’s foot steps, the killings are not spectacles of the most clever way a human can be dispatched of with say…a salad fork. Michael assaults his victims the way any homicidal maniac would attack you should you happen upon them in your house late at night. Victims are strangled, or stabbed - simple, efficient methods with no pizzazz. The spectacle is not how someone is murdered, but that they are. Even the total body count for the film is low. By my calculation only five people and a dog fall victim to Michael; a number I found astonishingly low considering the reputation movies of this genre have for being bloodbaths.

Halloween’s noticeable lack of bloodshed is not the only thing that sets it apart from its eventual imitators. One particularly interesting decision made by Carpenter in telling the story was one to stage a good number of the scenes leading up to the climax in broad day light. Once Michael arrives in Haddonfield, he returns to his former house, which is where he first encounters young Laurie as she drops the keys to the property off for her father. As she walks up the front steps, we are treated to a view of her from the interior of the house over Michael’s shoulder as he silently watches her. As Laurie walks off, Michael actually follows her to the street and we watch over his shoulder as Laurie walks down the street singing to herself. After this fateful encounter at the Myer’s house we get to tag along with Michael and Laurie as they go through their day. We follow Michael as he stalks Laurie, and we walk with Laurie and her friends as she has near miss after near miss with her masked pursuer. In my opinion, this sequence draws its real power from the fact that it all takes place with Michael in full view at all times. Typically in slasher films, we don’t get to see the killer except as a moving shadow, or through a POV shot. Michael makes no attempt to hide himself. Laurie is even conscious of his presence throughout the course of her day. She sees him standing across the street from her school, looking up at her in her bedroom and even boldly stepping out from behind a hedge as Laurie and her friends walk home, only to disappear before anyone but Laurie can notice him. Michael’s behavior certainly goes a long way toward painting him as someone who is deeply and emotionally troubled.

The way in which Michael is portrayed at the start of the film establishes an excellent character who would quickly become a fan favorite. This fateful night in Haddonfield went on to spawn eight (soon to be nine) sequels, of which all but one (Halloween 3: Season of the Witch) would feature Michael as the villain/hero (depending on your point of view). The numerous sequels which follow this movie establish that Michael Meyers is a character outside of the realm of human experience. He becomes a supernatural force that cannot be killed. In the first movie however, we get no indication that Michael is anything other then an extremely disturbed, troubled and dangerous man until the very end. When Michael survives several point blank gun shot wounds and a fall from a second story balcony, the only indication we are given that he may be something more than human, is that Michael is capable of uprooting and moving his sister's grave stone by himself. The injuries inflicted upon him by Laurie: stabbed with a pair of knitting needles to the neck, poked in the eye with a coat hanger, and stabbed with a knife - all injuries from which a mortal could conceivably recover. Even Michael's physical appearance does not lead one to believe that he is something more than a man. He is actually rather slight in stature and build, certainly not an unstoppable monster. What makes Michael so terrifying is that despite these things, there is not a second of doubt that we are watching someone who has completely surrendered rational thought. Masked in a ghost white mask and a nondescript grey coverall suit, every action of his portends menace. He walks at a methodically slow pace, displaying no emotion at all. Whatever his origins, you quickly concur with Dr. Sam Loomis’s (played by Donald Pleasance) assessment that Michael is evil personified.

The final element of the movie I wish to address, which I think really goes the longest way toward making this an absolutely terrifying film, is the music. Composed by John Carpenter himself, the soundtrack to this movie is absolutely terrifying. It is an almost constant presence in the film. The music sets the tone perfectly, and then plays with our emotions, as we watch the film wondering, along with Laurie, where Michael is going to appear next. From the second the movie starts, we are never able to forget that Michael is there somewhere watching. The music is always there with us, too. The true effect of the music was demonstrated in a documentary I watched, where they played the class scene in which Laurie notices Michael standing across the street watching her. They showed the scene once with and once without music. Without the music, there really is nothing scary or creepy about the scene. However, once the music is added the scene becomes nerve wracking. Without its music, Halloween would not be half the thrill that it is.

I think it’s a shame that movies typically placed into the horror genre, and more specifically the slasher genre, are not often given their due in terms of the artistry that goes into them. If movies are in fact designed with the intent of provoking emotions from viewers, then Halloween should be considered as a master class in how to make people squirm in their seats. Even if you don't like horror films (admittedly, I am not a huge fan) this movie should be seen by everyone. I consider it a shining example of how an effective film should be made. Halloween is a classic film. I look forward to watching it again and being just as frightened.

Open Pandora's Box!

I just found the greatest streaming music site EVER! Check it out!

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Just suppose...

...someone walked up to you and asked you to define Alternative Rock to them by playing one song. Which one would you choose to play?

Monday, January 29, 2007

Hello From Middle Earth!

After spending the weekend amoung hobbits, elves and the children of men I must say that I am impressed. Obviously, the game still in it's beta stages has some bugs to work out. However, over all was very happy with the experience. There really wasn't anything very earth shaking, but the game looks like it will be pretty polished by release time. The most annoying glitches that I encountered were certain enemies getting "stuck" in the terrain and becoming untargetable. There is still a need to work out some features of the chat and social portions of the interface. I had several problems adding people to a my friends list, and error when sending tells. Those flaws aside, I think Middle Earth might become a place where I could see myself hanging out again. I was invited to participate in a stress test this weekend for the game servers, so I essentially had a weekend pass to try and see if me and my fellow players could break the game with our sheer numbers. I am very happy to report that I encountered only one issue that seamed to be server related over the course of my 8 - 10 hours of game play. I was forced to restart when my system hung entering a house in a town.

For the purposes of my test I created three characters. An elf hunter, a hobbit burglar and a human champion. The champion character was the one that I settled upon and played for the majority of the stress test. You can see his picture above. WillFarrell, Watcher of Roads! The Champion class is a melee damage per second (DPS) class with some fun area of effect (AOE) attacks. I found it to be a very good soloing class. With the high damage rate caused by being able to dual wield weapons and his AOE attacks even fighting three enemies at a time was very manageable. I was able to progress to level 9 without being defeated in battle.

One of the most impressive aspects of the game is the world that has been created. Middle Earth looks BEAUTIFUL! Rendering the world in a realistic fashion (as opposed to the cartoony nature of World of Warcraft) was a good choice by the developers. The art direction clearly takes it's inspiration from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. When playing as my elven character I encountered a Frost Troll that could have easily just stepped off of the movie screen. The environments that you explore are very well rendered. At high resolutions this world is a sight to behold. Grass sways in the wind, and the water gives off incredible reflections. I had some trouble navigating at night or in caverns without increasing the gama settings. Actually playing at night or in a cave without making this adjustment made the game practically unplayable. (Realistic, because I was in the middle of the woods at night without a light source and like you would imagine in real life I couldn't see 5 feet in front of me.) The problem was easily correctable though, and increasing the gama did not ruin the experience even though the colours were a touch washed out. One of my least favourite part about reading the Lord of The Rings books, was that Tolkein seamed to devote an awful lot of page space to characters walking through fields or climbing mountains. It certainly drove home just how expansive the distances were that the characters were forced to traverse. (I just didn't want to read 20 pages of people running across a field.) Visually, this game does an excellent job of presenting the sheer size of Middle Earth. Standing on a mountain top outside of the city of Combe landscape stretched out in front of me in just about every direction as far as the eye can see. I don't know how the actual playable area may compare to the playable areas in WoW but the world certainly "feels" bigger. Being a Lord of the Rings game as one might imagine, part of the fun comes from exploring places and meeting characters that appear in the novels. As the elf I got to fight along side Elrond against the aforementioned Frost Troll, and I was just beginning to explore the country surrounding the town of Bree when my beta test expired. The mind spins at the though of being able to visit the Lonely Mountain or Rivendale.

The developers of LOTR did another thing that I felt was very smart. In terms of mechanics and game play they pretty much copied WoW. Seeing as how WoW is the most popular MMO in the world it was smart to watch and learn. It has two effects. First, you know that you are emulating a design construct that millions of people have found to be enjoyable. Secondly, the familiar controls meant that for me there was almost no learning curve when learning to play the game. I knew how to play it. However, because of the very different aesthetic styles of the two games, I never felt like I was playing the same game. I think that LOTR will offer players a very unique alternative to WoW. In fact, if there is a fantasy franchise which could possibly steal a bit of WoW's share of the MMO pie it just could be LOTR. One of the strengths of WoW is that it has a very well established lore and mythos which was begun during the real time strategy games which preceded it. However, if you are someone who had never played the earlier Warcraft games most of the lore and significance will pass right over your head. It dose not diminish the fun of the core game, but knowing the lore allows for a more complete experience. This is an advantage that LOTR will have from the start over WoW due to the fact that the world of LOTR is far more familiar to the general population then Warcraft ever was. History has shown that that isn't all that is necessary to create a successful MMO. (See Star Wars Galaxies or The Matrix Online) Obviously, no matter how compelling the story is if the game isn't fun to play it will fail. I think that LOTR may have what is necessary for it to succeed.

As I have said, I did very much enjoy my time playing the game. I am actually a touch sad that I was only able to play for the weekend. The game however was not with out a few issues, and granted they are minor. The first would be load screens. There are a lot of them. The world as a rule flows pretty smoothly. However, there are certain places where I wish the developers had chosen to adopt a more seamless approach. Entering buildings in towns or entering caverns were all preceded by load screens. Granted they were quick loads, and I can understand the need for them, as the building interiors are often times very elaborate. I just wish that they did not exist so that there could be a more seamless experience. Outside of that, and the few interface issues mentioned above I can think of very few issues that I encountered with the game.

I certainly think that once the game is in final release it will get some serous consideration as a reciepiant of my gaming time and dollars. I miss Will.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Here is Something Fun For You To DO!

I'm in the process of working on my essay about John Carpenter's "Halloween". I would lie to you and tell you that I am going to finish it this weekend, but I've been invited to take part in the beta of the new Lord of the Rings MMO. Between that and 2 basketball games this weekend I wonder whether I'm going to sit down and finish it. Knowing me as I do. The answer is no. However, maybe I'll surprise myself. Until then. Enjoy this....

Wednesday, January 24, 2007