I recently had a "virtual" moral quandary that I found interesting. It involves the content in a video game I'm playing. Not the "graphic violence" or "coarse language" type of content (although this game contains plenty of both, ESRB rating of M for Mature, NOT FOR KIDS,) but a quandary of interactive storytelling and the choices I (through my in-game character) have to make.
The game in question is Bethesda Studios "Fallout: New Vegas," developed by Bethesda's Obsidian Entertainment. It's the follow up to "Fallout 3" (which is also very good) and it puts the player into a rich, detailed, world on the edge of a disaster or two. Normally that would be a player's (or character's) call to be "the hero." Fighting against all odds to save the world for the good of mankind. Which you can do in F:NV (as it's abbreviated on the internet.) Or not. See, this game lets you make the decisions. You CAN fight against the forces of evil and save the world. OR you can join with those dark forces to conquer and enslave. OR you can go to every house in the game and put a teddy bear and a spork in every toilet tank in Nevada, it's REALLY all up to you. A short set up of the game world… It's a couple of hundred years after a nuclear war (mainly between the US, Canada, and China) devastated the earth and what's left of humanity is rebuilding society, which resembles an odd cross between the U.S. South's reconstruction era, the U.S. pre-Civil War frontier era, the Cold War nuclear scare era, and the great depression. All set to the music (and stylings) of Rat Pack crooners and the Big Band era.
Our hero (the character the player controls, in my case a character I gave a ridiculous handlebar moustache and the equally ridiculous name of Ezekiel Deschain) is a courier with a bad case of amnesia after being relieved of the package he was delivering via gunshot to the noggin from a gang leader named Benny. Story is simple at first. Track down Benny, exact revenge (or not,) retrieve the package, and finish the delivery. Along the way I became a kind of post-apocalypse white knight. Helping the people of all the little towns along the way, protecting the helpless, and making the wasteland safer for good, honest folk. I picked up a sidekick at a trading post on I-88, and she (Veronica) became the "Robin" to my "Batman." Helping me do-good my way to New Vegas and I in return helping her and her tribe and family.
After fixing some of her problems, I urged her to spend some time with her family while I finally made my way on to "the Strip" of New Vegas. And that's where "Zeke's" story gets complicated. 3 factions are vying for control of New Vegas and the power produced by the Hoover Dam. The New California Republic (or NCR,) Caesar's Legions, and Mr. House. The NCR isn't so bad. A democracy (more or less) with more or less civil laws. But they are expansionist, and don't give people much choice when annexing territory (join, leave, or die.) The Legion is a coalition of gangs and savage tribes trying to carve an empire out of the west, building it on the back of slave labor (these are the "bad" bad guys.) And the mysterious and reclusive millionaire Mr. House who currently runs New Vegas from his penthouse high atop the "Lucky 38 Casino." The "good" choices are to either help the NCR or Mr. House. I chose Mr. House because although the NCR isn't that bad… they are expanding by force. While House only wants to make New Vegas the shining city he remembers from before the bomb, giving the citizens and tourists back everything they lost to the war.
Or I was working for him, until he demanded I destroy Veronica's tribe and burn their home.
Now that's not any kind of moral dilemma. I can't do that and still BE the good guy. And I can't let Mr. House try and do it another way. And there's no way to talk him out of it, he's absolutely convinced they will oppose him. So… I made the decision to depose Mr. House. Killing him was an option, but I chose instead to just take away his authority over the police and defense forces of New Vegas. I suppose at that point I could have handed the keys over to the NCR. But with ME in charge… the strip is still independent and free. And I'M a "good guy," right? I won't abuse my position… right?
But my "good" intentions don't change the fact that deposing (and or killing) Mr. House and taking authority over New Vegas was BENNY'S plan. It's the reason Benny shot the player's character in the FIRST place. Benny the murdering, loan sharking, crime boss I was bringing to justice in the first place. When that realization struck me… I was STUNNED. And then I was stunned a second time. This IS just a video game. None of it really matters, and even had I chosen to play as maniacal murderer who sided with the slave owners, it's just a game and would say nothing about me "in real life." Yet I was immersed well enough in the game, its setting, and its characters that I was concerned about the ethics of my character's actions. IS IT RIGHT to take the same actions that a criminal was going to… just because my intentions are (in my judgment) more altruistic than that criminal's? THERE'S the impressive moral quandary.
Well played Bethesda and Obsidian… well played. And even though it's taken me way too long to get at the point… here it is. The interactive media of video game is the ONLY storytelling medium where that sort of reflection is possible. In movies, books, or tv you can choose whether or not to like or root for a character based upon THEIR actions in the narrative. You can wonder what your reaction to the scripted events says about you as a person. But only in a well-crafted game can the narrative that unfolds as the result of YOUR actions make you question the morality of YOUR OWN decisions.
It's examples like this that make me remember why I'm such a pro-game advocate. I look at the popularity of the online MMS (modern military shooter) games like Call of Duty and Battlefield, and I wonder if those people who blame games for real life violence MAY be right. But then added to the fact that playing a game can't actually instruct you how to use any firearm depicted in that game (unless of course the trigger is a button on the side of the gun shaped like a video game controller) is the example set by Fallout: New Vegas… a game (even a particularly violent game) can make you reflect on the ethical ramifications of your choices and actions.
Oh another plus for F:NV. There are a few in-game radio stations you can listen to. Music, then a DJ comes on. Maybe reads a listener letter, maybe does some news. My favorite is the "rat pack crooner" station called Radio New Vegas. When I heard it the first time I thought I recognized the voice of its DJ "Mr. New Vegas." Yup, the character was voiced by Wayne Newton.
Yes… Danka Schoen… THAT Wayne Newton. Well played again Bethesda.
It really isn’t that big a deal, but www.hotmail.com is gone. Now it re-directs to www.outlook.com in Microsoft’s move to consolidate their web-based email server with the branding of their email client. Not a bad move I suppose, but there’s something a little depressing and dark surrounding the change.
I’ve had a Hotmail account since 1997, it was my first personal email account. I’ve picked up several other accounts over the years, but most I’ve closed out or I have not checked for years. Now I have not lost anything, Microsoft kept the accounts active and moved them over to Outlook. And it seems to work pretty well, even (surprisingly) on computers that are not top-of-the-line fast anymore. It shares the look of the latest version of Outlook available by itself or bundled with Word and Excel in the Microsoft Office package, meaning it shares the look of the most widely used email client in the world.
So if I didn’t lose anything and its better… why do I not like the change?
Well, small reasons, like muscle memory. I can type the URL for Hotmail in less than a second. I’ve been checking the account almost daily for 16 years now. And I always type it first before remembering its Outlook now. And Hotmail (and previous versions of Outlook) shared a similar look and design to the classic “icon and Window” look that Microsoft has been refining since Windows 3.1 (back in the early 90’s.) But the latest Windows OS is Windows 8, and it sports a radically different design. Less “icon and window” and more “touch tile” like the interface on a smartphone or tablet computer. And the new Outlook’s design seems to be making that change as well.
So I don’t like it because it’s a branding change, and its promoting Microsoft’s newest operating system. Which has followed far to close on the heels of the successful and stable Windows 7, and is designed to create even more revenue through microtransactions and selling programs through their own Microsoft “app store” that’s right there on your desktop. Microsoft is claiming its better in this and that… and I’m sure there are improvements, but it’s an unnecessary cash grab and I can’t really get behind it. Windows even attempted (or will follow through) with only releasing DirectX 11 to Windows 8. That will affect a lot of users as all games and many other programs require DirectX (so new games will require DX 11) essentially holding your computer hostage, disallowing even 3rd party new software, until you upgrade to Win 8.
I don’t begrudge a company an honest profit. But Microsoft is going a ways past honest. They are walking the antitrust law tightrope and even if their business practices are legal… they are without question manipulative, punitive, and unethical. Oh, and if you are an Apple person you’re not any better off. Microsoft is just adopting business practices that Apple has been using for years already.
So it’s bigger than just a new URL for my webmail client. It’s the start of a change away from winning customers by providing better services, in favor of winning by squeezing every penny you can from a customer base that is becoming more and more dependent on your services. Forcing them to buy upgrades for products they don't need and didn't ask for.
Just look at Microsoft’s latest commercial for Windows 8. The tag line is… “don’t fight it, just switch.”
But I just found a decent way to bring up a topic that's been in the news and on my mind for a while now. So we've had these awful shootings last year in Colorado and Connecticut... as well as several incidents (and attempted incidents) of violence here in the U.S. And just last night the Dorner/Cop killer thing comes to an end in California.
Now first off, events like this are not new. In varying degrees of severity things like this happen every year. Have happened every year, and unfortunately will continue to. It seems particularly bad right now, but that's amplified and inflated by the explosion of social media and the immediacy of information spread and the economic (downturn, recession, depression, recovery... wherever we're at.)
Which is specifically why ALL of the scapegoating seems a little overblown for my tastes. I'm not against sensible enforcement of reasonable gun laws. Pretty sure we need to close that "gun show" loophole (or at least make sure we are not selling guns to felons at these gatherings like we are now.) But let's make sure we are putting the emphasis where it is needed (relatively few long rifles are used to commit crimes compared to say handguns) and not over burdening government, business, and the public with needless regulation. A little common sense and less paranoia and finger-pointing (on both sides) and the "gun issue" could find a reasonable "middle ground' sensible solution. It would not end gun crime or stop gun deaths completely... but nothing would. The most effective we could be here will not "completely solve" the problem, so we do what we can and move on to people we can help and things we can improve.
But the scapegoating... Lord I wish the scapegoating would just go away. Rather than something sensible (like blaming the perpetrators) what we get is "Oh, guns are the problem... we need more gun laws." or just as stupid "More guns could have prevented this... we need less gun regulation and a gun in every hand."
NEITHER ONE OF THOSE "SOLUTIONS" WILL SOLVE ANYTHING. STOP BEING SO POLARIZED AMERICA.
One of the many things that made this country great is our ability to come together as Americans (regardless of background) to overcome adversity and solve problems. And excuse my pessimism... but that part of our greatness IS GONE and a thing of the past we need to rediscover or we need to accept we are no longer a great nation.
And I for one don't want to have to do the latter.
But my pessimism is overstating the problem. The political extremes on both sides are the all too vocal minorities of both parties. But whether it's Occupy or TEA, extremist groups are gaining in popularity. Which is why I do believe we are in real trouble. Because hey, when extremist groups gain control of a country... good things happen?
No, that's almost never the case. And history will back me up on that point.
And no, the TEA party isn't reactionary conservative, the ACTUAL extreme edge of the right side of the political spectrum. Neither is Occupy true (by political science standards) liberal radical on the left side. But I did call both sides "extremist" for a good reason.
Are you still reading? Because the dangerous ones in both camps... aren't. They labeled me a (whatever they call the other sider) the second I compared each group to the other and called them extremists. That's the point that they stopped reading and if I had been speaking aloud they would have covered their ears and started screaming talking points like a 6 year old saying LALALALALA I'M NOT LISTENING LALALALALALALALA. And so they miss this valuable piece of political advice most people who are reasonable enough to still be reading already know. It pays to listen to the opposition and maintain a civil relationship with them. You never know when you might be agreeing with them or need their help. When 2 sides disagree with one another, never bending an inch from their positions... nothing gets accomplished. Not to say doing nothing isn't sometimes a good idea, but ask yourself this.
Do you like how things are now? Because refusing to compromise is the surest way to keep things going in the same direction. And all the “never back down” talk that we are hearing from the loudmouths on both edges (whether they are shouting “no reduced spending” or “no tax increases” or “no more guns” or “no gun control”) is a waste of breath coming out of a waste of a human being.
There are a few more things that go with the Halloween/October theme that I can recommend. I won’t go into them in great detail (like I’m apt to do most of the time,) just assume that if something I mention makes this list it’s worthy of a look.
Event Horizon – Better at being “Hellraiser in space” than “Hellraiser: Bloodlines,” which WAS actually “Hellraiser in space.” Stars Lawrence Fishburne and Sam Neil.
The Watcher in the Woods – If you want something scary that’s OK for young kids… this will freak ‘em out plenty. And some of the scares will get to adults too. Look for Bettie Davis in a very creepy role.
Pitch Black – A decent Vin Diesel action/horror movie.
Cabin in the Woods – Sends up many other horror movies while being a great one itself. Written by “The Avengers” Joss Whedon.
Ringu or Ju-on (original Japanese versions) – Nothing against the American versions of Japanese horror movies, but if a horror movie is based upon a Japanese movie AND you can stand subtitles… get the original version because they are usually much better.
And that’s not knocking great classics like Night of the Living Dead, The Shining, The “original 3” horror classics (Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolf Man,) or any of the other big names. Those are great, I was just trying to bring up some titles people may not be familiar with.
Netflix has the full run of “The Twilight Zone” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” For the former, don’t miss episodes “A Game of Pool,” “The Hitchhiker” and “Shadow Play.” And for the latter I suggest “And So Died Riabouchinska,” “The Waxwork,” and “A Nightmare in 4-D.”
The X-Files is also on Netflix, and had some good scary episodes. I recommend “Humbug,” “Grotesque,” “Ice,” and “Die Hand Die Verletzt.”
You can’t go wrong with the classics. Mary Shelly and Frankenstein, Bram Stoker and Dracula, H.G. Wells and “War of the Worlds.” All great in their original forms. And horror hit a new benchmark with H.P. Lovecraft. As far as anything a little more current, well…
“Storm Front: a Novel of the Dresden Files” by Jim Butcher. This is not horror, it’s being called by some “urban fantasy.” But it’s a good time to start on the Dresden Files, as the next book in the series (book 12 I think) is coming out soon.
“Regina’s Song” by David and Leigh Eddings. David Eddings was an author who has written several books I like. Most of them were parts of larger series, but “Regina’s Song” was a standalone effort that was pretty entertaining.
And of course Stephen King is kind of “King of Modern Horror.” But I really suggest his short story collections over any of his long form novels. “Night Shift,” “Nightmares and Dreamscapes,” and “Everything’s Eventual” are all full of great scary, funny, and above all good short stories. Don’t miss “The End of the Whole Mess” in “Nightmares and Dreamscapes, one of my favorites.
I went into detail about “Silent Hill 2,” but for a (soon to be not) current generation console you could do a lot worse than “Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.” It’s basically a remake (or in this case Wiimake) of the first Silent Hill. But it’s not just the first one with better graphics. It’s actually a pretty good entry in the series in its own right, kind of the first one from a different perspective. And the Wii hardware use of the Wiimote as a flashlight to look around and also as you cellphone works really well.
“Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem.” A very dark and Lovecraftian game. It uses some cute 4th wall breaking tricks to make the player not only doubt the character’s sanity… but maybe his own as well.
And I hope I can suggest “Amnesia: The Dark Descent.” It got good reviews. People whose opinions I respect have said it’s good and very scary. And I bought it last night for PC on Steam. It’s on a 75% off Halloween sale on Steam and I have little doubt it will be worth the $4.99 sale price.
Feel free to suggest your favorite Halloween themed bit of entertainment. Maybe someone will suggest something I haven’t seen yet.
They all float down here. –Pennywise the Dancing Clown
I apologize if the pictures trigger some kind of clown-fearing flashback… but for people my age who were just kids in 1990 when the T.V. miniseries based upon Stephen King’s 1986 novel “It” came out, that is actually a possibility. The book is frightening enough and in many ways more disturbing than the miniseries. But, if you haven’t experienced “It” yet I suggest tracking down a copy of the miniseries first. First of all it’s terrifying. If you (like me) enjoy being frightened this is a huge plus for watching the miniseries. But what makes it truly GOOD is its frightening for all of the little intangible things it gets right, rather than the big and splashy “horror movie scenes” which it kind of gets wrong.
There’s not much of the “blood and gore” that makes the horror genre frightening because of the grotesque scenery. It only uses “surprise jump” scares a couple of times, and each time it really telegraphs the scare. So much so you could almost do a countdown. “I’m gonna scare you in 3 - 2 - 1… BOO.” And even though I advocate that this is a mistake, you see Pennywise kill a kid in the first scene of the movie. Partially defining the bad guy which (like I said in the previous post) can really decrease how frightening the monster or villain can be.
But what it gets right are so many of the little things that you don’t even really notice any of those criticisms. The casting was very good. Starring Richard Thomas (famous for his portrayal of John ‘”Boy” Walton on The Waltons) as the “main” character Bill Denbrough. And backed up by a solid cast of actors including Harry Anderson (of Night Court fame) and the late John Ritter. But the casting was actually more difficult than that, because half of the movie is a flashback to the childhoods of the adult characters. So for most of the main cast, there had to be and adult and child version of each character. And relying on child actors to deliver a comparable performance to such a good cast for half of the movie was a risky move. But it paid off, they did a great job. Starting with the late Jonathan Brandis as the young Bill Denbrough, and backed up by a young Seth Green (known for roles in Austin Powers and Family Guy.)
And the cast worked in tandem with a fantastic script. It was well adapted for T.V. from one of the GOOD Stephen King books. But no matter how well a screenplay is written, it can only really “come alive” when read by a good actor. And the REAL star (to me anyway) of “It” was Tim Curry in his amazing and pants-soiling terrifying portrayal of Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Lots of writers could write great lines like “Let go. Be afraid. You all taste so much better when you're afraid,” and, “Oh you are priceless Brat! I am eternal, child. I am the eater of worlds, and of children. And you are next! I'm every nightmare you've ever had. I'm your worst dream come true. I'm everything you ever were afraid of.”
Beep, Beep Richie.
But none of that dialogue would be as effective without the amazing delivery from the super-expressive Tim Curry. Don’t take my word for it, just watch here. The “early 90’s pre HD” slightly grainy television look is a little dated, as well as the 4:3 Television aspect ratio (as opposed to the more usual 16:9 widescreen format of today.) But because half of the movie is a flashback… that actually works somehow. And if you are reading this… you can watch the entire thing for free on youtube here. That’s part 1, just follow the link on the page for part 2.
But don’t say I didn’t warn you. The look may have “aged” a little, but the scares are very real and have not diminished with time. I’ve actually seen grown men pull the “hands over their eyes” move during this movie. It’s memorable, scary, and very, very good. But it’s not for the faint of heart or people who don’t like a good scare.
I’ve gone over a movie, TV miniseries, book, and videogame. I’ll drop one more October themed blog next week.
Once again I have to clarify… not the 1998 movie “starring” Ben Affleck, but the 1983 Dean Koontz novel that inspired the movie. Even though the credits say that Koontz himself wrote the screenplay, he obviously did not and DO NOT WATCH that movie. I find it hard to believe that any author would miss the point of HIS OWN novel so much. Or perhaps he did write it, and Disney (well thru Miramax and Dimension Films) hit it with the edit razor so hard that it didn’t seem like Koontz wrote it. Either way, all of the good things I’m going to say about the book do not apply to the movie and were totally mishandled or overlooked for the terrible film.
First things first, I’m not a big Koontz fan. Don’t let that sound too much like an insult though, I’m also no Koontz novel expert. I’ve read fewer than 10 (I think 7 or 8) of his over fifty novels. Why I’ve not read more is because I’ve only really liked 3 of the ones I’ve read. I did enjoy “Twilight Eyes” and “Dark Rivers of the Heart” and recommend them for fun and thrilling reads. But his 1983 novel “Phantoms” is VERY dark, VERY frightening, and gets several of the “rules for writing effective horror” EXACTLY right.
The story set up is pretty simple. Our main character Dr. Jenny Paige is taking custody of her 14 year old sister Lisa after the death of their grandparents (or something like that.) Upon arrival to Jenny’s home (and practice) in Snowfield Colorado, the sisters find the town totally silent and devoid of life. In some houses, bodies with strange injuries and no normal cause of death are found. In others, Jenny’s neighbors have simply vanished without a trace. And in a couple of cases a person vanished or died inside a locked and sealed room, sometimes leaving cryptic and creepy messages that were cut off by whatever took them. The character cast is added to when Jenny manages to call the next town over for help from the county sheriff’s department and the search for answers continues.
And that’s one of the “horror rules” Koontz gets right with Phantoms… three fourths of the book is spent trying to figure out what the “monster or bad guy” even IS. That’s one thing many horror novelists and screenwriters seem to forget. What you DON’T see is more frightening that what you do. Too many times a movie (generic example) will show what a monster looks like (or reveal the identity of a villain) much too early. When that mistake is made you change from the horror aspect of facing the unknown, to the usually more action oriented aspect of “defeating the bad guy.”
Another plus is the character of “little sister” Lisa. Lots of times horror, suspense, or action authors use children as a crutch. They exist only as a plot device to be saved, rescued, or protected and don’t have to be likeable or well defined characters because “they are just kids and need to be saved, rescued, and protected.” Well, maybe you have to be a parent to “get it,” but personally I hate child characters who are just empty plot devices lazy authors use to tug at heart strings and to add motivation to a character that does not have to be explained. And (in the book only) Lisa rises above that. She’s vulnerable, sure; but she’s also more than just a whiny boat anchor around a protagonist’s neck. She’s insightful, calm under pressure, and mature for her age when she needs to be. It makes you WANT the other characters to protect her instead of just EXPECTING them to. And it makes the scenes where she is in danger just that much more disturbing.
A few of the other strengths of Phantoms. It “makes it more real” by referencing actual historical events similar to the events in the novel. It layers on “hopelessness” as a theme thick at the start and only dumps on more and more as the story continues. It’s only in the last couple of chapters that there’s any glimmer of hope that somebody could survive. And even though the monster IS similar to monsters that have been written about in stories already, it isn’t “just a rip-off.” The book spends so much time with the characters and readers clueless about the nature of the villain that by the time you could draw the comparison between it and another story… it’s three quarters over.
And no, I won’t say what it’s similar to. Read and find out for yourself, I highly recommend it.
Not the 2006 film version, I’m going to focus on the video game series that inspired that movie. Not that the movie is THAT bad mind you. Lots of fans of the video game series were pretty vocal in their hate of that movie. But I’m not one of those fans, I realized the video games set the bar kind of high for a movie to try and emulate. But that’s one of the advantages a video game has over other non-interactive forms of media. With a video game, you are most often personally responsible for the health and well-being of a story’s protagonist. It helps to create that connection between reader/viewer/player and character that is helpful in creating a good narrative. A person is just more likely to enjoy a story if he likes and cares for the characters.
And that’s why I’m going to focus on Silent Hill 2. There’s nothing wrong with the 6 or 7 (depending on who you ask) other full installments of the series (ok a few of them were pretty terrible, but I won’t get in to that here) but the true jewel of the series is without question Silent Hill 2. And the reason it’s so well thought of and so often mentioned in lists of “best video game ever” is it’s story.
Atmosphere, pacing, characterization, hook, plot, subplot, anything that makes a good novel or well written screenplay good… Silent Hill 2 has it all. Which is good because from a purely technical standpoint… it’s not a very good video game. The controls are at best barely functional and the graphics, while good for a game made for a console almost 2 generations old, haven’t held up very well. But even in those faults there is a kind of mad genius. The controls ARE bad and frustrating when you have to fight off some of the… well things you have to fight (we’ll get to that.) But the main character James Sunderland is not an ex-military, mercenary, mma fighter, SWAT, special forces, (you get the idea) typical video game hero. James is just a normal guy (a writer or accountant I forget and it really doesn’t matter) so it makes sense that he’s not a great fighter. The graphics limitations of the console kept the developers from rendering anything more than 20 to 30 feet away from the camera for most of the game. However the developers (TEAM Silent, I should give them proper credit) washed out everything further than that in darkness (indoors) and a persistent fog (outdoors) adding to the atmosphere which was dark, unforgiving, and desolate.
And that’s where Silent Hill 2 shines and really comes alive. To set up the story, our hero James gets a letter from his wife Mary telling him she wants him to come and see her in the little town of Silent Hill where they spent their honeymoon. Which James agrees to do even though Mary has been dead for the better part of 2 years. Silent Hill (in the previous game) had been established as a town where some evil cult had done some fairly terrible things. But even though the cult had been vanquished (sort of) there was always the idea that the cult settled there because the town ALREADY HAD some sort of dark past, not the other way around. And in 2 you continue to get the idea that the town is sort of a “hell” for James which brings him face to face with his own dark past. And even though James (if he weren’t being controlled by a video game player) could just walk back to his car, drive away, and try to forget it ever happened… you also get the impression that he wouldn’t. He might just believe he deserves what he’s going through. You meet a small number of other characters in the game. They all have their own dark pasts and problems. And they behave oddly sometimes… as if they may not be seeing the same “reality” that James is experiencing. Making you wonder if they are insane. Or maybe JAMES is the crazy one.
No need to spoil it further. I’ll add some praise for the fantastic music used in the game written by Akira Yamaoka. Here is the intro to the game, featuring the game’s iconic “Theme of Laura.” And so, if you are a video game player… chances are you have already heard about Silent Hill 2. Well, I urge you to give it a chance. And for those of you who aren’t into games… well here is the game with all of its cutscenes and some of the more important game elements in a movie format. It suffers from having you “sit through” some of the things that a game player is actually interacting with. But it’s still better than most of the “scary” movies you could watch.
Yeah, a weird sounding word. Kind of sounds like the brand name of the fictitious chemical you put in a pool to create a cloud of red dye that will identify someone who pees in the pool. “Wanna know who whizzed in the deep end? Use Pontypool! By Johnson and Johnson.”
But I’m talking about Pontypool, a zombie horror movie released in 2009 based upon the novel “Pontypool Changes Everything” by Canadian author Tony Burgess. Burgess wrote the screenplay for the movie himself, and according to the film’s director Bruce McDonald (a Canadian Director best known for 1996’s “Hard Core Logo”) the story was adapted from novel to screenplay in less than 48 hours. Pontypool is the name of the fictitious Canadian town in which the events of the book and movie take place. And those events are worth watching, I can’t recommend Pontypool enough.
Now you might be saying to yourself “but Jad… ALL zombie movies are exactly the same. A group of characters are the survivors of a zombie apocalypse, get trapped in a building surrounded by zombies, shotgun and chainsaw their way thru zombies, some of them get eaten or turned into zombies, and the main characters either survive or everyone dies. The end.”
And while Pontypool begins (after a bizarre, seemingly un-connected nude scene incident) exactly that way, the story goes sideways zonking crazy before anyone can even ask “Where’s the chainsaw.” If the stereotypical zombie movie is what you are craving (and there’s nothing wrong with that) then go check out “28 Days Later” which does the job pretty well. If you want a movie that spoofs the zombie genre, then Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead” will keep you laughing. But if you want to watch something original, well-written, and genuinely creepy… I gotta suggest Pontypool. It would be far too easy to talk about it here and spoil if for you, so I’ll just describe my introduction to the film.
I work midnight to 9 AM (I leave right after the Steve and Ted show) and generally go to bed when I get home. However, on Fridays I stay up so I can “turn my weekends back around.” So by the time 8 or 9 PM rolls around on a Friday, I’m usually pretty dead tired. But since my friends are “stay up late and party on the weekends” types, I sometimes push past that to hang out with my pals. The Friday (or by then Saturday) I first saw Pontypool, I was just getting to bed at 2 AM Saturday morning when another of my friends called me. He needed a ride from a bar (where he had been working as a bouncer/bartender) and a place to crash for the night. And I’m a guy that’ll do most anything for my buddies (no matter how bone weary I might be) so I went and picked him up. We got back to my house just before 3 AM, and he kicked on the TV and brought up Netflix. I figured he’d choose a TV show to watch and I could sit thru one episode and then go to bed. But instead he picked a movie he’d heard good things about. I figured I’d fall asleep after a few minutes…
5:30 AM Saturday morning rolls around (remember, after not having slept since waking up at 10 PM THURSDAY) and I am still GLUED to my chair. Falling asleep was not possible; I NEEDED to keep watching that movie. As far as “scary” goes… it really only qualifies as “creepy.” Basically Pontypool evokes the fear of a virulent infection of a type no one has ever seen before (or even theorized could be possible.) But it’s fresh and original. Even in a genre as oversaturated as “Zombie horror” Pontypool manages to be totally unlike ANY other zombie movie ever made. And if you don’t think it’s crazy enough, watch until the end of the credits for an extra scene that totally waves goodbye to any sanity that movie might have had left.
Pontypool stars Stephen McHattie (best known for portraying Hollis Mason in Watchmen, or his role as Elayne’s boyfriend Dr. Reston in 4 episodes of Seinfeld) as Grant Mazzy, a Don Imus style morning radio host who had a Don Imus style incident in big market radio and has been banished to Pontypool (the middle of nowhere.) The Zombiepocalypse happens while he is live on the air, and we get to see the story from the backdrop of a radio station as Mazzy keeps Pontypool and the world updated on the bizarre happenings in his little Canadian town.
Yes I know… It happens in a radio station. No wonder it “speaks to me,” right? That doesn’t mean I’m wrong about the movie though, the setting makes it a great place to infodump the happenings surrounding the movie, and yet maintain a high level of dramatic tension. And it provides a pretty good bunker for the “spam in a can” zombie movie cliché, after all you need at least one zombie movie cliché or you can’t really call it a zombie movie.
So that’s Pontypool. It got a pretty lukewarm 54 on Metacritic, but there were only a few reviews (it was an independent Canadian release) and the naysayers couldn’t have missed the point harder. My suggestion, don’t go into it with an idea of an action/horror zombie bloodfest. This is a thinkin’ man’s zombie movie, available to view if you have a membership on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Otherwise you can download it from Amazon or try to track down a DVD.
Feel free to make a comment about Pontypool below, or just chime in to suggest your own favorite scary bit of entertainment. Next week… a trip to Silent Hill.
Ok, we’re almost to October and it’s been awhile since my last blog update. So I’m going to make up for that a little bit, starting now with the announcement of a month long blog “feature.” I suppose I could try and come up with a catchy name for it. Wait a minute… I can’t. Oh well, setting aside the branded “title” of the next few blogs here’s what my idea is.
I love October. I like fall, football, hockey (Thunder even if no NHL because of a *#&%!^@ lockout,) and Halloween. Plus my birthday is in October as well. New seasons of television are kicking off, Oscar type movies are replacing the bad action and weak comedies of the "not good enough for Summer" movie season, and in the world of video games the pre-Christmas big game rollouts get started. Plus I’m a guy that can’t stand the summer 90 and 100 plus degree heat. October seems to be the one whole month with weather I just love.
I can’t think of anything bad about October. And so to honor what I consider to be the greatest month in the Gregorian calendar… I will celebrate October with weekly blog updates in the theme of the month’s premier holiday.
Columbus Day! Wait, that’s not right…
Halloween is my favorite holiday. I don’t feel obligated to spend huge amounts of money buying gifts for others; a bag of candy or 2 for the kids is good enough. Costume parties can be loads of fun. And the best thing… it’s all about having fun and getting and giving good scares.
Now some people don’t like to be scared, but if done in good fun I think it’s great. The bodies’ fear response is a quick rush of adrenaline, a short increase of heart rate, and a feeling of heightened senses. I know it sounds weird, but it can feel GOOD to be afraid. There’s something that a lot of people don’t know about me, I suffer from what can be a fairly crippling phobia. The reason most people don’t realize I have this phobia is that I often engage in activities that bring me face to face with the very thing that sends me into panic. The reason that I do is that I’m a little addicted to the adrenaline rush that being in a prolonged state of panic brings with it.
I know, that sounds pretty screwed up. And that’s fair, I won’t disagree with that. And yes, as a matter of fact I did not say WHAT phobia I have. A: I don’t want anyone to be able to use that knowledge against me; and B: I actually get a lot of amusement out of the realization that the average person standing next to me has NO IDEA that I could be so afraid at that moment that it’s all I can do to not scream and run away.
It’s funnier than it sounds like it would be, trust me.
Other than that one thing (and probably because of my “odd” reaction to it) very little can actually scare me. And so when something like a movie or video game actually CAN scare me… I LOVE it. And so in October I will highlight some entertainment that has brought me a good scare or two. Be warned… it takes quite a lot to REALLY scare me. Don’t get me wrong, I jump at the “sudden scare” moment the same as everyone else. But that’s just kind of “meh.” True horror is so much better than that. It’s the realization that you’re trapped in a nightmare, and you can’t wake up. It’s the movie you CAN’T stop watching (or the book you can’t put down) because you need to see the end or you will never get to sleep.
And for those of you who want to play along at home… I’ll preview each thing I’m going to review in the preceding entry. I’m almost sure I didn’t say that right… but you get the idea, don’t you? I’ll give you a chance to take a look at whatever I’ll be talking about before each entry. Or you can wait and see what I have to say about it before giving it a chance or not. I won’t guarantee you will like everything on my list. But I will say there’s a fairly good chance you’ll enjoy a good scare or two with each.
Well, in an internet sense anyway. There is a new computer virus making the rounds right now, and it is a nasty one. It’s classified by some as “ransomware” and it is part of a money and identity phishing scam. It’s called officially (by the FBI) the “Reveton” virus. But it’s commonly being called the” FBI warning virus” or the “FBI MoneyPak” virus. This virus brings up an un-closable window telling you that the FBI has locked your computer for one of several reasons that they then list. I’ve included a screencap of an example lock out screen, and that one could look kind of legitimate. The scammers have even used the same headers as the FBI website in that version.
And yes, there are several different versions of the Reveton out there. One of them even turns on your computers webcam (if you have one) suggesting that someone is watching or monitoring you. The virus tells you that you have been linked to a website known for illegal activities (child porn, software piracy, human trafficking, and other crimes) and to “unlock” your computer you must pay a fine. There is a link to pay via MoneyPak, which is an untraceable, internet reloadable, prepaid-type credit card. MoneyPak is a preferred method of payment for all kinds of illegal and fraudulent deals.
Just an aside here… shame on Green Dot Corp. who owns MoneyPak. I really think any company which sets up a system like this just begging to be used by criminals… should be treated as criminals themselves. After all they are making money off of every person scammed by the Reveton, which makes them no better than the scammers. I really think there could be a pretty good case out there to prosecute them for “conspiracy to commit wire fraud” or something similar, but that won’t ever happen. I just don’t think it’s right for a company profit from the illegal transactions they harbor and make possible.
Back to the virus itself. What makes the Reveton worse than most is it is a “drive-by” virus. Most viruses are contracted by downloading infected files or opening infected attachments. The Reveton can spread to your computer simply by visiting an infected website, which is why I suggest “forting up.” Until the Microsoft and the anti-virus companies come up with some good anti-virus programs, patches, and fixes it would be a good idea to stay away from websites you don’t know. A lot of people just “google” something and click on the link that comes up, and hope it is the site that will help them or it’s the one they were looking for. But before clicking on ANY link… make sure you know where it is that link is taking you. In most browsers if you hold the mouse pointer over a link, the resulting URL is displayed near the bottom left hand of the screen. So check it, and then see what domain the link is to. Is it a reputable and well known and used website… or have you never heard of it before.
If you’ve never heard of it before, do one of two things. Either you can look up the domain on one of many anti-virus web safety sites like Norton Safe Web, Mcafee SiteAdvisor, AVG Threat Labs, or something similar. Or, you could just not take the chance. Most everything you would ever need can be found on trusted and safe websites that millions of people use every day without incident.
So, think before you click.
Getting rid of this virus is a bear. This is a “you’ll probably have to take it to a specialist” fix, also known as an “expensive” fix. So in this case, prevention is the best solution. One last thing. Another reason to know what domain you are going to, is so you can warn others. If you go to a site and contract the virus… TELL SOMEBODY. Call the Better Business Bureau, contact the police and talk to the cybercrime unit, get on another computer and use social media and internet forums to warn as many people as you can away from that infected website.
For more information on the Reveton virus, go to www.fbi.gov. If you hold your mouse over the link I just provided, you can see that the link’s destination URL is displayed near the bottom left hand of the window. Get into the habit of checking that display and you need not worry about the Reveton.