Thursday, December 23, 2010

Best Comedy Christmas Songs

Sure, Christmas songs get us in the holiday spirit, but Comedy Christmas songs achieve the same thing while entertaining us on another level. For that reason, I decided to compile this list. May you be filled with yuletide laughter.

5. 12 Days of Christmas - Foster Brooks
For nearly 50 years the irreplaceable Foster Brooks entertained the world, and made his mark in comedy with his hilarious lovable drunk persona. If you're not familiar with Mr. Brooks, I would recommend a quick youtube search and you'll be laughing all day. Though he was mostly known for his various television appearances, his take on this classic Christmas carol is pure genius. It starts a little slow, but as Foster becomes more and more hammered with each verse, there's no denying that he was a master at his own unique craft. It continues to leave me in stitches each time I listen. Merry Christmas, Foster Brooks, you're the drunken relative we all wish we had.

4. Chiron Beta Prime - Jonathan Coulton
Jonathan is an artist I've only recently gotten into in recent years, but he is quickly climbing the list of my favourite songwriters. He usually writes songs that focus on science fiction, technology, and other nerdy subjects mixed with various genres. Personally, the more I listen to him, the more I feel like he's been inspired by the likes of Weird Al and Ben Folds. If you're still unsure if you'd like his music, he did write the song "Still Alive" that appeared at the end of the amazing video game, Portal.

So anyway, this Christmas song is written like a Christmas card from a family enslaved by robots on a mining asteroid. It's hilarious and mad catchy.

3. Christmastime - The Arrogant Worms
One of the first songs I ever heard by the Worms, I remember distinctly listening to it on CBC radio around Christmas. These guys are no stranger to writing funny holiday songs, they even have a Christmas album in their sizable discography. Still with so many to choose from, this one stands out for it's energetic chorus and the delivery of lines like "Hey Mr. Santa Claus, I believe in you because, you've got more credibility that any doctor, cop, or lawyer!"

Unfortunately I couldn't find the song in any video to embed here (which may be a part of the internet's effort to keep us Canadians down), so I'm going to make you do extra work and listen to it on their website. Click the play button for holiday cheer!

2. The Night Santa Went Crazy - "Weird Al" Yankovic
I didn't want two songs by the same artist on the list, but I seriously considered Weird Al's other festive gem, "Christmas at Ground Zero" for its clever lyrics before finally choosing his other dark Christmas song. While it does make me feel old knowing the song is 15 years old already, I'll never forget listening to it for the first time and being shocked by its violent lyrics and then laughing my head off over the destruction of the North Pole and the gruesome demise of most of Santa's reindeer.

Please enjoy the extra gory version of the song posted below. I think you'll agree that nothing says Christmas like rocking out to Santa turning mad. I think you can also agree the story it tells would make one hell of a movie.

1. There Are Much Worse Things - Stephen Colbert and Elvis Costello
Colbert's 2008 TV special, "A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All" was a impressive bit of holiday fun filled to the brim with funny and well-written Christmas songs. I've since watched and listened to the songs dozens of times, but it's the final tune of the special that sticks with me the most. You may click and listen to it here.

The more I listen to the song, the more I appreciate all the different things it has to say. It begins by addressing the state of Christmas; how it's become the "cheesy crass commercial travesty" we know today that seems to be devoid of any religious significance. It then pokes fun at the importance we put on Christmas, as if it will solve all our problems at the end of the year and we will find "the answer to all sorrows in a box beneath the tree".

From there Stephen and Elvis sing of faith, cynicism, knowledge, and hopeful optimism. For me the song captures so many different feelings about the holidays and life that I feel you could easily write whole essays about it. And yes, while it may not be laugh out loud hilarious, it still is at heart a comedy song. It's sincere and beautiful, and as someone who celebrates Christmas without having any interest in going to church or being religious, it feels especially meaningful to that modern mentality. You may believe in everything, nothing, or things that are empty to others, but if it makes you happy then maybe that's all that matters, because ... after all, there are much worse things.

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas Traditions Explained

Last year I outlined a list of Weird Christmas Traditions from around the world. This year I thought I’d take a better look at some of the traditions that most Christians take part in every year and may not have any clue as to why.

Also, to our non-Christian, anti-Christmas readers: Merry/Happy Whatever!

5. Christmas Lights

During the Christmas holidays lighting a person’s house or trees – which we’ll get to later – is one of the most common practices of the Christian faithful. Houses are adorned, inside and out, with bright coloured or white lights from front to back.

So where did the tradition come from?

As you may or may not know, the Christian religion wasn’t always in the state it is today. There was a time where Christians were persecuted for their beliefs and had to hide in secret to congregate and profess their faith.

During these hard times Early Christians would light a candle in the window of the building they were performing a mass in, so that other Christians would know the location.

Now, as any good little history buff knows, the Christian religion is a conglomeration of many faiths. Winter solstice traditions, which were a mainstay of Pagan religions, are where most of our Christmas traditions take root.

Winter for the Pagans was a dark, horrible time of the year. During the colder months they had to hope that their food stores held out, survive the bitterly cold days and nights, and generally deal with the grief of those whom died during the winter – of which there were many. A celebration during these months helped to uplift spirits and break the bleak depression of the winter.

The Winter solstice celebrations – held on the darkest day of the year - included most of the merry-making we enjoy today, like a big feast with family and friends, gift-giving, and the burning of a large log in the hearth. This not only offered heat for the home, but represented the sun – which would return after the dark days. This tradition would become the “Yule” log and would be the basis of lighting candles in homes (for decoration, that is) and – in turn – for those horribly tangled LED lights you curse out every year as you staple them to your house.

4. Eggnog

What we call eggnog today is a drink that is heavily milk-based, contains loads of sugar, and - as per its name - contains eggs. It has a yellowish colour and depending on the level of milk used in the mix - from low-fat to downright cream - it can be very thick and creamy. Although these days you see people that just drink the nog, it is often mixed with some kind of liquor and served at social gatherings around the holidays.
So where did the tradition come from?

In days-gone-by milk and eggs had no "shelf life". There were no refrigerators! They were also costly. The only people that really had access to them were dairy and egg farmers, and the upper crust of society whom owned all the farms.

In an effort to keep the milk products they would be mixed with different liquors, including sherry and brandy. Eventually this became a treat that was enjoyed at many aristocratic social gatherings.

So why nog? That is a topic of debate by historians. There are several hypothesis, though. One includes that eggnog would often be mixed with rum or grog. The idea is that the term egg n' grog eventually became eggnog. Another idea is that eggnog would have once been drunk from a noggin - a wooden, carved mug used to serve booze back in the day. The drink might've been called an egg noggin and eventually shortened.

The mystery doesn't stop there, I'm afraid. Why do we drink it around the Christmas holidays? Well, there's no good reason. Like I mentioned before, eggnog was often enjoyed at social gatherings by the aristocrats. The belief is that over time it just became vogue to drink eggnog around Christmas and New Year's and that just eventually became the convention.

3. Mistletoe

Mistletoe, in regards to the Christmas decoration, is known as Viscus album in the UK. In NA a different form of mistletoe is used to adorn homes during the holidays, known as Phoradendron seritonum. It's a hemi-parasitic plant. Yeah, that's right. Plants can be parasites, too. Mistletoe actually survives by stealing sustenance from other plants.

So where did the tradition come from?

This one goes as far back as the Norse, at least. You see mistletoe, for some reason or another, has been linked to male virility for a very long time. In Norse mythology a mistletoe arrow was described as having killed Baldr, god of love and happiness. There are also descriptions of a sword made of mistletoe itself. If you don't get it, look up phallus.

Even in pre-Christian Europe mistletoe was considered a sign of male essence. Want to know why? Because when the berries are crushed up, they resemble semen. Yeah, bet you wish I didn't go there.

So how does this translate to the kissing Christmas decoration we know so well? The exact reasons aren't known, although it is again an extension of the male virility and fertility history of the plant, but as early as the 1820s there is literature that describes the use of mistletoe as a Christmas staple.

It would be cut from the bush and then hung in the home around Christmas Eve. It must then stay there and not touch the ground until Candlemas - a Christian feast that is held on February 2nd. It was believed that it could protect the home from lightning or fire, which I have no idea why; silly superstitious 19th Century Christians. 

The tradition of kissing is an extension of mistletoe's history as some weird phallic/male symbol, as young men could steal a kiss from the girl they were courting as long as they removed a berry from the bush. Once the berries were gone, the plant no longer held its spell.

I won't make any comments about that one.

2. Christmas Trees

The main decoration in a Christian's home around Christmas is the Christmas tree. It is adorned with lights, decorations, and in some traditions gifts, candies and fruit. At the top of most Christmas trees is a star, which depicts the Star of Bethlehem, but what started the tradition of people dragging perfectly good Evergreen trees into their homes?

So where did the tradition come from?

As far as we can tell from our history books, the Germans came up with the Christmas tree. In around the year 700, St. Boniface - in an attempt to fight off the pre-existing beliefs in Norse mythology - cut down a representation of the tree of Thor. Years later he found a fir tree growing in the roots of the old oak and saw it as a sign from God. He is quoted as saying, "... let Christ be at the centre of your households..." and from then on the tradition of taking a fir tree into one's home at Christmas began.

It is also recorded that in Estonia, circa 15th and 16th centuries, that a tree would be taken into the town square nearing the end of the Christmas holiday. It would be adorned and was the centre for dancing and singing. On the final night of reverie it would be burned and there would be a celebration held around the fire.

In a sort of amalgamation of traditions, families would take trees into their homes and decorate them, and would also light them with candles. It would remain a Germanic tradition for many years. It was customary in earlier times for the family to decorate the tree and hide it from the children for several days before Christmas eve, when it would finally be revealed.

The Christmas tree was actually considered a Protestant tradition, as were many of the Germanic Christmas traditions. It would be adopted by the Roman Catholics around the 16th and 17th centuries simply because it could not be stopped.

Today instead of candles on a large, dried out piece of wood, we take a safer route to light our trees… we plug sixty or so strings of lights into one socket, wrap them around our trees and stare glossy-eyed at all the pretty lights.

1. Santa Claus

Where to even begin?

Santa Claus has become the iconic image of Christmas, much to the dismay of the Catholic church. Seems there was a rather iconic birth on Christmas day as well. Although we consider the image of a plump, jolly bearded fellow in a red suit to be the definitive version of Santa Claus, that is just one of the many versions that exist all over the world of whom was once known as the Sinterklaas.

So where did the tradition come from?

The most common history associated with Santa Claus is that he is a legend based on St. Nicholas – a devout Catholic who lived in what is known as modern day Turkey. He is best known for giving gifts to the poor and even saving three young women from being made into prostitutes by giving their father a hefty dowry in their names. What a nice guy, huh?

Images of the man - known as Sinterklass to the Dutch and surrounding countries - certainly fit the part with a long beard and adorned robes, however this is but the roots of what would become the man we know so fondly as Santa.

In the UK he’s known as Father Christmas, and although very similar to our Santa Claus, he generally wears robes and is reported to live somewhere in Poland, not like the American Santa that lives in a perpetually wintry North Pole.

He is often reported to have some kind of magic at his disposal. In North America he lives with elves and several magic reindeer that help him to deliver presents to all the good little girls and boys in just one night. In Nordic countries he rides a magical goat to deliver his presents. The goat is actually the Yule Goat, which was once the reported gift-giver of the Nords, but over the centuries has merged with the St. Nicholas character.

In 1843 the man himself made an appearance in Charles Dickens’ famous novel A Christmas Carol as the "Ghost of Christmas Present". It’s a far cry from what we call Santa, but you can see that he’s a plump, bearded man that represents the festivities of Christmas.

There is a common misconception that the red-suited Santa is just a clever marketing campaign started by Macy’s and now owned by Coca-Cola. Although Macy’s definitely uses the image of Santa in their holiday marketing, as does Coca-Cola, they do not own the image of Santa Claus. Santa is the very essence of public domain. This common myth came about because Macy’s has Santa appear at the end of their Thanksgiving Day parade to mark the beginning of the Christmas season, and Santas have famously appeared at their store for many generations. There’s also the film A Miracle on 34th Street, which involves Macy’s and Santa Claus. This is just ingenious holiday marketing.

The same goes for Coke. The image they use on their holiday packaging may be trademarked, but they do not own the man in the red suit. There is a belief that it’s because of Coke that Santa’s suit is red, not its original green colour. The truth is that the red suit was first depicted by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly (1863) and has nothing to do with Coca-Cola – although it is a very opportune coincidence that Coke has capitalized on.

There are a great many other depictions of Santa in all different countries and religions the world over. The fact is that Santa is a representation of the good cheer and celebration of the Christmas season. So, to you and yours I wish a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Greatest Hartford Whalers

"Breakfasts come and go, Rene, but Hartford - "The Whale" - they only beat Vancouver, once, maybe twice in a lifetime."   - Brody Bruce, Mallrats

In their nearly eighteen years of existence as an NHL franchise (1979-1997), the Hartford Whalers didn't exactly set the league on fire. If I had to pick one word that best sums up what they'll be most remembered for, that word would be "mediocrity". They failed to reach the playoffs in ten seasons and only made it past the first round once. They were knocked out five times by the Montreal Canadiens, twice by the Boston Bruins and once by fellow WHA imports the Quebec Nordiques, who are also the team their lone playoff round victory came against in 1986. Altogether they had three winning seasons.

The Whalers were one of four teams that merged with the NHL after the WHA went under. In that league, they'd been the New England Whalers, one of the most successful teams. They won the league's first ever championship and actually lasted as a franchise all the way to the WHA's demise in 1979 - something only the other teams moving on to the NHL with it had achieved. Most WHA franchises lasted about three or four years, sometimes moving several times before ultimately folding.

But in the NHL the Whalers were basically punching bags in the early eighties (although they did actually make the playoffs in 1980 - their first season in the league), graduating into also-rans in the latter half of the decade and early nineties before receding into the league's basement in their final years. They'll never be associated with greatness.

But they still had a few pretty great players over the years. This list, which turned out to be way more difficult than I was expecting, honours those players who were the greatest within the context of being Hartford Whalers. That is, they'll be judged on what they brought to the team in their time there and nothing else. I mean obviously, Bobby Hull is one of the all time best left wingers, but his nine games with the Whalers in their first NHL season as a forty year old isn't exactly going to put him in their hall of fame. So here are the greatest to ever wear the Blue, White and Green as I see them.

note: You'll notice that each entry on this list represents one of the five positions in the game. I can assure you this is sheer coincidence and didn't affect my selections.

5. Geoff Sanderson, #8 LW (1991-97)
Selected in the second round of the 1990 draft with their second pick after Mark Greig (who, after three seasons of being unable to crack the Whalers on a consistent basis, was traded), Sanderson was the last high draft pick to ever make a sustained impact in Hartford. He was still on the team for their final season before relocating to Carolina and led them in goals and points that year.

A speedster with a nose for the net, Sanderson scored 189 goals in 439 games as a Whaler. This puts him fifth on the all-time goal-scoring list. Some might wonder why I'd include him over Pat Verbeek, who with 192 goals in 433 games scored slightly more in slightly less time. Verbeek also had more points overall than him (403 to Sanderson's 352) by virtue of getting significantly more assists. But the fact is Sanderson was more of a pure scorer - he had more goals than assists as a Whaler and also finished his career with more g's than a's, a rare trait. Both players had two forty-goal seasons in Hartford but Verbeek had his playing alongside one of the best set-up men of all time, Ron Francis. Sanderson arrived the season after Francis's (in)famous trade to Pittsburgh. While Sanderson got to work with a talented playmaker in Andrew Cassels (my favourite Whaler ever), there's really no comparison.

Sanderson only got to play in two playoff series as a Whaler, three games as a callup when he was eighteen in 1991 then seven games in his rookie season when he was nineteen.  He scored one goal in that series against the Montreal Canadiens. But if the Whalers hadn't been so brutal from 1992 through 1997, he would've gotten more.

4. Ulf Samuelsson, #5 D (1984-91)
One of the toughest Swedes to ever play the game, Samuelsson was another Hartford draft pick, taken 67th overall in 1982. A physical, stay at home defenceman, his main job was making life miserable for his opponents and he was good at it. While Dave Babych provided offence from the blueline, Samuelsson (who actually enjoyed his best offensive totals as a Whaler) provided defensive responsibility and snarl, averaging around 170 penalty minutes a season. In 86/87, he posted an extremely impressive plus/minus of +28 and +23 in 88/89 - not easily done on a team like Hartford.

He was there for five straight playoff seasons; the closest thing to "glory days" that the Whalers can boast as an NHL franchise and he was part of the biggest trade in team history when he, along with Ron Francis was dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins, where he would win Cups and establish himself as an elite shutdown defender. Samuelsson makes this list because he was unique - there really was no other Hartford Whaler like him.

3. Mike Liut, #1 G (1985-90)
Perhaps the most underrated goalie of his generation, Liut was the man between the pipes for the Whalers when they were at their best. Starting his career as a St. Louis Blue, he was drafted in 1976, three years before the Whalers were in the NHL. But in an interesting twist, the New England Whalers did in fact draft him in the WHA draft (it was common for players to be drafted by teams in both leagues during the WHA's existence) at nearly the same position as the Blues selected him (fiftieth overall rather than fifty-sixth).

When you're talking about the Hartford Whalers, really, there are only two goaltenders who should be in the discussion: Mike Liut and Sean Burke. But Burke never played a single playoff game as a Whaler and I think Liut's numbers are just more impressive. He had three twenty-win seasons to Burke's two, 13 shutouts to Burke's 10 and holds the record for wins in a season with 31. The season he did that (86/87) he also led the entire league in shutouts with 4 (that's eighties hockey for you). Liut is the franchise leader in wins with 115 - all this despite having played fewer games than Burke.

It was largely due to Liut's heroics that in the 1986 playoffs, the Whalers pushed the eventual Cup champion Montreal Canadiens all the way to overtime in Game Seven. This was after Liut was in the net for the team's ONLY playoff series victory, against the Quebec Nordiques in the round before.

I have absolutely no idea why the Whalers traded him in 1990 but I suppose it did work out for the best (sort of) because he would develop back problems that would eventually force him to retire.

2. Kevin Dineen, #11 RW (1984-91, 1995-97)
The Whalers selected Dineen with their third pick in the 1982 draft, just before Samuelsson. Actually, it's become pretty apparent that the '82 draft was definitely the best for the Whalers. Even though their first two picks (Paul Lawless, 14th and Mark Paterson, 35th) were misses, with their next three they snagged Dineen, Samuelsson and Ray Ferraro, who would make this list if it was a top ten.

Dineen, something of an undersized power forward at 5'11, 190 pounds, made an immediate impact as a rookie, scoring 25 goals in only 57 games. The following year he was also limited to 57 games but popped in 33 goals. Over the next four seasons, he would always score at least 25, twice eclipsing 40. He always put up over a hundred penalty minutes each season, including 217 in 87/88. He led the team in goal-scoring three times (sharing the lead with Ron Francis in 87/88) and was always a solid contributor in the playoffs.

He was traded to the Flyers early in the 91/92 season and performed much the same there, although his scoring did come down a bit. The Flyers even made him captain - a post he hadn't held as a Whaler - for the 93/94 season. He was traded back to Hartford during the 95/96 season and was there for the Whalers's last ever season of 96/97 as team captain. At thirty-two, he scored a very respectable 19 goals and was fourth in team scoring, also collecting 141 penalty minutes.

When the Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes the following year, Dineen became that franchise's first ever captain. He finished as Hartford's second all-time points leader.

1. Ron Francis, #10 C (1982-91)
As I've said, this list turned out to be surprisingly difficult to come up with. Players like Pat Verbeek, Blaine Stoughton (four 40 goal seasons as a Whaler including two over 50), Ray Ferraro and my buddy Andrew Cassels (third on the all-time assists list) were all great Whalers who deserved careful consideration. But I'm pretty sure I made the right choices. That said, selecting number one was ridiculously easy and I never had any doubts. The greatest Hartford Whaler of all time is #10, Ron Francis.

Like Dineen, Francis would experience being traded away from the Whalers then years later coming back to the organization that had drafted him (fourth overall in the 1981 draft). But by then they were the Carolina Hurricanes.  Even though he was pretty old for a player by then (thirty-five) he was his amazing, consistent self and cemented himself as the best player ever to play for the franchise in either NHL incarnation. So of course he's the best Whaler. No contest.

In his second NHL season as a nineteen year old (after putting up 68 points in only fifty-nine games as a rookie), Francis led the Whalers in scoring with 90 points. While his 59 assists were wholly indicative of the kind of player he was, the 31 goals may have been a tad misleading. In his twenty-three NHL seasons (over which he missed very few games), he would only hit the thirty goal mark three times, all while with the Whalers.  The 32 he scored in 89/90 was his career high. It was also the year of his career high points total as a Whaler - 101.  He would actually have 119 points (with a ridiculous career high assist mark of 92) in 95/96 but that was with a high-powered Pittsburgh Penguins squad that included Petr Nedved, Jaromir Jagr and of course, Mario Lemieux.

But in Hartford, Francis was the guy. He led them in scoring four times and was leading them when he was traded in 1991. Every other year he was either second or third on the team and he ALWAYS led them in assists. Because helpers were really his game. He piled up 557 of them in 714 games as a Whaler which is more than any other Whaler's career point total (Dineen had 503). While he was never a big goal scorer, Francis still consistently put up over twenty each year, bringing his career points as a Whaler to 821. Do the math on that (or just let me) and you'll see that his points per game average in Hartford was an excellent 1.14. He also holds the team record for most assists in a single season with 69 in 89/90 and averaged close to 60 a year.

A truly classy individual, Francis didn't win any of his three Lady Byng Trophies in his time in Hartford but he still played much the same then - putting up mostly modest to low penalty minute totals while playing at an extremely high level. In his nine plus seasons as a Whaler he was captain for six. His inclusion in a blockbuster trade to Pittsburgh in 1991 (which also sent Samuelsson, remember) really marked the beginning of the end for anything positive for the team while they were still in Hartford. The 1992 playoffs the following year would be the team's last ever trip to the post season before relocating to Carolina. For the Penguins, Francis proved to be the missing piece of the puzzle and they would win the Stanley Cup that very season (90/91) and again the next with him playing a huge role both times.

Like pretty much any Whaler, Francis never got to do much in the playoffs with the team but his numbers there are good, if not great. While he would win his Cups with another team and eventually return to the franchise as a Hurricane (and be captain once again) the NHL's FOURTH LEADING SCORER (and second in assists after a guy named Gretzky) will always be remembered as Mr. Whaler.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Memorable Deaths of the Silver Screen

Just like in real life, there's no more dramatic an event in film than death. Sure, there are literally hundreds of movies where death is cheap - slashers where one-dimensional characters are violently offed by a psycho, crazy action flicks where dozens of nameless henchmen are blown away by the heroes and comedies where death itself is actually the punchline.

But my above statement is still the rule and not the exception when it comes to film in general. The fact is that, tragic and unfair as it almost always is, death is a necessary part of life and it exists to give life meaning. In most movies it's much the same and sometimes it's the death of a character that really gives that film meaning.

When it's done right, a movie death can be extraordinarily powerful and affecting to the audience, getting us all to genuinely feel something for a fictional character. Of course there are plenty of movies out there based on true events with characters representing real people and when one of them dies it should be all the more impactful. But the truth is, that's far from always the case.

This list, for the most part, deals with movie deaths that are memorable for the depth of emotion they evoked rather than the spectacle some generate.

note: While I’m sure I could find all these scenes on youtube and link them for you, I feel that viewing any of them outside the context of a full viewing of its respective film would be doing a huge disservice to the film as well as yourself.  So go watch these movies, hepcats.

5. Wicked Witch of the West - The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1939) What a world, what a world
Here is the black sheep of this list as it's the death of the movie's main villain and it's hardly a character the audience is ever made to identify with or feel sorry for. What exactly causes it to remain one of the most iconic deaths in all of cinema is difficult to say. Here we have a movie adaptation of a beloved children's fantasy book, which is also a musical.  Not only that, but the death of the main antagonist seems a little unimaginative after all the strange and interesting stuff Oz had to offer. I mean, water? Really?

But it’s still memorable anyway. The movie, as opposed to the book, leaves out a lot of the more dangerous elements sent Dorothy and her companions's way (the deadly field of poppies, the wolf attack etc.) so when they’re finally faced with the Wicked Witch de l’Ouest it’s actually a little jarring. Our heroes don’t seem to be any match for her power (“How about a little fire, Scarecrow?”). But then - whoops! Dorothy spills a little H20 and the green hag is toast. She melts into the floor, wailing her disbelief at it all and maybe, just for one brief moment, we do feel a little something for her. After all, she wanted vengeance for the death of her sister which isn’t completely unreasonable. But she’s still a cruel tyrant, enslaving the Winkies and terrorizing the...West, I suppose, and she’s getting what she deserves.

While not particularly spectacular to behold or emotionally compelling to absorb, the Witch’s death still just has that indescribable something that makes it memorable, even after all these years.

4. Obi-Wan Kenobi - Star Wars (1977) Strike me down and I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine
It felt like we were only really just beginning to get to know the old Jedi warrior when he was cut down by Darth Vader. Even more devastating was that for some reason he actually allowed himself to be cut down. The last two of their order engaged in a titanic struggle of Good vs Evil, with the old master facing his long since corrupted student and then just out of no where Ben completely drops his defences.

He’d informed Vader during the fight: “Strike me down and I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine,” and we’re left wondering what that could mean. The dark lord of the Sith made no mistake in using the opening and finishing his opponent but really, despite the fact that he’s incapable of registering a facial expression, we can sense that he’s just as perplexed as we are. Why would Kenobi just give up?

We’re given a hint of why as the last thing Obi-Wan does before raising his light sabre is look at Luke and smile. He knows who Luke is. He knows what he can do. At this point, we don’t. Luke had only just begun his training and already he loses his mentor, the one person he knows of in the universe who can make him a Jedi. Ben is also the one person who seems willing to tell him the truth about his father (ha), unlike his aunt and uncle, who are also gone by this point. But in one instant, he’s gone.

Luke doesn’t even have time to absorb his loss either as he’s being shot at by storm troopers with Han and Leia yelling in his ear. Obi-Wan hasn’t even left a body somehow, something which must confuse the young Skywalker all the more. But it’s just as well because he has to get the hell off the Death Star right at that moment. “Run Luke, run!” urges the old Jedi’s voice inside his head. At this point Luke can only conclude that it’s his imagination.

During the film’s climax at the Battle of Yavin, Ben’s voice speaks to Luke once more, telling him to trust his instincts to make the crucial shot to destroy the giant battle station. In the aftermath of the explosion he tells Luke: “The Force will be with you. Always.” And so will he.

3. Old Yeller - Old Yeller (1957)
He was my dog...I'll do it
Who says a memorable death has to be that of a human character? And while anyone can name all sorts of significant animal character deaths in film like Bambi’s mother, Mufasa or Nicodemus, those are all animals given human characteristics. But an animal doesn’t need human characteristics to make an emotional impact. Case in point: Old Yeller.

Walt Disney once said: “For every laugh, there should be a tear.” I don’t feel I need to explain that. Old Yeller is one of the finest examples of this sentiment as anyone who’s even heard of the movie knows it’s a real tear-jerker.

What a lot of people who have actually seen the movie forget is that initially, Travis doesn’t even like the dog. On their first meeting he tries to drive him off after the retriever inadvertently causes a fence to get knocked down. From that point on, the story is all about how the two develop an intense bond. Old Yeller shows himself to be loyal, loving and heroic and he and the boy become inseparable.

Old Yeller’s death is of course most memorable because he doesn’t just grow old or get sick but instead contracts rabies after defending his family from a wolf. Caged in the aftermath, it’s devastating seeing what’s become of this beloved animal and the audience knows as well as the characters that there is only one sensible and compassionate thing to be done: put Old Yeller down.

It’s Travis who insists on shooting his best friend after his mother says that she’ll take care of it.

Katie Coates: There’s no hope for him now. He’s sufferin’. You know we gotta do it.
Travis: I know Mama. But he was my dog...I’ll do it.

I’ll leave you with one more quote from the film that very much sums up the lessons it teaches.

“Now and then, for no good reason, life will haul off and knock a man flat.” - Jim Coates, Travis’s father.

2. Albus Dumbledore - Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009) Severus, please
I did a lot of thinking over this one but I just kept coming back to it. Eventually I realized not only would it have to make the list but it would have to rank high. History will judge if this film truly ranks among the others but its pivotal moment surely resonated with a generation in powerful fashion.

One advantage Half-Blood Prince enjoys over its list contemporaries is that it is the sixth installment in a seven part story, which is represented by eight separate films. By this time we’ve become more than just familiar with Dumbledore (played by two different actors), we’ve slowly gotten to know him pretty well despite his sometimes aloof and mysterious nature. And just like Harry, we’ve become accustomed to the idea that he’s always going to be there. Despite the amount of difficulty and danger Harry and his friends so often faced on their own over their years at Hogwarts, they still had the assurance that their beloved headmaster was protecting them. Even before Harry was aware of his existence or his own personal history, Dumbledore was there keeping him safe. Right from the very beginning. And now that things look their absolute darkest, with Voledemort returned to full power and supported by an army of fanatics, their great, wise champion is suddenly gone forever.

Much like Obi-Wan’s death, we see the old master more or less allow himself to be killed. The difference here is that Harry doesn’t really seem to pick up on this fact. Dumbledore’s reasons are also a little more complicated than the old Jedi’s but his actions still come down to one thing: just as Obi-Wan believed in Luke and knew he could defeat Vader and the Empire, Dumbledore believed in Harry.

The aftermath is absolutely heart-wrenching as we see all the students and teachers gather around the body of their fallen mentor, protector and friend. The music reaches a crescendo of devastating sorrow while everyone raises their wands to dispel the evil image left in the sky by Dumbledore’s killers.

Although the movie is barely a year old as of this writing, I honestly believe that the death of Dumbledore will go down as one of the great ones in all of cinema.

1. Roy Batty - Blade Runner (1982) Tears in the rain
Coming back around to the same twist that the death of the Wicked Witch of the West had, Roy Batty’s death in Blade Runner is actually the death of the film’s main antagonist. But by the time it’s all over, we’ve come to realize that he wasn’t a true villain and that his actions, while destructive and amoral, are still somewhat understandable.

Throughout the film, Batty, an android with a built-in four year lifespan, is on a quest to discover if there is any way to extend his time. As the narrative mostly follows Deckard as he hunts down Batty and his compatriots, we don’t actually learn Batty’s intent for some time. Originally it just seemed as though the replicants had gone haywire, causing death and destruction that serves no purpose. The last thing we’re going to do is empathize with them. But somewhere along the way, that starts to change. Batty is on a quest for answers and they’re the same answers that we as humans have been searching for throughout our entire existence.

While Batty is a creation of man and knows what his intended purpose is, he’s still a sentient being who yearns to find meaning. Once informed by Tyrell, his creator (“It’s not an easy thing to meet your maker”) that nothing can be done to extend his life, Batty appears to have some sort of spiritual epiphany. In his grief and outrage, he murders the man who gave him life. But then there is still Deckard, the man who has been hunting him and his comrades, to be dealt with.

Tracking the two remaining replicants to the delapidated building where genetic designer J.F Sebastian made his home, Deckard disposes of Pris rather easily before being confronted by Batty. What follows is more of a hunt than a battle, with Deckard proving no physical match for Batty, who seems to be highly deranged at this point. It all comes to a head on the rooftop, with Deckard, in his bid to escape his superior nemesis, attempting to jump from the building to the next. Again his human form lets him down as he barely makes the jump and ends up clinging to a rain-slicked gutter. Batty effortlessly makes the leap and crouches watching Deckard struggle to save his life.

Batty has come to the realization that his life was an artificial life and to most humans, is worthless. Just when he’d come to accept that but believe in himself as a worthwhile living thing, he must also accept that his time is over and nothing can be done about that. He crouches and watches the man who’d hunted down and killed all his friends before finally coming for him desperately trying to hold on. His enemy is losing his grip and soon he will fall. With his last act, Batty reaches for Deckard’s arm and hauls him safely onto the roof. Deckard sits in fear and confusion as the last remnants of life leave Roy. Not looking at him, Roy says, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe: Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion; I’ve watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time; like tears in rain. Time to die.” He bows his head and closes his eyes. A dove he’d been holding takes flight once his grip relaxes. Deckard blearily watches it fly into the dawn sky.

Apparently, actor Rutger Hauer ad-libbed the “tears in the rain” part. It only further adds to what I won’t hesitate to call the most moving and beautiful death scene in all of film so far. Not bad for an android.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Spectacular Car Crashes of Cinema

If you love movies then you know that cars = entertainment: chasing each other at high speeds, performing amazing stunts, or being destroyed violently. This list will focus on the latter. I will warn you now that spoilers will be had. If that's a problem for you...avert your gaze!

5. The Matrix Reloaded (2003) - Two Trucks Enter...

While it's not a great movie (though leagues ahead of the final installment) the freeway sequence may be the last really entertaining part of the Matrix trilogy. With its impressive stunt work and creativity, it gives us a solid dose of vehicular wreckage.

The climax of the whole scene is when two 18-wheelers collide head first into each other with a crazy bullet-time shot of the trucks crumpling up like coke cans and erupting in flame and smoke. It may already be looking dated today with the CG effects, but we have to admit at the time, we were all blown away by such an epic crash.

4. The Triplets of Belleville (2003) - Grandma Plays Chicken

I'm sure you hadn't expected to see an animated film on this list, and if you did, I bet it wasn't this one. The Triplets of Belleville is a great movie with tons of character and creativity. But what it has in spades is weirdness, and Jesus Christ is it weird!

The movie centres on an elderly woman named Souza who is on a quest to rescue her grandson from kidnappers. The journey takes her and her dog across the ocean all the way to the big city where they finally track down her grandson and pull off a daring escape while in hot pursuit by the evil captors. What makes it more interesting is that the bad guys seem to own the shittiest and most fragile cars on earth and that leads to hilarious crashes.

When it gets down to only the Boss remaining, Souza faces off against him, even though he is in a car, and she isn't. What she does to defeat him is nothing short of awesome: She trips the car. I know, I know! That doesn't make sense, but it's great. The car goes careening out of control off a bridge. I laughed so hard when I first saw it. The whole movie is available in pieces on youtube, but I highly encourage you to watch it, or at least the final sequence. It may be animated, but it is a truly one of a kind crash.

3. Blues Brothers/ Blues Brothers 2000 (1980, 1998) - Police Car Pileup

I decided to put these films together since they both make great contributions to the history of crashing cars for comedic effect. At the time they were released each one broke the record for most cars crashed on film. That's a great achievement.

Whenever I watch these movies I get the distinct feeling that 90% of the budget went to buying cars, painting them up like police cars, and then totaling them. If you haven't seen these movies, you really need to. Nobody outruns the police is such a ridiculous fashion like the Blues Brothers. The sequel may not live up to the original, but it's worth watching for the pileup alone.

2. Deathproof (2007) - Hold Tight

One of my favourite movies from recent years, Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse flick is pure entertainment wrapped up in a roll cage. I don't know what that means, but let's go with it.

The film has a fantastic conclusion with a memorable chase scene that deserves to be recognized for the stunt work alone. But I don't care about chases, I want collisions, and there are few better than the one that closes the first half of the movie by graphically killing off nearly every main character. We get a maximum speed head to head crash shown four times in quick succession to see the fate of each passenger...and it is gruesome. It's a surprising, impressive, and unique car crash, and I may not want to go driving at night ever again.

1. Final Destination 2 (2003) - Highway to Hell

The Final Destination franchise is one that seems to get a lot of hate, but I can't really understand why. Yes, the 3rd and 4th movies are "straight to video" level bad, but every one is entertaining. As far as modern horror is going, I'd much rather watch characters get killed by Death's Rube Goldberg Machine, than watching the torture porn of 22 Saw films. Seeing someone trapped in a face-smashing machine isn't as suspenseful or as fun as waiting for someone to be killed by a pencil or a folding chair or...SHIT watch out for that box of coat hangers!

Anyway to get to the point, FD2 follows the formula of the first film by opening with a ghastly premonition of some big deadly accident, and this time it's a tragic highway pileup. Hats off to everyone involved in this sequence because it is truly truly spectacular. It starts off with a truck spilling massive logs all over the road, a police car getting turned into a kebab, and from there a chain reaction of disaster ensues. Please check it out.

Not only are the crashes well executed and shot, but the whole sequence plays on our driving fears. What if something goes wrong and I can't get out of the car because of my seatbelt? What if something falls off that truck in front of me? What if something gets jammed under my brake pedal? It's like a beautiful ballet of the worst possible circumstances. It's frightening, it's entertaining, and it's the best car destruction put to film. Period.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Dated Games That Still Look Great

 It looks like it's up to me to rescue this wretched blog. Again. Ok then.

Videogames have come a long way since their inception. We've gone from two lines knocking a dot back and forth against a black background to games that can rival big budget movies in terms of visual splendor and realistic visuals. Technology constantly marches on and these days it doesn't take long for a format to become obsolete and what was once the graphical standard to look primitive.

But some games have made such effective use of the technology that existed at the time, paired with some great artwork, that even when they became outdated graphically, they remained great to look at anyway.

This list includes games from up to the fifth generation of consoles plus one PC game that uses early CD-ROM format.

5. Donkey Kong Country (SNES, 1993)
This hip nineties revival and reimagining of a classic eighties franchise came with some sweet cutting-edge graphics that are still pretty nice to look at. Developed by Rare, the game used pre-rendered 3D graphics - something previously unseen on the SNES or Sega Genesis (the two leading home game consoles at the time). To achieve greater graphical detail, a new compression technique was used. Nintendo and Rare promoted the technique as "ACM" for Advanced Computer Modeling.

Luckily, the game didn't just look pretty and also featured some really solid gameplay and it became the highest selling non-bundled SNES game of all time, eventually reaching over 8 million copies sold worldwide. Not bad for a game that didn't feature any direct involvement from the father of Donkey Kong, Shigeru Miyamoto.

4. Myst (PC, 1993)
1993 was  a cool year, wasn't it? There was Jurassic Park, Nirvana's final studio album In Utero, a Canadian team won the Stanley Cup (even if it was the Habs), the Blue Jays won their second consecutive World Series and all sorts of girls I find myself looking at when I'm at the the mall were born.

It was also a pretty good year for videogames as the fourth generation of consoles was at its peak. But cool stuff was happening in the world of computer gaming too and there was no bigger event back then than the phenomenon that was Myst.

Often referred to as "the game for non-gamers", Myst took the whole point-and-click adventure game concept and flipped it on its ear, pretty much inventing the "graphic adventure" genre. While the game offered a very interesting story which a player navigated through clever and sometimes maddeningly difficult puzzles, I think it's fair to say that it wouldn't have been the smash success it was (best-selling pc game of all time until The Sims in 2002) without its incredibly cutting-edge graphics.

Designed and directed by brothers Robyn and Rand Miller, developed by Cyan, and created on Macintosh computers, Myst used StrataVision 3D with retouching by Photoshop 1.0 to create pre-rendered 3D environments and also employed Quicktime animation. The result was a beautifully atmospheric gameplay experience. To this day, it's still one of the most immersive gaming experiences I've ever had (this is also helped by having some truly great music) and while its graphics have long since been surpassed, it's still quite pretty to behold.

The game was remade in 2000 (realMyst: Interactive 3D Edition) with enhanced graphics that were in realtime 3D instead of pre-rendered stills plus weather effects.

3. Starfox (SNES, 1993) And Stunt Race FX (SNES, 1994)
The first 3D game for the SNES was Star Fox which introduced many gamers to those wonderful things called polygons. Harnessing the awesome power of the Super FX Chip, Nintendo, with assistance from Argonaut Software, brought a new experience to console gamers. Luckily it also featured incredibly stellar gameplay rather than just relying on the gimmick of trendy graphics.

The following year, Nintendo and Argonaut put the FX Chip to work once more, this time for a wacky racing game, Stunt Race FX. It remains one of my favourite racers of all time.

Sure, it didn't take long for their blocky and non-detailed graphics to become outdated but I still find both these games very nice to look at. And if you compare and contrast their look to other 3D games of the era on allegedly more powerful systems, it's all the more impressive. Seriously, dig up some screen shots of Atari Jaguar games (the world's first 64-bit system according to Atari) and you'll realize just how well done these games really were.

2. Final Fantasy VII (PSX, 1997)
The graphical splendor of Final Fantasy VII was such that it helped introduce an entirely new generation of gamers to the rpg genre - a genre that was previously limited to a fairly small and specific cross section of gamers - and luckily, beneath all the shiny pre-rendered environments and FMV sequences, there was an incredibly deep and affecting game. The seventh installment of this storied franchise was definitely a worthy entry and remains the favourite of many Final Fantasy fans.

Final Fantasy VI looked about as good as a SNES game could look, pushing the system to its absolute limits. At twenty-four megs, it's the largest (speaking from a graphical capacity standpoint) SNES game in existence and made wonderful use of the system's Mode 7 capabilities. But FF7 marked the first Final Fantasy of the fifth generation consoles and its leap in visuals was significant to say the least.

There was a series of commercials that aired in North America in early 1998 that only showed FMV footage that I'm sure misled quite a number of people who weren't previously familiar with the series. But even though most of the game didn't look quite as impressive as the cut scenes, it was still very pretty. For the first time ever, environments and characters were presented in 3D (fully rendered characters and pre-rendered backgrounds) and, like all Final Fantasy games, the colours were spectacular. But on the Playstation it was brought to an entirely new level.

The game is well over a decade old now but it's still very visually pleasing. Although longtime series artist and character designer Yoshitaka Amano found himself too busy with other projects to be as involved in the game as he would have liked, Tetsuya Nomura stepped in and did a wonderful job as the main artist. He would go on to be the concept artist and character designer for many later Square games including Final Fantasy VIII, X, X-2 and every entry in the Kingdom Hearts series. It was his work in Final Fantasy VII that put him on the map and even with the graphical limitations of the Playstation compared to the standard set by the current generation of consoles, FF7 still holds up extremely well and looks great.

1. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PSX, Sega Saturn, 1997)
What's interesting about this game's inclusion on this list is that its visual style was considered "outdated" (kindly referred to as "retro") even back when it was released. The late nineties were all about 3D and many developers abandoned the 2D style altogether - something many realized to be a mistake only within the last few years or so. But Konami recognized that its most popular series was best left in the 2D realm.

The result was a game that is almost unanimously considered to be the best Castlevania ever. As for its graphics, Symphony of the Night is one of the finest examples of beautiful hand-drawn art in any game. That, combined with the gameplay and soundtrack makes it nothing short of a masterpiece. The art is mostly by Ayami Kojima (no relation to Hideo - another giant of Konami) and she's gone on to work on five more games in the Castlevania series.

The game is probably best seen on the Sega Saturn because of its processor's superior ability in rendering 2D graphics  but I've only played the original Playstation version and can only say that it's absolutely beautiful. Over the past decade, Konami has tried to recapture the magic of Symphony with lots of sequels and prequels on the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS but none of them can compare graphically or artistically, really.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Great Video Games That You May Have Missed

There was a time – when I was a kid – that video games were incredibly expensive treasures to be savoured over time. As a result of the expensive nature of games there were a lot of titles that could be completely missed for the “big game of the season”.

This list will highlight some of the best games from yesteryear that you may have missed.

5. Golden Sun (GBA)

For those people that really enjoyed RPG games and had a Game Boy Advance, this game may not apply. I think it was even a pack-in with some GBAs, so I might be stepping out of the bounds of this list here. I don’t think so, though. Yeah, the game was popular enough to spawn two sequels – the newest of which will be released in this month, I do believe – but I still feel like there are lots of people out there that didn’t get to enjoy Golden Sun, so it makes the list.

Remember, I’m a professional lister, and you are not.

Golden Sun was a colourful, fun and inventive RPG or the Game Boy Advance, released in 2001 by Camelot Software.

It follows the typical RPG characters – a group of young people tasked with saving the world. The innovations come in the form of the battle system, which utilized “Djinn”, mythical creatures that imbued characters with different forms of elemental magic.

A cool feature to the game was that any character could utilize any Djinn, and they grew together as long as that character was equipped with a Djinn. However, characters could be “adept” to using a specific kind of magic. Someone might be particularly strong with fire and earth magic, over water or wind. The characters could all learn specific abilities corresponding to their Djinn and adept magic-set. It was a very deep battle system.

The biggest complaint about Golden Sun is the constant puzzling in the dungeons, but don’t let that discourage you. The game is insanely fun and enjoyable. You may have missed out on Golden Sun, but now that you know about it, you can get to playing it. GO!

4. Shatterhand (NES)

The NES is a system that gets a lot of praise, all of which is completely deserved. The fact is, however, that there were a great many games on this system that only a select few gamers ever got to try.

Shatterhand is one of the unsung titles from the NES that I try to tell as many people about as I can.

In a lot of ways it’s a Mega Man clone, but it has its very own touches that make it a unique, challenging and fun title.

Released in 1991 by Natsume, in Japan the game was called Super Rescue Solbrain. It was based on a live-action television show in Japan, but when it was localized for the US there were issues over copyright. The game was completely re-branded, sprites changed, and story re-written. The game was released in North America by Jaleco and re-named Shatterhand.

The story follows an ex-cop who had his arms destroyed by a rogue military group known as Metal Command – an army of cyborgs and robots. Our main character – Steve Hermann – is fitted with cyborg arms and codenamed Shatterhand. He then takes the fight to Metal Command.

There is a stage-select screen, much like Mega Man, and you work your way to an end boss for each stage. Once you finish the first six stages, you’re allowed to take on the last stage. As you play through the game you can obtain different power-ups, and depending on the order you collect the power-ups for your arms you can use different weapons. You can also get a little robot buddy that helps you out, almost like a Shoot ‘Em Up.

The game is very difficult. You get two lives to start – but can accumulate more in different stages - and once they're exhausted it’s game over. You do have unlimited continues until you turn the game off, though. It is a very fun, underrated action title and totally worth spending some time on.

3. Terranigma (SNES)

Now here’s a game I’d bet most of you haven’t even heard of. Released in 1995 by Enix, the game was developed by Quintet – the company behind many popular SNES titles like ActRaiser and Illusion of Gaia.

Although the game was released in Europe for the PAL Super Nintendo, it was never released State-side. It seems an odd choice because with an English translation already written, you’d imagine they could make some money releasing the game in North America. With its lackluster sales in Japan and Europe, however, an NA release never came about.

The game is an action-RPG that follows the resurrection of Earth. Yeah, it’s a heady story, but basically the Earth fell to ruin when the “lightside” and the “darkside” – also known as “God” and “Devil” fought for supremacy. Neither won, but as a result the continents of Earth were submerged in water and the Underworld – part of the dark side of Earth – now only has one remaining city. Now a young boy named Ark finds himself trying to resurrect Earth after the battle between God and Devil. That’s the best way I can describe it, because I only had the opportunity to play Terranigma myself for a few days several years ago.

Whether it was the religion/evolution-heavy storyline or the poor sales, Terranigma didn’t make it to the US and Canada but could have been a classic if it had just been given the chance. It uses an action-RPG style, which actually allows the player to attack when either standing still, running, jumping, etc. and the strength of those attacks increases depending on which attack you use. Other than that you level up like any other RPG.

The game looks great. Honestly, when I played Terranigma I had to use an emulator and the monitor I used would only output black and white, but the colours and art look great. I’m usually not a big action-RPG fan, but the time I had with Terranigma has always left me wanting more. I’ve even considering trying to get a PAL Super Nintendo and a copy of the game to truly enjoy it.

Often considered by the developers at Quintet as Illusion of Gaia 2, Terranigma is a damned good RPG. Go on, give it try.

2. Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2 (PS2)

The Legacy of Kain series has an interesting past. The first game was considered a hit, featuring a vampire by the name of Kain and utilizing a top-down, action semi-RPG style of play. I can say that I never really liked Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain – the game’s full title - all that much. That all changed with the release of Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver on the Sony Playstation – and also PC and eventually Sega Dreamcast – in THE YEAR 2000!

Ahem, sorry.

Although I consider playing through Soul Reaver one of my fondest video game memories, I have to talk about its direct sequel, Soul Reaver 2, which was released for the Playstation 2 in 2001.

The game directly follows the series of events that occurred in the original title. The depth of story behind these games is amazing, and something to be experienced, so I won’t go into too much detail. Essentially, though, the Soul Reaver games follow Raziel – a fallen General of Kain. Raziel is killed by Kain and resurrected as a new form of being known as a Soul Reaver. I guess you could describe them as a soul vampire, in a way, but with the ability to traverse both the spirit world and the real world. Raziel fights for vengeance against the tyrannical Kain, which sets the stage for Soul Reaver 2.

Soul Reaver 2 not only tackles the depth of story that is present in the Legacy of Kain universe, but incorporates time travel. Oh yes, it goes there.

We have Raziel travelling to different points in the past and the present trying to fix the wrong-doings that befell a group of mythological beings known as the Sarafan, all of which ties into the story of the original Legacy of Kain game. Again, I can’t possibly do the storyline to these games justice, but I wanted to give you some background.

The style is a simple, over-the-shoulder action platformer. As I mentioned before, you can pass between the real world and the spirit world. Each presents different challenges, but can open different paths in the varying levels. You learn different attacks as you progress through the game, which are helpful against the many enemies and challenging boss battles.

Play this game – and its predecessor – for the story, if nothing else. It’s like reading an epic gothic fantasy story all while enjoying an incredible video game.

1. Parasite Eve (PSX)

Parasite Eve might also seem an odd fit for this list, as it is a highly regarded game by many gamers out there. The fact is, however, that Parasite Eve was mostly enjoyed by hardcore gamers in the wake of Square releasing Final Fantasy VII. Parasite Eve actually sold 1.9 million copies worldwide as of 2004 and was the 7th best-selling game of 1998, but I still feel it’s a game that was played by the hardcore and initiated gamer, and was mostly missed by a lot of people in its time.

The game is a rare title in that it was developed by Squaresoft – now Square Enix – and is actually based on a novel by the same title. It follows Aya Brea, a police officer in “present day” Manhattan. This is another story-driven game, so I won’t go into too much detail, but basically mitochondria - look 'em up - are considered reserves of a special kind of energy, and Aya is able to harness that energy in different ways. Certain creatures all over Manhattan begin to turn into monsters, due to their mitochondria, and Aya fights to stop them and whatever is the cause of the outbreak.

The style of the game is so unique. It’s a survival horror-RPG. Basically you go to specific destinations, as there is no “overworld map” like in a traditional RPG. In those areas you can find random encounters, but the fights are like a free-roaming action-RPG. You can’t go anywhere once in a battle – there’s an invisible barrier of sorts – but you can run wherever you like within that barrier and perform attacks whenever your ATB – Active Time Battle – gauge is full. As you level up you learn new attacks and can also upgrade your regular weapons. Aya can use a host of guns, which she can even mix with her mitochondrial attacks.

This game has so much depth in both its story and its gameplay that it should be a must-play for anyone that enjoys video games. It spawned a sequel on the PS2, but it just didn’t quite capture the same feel as the original. It’s still a great game, but not nearly as good as its predecessor. A third game, titled The 3rd Birthday, is coming out very soon for the PSP and although I don’t own a PSP, it’s definitely a game that’s on my radar, but if you play one game in this series, make it the original for the Sony Playstation.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Cole's Nineties Crushes

I've been feeling nostalgic/masochistic lately so why not? To protect the innocent (even if they're not) we'll stick to actresses and performers I've never actually met. At least the pleasure/pain/confusion they inflicted on my fragile psyche and naive ideas of attraction and romance was nothing personal.

5. Tiffani Amber Thiessen
What I saw her in: "Saved by the Bell", Saved by the Bell Hawaiian Style, Son in Law, "Saved by the Bell: The College Years"
Kelly Kapowski

She's the least personal, facilitating her taking the five spot. Basically I got to know her through her portrayal of a single character, "Saved by the Bell"'s Kelly. Unlike the other entries, Thiessen (who doesn't use the Amber part of her name professionally anymore) didn't represent any sort of girl that I found relatable or attainable; she just represented a part of what her show told me was highschool. When I was a preteen watching this junk, I couldn't WAIT to get to highschool, where you were apparently never in class and absolute babes like Kelly walked the halls. I was too young to have really figured out my place in the social order of my peer group, so the fact that Kelly was definitely the type of girl I'd never exchange more than eight words with wasn't relevant. She was nice, she wasn't noticeably stupid and she was hot. That was enough.

What she's been up to in the past decade that I actually care about: Absolutely nothing. And she's aged terribly to boot. Hey, I calls 'em like I sees 'em.

4. Jennifer Love Hewitt
What I saw her in: "Kids Incorporated", Sister Act  2: Back in the Habit, House Arrest, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Can't Hardly Wait

A young and blurry Love Hewitt
What's most interesting about this entry is that during the nineties, I thought she was two separate girls. In the early part of the decade, Love Hewitt did three episodes of a lame show I watched on Family Channel called "Kids Incorporated" - a cookie cutter plot of the week show featuring an ever-rotating cast of preteens (including, oddly enough, Mario Lopez from "Saved by the Bell") who performed popular songs at their local hangout "Place" (the gag here being that it was called Palace but the second letter on the neon sign [SO MUCH FREAKING NEON on this show] was burnt out) - although I remember her being in more. But I guess I'll just have to trust imdb on this one.

Anyway, she played Robin and had what I then considered to be an absolutely enchanting voice. I think it's possible I watched the show for so long simply because I wanted to see more of her. A couple years later I would also watch Family's "The Mickey Mouse Club" nineties revival but neither Britney (Spears) nor Christina (Aguilera) made the impression on me Love had (I don't even remember Aguilera).

Hook Guy's gonna get you...
Flash forward to the late nineties - I'm a sassy teen now and girl-crazy to boot. I've also developed a taste for slashers (more on this later) and although I'd read my sister's copy of "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and found it yawnful, I was still pretty set on seeing the movie. Knowing the story was no great shakes, the filmmakers wisely elected to fill the main roles with extremely hot actors and Jennifer Love Hewitt (who at some point realized that just going by "Love" was retarded) was among them. I'm fairly certain this movie also introduced me to Sarah Michelle Gellar but my fixation on her didn't really kick in until the 2000's.

I would watch Can't Hardly Wait (1998) when it was new on video simply to get more of Hewitt. It, alright. Seth Green was there. Doin' stuff. I was aware that she was on "Party of Five" but let's face it: I had a crush on her, I wasn't obsessed (you'll have to read farther to get to that). No way I was gonna watch that.

It wasn't until a few years ago that I realized that she'd been on "Kids Incorporated". It's kind of interesting that I had two separate crushes on her bookending the nineties.

What's she's been up to in the past decade that I actually care about: Once again, absolutely squat. She's in the two horrendous Garfield movies, one of Jackie Chan's worst mistakes and a show about talking to dead people. She is still quite pretty though and can actually sing.

3. Neve Campbell
What I saw her in: The Craft, Scream, Scream 2, Wild Things

My all-time favourite survivor girl, Sidney Prescott
Scream was something of a game-changer for me, and Canadian actress Neve Campbell was certainly a big part of that. Wes Craven's clever sending-up of the very genre that had made him a household name still doesn't get the credit I believe it truly deserves. But hopefully the time when it is properly appreciated is not far off.

As for Campbell, who was actually twenty-two when the movie was shooting, her youthful looks and reserved acting made her one of the very few believable fake high school students I've ever seen. Her performance as the nineties version of the "survivor girl" trope won me over instantly. Sidney Prescott was smart, spunky and strong - but still innocent, pure and naive.

Neve gets witchy in The Craft (1996)
I recall that the first time I watched Scream (1996) was in Ryan's basement and there were several of us present. We remarked on how hot the girls who were getting killed were. I kept quiet though, because although her looks didn't compare with, say, Rose McGowan, in the mainstream sense, I still preferred her. Sidney came across as a girl I would have been friends with, probably harbouring secret feelings for her in a rather obvious fashion much like Jamie Kennedy's character, Randy, did.

I was actually downright upset by her role in Wild Things (1998), and couldn't stand seeing Denise Richards and Matt Dillon with their paws all over her. I still won't watch that movie today. She played an even more prominent role on "Party of Five" than Hewitt and, in hindsight, maybe I should have watched it since I could see them both that way.

But I was happy to see her return for Scream 2 (1997), since it was really her character that I was infatuated with.

What she's been up to in the past decade that I actually care about: Sensing a trend yet? Really, the only thing that comes to mind is doing two episodes of "The Simpsons" and neither was particularly good. It was just as well, really, as I've really no desire to see her now that she's older. I just want to remember her for what she was. Apparently Sidney Prescott will indeed be in the upcoming Scream 4 and I'll have to watch it on principle but at the very best it could only be bittersweet for me.

2. Claire Danes
What I saw her in: "My So-Called Life", Romeo + Juliet, The RainmakerLes miserables, Brokedown Palace

Highschool in the nineties - I was there, man
Oh, we're reaching mildly obsessive territory now. Unlike her contemporaries on this list, I did watch Danes's show. In fact, it's how I was introduced to her. The reason being that "My So-Called Life" was actually a very good show. Unlike almost any other teen drama I can think of, its drama was serious without ever being cheesy or forced. It could also be funny in a sort of devastatingly real and depressing way. So naturally, it only lasted one season.  As Angela Chase, Danes played an angsty, sometimes sarcastic girl torn between the loyalty she felt for her old friends, and the longing to be accepted by a "cooler" group, who were often trouble-makers. She also knew something about unrequited love, falling for a young Jared Leto who was barely aware of her existence.

I found her relatable (smart but insecure, disinterested in lots of things our peers thought important) and incredibly appealing. Definitely an ideal girlfriend.

Next she starred opposite the almost as pretty Leo Dicaprio in Baz Luhrmann's modern take on "Romeo and Juliet" in 1996. This film (Romeo + Juliet) features a scene where Danes is wearing a costume that has wings. Yeah, I was pretty sold. 1998's The Rainmaker then would have her as a bandage girl. The only thing she wasn't doing in those days was fighting crime and/or zombies in a sexy outfit. But she did play Cosette (Les miserables) which is still pretty cool.

What light from yonder window breaks?
What she's been up to in the past decade that I actually care about: Well, the only film of the 2000's I've seen her in was Terminator 3: Rise of The Machines (2003) and not only was that pretty lame, I also noticed that her looks were...not going right. As she's aged, Dane's somewhat angular features seem to have become more pronounced and, if you ask me, that's not a good thing. Honestly, you can joke all you want that I can never find a use for any women over twenty-five but just look at any before and after pics of her - it's true. She's lost her look and now seems downright ordinary.

I have a passing interest in seeing Shop Girl (2005) as it was written by Steve Martin and Stardust (2007), since it's based on a work by Neil Gaimon. But I really don't like seeing Danes now that she's older. Sue me.

(note: sometime in 2001 I saw 1997's Princess Mononoke (an amazing film that I own today) which stars Danes in the title role, but that obviously only features her voice and since it's a nineties work that I didn't see until after the nineties were over, doesn't fit the criteria for this list.)

1. Rachel Leigh Cook
What I saw her in: The Baby-Sitters Club, Carpool, She's All That

Rachel as Mary Anne in The Baby-Sitter's Club (1995)
It started in the books. My sister was just as much the voracious reader she is now when she was a kid and in those days probably about 80% of the stuff I read was stuff she had read first. Sometimes this veered me into strange territory as there was definitely some material that was more geared towards girls. The best example of this was Philis Reynolds Naylor's "Alice" series, which I continued to read well into adulthood. "The Baby-Sitter's Club" was a less successful endeavour. But I still read enough of them to become familiar with the characters. At first, my favourite babysitter was Dawn - the blonde hippy girl from California. But then I saw the movie and from then on, I only had eyes for Mary Anne Spier.

Of the babysitters, Mary Anne was the most caring and sensitive. In fact, she could be downright wimpy, often bursting into tears over the stupidest things. But when I could imagine her as Rachel Leigh Cook, those suddenly became endearing qualities. 

Ironically enough, Mary Anne was the only member who actually had a steady boyfriend - the chicken-fried Logan, whom I grew to despise. I should take my revenge in some totally immoral and disturbing fan fic.

Anyway I can't exactly recall how I wound up seeing the suckfest that is Carpool (1996) but I was delighted to see my Rachel in it. It was my main motivation for watching She's All That (1999) and I'll still defend that movie just to protect my sweetheart. Guess what, people? Putting glasses on Rachel Leigh Cook doesn't make her unattractive!

Sometime in the mid nineties she starred in a memorable update of the "This is your brain on drugs" public service announcement. It shows her desmonstrating the effects heroin can have on your body and your life by COMPLETELY FLIPPING OUT WITH A FRYING PAN. It was basically the hottest thing I'd ever seen in my entire life.

What she's been up to in the past decade that I actually care about: Hey, if she's in something, then I fucking well care about it. She's still amazing and beautiful. I really wish that the tv series based on "Fearless" (another series of books I wound up reading because of my sister) had gotten off the ground because Rachel Leigh Cook as Gaia = AWESOME. Apparently there is a tv movie of it that I guess was supposed to serve as the pilot so I really need to watch it then...go off by myself for awhile.

Also, her lovely voice can be heard in several otherwise forgetful episodes of "Robot Chicken" and she is the official English voice of Final Fantasy VII's Tifa which means a lot to someone like me.