Sunday, March 24, 2013

Fort Kick-@$$: Phase 1 Complete

Tired but satisfied workers took a well-deserved break on Friday evening after having completed the initial construction of Fort Kick-@$$.  The successful completion means that the neighbourhood now has a much more defensible position to deal with hostile forces that may include boogeymen, ninjas, mean kids, and really smart dinosaurs, like the ones in that movie.

Constructed exclusively from crystalline matrix of dihydrogen oxide, the initial excavation was facilitated by the larger worker lifting the smaller one up and flinging her bodily into a site chosen for both its strategic amenities and logistical benefits.  This technique, currently known as "Put your hood up and hold your arms over your head; I want to show you something,"  is expected to see use again in Phase 2, once that project has received the necessary budget and governmental oversight.

"I'm going to make a hole here and get Mom to give me a zip-loc full of crackers so we don't have to go back into the house if we need food," one of the fort's personnel was overheard saying just prior to construction being finished.  Given the potential difficulties of securing provision from a kitchen 14 meters away in a Condition Red scenario, this plan was met with appreciative and profound agreement.

Efforts to have a small cask of whiskey of brandy attached to the collar of the regimental mascot needed to be abandoned since neither a suitable receptacle nor means of attachment could be found before it got dark and really cold outside.

It was also stressed that Fort Kick-@$$ is only a temporary name, and is unsuitable for long term use since 50% of the structure's occupants are not able to actually say it.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Quiet Men

The year before I went to university at Camrose, and during the first year of classes, I worked as a pre-board screening officer at Edmonton International Airport.  It certainly wasn't for the money, but it was good work in the sense that you could feel you were doing something worthy, and generally with very decent folks.

It did mean weird hours though, I remember the conflicts with Mum and Dad due to the fact that with ten or twelve hour shifts ending at midnight or two in the morning, I wasn't particularly interested in getting out of bed before ten o'clock or noon on most days.

Sometimes I would come home from work, and Dad would still be up, in the basement that housed both my bedroom, his office, and the bar and tv area.  It was here, and probably at this time, that I made some of my best connections with my father over the movies we would watch.  The basement was where he taught me that those different looking westerns with the bad dubbing on the dialogue were in fact a product of Italy, and not Hollywood.  The basement was where we talked about the appeal and challenge of pulling off a 'caper' like the one in They Came to Rob Las Vegas, was well as the fact that such an endeavour was ethically unsound.

It was in the basement that I came across him watching something I couldn't place, and asked him what it was.

"It's a John Wayne movie; a romantic comedy set in Ireland."

My mind reeled.  John Wayne was far and above my father's favourite actor, and had been for years, but swaggering, drawling Duke Wayne in a movie dealing with the culture shock between old world and new, with all the entanglements of a romance picture?  I expressed disbelief, and took a step towards my bedroom.

"You'd probably enjoy this," he said from the recliner.  "It's funny, with good dialogue, and you can learn a bit about Ireland."

I shrugged, went into my room to change out of my work clothes and came out to watch the rest of the film with him.  In it, there is a scene where Barry Fitzgerald, as the beleaguered matchmaker Michaleen O'Flynn, is in pursuit of  a tandem bicycle ridden by John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara, when his horse suddenly draws up short, upsetting O'Flynn in his cart.  When he recomposes himself, he discovers that the horse has stopped in front of Cohan's pub.  Reconciling himself to his fate, he says to the horse, "Sometimes I think you have more sense than I do me own self," to which the horse nods emphatically.

So it was with my father; he was absolutely right.  I did enjoy The Quiet Man, and grew to adore it.  I've made most of my friends watch it, and almost all of them have enjoyed it as well, despite their familiar skepticism.  My family have watched it multiple times, and tonight I got to show it to James and Glen, neither of whom had seen it.

Sure, much of this John Ford film is a caricature of Ireland, but it's a caricature by an Irishman who has a clear affection for his homeland.  Just as his cavalry films weren't intended to be a documentary of the settling of the American West, The Quiet Man using Ireland as a backdrop to show a man coming to grips with not only a strange culture, but his own appreciation of what is actually important.

I doubt I would have paid any mind to it at the time, but my father's approval of the 'quiet, peace-lovin' man', and his desire for peace echoed a lot of his own struggles with local politics, and his sincere belief that great things can be accomplished when less attention is given to gets credit for them.  Despite some gender elements that have not preserved well since 1952 (i.e. "Here's a fine stick to beat the lovely lady,"), a movie that ends with enemies becoming friends, Catholics cheering for a Protestant vicar, and the possibility of a romance blooming between Squire Dannaher and the Widow Tallan has a lot to offer in terms of what a successful resolution of differences might look like, if we have a little luck and a lot of help from our friends.

For father's day a few years ago, we had Mum and Dad over for dinner, and afterwards, got him to make the significant effort to come downstairs so he could watch True Grit, and enjoy an ice cream sundae with his granddaughters in attendance.  Just thinking about the joy on his face from those simple pleasures is enough to bring tears to my eyes, knowing it can't be revisited.  True Grit remains Poppy's movie to the girls though, for which I am grateful.

My father was a long ways from perfect (but was probably closer than I will ever be!), and the same can be said about my relationship with him, but the movies and stories we enjoyed gave us a means of exploring the commonalities between us, and the values we shared.

When I watch films with Fenya and Glory, I think a lot about those late night movies with Dad.  Watching Aliens with Glory two nights ago, as she curled up under my arm, a Nerf gun in her hands ready to fend off the scary monsters (and treacherous human), I though about seeing Jaws with my father in the Gaiety theatre in Leduc, ready to pull the popcorn bucket over my head if things got too intense.

But they never did, probably because he was always there, to make me feel safe, and explain things in way I could understand, and to make me feel better.

He's gone now, and I miss him a frightful amount, especially on St. Paddy's Day, when he most enjoyed playing the part of a patriarch of the Auld Sod, but at least I can tend his memory, and bear him in mind as I interact with the friends and family I love.  With a little luck, and a lot of help, maybe I can grow into a peace-loving and Quiet Man me own self.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Semper Ffff... - Aliens: Colonial Marines

Despite the fact that I have played video games for most of my life, I don’t really consider myself qualified to review them in a conventional sense. I don’t play enough different types of games, for one thing, and for another, I have little to no appreciation for the technical permutations. Graphically, for instance, I am far more concerned with the art design and palate choices than I am with the number polygons used to create a character model. I will happily trade achievements in graphic processing for ones in playability, or storytelling or character design, or just good old playability. As a result when I saw the unflattering to gawdawful reviews for Aliens: Colonial Marines, a game for the PlayStation 3 I had been anticipating for almost a year, I held out some hope that A:CM would still hold out some value for me as about as non-hardcore a gamer there is. In fact, my first person shooter skills are borderline pathetic, which is probably why I prefer stealth games like Metal Gear Solid.

The other factor I hoped would play in my favour is that I am a huge fan of the 1986 movie upon which this is game is based: James Cameron’s Aliens: I saw the movie at least five times in the theatre. I bought the novelization by Alan Dean Foster, which contained material from the screenplay that didn't make it to the theatrical release, like the automated sentry guns, and Hudson bragging about all the weaponry the marines had access to, from phased plasma pulse rifles to pointed sticks, with "sonic electronic ballbreakers" presumably somewhere in the middle.

 Later on, these scenes made it on the a network tv broadcast of the movie, which I taped on my VCR, and then Rob and I dutifully chained three video players together to make our own ersatz director's cut. We were the envy of many until the actual Director's Cut came out years later.

The film was obviously a key inspiration for the DeRangers costumes we made for Con-Version in Calgary, where I got a full set of USCM patches and sewed them onto a down vest. I bought the Aliens comic book that Dark Horse published. I was envious of the handful of people who owned an Atari Jaguar video game system, because they could play Aliens Vs. Predator, which included Colonial Marines.

 At every opportunity, I enjoyed getting more of a peek into modern cinema's first near-future military science-fiction universe, some great, some not so great. For something that had spun off from Ridley Scott's 'haunted house in space', Cameron's USCM idea clearly had legs to spare.

When the terrible reviews began pouring in for the A:CM, I was pretty disheartened, but was determined to play it anyways and derive as much enjoyment as I could out of it, more as a fan of the franchise than of the video game medium, despite the potential shortcomings and hurdles.

Which, let me tell you, are plentiful.
There are glitches aplenty: extremities stick out through walls, tails stick up through ceiling grates, and close quarters combat is a nightmare as a result. Not because of the horrifying, slime drooling xenomorph trying to bite your face off with his secondary jaws, but because you have no idea which way to turn to either get a shot off with your pulse rifle or even a desperate melee attack; a nightmare born more of frustration than terror.

There were a few times where the non-player character I was supposed to meet, follow or lead somewhere would fail to move, standing in some static cycle, either looking at their motion tracker repeatedly or scanning the horizon with a thousand pixel stare, looking for bugs that would never come. I would have to restart the level from the last checkpoint and hope I didn't get sent too far back.

At close quarters, like the mid-deck halls of the USS Sulaco, the xenomorphs are incredibly lethal, which, to be fair, is probably how it should be. That said, your introduction to them is being jumped unawares while you try to cut free a cocooned comrade, long before you have a chance to deal with one at range using your trusty pulse rifle. Suddenly you are on your back with your frail human hands as all that is holding back the biomechanical jaws of one of H.R. Giger's horrific creations. Oh, a quicktime event? I should hit square? Oh, more than once? Oh, repeatedly, like a man playing Track & Field in the midst of a grand mal seizure?
Seriously, I died three times before I finally figured out what I was supposed to be doing.

Another major frustration is the manner in which you grab ammo and upgrades from the field. They are clearly highlighted (thank goodness; with the omnipresent dim or strobing lights, finding them without assistance really would have pushed me over the edge) but the game is extremely fussy about your position and orientation in order to actually pick them up: not too far, not too close, and with your gunsight pretty much pointed right at them, so you are largely unaware of any potential hazards, except perhaps for the face hungers, but if you can see them at that range, it is probably already too late. I appreciate that the players should need to take some sort of action, and not just be able to magically assimilate bullets via some form of osmosis as they run over them at top speed with a slavering beastie hot on their heels, but this baby bear's porridge nonsense is jut too much. And since the same button that picks up items also opens and closes doors, that made for some nasty incidents with unexpected visitors, I can assure you
So yes, there are a lot of elements of the game that are incredibly frustrating, and they combine to make A:CM feel like a terribly rushed project. They are the kind of flaws that will keep away all but the most compulsive fans of the movie which inspired it.
So, what's to like?

Well, exploring the environments is a real treat. Gearbox, the studio that produced the game, went to great lengths to make sure that everything you see and hear is consistent with what we saw in Aliens all those years ago (and again last week when you said, 'why the hell don't I own that on BluRay?' and went out and got it at Best Buy that very night and put it in the player just to make sure it worked, and the next thing you knew, Ripley was telling Newt they were going to sleep all the way home and it was 1:27 a.m....).

When the game begins, you hear James Horner's brilliant score, and when you press start, you hear the cursor softly burping across the screen like it did when it typed out names like Werzbowski, Hudson, Apone, and Hicks. The chime of the motion tracker when hostiles are on the move, or its 'bup...bup...bup...' when it is too quiet, do a great job of ramping up the tension.

The corridors of the Sulaco, which you board via an umbilical from your ship, the Sephora, look like you remember them, except for where the titular Aliens have redecorated with their signature 'Colonial Trachea' wallpaper, and even here the detail is fantastic and offputting. The uniforms, signage and lighting testify to good research and production design.

You start the game with a variety of weapons from the movie, like the pump shotgun, service pistol and of course, the M41A Pulse Rifle: 10mm exploding tip caseless, standard light armour piercing rounds, plus an under barrel pump action 30mm grenade launcher. (Can I get an "oo-rah"?) Now, your version is a Mk II with a comparatively puny 40 round mag compared to, I believe, 95 in the film, which I think is due more to game balance than anything else, but you can add an upgrade later that will give you 60 rounds instead. Which I quickly did, because buddy, I am no Kit Carson in these games, let me tell you.

Just like in the movie, you can count on expending significant amounts of ammo to drop an advancing bug, but it is some kind of gratifying when you do. The sound design on the pulse rifle is perfect, that same hollow, sputtering roar so ubiquitous to the film; the simple act of firing this now legendary weapon is one of the unmitigated joys of the game.

Since A:CM is intended to have a significant online multiplayer component, and because we would all get bored shooting the same weapon all the way through the game, a range of other firearms is included, some of which you start off with, others which have to be unlocked or discovered. They are consistent in design with the pistols, pulse rifles, smart guns and incinerators we saw in Aliens, and include a phased plasma rifle (in what I will assume is a 40 watt range), an assault weapon with heavier load and under barrel flame unit, and my favourite, a deadly little submachine gun with a small shot, but delightfully high cyclic rate. I was also delighted to see that my pre-order meant I started the game with the mysterious sonic electronic ball breakers in my kit!

All the weapons can be tricked out in various ways, from recoil reducing stocks, to reflex or telescopic sights, or a number of under barrel attachments such as shotguns and mine launchers. There are even unlockable paint jobs, including one for the battle rifle called Shillelagh I am dying to get my paws on.
Unfortunately, the aliens themselves come in a number of varieties as well, such as soldier, lurker, and spitter, but since the multiplayer game allows you to play as either marines or xenos, that is a benefit and not a detriment.

Also appreciated is the variety in mission types, including a harrowing section where, weaponless, you slowly make your way through the sewers, avoiding blind xenos trying to find you by sound alone, and standing stock still when you hear the hiss of one lurking behind you.

I finished the single player campaign last night, and despite recurring frustrations, there was enjoyment to be had as well. As a story, it stands up favourably in a lot of ways to the cinematic sequels, but I recognize that to many Aliens fans, this qualifies as damning with faint praise. You encounter a number of characters as the story unfolds, almost all of them fellow jarheads, and while the dialogue and voice acting aren't up to the quality of the Uncharted or Arkham games, it is consistent and well done. When your character, Chris Winter, enters the hangar of the Sulaco and sees Bishop's legs, he radios his Captain to inform him.
Winter: Sir, there is half of a male synthetic strewn about on the deck here...
Cruz: Which half?
Winter: Well...he ain't sayin' much....
Cruz: Then find me the half that talks. Sulaco actual, out.
Most pleasing to me is that although there is a significant amount of fan service for lovers of the movie, none of the characters or dialogue from the film are simply copied or aped, although one marine does shout, "Let's rock out!" at one point, echoing the inimitable J. Vasquez.

The question,then, is this: although Aliens: Colonial Marines has unquestionably earned the bad reviews it has accumulated for itself, is there enough here to justify its purchase by those of us who, in many ways, have been waiting for a game like this for about a quarter century now?


I certainly can't advise paying full pop ($59.99) for such a flawed game, but when it inevitably goes on sale, it is definitely worth keeping an eye open for as a bargain title if you are a fan of the movie. While I paid more for my 'collector's edition', the statuette, Marine dossier and the two patches it came with certainly helps to soften the blow. As well, despite my reservations about sharing the experience with strangers, I am looking forward to trying out the multiplayer game as well. Heck, the game is even LAN capable, so it might be fun to bring a few PS3s to G&G VIII to see what happens.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

New Found Lads

This is a picture of a set of hand-painted coasters one of our recent house guests gave us as a way of saying thanks. They do a good job of conveying the look of some of the houses where they are from, which is the city of my birth: St. John's, Newfoundland.

Our guests were two delightful young men who are choristers from a school called Holy Heart of Mary, and their names are Ben and Evan. They are both in the front row of the picture above, Evan the tall fellow to the left, and Ben the chap in glasses towards the right.

The HHM choir is participating in an exchange with Fenya's group, Cantilon Chamber Choir. Billeting such as this makes it far more affordable for youth to see more of Canada, which is why a federal group called SEVEC facilitates it, I suppose. When our household agreed to participate, I imagined us hosting a girl close to Fenya's age, not a pair of 16 and 17 year old boys. Discovering this didn't worry me except in terms of their downtime while here: my sole experience with teenage boys peaked about three decades back, when I was one.

Still, for all that's changed, much hasn't; they took me up on my offer to go to the Star Wars: Identities exhibit, and hung around the space exhibits afterwards as well. The next night, while I made supper, they set up Rock Band on the Wii and diverted themselves for quite some time. The six of us played some Zombie Dice and Tsuro on Monday night, but the nights after exploring the waterpark and amusement park at West Edmonton Mall saw them turn in pretty early. They are polite, well spoken and charismatic young men, and it did me good to be around adolescents so far removed from the stereotypes I promised myself I would never buy into.

Sunday afternoon, we got to see both choirs perform, along with another school choir from Stony Plain. I never tire of hearing the polyphonic instrumentation of group voices, and since HHM have an almost equal number of male and female voices, the sound is quite a bit deeper and richer, although perhaps not quite as polished as Cantilon. Having all three choirs singing at once was almost impossibly powerful and moving, consisting as It did of nearly 90 trained voices.

While here, both choirs (and several others from the Edmonton area) got to participate in a workshop and choir performance with Finnish a capella group Rajaton, which was quite the experience.

Next weekend, Fenya and the rest of her choir mates will be off to St. Johns for some more group rehearsals and some performances, as well as a chance to see where I was born, and where I haven't been back to since I was 9 years old. I think we might have to rectify that at some point, but for now, at least one of us is going, and there will even be some friendly faces once she gets there.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Megadestroyer Imperial Licorice Stout

I'm not too proud to admit that I have, on occasion, purchased items for consumption or use for reasons wholly unrelated to their quality or price. A whimsical name, a clever logo or tag line, or an opportune endorsement by someone on the cusp of fame who is not yet a celebrity are all sufficient reasons for me to say, "I'll have some of that, please."

Such is the case with Howe Sound Brewing's Megadestroyer Imperial Licorice Stout, which I came across at Sherbrooke last weekend. As if the world's most metal-looking beer label wasn't enough, it was also listed as a staff pick. Being a fan of both Imperial Russian Stouts and licorice, it was futile to resist its allure, so I wasted absolutely no effort in trying. Apropos of nothing, I also happen to think it is a grievous oversight that there is no Warhammer 40,000 model called an Imperial Megadestroyer.
I've only tried a handful of this type of Imperial Russian Stouts previously, in offerings from the celebrated St. Ambroise in Quebec, to the local but no less brilliant KGB offered by Edmonton's Alley Kat, which seemed an appropriate complement to watching Anna Karenina prior to the Oscars two weeks ago. As a winter nightcap or a 'one and done', it's richness and high alcohol content make it a poor choice for a session beer.

Megadestroyer clocks in at an respectable 10% abv, and pours out a dark, rich brown that makes Guinness seem, well, almost pale in comparison. It generates a thick, foamy head of chocolates brown foam that lingers for a fair while, almost daring you to finish your glass before it ephemerizes into nothingness.

Unlike a lot of flavoured stouts and porters, where the starring element shows up in the finish or even the aftertaste (as it does with Alley Kat's Neapolean), the licorice in Megadestroyer is discernible before the liquid even touches your lips, the scent serving as a herald of medieval yore, announcing what is to follow with all due flourish and fanfare. With such a strong presence in the nose, I was concerned the licorice might entirely overpower the stout; I love licorice, but the last thing I wanted was the sensation of drinking a bag of black Twizzlers.

I needn't have worried; the aromatic licorice root and star anise are blended with the stout's bitterness and the sweetness engendered by the high alcohol content to balance each other perfectly, and while the licorice taste is not subtle, it doesn't overshadow the innate qualities of the stout itself.

That being said, if you are not a fan of black licorice (you pitiable devils), I feel confident in saying that this Russian Imperial Stout is not for you. For the rest of us though, this offering is far from a stunt beer, and reflects a bold and creative offering from one of Canada's premier craft brewers. I fully intend to pick up another bottle or two of this to share (it took three sittings for me to do in the 1 litre bottle myself, as Audrey's love of licorice was insufficient motivation to get her to even try a sip of Megadestroyer), and will lament when stocks of this special edition eventually run out.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Oscars 2013

A week ago we held our umpteenth Oscar Party; as ludicrous a prospect as it is to gather two dozen people together for the express purpose of watching largely unscripted television, there are near to a billion of us who do it, so we might as well do it in a sociable fashion, right?

It seems like everyone had a good time, and we spent more time being amused than being offended by rookie host Seth MacFarlane.  Rev. James, still the only man I know with a namesake beer, won the Oscar contest again with 18 out of a possible 22!  Bruce, Earl and Sylvia took honorable mentions, with the happy couple securing domestic happiness with a tie.  I did modestly well with 15 right, but was so busy marking ballots I didn't get to socialize very much, so that might need to get outsourced next year.

In terms of the telecast and the awards themselves, I have a few thoughts a week later.
Seth MacFarlane did a much better job as host than I thought he would, peppering his standard pop-culture referential schtick with some delightful song and dance numbers (not including the divisive ""We Saw Your Boobs", which I found pretty funny misogynistic complicated).  Yes, there was some edgy material in there, but if it's actually funny, I tend not to mind so much.  If the feelings of Hollywood's brightest get a little bruised in the process (I'm looking at you Chris Brown), I'm astonished at how easy I find that to live with.

Argo was a decent choice for Best Picture, and the first time since Driving Miss Daisy that a film has won that award without also being nominated for Best Director.  I was also relieved to see Ben Affleck throw a shout out to Canada in general as well as John Sheardown in particular.

Daniel Day Lewis' speech for Best Actor was tremendously funny and irreverent; more actors should follow this lead.  Speeches in general this year seemed to be a bit less of the laundry list of thank yous variety, and I was saddened when the recipients who were trying to draw attention to the financial plight of the visual effects industry got played off.

Shriley Bassey's perfomance of Goldfinger started out a little shaky, but ended up being one of the night's biggest highlights for me.  It was cool enough when she sang "History Repeating"  for the Propellorheads back in 1997, but hitting the stage in front of a billion people at age 76? LEGENDARY.

There is no empirical way to state that Christoph Walz's performance in Django Unchained was the year's best, but it was certainly a great one, and definitely my favourite even amongst strong showings I enjoyed by both Alan Arkin and Tommy Lee Jones.  The real winners this year were the audiences.