Monday, April 30, 2007

Metal Monday

Do or die.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Holy shit cute


Friday, April 20, 2007

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Claim the Crown of Command!

Every eighteen months or so the old fever comes back into simmer, triggered by a book rediscovered in clutter-clearing, a casually nostalgic conversation, a heavy-metal album cover. This time, it’s sixty-odd-dollar lunch-hour impulse purchase that’s relit the fire under my affection for tabletop fantasy role-playing in general and Dungeons & Dragons in particular; the gently-used hardback Monster Manual sitting casually on the toilet tank, the Player’s Handbook seductively arranged on the coffee table, the mysterious Dungeon Master’s Guide perched on the lectern of my bedside box.

Mind filled with the old familiar magic words and names of power--saving throw; displacer beast; prismatic wall; gelatinous cube--I spend my days in a state of wild fantasy, of dreams beyond possibility. Not dreaming of stalking bloody-bladed through corridors of death, or of charming a Duchess of the Realm with a preternaturally glib tongue, but of something more fantastic: of sitting around a table in the late afternoon, prepared and confident, with a group of relatively sober and attentive friends and colleagues, getting down to playing some rewarding D&D. It’s a vision almost too lovely to bear.

Word’s got out that I’ve been thinking subterranean thoughts again and the usual suspects have expressed their usual interest, most of them knowing not to get their hopes up. The old student days of spacious days and bachelor nights are gone, and the leisure-time-consuming work of building a campaign–just say ‘No’ to boxed adventures and off-the shelf settings!–and then reconciling the nine-dimensional schedule of a five-player group seems daunting to the point of tears. I do feel sorry for my oilpatch engineer buddy, the one bright-eyed hopeful; he’s gone both-feet with this one, spending his endless hours of Haliburton-hotel downtime swimming in the numbers and charts and modifiers of D&D’s internal kabbalah. I doubt his meticulously spreadsheeted custom Ranger class will ever see the roll of a die.

Of course, even back in the carefree college years of skipped/dropped classes and not much better to do there were times when we needed a relatively quick fantasy fix and the commitment of a full game was out of the question. It’s in these occasions that the fantasy board-game genre found its market, and might just find it again. From the simplistic plodding of the old TSR-produced Dungeon!–an elementary-school favorite–through a massive modern abominations like the World of Warcraft tabletop game, these boxed wonders supplythe animal pleasures of a role-playing game–constant combat dice-rolling, avaricious gathering of imaginary riches–without the argument-resolving hours of leafing through Bible-thick rulebooks and the frustrating cat-herding inherent in collaborative storytelling with a bunch of narcissistic nerds. And of these games, the undisputed champ is Games Workshop’s Talisman.

The Talisman high concept for the non-nerd layman: Dungeons & Dragons meets Monopoly. As in Monopoly, players roll dice to circle a board, facing fickle fate as random cards are drawn, until one player has become heavy enough to crush the rest… except instead of a boot or a flatiron or whatever, you’re a Barbarian or Wizard or one of countless other fantasy weirdoes, each with their own especially fantastic way of bending the rules. It can’t be said that Talisman was a really good game–it was too random, too unbalanced and usually too long–but it was fun. We played it for hours upon hours, bloated it up with countless expansion sets, took it up to the barroom of RATT and played a liver-wrecking drinking-game version until we couldn’t see the board. The last edition of Talisman was released 13 years ago; quality copies of this geek touchstone auction for hundreds of dollars, a price I could never justify.

This week, though, just as my D&D despair was at its darkest, Talisman reappeared to me in all its shining, pointless glory. First, it was announced that videogame developer Capcom was preparing a multiplayer, online version of the game for release on XBox Live Arcade later this year, and via that announcement I heard that a new tabletop edition was being readied for October. The importance of this news to a certain type of gamer of a certain age can’t be overstated–imagine, I don’t know… a Fleetwood Mac reunion? A new Dallas series? A Beastmaster sequel? It’s going to be awesome.

I ought to feel bad about feeling sort of OK about the possibility of once again setting aside my plans for a politically charged northern-wilderness indigenous-elves-versus-human-developers Dungeons & Dragons campaign, for once again faking out my sphere of fantasy-friendly hosers. But now that Talisman’s coming back, I know that just around the corner of the year lies an afternoon or two of tabletop fantasy. It won’t be the full role-playing experience I crave and will never stop craving, but it’ll be what Talisman always was: an evocative facsimile that dulls the pangs, magical methadone.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

"No amount of piling up skulls thrills any more"

I breathe in still. The music grows calm. I breathe out.

Ragbag Buntara creeps towards me from her bed in the dirt of Imperial City. My will wobbles a tightrope of death. Yet like her, I stare up breathlessly through my whiskers at the fuming ruins, the shattered shell of the Church of the One. Smoking in its crumbled midst, an enormous stone dragon: moments ago paralyzing and golden and alive, a righteousness-spewing manifestation of Akatosh himself! Need I stress he’s one of the great Nine Divines, the very gods who cement this world of unmatched beauty and evil, our teeming Cyrodill? Without winged Akatosh’s summoning, all on it would have been smothered methodically from above by the four hands of the axe-wielding titan, Mehrunes Dagon. For the last 357 sunsets, the Daedric Prince has hatefully stabbed holes into the stretched skin of the land, mountains to deserts to oceans, pushing through his gates of blood and bone countless abominations! Thousands have died in his name, from penned horses to an entire city: that infamous pile of rubble, Kvatch. Today, Sun’s Height 13, he materialized in the great city and was exiled by Akatosh in a storm of flame. Perhaps he’s even dead. Or both are dead.

Yet even now, Buntara begs me for a coin, my smashed and enchanted weapons still vibrating from the battle moments ago that would end the world. There is a Daedric arrow shafted through my groin, one of several souvenirs of erupted demon war. She looks directly at me, an armoured Khajit catman named Grandpa, my fur as bright as the sun. Then asks, “Tell me again how you and Martin defeated Mehrunes Dagon.”

To be honest, it’s a long fucking story. Thanks to Emperor Martin summoning Akatosh at the cost of his existence, the Line of Kings is broken, the world without a leader. But I soon learn walking the lonely land - now free of Dagon’s prehistoric fiends and buxom spider queens - that’s all anyone wants to talk about any more, from the Black Horse Courier office outward. The battle legend pours even to the extradimensional Shivering Isles, once domain of Mehrunes’ cousin Sheogorath, another Daedric Prince, Lord of Madness instead of hate. Sheogorath has a special place in my grit teeth. After his queer gate showed up on the lake outside of Bravil it took an extensive penance.

There I was trapped for weeks, kept from my artistic heart: my hand-decorated wizard’s tower Frostcrag Spire, where so much of my passion lies in this life of mindless killing and errand-running. There: every skull I’ve ever liberated is piled. It’s home to my massive library and sycophant servant boy, cruelly commanded to remain in the bedroom conservatory, a little herb-garden gnome. Though I have no taste for his praise, he reminds of me the price of engaging the corrupt cities of men. In the tower’s rooms below, an unmatched collection of weapons and armour, trinkets; but also an easel-framed painting traded for keeping quiet about a certain royal infidelity; also, the head of a sick wizard’s mother; best of all, a handmade spiral staircase made of inexplicably floating paintbrushes carefully arranged upward, hanging there as if life were some mere game with cool graphic glitches.

But with both Daedra regals snuffed, I admit I’m not quite sure what to do with my life any more. To circumvent their disruptive ambitions, I’ve thrown myself into Felldew addiction, salivating and scrambling desperately through the hollows of a giant tree for the right kind of man-sized bug to juice – soon after, a battle with a dark mirror of myself; I’ve ripped the keystone hearts out of 15 Oblivion planes – hewing others’ reality; I’ve even leaped into a book, the secret Paradise of Mankar Camoran, destroying yet another dreamworld.

So now, the idea of lackey-fetching singing Ninroot for a wine-burping chemist or finding some fool woman’s debt-ridden husband in an orc dungeon seems positively … janitorial.

I’ve said it then. I believe I’m suffering post-Oblivion depression, healer. The mountains have been claimed and flattened. And no amount of piling up skulls or climbing floating paintbrushes over walls I’m not physically supposed to thrills any more. And I’m thinking about Ragbag Buntara. I’m thinking the next time she asks me for a coin … I’m going to have to hurt her. You know. Just for something to do as the guards rush to their deaths.

Better a debauched canary than a pious housecat, after all.

Monday, April 16, 2007

More sciencey awesomeness

The super-rad Kaye Effect in action

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

ESH: A Palpable Loss

04-09-2007 – Yoga for Beginners

“Be aware of your breath as you relax… relaxing your thighs, your hips… your abdominal muscles…”

Oh no, lady. No. We don’t want that. This may be Hatha Yoga for Beginners, and we’re here to get to know our bodies, and it’s not a performance, and nobody’s judging us, but I guarantee there’s be an awful lot of judging – and an unwelcome degree of body-knowledge – if the stern fist of abdominal discipline were to unclench and this caucus of dissident sashimi allowed to voice its opinions. Now is not the time for a policy of openness; I’ll relax everything else, hang like a simple natural-fibre robe from the iron hook in my guts, but I can’t relax my abdominals.

What was I doing, scarfing down twenty dollars’ worth of raw fish half an hour before my first-ever yoga class? Acting from desperation, blood-sugar necessity. See, I’m knocking two items off the Hippie Checklist this week: my first yoga, and my first herbal cleanse. No bread/flour products, no sugars or sweeteners, no dairy, no fermented products (vinegar, soy sauce, beer [sniff], wine [sob]), no tropical fruits… plus, my girl and I decided we’d go fishitarian for this one. The theoretical meal options are endless and wonderful; our practical reality has been salmon and rice.

It’s actually quite an easy and rewarding diet to more-or-less stick to, especially once you manage to will your head and body out of the fat-sugar-salt-starch lever-pushing of the instant-food reflex and start thinking of meals earlier than 30 seconds before hypoglycemic coma sets in, but today I’d neglected to restock my cubicle’s larder with almonds, cashew butter and the brown-rice cakes I’d once been so enthusiastic about (I’d actually exclaimed “Ooh!” and “Yum!” when I found them in the organic aisle). And so, when those big, beautiful menus presenting all that fresh, tasty fishflesh were put in my shaking hands, all the yogic dietary advice I’d dilligently wikied was forgotten as easily as it’d been gained.

I wish I’d been smarter on the food angle, because some of these poses feel really great underneath the agony; you can almost hear the office demons being driven out of my hunch-crunched lower back, evicted from my gnarled slacker shoulders. It’d be great to really relax and lean into them; unfortunately, many of them involve pointing my ass directly at a roomful of kindly strangers. I’d hoped the fish wouldn't disagree with me so violently, but underestimated the magnitude of combat involved in Operation: Intestinal Freedom. A few little cheats on the weekend – celebrating Christ’s victory over death and my fiancee’s victory over the living death of not having your awesomeness acknowledged – had set the purification program back, and my twelve daily tablets of cleansing herbs were on the counteroffensive.

There’s regret, there, even after all the perfectly reasonable justifications for blowing the cleanse in half with a double-shot of heavy food and liquor. I feel weak and gross and foolish, yeah, but worse is my frustrated curiosity; we were on Day Five of a 12-day program when we stepped outside the dietary guidelines, and just that afternoon I’d rushed urgently to the can at IKEA – a traditional part of the IKEA experience, with or without a gutful of loose-change hotdogs – and my business smelled like flowers. I actually courtesy-flushed out of embarrassment at smelling too good. What would have happened in seven days had I not joyfully smothered that gastrointestinal garden with a herbicidal compost of Panago and Carlo Rossi? Would I have gained… superpowers?

Anyway… yeah. Here we see in action the key pitfall of a healthy, conscious, engaged, aware lifestyle: you can’t shut up about your hippie shit, because it’s all you can think about. This past week, if my mind wasn’t on what was going into my body, it was gleefully analyzing what was going out. Sorry, everybody; I’m just going to listen to this friendly contortionist with the perfect skin and focus on my breath, on what’s going on with my body in this moment.

Oh, right. That. Well, I understand now what my girl was talking about when she said yoga practice can actually add hours to your day, because it feels like I’ve been here for a million years.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Monday, April 09, 2007

In the Mad God's maze

The tale of the adventure of the journey through the realms of extradimensional madness begins, as all these tales begin, in a moodily-lit prison cell furnished with only a low stool, some fetters, and a skeleton. The lifer across the hall hisses the taunts he always hisses through the bars, and presently the doomed Emperor and his bodyguard arrive to make their usual secret-door passage through the dank chamber en route to an inevitable assassination. The cell’s occupant is freed, charged with a terrible trust, and sent off into a world of magic, mystery and drug-addicted cat people.

Another day, another character launched into Oblivion. This time around, it’s a sneaky little Dark Elf swamp witch who’s had the sacred Amulet of Kings pressed into her manacled hands by the Patrick Stewart-voiced sovereign. Tasked to find his blood heir, deliver the Amulet and “close shut the jaws of Oblivion” – the demonic realm threatening to overrun the world of life and love – our heroine will do as every heroine before her has done: dick around endlessly on other, more interesting quests. Maybe buy a mansion and a pony.

But first, the aforementioned journey into the domain of Sheogorath, Lord of Madness! These lands are known as the Shivering Isles, and they’ve just been loaded, at great expense in time and cash money, onto my XBox’s hard drive. I’d been a long time away from Oblivion, beloved time-devouring masterpiece of electronic swords n’ sorcery, and the release of this new expansion, with its promise of “30 hours of additional gameplay!”, had long been a red-letter date on my mental calendar. Fantastic frolics in a twisted land of insanity! New weapons, armor and enemies! Terrain and architecture that’s not wholly Western European! You can imagine my excitement.

Fact forgotten in the fever: I have a full-time job, now. Last time I’d done much diving into the ‘Bliv, I was a “full-time” (hyuk) freelancer with a side gig power-washing the seats of an outdoor theatre, and taking eight hours out of an inclement Tuesday to fireball goblins weren’t no big thing. Now, between the oatmeal-grey requirements of my cubicle, the necessities of house- and life-keeping and the responsibilities of love, I can maybe slip an hour or two in edgewise, here and there. Back when playing videogames was the closest thing I had to a job, nine-to-fivers used to kind of sniff and say, “Must be nice.” I took it as jealousy; I should have taken it as a command, answered “Yes! It must be!” and moved up to that “next level” I keep hearing about.

That’s not what happened, though, and as much as I may mourn the passing of a time where I could (usually) pay the rent and eat (poorly) while spending 20-plus hours a week with a controller in my hand I can’t, as the hay-farmers say, wish for a different field. For now, I’m on the other side of the must-be-nice equation, and my dark-elven vixen (Pilsne; a name of great evocative power) will have to be content with incremental progress over the months, exploring the Shivering Isles in hour-long sorties while I read in my cubicle excited emails from my colleague still living The Life about mighty deeds, twisted ruins, Golden Saints, obliterated villages and magic mud puddles.

I wonder, though: how do the WoWers manage it? If I can barely gather the moments for an hour or two of solo Oblivion, how do World of Warcraft’s millions of multi-players manage to find the time for the days of grind that fantasy game requires and still keep a roof over their computers. It’s not all students, kids and shut-ins on assistance – my own office is filled with guys who work longer hours than I do, and still they’re coffee-talking about their Level 60 whatevers, their electronic indicators of hundreds of hours of devoted service in the cause of online good/evil. Is there a secret to being a job-having power gamer?

It’s easy to see now where the standard dismissive “no social life” and “no sex life” jibes come from; these are certainly the most obvious means by which a dedicated digital fantasist might make room for the hobby. Are there other, less pathetic, ways? My girl insists regular yoga practice has the effect of adding hours to one’s day; could I perhaps harness the dharmic power of the asanas to squeeze more Oblivion into my life?

More on that in a future column. Until then, here’s my review of the Shivering Isles expansion:


There’s a crazy guy named Shelden who wears this purple plate mail I totally want to steal.


Wednesday, April 04, 2007

"A clever simulation of a mid-‘70s experience"

Written and directed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino
Now playing at Empire Theatres

First of all, nothing exactly like this film has ever been intentionally attempted before, even by David Lynch. This alone is a blast of warm summer air in the face. Grindhouse isn’t just two full-length action-horror movies slapped together. It’s actually a clever simulation of a mid-‘70s experience long forgotten in our download era – namely, sitting in a decaying theatre watching exploitation trash, complete with warped, furry projections, ludicrous trailers and even retro, drive-in adult content warnings. Oh, and missing reels. The package is an wildly referential labour of love. In other words, the features - running at over three hours together – exist in a very deliberate and beautiful pomo framing device. Especially cool given they’re set in the now, stressed by tension actually brought on by text-messaging. Rodriguez’s fake trailer – Machete - is even going to be real film! Can’t wait.

But is the art good? Are you surprised I even care?

Funny thing is, to describe the two hemispheres is to lessen them in every way – the narratives depend so much on surprises, especially the latter. Still, open wide: A genetic-experiment zombie-survival flick (Planet Terror) vs. Death Proof, the tale of a paraphelic serial killer who murders with cars? Sounds utterly ghastly. But to be honest, I haven’t had this much fun in a movie setting since Two Towers - the one with that impossibly perfect rainy siege battle and “Looks like meat’s back on the menu, boys!”

Put together, Planet Terror and Death Proof actually hit a lot of Peter Jackson’s nerves. Over and over again, till everything’s covered in blood and zombie ooze. Perhaps you’ve seen the trailers – a one-legged woman with a machine-gun attached! A helicopter tilting down into an army of undead! Kurt Russell! Being the master of the come-from-behind, border-crossing action-framing fills Rodriguez’s Planet Terror with characters you actually care about. It cleverly flips sympathy back and forth between a husband and wife falling apart, a sheriff and his Texas chef brother, and our main heroes, Wray and Cherry. Freddy Rodriguez plays the former with world-weary detachment, except when it comes to his knockout former girlfriend (Rose McGowan), retired gogo dancer. And don’t forget about Bruce Willis as a misused Afghanistan vet turned bad butting heads with a testicle collecting gangster geneticist (Naveen Andrews, Said from Lost). You just have to see it to believe it. I grinned constantly.

Though Planet Terror seems more fun, by the time Tarantino’s Death Proof is over you’ll start arguing with yourself.

Using many actors and even characters from Terror, Tarantino paints the far less manga story of four girls slowly drawn into the trap of a killer. I don’t dare reveal anything else, save that Quentin plays the joke to the hilt following the most unbelievable, slow-motion car crash I’ve ever seen by cleaving his half in two as well. But our antagonist messes with the wrong girls - who we’ve gotten to know quite well thanks to Q.T.’s trademark casual banter - in, again, one of the best chase scenes ever.

I’ve said too much.

This is the monolith Tarantino was hoping for with Kill Bill, dripping with story, cameos, great music and - need I say? – copious and realistic gore. As a collaboration it’s thrilling and varied, especially interesting to see how both expert directors handle Rose McGowan. Rob Zombie’s dumb trailer for Werewolf Women of the SS is more than made up for by the subtle genius of Thanksgiving, basically the last untouched holiday horror. A cop leans down to a decapitated man in a turkey costume, announcing seriously, “It’s blood.” Hilarious.
I can’t think of a better waste of an afternoon. Dudes, you’ve seriously done it again, the sum exceeding two partners.


Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Munny Show, April 4

The Munny Show
Various (like, eighteen) artists
Featuring DJ Merk Muny
April 4, 2007, 7 p.m.
Syndicate Apparel – 10444 Whyte ave

Seen on the shelf, designer toy manufacturer Kidrobot’s Munny figurine – a featureless seven-inch vinyl manikin of vaguely adorable contours – looks blank, unfinished. And that’s exactly what it is; Munny is to toy design what canvas is to painting, its media-friendly matte finish and soft plastic body intended to be airbrushed, painted, drawn on, glued, carved, chopped up and remixed by DIY toymakers. In the three years since Munny’s release, Munny-modification has become one of the fastest-growing parties in the urban pop-art underground, and now Edmonton artists are gathering for this city’s first ever Munny show.

“The idea of Munny is new here,” says Lynda Vang, who got the ball rolling on the event with a few mid-February conversations and emails, “but from people who knew about it response was quick, and pretty soon replies were filling my mailbox. I’d never done anything like this before, but I’d heard and read that the art community in Edmonton is really supportive and tight-knit… and it’s really true!”

Munny shows can get pretty wild, that cartoonoid little statuette providing the basis for all kinds of killer space robots, monsters, adora-pop moppets, disturbing abstracts, satirical caricatures and… and anything else anybody could ever imagine. From coast to coast, Munny shows are wild places where individual weirdnesses are amplified by the echoes of each piece’s common commodity ancestor. Google it up or drop the “munnny” tag into for something of preview.

Less than six weeks after conceiving Edmonton’s own Munny show, which hits April 4 at Syndicate on Whyte Avenue, Vang had a roster of 18 artists signed on to craft a Munny for the event. The designer/custom toy scene is closely associated with the street-art world, and many of the show’s participants come from that background, but Vang has put effort into getting artists from many different styles into the mix.

“It would have been easy to fall back on the urban graffiti scene,” she says. “I’ll have people from that aesthetic representing, but I wanted to be more diverse, and not just have strictly graffiti artists.”

One participant from the graffiti side of things is the mysterious bomber known as Steve-Dave, infamous for his celebrity-stencil work. Like most of the artists in the show, this will be Steve-Dave’s first toy project.

“It'll be an extension of the aesthetic I'm currently working with,” Steve-Dave explains, “just applied to a different medium. You'll have to come check it out to see. It may not be as much stencil work as I'd like, as it's tough to stencil an eight-inch tall, three-dimensional object. Either way, it'll most likely offend someone.”

For illustrator Cordelia Chan, whose Munny will involve “paisley and whales”, the high-speed grassroots – weedroots? – nature of the Munny show, nurtured in the fertile soil of MySpace, is one of its most exciting aspects.

“Edmonton holds such marvelous talent,” says Chan, but it all gets pushed underground because of conservative cliques. When smaller shows can get bigger exposure via different modes of communication, that's great.

“For example, look at the Art Gallery of Alberta. The "Free for All" exhibition that they have had for the past month shows precisely the excitement over and magnitude of all different types of art existing in this city… and that, even, was only a small portion. Normally, though, they don't exhibit the exciting local art like they've done this past month. Art is for everyone, and it's refreshing and encouraging to see people excited about a show such as this Munny one.”

“There's obviously a growing interest in this sort of thing,” says Steve-Dave, “so I think it'll go over well. There's a ton of creative people in Edmonton, and shows like this just fuel the fire of underground/DIY art. I'm stoked.”

image: Scott Scheidly's TikiMunny, via UberBot