Friday, August 19, 2016

Sympathy for the Joker - Suicide Squad, Reviewed

Suicide Squad is not really a good movie, but it is a good time, at least for a comic fan like me.

Oh sure, it's a largely predictable, paint-by-numbers action-adventure movie drawing characters from DC's eponymous comics, and parts of the movie feel as though they were bolted on after the fact, probably after some studio execs saw Deadpool earlier in the year. Despite being lighter in tone than Batman V. Superman in places, Suicide Squad still feels darker and more cynical than a PG-13 movie based on a newsstand comic book really ought to be. And even for a movie centered around fights and setpieces, there isn't exactly a lot of plot cluttering up the scenery.

But for all its flaws, I wasn't completely disappointed with Suicide Squad. Part of that was because Glory and I only paid $7.46 each for our Tuesday tickets, but a bigger part of it was due to moderating our expectations. We'd heard the early reviews, seen the low Rotten Tomatoes score (26%!), but chanced it anyways. Why? Because like it or not, writer/director David Ayers got the greenlight to adapt a great comic, and right or wrong, his movie is the only way to see these characters move and speak on the big screen, at least, for a while.

And for another thing, I have to think that part of the scorn heaped on Suicide Squad is due to the fact that the bar on comic book movies has been raised to ridiculous heights by excellent films, beginning with Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins 11 years ago and continuing through the majority of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We're spoiled.



If Suicide Squad had come out in, say, 2007 (between Batman Begins and Marvel's Iron Man), I think its reception would have been much warmer. This is not to excuse it, and the fact of the matter is that there are enough great superhero movies out there now, that we should demand better of the rest. But when one falls short of the mark like Suicide Squad does, that doesn't necessarily make it an entirely wasted effort.

So, from the perspective of a fan of the source material, what did Suicide Squad get right?

The Comic Esthetic - Without resorting to spandex, SS does a great job capturing the established look of many of the characters. Remember when comic movies did everything they could to avoid looking comic-booky? Suicide Squad, despite its gritty overtones, embraces its four-colour heritage instead.



Deadshot is probably the best example of this, with Will Smith wearing the iconic facemask and targeting eyepiece at various times, as well as the wrist guns I would have thought too improbable for a grounded military fan like Ayers.



Harley Quinn has enjoyed a lot of different looks since her introduction in the old Batman animated series in the '90s, but the facepaint, baseball bat and oversized six-shooter are all canonical. Is the baby-doll hot pants look maybe a bit more titillating than is needed for fighting an army of zombie-types? Probably, but that hasn't stopped a lot of the she-roes that preceded her, so, whatever.

Killer Croc is another triumphant portrayal. The original plan saw the team using King Shark, a, well, shark-man from the current comics lineup, but Ayers' aversion to CGI creatures prompted the change. Practical makeup and prosthetics turn Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Adebisi from Oz, Mr. Eko from Lost) into this fearsome sewer dweller. I only wish they had given him more lines.

Captain Boomerang has a look in the comic so ridiculous, other characters mocked it back in the '80s, so they homaged the colour and that was about all. Katana on the other hand looks quite a bit like her current incarnation.

A Lived-In Universe - Suicide Squad picks up where Batman V. Superman left off, with the world terrified about when another Kryptonian is going to go rank and decimate a major city or just take over the world. They show some of the Squad getting apprehended by the Flash, or Batman, and create Task Force X with the help of established DC character Amanda Waller.

Just a Shade Lighter - When they show Batman capturing him, he says, "It's over Deadshot. I don't want to do this in front of your daughter." That tiny bit of compassion went a long way towards warming me up to Ben Affleck's Batman, after his ridiculously enhanced recklessness and ruthlessness in BvS. Similarly, Boomerang's a ruthless dickhead, but he occasionally makes you chuckle with his antics, just like in the comics. And even when he's playing a ruthless assassin, you can count on Will Smith's impeccable comic timing.

The Lesser Knowns - Ayers said he wanted to make The Dirty Dozen with supervillains, so its inevitable that you would have a character like Pansy, uninterested in fighting. In this case it is El Diablo, former Latino gangster now haunted not only by his pyrokinesis but his deeds. Jay Hernandez does a great job making someone potentially irredeemable somewhat relatable, and maybe even likable.

What didn't work so well, even (or because) I'm a fanboy? For me, it came down to two characters.

Amanda Waller - In the comics, the head of Task Force X is a tough, tough lady, who makes some hard choices without a lot of support, because a) she works with people who would just as soon kill her as wipe their own noses, and b) she is a woman playing at a man's game, running covert ops with little oversight. She uses the Suicide Squad callously, but not cruelly.

In this movie though, she is so manipulative and ruthless, it is impossible to like her. In fact, I am kinding of hoping that Batman holds her to account at some point, but I doubt that is likely.

The Joker - Well, here is the rub of it. The Joker is one of the best larger-than-life villains of the last century, probably second only to Hannibal Lecter in terms of modern day boogeymen. A lot of weight was put on casting Jared Leto in this role, a gifted character actor, and much to-do was made of his method-actor on-set shenanigans (mailing live rats, a dead pig, and used condoms to his castmates).

But his Joker just didn't work for me. Here's why:

Every other live-action representation of the Joker, from Cesar Romero's greasepainted clowning, through Jack Nicholson's deadpan mugging, to Heath Ledger's scene stealing chaos, have all had one characteristic that Leto's Joker does not.

They were funny.

They were funny in different ways, to be sure. Romero's goofy Joker was there to be laughed at, in many ways, with his infectious, hooting laughter. Nicholson's version actually made some pretty good wisecracks ("Yes, he was a gangster, and a terrorist, but on the other hand, he had a tremendous singing voice..."), while Ledger's ghastly anarchist prompted the kind of nervous laughter you felt guilty about, like in Pulp Fiction when John Travolta shot Phil Lamarr in the face. ("I'm gonna make this pencil disappear...")

Maybe it's the writer, maybe it's the studio interference, I don't know. But watching interviews with Leto, it's plain to me that he just doesn't get the character. His Joker is all menace, and no charm; all chaos and no playfulness. He is brilliantly terrifying, but without any of the depth that 75 years of comics have provided him.

If we see the Joker again, I kind of hope it is with a different actor, but even if Leto gets to reprise the role, my fervent wish is that someone shows him this page from Neil Gaiman's comic, "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?"



Of course, I will also recommend viewing all Mark Hamill's performances as the animated Joker; still the gold standard as far as I'm concerned.

At any rate, if you are a fan of the Suicide Squad comics, or just the idea, or of comic books in general, don't let the bad reviews scare you away. Just be glad we live in an age where we actually have the option to be picky about our comic adaptations, and that so many of them have been done so well.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Folking Around- EFMF 2016

As someone who is generally pretty proud of the city he lives in, I am a bit embarrassed that I have never attended the Edmonton Folk Music Festival before this past weekend. As a first time attendee and volunteer, I was overwhelmed, astonished and impressed; I will be back, and am now even more ashamed that I didn’t come earlier.

In my defense, the festival has many qualities that I personally find objectionable, frankly. For one thing, it is outdoors, forcing me to contend with the sun, mortal enemy of basement dwelling bookworms the world over. If not the sun, it’s the rain, and if not the rain, it’s the mosquitoes, so there is that.

Also, the genre of music encompassed by the term ‘folk music’ has become increasingly diffuse over the years. This year’s lineup included performers more accurately labelled as blues, country, gospel, and even (gasp!) rock and/or roll music, and that’s just covering the North American contingent. Now, I’m not saying everything needs to be pigeonholed to an excessive degree (I’m looking at you, Scandinavian-melodic-death-metal fans!), but maybe they should just call it the Edmonton Music Festival, and (ahem) get the Folk out of there. Just sayin’.

A co-worker of mine approached me a few months back to see if I was interested in volunteering. Myrna’s team supervises the Greetings Team (otherwise known as the tarp lottery) for preferential seating. This incredibly civilized process not only prevents people lining up days in advance to the detriment of the neighbourhood they end up camping in, but also greatly reduces the impact on the first aid tent, as people have been known to wrench ankles and even break extremities careening down the ski hill in Gallagher park in order to stake out a prime location for viewing the main stage.

In addition to having an experienced and hand-picked crew that I was flattered to be nominated to, Myrna assured me that the EFMF kitchens prepared excellent food for their volunteers, and that our duties would be concluded before the first acts even hit the stage! The counterpoint was that the 0630 start time on Saturday and Sunday meant staying for the closing act would be a challenge, but I was intrigued enough to make a go of it.

THE VOLUNTEER EXPERIENCE

In brief, the Edmonton Folk Music Festival gets it. They have been doing this for a while now, and their level of preparation and organization ensures that the event runs like the changing of the guard at Buckingham palace as performed by a combination of Bolshoi ballerinas and Shaolin monks.

A handful of paid staff oversee a veritable army of volunteers and volunteer coordinators, over 2400 of them, all of whom receive good orientation, clear instructions, enviable support, a color-coded t-shirt for a uniform, free admission to the festival and the best mass-prepared meals I have ever had.

I approached my new volunteer orientation session with some trepidation, being not only a festival neophyte, but also middle-aged and insurmountably uncool. From the time I stepped in the door though, I was made to feel welcome, told where to go, what to do, and even why I was doing it. The information session itself was straightforward, clear, and mercifully brief.

Two weeks before the festival I met my team at a crew meeting, where we not only received our turquoise volunteer shirts, but Myrna and another coordinator  gave us customized sling bags to commemorate the 15th year of the Greetings Team. I was one of only three blokes on a team of eleven volunteers, only two of whom were older than me, but I was within a decade or so of three or four others, so I didn’t feel wholly out of place. Most importantly though, they were all easy going, friendly and immensely helpful as I sought to understand the whole process.

THE TARP LOTTERY

This is the way of it: about a kilometer away from the concessions gate, at the top of a reasonably steep hill, a perimeter of snow fence stands in a park next to Strathearn Drive. This is The Corral.  At 2:00 Thursday, about two and a half hours before the regular gates open, festival goers show their tickets to the Greeting Crew so they can enter The Corral. As they do so, they are given a coloured ticket with the name of a performer written on it.




Those attending the festival together try to get as many different colours as they can, so there is a period of trading which is somehow both intense and laid back. At 2:30, once everyone has filed in, we close the Corral and re-secure the snow fencing with zip-ties. The Crew Coordinator (Myrna) climbs on top of the picnic table that the Site Crew has provided for us (in past years she has brought along her own stepladder), unlimbers her megaphone, and the crowd, between 800 and 1350 people, all hush so they can hear which performer’s name is being called.


The corraled crowd eagerly awaits the name of the next group
Rather than draw the names live, they are done beforehand by festival organizers, with the 50 names all typed out on a list and provided to Myrna in a sealed envelope. When she reads the first name off the list, the people holding the tickets with the matching name all cheer, because they will be amongst the first 60 people (30 from the south gate and another 30 from the north) to be piped onto the field half an hour before the public gates even open. Since festival attendance can be upwards of 20,000 people a day, this is a fairly big deal, as you might imagine.

Once the lucky ones have all filed out and formed up in a line behind another volunteer, the next name is drawn, until all the ticket holders are lined up in a parade along Strathearn drive. Those in a party who have a representative further up the line usually leave and meet up with them at the tarp later on, but some stayed on so they can give away their mid-line tickets to others who might otherwise have to wait until the bitter end, which was extraordinarily nice of them.

Eventually the corral is emptied and massive line is then marched down the hill towards the concession gate, while another crew leads their contingent to the main gate. On a couple of occasions I stayed at the back of the line up to ensure no one joined the line by mistake, or ‘mistake’, as the case may be.

One gentleman somehow made it all the way to the gate before being told he was in the wrong lineup, and became quite upset. One of the longtime crew verified with me that he had not entered the end of the line, expressed sympathy, but told him he would need to line up with everyone else at the public gate. The latecomer tried to make his case that because no one had told him he was in the wrong place, he should be allowed on ahead of the other lineup, but our gatekeeper was having none of it.

"Look, I'm sorry you ended up in the wrong place," he said, "but you need to take some personal responsibility here. It's no different than if you got in a line on the grounds without asking, 'hey, is this the lineup for the food or the bathrooms?' All you had to do was ask anyone."

Eventually he stomped away in a storm of Eastern European invectives, while around 1,350 festival goers were led onto the field in a (largely) orderly fashion in less than 20 minutes, and that's just from one gate.

When pre-lottery madness was at its peak, some inventive types would attach bottles of water to their tarp corners, and then fling it downhill with a snap, the centrifugal force of the weighted corners opening the tarp like a Roman retiarius gladiator's fighting net. All in all, the tarp lottery feels like a far more civilized way to do things, and the attendees really seem to appreciate it.

THE MUSIC

There were no massive draws or enormously popular names in this year's festival lineup compared to previous editions, but that didn't stop the festival organizers from getting a lineup that was legendary in its own right. I expect to be hearing quite a bit more from some of these artists in the future. With my 6:30 am starts on the weekend and the airshow on Saturday, I didn't get to see quite as much as I might have liked, despite the fact that my volunteer obligations were over and done with an hour before the first performer took the stage. The ones I saw were all pretty excellent though.

The Barr Brothers - Two Boston area guitarists,with a dominant rock/blues feel, joined by a harpist from Montreal for a sound that is both ethereal and energetic. I waited too long to buy their album and it sold out, but I subsequently ordered it from Amazon.

Kaleo - A band from Iceland by way of Memphis and the Mississippi Delta, these blues/folk/rockers closed out the show on Thursday with an amazing set. If you are curious, this video shows them playing "Way Down We Go" in a live volcano.



World Spinning - A 'workshop' set, which was essentially a jam session between the Barr Brothers, Franco-Malian guitarist/vocalist Fatoumata Diawara and Senegalese kora player Amadou Falls and his trio. When one of the Barrs pulled out his bottleneck slide, accompanied by talented African musicians and his regular harpist, I should have been bored when one song ran to 17 minutes. But instead, I was completely entranced. The small stages have a lot to offer!

Black Umfolosi on Stage 3 Sunday morning


Black Umfolosi - An acapella group from Zimbabwe, who share the same Zulu roots as Ladysmith Black Mambazo (who most of us will remember from Paul Simon's Graceland album in the '80s). Black Umfolosi not only sound brilliant and bring awesome amounts of spirit and gratitude to their singing, but are also talented dancers and engaged well with the Sunday morning crowd. Their lead singer won us over by relating how, after arriving at Pearson airport, gained significant credibility with their newest member by telling him, "Welcome to T'ronno" just like a native Canadian.

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The Spirit Sings - Myrna said she loves to include this spiritual session in her Festival Sunday. Linda Tillery and her Cultural Heritage Choir sang classic African-American gospel, including a number of reclaimed spirituals. Guitarist and singer Mike Farris talked about how these songs in particular resonated with him as the honest and uplifting songs of a people in bondage, particularly when he felt he was in bondage to himself through alcohol and drugs. When he played Wade In The Water while backed up by Tillery's choir and The Sojourners, it truly sounded like the Gospel according to John...Lee Hooker. Afterwards we all agreed with Linda when she emphatically stated, "Mm hmmm, that is the TRUTH. That is the real shit right there," the earthy honesty of which got a great response from the crowd,

Calexico - I had heard of this band and their country-blues blend of Tex-Mex sounds, but was only familiar with their track "Guero Canelo" from the Collateral soundtrack (a great movie with a soundtrack that is just as good). I was tickled pink when they not only played that song, but closed out their set with it for over ten minutes.

LP on the main stage Sunday night


LP - Laura Pergolizza is already a respected songwriter, having her works performed by Rihanna and Christina Aguillera, but is also a dynamic performer in her own right. A tiny lady whose ukelele looks almost like a full-sized guitar in her arms, she has an intense and powerful voice, and was grateful for the receptive and energetic main stage crowd.



It was a tremendous experience over all, and makes me regret even more that I waited so long to attend such an enormous and internationally respected event in my own backyard. And yes, the food was amazing, considering the temporary kitchen in an enormous tent was feeding upwards of 2000 people per meal. Between the meals, admission to the festival, shuttle service to and from the site and the legendary appreciation parties I was too fatigued to attend, it is fair to say that in the past, at conferences or even on vacations, I have paid good money to be treated far, far worse as a paying customer than I was as a Folk Fest volunteer.

I am tremendously grateful to Myrna for having suggested I get on board, and have every reason to believe I will be back next year as well. Next time though, I will have the sense to book off the following Monday from work; it was a pretty exhausting weekend, but in the best possible way!

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Just Plane Fun - Edmonton Airshow 2016

To be fair, it didn't exactly take a lot of pushing from Glory to convince me to go the second Edmonton Airshow today, despite having gotten up at 5:00 am for my third day of volunteering at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival. There are darned few opportunities to see aerobatics in these parts, and the lineup was significantly more diverse than last year's which wasn't half bad itself.

In fact, hearing there were some vintage aircraft in the lineup was enough to convince Audrey to come as well, so once I was off-shift, we made our way out to Villeneuve Airport, arriving a little before noon.

Once we got our chairs set up, we made out way over to the static displays, with my favourite WWII aircraft beckoning me like a siren of yore: the F-4U Corsair. 

[Please note: all photographs are courtesy of Miss Glory!]


In the time it took us to explore the rest of the line (and the tremendous assortment of food trucks), another plane from the Pacific theatre had made an appearance: the P-38 Lightning, one of the most uniquely shaped aircraft of the conflict (and damned effective too; I'd had no idea this 'Fork-tailed Devil' had accounted for more Japanese aircraft kills than any other!).




Land-based speed was represented too, including this vintage Pontiac racer, done up in classic RCMP livery! (If you get a chance, be sure to ask Audrey what it's like to drive one of the regular cruisers..)



The show opened with a 737 taking off while we were checking out the static line displays, but we almost missed the military component kicking off with a massive parachute drop out of a C-130 Hercules, courtesy of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry.


After that, we hustled back to our seats to enjoy the aerobatic displays beginning with Brent Handy in his Pitts Special. A great way to start things off, this ex-Hornet jockey put his little biplane through a grueling routine, displaying almost preternatural precision.


Brent was followed by Anna Serbinenko, whose plane boasted a little less horsepower and speed, but more than made up for it with grace and poise.


After Anna, is was time for airshow legend Bud Granley to take to the air in his Russian Yak-55, joined by his son Ross in a Yak-18T. Beginning with an opposed take-off, with both planes taking to the air within meters of each other, they displayed some incredible close formation flying, as well as some impressively aggressive aerobatics individually.




The next performer was a new one for me; I'd never seen an aircraft from the People's Liberation Army Air Force before, but Geoff Latter from B.C. and his Nancheng CJ-6A "Nancy" from China put on another impressive display.



The Harvard demonstration team Yellow Thunder bring a lot to the table, both in terms of their history with the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) and the impressive roars of their 600hp Pratt & Whitney radial engines. The Watson brothers are no slouches in the pilot's seat either, and their bright yellow paint jobs are a joyful sight in a clear blue sky.


One of the most common criticisms of last year's Edmonton Airshow was the lack of jet, with no modern fighters in attendance. This year made up for this in spades, first with the F-16 Viper demo team from the USAF.

I will always have a soft spot for the Fighting Falcon, as it was the star of the first serious flight simulator I ever played on my Commodore Amiga. Despite my dated but extensive familiarity with the jet, I had never seen one flown until now, and no computer speaker could do justice to the deafening roar of 30,000 pounds of thrust when the throttle gets pushed to 'full military'.



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Pilot Craig "Rocket" Baker put his ship through its paces admirably, taking high-g turns that left contrails peeling off the fuselage.


Better still, the Viper was joined by a beautiful P-51 Mustang ("Cadillac of the skies!") for a series of Heritage Flight passes.


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Despite returning to propellers for the next act, things didn't slow down much, as Gary Ward's MX2 stuntplane boasts an all carbon-fibre body and an engine pumped up by the manufacturer, Lycoming. The high thrust to weight ratio made this plane capable of doing some astonishing things in the hands of an expert pilot.



Then it was time for another Pitts Special flown by local pilot Bill Carter, who we had seen last year as well, who repeated his trick of cutting a ribbon perhaps 5 meters off the ground, while inverted, with his tail.

I was delighted to discover that the P-38 Lightning was going to leave the static line in order to demonstrate its speed and power! It probably had the smoothest sounding engine of the warbirds we heard that day, and cast an impressive silhouette with its unusually shaped design.




I am jealous of tomorrow's audience, however, as they will get to see (and hear!) the Corsair instead of the Lightning.

The penultimate act was another impressive display of not only speed, but a series of 10-G turns, this time from a modern air racer sponsored by Red Bull, and its pilot, Canadian Pete McLeod.



They wrapped up the show brilliantly with Canada's own CF-18 Hornet Demo Team, out of Bagotville, Quebec.. In addition to being a powerful, twin engine combat jet that is currently in service, this Hornet was also painted in a yellow scheme with blue accents, in honour of the BCATP.



And best of all, the pilot caught everyone unawares by announcing over the speakers that he was perhaps ten minutes out, then came screaming in from behind the crowd two minutes later, at just below the speed of sound and perhaps 200 feet off the deck. One of my favourite air show gags, even if a lot of the smaller children found it somewhat unsettling.



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The icing on the cake was another Heritage Flight, this one quintessentially Canadian in nature. The yellow-liveried Hornet, callsign Hawk 1, was joined by a Harvard Mk. II trainer, Hawk 2. This monoplane was painted to match the plane piloted by John Gillespie Magee Jr., an RCAF pilot who died in a mid-air collision in 1941 in England, but is perhaps best remembered for his poem High Flight:
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air....
 Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.




A truly touching way to end a memorable airshow; I'm already anticipating next year's version!

Monday, August 1, 2016

Great Exbeeriences

The last thing I would want is for Confessions of a Middle Aged Adolescent to focus extensively on my pursuit of exotic potables, but two consecutive weekends have seen a significant alignment of friendship and beer, so I feel compelled to share them.

Last weekend, our friends Shari and Dave in Red Deer invited us to join them on a Central Alberta brewery tour, since both households were temporarily child-free. I love beer, Audrey loves to travel and was willing to be our designated driver, so away we went.

Our first stop was Olds College, which was a visit overflowing with revelations, including:


I had a pint of their Prairie Gold IPA to complement my bbq beef on a pretzel bun, and it was absolutely delightful; crisp, sharp, and able to hold its own against the sweet and smoky onslaught of the Jack Daniels-based barbecue sauce. At 6.5%, it was just the thing for a one-and-done meal accompaniment.


Afterwards we strolled over to the taproom, where we were graciously offered a small sample of all the taps. Shari got one of her growlers filled there, but I held off, picking up a bomber bottle of their Little Sure Shot saison.

I handed the keys off to Audrey, and from there we were off to Lacombe, and Blindman Brewing. Blindman has had some kegs up in Edmonton that I have tried at Sherbrooke, but was looking forward to seeing what they had in their range.

Blindman Brewing is way out in an industrial park, as is common for microbreweries, with a sun drenched deck that was just beginning to fill up on an almost cloudless Saturday afternoon. Being a pasty sort whose relationship with our life-giving solar orb is best described as 'troubled', I suggested we sit inside instead.

They've done a pretty good job converting the retail front end of their brewery into a rough-hewn but tidy, wood-appointed brewpub, with flourescent lights cleverly hidden between 2 x 6's suspended from the ceiling. They offer flights of beer, four 3-oz. pours of your choice, served on a barrel stave.



Our hosts were already planning on picking up the eponymous Blindman River Session Ale to serve with dinner, so we opted for the more adventurous taps: Saison Lacombe: Été, Kettle Sour #4, a Cascadian Dark Ale, and Robust Porter. The sour beers are a mixed bag with me, generally, and the saison was all right. The Cascadian Dark Ale was extremely tasy and the Robust porter was absolutely fantastic; very dark, a little sweet, but with the roasted malts helping to balance things out nicely. I ended up getting a growler full of this beauty, and will do so again at the earliest opportunity.



After that it was back to Red Deer for the last three breweries on our list. Well, perhaps it is better to say two-and-a-half, since Something Brewing and Drummond come from the same place, and that place was a bit depressing, Less of a taproom and more of a straight-up drinking establishment in an industrial park, our server was completely perplexed as to how she could accommodate us wanting to try the four different microbrews, until one of the brewers who happened to be on hand patiently explained that she could simply pour each can into three smaller glasses.



We tried their Willy Wit (wheat ale), Darkside Schwarzbier, Gimme That Nutt Brown Ale, and their Hop Bomb IPA, and they are all solid brews, although it was disappointing that we couldn't get them on tap. Their brewer was kind enough to give us a tour, but made no bones about the fact that the place is primarily set up to produce mass quantities of economy lagers.

With our expectations lowered significantly, we toddled off to our final stop of the day: Troubled Monk. And were delighted.

First of all, the small taproom and brewpub is clean, bright, and nicely appointed, with a mural depicting the namesake friar taking up one of the walls.



Secondly, the staff were excellent, cheerfully explaining how their flights worked: 4 core beers, and 1 wild card off the chalkboard. I was saddened to discover that we had just missed the end of an ale aged in whiskey barrels, but on their suggestion tried their Berliner Weisse, with homemade woodruff syrup added. Shari tried the same beer, but with raspberry.



Lastly, the beers were excellent. Troubled Monk's Golden Gaetz lager is a solid example of a run-of-the-mill beer you can serve to your friends still weaning themselves of off corporate macrolagers, while their Open Road Brown Ale is one of the best examples of the style I have ever encountered, and soon filled my second growler.

The Berliner Weisse is a bit of an odd duck, having a very subtle and slightly sour flavour of its own, and is traditionally augmented by something like the woodruff syrup I sampled, an aromatic distillation of the herb sweetscented bedstraw (gallium odoratum). When I asked the server what woodruff tasted like, she said, "Well, to me it tastes like Christmas: there's vanilla, hints of cinnamon-"

"Sold!" I interrupted. Sure enough, the smooth and slightly sour taste of the largely wheat Berliner complemented the sweet and savoury woodruff syrup delightfully. I traded sips with Shari and found her raspberry beer equally compelling, and with it's lower ABV, I could see this beer being an excellent summer quencher.



This was also Audrey's favourite stop, as they also brew their own craft sodas on the premises, and as our designated driver, she got a pint of Troubled Monk's small-batch ginger ale for free. We also had some dried sausages from a local deli, and a cheese platter featuring three varieties of gouda from the renowned Sylvan Star cheesery.

After we'd finished our flights and demolished the food, one of the staff offered us a very comprehensive and enthusiastic tour. Despite my knowing very little about the science or business of brewing, I couldn't help but be captivated by Neil's optimism and obvious love for the topic. Things are going pretty well for Troubled Monk, but their success hasn't dampened any of their penchant for experimentation. They are now getting into barrel aging some of their beers, including an IPA aged in a tequila barrel that I cannot wait to try!



Spending an afternoon with friends this way was absolutely tremendous, and reflecting back on all we had seen over dinner at their place was a perfect cap to a wonderful day.

This weekend saw us visiting our friends Jim and Carol in Calgary, brought on in part by our desire to re-visit OEB for brunch and some Soul-in-a-Bowl. I brought along the Robust Porter from Blindman, but Jim had something extra-special in mind, libation-wise; something he described as the 'most sparkly of unicorns' in the world of highly sought-after beers.

While dinner cooked, and we enjoyed the porter, he brought forth a gleaming coppery container, cunningly modeled after a brewing kettle, and announced it as being the 2013 edition of Sam Adams Utopias. He handed me the descriptive tag, and laughed as my jaw dropped.

The copy described an ale that straddles the line between beer and spirit, boasting an astonishing alcohol by volume of 27%. A beer not only aged in whisky barrels from Buffalo Trace bourbon, but also port barrels, and even incorporates a wild ale aged in oaken Hungarian tuns.



To say I was intrigued would be a gross understatement, and after dinner, I stood spell bound as Jim opened the bottle and invited me to smell this unearthly nectar. Rich and sweet, punctuated with a yeasty tang, it smelled like all the best elements of a booze-soaked Christmas cake. Jim carefully poured two servings into bespoke glasses, and after another calibration sniff to ensure I wasn't experiencing an olfactory hallucination, I took a sip.



The darkness and high alcohol content had put me in mind of a Russian Imperial Stout, one of my favourite styles, but this was nothing like that. Utopias is like no other beer I have ever tried.

Utopias is dark and sweet and rich and carries  both the tastes and scents of dark fruit, like raisins, black currants and cherries. The sweetness is offset slightly by the malt character and the high ABV, and it has a finish that lingers on the tongue afterwards like an icewine. As the beer warmed, it grew in complexity, with hints of the bourbon and port barrel aging coming to the fore. As we sipped, I would sometimes shake my head and mutter, "Astonishing!" to no one in particular.

At the risk of overstatement, it was less of a beer, and more of an experience. Certainly, I am unlikely to repeat this experience, given the exclusivity of this particular brew; only 15,000 bottles were made in 2013, and I don't believe any has been bottled since.

I think it is fair to say that the only thing Jim likes better than finding these rarest of brews, is sharing them with other like-minded individuals. He brought a Utopias with him to GenCon last year, and the response was very similar to mine: a mixture of awe, wonder and gratitude.

Beer, to my mind, is a wonderful beverage all on its own, but like so many things, is at its best when it brings people together.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Lost On The River

Last week someone mentioned to me that my most recent post from our Churchill trip felt a little flat, as though my heart wasn't really in it. In point of fact, there is some truth to this.  It was actual very difficult - impossible, actually, as was noted - for me to write in my usual voice, due to a tragedy that occurred on the Churchill River shortly after we returned home.

Some friends of my cousin and his wife were visiting from 'Down South' (which is darned near everywhere relative to Churchill, but usually refers to southern Manitoba in general and Winnipeg in specific). They had brought their two young children with them, and as has become traditional, were relaxing in Parker & Belinda's cabin down on the Flats. On Tuesday afternoon, the father, his 5 year-old daughter, and four year-old son took out the canoe for a bit of a paddle. The two dogs, Ringo and Maggie, went with them, just as they had when my daughters and niece went out the Saturday before. Everyone wore lifejackets, but it turned out this was insufficient protection from the river when the canoe capsized.

The lifejackets kept the family afloat, but the frigid waters of the Churchill River were estimated to be about 5 degrees Celsius at the time; the same temperature of a cold (not cool) drink you might take from a refrigerator.

I don't know a lot of details, like how Parker and Belinda figured out things had gone so terribly wrong, but possibly by checking with binoculars from the cabin. There is no Coast Guard in Churchill, but somehow, tour operators with Zodiacs were alerted by radio about the people in the water, and sped to their rescue. They got the people out of the river, but the little girl, Danica, later succumbed to hypothermia; her brother Conner, was only saved by being put into a medically induced coma. In addition, Parker and Belinda's beloved border terrier, Ringo, never made it out of the water, but their labradoodle, Maggie, survived by treading water for over 40 minutes.



I don't know these poor parents who lost their daughter, but my heart goes out to them regardless; every mother and father's worst nightmare came to life for them, and now they are trying to balance their sadness at losing Danica with their joy at Conner having been saved.

Because they are family though, I worry most about my cousin and his wife. I can't imagine how they must feel. I know in my heart there is nothing else they could have done, but I also know they will always wonder. Their cabin at The Flats, a scene of so much joy and community, is now tainted by tragedy, but I hope they are able to find peace there again before too long. I'm so grateful that Maggie survived, but even I will miss Ringo, despite only having known him for a couple of weeks over three years; a whip-smart little fellow who loved the water.

Our Fenya is still up there, working with Belinda until November, and she says it is astonishing how quickly and fully the staff all came together for her and Parker, working extra shifts, taking extra responsibilities, and giving them the time and space that they needed.

With all that in my heart last week, I just couldn't find it in myself to complain about the bitter cold on the Churchill River while looking at playful belugas, knowing that same river had taken two lives not a week later, and altered countless others beyond reckoning.

But I am hopeful nonetheless. I know Parker and Belinda are beloved and respected by so many in Churchill, that they will have the support they need to move on, and to help their friends as they grieve the loss of their daughter. I'm confident that, in time, they will return to their cabin at The Flats and look out at the river without the pain of loss, and I hope they are able to do it before too long.


Sunday, July 17, 2016

Battlements & Belugas

We booked a zodiac outing that would not only ferry us across the Churchill River estuary to Fort Prince of Wales, but also give us an opportunity to get up and close to the beluga whales that congregate in the inlet at that time of year.


The fort itself is a fascinating edifice whose thick walls of locally quarried rocks were no match for the excessive amount of men and guns that the French were prepared to apply to its destruction. Governor Samuel Hearne wisely elected to surrender the fort to save his men, and I hope he took some satisfaction in the fact that even without opposition, the French were unable to demolish the structure.










Armchair strategists considering likely places to wait out the zombie apocalypse should take note of the challenges faced by the fort's occupants before deciding on Churchill as a base of operations. While meat is not terribly hard to come by (fish, whales, hares, caribou, etc), the growing season is terribly short, and wood for cooking and heating must be dragged in from quite a distance. While the small population and remote location (coupled with a lack of direct roads) make the area desirable in some ways, an off-shore oil platform closer to the equator remains a superior choice in virtually every aspect.









On the trip back, our guide Jocelyn lead us to some promising areas to see the belugas. The whales themselves are amazing; playful, inquisitive and although not very fast, incredibly agile in the water. The brilliant white skin of the adults combined with the greenish tinge of the water gives them an almost ghostly appearance as they trailed behind our zodiacs, attracted to the noise or motion of the outboard's propellers.




Despite having been sun-roasted in the same area only 4 days earlier, we were bitterly cold on the water; this is, after all, the sub arctic.