Monday, October 31, 2005

Batman Begins

Jacky and I rented this flick last week and finally got around to watching it on Wednesday. Was it ever worth the wait!

The atmosphere and mood of this Christopher Nolan-directed film was pitch perfect throughout. This version of Batman is much darker than the Michael Keaton Batman films from the 80's and 90's and it works to perfection.

You really understand Bruce Wayne's motivation for coming up with his superhero alter-ego in this version. Nolan's trademark non-linear storytelling (patented in his remarkable film "Memento") is used to great effect in the first act. He goes back and forth in time, chronicling Wayne's childhood (in particular, the famous mugging sequence) and the subsequent aftereffects of his parents' death. He intertwines scenes of an adult Wayne enduring torture in a prison camp, as he researches 'the nature of evil'.

Batman doesn't even make an appearance for the first hour of the movie; it doesn't matter. This movie is about story and character development, not high-tech action sequences.

And does it ever work well!

Christian Bale is an excellent choice as the Dark Knight. He's fantastic at playing the 'playboy' portion of Wayne's character; you really see the depth of his performance in scenes with his childhood friend and love interest Rachel Dawes, played by Katie Holmes. He has an image to maintain as a carefree richboy, yet you can see that it pains him to act in such an immature manner around Rachel. Very nuanced performance by a talented actor. He also handles the physicality of the Batman role with ease.

The supporting cast is excellent with one exception. First, the positives. The always brilliant Morgan Freeman has a lot of fun as Lucius Fox, an almost forgotten scientist working in the bowels of Wayne Enterprises. Liam Neeson plays Henri Ducard, a mysterious man who rescues Wayne from the prison camp in the first act but has motives that don't seem so genuine. Neeson is as effective as usual. One of the main villains of the piece is the Scarecrow and is played to perfection by Cillian Murphy. I don't know Murphy's work but he is suitably creepy in this role: he looks as if a stiff wind could blow him over yet he is a very plausible adversary for Batman.

More positives: Gary Oldman actually plays A GOOD GUY in this movie, playing the role of Lt. Gordon to perfection. And Michael Caine is fantastic as Alfred, Wayne's butler/accomplice/father-figure.

I was not enamoured with Katie Holmes. I didn't like the way she played the Dawes character. She was almost condescending towards Bruce Wayne in the film and I really can't understand how Wayne would be attracted to someone who treats him this way. I don't necessarily mind her as an actress but I just don't feel she was mature enough for the part.

But that's my only complaint. The movie is extremely satisfying and it BRILLIANTLY sets up the next movie in the last scene.

Excellent, excellent film. Three and a half stars out of four from this reviewer!

Thursday, October 27, 2005

NHL Eastside Hockey Manager

I've been busy the last week or so with my research for Eastside Hockey Manager, a computer game for the PC developed by a British gaming company called Sports Interactive.

You've never heard of it? Well, I'm not surprised. The genre this game falls under certainly isn't popular in North America but it's always interested me...

Back in my youth, there was a game for early PC's called Hockey League Simulator. This was essentially a 'Management' game where you are the coach and general manager of an NHL team. You make the signings and trades, set the lines and then simulate the game to see how everything turned out.

No joysticks...no playing out the games...just a simulation.

I loved it! I was probably about 14 years old or so. My buddy Brandon and I would work on rosters for hours upon hours, changing player attributes, updating rookies, etc. I always had an affinity for stats and this game was right up my alley.

It got even better when the second version of the game came out. Hockey League Simulator II worked in conjunction with another popular game at the time, Wayne Gretzky's Hockey. WGH offered the graphics and visual gameplay - you could import all the rosters and stats from HLSII into Gretzky to get the complete hockey game experience. You could now watch your players perform on the ice and actually PLAY with them too! Of course, we even put ourselves into the game, which was something just not available with other games back in the 80's.

I was in geek heaven! Boy did we ever play that game a lot! Unfortunately, there wasn't much of a market for HLSII and the game never got remade.

Fast forward to 2001. I get a call from my buddy Deron, who was doing some internet searches on hockey games (we were interested in designing a game like HLSII ourselves) and found this freeware game called Eastside Hockey Manager. It was essentially a work-in-progress by a hockey-mad Finnish university student named Risto Remes. Since it was just a 'spare time project' for the guy, he made a crude website and put it online for free while he developed it in his spare time.

He had quite the little cult following of guys like me who craved a real management game. He had expanded on the theme of HLSII by including the farm teams of the NHL clubs and also included career play. This meant that you could actually draft players every year and continue to manage until the year 2450 if you so desired. He also brought depth to the experience by having attributes for player's personality - each player would perform differently not only because of differing skill levels but also because they now were rated on their determination, work ethic and leadership abilities.

I was shocked that a 19-year old had come up with all this stuff. Deron was equally amazed - this is the game WE wanted to make!!!

Well, we abandoned thought of doing something ourselves and dove into the game. Deron quickly became disinterested, as he has become more of a joystick jockey in his old age ;) However, I loved how immersive the game was and worked on taking my Buffalo Sabres to the promised land.

I noticed something that could be added though. All of the players were in the game but instead of having actual staff members like the coaches and scouts, it just had generic names in there. So I made my own staff file for the game, going through all 60 AHL and NHL teams in order to add more realism to the experience. I put the file online on the message boards for the other users to download and the response was very positive.

I was rewarded a couple days later when Risto made my staff file an official part of his game. I was listed in the game credits as one of the contributors.

I was in the gaming industry!!!

Well not really! Keep in mind that this was a FREE game, online for anyone to download at no charge. Riz, as he's affectionately known, finished the game about six months later and actually garnered positive reviews from many important gaming publications and websites, who'd heard the positive word of mouth and gone to the site to check out this labour of love.

When asked if he'd be working on a follow-up version, Riz said that he was going to have to concentrate on school and getting an actual paying job. But he did leave a tantalizing nugget of info in his last paragraph, saying something to the effect of "Stay tuned...there's something baking in the oven right now."

That something was the biggest gaming company in England - Sports Interactive. They were the developers of the popular Championship Manager, a soccer management simulation for the PC. One of the bigwigs at SI caught wind of this Finnish whippersnapper and his hockey game and began patrolling the Eastside message boards, offering encouragement. Riz was thrilled, as he based a lot of his game on the components already in the Championship Manager series.

They obviously saw a lot of potential in him and ended up hiring him in late 2002 to develop a professional version of Eastside for sale in the retail market! Riz had gone big time! I emailed him my congratulations and told him I looked forward to buying his game when it hit the shelves.

I joined the Sports Interactive message boards to keep myself abreast of any news on the new game. They reported that the new version of Eastside would include not only the NHL, but leagues from all across the world.

This truly was going to be an immense project!

I was shocked a couple months later when Riz personally emailed me, asking if I'd like to become a Head Researcher for the NHL. It would be a paid position with the company; not a lot of money, mind you, but some money nonetheless. Plus, perks like free versions of all the games the company makes.

I would have done it for nothing! Okay...maybe just the free game!

So here we are! It's now October 2005 and we just released the second version of the retail game to North America earlier this month. I've become 'online friends' with many of the other researchers from across the globe and also got the privilege of meeting up with Riz and Miles Jacobsen, the Managing Partner of Sports Interactive for dinner and drinks last year. They were in Toronto to do some radio and newspaper interviews for the game so I went up to the big city to meet with them.

I highly recommend the game to any hockey nut who's always secretly wanted to run a franchise or who thinks he can do a better job than the current G.M. It truly has been a spectacular experience for me to be involved with such passionate people and to work on a project that brings so much enjoyment to hockey fans.

And damn...it's kind of cool to say I'm part of the development team for a computer game!

Go to the Sports Interactive website to check it out! It's available through online download and it's also available in stores now!

Saturday, October 08, 2005

A Trip to Casino Niagara

It's been quite a long time since I made a trip to play cards at the Casino.

Toast has been needling me for MONTHS about my disinterest in playing live poker. Really, I AM interested, I just have other priorities in my life. Like the girlfriend. And golf...and hockey...oh yeah, work too! Hehe.

Well, I once again teased Mr. Toast about a possible trip to his favourite spot in the world on Friday night, since my lady was going to be hitting the town with a girlfriend for dinner. I stipulated that I wouldn't be able to go until about 11pm because of 'prior commitments'.

Haha. The Sabres game still takes priority!

Well, Toast was up for it regardless. So after watching my Sabres improve to 2-0 on the year after a 4-1 victory over Boston, we were off for some poker action.

Now, I hadn't been to the Casino since late spring I believe. They have made a number of changes to the lower level at Niagara and it looks TREMENDOUS! First of all, they put a Sport Book in the Casino, with about 15 plasma TV's in the one area and a bunch of other TV's in the Horse Racing section. The place looks SWEET, but I was disappointed with the fact that they're only offering a Casino version of PRO-LINE for sports gambling - three game parlays or more. I was hoping you could drop some money on ONE game but it's just not offered there. Oh well.

They also put in a beautiful bar right beside the Poker Room so you have your choice of saddling up there or sitting in the Sports Book while you wait for a spot to open at the tables.

I sat in on a 3/6 Limit game last night. The first hour or so likely qualifies as the best run of cards in my casino gambling lifetime. Unfortunately, at the small limits I'm playing, it's hard to really profit from the cards but I still did quite well.

In one 20 hand sequence, I saw FIVE POCKET PAIRS! And not just any pocket pairs: AA once, QQ twice and TT twice! And to show you how lucky things were for me during this sequence, I hit my set (three of a kind) in three of the five hands and a full house in one of the other hands!

Now THAT'S what you call being on a run!

Hand of the night sees me dealt the Queens (for the second time) in the SB. About six callers to me and I raise to $6. Everyone, of course, calls.

Flop comes down T53 rainbow. I bet out and get four callers.

Turn comes and it's another beautiful lady. I bet my $6 and proceed to get raised from the lady UTG. She's proven to be a tough player in the short time I've been at the table but I know I have the nuts so I'm not really worried. Everyone else folds and I reraise to $18.00.

She looks pissed but calls.

River comes down and it's a King. I bet she calls. Poor lady had pocket threes, a lower set than mine. I was actually behind on the flop but her slow playing tactic backfired...although I certainly wasn't going anywhere if she raised a measly $3...one of the benefits of limit poker.

Either way, a nice pot for me there. I also won a big pot when I rivered a full house with pocket queens again, beating a guy with a lower boat.

It was just my night.

I ended the session up $146.00 in about 2 3/4 hours of playing time...not a bad hourly rate there! I may just have to go back again sometime soon.

Toast must be rubbing his hands together with glee!

Friday, October 07, 2005

NHL Hockey is Back!


Wednesday night marked the return of meaningful hockey for the Buffalo Sabres.

It had been over 550 days since the team last took the ice in a regular season game. And it was worth the wait!

The Sabres defeated the New York Islanders 6-4 in a wonderfully entertaining contest that saw the new rules enforced to full effect. Daniel Briere and Maxim Afinogenov both scored twice while J.P. Dumont (shown above) and Brian Campbell notched single markers.

I decided to splurge on season tickets this year so I was at the game on Wednesday night. What a fantastic hockey game! Lots of great skating, big hits, tons of goals...this is what the league needed! There were a lot of penalties, as the refs continue to call EVERYTHING but that's okay. The players will learn...

The Sabres are being picked to finish near the bottom of the conference by most experts but I'm telling you right now that this team will contend for a playoff spot. The depth they have at forward is among the best in the league; mark my words - Buffalo will be in the top ten in scoring this year. They'll need their defense to play very solid and most definitely need their goaltender to step up and have a big year. Rookie Ryan Miller is being given the chance to prove he deserves the #1 man and he looked really nervous and unfocused on Wednesday. Luckily for him, the offense came through but he'll need to be better if the Sabres have a chance to succeed.

The Sabres are at home tonight versus the Boston Bruins but I sold off my tickets to a buddy who's a Bruins fan. I'll be attending the Sabres/Penguins game on Monday night. Sidney Crosby comes to Buffalo! I'll try to take a few pictures at the game and post them here.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Birthday Girl

No, not me...the girlfriend!

Today was officially her birthday...if I divulged her age, this most certainly would be the last post ever for yours truly! I say 'officially' because we've been doing stuff since last Friday.

As a start to the 'birthday weekend', I took Jacky to Toronto on Friday to the Eaton's Centre to do some shopping. She had a blast going from store to store while I people watched from the outside. A lot of crazy people in the big city, let me tell ya! From there, we ventured to Jamie Kennedy's Wine Bar for a real cool dinner. No, not Jamie Kennedy the actor; Jamie Kennedy the chef! She heard good things about the place and it lived up to expectations for both of us. We came home later that night and watched 'Fever Pitch' with Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon. Just a chick flick wrapped around a sports theme to get naive guys like me to watch it.

Meh, it was harmless enough I guess but completely formulaic. ** out of four from this reviewer!

I skipped golf on Saturday (!!!!!) and went hiking instead with Jacky to the Short Hills again. They have about 8 different trails in the park so we tried a different one this time. It was a gorgeous day and the hike was great. We then got dressed up and ventured to Niagara-on-the-Lake for dinner at a place called Roasters. Surprisingly great selection and really good food - I had a perfect 'Brandied' Peppercorn New York Strip while Jacky had the Roasted Chicken.

From there, we took in a play at the famous Shaw Festival. For those unaware of 'The Shaw', it is the only theatre in the world that specializes exclusively in the plays of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries. A few years ago, they expanded this mandate to include contemporary plays set during Shaw's lifetime as well as plays written during this period.

We saw 'Bus Stop' a 1955 play written by William Inge and later adapted into a famous movie starring Marilyn Monroe. It's a story about a group of strangers on a bus who get stranded in an all-night diner during a Kansas snowstorm.

Now, you either like plays or you don't. There aren't too many out there that are ambivalent towards plays. I REALLY enjoyed the experience. The acting was tremendous (with one exception) and I especially enjoyed the fact that the plot was more about 'interaction' than 'action', if that makes any sense.

Topping things off, today we got together at Jacky's moms house for some homemade chicken parm and pasta. I got her a few little things for her house and her office so she was thrilled.

Getting back to the Shaw, I can tell you that we're definitely going back next year. They run nine different plays a season so I'd love to see about two a year. Unfortunately, any more than that and you're out a whole whack of cash...it's a relatively expensive night out, but one well worth it.