Friday, 26 December 2008

Wallace and Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death

How is it possible that two small black circles can convey so much emotion? They can, when they are set in the face of that clever, loyal, silent, lovable dog that is Gromit.He and his clueless master Wallace once again graced British screens on Christmas Day. In A Matter of Loaf and Death, the two now run a successful bakery, mainly due to the fact that all the other bakers in town are being murdered. Wallace then happens to make a new lady-friend, Piella (at this rate, he’ll soon be competing with James Bond), a former model for a bakery brand.
Murder mystery it may be, but even young children will hardly bat an eye at the untimely death of Baker Number 12. Rather it is the maltreatment of Piella’s little dog that will be one of their most traumatising viewing moments, somewhere up there with Mufasa, or Bambi’s mother. Poodle she may be, but even I wanted to take poor Fluffles home and give her a proper bed; not a cardboard box in her mistress’ grand bedroom in a palatial mansion.
There was infinitely more chemistry between the two dogs than the humans. I am not ashamed to admit that some scenes with only the former in them made my eyes rather moist. Peter Sallis, as ever, was delightful as Wallace, and Sally Lindsay gave Piella the ideally irritating, posh voice that such a character called for. Gromit was as quiet and expressive as we have come to expect.
It is a visual delight, considering how sophisticated claymation now looks compared to 1989’s A Grand Day Out. The near smooth movements of the characters are a testament to the time, patience and dedication that goes into making this half-hour programme. It is so packed full of visual and verbal gags and puns that it requires a frame-by-frame analysis to find them all. This latest adventure is as quaint and enjoyable as the rest, with a suitably over the top climax; however at times, it somehow did not have quite the same spark as its predecessors.
Despite this, Wallace and Gromit remain a welcome, home-grown antithesis to the CGI animation and cheesy live-action that has been flooding across the Atlantic of late. A Matter of Loaf and Death even took the top Christmas Day viewing figures. Finally, a genuinely deserving Christmas Number One.
According to the animators, it is very difficult to show Gromit’s emotions. All I can say to that is: Cracking job!

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Classic Matches - Wimbledon - Murray v Gasquet DVD

Will the real Andy Murray please stand up?
From the moment the two tennis players arrived on Centre Court, it seemed like an impostor had picked up Andy Murray’s racket. After three rounds of a comparatively simple passage through to the fourth round, with polite home support, his match against Richard Gasquet of France was going to be anything but.
Both players began brightly enough, although as the first set wore on, Murray’s service game began to suffer. Serving to stay in the set at 6-5, despite saving two break points with some exceptional athleticism, Gasquet prevailed. The Frenchman simply did not allow Murray to play his game, and took the second set 6-3. With Gasquet then two sets and a break up, and serving for the match; Andy Murray arrived on court, and boy, were we glad to see him.
For the first time in the match, Murray had three break points, and soon, for the first time in the match, broke Gasquet’s serve. Another service hold from both took the third set to tiebreak. The DVD is worth the money just for that exquisite, seemingly impossible shot with which Murray won the third set - and for his and the crowd’s unforgettable and unprecedented reaction that followed. That part of the disc will quickly become worn from the number of times it is bound to be played over and over again.
So what else does this DVD bring? Britain beating France, for a start, what more do you want? The tennis itself is simply scintillating. Rallies are not solely confined to the baseline. Powerful forehands, bullet-like backhands, intelligent passing shots, a daring lob, and of course that unpredictable Murray drop-shot. One can easily imagine him in the Wimbledon final with Championship point, putting in a drop-shot. Should that ever happen, most of the crowd will be taken away in body bags.
This match has action, drama, emotion, and a twist that you will not see coming…unless you saw the broadcast or read about it in the papers the morning after. It’s like Gladiator, only epic. The roars from the crowd were certainly more befitting of the Coliseum in Roman times than Centre Court at the All England Lawn Tennis Club; and it is heartening to see how everyone in the Court and on Henman Hill (sorry, Murray Mount) warmed to the young Scot, and gave him ovations the like of which even his predecessor has not seen.
For all the exciting rallies, twists, dips and turns the match took; it was Tim Henman who caused the biggest sigh of disbelief from the ten million television viewers when, in the commentary box, he obliviously asked: “Is it always this nerve-wracking?”. At least now he knows what torture he has been putting us through all these years; and at least this time, we came away smiling.
This is the kind of match that turns knee cartilage into jelly. Even knowing the result does not make the getting there any easier. It is terrifying to recall how close Murray came to defeat, and inspiring to see how he made such an incredible comeback. Yet this is why this match is worth putting oneself through again and again; whether for the thrill, the entertainment, the pride, or simply to marvel at the skill of these two young men.
However, of course, the DVD producers then had to go and ruin it right at the very end by flashing up a statement informing us what happened to Murray in the following round. They just couldn’t let us enjoy that moment of glory, could they? To recompense for this, they’ll have to release a DVD of Murray’s match at the US Open against the man he met in the quarter final of Wimbledon.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Michael McIntyre: Live and Laughing (Audiobook)

Michael McIntyre is a rare thing: a modern comedian who can make me laugh. I’m not just talking about the odd chuckle or smirk, but a full-bodied, yet silent laugh that cramps up the stomach and refuses to let air into the lungs as tears roll down the cheeks.
His comedy is nowhere near as crude, vulgar, or over-reliant on profanity as so many of his contemporaries. Even if he does swear or venture into the bedroom, his accent, as he admits himself, is camp enough to enable him to get away with it.
Live and Laughing is the perfect introduction to McIntyre’s brand of humour. He begins with something we can all relate to: traffic. From driving on the motorway with a police car alongside, to being stuck on a country lane behind a tractor; the imagery that is conjured up in the mind is simply side-splitting, like some-thing you might see on a Top Gear challenge.
As a northern lass, I was intrigued by his take on the Geordie accent - although being from Sunderland, do not consider myself a Geordie -, which, according to him, has only one vowel. No prizes for guessing which one. This particular routine evoked memories of Bobby Pattinson, the Geordie accent extraordinaire, who incidentally, was the last person to make me laugh quite so hard.
McIntyre wonders at the point of having stewards to direct people to their seats on a plane, explains why no one can recognise their own mobile phone number, and why, in every house, there is a “man drawer”. You know: the one that has umpteen dead batteries, Allen keys, extension leads and expired foreign currency hoyed into it. Also, ladies; if you’re wondering why you are not allowed to venture into the loft, wonder no longer.
The subject of family life, as always, is one that is full of emotion, as well as humour. When he speaks of the joys and socially awkward moments in raising his two young boys, you can hear the affection in his voice. However the anecdotes play out like a scene from Malcolm in the Middle, making the McIntyre clan sound like the dysfunctional family from hell.
He has even came up with an ingenious solution to getting out of a situation in which you have unwittingly called someone within hearing distance a rude name…providing you do not have to be in an enclosed space with them for a long time afterwards.
However one thing I will hold against him is that he has ruined pineapples. All those years as a child I spent drinking pineapple juice in The Wheatsheaf at Embleton, not far from Keswick; all that innocence has been dashed to pieces.
Refreshingly and genuinely funny as Live and Laughing is, the one thing that lets this iTunes audio book down is the sound quality. It is tinny and echoic, giving it a rather old-fashioned ambience, as though it was recorded straight onto a video cassette (remember those?).
Yet, in such a time where phoning a real comic genius to brag about having sex with their granddaughter is considered funny, it is heartening to know that McIntyre is also out there as the perfect antidote for this generation. Long may he be that antidote.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

24: Redemption

It’s good to see you again, Jack; you’ve been sorely missed!
24: Redemption sees Bauer hiding in Africa, helping old friend Carl Benton run a small school for boys. Children in the area are being kidnapped and turned into soldiers by their neighbours across the border, who are receiving funding from a high profile source.
Meanwhile, in Washington D.C., as news of conflict in Africa reaches the White House, Allison Taylor is about to become the first Madam President, taking over from a decidedly bitter Noah Daniels (Powers Boothe); while her son is approached by a nervous young banker who is becoming wary of some of his employer’s dealings.
Unusually for 24, it seems to take a while to get going, but when it does, it is edge-of-the-seat time once again. This is achieved without the usual plethora of gunfights and explosions, but fear not, they are still there.
Jack is as proficient, instinctive and foolhardy as ever…Surely he’s not going to take on a dozen or more insurgents single-handedly?!…Despite this, in under two hours, we see more of his softer side than we have in six whole days, especially regarding his relationship with one of the young boys.
A familiar face like Robert Carlyle as the philanthropic Benton initially seemed out of place alongside Kiefer Sutherland. However the two connected well together, and it made a pleasant change to see Carlyle as a likeable character.
Yet Cherry Jones as the President Elect did not quite have the presence that one would expect. You would think she could have found a smarter blouse to wear for her inauguration. Never mind, she might surprise us all and become the Steel Lady.
By setting this TV-movie in Africa, it gives us a chance to see what so far we have only been able to hear from Bauer about his experiences outside of the US. It may not be the most explosive venture for him, but I hope he made the most of the comparative calm and quiet.
Jack may have had more comebacks than the Terminator, but who cares? Redemption has simultaneously filled the gaping hole left by the notable absence of series seven, and left me even hungrier for its arrival in January.

Friday, 24 October 2008

American Gangster

A year after Martin Scorsese brought us his Oscar-winning The Departed, another gangster movie shot by an acclaimed director also arrived on the big screen. Yet Ridley Scott’s American Gangster seemed to be overlooked in the wake of the star studded Scorsese flick with a thumping soundtrack and clever camerawork.
Scott once again teams up with Russell Crowe, who plays Richie Roberts, a New York detective trying to foil an influx of heroine into the city during the Vietnam War. At the helm of this dealing is Denzel Washington as drug lord Frank Lucas, who is getting his supplies from the war-zone via a contact which puts the credibility of the US military in major peril.
Needless to say is it a far cry from the director’s usual swords-and-sandals epic, but it works. The Gladiator duo are every bit as comfortable working in the back streets of Harlem as they were in a CGI Coliseum; and that, I believe, is what they call versatility.
Set at a leisurely pace that allows what initially seems to be a complex plot fall neatly into place, at the same time it moves quickly enough to keep the viewer engaged. Yes, there are the mandatory family feud scenes, but in Lucas’ case at least, they are integral to his business.
Washington is on top form as the ruthless, extravagant, yet still family-oriented Lucas, whose anger was as variable as the weather, and retribution as subtle as being hit on the head by a Steinway dropped from the 86th floor of the Empire State Building.
Although Crowe once again gave an understatedly intense performance, I spent most of the time when he was on screen trying to place his seemingly unplaceable accent. I settled on Boston as early as possible in order to enjoy the rest of the film.
Scott captures the character of the time exquisitely. Not simply through the clothes and household gadgets, but in the way he makes the eyesore blocks of Harlem look tragically beautiful. The big, black cars prowl along the avenues after dark, taxiing Lucas and his girlfriend to a Mohammed Ali boxing match, or to a private nightclub where he is met by the rest of the drug empire’s glitterati.
Based on a true story, American Gangster touches on contentious issues of race and hypocrisy, and explores the corruption which is not solely confined to the criminals.

James May's Big Ideas - Man Machine

For James May, the idea of robots living side by side with humans is a childhood dream; for me, it was something of a childhood nightmare. I cannot exactly recall what made me frightened of robots, but I do remember that it was, of all things, an episode of the Rugrats that kept me awake at night in fear of a robot attack.
In an episode of his Big Ideas series entitled “Man-Machine”, May explores the evolution of robots. His journey takes him to the obvious places like Japan, and the not so obvious Disneyland. The first robot he encounters is an exoskeleton that gives the wearer extra strength, as demonstrated when a five foot eight Japanese woman lifts May clear off a bed. Aesthetically, it was not the most pleasing, but as a functioning machine for which every movement could be seen, there was something almost beautiful in the design.
Easily the sleekest, best looking robot is Asimo, who resides at Disneyland, and is the cute little chap we saw in the Honda adverts not so long ago. He can walk. It sounds mundane, routine, but not to Asimo. He is the first robot to walk like a human being, albeit one who has perhaps just had an injury in the groin area. Asimo can also walk up and down stairs with perfect balance, and he can run. For 0.8 of a second, both his feet are off the ground while he runs. It was impressive, and also slightly frightening, if only for the thought of all that technology moving at a fast pace.
From the sweet to the scary, May meets a robot who looks exactly like his creator - well, apart from the eyes that look like they belong to an Ood from Doctor Who. That was one robot I really would have liked to see the skeleton of, not only for the mechanical brilliance, but to take away the sheer eeriness of a robot with facial muscles. The creator developed it to explore the relationship between humans and humanoid robots. If May’s reaction was anything to go by, it would probably lead to robo-racism should they be put into production.
In central Europe, May teaches Asimo’s smiley German cousin to recognise a Mini Cooper (the British version), and is doubtful when told that Asimo will not take over the world. So much for not mentioning the war, James.
Away from Top Gear, where every attempt May makes to explain some motorized marvel is shouted down by his co-hosts, here he has free reign to indulge his boyish, and frankly rather infectious, enthusiasm for all things mechanical, and he does so in a way that is intelligible without being patronising.
Although May concludes that the future will depend on virtual and digital rather than nuts and bolts, he remains ever hopeful of one day having a robot to get him another beer. Even I, a self-confessed robophobe, would not mind having an Asimo in my house to do my bidding; along with a Dalek to sort out burglars, hoodies, and chavas; and a WALL-E to sort out my rubbish. I’m sure they’ll all get along swimmingly.

For the record, I know that Daleks are not robots, but are in fact aliens inside a suit of armour, so don’t bother pointing that out.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

VW Camper USB Memory Stick

The Volkswagen Camper USB memory stick is easily the sweetest little thing I have ever seen in my life, and is one of those rare things: a novelty with a purpose. Smaller than the die-cast models, and more useful, too. It is also a cause for much amusement at the office or computer desk: not only do the wheels move, but the lights flash during the transfer of data. I was about to ask “who needs a computer for fun when you’ve got one of these?”, but really, you do need a computer to fully use and appreciate it.
It also looks quite smart sitting on a desk, much more attractive than your average memory stick. Even the packaging is unique: it comes in a clear box with a cardboard base that has a bird’s eye view of a beach, as though the VW is parked on the sands; it actually seems a shame to take it out of the box. It also comes with a USB extension lead in case of inconveniently placed sockets.
These die-cast models are officially VW licensed, and are available in red or green, in 256MB or 1GB. There are also VW Beetle versions in pink or blue They can be bought from websites such as play.com, totally-funky.co.uk, and lazyboneuk.com. Play.com has the best offer with a red 1GB camper van at £17.99, otherwise price-wise you are looking at around £20 or more.
My only tiny little niggles are that the USB plug sticks permanently out of the back, with a clear plastic cover that slips over it, instead of the plug sliding into the body of the van; and the back wheels seem to be disproportionably bigger than those on the front. As such, from the back it does not look quite so cute, but when its face is that adorable, who is going to look at the back?

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Tess of the D'Urbervilles

The BBC has given us another of their period costume dramas, almost institutions in themselves. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles is the latest to join the elite ranks of Pride and Prejudice and Bleak House.
However, Tess is not your average, cosy, costume drama that makes for light Sunday evening viewing. It tells the story of Tess Durbeyfield, a country girl whose ancestors are the noble family of D’Urberville. Sent out by her mother to claim the family heritage, Tess falls victim to her cousin Alec’s lust for her. Now a spoiled woman, Tess is unable to make her true feelings known to the man she loves, Angel Clare; until she learns that he too is not quite so innocent. What could possibly go wrong?
Gemma Arterton was ideally cast as the naive, proud, unfortunate Tess. Her large, sad eyes were the perfect outlet through which Tess’ emotions were conveyed. Gavin and Stacey’s Ruth Jones was something of a revelation as Tess’ mother, even though she had already shown her diversity as an actress in a particularly haunting episode of Torchwood. Hans Matheson as Alec D’Urberville was the right mix of menace and vulnerability, but Eddie Redmayne’s Angel Clare did not quite make it clear why the girls love him.
A solitary, sad violin provided the basis of the soundtrack, however a scene where Tess confronts Alec about Angel was spoiled by music that was too loud and too dramatic. It almost seemed to be harking back to the music of classic romance or action movies. In contrast, the traditional country tunes sung by Tess and the girls while dancing or working, were bright, cheerful songs amid a bevy of depression.
The scenery, although pleasant enough, had the misfortune to be upstaged by the views shown in Britain From Above, shown just before Tess began. Only Stonehenge, without a main road, barrier and tourists swarming around it, looked especially startling, and was arguably the star of the show - rather like This Is Spinal Tap, only without the hilarity. The fact that most of the focus was on the actors while a mist-shrouded Stonehenge made a silent backdrop of such subtlety for stones so large made the scene all the more eerie.
Shot under mostly grey or cloudy skies, this adaptation evokes the feel of the novel well, and is very faithful to the story. Given that almost the entire wardrobe was destroyed in a fire, everyone looks perfectly pretty or rightly ragged in their hurriedly thrown-together costumes; one would never know.
Told in four, one hour slots, the length is just right. Not too rushed, yet not so long as to keep the viewer wrapped in a cocoon of sadness to the same extent as our poor heroine. While not as engaging as other BBC adaptations - the notion that the BBC could churn such things out in their sleep seems to have been tried and tested with Tess - , it is nonetheless a moving tale of hypocrisy that shows while people may not change through history, thankfully, society, culture, and attitudes do.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Guitar Hero III - Legends of Rock - Wii

Admittedly, Guitar Hero III was not top of my list of ‘must have’ games. However on seeing it on special offer online, my female bargain hunting instincts kicked in. Sure, I had only heard of four songs, but it had to be a laugh, surely?
Perhaps a laugh is not the correct terminology. After an hour and a half my legs were aching, my arms and fingers were stiff, and the strap had rubbed against my neck so much I’m surprised my head is still on top of it. Yet had I not felt so uncomfortable I would have gladly played on for another hour.
Guitar Hero III, as well as being an excellent way to improve hand-eye co-ordination, is a hugely entertaining game. The controls are easy enough to pick up, it’s playing them in the right order that is the challenge. A guitar fret scrolls out of the screen towards you, and different coloured circles indicate the relevant buttons to be pressed while the strummer that represents the strings is simultaneously strummed.
Track listings on the internet had given a rather limited view of the surprisingly varying range of songs, artists and decades. The four songs I had heard of quickly increased to seven, while others may just have to be sought out on iTunes. From Heart to Alice Cooper, and Cream to The Killers, there was something to satisfy even my narrow-minded tastes in music. Ironically, one of the songs I had most been looking forward to, the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black”, proved to be one of the most difficult among the ‘easy’ level.
In ‘Career’ mode, pick your lead guitarist, name your band, and embark on a road to rock stardom. From beginning in a garage, to recording music videos, to the first gig in London; every new concert, every new contract, gives a sense of satisfaction.
The one moment I did not enjoy was a ‘battle’ against a rival guitar player, and after getting beat three times had to endure an encore featuring a song of such heavy metal, few words and few chord changes that was boring yet difficult. Talk about punishment. Personally, what would really make this game would be a version with ‘70s and ‘80s soft rock songs.
The Gibson guitar that comes with the game for the Wii is wireless, something of a blessing for those who would prefer not to trip on a cable and fall headfirst into the television while trying to rock. The amount of freedom, the evolution of the video controllers given to us by the Wii has made it very difficult now to use anything that has wires.
Finally, when my legs and fingers could take no more, and my eyes were telling me that the television was elevating itself, I knew it was time to quit for the day. After all that heavy metal, it was something of a relief to switch on Top Gear and hear the strains of Elgar accompanying the sight of James and Richard flying over Italy in a Cessna.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Mutual Friends

Suddenly, out of nowhere, there was something to watch at nine ‘o’ clock at night for three days running. A thing unheard of of late! Mondays saw The Children, Wednesdays Lost in Austen, and sandwiched between them on Tuesdays was Mutual Friends.
The latter follows a group of “friends” dealing with the death of one of their own, and the revelations that came with it. Lawyer Martin Grantham (Marc Warren), learns that his wife Jen has had an affair with the now deceased Carl, putting a strain between them and poor widower Leigh.
Meanwhile, Martin’s licentious friend Patrick Turner is sacked from his job as a photographer with a modelling business, and turns to Martin for legal help. Patrick’s ex-girlfriend is also dating Patrick’s ex-boss. Oh dear.
Leigh finds herself the object of infatuation from married family friend Dev, and also finds herself penniless from Carl’s squandering of money.
Martin faces trouble at work as he is not bringing in business, business that is not pro bono. He is also up against a younger, hot-shot lawyer keen to knock Martin from his pedestal.
Preview reviews gave the impression that all the characters began playing tricks on each other in an almost cartoonish way, yet this is not the case. There are some subtle and not so subtle expressions of anger, disgust and revenge; but when it really matters, the vast majority are there for each other and doing the right thing, most of the time.
While Mutual Friends is nothing new, and many of the directions taken in the story can be seen coming a mile off, it is still enough to keep a viewer watching. The characters are not the unpleasant, conniving people they were made out to be, although they are undoubtedly flawed; but who wants to watch a bunch of people behaving like saints?
Billed as a comedy, the humour occasionally seems flat, coarse, or over-reliant on swearing, but there are a few laugh out loud moments, usually with Martin as the butt of the joke. His attempts at teaching primary school children, and thinking that someone is about to commit harry-carry are just two of them. Keeley Hawes as Jen also had an amusing yet predictable line about a tiara that demanded to be said. Thankfully it was, and said well.
Alexander Armstrong was the stand-out in a cast of familiar faces as the immoral, selfish, single-minded Patrick; and his chemistry with Marc Warren as their characters go through a love-hate, hate-love relationship can surely be counted among the recent television series double-act successes.
Although not as slick or witty as some of the other BBC comedies or dramas, it nonetheless made for a diverting few hours of easy to watch, unchallenging, not to be taken seriously entertainment.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Apple Applications for iPod Touch and iPhone Part 2

Day by day, little by little, the list of applications for the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch keeps on growing. From games by EA (come on, where is The Sims app?!) to aids with musical instruments to wireless transfer of documents, there are at least twenty apps that will be used for pleasure, purpose, or pointlessness.
There are now flight simulators, news links, and even a compass - although, as the latter needs the sun to work, of course, here in Britain we’ll be able to use it every day without fail.
The game of SuperBall 2 is the most infuriating, fiendish, and most difficult of the lot; but it is so addictive and so simple that many battery hours have been spent trying to destroy lots of multicoloured blocks with a little white ball.
Taking inspiration from the Nintendo Wii game of Wii Sports, there is now a tennis app, and the players may look like two-tone tablets, but they are still rather sweet, and there are stranger body shapes on the tennis circuit. A three-hole game of golf is also available, in which the iPod is swung like a club to hit the ball…just, keep tight hold of it: there is no wrist strap for the iPod - yet.
For the football fans there is Real Football 2009, a game with higher graphics quality than a Nintendo DS game. Almost 200 teams can play against each other in 12 stadiums, although scoring can prove something of a challenge at first. It’s Pro Evo Soccer for the smallest of handhelds, and at £5.99 is cheaper than most games for the portables.
Stanza lets the user download hundreds of classic and modern literature, all for nothing! I can guarantee that a lot of browsing the catalogue will turn up some surprises, as well as the complete works of Dickens and Austen to name but two.
More photography applications have emerged that can be used on the Touch, although some of those confined to the iPhone could easily be altered to work on the camera-less Touch. Collage even allowed me to create a desktop for my computer with a selection of photographs, and although the resolution is not crystal, it’s not bad at all for something created on a 3.5 inch screen for a 17 inch screen.
iEnvision is an online library containing lots of pictures and artwork, from NASA photo of the day to manga and comic strips. An update now allows such work by the Masters like Da Vinci and Michelangelo to be saved to the iPod.
At last, someone has created a map of the London Underground to go on the iPod. At £6, however, it is rather steeply priced, although it does have some rather useful functions such as a journey planner, and pinpointing the nearest station to a variety of locations. Plus it does not require a magnifying glass to read like the tiny but free little paper tube maps do.
With Remote, one is able to control their iTunes library wirelessly from their iPod, for when a mouse simply won’t do. Costing absolutely nothing, however, it is nonetheless a clever little piece of kit.
More importantly, apps that are completely useless unless you live on the western side of the Atlantic are now starting to include the UK. Movies and tvGuide are now not just confined to our American cousins. As always, however, check the reviews and compatibility before you hit that magnetic little “Buy” button.

Monday, 29 September 2008

The Children

The Children is a three-part ITV drama that treats its viewers as though they have the memory capacity of a goldfish. It follows the events leading up to the killing of eight year old Emily Brookes, who within a few weeks, accumulates more enemies than Richard Nixon.
The Brookes family and the Miller family are families no more. Mr Cameron Miller is now the partner of Mrs Sue Brookes, while Mr Brookes has a new, young girlfriend and baby, and Mrs Anne Miller is free to pursue a man who works at the same shopping mall.
Fourteen year old Master Jack Miller gets himself thrown out of the house by Anne Miller, and winds up living with Cameron, Sue, and Emily. Still with me?
Emily, formerly a spoilt little brat, finds having a semi-step-brother a big inconvenience, particularly when he frightens her with false tales of paedophiles. However she turns the tables on him when she accuses him of being a paedophile.
Once again Jack is forced to leave his home, and Cameron goes with him, putting a strain on his relationship with Sue, who herself does not know what to make of Emily’s accusation, and rues the potential loss of what she had with Cameron. Anne, already scornful of Emily, likes her even less on learning Emily’s damning verdict on her son. Previously, Emily had also dropped her new baby step-sister, leading to less than familial harmony with her father’s girlfriend, and even her own father.
The scene is set for a whodunit that Hercule Poirot would give his moustache for a chance to crack. Yet, unlike ITV’s infamous sleuth series, The Children is a slow, long-winded master class in dreary storytelling. Kevin Whately, almost wasted as Cameron, would have been of better use trying to solve the case as another infamous ITV character than being a suspect in it.
The flash-forwards are numerous, repetitive, and (I never thought I would say this) more tedious than those in Lost; not to mention almost insulting, as though the viewer is too stupid to recall what they have seen ten times beforehand. And yes, we do know what the implications of the words ‘Cameron Miller in an empty classroom with a female co-worker’ are, we don’t need a moving picture drawn for us, thank you very much. I certainly felt stupid for sitting through three hours of this drudgery.
There are only so many times you can watch a child fall to her death before wishing you had let Sky+ do the work so that such scenes can be skipped over quickly. The sight of Emily’s doll flying rigidly through the air in slow motion time and time again was more humorous than harrowing, then downright dull. If they had cut back on the flash-forwards the whole thing would only have took an hour to tell.
BBC One’s new primetime show has been accused of having unlikeable characters. Trust me, the Mutual Friends look like The Waltons compared to that lot in The Children. By the end you can’t help but wish they had all fell and cracked their heads open within the first five minutes. Lesley Sharp as Anne was the only person I felt marginally less ill-inclined towards.
However the writers, actors and directors of The Children all want locking up for killing three of the British public’s Monday evenings.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Having read such negative reviews of Elizabeth: The Golden Age, I must have set my expectations so low that it seemed much better than it was given credit for.
In 1585, as suitor after suitor is passed casually over, Walter Raleigh arrives at court having discovered the New World, and christened it after the Virgin Queen. While he gets closer to Elizabeth, she is dealing with plots to assassinate her, plots spearheaded by Mary, Queen of Scots.
Tense relations between the Protestant English and Catholic Spanish crowns come to a head when Mary loses hers, and the Spanish Armada begins its assault on the English Channel. By then, Raleigh has lost all favour with the Queen by impregnating and marrying her favourite maid, but he is released from prison to lead the woefully outnumbered English fleet to victory.
That’s the wonderful thing about historical movies, reviewers do not have to worry about spoiling the ending. However I could be taking a liberty in referring to the sequel as historical, as the liberties it took with history make The Tudors look accurate.
While purists may well gloat at the sight of Elizabeth astride a white horse in full armour addressing her troops at Tilbury (for the record, she did address her troops at Tilbury while wearing a breastplate), it was nonetheless a moving and uplifting scene, if a tad Hollywood. There could be no doubt of the inspiration it gave to her soldiers.
In all honesty, the movie is driven by Cate Blanchett’s powerhouse performance. She is rage and fire, wit and humour, yet fearful and vulnerable. The torment she experienced on sending her cousin Mary to the block, and a deeply intimate, personal moment when she held her maid’s newborn baby were two of many highlights. Why she did not win one of her many Best Actress nominations for the role is a mystery.
Samantha Morton gives a subtle, short, yet intense showing as Mary, and although Clive Owen did his best as Raleigh, aside from his flowery recitations about life at sea, did not fully explain why Elizabeth took to him as she did.
The cinematography was gorgeous. Even Eilean Donan Castle looked more picturesque in the Scottish gloom than it did on this reviewer’s visit last year in similar weather conditions.
Yet it seems that all this lush scene setting slashed the budget for the battle of the Armada. Director Shekhar Kapur never quite shows the intensity and depth of the fight at sea that was, as the movie itself states, the most humiliating event in Spanish naval history. After almost an hour and a half of building up to it, the whole thing is over in five minutes. It looks good for the first minute, but if you want a decent sea battle, try Pirates of the Caribbean.
Grounded in history it is not. However, if like me, you are fed up of all the recent Spanish sporting victories, and Spanish banks coming to our financial rescue; The Golden Age does a rather good job both of reminding us of the great superpower that Britain once was to be able to win against the odds, and making us wonder just what the hell happened. It’s either this, or trying to catch a re-showing of Andy Murray beating Nadal at the US Open earlier this month.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

"The Tenth Case" by Joseph Teller

The Tenth Case is former criminal defence attorney Joseph Teller’s debut novel. Defence lawyer Harrison J. Walker, known as Jaywalker, is to face suspension from the bar following the use of inappropriate tactics to win a case, and receiving a certain favour in the courthouse stairwell from a satisfied client. However due to his exceptional acquittal record and large workload, he is allowed to finish ten of his cases before suspension.
While the first nine cases are dealt with comparatively smoothly, it is his tenth case that tests his capabilities, and threatens to undermine his record.
When elderly billionaire Barrington Tannenbaum is found dead in his Manhattan apartment, all the evidence points to his twenty-six year old wife, Samara Moss. A former prostitute, and portrayed by the tabloids as a gold-digger, Samara continually attests to her innocence. It is up to Jaywalker to convince the jury that this young, petite, pretty Cinderella is no killer.
It is a refreshing change for the lead character to be an experienced, mature man dealing with his own issues privately; rather than the cocky young rookie who appears in so many law court novels. Teller himself describes Jaywalker as his “alter ego”, and works places and situations from his career into the story. Samara remains something of a riddle throughout, at times one hardly knows what to make of her. Teller does a grand job of keeping things under wraps while revealing so much.
Despite the subject matter being what it is, there is still a healthy humour within the pages. From a New Yorker’s frustration with the pedestrian crossings to stereotypes within the law profession, there are moments guaranteed to raise more than a smile.
Although the book spans more than three years, it certainly does not take that long to read The Tenth Case, as it is a considerably fast page-turner. The complexities of the US legal system are explained as and when is needed, and in simple, un-patronising language to aid the reader’s comprehension of the trial; while the trial itself is presented almost in script form.
For a first novel, Teller has produced a thrilling, gripping courtroom drama that from the first page to the last simply does not allow the reader to put it down.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Lost in Austen

Given the numerous adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, can we really handle yet another? Yet Lost in Austen offers a completely different take on the classic novel. In 2008, Amanda Price, perhaps the biggest fan of P+P (who else would want that theme music from the 1995 version as their mobile phone ringtone?), is living a typical young woman’s life in Hammersmith: flat, boyfriend, and Elizabeth Bennett in her bathroom. Alright, maybe not quite so typical.
Amanda steps through the same portal that Elizabeth did to find herself in Longbourne, and promptly gets stuck there, with Elizabeth trapped in 2008. At first, all seems to go well. She is accepted as one of Lizzie’s friends, meets Mr Bingley, and even dances with Elliot Cowan’s Darcy on their first meeting, something not even Elizabeth could achieve.
Yet from there, it all goes awry. Despite Amanda’s best efforts, Bingley notices her more than Jane, and while he is still busy agonising over her rejection and working out his feelings for Jane, Jane has married the slimiest Mr Collins ever seen, played with slippery aplomb by Guy Henry.
From here on in, it seems that very few of the characters are as we know them. Be prepared for some revelations that, as Amanda puts it, would have “Jane Austen spinning in her grave”. Meanwhile, Darcy too has added himself to the growing list of Amanda’s admirers, despite her comparative coarseness and lack of accomplishments. Although she is flattered - and let’s face it, who wouldn’t be? - she is adamant that he should meet Elizabeth, but she is still stuck in Amanda’s world.
Many twists and turns later, Amanda finds herself back in her Hammersmith, and Darcy follows her. There was something startling and yet wonderfully artistic on seeing Darcy in all his Georgian finery, standing in the main street of Hammersmith, looking at his surroundings in awe, disgust, and yet with his usual gentlemanly composure.
They find Elizabeth, who is fitting in with her new surroundings much more seamlessly than Amanda did in Elizabeth’s world. She returns to Longbourne with them, but who will return to Netherfield with Darcy?
Lost in Austen is pure escapism. Jemima Rooper as Amanda gets the line between doing the right thing and being swept away by every woman’s fantasy man just right. Hugh Bonneville and Alex Kingston play off each other well as Mr and Mrs Bennett, yet sadly we do not see enough of Gemma Arterton as Elizabeth. Tom Mison takes Bingley down an unfamiliar road of depression and self-destruction, and although it is not a pretty sight, Mison handles it well.
There are also some genuinely humorous moments, from Amanda’s voice over thoughts, to her entertaining the Bingley’s with Petula Clark’s “Downtown”; but by far the most amusing scene involves Mr Darcy and a lake at Netherfield.
Austen purists will undoubtedly be affronted by the erratic plot, yet it is interesting to explore how the characters would act in situations and developments that are as alien to us as to them. All in all, Lost in Austen is an entertaining, refreshing version of a book so popular it is in danger of being done to death. It does not take itself seriously, and it not meant to be; rather it is just light-hearted fun. Try finding something better to watch at nine ‘o’ clock on a Wednesday.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Murray beats Nadal 6-2, 7-6, 4-6, 6-4

Christmas came early for me this year, although it does not normally come with feelings of nausea four days beforehand. At one ‘o’ clock in the morning on Thursday 4th September, I put teletext on to get the news I wanted to hear: Andy Murray had - finally - beat Juan Martin Del Potro in the quarter finals of the US Open in an epic five-setter. Now able to relax, I went to sleep, and awoke the next morning to find that Murray was to play Rafael Nadal in the semis.
On paper, it did not look good. Nadal held a 5-0 record against the Scot, and, aside from a defeat by Novak Djokovic at the Cincinnati Masters, was on a winning streak. However, Andy had just ended Del Potro’s winning streak. Could he finally break the run of Spanish wins, not just in tennis but in other sports? It felt right, the time felt good for him to do so. The overwhelming, gut-wrenching feeling inside me was that it was Andy’s turn; yet there was still that tiny little voice that said: “but what if he doesn’t?”.
Thinking the semis would be on the Friday, like normal Grand Slams, I got through Thursday, yet felt as though I was sitting around waiting for the match to begin. However, due to television executives in the US, the semis are held on Saturday, with the final on Sunday; and, for some strange reason, Roger Federer’s match against Djokovic was to be the first semi played, although Murray and Nadal, being in the top half of the draw, should have been on first.
On Saturday morning, I woke up from a wonderful and yet cruel dream. I had dreamed that Andy was two sets up against Nadal, but the latter fought back and won the third set, but never saw the end of the match. Waking up and realising it was just a dream was the most painful experience of my life. My household upgraded to Sky Sports that day so we could watch the match, and although I avoid Nadal’s matches like the plague, and today was to be no different, on seeing how positively Andy started, I had to stay and see what happened.
Just like in January and August when I dreamed that Andy lost in the first round of the Australian Open and the Olympics, my dream came true. I was not at all surprised when Andy took the first two sets, and not just because of the dream. Nadal was not playing at his best, but Andy was simply astounding. He dominated the points and rallies, was aggressive, came to the net, and served exceptionally.
He broke Nadal twice to take the first set 6-2, and in the second set tiebreak had the upper hand, but Nadal soon caught up. There was a terrifying moment at 5-5 when a Nadal return of the Murray second serve clipped the net, but mercifully fell into the Spaniard’s half.
Again, just like in my dream, Nadal began strongly in the third set, breaking Andy’s opening service game, and at 3-1, I learned why I never saw the end of the match in my dream: Tropical Storm Hanna arrived. The match was called off until Sunday, and the final postponed until Monday; Federer having beat Djokovic in four sets.
Although I was relieved that Nadal’s momentum had been taken away, the next twenty four hours were the longest of my life. Could Andy come out as well as he did on the Saturday, or would Nadal take the upper hand? All Andy had to do was win one set, something he was more than capable of doing. I only had four hours sleep that night, and thankfully had no more dreams about the match.
I needn’t have worried. I never have worried for Andy, not even when he was two sets and a break down against Gasquet at Wimbledon I was convinced he was going to win the match; but this was Nadal, the one player who I would love to see Andy beat more than anything.
Yet no sooner had Hanna passed by than Hurricane Andy once again arrived and caused more damage. Although he went a break down in the fourth set, his refusal to lie down enabled him to break back against the now rejuvenated Nadal. If Andy’s play had been impressive on Saturday, it was even more so on the Sunday.
At 5-4, Andy set about once again breaking Nadal’s serve, something he had done so well. Aided by the net to go 0-15 up, the rest was all Andy’s doing. Perhaps the most jaw-dropping sight of the match after the supremely high quality of the Scot’s tennis, was the sight of Nadal bent double trying to get his breath back after a long rally that gave Andy match point.
A drop-shot from Nadal was only too easily chased down by Andy, who tapped a backhand passing shot past the now helpless, now defeated Spaniard. Andy has never been one to celebrate a win by jumping up and down while pumping his fists, and today was no exception. A slight clenching of the fists and a brief closing of the eyes made for a calm and dignified acknowledgement of his stunning achievement, while his expression said just how much it meant to him.
Yet he seemed even more awed to meet Will Ferrell outside the locker rooms than by his win. Incidentally, I had been watching Will Ferrell in The Producers before turning over for the match. Further proof that the result was meant to be.
Finally, after four days of agony, I could get back to the fundamentals like eating, drinking and sleeping; although that Sunday night I lay in bed until four in the morning either grinning like Jack Nicholson in Batman, or laughing in silent hysterics as if I had just seen Stonehenge in This Is Spinal Tap. What I really wanted to do at that time, however, was imitate Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady in that scene where she could have danced all night.
For me, Andy had to beat Nadal. I knew even before their first meeting at the Australian Open two years ago that Andy had the game and the skill to win. It had to be proven that it takes more than power to win a tennis match, and Andy had to be the one to give that lesson. It may have been a long time coming, but it was worth the wait. I had joked to myself that Andy was waiting for something special to beat Nadal, but special doesn’t cover it. Put simply, there are not enough words in the English language to describe what happened that weekend at Flushing Meadows. Whatever it was, I will treasure those memories forever.
Of course, now that Andy had made my dream come true, I had to go and thank him personally for it. So, not two weeks later, my mother and I were fortunate enough to get to the practice court of Wimbledon’s Court 19 during the Davis Cup tie against Austria just before Andy arrived. While he signed my programme I thanked him, but as there were ten people trying to talk at him he may not have heard.
So, just in case you didn’t hear it the first time:
THANK YOU, ANDY!!!!!!!!!!

Friday, 8 August 2008

The X-Files: I Want To Believe

I believe I wanted to like this movie, I truly did. Catching glimpses of the two main stars and creator/director Chris Carter at the London premiere two days beforehand added to the excitement, alas it turned out to be the most exciting and interesting thing related to the movie.
It starts promisingly enough. A female FBI agent is attacked in her house, and she fights back with a clawed utensil, leaving deep, distinctive cuts on her attacker’s face and hand, yet she disappears. We then see a team of FBI agents being lead across the snow, where they discover a severed arm with deep cuts in the hand.
The team is lead there by Father Joe, a paedophilic priest who claims to have visions relating to the woman’s disappearance. However, as the entire FBI is now sceptical about visions, they ask Scully to bring in Mulder to help with the case. Scully, now a full time doctor, is reluctant to get involved, as is the now reclusive Mulder, complete with obligatory hermit-like beard; yet while he finally gives in and goes back to the “darkness”, Scully adamantly keeps out of it.
While the movie is predominantly a dark and occasionally gruesome affair, there are some amusing moments, particularly a cheeky little joke about George Bush Junior.
Billy Connelly is decidedly creepy as the disgraced Father Joe, and his altercations with Gillian Anderson’s Scully are, performance-wise, the best scenes in the film. While the priest’s motives are mysterious, it does not stop his vague yet conveniently timed visions becoming strained and monotonous.
The movie also touches on controversial issues, such as stem cell research, and, through Father Joe and another priest hell-bent on making Scully’s job difficult; the Catholics come off less favourably than the Russian villain, played by Callum Keith Rennie.
There is a lot of character revelation and development in the movie, although surely there has been enough time to do that over nine series. Yet Anderson and David Duchovny slip so easily back into their most famous roles it is as if they had never stopped. Their performances were let down by a slow and unoriginal plot, and Carter’s direction seemed more made-for-TV than Hollywood material
While the extra-terrestrial theme in the latest Indiana Jones movie seemed out of place there, it would have been more than welcome in the X-Files. If you’re really desperate for a supernatural story with little green men, go for Indy.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

"First Daughter" by Eric Van Lustbader

Having been deprived of my annual fix of Jack Bauer chasing terrorists and fighting to stay alive against a backdrop of political and religious turmoil due to the Hollywood writers’ strike, Eric Van Lustbader’s latest novel, First Daughter, filled the void left by the absence of series seven of 24.
Edward Carson is about to be inaugurated as President of the United States, but only a month beforehand, his nineteen year old daughter is kidnapped. Carson seeks the aid of his old friend, Jack McClure, to find Alli; along with numerous other Secret Service and Cabinet departments.
McClure himself is struggling to cope with the death of his own daughter, Emma, and the subsequent separation from his wife. He also faces hostility and deprecation over his dyslexia from the head of the recovery operation, Hugh Garner. Despite his disability, it allows McClure to see the world and to see problems in different ways, and enables him to solve them remarkably quickly.
The story is tightly plotted, it twists and turns more frequently and more sharply than the River Thames, and there are cliffhangers aplenty. McClure’s past and present are woven skilfully together against events that reference and mirror those of the past eight years regarding American foreign policy and homeland security. If the character of the outgoing president is not a reflection of Bush Jnr I will devour the book again, literally.
As to the other characters, their development is every bit as crucial as the gripping story they inhabit. Their strengths, weaknesses and personas are brought out to air, giving the reader a well-rounded and detailed impression of them all.
Lustbader questions the place of religion within politics, and within society. A scene where the priest comforts Sharon McClure at the funeral of her only daughter by telling her that Emma’s death is part of God’s plan, was just one of many instances which exposed the futile and shallow reasons why God is almost lackadaisically blamed for or credited with everything from the death of a child to starting a war.
Parallels between 24 and the movie of Along Came A Spider aside, First Daughter is an exhilarating political thriller that cannot be put down until it has been read cover to cover. Not only will the pages be turned as quickly as the plot thickens, but perhaps even some sympathy for the first daughter may be aroused.
First Daughter also exemplifies why Eric Van Lustbader has taken over from Robert Ludlum at the helm of the Bourne series of novels. Although normally I am sceptical about authors writing as dead authors, this time I am going to have to make an exception.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Batman: The Dark Knight

I will admit right now: if I had been in charge of casting The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger would not have made my top one hundred shortlist for The Joker. I will also admit that would have been wrong, and that I seriously underestimated his acting talent. In the new Batman movie, no one could accuse him of being cast simply because of his pretty features and little else.
As well as some deliberately bad jokes, lots of subtle threatening and not so subtle shooting; his cruel yet sadistically comic performance did bring some humorous moments to an otherwise dark and frightening film. His ‘I want one of those’ expression on first seeing the Batmobile was both amusing, and mirrored by everyone else in the Odeon at Leicester Square.
The Joker is carrying out a series of bank robberies, and Batman is trying to foil him, along with the new District Attorney - a spot on performance by Aaron Eckhart - and Lieutenant James Gordon.
Yet with so much publicity given to the untimely death of Ledger, the other baddie was overlooked entirely. The special effects on Two-Face were awesome, although young children will wake up screaming for a month should they see it. Don’t be fooled by the 12A rating: The Dark Knight makes the first Spiderman movie look like The Incredibles.
To be honest I felt more sorry for Two-Face than The Joker, possibly because we see his allegiance switch to the dark side after a personal tragedy and an accident that leaves him horribly disfigured. The man he was, and the man he could have been, only emphasises the stark and sad contrast to what he becomes.
As for Batman, the line between his status as a hero or a vigilante becomes ever more blurred. It veers substantially towards the latter when Wayne installs software that allows him to listen in on phone conversations. Whenever Christian Bale spoke in the throaty, raspy voice he gives Batman, I felt as though my own throat was about to revert back to the pain it had plagued me with over the previous two days. Just stop talking and hit some bad guys.
Although Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman gave strong supporting acts, the only thing that was miscast was Gotham City. I’ve never been to Chicago, but even I could tell it was The Windy City; possibly to give Batman some warm air currents to glide on. Compared to the previous Gothams it seemed too light and untroubled.
Brothers Jonathan and Christopher Nolan turn what seems like a simple story of stopping the bad guy into a two and a half hour blockbuster. Although some scenes feel overlong or would not be missed, there are some impressive scene-setting shots; and a thrilling night-time chase through Gotham’s streets and tunnels is one of the action highlights.
Although the fantastical technology is not as advanced as that depicted in Iron Man, Bruce Wayne’s Lamborghini leaves Tony Stark’s Audi in the shade. There is sure to be a battle between the superhero movies of 2008, and it is going to be very close between them.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Mario Kart Wii

Is it not marvellous that video games can fulfil one’s fantasies, no matter how ludicrous they are? Mario Kart Wii fulfils fantasies that I did not even know I had until I found them. While playing, I realised that I had always wanted to drive a car along a river, over a waterfall and through a water-slide.
Mario Kart also lets you do things that you could never do on a proper road, yet wish you could. Slow driver in front? Knock them out of the way. Is there a car right up your backside? Strike them with lightning. Irritating person jockeying for position alongside you? Turn yourself into a rocket and fly ahead without even trying.
Of course, your rivals can do exactly the same to you. There’s nothing more frustrating than hearing a siren just as you enter the final straight and knowing you are going to be hit while Bowser streaks past to the finish line…other than accidentally driving your car off the track into a river of lava or gathering of buildings. Poor Yoshi has been killed more times than Kenny.
The tracks vary greatly in style and difficulty, and as such it is rather challenging to do so well on a circuit of four different tracks that in reward another circuit is unlocked. I still haven’t found the Shroom Ridge-like track that I enjoy so much on the DS version. Tearing along a mountain road with no barriers while sneaking between cars, lorries and buses is something I have always wanted to do, and I would like to do it on a screen that is bigger than the DS. Also, who hasn't wanted to race through a shopping mall like a group of children let loose in the Metro Centre in their little pedal cars?
There are, however, some tracks I am not fond of. Bowser’s Castle, for instance, is full of sharp, ninety-degree turns rather than the smooth curves of the other tracks; and the snow covered one seemed undoable at first.
Another feature that is rather charming is the Wii Wheel that comes with the game. Back in the old days, whenever I played a racing or driving game on the Playstation 1, I used to turn the controls, which did not help a jot. Now, though, it does! Turning a wheel in the appropriate direction is so much more natural than pressing a button, and so much more satisfying as you can pretend you’re The Stig and hold a car perfectly as it drifts smoothly around corners - sometimes.
Character-wise, the usual suspects are there: Waluigi, Wario, and Toad. Baby Mario and Baby Peach are very cute, but their voices are so high that only a dog could hear them, and so annoying that should you have a dog, it will probably hate you for playing as the toddlers. Miis can also be brought into the action, but sadly, that is another joy I have yet to unlock.
The Wi-Fi connection means that players from around the world can be challenged, or simply have a race with a friend. I was rather pleased to come fourth in my first global race.
Mario Kart Wii is full of action, excitement, speed, humour, frustration, reward, and whimsy. All of these things combine to make the most entertaining racing game in the world. While playing it, my hands have not gotten so sweaty since I watched the Murray v Gasquet fourth round match at Wimbledon last month.

Burn Up - Part 1

Burn Up is an entertaining, yet thought-provoking two-part drama exploring the corruption and hypocrisy of the oil industry, rather like The Sopranos did for the Mafia, and Mad Men for the tobacco industry. This cross-Atlantic collaboration sees Rupert Penry Jones as Tom McConnell, the almost unbelievably principled head of Arrow Oil Company; who finds himself the target of demonstrations by a Canadian Inuit whose land is being destroyed by an Arrow-owned oil field.
As her protests escalate in extremity, he is forced to concede that the evidence of global warming caused by oil is irrefutable. McConnell and Arrow’s green advisor, Holly (Neve Campbell), travel to Canada to see it for themselves; although it seemed more an excuse to have the impossibly good-looking pair shut up in a cabin on the ice miles away from anywhere with only a log fire to keep them warm - and predictably, they found another way to keep snug.
Another impossibly good-looking character is the droll, sarcastic, terrier-like environment minister to the Prime Minister, Philip Crowley, played by Marc Warren. On learning that his Chiswick home could be underwater in as little as five years time, like a small dog he digs his teeth into trying to persuade America to sign up to the Kyoto Treaty; as well as trying to link the murder of six researchers on an oil field in Saudi Arabia - the seventh of which escaped and fled to Britain, seeking out McConnell’s now retired predecessor at Arrow. He also has the best and most amusing lines in the entire programme, mainly because they are all so relevant and true to today’s climate.
Faced with the evidence born of science and experience, McConnell tries to persuade Arrow to invest in renewable energy, but comes up against a wall of hostility from the board members. The thought that a company raking in billions of profit an hour and yet cannot spare £2billion towards renewable energy is frightening, absurd, and yet probably true in reality.
I had expected to dislike Penry Jones’ character, imagining him to be an arrogant oil tycoon with £ signs for eyes, but far from it. When his young daughter had an asthma attack at a party for his work colleagues he would have been far happier to sit with her after the initial panic than go back to the party, even though she was sound asleep in bed; however his ambitious, power-hungry wife persuaded him to rejoin the soiree and get the dancing started. He cried while watching a DVD recorded for him by the Inuit girl, Mika, a subtle yet impassioned performance by Sandrine Holt.
The Americans are portrayed as singular, selfish, conniving men who have spent too long under the power of the black gold; but then, aside from McConnell, so are the English members of the Arrow board. As well as the green argument, the benefits of oil are extolled, but not to such an extent, and are only there to shed light on the selfishness of humanity for caring more about petrol and cheap flights to New York than the fate of the Earth.
Having watched both this and WALL-E in one day, it was only too easy to wonder with grim foreboding just what the future will bring for human beings. All of the children watching WALL-E in 2008 will be the ones who will have to deal with the issues explored in Burn Up forty years down the line.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

WALL-E

A dirty, rusty little robot trundles along a dusty path. Gathering a small pile of rubbish into his stomach cavity, he squeezes himself together to compact it into a neat square brick, and places it on top of one of many skyscrapers built entirely of these bricks. He does this task over and over again, day after day, year after year; and without a word of complaint yet with quiet dedication. At the end of the day he goes home, hangs up his tyre treads, watches Michael Crawford and Barbra Streisand in Hello, Dolly!, and takes care of his only friend: a cockroach.
This is WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter - Earth Class), the last robot on Earth. Due to over-pollution the planet has become inhabitable, and all the humans now reside in a giant space-ship that is nothing less than a luxury resort governed by the McDonald’s of the future: Buy N Large.
Yet WALL-E continues to do his job, until one day a space ship lands on Earth and deposits a modern, sleek, gleaming new robot called EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), who begins scanning the ground. WALL-E is instantly smitten, although introductions are postponed a little while as she attempts to commit robocide on him with her fire-arm.
He takes her to his place to show her some of the items he has hoarded, among them a small plant tendril. On learning what it is she takes it and stores it in her chest cavity, goes into standby and sends a signal, and the space ship finally comes back to collect her, for she has found evidence that the Earth is once again habitable. WALL-E, although bemused by her shutting down, takes care of her, and hitches a ride on the ship that threatened to take her from him.
When they arrive on the resort, the ship’s captain faces mutiny by his auto-pilot (one of many homages to 2001: A Space Odyssey), and he, WALL-E and EVE have to fight to take the ship back to Earth.
While the environmental message is clear, it is not overwhelming, and does make a valid point. I soon felt guilty for getting a medium popcorn and Pepsi before the movie. All of the humans on board the resort ship are obese, and American. Everything is done for them, they do not even have to walk. They are so cocooned in their world of fast food and television diets that they do not even notice that there is a lido on board, and most of them sit beside it every day.
Who would think that a pair of binoculars on wheels could arouse such affection? WALL-E does. His eyes are cuter than those of Puss in Boots, his character more innocent than Babe, and his reactions to strange things more adorable than E.T.. His childlike playfulness and inquisitive nature shine through in his collection of various human memorabilia, and when he shows EVE the joys of bubble wrap and dances for her to “Put On Your Sunday Clothes”.
Initially EVE seems a no-nonsense, all work and no play kind of robot, but no sooner has her space ship left Earth than she abandons her task and soars freely and elegantly through the air, throwing off the manacles of the strict, strait-laced, severe regime that she was built to serve. Elissa Knight gives EVE the widest range of emotions ever seen in a robot simply with her voice.
There are plenty references to sci-fi movies to keep the fans and adults amused - such as Sigourney Weaver providing the voice of the space resort computer -, and the quality of the animation is exceptional. WALL-E’s journey through space simply has to be seen on the big screen.
However, endearing as WALL-E is, some of the youngest viewers, unless they are particularly precocious, may find the movie a tad boring, especially considering the amount of action and humour they have been inundated with in movies such as Shrek, Cars and Finding Nemo.
Yet it is guaranteed to be far more satisfying and involved than the upcoming High School Musical 33 - sorry, 3 -, the trailer of which preceded the main picture, and all it did was to make me understand why guns are and should remain legal in America.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Mamma Mia!

If I was to live in a musical, it would without a doubt be Mamma Mia!. A place where there are no Top 40 chart songs, no mobile phones, where a swimming costume is an undergarment; and where one can dance along a pier while waving a feather boa and singing Abba songs before jumping into a clear, turquoise sea without feeling like a moron.
Twenty year old Sophie Sheridan (Amanda Seyfried) is about to be married, and wants her father to walk her down the aisle. However she has no idea who her father is, although she managed to narrow it down to three potential candidates after reading her mother Donna’s (Meryl Streep) diary that she kept during a summer of rather enthusiastic promiscuity.
Unknown to Donna, Sophie invites the three to her wedding. Harry Bright (Colin Firth), Sam Carmichael (Pierce Brosnan) and Bill Anderson (Stellan Skarsgard) arrive on the Greek island where twenty years ago they all shared happy memories of Donna, and unaware that Sophie may be their daughter.
For all it is Sophie’s wedding, it is Donna’s relationships with her three summer sweethearts that is by far the more emotionally involved, perhaps due to the experience and calibre of the more mature cast. Sophie’s fiancée Sky, played by Dominic Cooper, seems more in love with himself than his bride-to-be, and looks and sings like a member of a boy band, and that was not meant as a compliment.
While the younger cast members have voices as polished and honed as the pop industry can produce, the elder thespians are not best known for their singing voices, but they try their best, bless them. I certainly wouldn’t mind Mr Darcy serenading me while playing guitar as we float idly in the Aegean seas in a nice sailing boat.
Brosnan sounds like a tone-deaf Joe Cocker, while Skarsgard seems to be talking rather than singing. None of that matters, however, as it is more rewarding to hear an untrained, unused, raw singing voice attempting songs far beyond their range, and they all fool around and have a ball while doing so.
Streep had by far the most impressive vocals. She carried the often challenging tunes wonderfully with her ethereal, clear voice made haggard by the demands of running a hotel that makes Fawlty Towers look like the Ritz. For all the light-heartedness of the musical, her acting still brought a tear to my eye, specifically in a moment after “Slipping Through My Fingers“. Her rendition of “The Winner Takes It All” is the most haunting ever heard.
Julie Walters and Christine Baranski as Donna’s backing singers of their former band The Dynamos, added the most comic relief as women of a certain age who still liked to have fun. Walters’ advances on Bill while warbling through “Take A Chance On Me“, and Baranski’s rejection of a horny teenager to “Does Your Mother Know” were easily the most humorous set pieces in the entire movie.
Initially it is cringe worthy and frankly rather weird to see Streep, Seyfried and Cooper spontaneously burst into an Abba song, but the energy and exuberance they bring to them is infectious. The music itself fits in with whatever it is set too, whether it be Brosnan getting in a cab in New York, or the camera panning up a small, hilly peninsula on top of which is set a small church. After this movie, which was filmed on the Greek islands of Skiathos and Skopelos, Sky will definitely get his wish of seeing more tourists come to the island.
Sondheim it ain’t, but Mamma Mia! is fun, funny, feel-good movie, and worth the entry fee alone to see James Bond and Fitzwilliam Darcy singing famously camp songs. While nowadays Abba songs are deemed as guilty pleasures, for the duration of the film, they are simply pleasures.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Apple Applications for iPod Touch and iPhone

What will they think of next? The iPod Touch was already impressive enough simply as a music and video player, photo viewer, web browser, weather station, organiser and jotter. Now, thanks to the launch of its Application Store through iTunes, my iPod is also a library, games console, torch, lightsaber, cyber-pet, and…wait for it…a piano.
For all its sheer brilliance there will still be the routine quibble about pricing, although there are some free applications available. While some games and reference apps can be pricey, 59p each for a classic novel by Dickens or Austen is undoubtedly a bargain. Whether or not one can work their way through Bleak House on an iTouch screen remains to be seen.
Games range from something as simple as Pong to Sega’s Super Monkey Ball, and the latter only costs £6. There is something among the growing list of games for everyone, from Etch-A-Sketch for the kids to Blackjack for the adults. Of course there is the obligatory Sudoku in there somewhere.
The iGotchi is, as you may have guessed, an update of the original Tamagotchi. In place of a kitten or baby dinosaur there is a little ball of fluff on legs, which giggles whenever it is petted, eats from a table, dances and plays with a football. While one can only watch a fluffy ball for so long, after a while it is shame that it only exists behind the screen, as it looks so soft it should be able to be touched.
There are also useful applications such as the currency converter, language translator, tip calculator, and even the free British Airways Flight Information.
Then comes the really serious stuff like iPint, a free and refillable pint of Carling. The catch: it’s a virtual drink.
While you’re not going to be able to perform Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on the Pianist application, the novelty of having a piano in your pocket is every bit as grand as having a lightsaber alongside it.
However, before all this fun and games can commence, iPod software version 2.0 has to be downloaded at a price of £5.99. Also some applications only work on the iPhone, so be sure to check before clicking the buy button, and trust me, you will be doing a lot of that once you have seen what is on offer.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Wimbledon fourth round: Murray v Gasquet

Should Centre Court ever need another new roof, they can dispense with hiring contractors to lift the old one off, and just hope that Andy Murray plays a match of the calibre he did last night against the Frenchman Richard Gasquet: the crowd will soon have the roof raised.
Finally, after three matches at Wimbledon, Andy Murray had Centre Court enraptured. He came from two sets down to beat Gasquet, the 8th seed, and set up a quarter-final match with the number two seed, Rafael Nadal.
In a reasonable first set Murray fought hard, but could not break Gasquet’s serve. At 6-5 Murray faced break and set points. Gasquet attempted a drop-shot, and Murray seemed to stand still before realising where he was and what the score was, and raced over to scoop it up and save the point, drawing the kind of gasps from the crowd that had previously been reserved for Henman. He could not keep it up, however, and Gasquet took the first set 7-5.
After that, and a lacklustre second set during which McEnroe’s frustration with the Murray drop-shot on big points became evident to everyone, Murray looked down and out, losing the second set 6-3. He looked tired, even startled that he was going to be dispatched in such an untimely and undignified manner.
He had no answer to Gasquet’s tactics, and the Frenchman simply did not allow him to play his best tennis. He was broken in the third set, and Gasquet continued his emphatic lead - until he came to serve for the match at 5-4. He became nervous, and Murray found himself with three break points. Five all.
Murray held, but so did Gasquet. Tiebreak time. Murray quickly won the first point, and soon took it 7-3 with a spectacular passing shot that he hit from away beyond the tramlines at such an angle that mathematicians will have to rewrite Pythagoras.
In fact, he was so far out wide that he almost ended up celebrating from within the now jubilant crowd, and celebrate they did. Well done to the BBC cameraman who got that fantastic shot of Murray roaring his delight against a backdrop of standing bodies, raised arms, and ecstatic, disbelieving faces with mouths open almost as wide as Murray’s; who, at that point, looked like a python about to devour an elephant.
From here on in Murray dictated the match, running away with the fourth set 6-2. Suddenly Gasquet was the one who looked tired; taken aback by Murray’s newfound energy, and overwhelmed by both his tennis and the rejuvenated crowd. Even the Aussie fans, distinctive in their yellow t-shirts, who had been decidedly under whelmed by Hewitt’s straight sets defeat to Federer earlier that day, stayed put to support Murray, and he gave them something to cheer about.
A frustrated Gasquet took an extended toilet break at the end of the fourth set, and complained about the noise of the crowd (er, you’re playing a Brit at Wimbledon in the fourth round, what did you expect?) and the diminishing light. Play went on, however. Murray broke and held to go 2-0 up, despite Gasquet’s best efforts. Murray had chances to break to make it 5-2, but Gasquet held on by the skin of his teeth.
Murray came out to serve for the match at 5-4 at around 9.30pm in near-darkness, and where Gasquet had failed, Murray succeeded. After almost four hours, the first two of which did not bode well, Murray made it to his first Grand Slam quarter-final, beating a player against which he has never won before. Let us pray that he can continue this trend on Wednesday against Nadal. Surely there’s room for another shock exit.
It was the most nerve-shredding, sweat-inducing, exhilarating match of the tournament; but those on Centre Court, (sorry, Tim) Murray Mount, and the rest of the nation who had come out from behind the sofa to perch on the edges of armchairs like myself thought it was worth it. Some of those on Murray Mount had left near the end of the third set: they’ll be kicking themselves now.
After his astonishing victory Murray even managed to smile, and well he might. He also rolled up his right shirt sleeve and clenched his fist to show off his now rather impressive bicep. With that action he announced his level of fitness and (although he denies it) seemed to send a gesture of defiance toward his next opponent, also famed for his biceps.
Murray was sure to have a good sleep last night. After such a physical match accompanied by very enthusiastic celebrations which even his former critics found impossible not to respond to; in his post-match interview he was as calm and collected as he has been for the duration of the tournament. That is more than can be said for those who watched the match. Paradoxically it was almost unbelievable that he had won; yet at the same time, we never quite believed that he would lose.

Amy Winehouse - Glastonbury 2008

What had seemed unthinkable a month ago has happened: Amy Winehouse managed to turn up and perform at two separate functions.
Earlier in the week she serenaded Nelson Mandela at his 90th Birthday Concert, and last night I caught her set at Glastonbury. Although she had four cocktail umbrellas in her hair she couldn’t have been drunk: her beehive looked so top-heavy that in those four-inch heels she would have been flat on her face quicker than a punter diving into a formerly unspoiled pool of Glastonbury mud.
Another factor that repudiated any chance of her being tipsy was that she remembered the names of her accompanying jazz band, backing singers and dancers; and gave each of them a chance to show off their formidable talent and range.
She also remembered the words to the songs, sometimes throwing in the occasional ad-lib. In an hour’s performance she got through twelve songs; including well-known crowd-pleasers like “Back To Black” and “You Know I’m No Good”, and lesser-known works like “Cupid” and “Hey Little Rich Girl”
Given recent events in Amy’s life there was something almost heroic about her diminutive frame tottering and dancing about the stage; belting out her songs in her wonderfully soulful, sultry, powerful voice while making it look effortless; adjusting and cracking jokes about her tiny, blue-sequinned dress; and yes, having the occasional little drink.
The crowd was jubilant when she got down from the stage and performed “Me and Mr Jones” within touching distance of the front row; indeed she even clasped hands with a few people. Amusingly, the security guards had trouble keeping up with her at times as she skipped along in front of the ranks of fans, who were delighted to be so close to her.
At the final note of “Rehab” she cast a cheeky, almost defiant smile at the camera, and Glastonbury erupted. Hopefully the success of her routines over the past week will encourage her to do more. Her husband is due to be released from prison in two weeks, so she informed the crowd. Whether that will help or hinder her remains to be seen.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Doctor Who - Series 4 Episode 12 - "The Stolen Earth"

He did it again. Russell T. Davies has again extended the boundaries of most infuriating cliffhangers.
The Stolen Earth saw the welcome return of the large, retro pepper pots, as well as another old enemy of The Doctor. This time the Daleks have stolen twenty seven planets, including Earth, with the intent of destroying them. To combat them, The Doctor must join forces with friends old and new, leading to many new acquaintances and one very jealous blonde unable to contact him.
The acting from the whole cast was top notch, bringing a whole new level of emotion to the series. The reactions of Captain Jack and Sarah Jane Smith when they first heard the terrible Dalek war cry brought tears to my eyes. The Doctor on the other hand seemed not to hear his friends’ warning about the return of his old enemies, he was far too happy to see the former alive. One quick video call soon changed that.
It is only appropriate that Rose should be the first to find The Doctor in person. Thankfully their reunion was saved from being a slow-motion run towards each other, with arms outstretched, through the meadow to the theme tune from Chariots of Fire by something lurking in the shadows.
I will not go into too much detail, only to say that the entire episode had me perched further on the edge of my seat than the Haas v Murray third round match at Wimbledon did only an hour beforehand. As for the cliffhanger, it is easily the most cruel in the history of television.
The shots of outer space are easily the most beautiful outside the Hubble telescope. There is also something wonderful about the Daleks. Their graceful movement, their efficiency, and their inability to die. Having lots of Daleks on set clearly brings out the best in the whole production team, from the camera angles to the lighting, everything is perfect to show the Daleks at their fearful best.
Davies is certainly keen to go out with a bang. From what we have seen this week the meeting of Rose Tyler and Martha Jones will surely match the fireworks that will explode in next week’s series finale.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Wimbledon second round: Eaton v Tursunov

Who would ever guess that the All England Lawn Tennis Club was so multi-functional? Not only is great tennis played there, it has also been the venue for an impromptu Cliff Richard concert, on Tuesday we were treated to the magic act of Santoro v Murray; and now it has played host to a pantomime set during the Cold War, only this time, the Russians won.
Six months ago, a British tennis player named Chris Eaton, ranked in the low 600s, began a journey in my home city which would take him all the way to Wimbledon. SR3 to SW19: talk about a good career move. After despatching Boris Pashanski of Serbia, Eaton then met Dmitry Tursunov, the straight faced, business-like 25th seed.
Although the crowd was not so cruel as to boo and hiss the bad guy, they simply transferred the energy they would have used to do that into encouraging their hero. Eaton’s (predominantly female) fan club and his newly acquired supporters were there to cheer on their man with huge smiles on their faces, regardless of the result.
Alas, the fairytale ending was not to be. After a closely-run first set which went to a tiebreaker, Tursunov took it 7-2, and once the first set was over with, the gap between them began to elongate. Tursunov won in straight sets, taking the second and third 6-2, 6-4 respectively.
Nonetheless, from the first point to the last, every Eaton winner, every Tursunov unforced error and double fault was met with such applause and yells of delight that one would think Eaton had already won the Championship. Any impressive Tursunov winners were greeted with respectful, yet somewhat disgruntled clapping.
In the first few games, the occasion of the event seemed to overwhelm Eaton, but he soon found his rhythm and began matching Tursunov point for point. While he still seemed in awe of his surroundings, now he has had a taste of what awaits him, surely he will be more determined than ever to play the show courts of Wimbledon again in the near future.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen

It’s hard to believe now, but five years ago I threw a Jane Austen book into a skip that just so happened to be across the road from my school after a GCSE Literature exam on Pride and Prejudice. Exactly why I gave it such a swift, strong, symbolic sending off is now a mystery to me, because it was not the torturous experience that my actions make it out to be.
Our teacher was a sweet, vivacious, humorous woman; with all of us being girls we enjoyed this 19th Century Bridget Jones inspiration, but what we especially enjoyed was seeing Colin Firth in the bath and emerge from the lake. Also my mark was an A* for the subject, so I had even less cause to complain.
Now I have made amends, and own all six books twice over, three times over in some cases. However one is the complete collection bound together in a book which is more likely to be used as a doorstop or step than to read, and is for display purposes only. My other collection, comprising six separate books, should also be for display only. They are hardbacks, and with beautiful covers depicting exquisite details in various articles of period clothing from the V&A museum. However they are readable, and I simply remove the covers to do so.
My first read was Northanger Abbey, the heroine Catherine Morland. Invited to stay with the Tilney family at their residence of Northanger Abbey, she eagerly accepts, being keen to explore the dusty old corridors and rooms. However her vivid imagination born of reading Radcliffe, pulls together a string of consequences that lead her to belief that the father, General Tilney, had committed some unspeakable act. Unknown to his son, Henry, who is very fond of Catherine, the General sends Catherine home in a very undignified manner. Will she ever see her beloved Henry again?
There are laugh out loud moments, my favourite being Austen’s cynical comment that “a woman, especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can”. Two hundred years later, nothing’s changed. Austen dispenses pearls of wisdom such as “friendship is certainly the finest balm for the pangs of disappointed love”.
Yet it is also bittersweet to be reminded of women’s place in society. Austen notes that “Catherine did not know that…a good-looking girl, with an affectionate heart and a very ignorant mind, cannot fail of attracting a clever young man, unless circumstances are particularly untoward”.
While it is refreshing to come across a likeable heroine named Catherine, unlike her namesakes in Basic Instinct and Wuthering Heights; Catherine Morland is rather unaccomplished for her time. On first meeting Henry Tilney I thought of him as simply a watered down Mr Bingley. However, in the final chapter, one sentence changed my perception of him completely, drawing forth a longing, romantic sigh from my lips and making me hope to meet my own Henry Tilney someday.
Austen’s novels are indisputably the original rom-coms. While they come without smutty jokes there is the confusion, mix-ups and hurt feelings that feature in every Notting Hill and Bridget Jones. Given the litigious nature of British society today, had Austen’s heroines been able to claim compensation for hurt feelings they would have substantially increased the size of their dowries, and their marriage prospects.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Wimbledon first round: Murray v Santoro

With Andy Murray up against a player nicknamed The Magician, his first round match was guaranteed to be one of all-round entertainment, and neither player disappointed. Murray’s match against France’s Fabrice Santoro saw a welcome return to Centre Court for the British number one.
Initially the tone of the match seemed to be anything you can do, I can do better. They were both wrong.
It took a worryingly long time before Murray stopped using lobs against Santoro, as the latter invariably won those points.
They were about equal on drop-shots, with Murray managing to pick up most of Santoro’s; and when they worked for Murray they looked brilliant, when they didn’t work they looked (and were) pointless. The one time they were fully engaged in a battle of the drop-shots, the crowd could not have been more ecstatic had Santoro produced a beautiful assistant and cut Murray in half before putting him back together again.
Although Santoro pulled out a string of varying shots from his sleeve as a magician would a chain of handkerchiefs, Murray was able to answer and stay in the point even when it looked lost to him. Santoro waved his wand and produced some wonderful, crowd pleasing shots, including a bullet-like forehand across court, and a backhand flick down the line similar to that employed by Hrbaty in his match against Federer; while Murray had his scorching backhand down the line, as well as some powerful forehands and passing shots.
His serving in the first set was impressive, clocking one at 134mph. Although he was broken after having his own break on the Santoro serve, he was able to break back and took the first set 6-3. However his opening service game in the second set saw him broken, but on the next he returned to good form, and normal service resumed. Murray took the second set 6-4.
In the third set there was a danger that the Frenchman’s habit of holding serve would frustrate Murray into a fourth set; but credit to the Scot for keeping his cool and his focus. He even allowed himself a smile during the tiebreaker following a point involving a Santoro drop-shot, a pick-up from Murray, a fall for Santoro, and intervention by the net in Murray’s favour.
Finally, after 2 hours 13 minutes, with the tiebreak score at 5-6, after another drop-shot from Santoro and a pick-up from Murray which landed mercifully on the inside line, Centre Court could breathe again.
It hardly seemed fair that the 35 year old Santoro (I’m sorry, following a recent Doctor Who storyline I keep wanting to call him Sontaran) could still get to and return shots that Murray constantly sent out wide with extra spin. The intensity and tightness of the final set was such that a British fan would be reduced to tearing their hair out, but be laughing while doing so at the sheer flamboyance and skill that went into every point.
The two players seemed to bring back the glory days of an all-court game, as opposed to a baseline battle. Santoro volleyed and came to the net a lot more than has been seen in recent times, and of course Murray was unwilling to stay too long at the baseline and get drawn into long points. Only once, during a 25 shot rally did it look like a modern tennis match.
Although the rousing, warm welcome that saw them emerge onto Centre Court over two hours ago was predominantly for Murray; the ovation that accompanied them off court was undoubtedly for the two of them.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Lego Indiana Jones - The Original Adventures - Wii

Having fallen for the quaint charms of Lego Star Wars and the rough charms of Indiana Jones, it seemed a natural progression that I invest in the Lego Indiana Jones - The Original Adventures trilogy.
I’m no pugilist, but not since Wii Sports boxing has fighting been so much fun. From ducking and diving to throwing the furniture and the bad guys around, it’s quite a lot of work for people who are only an inch tall.
At the beginning and end of each game stage, there are movie clips from the surrounding game, but of course, all the actors are Lego-people, and at times it is even more hilarious than having proper actors play the scenes out. Maybe instead of a fourth Indy movie, they could have done the Lego Indiana Jones Trilogy Movie.
It is not necessary to start at Raiders of the Lost Ark and work your way through to The Last Crusade, however the three have to be played chronologically within themselves. The controls are the same as in the Star Wars game, so for those already acquainted it is simple to master; but as for those not acquainted, it is still simple to master.
I must admit that some of the challenges had me befuddled for a while, but once in the correct mindset of the archaeologist it is fairly easy to figure out. Ask yourself: what would Indy do? Normally, the answer is shoot or blow something up. Problem solved. Don’t panic, it’s not all that simple.
The characters are adorable yet feisty. Marion Ravenwood joins in the punch-ups with gusto, and I never thought I would say this, but Henry Jones Snr is especially cute.
Almost everything lying around or hanging from a wall can be made use of. At one stage Indy can ride a camel if he so wishes, which probably explains that dream I had last night. Of course the famous whip can be put to good use, whether it be to swing across a crevice or grab hold of things just out of reach. However, as with the missed potential to use the Wiimote as a free-hand lightsaber in the Star Wars game, sadly it is the same case here with the whip.
Overall, though, it is an entertaining, laugh out loud, amusing game; and isn’t that what gaming is all about?

Top Spin 3 - Wii

I had it all planned out. By Friday night at the latest, Andy Murray was to have won Wimbledon before the tournament has even begun; and Roger Federer was to win the French Open. I even had my tagline prepared. Alas it was not to be. Finally, my near-perfect tennis game has arrived. In Top Spin 3 I am able to make Andy Murray hit the ball into the open court rather than yelling pointlessly at the television as the real Andy Murray does a volley which can easily be picked up by an opponent.
So why is it only near-perfect? I had hoped there would be an option where the Nunchuck would be immaterial, however it is needed to manoeuvre the players around the court, unlike the pure simplicity of Wii Sports tennis. I understand TS3 is meant to be more accurate and responsive, but surely for the energetic gamers amongst us the Wiimote could pick up and mimic our movements on its own.
However I had known about this previously, so was prepared. What I was not prepared for was to find that there is no Wimbledon tournament on it; which given the timing of its release seems like a bigger disappointment than Tim Henman’s 2001 semi-final defeat at SW19. Instead, the greatest, most prestigious Grand Slam Tournament in the tennis world has been given to… Dublin. Now I’ve got nothing against Ireland, the manager of my football team is Irish, and he’s doing a better job than his predecessors; but as a Brit, to have Wimbledon left out feels like a national insult. Are we really that unpopular? As for the rest of the Grand Slams, they have to be unlocked before you are even allowed to set foot on the hallowed hard courts of Flushing Meadows or the dirt of Roland Garros.
On the upside, the developer, 2K, has created the best likenesses of the players outside of PS3’s Virtua Tennis. With Andy Murray they have done a better job than Madame Tussaud’s. He may be maturing into a rather handsome young man, but he’s not that pretty (no offence to Andy or Mme Tussaud intended). I can also now understand why he likes the size of his calves on his video-game persona.
The controls are difficult to get to grips with at first: the Nunchuck is used both to move your player and to direct your shot, and the two can seem to blend into one another until you get the hang of it. A word of warning, though, to cut your fingernails as short as possible before playing, as your hands are rather close together and so can lead to some painful scratches.
Playing the game is as infuriating as watching the real thing on television, especially at deuces when advantage goes back and forth. Never have I felt the perspiration as much while sitting down moving just my right arm at the varying number of match points I accumulated. The frustration can be amusing as well as exasperating, as are the players’ reactions. I’m sure Gaël Monfils would have had a fair number of warnings for racket abuse by the time I had finished with him. The selection of players is good, I was even introduced to two British players I had never heard of before.
I do however, feel sorry for PS3 owners. They are paying an extra £20 simply for a player who grunts unnecessarily loudly, dresses like an extra in a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, takes a siesta between each point and has a smaller range of shots than the tennis on Wii Sports. The best part about TS3 on all the other formats is that there is no Rafael Nadal in sight or within hearing distance. If only all tennis tournaments could be like that.
As I was deprived of watching Andy raise the Wimbledon trophy through the video-game, I’m afraid it’s up to him to do it for real.
Pros
Good player and venue likeness
Good control over movement and shot selection
No Nadal
Cons
No option for play without the Nunchuck
No means of muting Maria Sharapova’s shrieks
No Wimbledon.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Doctor Who - Series 4 Episode 11 - "Turn Left"

I hate Russell T. Davies. When he isn’t churning out absurdly contrived episodes of Doctor Who he’s throwing out the most frustrating cliffhangers and upcoming teasers for which we have to wait a whole week to see what happens next. The ending of an episode of 24 is nothing compared to the multi-part storylines in Doctor Who.
While on a distant planet inspired by Far Eastern culture, Donna is urged into a fortune-teller’s booth where she finds herself recalling the events that lead her to meet The Doctor. It all began at a junction near her house. Turn left, she meets The Doctor; turn right, apocalypse.
Donna is inexplicably transported back to that moment, and she turns right. Oh dear. After a good start with a promotion and Christmas with the girls, she finds herself standing on the sidelines of the events that have unfolded in the past three series.
When the star-like spaceship of the Racnoss is destroyed, a body is wheeled into an ambulance, the face covered. Donna watches as the trolley is accidentally jolted. An arm drops out from under the cover, and a sonic screwdriver falls inconspicuously to the floor. The Doctor is dead.
Of course Donna does not know him, but someone comes running up behind her who certainly does know him. It’s Rose.
She of the blonde hair and broad smile is back, having travelled through lots of parallel universes to find Donna. All that universe jumping must have affected her speech, as she mumbles her way through the whole episode. Donna may have a reputation for shouting, but at least we can understand her.
Rose refuses to tell Donna her name, but is more than happy to tell her that she is the most important person in the universe. Donna is sceptical to say the least, but takes Rose’s advice to accept first prize at her work’s raffle, despite being previously fired.
While Donna, her mother and grandfather are staying at a fancy hotel in the countryside over the following Christmas, the Titanic crashes into Buckingham Palace, and the City of London is destroyed. To Donna’s disgust she and her family are relocated to Leeds, where they share a tiny terraced house with two other families, one of them especially large.
Fed up with cramped conditions and strangers looking at something invisible on her back, Donna goes to Rose; she is ready to do what she must. Taken to a UNIT facility, Donna once again meets the Tardis, and Rose tells her that she has to go back to the junction and turn left.
She is successful, and finds herself back in the fortune-teller’s booth. The Doctor enters, and Donna tells him the two words Rose told her to say to him.
Bad Wolf.
Unfortunately there is not enough Doctor in this episode, but it’s one that has to be seen to lead up to the two-part conclusion; which looks set to be the most ambitious, emotional roller coaster of a finale of the new series yet.