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 fiancĂ©e 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.