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.