Thursday, 16 December 2010

Meat Loaf - Newcastle Metro Radio Arena - 14/12/10

Halfway through Meat Loaf’s concert at the Newcastle arena, a young boy in the row behind me commented: “I feel like I’m at a pantomime!”

The morning after the night before, I see where he’s coming from. For two mad hours of high energy we were treated to a melee of cheeky banter, oversized - sorry, replica-sized - props, a mixture of grim and barmy stage-sets, topped off with the overblown, glorious songs that have defined The Loaf’s career, as well as those from the new album, Hang Cool Teddy Bear. In one word, it was fun. In lots of words, it was this:

With a stupendous roar from the crowd, Meat was welcomed back to the stage he was so abruptly forced to leave after half an hour of a show in 2007. Throughout this concert he mentioned it, joked about it, sincerely apologised for it, and thanked us profusely for coming back tonight.

He began with ‘Hot Patootie’. He sounded just fine. Behind the stage, a large screen played the scene from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (he hasn’t changed a bit!), but the sound was all him and the band.

After ‘If It Ain’t Broke’ and ‘Bat Out Of Hell’, he then introduced us to the new songs. Although ‘Peace On Earth’ shook the earth, and ‘Living On The Outside’ rocked and rolled, it was ‘Los Angeloser’ that was best received by the Newcastle crowd.

‘Song of Madness’, my favourite track from the new album, was thunderous. For all the trouble they had gone to in putting together some imagery to go on the big screen, I’m sorry to say I didn’t notice it; I was too busy watching Meat, my mouth hanging open and my fingers wrapped around my forgotten camera lens. My head rang like Big Ben as he bellowed “carry me to my graaaaaaaaaaaaaaave!”, I didn’t want it to end.

Although The Voice had the occasional crack during the new stuff, it grew in confidence, strength and beauty as the night wore on; varying from high but perfectly held notes to low, sonorous rumbles not unlike that earth-shaking thunder-roll the Tyne-Wear area felt that night during the snow.

The band has changed somewhat. Bassist Kasim Sulton was absent, and pianist Mark Alexander was replaced by the ludicrously talented 30-year-old Justin Avery. His arrangements to the intros of the songs kept me guessing even during ‘Anything For Love’, my most favourite song ever. From the way he was playing you’d think he had 20 fingers.

This tour also sees the return of the lovably feisty Patti Russo as Meat Loaf’s foil. My own “Patti’s Back!” moment came during ‘Anything For Love’ when the duet begins, and she eased into “will you raise me up, will you help me down?” as if she’d never been away.

Even Happy Bob made an appearance! The This Is Spinal Tap-inspired inflatable bat (thankfully 20’ high, not 20” high) grinned stupidly down at us during ‘Bat’, drawing the biggest laugh of the night.

For all I strictly Do Not Dance, once again I had to make an exception. The music was so head-noddingly rock with a lot of roll that many a time I found myself trying to take a photo while dancing. Even after two hours I still hadn’t learned that it was impossible, especially from Row J.

Despite this being the Hang Cool Tour, most of the audience were here for the old songs. Many of the crowd in Block A even sat down during the Hang Cool songs; which, while rather rude, was great for me: being only 4’11” and ten rows from the stage with someone six foot tall in front of me.

Yet everyone was on their feet for the Jim Steinman-penned songs. There was a rather amusing moment near the end of ‘Paradise By the Dashboard Light’ when the crowd simply kept on merrily singing even where lyrics did not appear.

Everyone in the room joined in with ‘You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth’, and everyone simply basked in the heavenly productions of ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Dreams Come Through’ and ‘Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad’.

Over two hours since he first appeared, he and Patti launched into ‘Dead Ringer For Love’ as their encore, before finally bidding us farewell.

With this concert, Meat Loaf laid the demons of his last appearance here to rest, both for himself and for his fans. From the number of times he grinned at us or his band, he was enjoying himself as much as we were.

I judge Meat Loaf’s concerts on how much pain I’m in afterwards. Therefore I am happy to report that I had a headache, my neck was stiff, my spine felt squashed, my leg was aching and my feet were sore. Not to mention the physical and emotional exhaustion that follows.

For the seventh time in my life I had that euphoric, otherworldly experience that only comes when Meat Loaf sings and the band plays live. There are some moments that cannot be compared, repeated, or relived. ‘Took The Words’, the beautiful outro to ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Dreams’, ‘Los Angeloser’, not to mention ‘Song of Madness’ provided some such moments, whether it be for their power, awe, or simply pure unadulterated joy.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Rock Band 3 - Xbox 360

There are two reasons why this is my first time playing Rock Band. First of all was the price, but then I found the drum-kit for £15 on TheHut.com. I considered it, but after checking the prices and soundtracks of the games, decided against it.

A couple of months later, the drum-kit was down to £9.93, and I discovered that the upcoming Rock Band 3 had Huey Lewis and the News' “The Power of Love” on its setlist.

I knew then that I had to have this game in my life.

Thr drum-kit was ordered and despatched on the same day, and, unable to wait until the 29th October for RB3, signed up for a free trial with Boomerang, which gave me 21 days to try out RB 1 and 2, and the Lego version.

However, once I knew the drums were on their way to my house, and as Boomerang had not sent me any games, I went and bought Lego Rock Band second-hand.

Despite being a Rock Band virgin, I managed to maintain a mid-80% or higher score for the songs. I also found some tracks on Xbox Live to download and play. I loved the Lego Queen band on “I Want It All”!

Two days before the release date of RB3, I received the email to say it had been despatched, and on the morning of the 29th when the post came...there was no RB3.

It arrived this morning.

Rock Band 3 has the best soundtrack out of all the games by far. Mainly 70s and 80s rock, along with oddballs such as Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” (rather tricky, that one) and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” on Xbox Live (really enjoyed playing that song!).

It also has the most extensive setlist, which admittedly takes some scrolling through, but it’s worth it for the amount of songs available both on the disc and through download.

Among my favourites are Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” – although I found it harder than the others at first, Dire Straits' “Walk of Life”, REM’s “Stand” (looked all over for that one on Xbox Live!), Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting – on which I achieved my highest score of 105,000-plus, and of course, “The Power of Love”.

There was something very satisfying about getting the opening beats exactly right at the start of Huey Lewis’ classic before launching into the chorus with gusto.

Yet for all the uninhibited rocking exuberance of Elton and Alice Cooper, John Lennon’s “Imagine” brings a gentler feel to the game, and even when concentrating on hitting the right notes, the words of the song still filter through to your mind.

I’ve only had time to go on free-play, as I like picking my own songs and don’t like being told what to play next, but already I have unlocked a few rewards such as clothes and designs. No doubt they will be useful to play with when I embark on the career path.

As with Guitar Hero, after a couple of non-stop hours of watching a scrolling fret, objects around me appeared to be levitating, and now I have a bit of a headache. Perhaps then, it is best enjoyed in moderation.
   
Now I just have to re-arrange the cluttered underneath of my bed to find somewhere for the drum-kit to live when I'm not playing on it. I have ordered the drum silencers to dim the monotonous thud of wood on plastic when I strike it, and to protect the thing: at times I had to give it a right bashing to keep up. Also I may have to invest in a USB microphone as well as the guitar to go along with the drum-kit. I tried the Lips microphones to no avail.

Finally, I cannot write this review without submitting my own song requests: let's have some Meat Loaf songs available for download, please! Preferably those written by Jim Steinman!

Oh, and the drums are now up to £13 on TheHut!

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Michael McIntyre: Life and Laughing

It is apt that Meat Loaf gets two mentions in Michael McIntyre's "patchy memories", Life and Laughing, as it is because of the former that I was introduced to the latter.

In 2006, I was watching the Royal Variety Performance on television solely to see The Loaf, and wondering how long I would have to wait for his entrance.

I was not particularly thrilled to hear that not only was the next act not Meat Loaf, but was a stand-up comedian, a phrase that normally fills me with dread. Almost all of Britain's contemporary comedians I found to be miserable, offensive, and decidedly not funny.

Yet not a minute later I was smiling, laughing out loud, and quoting Homer Simpson: "it's funny because it's true!"

Since then I have followed McIntyre's career on television and stage. I even deigned to go to his show at Newcastle. Being a Sunderland lass the only two people I would go to Newcastle to see were (you guessed it) Meat Loaf and my orthodontist.

Naturally I was interested to know how McIntyre went from being an unknown, to being the only comedian to make me laugh, to performing sell-out gigs in the country's biggest arenas, and getting 2,500 people in the Sunderland Empire to cheer at the word "Sunderland", even though half of them were from Newcastle.

Frankly, his journey to the top is depressing. After all his dedicated years spent as the effectively "least experienced" understudy at Jongleurs, it is remarkable that he has not turned into a depressed, bitter alcoholic with no future in comedy ahead of him.

As a Chinese-looking baby born to definitely white middle-class parents, he and his younger sister Lucy lived a bizzare existence around celebrities and television studios. His father wrote for The Kenny Everett Show, and his young, glamorous mother was frequently photographed with Kenny, then Britain's biggest TV star.

His rich, eccentric, Hungarian grandmother would give him £50 for playing a game of Scrabble with her, giving him a better salary than his schoolmates.

However his parents grew apart, and eventually split. His father met an American woman, and they moved to Los Angeles; while his mother got together with a Patrick Swayze look-a-like who rag-rolled her walls.

They sold the family home to Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne, along with little Jack and baby Kelly, and the McIntyres moved to Golders Green. Michael and Lucy then had something of a double-life, spending holidays in LA with their father, doing and eating all things American, and attending school in England.

Then, out of nowhere, his father phoned to say that he could no longer afford to pay their school fees. To be suddenly thrust from public to state school was quite a culture shock.

It was while at Edinburgh university that McIntyre decided he wanted to be a film writer, however his first script called Office Angels never made it to the screen, despite its potential.

He knew he wanted to make people laugh for a living, and seeing live stand-up only confirmed it. Finally he made it onto the lowly Jongleurs circuit, occasionally getting the odd gig elsewhere.

However three weeks in Edinburgh for the Perrier awards ended disappointingly when he could not even sell a ticket. After parting company with his first agent, he managed to get in with Off the Kerb, who count Jonathan Ross, Lee Evans and Jack Dee among their clients.

The legendary agent Addison Cresswell got him a stint on the Royal Variety Performance, and we know the rest…apart from family life, of course.

His unorthodox courting methods of his wife-to-be, Kitty, their wedding, and the birth of their first son Lucas are all recounted with much affection and joy.

As a newly-married couple moving into their first home, there were the usual hurdles for Michael and Kitty, such as a shopping experience on eBay that can only be likened to the Stonehenge scene in This is Spinal Tap, and just as hilarious.

There is also an anecdote involving a cremation urn that I thought only happened in an episode of Frasier and seemed too ludicrous for real life.

Although McIntyre professes that he does not read, Life and Laughing is well written, eloquent, and of course, very funny. Yet there are poignant moments, such as the sudden death of his father, and his grandmother cutting him off after he introduced her to Kitty.

The photographs provide an extra insight, along with laugh-out-loud captions. I especially liked the one taken at Disneyland.

With hindsight, it is hard to imagine McIntyre as a struggling comedian. Even with his family connections, he still had to do it the hard way to get to the top. I know I’m not the only one who is glad he is there.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Back to the Future - 25th Anniversary Cinema Release

After watching “Back to the Future” for the first time only a couple of years ago, I immediately went on iTunes and downloaded Huey Lewis and the News’ “The Power of Love”.  I will admit that this song was my main motivation for wanting to see the 25-year-old movie on the cinema screen, so that I could hear the soundtrack blasting out through the powerful sound system.
It was worth the £3.25 entry fee.
The songs, both from the 50s and 80s, sounded marvellous, as did Alan Silvestri’s memorable score.
Iconic scenes we are so used to seeing on television looked even better on the big screen, like the first sighting of the DeLorean and the high school dance.  The larger screen also allows for more detailed viewing.  I never noticed the car’s “Outatime” number plate until yesterday.
A quarter of a century after its release, the humour is still fresh, the tension at the clock tower still unbearable.  Even the special effects don’t look too dated in our “Avatar” generation.
The relationships between Michael J. Fox’s affable Marty McFly, his parents, and Christopher Lloyd’s manic Doc are still empathetic today.
Even if you’ve seen the trilogy umpteen times, own it on DVD yet still find yourself watching the showings on ITV4, it is still worth the effort to see at the cinema.  It allows for a truly singular viewing, with no interruptions, no adverts, just a cinematic experience of a classic.
Can we have “Jurassic Park” re-released on the big screen next?  Although if it’s going to be for the 20th anniversary I’m not sure I can wait until 2013.

Mortal Path: Sacrifice by Dakota Banks

Article first published as Book Review: Dark Time: Sacrifice by Dakota Banks on Blogcritics.

In Sacrifice, the second of Dakota Banks' "Mortal Path" series, Maliha Crayne is continuing her quest to free herself from her demon's contract by saving as many lives as she has taken.
She is also trying to collect the seven shards of a lens that will enable her to read a tablet that will put an end to the demons' reign, as well as attempting to prevent the release of deadly toxins into the waters of Africa by a small council of power-seeking masterminds.
Talk about multi-tasking.
At least she is aided in her tasks by the help of her friends, who are a cabal of technological whizzes, superhumans and people with links to underworld and government activities. Yet she is without the help of the man she met in Dark Time and trusted as a friend: Jake Stackman has his own secrets to tell, but Maliha is not quite ready to hear them.
However, Maliha's progress is hindered by another Ageless being named Lucas, ordered by his demon to stop her getting her hands on the shards — although Lucas himself is starting to question his own loyalty to his demon, as well as his feelings for Maliha.
Her quest takes her across the United States, Europe and Africa, leading her on a trek along the Omo River, and involving her breaking into an underwater laboratory. She leaves a trail of devastation and death in her wake, which in turn brings back her own tortured memories of her previous life and the death of her own child.
While she feels these deaths all the more keenly, she has to carry out her task in the same frame of mind as an Ageless assassin. Her demon Rabishu even offers her that existence back, forcing Maliha to question what she truly wants.
Sacrifice is a whirlwind of action, emotion, passion and intrigue. Surprise and shock lurks on every other page. Like Dark Time it can be devoured hungrily. Sacrifice seems to eclipse its predecessor in both depth and plot. Dakota Banks has created a rare thing: a sequel that is as good as or better than the original.

Many thanks to Dakota Banks for sending me a copy of the book! :)

Saturday, 4 September 2010

The Dead Boys by Royce Buckingham


Article first published as Book Review: The Dead Boys by Royce Buckingham on Blogcritics.
When Teddy Matthews moves to Richland, Washington, with his mother, his main concern is making new friends. He finds that he meets and makes friends with a number of boys rather quickly, but no sooner has he met them than they disappear.
Teddy is also made to feel nervous by the dilapidated house across the road from his new home, and in particular by the large sycamore tree in the garden of the old house. While everything left unattended in Richland seems to be dried out by the desert that surrounds it, the tree is healthy and green...and moves of its own accord.
As Teddy investigates his new home-town, he learns of the shady history of the town’s nuclear power plant, where his mother now works, and was the reason for their relocation to the town in the desert. Built by the federal government after the Second World War, it was accused of releasing toxic substances into the atmosphere, creating health problems for the people and the land around Richland.
Following the leak, a number of twelve-year-old boys went missing at ten-year intervals. Now that Teddy has arrived in Richland, another decade is up. Will he be the next victim to disappear in this strange, shifting town?
It does not take Teddy long to work out the connection between the boys, the nuclear plant in Richland, and the source of the sycamore’s lifeblood. It takes Teddy even less time to realise that he has to stop the eerie tree from feeding. Soon he is fighting for his life against the tree and the boys he thought were his friends.
Royce Buckingham has once again created a creepy thriller for young readers. ‘The Dead Boys’ is an intelligent yet accessible chiller with a haunting underscore, and will leave its readers feeling like the tree: wanting more.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Sherlock

Normally, one does not need almost superhuman capacity for observation to realise that taking a set of classic books involving a great literary character and transposing it to 2010 for a three-part television series tends to be a bad idea.
However, on learning that Mark Gatiss and current Doctor Who helmsman Steven Moffat are the brains behind the programme, one can deduct that it might not be the desecration one would expect. In fact, their re-imagining of Sherlock is about as classy as television gets.
Moving the action from Victorian London to 21st Century London appears to have no detrimental effect to the story or the characters. Although modern technology has a role, it is a small one, taking nothing away from simple detecting, and the show somehow feels like a Sherlock Holmes mystery.
Benedict Cumberbatch (isn’t that just the Best Name Ever?!) is the charismatic and enigmatic Sherlock Holmes, the man with the legendary powers of observation and deduction; while Martin Freeman shows his slightly more serious side as Doctor John Watson. This pairing makes for a delightful complement and contrast, with Cumberbatch as a classically elegant and refined Holmes, and Freeman as the weary yet willing former army doctor.
They are introduced by a mutual friend, who knows that Watson is looking for a flat, and Holmes is looking for a flatmate. After their first meeting in a morgue where Watson finds Holmes whipping a corpse, they combine to form the perfect Holmes-Watson duo.
Their first collaboration in “A Study in Pink” focuses on a number of apparent suicides, to which Sherlock is summoned by DI Lestrade (Rupert Graves) to cast his unique eyes over, and he soon realises they are anything but suicides. “The Blind Banker” is the mystery of the murders of two people just returned from a trip to China, from where one of them has unintentionally stolen a treasure that some would kill to own.
“The Great Game” is the complex finale to this frustratingly short first series, although mercifully it is left wide open for a second.
Despite the dark themes running through the episodes, there is plenty of light and dark humour to counter this; from the banter and domestic arguments between Holmes and Watson, to the quirks of Holmes and Watson’s reactions to them. Never before and never again will a severed head in a fridge be laugh-out-loud material.
The whole thing is an intelligently written, witty, entertaining, beautifully shot and exquisitely acted piece of television. Sherlock is a rare thing: a modern adaptation of a classic that actually works.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Inception

After watching Inception, I must say I'm rather looking forward to dreaming tonight, although sadly my dreams tend not to involve Leonardo DiCaprio.
He stars as Cobb, a thief living in a time when it is possible to connect to another person's dreams. Cobb is enlisted by millionaire businessman Saito (Ken Watanbe) to lead a team into the mind of Robert Fischer (a perfectly sensitive Cillian Murphy) through his dreams, and plant the idea in his head to disband his dying father's company to rid Saito of any competition. However they must do this without Fischer knowing it is a dream, and making him think that it is his idea to break up the company. This concept is Inception.
Cobb convinces architect student Ariadne (Ellen Page) to design the locations of the dream, while Arthur manages the technology of connecting to dreams, Yusuf handles the driving, and Eames the strategy. It involves creating a dream within a dream within a dream, and from here it gets complicated.
Ariadne discovers another little problem: Cobb's dead wife, Mal, who appears to him in his dreams and urges him to join her, as he promised he would. When she was alive, while they were dreaming, Cobb had given her the idea of a reality in a dream, which she then set out to pursue, killing herself in the process and alienating Cobb from their young children.
If Cobb can make Fischer disband the company, Saito will ensure that Cobb is reunited with his children, but will Mal make things even more difficult for Cobb?
Inception is a conglomeration of all that a great movie should be: a unique plot, fine storytelling, stunning cinematography, all backed up with collectively good acting performances. Here, we are spoiled for choice. The effectively understated DiCaprio, Page and Murphy are given stellar support by Watanbe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy and Marion Cotillard.
Director Christopher Nolan has delivered a fiendishly complex, unpredictable, and intelligent film. It baffles the mind and indulges the senses.
The more spectacular of the dream sequences involve Ariadne's vertical manipulation of skyscraper-lined streets, a fist fight in a rolling room, and Cobb and Mal's single-handedly-built dream city; all set to a dramatic yet subtle score by Hans Zimmer, with some help from Édith Piaf.
It is said that an hour in a dream is five minutes when awake. Inception certainly did not feel two and a half hours long; rather it whizzed by as though it was only twelve and a half minutes.

Friday, 30 July 2010

La Bête - Comedy Theatre - London

In 2004, Friends ended, and David Schwimmer came to London to star in a play; in 2004, Sex and the City finished, and Kim Cattrall came to London to star in a play; also in 2004, Frasier left the building ...and no one came to London to star in a play.
But no more! David Hyde Pierce has made his West End debut in La Bête, starring as Elomire, the writer for a troupe of actors patronised by The Princess (Joanna Lumley). However, he resents her order that he is to work with a street actor named Valere (Mark Rylance), who is the most insufferable, insensitive, pretentious, clueless empty vessel that one can have the misfortune to meet. The Princess, however, thinks he is marvellous.
After reasoning and arguing, the only thing Elomire can do to convince the unpredictable Princess that Valere is a bad idea is to get her to watch him perform alongside her troupe, as he tends to play all the characters in his plays himself – sort of like Eddie Murphy. Will The Princess remain blind to his inferiority, or will a second viewing of his play open her eyes?
Set in 17th Century France, events occur in real time in Elomire’s study, which appears to be covered from floor to ceiling with Ikea’s black Billy bookcases holding innumerable volumes and tomes of books.
When a piece of falling masonry landed inches away from him, he carried on, unperturbed, so naturally we assumed it was part of the play to show the crumbling surroundings in which he lived, or to read more deeply, to symbolise the crumbling of the high culture that Elomire thrives on.
However, we found out later it was to show the crumbling of the Comedy Theatre, and had nothing to do with the play at all. Had it landed half a foot further into the stage, it could have been a nasty bump on the head for poor Mr Hyde Pierce.
Speaking of bumps on the head, Valere must surely have had some knock or fall on the noggin at some point in his life.
At least nowadays, actors with only air in their heads keep their mouths shut about high culture. Valere, on the other hand, does nothing but talk utter nonsense about it, in one particular scene for twenty minutes almost uninterrupted.
Where’s a piece of falling masonry when you need it?
When Valere jestingly offers Elomire a gag to shove in his mouth, and Elomire hesitantly reaches for it, it took all my self-restraint not to shout “Go on! Or I’ll do it for you!”
There is no interval in La Bête, although frankly we could have done with one after forty minutes in Valere’s extraordinary company, although fifteen minutes would hardly have been enough time for everyone to get to the bar to order a stiff drink.
Despite this, La Bête is toilet humour and slapstick mixed with verbal wit spoken in rhyming verse, which was genuinely hilarious. My stomach has not hurt that much from laughing since I saw Michael McIntyre last October.
Elomire’s finest moment comes with an impassioned rant against the desecration of high culture by popular culture, and I for one, agree with him.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Toy Story 3

Well, if anything could traumatise children into not throwing out their old toys, this is it.
In Toy Story 3, Andy is now a teenager about to move to college, and his favourite toys have been living in a chest in his bedroom for years. Even Woody and Buzz have been relegated from Andy's pillow into the box.
In the middle of Andy's preparations to go to college, his mother asks him to sort his old toys. He picks only Woody to go in the box marked 'college', and although he goes to put the others in the attic, by some mix up, they find themselves on the kerb as the rubbish truck pulls up.
Woody, who had seen the mistake, goes to rescue his friends and tries to explain what had happened, but Jessie and Mr Potato Head are convinced that Andy meant to throw them out. Despite Woody's protests, the toys climb into a box destined for the local daycare centre, and Woody unintentionally finds himself going with them.
There they are met by Lotso, a big, strawberry-scented teddy bear, who makes them feel welcome and wanted; and they are given the tour by Ken (a delightfully camp Michael Keaton), who is oddly smitten with Barbie, and vice versa.
At first, Sunnyside Daycare looks to be a toy's dream come true: lots of children playing lovingly with them all day long. Yet Woody is keen to get back to Andy, and leaves. He does not get far when he is picked up by a little girl from the daycare centre named Bonnie, and she takes him home and plays with him.
Meanwhile, the toys in daycare realise that they have been put in the toddlers' room, and are subjected to nothing less than serial abuse when the tots come in to torture - I mean play with them. Buzz's request to Lotso to be transferred into the room with the older children is denyed, and when Buzz tries to fight, he is forcibly reset to Demo mode, turning him back into the space soldier and recruiting him to Lotso's dictatorship.
Back at Bonnie's house, Woody learns from one of her toys about the horrors at Sunnyside, and he immediately sets out to help his friends escape. Will they make it back to Andy's house? And even if they do, what will be their fate?
Although it has been eleven years since Toy Story 2, and much has changed for the toys in that time, watching the movie is like catching up with old friends. Everyone returns to reprise their character roles, Tom Hanks as Woody, Tim Allen as Buzz, Wallace Shawn as Rex. Even John Morris gives his voice to Andy for the third installment, as he did fifteen years ago in the first.
Again Pixar have delivered a wonderful family movie. I could not call this a childrens' movie because the adults in the packed auditorium seemed more emotionally involved than their kids. Indeed there is a most terrifying scene at the rubbish dump when it seems like the unthinkable is going to happen. I could not have been the only adult wiping away tears at this point, the whole scene was spectacularly handled.
For all the horrors of Sunnyside and the rubbish dump, there are still great moments of hilarity; Barbie and Ken for instance, Buzz's foreign language setting, and Bonnie's toys.
Toy Story 3 is again beautifully animated, but I failed to notice any 3D. Perhaps the only perceptible difference between 2D and 3D animation is the price and a red ridge on the nose from the glasses. Yet however you go and see it, whatever your age, Toy Story will once again entertain and enthrall.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Meat Loaf - Hang Cool Teddy Bear

Meat Loaf is back! That distinctive, powerful voice returns with the new album, Hang Cool Teddy Bear. Bet you didn’t see that one coming. You soon will.
Based on a short story by Kilian Kerwin, it tells of a young soldier lying wounded in battle, and sees his life flashing forwards. The eye-catching title comes from a line in the movie Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
Produced by Rob Cavallo, with songs by Justin Hawkins, Desmond Child, and John Michaels to name a few; and guests including Brian May, Steve Vai and Jack Black, Hang Cool Teddy Bear was destined to be a harder, edgier experience than any of the previous albums.
Meat Loaf’s voice is strong, clear, raw, smooth, soaring, once again taking us on a rollercoaster of emotion, even rivalling Justin Hawkins’ falsetto. The whole album is loud, rocking, bold, witty, funny, tenacious, and ballsy…literally.
Not since Bat II have I been so consistently amazed and impressed with so many songs on one album. I look forward to getting to know them better.
“Peace On Earth” sets the tone, theme and feel of what is to come: the album is one of dark, hard rock. It introduces us to the soldier, named Patrick, who just wants to go home.
“Living On The Outside” sees him urging his girlfriend to run away with him, with the assuring words: ‘I’ve got my mama’s smile and my daddy’s gun, you’ve got your honest face and your liar’s tongue’.
If “Los Angeloser” does not make you smile, or at least tap a toe, then you are either dead, in a coma, or have no sense of fun whatsoever. Since I downloaded the single on April 7th I’ve listened to it 42 times (according to iTunes). It is as feel good as “Summer of ‘69”, and as addictive as “Stand”.
“If I Can’t Have You” features a duet with American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi, and a piano accompaniment by Hugh Laurie. Yes, really. It comes with the kind of rocking, rolling chorus that I so enjoy but rarely find.
During “Love Is Not Real”, I was given a chill by the low rumble of Meat’s voice escalating into a soaring cry during the final ‘next time you stab me in the back you better do it to my face’ lyric. Indeed, the whole record is peppered with such spine-tingling vocals, many of them on this track alone.
“Like A Rose”, featuring Jack Black, has the kind of heavy-metal guitar sound that should theoretically see it comfortably on the next Guitar Hero instalment. It also contains lyrics that explained the “Explicit Content” label on the protective wrap of my vinyl copy of the album. Never thought I would see the day.
“Song Of Madness” is like a tortured mix of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, Alice In Wonderland, and Shakespeare, all set to a pounding rock soundtrack.
There is a respite, albeit a brief one, from the medley of instruments competing for airtime at the beginning of “Did You Ever Love Somebody”.
There is nothing in the opening few lines of “California Isn’t Big Enough For Me” to suggest what is about to come in the chorus. What comes is easily the most contentious lyric in Meat Loaf’s entire discography, so much so that in the following track, the haunting “Running Away From Me”, he seems to ask forgiveness for his plain speaking.
“Let’s Be In Love” is another duet with Patti Russo. Meat Loaf’s former lead female vocalist on tour, here her sultry voice is softer than in any of the concerts I have had the pleasure to witness, but no less stunning.
I suspect that “If It Rains” will become my favourite song on the album. ‘We’ll be in the street looking thunder in the face’ is hands down the best lyric within the best chorus.
Strangely, I found tears of nostalgia in my eyes on the final track, as it reminded me of my first concert in 2002, when I was fifteen. I may not have seen “Elvis In Vegas”, but I did see Meat Loaf in Liverpool.

Hang Cool Teddy Bear is released in the UK on Monday 19th April by Mercury Records.

Hang Cool Teddy Bear

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Shutter Island

“Shutter Island” is a sophisticated psychological thriller with more ambiguity than a Conservative policy pledge.
Martin Scorsese once again directs Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels, a Federal US Marshal sent to investigate the disappearance of a criminally insane prisoner from the institution on Shutter Island. Daniels arrives by ferry to the island, along with his new partner Chuck Aule. I’m sure I can’t be the only one to find it ironic to see someone who once sailed on the Titanic feel queasy on a tiny boat just off Boston Harbor.
On their arrival, they are taken to meet Doctor Cawley (Ben Kingsley), who is remarkably PC for 1954, preferring to refer to those housed here as “patients” rather than “prisoners”, and who believes that rather than lobotomising or drugging his patients, respecting and listening to them will give them more benefit.
However Daniels, who served in the Second World War and is still carrying his own trauma from the experience, is suspicious of the German Doctor Naehring. Daniels is also failing to come to terms with the death of his wife, Dolores (Michelle Williams), who turns up in all of his dreams. Nothing there to render him insane, then.
DiCaprio again proves that he has come a long way from the pretty boy image of over a decade ago, and is now a seriously fine actor. His intensity and emotion kept a rather well-populated afternoon cinema crowd silently enthralled for the whole two hours and twenty minutes
Shot with the familiar and welcome Scorsese finesse, with stunning yet subtle cinematography, and a soundtrack that combines Mahler with a Jaws-like theme, “Shutter Island” is a film of conflict and contrast, of fire and water - lots of water - , madness and sanity, chaos and calm, opulence and destitution. It seems to highlight the complexity and ingenuity of the human brain, no matter how distorted the mind may seem.
Yet it also shows the terrifying darkness that can manifest itself in anything from the murder of an unfaithful husband to genocide in a death camp. It does not answer the question of what makes this happen, rather it is left up to the viewer to wonder, which only makes the movie all the more eerie, and is just one aspect which will ensure the viewer is still thinking about “Shutter Island” long after the credits have started rolling.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Alice in Wonderland

Tim Burton’s "Alice in Wonderland" is yet another example of the director’s flair for the telling of gothic fairy tales. Aesthetically stunning, with a haunting score by Danny Elfman, even if at times it sounded a bit like a recycled version of the music from "Charlie and the Chocolate" Factory.
Yet, visually pleasing as "Alice" is, she seemed to lack the charm of "Charlie". Despite this, she still managed to keep everyone in Screen 3 of the Sunderland Empire quiet for two hours, which is no mean feat even for Harry Potter.
Mia Wasikowska was a cool, ethereal Alice, nineteen years old, unsure of herself and her future. She falls back down the rabbit hole, where her old companions insist she must slay the Jabberwocky so that the White Queen can overthrow the tyrannous rule of her evil sister, the Red Queen. Unsurprisingly, she is no less enamoured with this destiny than the one that awaits her above ground: a marriage proposal from the snooty, snotty Lord Hamish.
Johnny Depp, as ever, is on delightfully ludicrous form as the Mad Hatter, whose accent alternates between Sweeney Todd and Rab C. Nesbitt. Once again, in this Burton-Depp collaboration, the dark history of Depp’s character is explored.
Helena Bonham Carter once again lets her husband give her an ugly makeover. This time, in her role as the Red Queen, she sports an abnormally enormous head perched on top of her tiny body, her face done up like a porcelain doll. She almost reminded me of Yubaba in "Spirited Away".
Anne Hathaway was a ghostly vision as the White Queen, dressed head to toe in white, apart from her lips, which were black (or at least looked black on the unusually dark cinema screen). Yet I wonder why she had to walk around with her hands up by her shoulders, it just made her look as though she was skimming the clothes racks in TK Maxx.
Alan Rickman as the caterpillar and Stephen Fry as a creepy but helpful Cheshire cat were the highlights of the voice casting. Barbara Windsor as the feisty dormouse and Matt Lucas as the Tweedles also deserve honourable mentions.
The battle scene, set on a giant chessboard, made my mouth drop open more than once. Yet the shots of the lovable characters like the Hatter and White Rabbit stepping forward to do battle seemed almost as wrong as the young boys taking up arms for the battle of Helm’s Deep in "The Two Towers".
Full marks to Colleen Atwood for her gorgeous costumes. I envied every single dress that Alice wore, and even the one cobbled together from the curtains in the Red Queen’s castle looked like something from the Joe Brown’s catalogue.
Whimsical, fantastical, dark and comic, it is still good entertainment value. If you do go to see it in 3D, just watch out for the Jabberwocky’s tail.

Friday, 26 February 2010

On Expenses

Half an hour into “On Expenses”, Heather Brooke, the American journalist living in Britain who exposed the scandal, asks herself “Why do I live here?!”. I’d been wondering that myself for the previous twenty nine minutes.
So infuriated is she with the British culture of privacy, so disillusioned with the blinkered, Orwellian manner in which we poor Brits have to live, it was a marvel she didn’t just jump on the first plane back to the Land Of The Free. But no, she wanted a Pulitzer.
As the Freedom of Information Act is made law, Brooke publishes a book on the kind of information that is now publicly available. To prove her point, she tries to gain access to the more detailed accounts of MP’s expenses. Time and again, she is refused her request on the grounds of privacy.
Her main obstacle is the then Speaker Michael Martin. Here he is shown as trying to do what he feels is his job, protecting the House’s integrity, although the fact they enjoy their cushty lifestyles maybe had an impact on his decisions. “On Expenses” takes us through from his election as Speaker by his fellow MPs, to his resignation against a wall of disgust from the same people who chose him, as their dirty laundry is hung out to dry.
Anna Maxwell Martin portrayed Brooke as a pushy, determined, no nonsense type. She did it so well I found myself rooting for the MPs. Frankly, from the opening moments in which she is seen dancing to “Fame” in front of a mirrored wall, I could tell we weren’t going to get along.
It was only when Neil Pearson as her barrister Hugh Tomlinson held the Commons Administration to account that her argument held any sway, but even that scene only lasted two minutes.
The whole programme plays like a comedy, almost an extended episode of “Yes, Minister”. Everything from the absurd claims, to the pathetic attempts by the Administration to justify their stance, to every prophetic word uttered by Martin proving to be completely wrong made me laugh. I had a smile on my face all the time watching it, although it turned into a grimace whenever Brooke opened her mouth.
Brian Cox made for a marvellous Michael Martin. Perhaps they went a bit over the top when he is first shown playing the bagpipes with a Celtic scarf laid neatly on the chair behind him. He’s Scottish, then? The thick Glaswegian accent was also a clue.
Director Simon Cellan Jones manages to get some beautiful and different shots of the Palace of Westminster. The best being a close-up of Martin’s office window as he plays his bagpipes at night, the lights on the outside of the building throwing the detail of the architecture into stunning contrast.
Shame this programme was relegated to BBC4. It could have had an airing at least on BBC2, for those without digital television. Certainly it made for a diverting, if not baffling hour’s entertainment.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The Lovely Bones

Great. Now I have to read “The Lovely Bones”. Not to compare it to the movie, but to get some answers as to what happened in the movie and why.
On her way home from an after-school film club, Susie Salmon is lured into an underground hideout by George Harvey, and somewhere between there and Harvey’s house, she is murdered by him. Susie is trapped in a middle place between earth and heaven, where she meets other young girls who were victims of Harvey.
One of the girls, who calls herself Holly Golightly, tries to persuade Susie to move forward, but Susie stays where she is, where she watches her family deal with their loss. To be honest, they don’t do it very well, or as a family.
Her father opens his own investigation, suspecting everyone in the neighbourhood except the guilty party. His obsession drives his wife to move to Brazil, leaving her now unstable husband to look after Susie’s younger sister and even younger brother.
Susie see-saws between a delayed reaction of vengeance against Harvey, and having a blast in the inbetween with Holly where only their imaginations limit what they can do.
The movie starts well enough, gets confused in the middle, and the ending left me completely unsatisfied, posing more questions than answers. Coming from the same directing and writing team as the glorious “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, this just seems empty and bland in comparison.
As so often happened with “The Lord of the Rings movies”, when a scene stayed on a group of characters in one place, then moved to another group in another place entirely, you almost had to remind yourself that yes, those characters are still in. Oh yes, I forgot about Susie. Yet here it was not because the previous scene had been so emotionally stirring and the characters so involving.
A general problem with the characters is that no one talks to each other. I’ve seen people give up information quicker in “24”.
Saoirse Ronan as Susie is the best thing about the movie, but she is left to run around in what is nothing more than an overly-prettified CGI purgatory. Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz as Susie’s parents do what they can with the lacklustre script that barely seems to scratch the surface of the trauma of losing a child. Susan Sarandon as the grandmother hardly acknowledged Susie’s absence. Stanley Tucci’s Harvey was genuinely creepy, but that is all.
The one thing I am sure of after watching “The Lovely Bones”, is that “The Hobbit” can’t come quick enough.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

"A View from the Foothills" by Chris Mullin

Of all the recently published political diaries, it may seem odd that the first yours truly chose to read were those of Chris Mullin. That is, until you discover that he is my local MP in Sunderland South, and has had various roles within government relating to rather memorable government policy.
“A View from the Foothills” covers the period between 1999 and 2005. From Mullin’s personally perceived demotion to the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions, all the way through to Blair announcing the handover of power.
Mullin’s career during this time saw him move from the DETR to the Department for International Development, back to the Home Affairs Select Committee along with David Cameron, and finally to the Foreign Office.
As well as covering issues within national and international government, Mullin also talks about happenings in Sunderland. It felt strange to be reminded that Debenhams has been open nearly eleven years, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the only notable difference in the issue of dumping sewage into the River Thames and the River Wear: that in London they treated the sewage first.
He speaks of the city of Sunderland and its people with a warm, at times resigned affection, and is full of hope and optimism for the future of its development. There are many colourful and varied characters that inhabit his world, in Sunderland as well as Westminster, including one constituent who thought he had solved the problem of global warming with the help of a pigeon. A dead pigeon. That he thoughtfully brought along to the surgery with him.
What really struck me was the sense of powerlessness to help those who come to his surgeries. He notes that his best successes have been helping people get out of Sunderland; good people are forced to leave while the hooligans continue to terrorise and their landlords do nothing.
One particularly heart-rending case was that of a couple and their young facing deportation back to Ukraine via Spain. The small family had integrated themselves into the local church community, the little boy was flourishing at school; yet they were taken early in the morning and sent packing to London. When they finally got to Spain, despite the paperwork, letters and money forwarded to the Spanish authorities by Mullin, no one was expecting them.
After their disappearance was discovered by an Immigration officer, a family friend later found a letter written by the little boy, bequeathing his possessions to the pastor’s children. It read like a will.
All this just makes one wonder why it is impossible to help the steadfast citizens. Were I to run for Parliament tomorrow, I would base my policies on the experiences of people in this book. Why is this happening? How can it be stopped?
Yet amid all this, there are plenty amusing scenes that would be dismissed as too far-fetched even for "Yes, Minister", like hiding from the Queen Mother, Tony Benn nearly setting fire to the Mullin house, a mix-up of foreign ambassadors, a bumbled photo opportunity with Nelson Mandela, and the MP for Sunderland North leaving his bag in the toilet of a train the day after the Madrid train bombings. At one stage I was asked if I was reading a comedy book. I replied that I was reading my local MP’s political diaries, and 9/11 had just happened.
In the aftermath, although Blair tried to restrain Bush as Parliament focused on what could lie ahead for Afghanistan, it seemed inevitable that Britain would get drawn in with the Americans. Reports and opinions of Bush’s character were as contradictory, derisive and divisive as they come. These discussions and mentions of Bush almost put me in mind of Maris in "Frasier" in which all the foibles, fads and whims of the character are talked about, but the person is never actually seen…that is, until the 20th November 2003.
Even though I knew that the war would be declared on the 19th March 2003 (my birthday), the days leading up to the vote were incredibly tense. One cannot imagine what it must have been like within the corridors of Westminster, being harangued by government whips to vote with the Party policy.
Mullin’s decision to vote against the war was clearly one that caused him great anguish. Unwilling to vote for it unless there was a second UN resolution, which never came, unwilling to show disloyalty to Blair, yet unwilling to go against his principles and promises.
It is evident that Mullin has huge respect for Blair, and he shows us why. Blair is ever the professional, always ready to partake in meetings and give his attention to matters even after whistle stop trips to Washington or other long-haul destinations. I didn’t know whether to admire him or loathe him when he convinced Jean Corston to toe the Party line on the Iraq war in the final hours before the vote. She too had been privately agonising over what to do, but was more inclined to vote against.
Brown on the other hand, is another matter entirely. Mullin notes that all of Labour’s unwelcome or failed policies can be traced back to the then Chancellor. He comes across as a rather sinister, scheming, paranoid character; and relations between him and Blair grew so bad that there was even talk that it might have been better had Brown ran in 1994 and lost.
Even the blustering John Prescott is given a better reputation by Mullin. True, he could put his foot in his mouth and the department ran more smoothly in his absence, but he is portrayed as human with an “e” on the end.
As for Mullin, he is as I think of him: principled, honest, modest, much more focused on making a difference than power or luxuries. He even refuses the basic staple of a Ministerial car, preferring to take the bus. His integrity will be sorely missed when he stands down at the coming election.
He has hinted at publishing the diaries he kept either side of 1999 and 2005. I await them eagerly.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Ponyo

“Ponyo” is the latest Japanese animation from the reliable combination of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki.
Loosely based on The Little Mermaid, a five year old boy named Sosuke rescues a small fish when it becomes trapped inside a glass jar in the waters beside his home. Only this fish has the face of a girl. When Sosuke cuts himself on the jar, the fish licks his blood and heals his wound.
Sosuke takes the fish home and names her Ponyo, but she is quickly recaptured by her father, the wizard Fujimoto, who lives under the sea and tries to keep the balance of nature. All rather difficult when your daughter is as powerful as Ponyo.
Despite his warnings that there will be a great tsunami should she return to land, Ponyo grows herself arms and legs, and all her tiny siblings help her escape. Ponyo’s arrival brings about a spectacular storm, and she goes in search of Sosuke, running on tempestuous waves made out of her fishy family. She sees Sosuke riding in his mother’s car on their way home from the senior citizen’s centre where his mother works, and follows them, making their journey along the winding coastal road even more treacherous.
Ponyo finally catches them up as they arrive home, and although it takes a moment for Sosuke to recognise her, she is readily welcomed by his mother, Lisa. As the storm still rages outside, Lisa worries for her elderly patients. However when the storm calms after Ponyo falls asleep, she decides to go back to them, leaving her incredibly mature and responsible son in charge.
Meanwhile, out at sea, the boat on which Sosuke’s father Koichi is based, comes across a terrifying sight in the aftermath of the storm. An unexplained horizon of pretty lights against an unrecognisable mountain range turn out to be all the ships that were on the water, and are now without power; and behind them, a wall of water, pulled up into the air by the gravity of an unnaturally close moon. The boats are rescued by the goddess of the water, who also happens to be Ponyo’s mother.
The next morning, when Lisa still has not arrived home, Sosuke and Ponyo set out to look for her. Ponyo uses her magic to make a toy boat big enough for them to ride in, although it soon becomes clear that her magic is wearying her.
Ponyo’s mother and father meet and discuss what to do with their daughter. They agree to set Susoke a test to decide her fate.
Perhaps one of the strongest aspects of Miyazaki’s work is that no characters are black or white. No one is a one-dimensional baddie. Fujimoto is no pantomime villain.
Although after providing the voice of Ponyo’s mother, I have to wonder how many more roles as an ethereal, mythical being Cate Blanchett will accumulate in her career. I feel that she and Matt Damon as Koichi were rather underused.
Tina Fey made a lovely mother as Lisa, one who would be furious at her husband for not coming home from work one second, rolling around with her son the next, and cooking for a strange, yet pretty little girl who had just emerged from the sea the next.
Sosuke and Ponyo made for an adorable couple. Their friendship and love as pure and innocent as they come.
Once again, the Holy Trinity of Ghibli, Miyazaki, and composer Joe Hisaishi have produced a warm, charming story where mythology and fantasy is mixed with reality. It will keep the kids quiet for more than five minutes during the half term.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Whisper of the Heart

If ever there was a movie character that I could identify with, I have only just met her. In “Whisper of the Heart”, Shizuku Tsukishima is a teenage girl with no grand ambitions. Rather than studying for her exams, she is always reading books or writing lyrics, just “goofing around”.
She lives in a tiny, cramped apartment with her parents and older sister in Tokyo, where she is tired of her mundane existence and all the concrete that surrounds her.
On one of her many trips to the library where her father works, she discovers that all the books she is reading have previously been loaned to the same boy: Seiji Amasawa. Shizuku imagines him to be a sensitive, thoughtful person, so she is horrified to discover that he is in fact a boy she had met before and thought him to be a “jerk”.
One day, on her way to take her father his lunch at the library, she follows a mysterious cat who sits beside her on the train. He leads her to a posh neighbourhood, where she follows him into an antique shop. Inside, she is fixated by a beautiful statue of a cat, standing upright and dressed in top hat and tails. The elderly owner of the shop tells her that the statue is known as The Baron, and that there is a story in The Baron’s past.
She realises she is late, and has to leave with a promise to return. En route to the library, she runs into Seiji, and still thinks he is a jerk. However, she meets him again at the antique shop, where his grandfather is the owner. There she realizes that he is a sensitive, thoughtful person. Seiji’s ambition is to become a master violin maker, but he will have to go to Italy to learn his trade.
Shizuku gradually comes to accept that she loves him, but she feels inadequate because she does not know what to do with her life. Her once good school grades have begun to slide, she no longer takes the same pleasure from reading that she once did. She misses her old self and wants to prove to herself that she is good enough for Seiji, who is going to Italy for a two month trial at a relative’s violin shop.
Always encouraged by her friends about her writing, she decided to write a story, and asks Seiji’s grandfather if she can write about The Baron. He agrees, as long as she lets him read the story first. Shizuku works hard on her story, so hard that her schoolwork suffers even more. She wants to leave school after junior high and concentrate on achieving her new ambition of becoming a writer.
Directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, and with a screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki, “Whisper of the Heart” is a charming, touching love story that shows that inspiration does not have to be close to be effective, that it can come from unexpected places. Seiji even shows Shizuku that the concrete skyscrapers of Tokyo can be beautiful.
As we have come to expect from Studio Ghibli, the animation, backgrounds, and attention to detail are stunning. Yuji Nomi’s soundtrack is the final exquisite layer to this inspiring movie.
I myself have someone who inspires me, who I admire for being so brave and determined to go to a foreign country to learn his trade at a young age. As someone who has never had ambitious plans for life, I can only respect and look up to someone who has. He doesn’t even know I exist, but he doesn’t have to.
Lately I have made half-hearted attempts to do what I want in life, but “Whisper of the Heart” has made me physically ache for my own small ambitions to come true. I am genuinely shocked at how much this gentle story has shaken me. Yet it did so because it held up a mirror.
Like Shizuku, I can write, and like her, I have to try hard to find the little gems inside me, and polish them until they shine.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

The Seeker in Forever by Alan Fox

What do you get when you combine the political oppression of Orwell with the escapist fantasy of Tolkien? You get Alan Fox’s “The Seeker in Forever”. Set in a dreamscape America, it tells the story of Miles Roark, a sidewinder, an outsider, trying to halt the rise of Cinjun Khan Smythe, who is on the brink of becoming the most powerful man in America.
Yet it is also a story about love, and the relationship between Miles and fellow outsider Daphne Fox is subtle yet strong. Due to this added dynamic, at times the characters play like love songs, and when they do, Fox’s writing takes the reader to a place that is otherworldly, ethereal.
Rather than being an ‘us versus them’ theme, “The Seeker in Forever” is ‘insider versus outsider’, and so will still be relevant and identifiable no matter what decade, century or country we are living in. Many of the acts in the story can in some way, however subliminally and tenuously, be linked to political events throughout history.
There is a fascinating scene in which Miles stands outside Cinjun’s office building, calmly talking to the passers-by about love, truth and freedom, something they will be denied by Cinjun. It is a ‘Sermon on the Mount’ without being preachy. Instead of having Miles arrested, or even acknowledging him, Cinjun simply ignores him.
This scene is a wonderful example of the two men’s characters. Cinjun the overconfident, untouchable politician; and Miles the charismatic, determined and persistent leader. It shows how secure Cinjun feels in his position that he does not have Miles arrested, that he does not see him as a threat; yet at the same time it seems contrary to the ethos of Cinjun’s policies.
Their final confrontation takes place inside a huge public arena, the Pleasuredome. Although far from being your average political debate, in some way it seemed to echo reality when Tony Blair took to the chair during the Iraq war enquiry, only without the epic majesty of the Pleasuredome battle.
“The Seeker in Forever” is a turbulent whirlwind of passion that takes the reader on a rollercoaster without a safety harness. Fox’s unique, beautiful and unforgettable manner of storytelling means that the reader will need to be prepared for their mind to bend quite erratically if they are to fully comprehend and take pleasure in the experience.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Australian Open 2010 - 4th Round - Murray v Isner

Patience is a virtue, and Andy Murray certainly utilized it in his fourth round match against 6’9” American John Isner. Murray has never been past the fourth round in Melbourne, so the prospect of the best returner in the game going up against one of the best servers in the game was more than tantalising.
Murray has been guilty of going for a brief, mental walkabout during his last three matches, but from the off, he looked razor sharp, and was unfazed by the barrage of laser-guided missiles being pelted at him from Isner’s racket. Murray slowed his first serve down, and in doing so made it far more consistent than in previous rounds. He was the one holding to love while slowly making inroads during Isner’s service games.
As Murray began to tame Isner’s big weapon, he also exposed the American’s mobility issues with the drop shot, and catching him out with slices aimed at Isner’s shoelaces.
A tense first set gave both players only one unconverted break point each. At 5-6, Murray served to take it to a tiebreak, but forgot his game-plan of slowing the first serve to get it in. Predictably, faults crept in, and he soon found himself in trouble, but managed to serve himself out of it.
The Scot took the first mini-break to go 3-2 up, but lost the next point. He held the next, and then took the next two points from Isner’s serve, earning two set points. Isner saved one, but Murray rarely needs asking twice to do anything on a tennis court, and secured the set on the next.
Murray pressed harder in the second set, getting more chances to break than the first, but failing to convert. Instead of letting it fester in his mind, he waited patiently. It would come. At 4-4, it did. Yet once again, Murray went for bigger serves that missed, and once again had to serve himself out of a hole to take the second set.
The uncharacteristically muted Aussie crowd were finally roused to life at 2-2 in the third set. Isner was serving at 0-30, by now unable to get as many cheap points from aces. A Murray lob proved an easy smash for Isner, but Murray sprinted back across the width of the court and leaped into the air to send the ball back to a startled Isner, who could only dump it in the net.
This set up three break points for Murray, who only needed the one with a stunning backhand down the line hit from the shadows at the back of the court and outside the tramlines. Even Isner’s coach could only doff his hat to Murray’s skill.
A Murray hold was followed by another break of the Isner serve, and Murray served the match out, finishing once again with a gorgeous drop shot.
The first week of the Open has been a promising taster of what we can expect from Murray’s game this year. More forays into the net, a flatter and faster forehand, and a more proactive approach all around. His low winners count in this match was down to his opponent’s wingspan covering the whole court, and tempered by the huge number of errors from Isner.
Murray’s slam record last year had been tarnished by on-form players with big forehands and big serves. Perhaps this match will be the concrete proof that he can beat such players. Isner was the biggest test Murray has faced so far, and there will be bigger threats to come. If Murray can play another three matches like this…