Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Book review: Deception Point by Dan Brown

Oh God, another Dan Brown novel is inflicted on the World.  Will this mans evil never stop?  Deception Point tells the story of a meteorite containing fossilized remains of an alien animal that is found in a glacier.  Except, it's all a fraud and there's someone behind this deception ... point.

This is the audio book cover. Sorry about that.

First of all, I can quite comfortably tell you that the meteorite is not really a meteorite and that the 'alien' fossil is not really an alien without spoiling anything as it's ON THE BACK COVER OF THE BOOK.  Yes, that's right, the main premise behind this 'book' by 'author' Dan Brown is revealed before you've even read the first page.  That doesn't stop him going half way through the story before revealing this 'secret' - 250 pages of a 500-page novel.  I really don't get this decision by the publisher to reveal most of the story in a paragraph summary, especially when half of the book is concerned with discovering the damn thing in the first place.

For what it's worth, I quite enjoyed the bit up to when the 'fraud' was discovered, even though I knew it was all phoney (because I'd read the back cover) and in the back of my mind I was constantly thinking, I wish he'd get to the point.  Oh, I see what he did there - the deception point!  Ha ha ha.  Anyway, Brown's faux-scientific 'evidence' and 'facts' were quite interesting and thought-provoking without asking anything too demanding.  After that however, it resorts to ridiculous hocus pocusery  as a crack elite team of special force army types are assigned to kill just about everyone in sight who had realized the meteorite wasn't strictly a meteorite.  I mean, come on, black helicopter rocket attacks a mile away from the White House?  Really?

Maybe they just think it's a cool colour scheme?

It's a shame as the premise is really quite good.  A meteorite discovery with evidence of interstellar life is a great idea for a book.  The implications for mankind are massive and all sorts of metaphysical, spiritual and existentialist questions could have been asked.  In stark polar opposite to the direction taken by the great Carl Sagan in his novel 'Contact', Brown eschews all that nonsense in favour of a dire, chase-em-up and political shenanigan thriller.  The end was never in any doubt (I can't point this out enough - it was on the freaking back cover) and so everything leading up to that point was just futile filler.  He could have easily written this book in two or three sentences.

And another thing, why does Dan Brown insist on putting that little paragraph at the beginning of his books that states, 'all the technology exists and everything I describe herein is entirely real'?  There really is no need.  His Da Vinci novels suffered because of that little bit of bollocks (not JUST that, let's make it clear) as the source material for his 'facts' was actually based on a frigging hoax in the first place.  If he'd made this stuff up, everyone would say, 'Ooh, I like Dan Brown, his imagination is great'.  As it is, everyone *actually* says, 'I hate Dan Brown, he presents all this bollocks as real when acutally it's just a load of badger crap'.  There are frickin' ice guns in this novel.  ICE GUNS.  Guns that fire ice and use snow as ammunition, you know, ICE GUNS.  Knob off Dan Brown you moron.  It goes downhill from there.

Wonder if this is what he meant?

Maybe ice guns do exist, I don't know.  But, if they do, and this elite special squad has them, there is a massive trail of accountability leading all the way back to the perpetrator of these serial killings and as such, they couldn't get away with what they did.  I don't care who it is, they would have got caught, simple as.  The point I'm making is that the crimes are so outlandish and therefore too unbelievable in the face of his self-proclaimed 'everything is true' mantra.  Michael Crichton for example takes current technology then extends it just a little bit, asking the reader to make a small leap of faith into his imagination.  So, while we are never left in any doubt as to its authenticity, his books are no less enjoyable.  It's fiction, after all.  Dan Brown doesn't do that.  He says 'ALL of this is true, accurate and has an absolute base-line in fact' then crafts a stupid-ass story around it in those small, cliff-hanging episodelets of his.  It's horseshit.

To sum up, half of the book you already knew the outcome to as it is described in the synopsis.  The second half of the book is a lame-ass thriller with people running away from / being boffed by elite Government killer troops and the whole alien / meteorite thing, the actual interesting meat of the story, is largely ignored in favour of black helicopters, killer sharks, coincidental submarines and bonking politicians.  Yawn.

Rating: 1 out of 5 for the first half (I'd have given it a 3 if the end result hadn't been given out beforehand) and -17 out of 5 for the god-awful second half, giving it a (not so) respectable -16 out of 10.  Please stop writing books Mr Brown, you're putting the evolution of the human brain into minus figures.  Before long, we'll all be dribbling amoebic cells (well, more so than we already are).

Monday, October 8, 2012

Movie review: Taken 2 (2012)

A follow-up to the 2008 hit Taken was always inevitable.  That film was a constant surprise and built up a great reputation as a solid, hard-hitting action thriller.  Liam Neeson was nails and providing you left your brains at the door, it was perfect Saturday night entertainment.  With a decent showing at the box office, healthy DVD sales and a recurrent interest in Neesons character in particular (his phone call to the Albanian sex traffickers as they kidnap his daughter has entered the Internet meme lexicon), why would they NOT make a sequel?

Coming for him?  Big mistake ...

Taken 2 sees the same character and his family abducted while on a short sojourn to Instanbul.  Who knew that the gangsters from the original film had brothers and fathers and mothers and sisters?  Apparently they do and they are seeking revenge.  It's what they do in Albania.  Conveniently ignoring the fact they were sex-trafficking, drug-dealing rapist murdering low-life scum, the father and brothers of those killed by Mills in Paris have not learned their lesson and are now offering themselves up as sacrificial lambs to the 'special set of skills' possessed by Brian Mills.  After all, it's what he does best.

Nails, like proper well hard.

And that, essentially, is the plot.  If you've seen Taken, and presumably enjoyed it, Taken 2 is not going to offer up anything different in the formula.  Except for one: the ratings certification.  The first film was a 15, giving the director much more lateral freedom when it came to depicting the violence on screen.  As a result, the ham-fisted plot and cardboard cut-out characters (not you Mills, definitely not you) could be all but excused for great thrills and lots of spills.  Here, the 12A rating hampers the action so much, we're just about left with all the bad things about the first.  It's a real shame.

That's not to say the film is all terrible as there are some terrific action sequences.  Witness Brian and daughter Kim crashing through the US Embassy gates in a stolen Mercedes, some great fights between Brian and just about everyone and their dog and ... and ... that's about it.  Neeson is as good as ever and even at 60 years of age doesn't look too old for this shnizzle.  Maggie Grace as daughter Kim gets a slightly bigger part but Famke Jansson is largely perfunctory except as bad guy fodder.  Oh and the Eurotrash baddies are as slimy and stupid as ever.

No, don't do it, it's not THAT bad.

It's all so sanitized and routine and even Mills seems to have toned down his stuff.  Where before he'd not even hesitate to shoot his best friends wife just to illicit some essential information, here he allows himself and his ex-wife to be captured with only a few broken baddies bones by way of payback.  The finale barely stutters to an apologetic and muddled conclusion and whilst paving the way for a Taken 3, the lower age rating means we are unsatisfied by the despotic despatching.  Forget shooting between the eyes, this is more like tripping on an uneven pavement.

On the way to the movie theatre, my wife and I talked about what we were expecting.  Not so much Taken 2 but Taken Squared.  We wanted more of the good stuff, ramped up beyond belief, not more of the bad stuff tamed down to an execrable level and yet, that's what we got.  Taken Tamed, it should be.  A disappointment really.  I wouldn't say it to Neeson / Mills' face though, no way.

Rating: 2/5

A quick word about Vue Cinemas.  Seriously, sort out your ticketing arrangements and organisation.  We had pre-booked ours and 'inconveniently' the ATM's had broken meaning we had to queue at the concessions stand for our tickets.  Whereupon, the assistant tried to sell us your over-priced snacks and drinks.  Then, as Taken 2 was sold out (obviously no-one had read the reviews), there were several different queues all trying to get into the one screen, with no signs or directions or help from the harried ushers.  THEN, once sat, there were arguments breaking out over who was sat in who's seat, the grumblings of which lasted well into the film.  We paid a shit-load for this 'experience'.  Not cool Vue, not cool.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Board game review: Zombie!!!

A week doesn't go by without another zombie apocalypse or two so while you're waiting for the next one, why not play it out yourself?  That's the reasoning behind this board game, released by Twilight Creations in 2004.

Run like the wind.

Players take turns laying out map tiles making up a city.  As the city grows, more and more zombies shuffle into view, awaiting quick despatch at the hands of the few meagre survivors.  The objective of the game is to kill as many zombies as possible or escape via the helicopter.  Of course, you can't rely on your fellow survivalists to help you, they'll stab you in the back given the first opportunity (you know, as humans do).

For 23 quid or so, there are a LOT of components.  100 plastic zombie figures in two different flavours, a whole slew of counters, cards and nicely-drawn city map tiles.  Quality is not bad but for the low price, compromise has had to be made.  For instance, the health and bullet tokens are punched out of flimsy card and are quite tiny.  The map tiles in particular are of thin stock and move way too easily on the gaming table.  Even heavy breathing will shift your growing city around. The plastic figures are decent enough though and there sure are a lot of them.

Lots of luvverly bits
Rules are moderately easy.  During a turn, players will place a map tile, draw cards, move, attack zombies, move zombies and play cards.  Or something like that anyway.  Combat is easy.  Roll a die.  Over 4 is a hit, zombie dies.  Less than 4 and you're hit.  Lose a health token or use a bullet token to make up to 4.  Weapons or other cards can be utilized to make zombie despatch easier but be careful, other players will hinder your progress.

Actually, for the low price, it's a pretty decent game.  There aren't many tactics - kill or die, but the tension mounts up as more and more undead crowd the board.  Sticking it to other players is where the most fun is to be had.  Oh, you want to use that grenade to kill a whole building full of zombies do you?  Whoops, butter fingers, drop the grenade army-boy.  You know, that kind of thing.

The dreaded 'miss a turn' card is ever present and I really hate that.  There's nothing worse than giving up time to spend it on a lunchtime or evening board game club only to frustratingly spend it on the sidelines, watching others play, not able to do anything.  It's a lazy tactic by the game designers and takes me back to Snakes 'n' Ladders, a misspent youth, older sister rubbing butter in my hair while shouting 'He's toast! He's toast!'.  I shudder, thinking about it.  Combine the horrible missing a turn card with 5 players and not a huge amount of player-interaction in between turns, sitting around and picking ones nose is a real possibility.  Now I know how Michael Owen feels.

For an occasional slaughter-fest, Zombie!!! is good fun as well as good value.  It's pretty brainless and will provide a laugh or two but those looking for a bit more depth and strategy will feel disappointed.  In larger games, be prepared to sit out for a while so take along a cross-stitch or something.

Movie review: The Stepfather (2011)

It's a brave step by the production company to put the killer up on screen in the first pivotal moment of this film.  Instantly, we know who he is, what he does, what he looks like, his modus operandii, if not strictly his motives.  A guy leaves a family dead and with a new identity hooks up with another, using his charms and a set of outrageous fibs to worm his way in.  Their fate, therefore, is sealed, or is it?  Thanks to the attentions of the teenage son of this new household, suspicions of his mum dating a serial killer are well founded.  We know, because of the killers past, that 'hammer-time' is only a flipped-switch away, it's a case of *when* is it going to happen?

Him! He did it! The swine!

In spite of all the gaping plot holes, the play-by-play Hollywood thriller staples and obligatory acres of nubile flesh, we enjoyed this much more than I think we should have.  By eliminating the 'is he or isn't he a killer?' question right from the off, the tension mounts in different ways, namely the killer unravelling like his back story.  Even if we were able to predict what was going to happen in every single scene, by and large, it works (again, the point has to be made of 'in spite of everything').  It just about manages to lift its (bludgeoned) head over the parapet.

This is actually a remake of an original film from 1987 starring the rather wonderful Terry O'Quinn (John Locke in the Lost series) and as in that version, the films success lies on the performance of the stepfather, here played by Dylan Walsh (Congo, several TV series).  He's suitably creepy and definitely the best thing in this version but it's hard not to compare - his menace is nowhere near that of his predecessor meaning the whole film is nowhere near too.

Everyone plays their part well enough though, with the up-and-coming Penn Badgely making a decent fist of his role as the teenage son Michael.  Obviously I hate him because he's 25, can pass for 17 and his girlfriend is the enormously pretty Amber Heard.  Damn him.  Saying that, her part here amounts to little more than brainless eye-candy who only ever wanders about in a skimpy bikini two-piece.  She really is stupid.  Michael could have held up the severed head of a previous victim and she would have said, 'but THAT'S still not proof he's a killer'.  Duh.

"No, seriously, he's a killer, here's a head."

The film feels over-long and by the end, we were glad the malignant stepfather had begun his descent into madness again because we were just about to.  As mentioned there are some huge gaping plot holes.  How has he managed to evade capture all this time?  Someone, somewhere will have *something* on him, surely?  Maybe the net is closing and he's only perhaps two, three, maybe four slaughtered families away from being nicked and sentenced to 200 hours community service?  Why doesn't Michael *insist* on looking in those suspicious dead body-sized cupboards in the basement that his new suspected-serial killer of a stepfather forbids him from ever going near?  I'd have crow-barred them in front of him just to show him who's boss (him, obviously).  That old woman who suspected him and then amazingly fell down the stairs, breaking her neck and dying of suffocation?  HE DID IT, HIM, THERE, THAT'S HIM OFFICER, ARREST HIM QUICK.  Maybe that's why I'm not in the movies?

The Stepfather is a bit like eating candy floss.  It's nice while it lasts but is gone as soon as you eat it and you're left with decaying teeth and sticky jaws.  Or something.  What I mean to say is, we'd instantly forgot this film was ever made only seconds after the end-credits had rolled up and that's perhaps its most damning indictment.  It wasn't *bad*, just not very good.  5/10

Movie review: Circle of Eight (2009)

Jessica excitedly moves into a new apartment building but things quickly turn sour when all manner of strange things start happening.  You know, visions of dead bodies, weird building manager gets even weirder, lesbians, arty bloke tries it on, the usual kind of stuff.

Gives nothing away.

The films title is a direct reference to Dante's Inferno indeed the apartment building is called 'The Dante', so it's a big clue as to what's going on.  I say 'big clue' but in reality, by the end it's still pretty ambiguous.  That's part of the charm of the film however, trying to work out exactly what is going on, who is doing what to whom and more pertinently, why?  Employing a range of fringe actors, the budget is very much low-key and the special 'effects' definitely showed this up on the screen.  They're, well, a bit naff, if I'm honest.

With such a short viewing time of 84 minutes, plot has to come thick and fast so a lesbian scene was both tasteless and unnecessary.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not averse to some explicit woman-on-woman action but normally this is while watching 'films' that do not require much thought to the plot.  Here, *every* thought is needed for the plot and *that* scene just didn't stack up.  We could understand the romantical interludes between Jessica and the artist (well, we thought we understood them at any rate) but having two girls who weren't part of the building, had no connection in any way shape or form with the protagonist or story and who weren't seen ever again?  Meh.  To quote Ed, the building manager, that was counter-productive.

Mmm, lesbians, argagrhrghagh

Thankfully, or hopelessly depending on how you look at it, the films conclusion wasn't ... what we expected, to say the least.  I don't mind that and it's nice to get a refreshing twist in the tale of what could have been a formulaic haunted house scenario.  For others, the end will be hair-tearingly frustrating.  In my opinion, there are far too many movies that pan out to a limp, boring and entirely predictable finale.  We don't get that here and ones interpretation of it will differ from person to person.  Perhaps there will be a sequel?  I'm kinda hoping there will.  My wife doesn't, she hated it.  You could of course view it in a much more uncharitable light and say the ending is how it is because their original idea was so lame.  I don't think so though.  Make sure you watch through the final credits too, there are some more clues there (irritatingly so).

It's worth a watch if only to weigh in with your own opinion of it.  The characters are interesting enough and the story jumps along to a pacy beat.  Try and ignore some of the plot holes, crap effects or lesbians and you might just enjoy it.  Don't blame me if you're seriously flummoxed at the end. 5/10

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Board game review: Ticket to Ride

Ticket to Ride is a 2 to 5 player board game produced by publisher Days of Wonder.  Initially released in 2004, it has sold over 750,000 copies and won several awards along the way including the prestigious Spiel Des Jahres in the year of its release.  There have been several expansions and editions released since but this is a review of the original game.

The box.
At the heart of the game is a card collecting mechanic with the aim of connecting routes between cities on the gaming board.  Players are dealt 'ticket' cards which define their objective in the game and are kept secret from other players.  Tickets define a route between two cities on the board and after completing a ticket, ie connecting two cities via the train routes offered, points are accrued at the end of the game.  Points are also awarded for completing single 'legs' with the amount depending on the length.  Individual routes are completed by collecting cards matching to that routes colour and the route is then filled in on the board with the plastic train pieces.  Any uncompleted tickets at the end of the game means the score for the ticket is deducted from that players overall total.

More tickets can be claimed if the original ones are completed in-game but be careful, because as soon as one player runs out of train carriages to place on the board, the game is over.  There is an additional 10-point bonus at the end of game for players with the longest route.

There's not much more to it and the rules are easily mastered within, at most, a couple of turns.  It is considered a 'Gateway' game, that is, one being easy to play and a great introduction to other, more complicated board games.  Playing time is around 45 minutes and from experience, even up to 5 players can complete a game in about an hour.

Ooh, lots of bits to play with.
Component quality, as always from Days of Wonder, is excellent.  There are 240 plastic train carriages in various colours that are placed on the board which allows players to claim routes.  In addition, there are 140 full-colour cards symbolizing the different resources and tickets used in the game.  A criticism here is directed at the size of the cards - they aren't of the normal full-size playing card, instead are about 3/4 size.  This makes for difficulty when shuffling and indeed, in the first expansion entitled 1910, DoW released a full-size set of cards to replace these smaller ones.  A good move.  The board itself is large, colourful and maintains the high-standard of artwork as seen on all DoW games.  The scoring track (ho ho) goes round the edge of the board - a nice touch.  The only problem here is portability - it's a large game to play, say on a train or to take camping.  No bad thing of course, a big board that is, but it's worth mentioning if you're thinking of taking it on your jollies.

It's a big, hefty thing.

It's all in the gameplay of course and Ticket To Ride doesn't disappoint.  As mentioned, it's very easy for players new to the game to pick up the rules.  It's also very engaging and is equally at home in our lunchtime board game club here at work or for a family-orientated gamefest on an evening.  My wife declares it her favourite boardgame, supplanting even the mighty Carcassonne.  Following the traditional German-style boardgame, it's hard to see who has won until the end of the game and no-one is eliminated until then - very friendly for families.  Also, play is fast with little downtime between turns, an added bonus for those with attention spans of goldfish.

Tactics in Ticket to Ride are subtle.  You can go for lots of small routes but with smaller points totals while the longer routes obviously have more points but with higher risk.  Blocking is also a tactic and can be quite effective, especially when an opponents route is obvious (such as completing the first and last legs of a well-known route).  However, even blocking can backfire as precious carriages are used up on non-ticketed routes.   The 10-point longest route bonus can often be a game-changer with many of our games being won and lost on this bonus.

Interestingly, in the sequel to this game, Ticket To Ride: Europe, players can place stations in cities that allow them to claim routes held by other players, thus almost negating blocking altogether.  This has led to a debate in our board game club with some members considering the Europe version quite boring.  I can see where they are coming from as blocking in this original game can be quite devastating.  In the sequel, a block can be easily navigated with prudent application of a station (and a low cost of 4 points).

Overall, this is an excellent game and like Carcassonne is a good gateway into some of the more advanced board-games out there.  It's easy to understand, playing time is quick and the game moves on at a fast pace.  It's perfect for families looking for an antidote to the terminally dull Monopoly or Frustration and its subtle nuances make it a decent game for the more serious gaming afficionado.  Like the advertising blurb says, it's definitely not your father's boring train game.

Costs around £35.00.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Movie review: Husk (2011)

Scarecrows are scary - fact.  That's why they use them to scare crows away from crops and other stuff.  So a horror film based on one is a good idea, isn't it?  Well, yes, by and large.  It isn't a new idea, scary scarecrows that is, so it's down to the telling to give us a fresh spin on the yarn.

Join the harvest - ah, I get it now.

Six dumb teenagers crash their vehicle in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by cornfields.  When they awake from their post-crash concussion, one of their number is missing and the inevitable search within the indomitable fields of sky-high corn leads them to a scary stalking scarecrow.  Borrowing elements from a number of movies such as Blair Witch (eery deserted and scary house), Children of the Corn (big scary cornfields), Jeepers Creepers (invincible killer with scary mask) and a few others, Husk ticks every box.  Stupid American teenagers making lots of bad choices and illogical decisions? Check.  Lots of opportunities for jumpy scares? Check.  Enigmatic, scary serial killer? Check.  Stupid aliens landing in cornfields? Erm, no, we'll leave that to Signs eh?

At only 79 minutes long, we're not going to get an in-depth character study or Byzantine plot developments but what there is in such a short space of time is pretty good.  The back story is told through (conveniently-placed) expositional flashbacks along with some pretty big assumptions made by the mainly dumb cast of unknowns.  It just about clunks its way through the plot.

The setting works well as the cornfield provides a good foil for things to jump out of.  The claustrophobic elements are effective and the sense of danger lurking in every corner is palpable.  It didn't need to take place at night however as the cornfields are foreboding enough without having to add another layer of darkness.

We're not too bothered about the characters, with most of them being entirely unsympathetic.  The obligatory nerdy-type is perhaps the one most people would lend an sympathetic ear to but even then, his stupidity knows no bounds.  On a limited budget, you'd expect limited acting skills but here, the 'stars' do shine in their own way and play to the parts well.  The story is plot-lite, it has to be said.  In 79 minutes, it couldn't be anything else and like Father Dougals sweater, it would be so (very) easy to pick gaping large holes.  But we won't except to say, 'Stay in the goddam house until daybreak'.

We did like this film and any piece of 'horrific' entertainment such as this that can elicit gasps of surprise is on the right track.  With its 18-rating, we were expecting much more gore and scares though and we thought the finished article was no more than a 15.  There was minimal swearing (bollocks), no nudity (boo) and the gore was mainly left to the imagination.  Where 18 came from we'll never know.  It WAS very jumpy though but the ending was 'meh'.

Overall: 6/10.  You won't feel you've lost 79 minutes of your time if you watch it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Movie review: Transformers 3 Dark of the Moon

I'd love to be Michael Bay.  Even the mundane, such as going to the toilet or washing a mouldy cup in a canal can be enhanced by the addition of slow-motion explosions, pretty women wearing lots of lip gloss and big f**k-off transforming robots.  It would be like, well cool.  So, this review is in the style of Michael Bay.

That brings us nicely onto Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon, but which could easily be renamed as Transformers 3: More of the F**king Same Transforming Robot Sh*t As Before.

How does he do it?

In the pre-production meeting for T3, Michael Bay slams his fists down onto the desk and says: "F**k this, I want bigger 'bots, MORE f**king 'bots and a f**king 'bot that can eat f**king high-rise buildings.  You got that you lousy f**king c*nts?"

"But Michael, the cost will be too ..."

"I'll stop you there.  I don't care of the f**king cost.  Get me a f**king robot that can eat buildings and I won't rip off your head and sh*t DOWN YOUR F**KING NECK".

"Yessir, Mr Bay sir."

But do you know what?  That same f**king robot sh*t never seems to tire.  I'm not averse to seeing lots of robots kicking each others ass or a big-ass drilling robot eating a f**king high-rise building or men flying through a city scape like f**king flying squirrels (and not even the robotic kind of flying f**king squirrels either).  THAT kind of freaky f**king robot sh*t NEVER gets boring.

THAT'S the kind of sh*t I'm talking about.
There's a plot here somewhere and is something to do with a crashed vehicle on the Moon that contains Sentinel Prime.  HE just happens to be the 'bot equivalent of Anne Robinson, a gnarly old p*ssed off mutha-f**ka who wants to save his race of diseased machines and return home to Cybertron.  In there, Sam Wickwicky and his new uber-hot perma-glossed girlfriend (Megan Fox jumped ship after the second) manage to shoe-horn themselves into the whole shebang and of course, all the old favourite auto-bots crop up to save the f**king day.

I f**king love this guy

But it all amounts to nothing until along comes Optimus Prime and f**ks sh*t up big time.  That's the sh*t we want to see and T3:DOM doesn't disappoint.  Lots of alien robots f**king about, destroying cities, destroying each other and lots of humans in the process.  F**k yeah.  Now they've got big f**king flying mega-ships that can cut buildings in half.  F**k yeah.  And that drilling worm-bot sh*t, that's f**king well f**ked-up sh*t that.  F**k yeah.

There's even the totally magnificent John Malkovich in there.  He f**king rocks man.  Best actor ever?  F**k yeah.  Even Francis Mcf**king McDormand from Fargo crops up as a big f**k-off spy boss.  I've just f**king j*zzed in my pants and we haven't even got to the robots where they f**king destroy a whole city.

All hail to the greatest living person ever.

What can come next?  "Right you f**kers, we're doing T4.  I want to see an Autobot that can eat the whole f**king galaxy and sh*t out planets.  I want to see it in all it's high-def glory.  And Sam Wickwicky's new girlfriend?  Get me Beyonce on the phone and plenty of f**king lip-gloss.  Don't say no to me, I swear to f**king God almighty, you don't want to say no to me or I will f**k you up big time ..."

"Yessir Mr Bay sir."


Friday, April 13, 2012

App review: Figure by Propellerheads

Propellerhead are synonymous with music-making software, Rebirth and Reason providing the core of their back catalogue for years, so it was with great interest their latest software was to be released on the iOS platform.  With only a reboot of Rebirth on the iPod / iPad, Propellerhead ditch the 'Re' naming and go with a different-yet-similar kind of app for its second release.

I'm not sure how the title 'Figure' fits in with the app.  With say, Angry Birds, you know what you're getting.  Here, I find the title to be vague and unmemorable.  Saying that, 'Reason' was always a strange choice too so at least they're consistent in that way.

Music is made by recording small loops and then re-recording over the top to give surprisingly rich layers of sound.  There are three instruments to choose from, drums, bass and lead and each can have a different sample set.  There is a nice array of customization for each instrument but little control over the actual notes played.  The pitch can be changed, as can beats to the bar and some nice effects, or tweaks, applied to each.  The usual stuff is there such as BPM, keys etc.

The interface is nice and clean.
The quality of the output is good, especially considering how easy it is to create.  The bass in particular produced some very deep, sub-bass wobbling effects that could easily fit into a Dubstep or D'n'B outfit - the drums need to be more powerful though.  The lead samples were a little same-y but by using the Tweaks tab, some variation could be experienced.  That's the key really, as an experimental dashboard for a leapfrog into something more substantial, it's really very good.  For longer pieces or even complete, structured songs, look elsewhere.

Scandalously, there is no export option nor save function of any kind.  If you've produced a nice arrangement or set of sounds, that's it, you have to remember how you got there to bring it back.  You can't put it in any other music package unless you can record direct from your iPod (or iPad).  You can't even save the arrangement.  This is the single biggest drawback and for now at least, a major flaw.  Reading online forums, it seems Propellerhead ARE going to put some kind of export in and hopefully this will be as part of a free upgrade.

Looking at Figure as a freehand musical 'doodling' tool on-the-go, it's a lot of fun, especially as it's priced in the first tier.  For 69 pence, it's a lot of bang for your buck.  It's a universal app so runs in half-mode on the iPad but even scaled up, it loses only a little of the definition thanks to its clean, intuitive interface.  I had it producing interesting beats within seconds and I'm no David Guetta (or whoever is current right now).

If Propellerheads history is anything to go by, expect to see upgrades and perhaps more sample and effect packs but don't quote me on that.  It comes recommended with that big proviso; It will create some wicked beats but don't buy expecting to use them in other software.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Movie review: Sanctum (2011)

James Cameron sure does like his water-based movies, lending his name as producer here to 2011's Sanctum.  While the Abyss is a (ho ho) water-mark for the genre and rightly billed as a classic, Titanic was over-flowing with sacchrine and has not aged particularly well.

Sanctum is much more low-key than either of those two earlier efforts (let's face it, *anything* is lower-key than Titanic) and while director Alister Grierson tries to make a decent fist of it, he can't overcome the clumsy plot, cardboard cut-out characters and lack of plausibility.

This looks more alien than it actually is.  There are no aliens in this film. Pity.

Some cave-divers get trapped in a big cave and they try to get out.  That's essentially the plot in a nutshell.  The fun is in trying to guess who's going to get boffed off next and in what particularly gruesome fashion.  Saying that, there's little gore and the films suspense comes from the claustrophobia from operating in such confined spaces.

A big plus is the cinematography which is quite wonderful and the views of the caves are majestic.  I don't care if they're CGI or not, they look fabulous and I only wish I were brave enough to see them.

Just swimming along, minding my own business ...

It all starts to fall down when we get to the plotting and characterization, both of which are over-shadowed by, and cannot hope to compete with, the cinematic vision.  Insanely stupid billionaire explorer?  Check.  Gruff, no-nonsense cave guide?  Check.  At logger-heads with his delinquent son?  Check.  Amiable side-kick who we all know is going to die at some point?  Check, it's all there.  Plotting is pushed forward by some stupidly obviously expositional beats.  Yes, yes, you're in a cave, it's dark and we all know that previously useless shark tooth torch necklace (yes, really) is going to make an appearance at *some* point.  "I'm not wearing a wet suit to keep me warm", declares the only female character, minutes before her shivering hands play a major part in the plot.


Ham-fisted doesn't even begin to describe it.

As seems to be the case nowadays, the 3D has forced everything else onto the back-seat.  I can't wait for a non-3D film and we might start to enjoy some real plot and characters.  Avatar, as good as it was, was effectively an amazing-looking cartoon set against an incredibly lightweight plot.  Sanctum is no different but with much less CGI and much less believable characters.

Ah, perhaps I'm missing the point as it did extremely well at the box office and more than recouped its production cost.  On the big screen it would work much better and I could perhaps be more forgiving but not so good on the small black and white portable we have at home.  Those large holes they are diving into are a metaphorical symbol of the script they've had to work with.  Combine your viewing with some kind of drinking game based on who's going to die next, it'll be much more fun, I promise.

Rating 4/10

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

iPad App Review: FIFA 12

Coming from a long line of football action games (I refuse to call it Soccer, we here in Blighty know it as Football, get over it), Fifa 12 for the iPad is EA's latest instalment to hit Apple's baby.

First up, using virtual controls on a touch screen is no big deal.  It works.  Here it's particularly edifying as the pass, shoot and sprint buttons are all nicely located at the bottom right.  Sliding up on the buttons releases extra functions such as through-balls, passes into the box, that kind of thing.   Movement via the left-sided d-pad is intuitive and due to the natural position of the thumbs, it's hard to 'misplace' any of the buttons during moments of high tension.  There is an option to be able to control it via an iPod Touch as a wireless game controller - a neat idea but I haven't been able to test that.  Buy me an iPod Touch and I will.

Graphics are good, for the iPad anyway.  The players are solid enough and there are plenty of animations to keep it varied.  There are a few glitches though, especially when clipping and quite often players will appear bald before their hair is magically filled in.  It only tends to happen during the replays though and doesn't detract from the overall experience.  The facial expressions are not a bad representation and there's plenty of famous players to spot.  They look a bit 'botoxed' but hey, they're probably like that in real life anyway.

I do have a problem with the cut scenes.  There's no option to turn these off and while they're good for a few plays, seeing the same damn player substitution animation over and over makes one want to eat one's eyes with a rusty spoon.  Surely an option to turn off these extraneous scenes wouldn't have took much?  'Animation.Play = Options.ShowCutScenes', or something.  At least they give the option of tapping the screen to skip but as there are several parts to the animation, you have to tap several times.

Sound is awful.  There's some generic indy-band music on the menus and the in-game commentary grates after only a few seconds.  Turn it off and play in silence.

Navigation through the slidey, sweepy menus is ok and grouping of menu items is logical for the most part.  It takes an age to save game progress though and happens at the most inopportune moments.  For instance, if I look at my squad formation and then quit back to the main menu without making any changes, it still saves the game.  Most annoying.  And, unless I'm missing something, it's pretty difficult to spy on other teams.  You have to go through a transfer list search to be able to see what players they have.

There are a lot of players, teams and leagues to play with, including some pretty obscure ones.  Scottish Football anyone?  The management side of things is very light when compared to some other footy sims.  Training can be scheduled, team formations decided upon, options can be set depending upon the formation, players contracts' negotiated and a few other bits but that's about it.  F12 follows the UEFA transfer windows and I found this to be the most engaging part.  Trying to buy new players, bartering for better prices and wages, selling players.  All very nice.

A BIG problem (so big it deserves capitalization), is on the humble iPad 1, there can be some massive frame-rate slowdown during play.  I find I have to keep a tight leash on what other apps are running to enable it to run at a decent rate.  It can get pretty bad too, to the point of being virtually unplayable.  Maybe it's a problem on my iPad?  I don't get the same problem on other apps and games so I guess it's not.  Even skipping the cut-scenes ends up being a long, drawn-out affair as the frame-rate drops so low, it doesn't even register screen taps.  Bah.

Like other EA sports sims, I've found Fifa 12 to very engaging and well worth the 69 pence I paid for it.  Yes, 69 measly pence.  It's a stupidly low price considering the console version is what, 40 quid?  It's got its problems sure, but when it's running at a decent lick, play is seemless and it's highly gratifying to chain together a series of moves resulting in a spectacular goal.  It's definitely challenging and the easier levels are most welcome at first.  IF it was 40 quid, I'd think it was pretty poor but that 69p price point cannot be ignored.  It's tremendous value for money for what is probably the best footie action game on the iPad.  With a little polish, it could be a real shining gem.

UPDATE: After trying Gameloft's 'free' Real Football 2012, Fifa 12 runs rings round that poor offering.  Even for free, the Gameloft effort is particularly bad.  Get this instead.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Movie review: Faster (2010)

A man is released from prison and sets out to gain revenge on the gang that murdered his brother ten years previously in a botched bank job.

Dwayne Johnson is a rare beast having made a successful transition from wrestling ring to bona fide action A-lister.  With his 'The Rock' persona, he was genuinely charismatic in the WWE ring and a firm fan favourite whether playing a heel or 'face.  As an actor, he would be the first to admit he's never going to be giving RDN or Pacino a run for their money but he is what he is - a big hulking testosterone-y mans man that can kick derriere and take names.  While not afraid to show his comedic side, including a fabulous self-parody in 'The Other Guys' starring Will Ferrell, his action credentials are undoubted even if his acting ones are lacking.  Luckily, here, he doesn't have to do much and that fits in with his character quite nicely.

With Faster, belief suspension is imperative.  Don't go in expecting a discourse on existential theory by 19th century Danish philosophers (Kierkegard was a hoot, apparently), rather if you take it as a brainless thriller, you'll be much more entertained.  A good value Billy Bob Thornton crops up in a role as a damaged detective assigned to the case as the body count racks up while Johnson despatches bad guys with ease.  Maggie Grace provides a bit of eye-candy (and nothing more) while Brit Oliver Jackson-Cohen, ex-Hollyoaks alumni, crops up as a bored millionaire-cum-assassin.  He's far too pretty and suave.  The plot, despite a few twist and turns, is largely predictable but never plodding and the pacing is just about right.

It's easy to pick holes in a film like Faster but, do you know what, I feel that's being too harsh as the film hasn't been well received by critics already.  The characters are drawn with very broad strokes and while we get a little back-story, there's not enough to make them more than 2-dimensional.  It could have been better, sure, but there's place in this world for movies of this ilk.  They are pure candy floss, providing an instant hit of sugary confection but disappearing soon afterwards.  I don't mind that at all.  It's worth a punt if you have a few beers spare, a take-out pizza on order and a large comfy sofa to sink into.  Just leave your brain at the door and you'll be fine.

My rating: 6/10.  A 4/10 if I think too much about it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Movie Review: The Grey (2012)

Liam Neeson is a sniper hired by an oil-drilling company in the Arctic wilderness to literally keep the wolves at bay.  On a flight back to civilization, the plane carrying a load of hardened rig-workers crashes into the frozen tundra.  Neeson, along with the survivors, find themselves being hunted by a vicious pack of wolves, wanting to turn them into meatball sandwiches at the earliest opportunity.

And that's the story in a nutshell.  Of course, it's more than that as over time the characters are fleshed out (figuratively and literally) and the story progresses into a survivalist trek through stunning, Arctic scenery beset by breathtaking Winter storms.  Neeson, as ever, is good value and he's to be credited for attempting what looked like an arduous shoot at nearly 60 years of age.  Then again, his CV, particularly after his Oscar-nodded turn in Schindler's List, has been a melange of action-adventurers including the highly successful and hugely entertaining 'Taken' (2008).  He's certainly defined himself as an action star despite his advancing years.

The Grey promises much and mainly delivers.  Thrills and shocks are provided by the wolves as their pack-hunting instincts and innate intelligence allow them to pick off the luckless survivors one by one.  One memorable scene finds the protagonists shining their flame torches out into the darkness and seeing reflected back numerous malevolently hungry eyes.  Gulp.  The supporting characters are given enough time to grow and while they tend to fall into stereotypical cliches, there's enough back story to each so we care when they're inevitably bumped off.

It comes across as the bastard child of a sub-zeroed Jaws (1975) 'twixt Southern Comfort (1980), which is no bad comparison as both of those films are superlative in the genre.  I could name any number of other films where the boundaries cross but that's doing The Grey an injustice.  It's genuinely tense, has action in spades and leaves a lasting impression.  The cast do well but it's Neesons film and he's quite superb.  Saying that, even he plays second fiddle to some incredible cinematography.  The Arctic wilderness has never looked so harsh, foreboding or beautiful.

On a side note, the CGI for the wolves is quite atrocious in places.  Being shot in genuine minus-40 weather, they didn't scrimp on the location so why on the animal training?  Doesn't make sense.  It's not enough to detract a whole point from my final score.  Perhaps they blew the CGI budget on the frightfully realistic plane crash?  That was well scary.

Overall, it's a decent enough film with realistic characters, well-placed story beats and plenty of blood-covered snow to keep the gorists happy.  It's a shame the wolf effects were so naff and I sincerely hope it doesn't do for these wonderful, majestic animals what Jaws did for sharks.  Oh, and wait until ALL the credits have rolled or you'll miss a bit (like we did).

Rated 15.  Running time 117 minutes.

My rating: 7/10

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Government Defends Extortionate Train Fare Rise

Yesterday the Government backed the decision undertaken by train companies to raise the average train fare by an average of 6000%.  Rupert Clamflesh-Jones, Conservative MP for Doncaster East-West and Assistant Under-Secretary to the Assistant Under-Secretary to the Shadow-Shadow Transport Minister, said in a press conference that the move was "Good for Britain as it allows the upper-classes to spend more time in Gentlemens clubs, drinking 100 year old Port, smoking big fuck-off cigars, ogling at gyrating women in gold bikini's and laughing uproariously at the lower classes".  After an aide whispered in Mr Clamflesh-Jones' ear, he retracted the statement by mumbling something about trains, planes and 'that fat Canadian bloke'.

Rupert Clamflesh-Jones speaking yesterday.  Well, some cnut anyway.
When asked if the fare rises were justifiable considering that Britain already had the highest train fares in the World, Clamflesh-Jones replied, "We are committed to making Britain at the fore-front of everything and this is just another manifesto promise that this Government has delivered upon.  Strengthening Britains position as the pioneer of expensive public transportation services merely shows how great the Great in Great Britain really is and that's really really really great."

What we are expecting now that fares have gone up
So, that's good then.  This reporter, after buying a monthly season ticket to York from Doncaster for the princely sum of £280, can see where all that extra money is going after taking 3 and a half hours to travel the 30 miles or so.  We are obviously paying for the pleasure of standing in over-crowded, cold, windy, noisy carriages, waiting on over-crowded, cold, windy platforms for trains that turn up when they feel like it and when they do, being treated like cattle herded onto the abbatoir fast-track.  It's nice to know that all the money us commuters are paying for tickets goes towards those free meals given out in First Class, served under diamond chandeliers on Meerkat-fur carpets while us mere mortals in 'standard' class have to make do with Botulism Betty and her range of ultra-expensive 'snacks', 'sandwiches' and 'drinks' from that infernal trolley served under a flickering strip light on stained, worn-out industrial floor-covering. (*)

The 16.03 Doncaster to Mexborough

(* All fucking true, unfortunately).