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The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS)

Rated: 7+ but there's large amounts of text, so any children playing will require strong reading skills.

Story: It's a Zelda game. To no one's great surprise, you're an elf boy with a sword and wearing a pointy green hat. You must rescue a kidnapped elf girl and dispatch an ancient evil along the way.

Gameplay: Most of the game involves exploring islands and dungeons using an overhead view. All control is via the stylus (although some buttons can be used as shortcuts). Touch the screen where you want to go. Tap monsters to attack them with your sword.

As the game progresses, you acquire extra equipment. These utilise the stylus well. For instance, to use the bow, you select it, touch the screen to aim and then lift the stylus to fire when the shot is lined up. With the boomerang, you get to trace a path for it to follow. The game's many puzzles require clever use of the equipment to open up new paths and doors.

Save System: Manual save at almost any time. Unfortunately, loading the saved game returns you to the start of the current dungeon, which is a pain. The game's best if you can play decent length sessions or leave it in sleep mode in between short goes. Tricky if you've got a seven-year-old Pokemon addict who shares your DS.

Comments: Can it be? A proper, traditional game on the DS that uses the dual screens and the stylus effectively and also plays to the machine's graphical strengths?

Goodness, we only had to wait two and a half years.

After Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess on Wii, I approached Phantom Hourglass with some trepidation. Twilight Princess is good but far too similar to previous games in the series. I wasn't sure I could face another cookie-cutter sequel. Wondrously, however, with only a few apparently minor changes, Phantom Hourglass seems fresh and returns the fun.

The most obvious difference is the control method. Tapping monsters to attack them feels odd to begin with, but it soon becomes natural. It's much more pleasant and comfortable than using the d-pad and buttons, and allows better control, especially over weapons like the bow and the boomerang. The whole thing has obviously been designed with the intention of making the most of the touchscreen rather than taking an old template and trying to bolt on touchscreen functionality.

The other major difference is the use of the top screen. It shows the current map for most of the game. This is, of course, nothing new in a DS game - shoving a map on one of the screens is almost obligatory. In Phantom Hourglass, though, the map is integral to the gameplay. Most of the maps can be swapped down to the lower screen and drawn on, allowing notes and secret paths to be recorded. One dungeon requires several visits and getting through it at speed is important, so a well-annotated map is vital. In other places, sketching on the map is part of the solution to puzzles. When stealth is required, the map shows the location of enemies. Just as much effort has gone into utilising the dual screen aspect of the DS as has been used on the touch sensitivity.

On top of this attention to the features of DS, some minor changes have been made to the Zelda formula to make things less frustrating. The fighting is easier, monsters re-spawn less and the puzzles are sharper and more satisfying. Bottles, heart pieces, and tiny purses are gone. You no longer need to find the map and compass in dungeons. All in all, much has been added and it's so well designed that nothing that's been taken away feels like a loss.

Yep, if you've had enough of Brain Training and want to move on, this is the game to get.

The only real criticism is that the rewards for the side-quests are even less worthwhile than usual. Quite often you'll go to a lot of trouble only to receive a useless part for your ship. Mostly, you get spirit gems. There are three types of spirit gem and ten of the same type gives you a special power. Twenty of the same type allows you to upgrade the relevant power. Since the gems are dispersed fairly evenly, you'll have nearly thirty before they're any use at all. Getting all twenty of any given type requires vastly more effort and perseverance than completing the main quest. I played the game fairly thoroughly and only got eighteen of each. It's fun enough collecting them for the sake of it that the game isn't spoiled. Still, it's a slap in the face for less obsessive gamers. It's particularly jarring compared with the friendly nature of the rest of the game.

Oh, and, very occasionally, you have to yell into the microphone. That's just not too handy on the bus.

Nonetheless, Phantom Hourglass is a fantastic game that would be impossible on any other console. It's also the best game of 2007 on any format.

Conclusion: The finest Zelda game in ages and proof that the unique features of the DS aren't just gimmicks. Tests your brain and brings a grin to your face.

Graphics: Attractive, cartoon-style visuals that are bright and clear. Occasional close-ups highlight exactly how basic things are really but, in general, the game has the best graphics on the DS.

Length: Long.

Rating: 5/5.

Aveeno moisturising cream

Aveeno cream and box.

Price: £7 for 100ml.

What is it? A fragrance-free, moisturising cream for dry and sensitive skin. Brought to you by the power of oatmeal.

Comments: I've given a lot of advice about kid stuff to all kinds of people over the years but the one single product I've recommended the most is Aveeno.

Sprog1's skin cracked inside his elbows and behind his knees when he was a toddler and we ended up having to administer antibiotic cream, Hydrocortisone and E45 cream according to a complicated daily timetable in order to get things back under control. The Hydrocortisone made the eczema calm down but, whenever we stopped using it, his skin flared up again. The E45 slowed the deterioration but we always seemed to be back on the Hydrocortisone within three weeks.

Hydrocortisone comes with all kinds of scary warnings about not applyng it too much or too often, so we weren't happy about using it all the time. Our doctor prescribed a succession of creams and lotions. A couple of these didn't do any good and one made the eczema angry (like The Hulk but red). Epaderm did manage to stop the flare-ups but it has the consistency of wax. I had to grease Sprog1 three times a day. Disregarding the inherent difficulties of handling a greased toddler, the major problem was that all his clothes gradually turned into oilskins. He didn't get wet when it rained but he got hot and sweaty really easily and, since his clothes were waterproof, the sweat couldn't escape. He started to smell funny. Even then, the eczema didn't go away - it was still easy to spot which areas of skin were affected.

We went back to the doctor and asked to try something else. She prescribed Aveeno cream.

It was magical.

The eczema disappeared within a week. Patches of skin that hadn't been right for months suddenly got better. Oatmeal is truly a wonder of nature.

I can't guarantee it'll be effective for everyone but it's definitely worth trying.

On the downside, It only comes in 100ml tubes and I now have three children who require it on a regular basis. Each tube doesn't last long. It's free on prescription because the kids are under sixteen and, at SEVEN POUNDS A TUBE over the counter, I'm pretty grateful for this. At one point, Sprog1 was needing slathered all over three times daily and we went through a tube every other day. Fortunately, they all just need a little on their arms and legs twice a day now. Nonetheless, I still get ten tubes at a time and the local pharmacist has grown to recognise me. She apologises for not having enough in stock the moment I enter the shop.

Conclusion: I just wish it came in bigger tubs.

  • Can clear up dry skin astonishingly quickly.
  • Not very oily.
  • Works great on chapped hands, too.
  • Is magic.
  • Expensive.
  • Only available in small tubes.
  • Getting the dregs out of the tube is a pain.
  • Can make a child smell of porridge if applied in vast quantities.
Rating: 5/5.

Holes (DVD)

Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Jon Voight, Sigourney Weaver, Patricia Arquette & The Fonz.

Rated: PG.

Story: Young Stanley Yelnats winds up in a juvenile detention centre in the middle of a desert even though he's innocent. He blames a curse that his great-great-grandfather brought upon his family but, as fate would have it, he is in exactly the right place to set straight a number of things which have been wrong for a very long time...

Comments: This film is hard to pin down. It's not a comedy, it's not a serious drama, it's not an action adventure. It's The Shawshank Redemption with a whimsical tone, children, a touch of magic, cowboy flashbacks, buried treasure and poisonous lizards. It's also very good.

The cast is excellent and the story is enthralling, if a little odd. Yeah, it's packed full of coincidences but they're convincingly passed off as destiny. The whole thing hangs together well without feeling forced. In fact, it's a master-class in how to hold information back from an audience without confusion or trickery. Events play out in different times and places, gradually becoming intertwined and leading to a satisfying conclusion.

The movie was a little over the heads of my kids but children of nine or ten shouldn't have a problem. Even if your kids aren't old enough, rent it for yourself.

Conclusion: Quirky but fantastic.

Explosions: None.
Coincidences: Lots.
Holes in the ground: Hundreds.
Thing you never thought you'd hear The Fonz say: 'Honey? Could you smell these shoes?'

Rating: 5/5.

Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles (Wii)

Rated: 15.

Story: Capcom recycles Resident Evils 0, 1, 2 & 3 as a shooting game pasted together with a selection of the old cut-scenes and a bit of text.

Gameplay: You have no control over your movement during the game and very little over where you look. Just point the wiimote and shoot. Selecting weapons, conserving ammunition and finding hidden supplies by shooting the scenery adds some complication.

Save System: Automatic saves at the middle and end of levels.

Comments: My boys asked me what game I'd got through the post. When I said, 'Umbrella Chronicles,' they fell about laughing. I knew I was talking about the story of an evil, multi-national, zombie-creating corporation. They obviously had an entirely different mental image of what the game might involve... I was initially amused but then I realised that this is actually part of a serious problem with the game - it pretty much assumes you've played plenty of Resident Evil before. If you have, you won't be thrown by a story cobbled together from bits and pieces of other games and, instead, be able to fill in the blanks in the plot and background information. If, however, the title makes you think of menacing rain protection, then all the talk of STARS, slugs and T-viruses is going to be impenetrable.

Unfortunately, having played enough Resident Evil to work out what's going on will mean that everything is very familiar. Very, very familiar. To illustrate, witness another conversation I had later the same day:

My wife: Is this a new Resident Evil game?

Me: It's a light-gun remake of the original game. Well, I suppose this bit is a light-gun remake of the GameCube remake of the original game.

My wife: This is the third version of the same game?

Me: I didn't mention the Director's Cut of the PlayStation original or the DS version.

My wife: Okaaay. Whatever...

'Whatever...' is a pretty good summation of much of the game. Walking slowly down that long corridor just right of the main door of the mansion (you know the one) and having zombie dogs jump at me through the window was scary the first time ten years ago. It seems to have happened so often since then, however, that this time I just got rather impatient waiting for them to appear.

So, in terms of Resident Evil, Umbrella Chronicles is a re-run at best. As a light-gun game, it's not that great either. It's relatively slow-paced with low numbers of enemies that each take lots of hits to kill. Each level ends with a boss that just WILL NOT DIE. The tough bosses, slow pace, familiar locations, fiddly controls and sparse checkpoints quickly made playing the game a chore. (The Wii Zapper works OK but doesn't add much to the experience.)

Note to developers: Having to quickly press buttons indicated by on-screen prompts in order to dodge attacks has always been frustrating and a lame alternative to proper interactivity. Bosses with enormous health bars, repeating patterns of movement and that can't be harmed unless they have their mouths open were old news ten years ago. Combining the two is pretty irritating. Stop it.

Conclusion: Maybe worth a rental if you're a big fan of Resident Evil.

Graphics: OK but nothing to write home about.

Length: Short.

Rating: 2/5.

Transformers (DVD)

Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox and some big robots fighting each other.

Rated: 12.

Story: Geeky teenager (LaBeouf) attempts to chat up a pretty girl in his class (Fox). They get caught up in an inter-stellar war between big robots that can disguise themselves as ordinary vehicles. Geeky teenager tries not to get grounded by his parents while saving the world.

Comments: What do you expect from a film based on toy cars which can turn into robots? Probably not much, so this is surprisingly good.

The romance subplot is pretty embarrassing. The main plot is fairly non-existent. Some of the fighting is hard to follow. Still, there's an awful lot of action involving big robots stomping on each other and just about everything blows up, so it could have been a lot worse. It almost certainly looks fantastic in HD.

Conclusion: One for teenage boys of all ages.

Explosions: Lots.
Robots: In disguise.
Message 1: Geeky guys are actually brave, misunderstood heroes.
Message 2: Cute girls dig guys that drive giant robots.
Basis in reality: Tenuous.

Rating: 3/5.

Rentokil Residential Pest Control (Mice)

Service: Guaranteed eradication of the infestation by a trained technician using techniques tailored to your situation. (Translation: a guy comes round and puts down some poison and then comes back a couple of times to check it's been eaten).

Price: £180. (Yeah, I know...)

Comments: I caught five mice in a week using standard, Tom & Jerry-style traps and there were more still scampering along the worktops and doing acrobatics down the stairs. Believing things to be out of hand, I phoned Rentokil and got them to deal with the problem. I'm not sure what I was expecting but, for £180, I was kind of hoping it would involve a little robot mouse with lipstick, a skirt and a cargo of TNT.

More fool me.

The guy who came out was friendly enough and gave some decent advice but then proceeded to put a dozen child-proof poison traps round the house. He gave the impression that this was what he always did. So much for tailored service. He came back a week later to check them and not one had been touched. He moved them around and came back after another week. They still hadn't been touched. This was apparently because I'd called him in too late and I'd obviously dealt with the problem myself. I pointed out that there were still mice about. He muttered that I'd already had three visits but agreed to come back after a fortnight. By then, the poison had been nibbled a bit and there'd been no sign of mice for a while.

After the fourth visit, he said he'd give me a call in a week or two to see how things were going. He didn't. A couple of months later, the mice came back. I just moved the poison around a little and they went away again.

Worth £180? Debatable.

The next step would have been sticky boards. The mice run on, they get stuck, someone hits them over the head with a trowel. Since the guy was only turning up once a week, I'm guessing that that someone would have been me. Lovely.

Rentokil trap.
A poison trap. The Rentokil man's most impressive gadget was a metal stick with a hook on the end for reaching under cupboards to put these in place.

The best advice I got was to plug up cracks and gaps in the house with wire-wool (available in B&Q). If mice can get their head through a gap, then they can get the rest of themselves through. The ones I caught had heads about the size of an almond which means they could slip under doors and through pretty insignificant cracks. Knowing this, I seem to have been able to keep them off the worktops since. There's other information on the Rentokil website.

Thanks to everyone at HomeDad for tips as well.

Conclusion: Reassuring but expensive. Next time, I'll do it myself.

  • Guaranteed to make the problem go away.
  • Useful advice.
  • It's nice to know the problem's being dealt with by a professional, especially if you're squeamish.
  • How exactly can you be sure the problem's actually gone away?
  • Expensive, unless you're at the stage where the mice are brazenly stealing electronics.
  • You're better off doing the job yourself or maybe calling the council.
  • Doesn't involve explosive robots, deadly lasers or the Kill-a-Tron 3000.
  • May involve a trowel.
Rating: 2/5.

Hungry Hippos

Hungry Hippos box

Price: £10.

  • Game base featuring 4 ingeniously designed hippos that stretch out their neck and open their mouth when the lever on their back is pressed down.
  • 24 little white balls.
Gameplay: Each player puts five balls in the reservoir by their hippo. The first player releases a ball and all the players hammer away on their levers until one of the hippos eats the ball or everyone in the house has a splitting headache. Play continues clockwise round the table with the players taking it in turns to release a ball until all the balls are gone.

Alternatively, for a quicker game, all the players can release a ball at once. For total mayhem and full aural pain, all the players can release all their balls at the same time.

Object: The winner is anyone in the vicinity who doesn't require paracetamol by the end of the game. In the unlikely event of a tie, the player with the hippo who's eaten the most balls wins.

Hungry Hippos

Game length: Under five minutes.

Number of players: 2-4.

Age: 4+. Younger children enjoy playing with it but it takes a fair amount of rapidly applied force to make the hippos gobble, so kids under four will struggle to play the game properly. (There's the choking hazard issue with tiny children anyway).

Comments: I remember seeing adverts for Hungry Hippos on TV when I was small and I always longed for a set but never got one. This meant I was quite pleased when the kids received the game as a present from their uncle a year or two back. Having children had suddenly paid off and I opened the box with anticipation.

Sadly, the game just isn't as enjoyable as the happy-looking children on the box would make you believe. It's reasonable fun for a bit but it's loud and soon becomes repetitive.

There's some skill involved when only one ball is released at a time but balls regularly come to rest in the centre of the play area out of reach of all the hippos. This leads to a re-release, or more often than not, a partisan nudge by one of the players which, in turn, leads to squabbling. Very few children will be able to restrain themselves to one ball at a time for long, though. Multi-ball madness quickly ensues and much of the game becomes a matter of pumping the levers as quickly as possible and trusting to luck. This has its attractions to children but there's not much longevity.

Hungry Hippos is the kind of game that will be all the rage for an afternoon, lie out untouched for a couple of days and then sit in the box at the bottom of a pile of other games for six months until you insist the kids play it and the cycle begins again.

Conclusion: If you're desperate for a shot but don't want it cluttering the house, buy it for your nieces and nephews and then head round to their house for a go.

Hey, hang on a minute...

  • Requires a mixture of luck and skill.
  • Involves counting.
  • Bright and colourful.
  • Fun in short bursts.
  • Doesn't require batteries.
  • Nostalgia value.
  • Awkward to get back in the box.
  • Bulky.
  • Full of little balls that are easy for you to lose and for a toddler to find.
  • Makes a sound like marbles being rattled in a tin. Prolonged exposure means that the noise may continue in your head even after the game has stopped.
  • Provides ample opportunity for cheating and mayhem. This is likely to lead to arguments. Then again, most games I review seem to have the potential for squabbling. Maybe it's just my children. Actually, maybe it's just children...
Rating: 3/5.

BioShock (Xbox 360)

Rated: 18.

Story: It's 1960 and, after the passenger plane you're traveling in crashes at sea, you swim to a small island which acts as the entrance to the underwater city of Rapture. Created as a capitalist utopia free from socialism, censorship and organised religion, Rapture is a sprawling Art Deco wonder where the dream of freedom has gone disastrously wrong. Most of the inhabitants have been driven mad by using too many gene-altering drugs, those in authority battle for power, and water is starting to pour in. As an untainted outsider, the opposing factions seize on you as a means to salvage something from the wreckage...

Gameplay: Realistically, you could play this as a straight first-person shooter. Rapture is full of psychos who would like nothing better than to kill you. Your only option is to kill them first and there are plenty of guns lying about. Just running around shooting things would be missing the point, though. Bioshock can be as much an adventure as a shooter. You can hunt out hidden resources, hack the automated defenses to help you, listen to the audio logs left by doomed citizens, 'research' enemies' weak spots using a special camera and acquire magic-like abilities using genetic upgrades.

Save System: Manual save of exact position at any time, coupled with an auto-save at the start of each level.

Comments: The question of whether videogames are art is perhaps a topic for a future Dear Dave. The answer is 'yes', obviously, but I'm sure I can string a thousand words out of it somehow (and maybe even throw in a couple of hilarious anecdotes about vomiting children while I'm at it). For a start, there's the possibility of examining the unique aspects of videogames, such as the ability to shape the experience via interactivity. Then there's a discussion to be had about where videogame artistry can go wrong by mimicking other media and real life too closely. Beyond that, I suspect there's plenty more to think about as well. One certainty, however, is that BioShock is liable to loom large throughout. It is the closest a videogame has come to traditional art. It looks fantastic from both a technical and stylistic standpoint, it deals overtly with philosophy and morality, and it acts as a springboard to new thoughts and ideas.

A different question, however, is, 'Do people want to play art?'

The answer to this is less obvious. The reaction to BioShock seems to be split between those who explored and experienced and those who just ran around shooting things. Everyone agrees it's good - they just can't agree quite how good.

There are a few legitimate issues with the game.
  • Certain levels and tasks feel like padding.
  • Everything proceeds in a very linear fashion. The levels themselves are sprawling but the sequence of tasks is pretty much set and there's never any need to return to previous levels. Also, the player's actions don't affect the story until the end.
  • BioShock has been billed as the spiritual successor to System Shock 2, one of the finest games ever. Unfortunately, it's a little too closely related. It's been polished up, stream-lined and given a different setting but it feels more of a sequel than an evolution. There's not much new and some of the stream-lining feels like dumbing down.
  • It's too easy.
It's the final one of these issues which is the most problematic. It's possible to muddle through BioShock on normal difficulty without a particularly excessive number of deaths even if you're rubbish at first-person shooters like me. Worse, dying just means a quick teleport to the last resurrection chamber you passed, anyway. Within seconds you can be back in the fight, good as new, while enemies remain wounded. Since death is only the most minor inconvenience (it's more embarrassing than anything else) and ammunition is plentiful, there's little incentive to be creative with the genetic abilities. This is a shame, since experimenting with telekinesis and the cyclone traps which launch enemies into the air and all the other powers is one of the best parts of the game. It's usually quicker just to shoot things, however.

Similarly, it's easy to skip over a great deal of the rest of the experience. Much of the atmosphere and story comes from listening to the audio logs but finding them requires thoroughness and patience. Why bother, however, when the game so readily forgives sloppiness and haste? It can be demoralising that brute force and persistence are just as effective as skill, thought and planning. The latter are more fun but can feel too much like effort in some of the less inspired areas.

BioShock is a revelation in terms of style and setting. At heart, though, it's still just a first-person shooter. Turning it into an adventure requires some work on the part of the player. If you're prepared to experiment and explore then you'll find it's a classic. If you just want to shoot things then you'll prefer Half-Life 2.

Conclusion: Not the best game ever, possibly not even the best game of 2007, but a great game nonetheless and a landmark in terms of mature story-telling and artistic design. The first game since Knights of the Old Republic that I'm seriously considering replaying (on 'Hard' this time and probably with the resurrection chambers turned off).

Graphics: Superb. Fantastic water and flame effects, lots of detail and it all runs smoothly. More than that, beyond the technical proficiency, the scenery is actually interesting to look at. I found myself continually stopping just to look out of Rapture's windows.

Beware of the bug that causes huge stuttering, though. This should be fixed by the patch downloadable off Xbox Live. If not, clearing the cache on loading up the game should do the trick. (Hold down LB and RB together immediately after launching the game from the 360 dashboard and don't let go until after the red 2K logo appears).

Length: Medium.

Rating: 5/5.


Elefun box.

Price: £13.

  • Plastic hairdryer/elephant hybrid.
  • Long, foldable plastic trunk. ('Over a metre long!').
  • 30 light-weight bow-ties that look vaguely like butterflies.
Gameplay: When Elefun is switched on, the butterflies fly up the trunk and out the top. Players must attempt to catch as many as possible. Once Elefun is empty, players can grab butterflies off the floor and put them in their net.

Elefun contents

Object: To end the game with the most butterflies.

Game length: The box suggests fifteen minutes but this is enough time to unpack the contents, read the instructions, do the fiddly initial threading of the nets, find a screwdriver to open the battery compartment, nip to the shops to actually buy the batteries, play the game and then watch an episode of Tom and Jerry. Even though the butterflies don't shoot out all at once, each game really only takes a couple of minutes.

Number of players: 2-4 officially, although certain types of children might become obsessed with obtaining a one-player high score.

Age: 3+ but my pet three-year-old just stands around holding out the net hoping the butterflies will fall in. Even quite old children could probably be persuaded to have a go, though (for a bit, anyway).

A 'butterfly'.
Comments: It's a game centred around an elephant sneezing butterflies. Surely that's the weirdest thing ever. Yet, after years of Cartoon Network and CBeebies, elephantine Lepidoptera influenza barely even registered as odd until I thought about it quite hard.

I really need to watch less In the Night Garden.

Bizarre concept aside, this has been one of the surprise hits of Christmas. Sproglette has been really taken by it and the batteries are charging up yet again as I type.

The butterflies tend to come out five at a time and the game is almost over in seconds. Frequently, however, one or two butterflies will get stuck swirling around in the elephant and take twice as long to come out as all the rest put together. This is frustrating and, even then, half the time needed to play is spent counting butterflies and putting them back in Elefun for the next game.

Catching the butterflies can be tricky, even for an adult. Younger children will struggle to capture a single falling butterfly. It is possible to tilt the trunk in the direction of a distressed toddler, increasing their chances of scoring, but you may still find yourself haunted by a plaintive whine of 'Awww... I didn't catch any...' The game always becomes a case of who can pick butterflies off the floor the quickest. Older children do better at catching but then there's more likelihood of a fight breaking out over the ones that got away.

Fortunately, trying to catch the butterflies is great fun and the mechanism works reasonably well. Played properly, most of the work of resetting the game is done by the kids themselves as they collect up the butterflies to score points. The trick is getting them to play it properly. Sproglette is quite happy to watch the butterflies launch, catch three by accident and then supervise me picking up the rest ready to start again. Grrr.

There's an emergency cut-off switch which kills the fan if Elefun is lifted off the ground. This helps minimise dubious experimentation and scalpings.

Elefun in action


  • Fun and challenging.
  • Involves counting.
  • Children are delighted by being rained with butterflies.
  • Clearing up is part of the game.
  • Requires four C batteries (not included).
  • Yes, four.
  • The fun bit is over very quickly.
  • Having to play it repeatedly may drive you insane.
  • When the batteries run out, you'll be forced to stand in the middle of the room throwing papery butterflies up in the air while small children leap around you squabbling.
Rating: 4/5 if you have suitable rechargeable batteries, else 2/5.

300 (DVD)

Starring: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey and David Wenham's voice. (The rest of David Wenham is in it as well but it's his pleasant-but-weird accent that you'll really remember).

Rated: 15.

Story: Three hundred Spartans take on tens of thousands of Persians in the Battle of Thermopylae while wearing nothing but cloaks and loincloths. And then... No, hang on, that's about it, actually.

Comments: Back in my youth, Sunday afternoon wasn't complete without some sword-and-sandals epic plugging a large hole in TV schedules between the farming programmes and Songs of Praise. They were generally lavish, plodding and in a slightly odd colour. They also tended to be less gory than the public service announcements in the middle of Farming Diary. (Maybe that was just in Norfolk, though. It's possible that the rest of the world doesn't need to be told to avoid repairing heavy machinery while it's still running...)

You don't get so many sandy extravaganzas these days. There's been Gladiator and Troy but not much else. Perhaps too many people, like me, just think back to long, rainy Sunday afternoons and sigh at the thought. I couldn't bring myself to get excited about 300. All I could imagine was pontificating in togas and a bit of spear waving.

I was wrong.

300 replaces the lavish sets of yesteryear with a couple of rocks, three pillars and a stack of CGI but it ups the action a hundred-fold and delivers more rampaging men in loincloths than a Tarzan convention and more dismemberment than a carelessly unjammed combine harvester. (In an attempt to replicate the style of the original graphic novel, it does retain the traditional slightly odd colour, though.)

The result is an action film more gripping than any number of the identikit space operas and espionage thrillers that have been churned out over the last couple of decades.

Give it a shot.

Conclusion: Made on the cheap but with such style you won't notice.

Explosions: A few, thanks to the Persians' supply of hand-grenades. (No, really...)
Muscles: Everywhere.
Lunatics in loincloths: Three hundred.
Body count: Astronomical.
Hilarious cameos by a rhino: One.

Rating: 4/5.

The Detonator (DVD)

Starring: Wesley Snipes.

Rated: 15.

Story: A maverick Department of Homeland Security agent (Snipes) goes after arms smugglers in Eastern Europe and winds up on the wrong side of the authorities and the local mafia. Cue a couple of daring escapes with love interest in tow, a car chase, some predictable double-crossing and a shoot out over a weapon of mass destruction. Again.

Comments: This isn't awful but it's so generic that I'd forgotten its existence a fortnight after watching it. There are some decent action sequences but the whole thing is a Frankenstein's monster of every action film you've ever seen. Everything from the nerve gas storyline to the twist at the end seems bolted on from somewhere else. It's like they spliced together three or four subplots that Bourne and Bond didn't have time to deal with, stuck an in-your-face title on top and then gave the lead role to the first person who walked past the studio. Wesley Snipes is a little out of place but we should just be thankful it wasn't Dolph Lundgren, Stallone or that guy from Police Academy who only talks in grunts and screeches.

Conclusion: I'll probably watch it again if I discover it while channel hopping late at night... but mainly because I won't remember having seen it before.

Explosions: There might have been...
Stunts: Yeah, I think there were one or two...
Setting: Erm...
Plot: Uh...
Characters: Um...
Memorable moments: Er...
Thing I need to avoid: Reviewing this again tomorrow because I've forgotten I've done it already.

Rating: 3/5.

Swordfish (DVD)

Starring: John Travolta, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry and Vinnie Jones.

Rated: 15.

Story: A computer expert (Jackman) gets persuaded to pull off one last hack by a pretty girl (Berry) and her crazy boss (Travolta). He quickly finds himself in over his head as his family get caught up in events and it all descends from internet fraud to bank heist to CIA conspiracy to nutters with rocket launchers.

Comments: Swordfish is totally over the top but mercifully restrained at the same time. The plot twists keep things interesting without becoming tangled. The narrative only ever jumps about to add spice rather than to make the film-makers appear clever. The pace is broken up nicely and, when the action sequences arrive, they're exciting, explosive and full of surprises. The cast is charismatic and entertaining, and Travolta is at his best. There's even a little food for thought on ends justifying means.

Despite all this, I'd somehow managed to be totally unaware of this movie until it popped up in my LOVEFiLM recommendations a few weeks ago. Was it criminally overlooked on release or was I just asleep? Let's see... Oh, 2001... That was the year Sprog1 got teeth.

Guess I was awake.

I may not have been too alert, though...

Conclusion: Slick, thrilling and fun.

Explosions: Lots.
Silliness: Plenty.
Plausibility: Slim.
Halle Berry's clothing: Limited.
Travolta's smirk: Constant.

Rating: 5/5.