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Night Watch (DVD) & Day Watch (DVD)

Starring: Lots of Russian people speaking Russian. (Which is worth knowing. I was five minutes into the first one before I realised that they really weren't going to stop and I needed to find the 'Subtitles' button on my DVD remote.)

Rated: 15.

Story: The forces of Dark and Light have been holding an uneasy truce for a thousand years. 'Others' - those with supernatural abilities - live secretly amongst ordinary people, the two sides keeping watch over each other to make sure the ancient laws are adhered to.

In contemporary Moscow, Anton learns that he's a seer and becomes an agent of the Night Watch, a group of Light Others who police the darkness. He begins to learn that, as usual, Armageddon is approaching and it's all his fault...

Comments: This is an interesting pair of Russian films. And, yes, by 'interesting' I mean 'not that great but entertainingly odd if you feel like something a little different'. The story follows on directly from one to the other (without any kind of recap) so don't even try to watch them out of order.

Night Watch is a fairly low-key affair, introducing the world of the Others, their leaders and the tensions between the two sides. It's quite vague, though, and not entirely coherent. Day Watch is much slicker and ups the eye-candy with plenty of Matrix-like effects but these are often the moments where the film makes least sense. Characters seem to occasionally develop X-Men style superpowers simply as an excuse for some cool CGI. It's all quite inconsistent - especially when compared to Night Watch where the abilities of the Others is fairly limited. The last half hour is just insane, with magic chalk that controls fate, James Bond-esque car combat, a tactical nuclear yo-yo, a rampaging Ferris wheel and massed Medieval melee.

The films have high production values and are intriguing throughout. Few of the questions raised are answered satisfactorily, however, and the concentration needed to read the dialogue makes it harder to just let the whole thing wash over you as the plot goes off the rails. You'll need some patience to keep going. Still, you could do worse.

Conclusion: These are a couple of passable supernatural action dramas that come with the added bonus that you can pretend to be cultural while watching them. The story gets madder than an inflatable pin-cushion stuffed with squirrels by the end, though.

Explosions: There are a few crashes and bangs but nothing much blows up... until the last twenty minutes of the second one - then everything blows up.
Bizarreness: Ever increasing.
Comprehensibility: There are times when you might be as well having the subtitles off.
Stunning, yet inexplicable, events: Several.
Ferris wheel induced panic: Extensive.

Rating: 3/5.

Disney's Princess magazine

Disney's Princess magazine.

Price: £2.50 every two weeks.

  • 44 page magazine featuring, 'Enchanting princess stories, pretty colouring pages & lovely things to make and do.'
  • A tacky, plastic gift (usually bling).
Age: I'm guessing this is aimed at four and five-year-olds. Puzzles include simple mazes, counting questions and a wordsearch containing essential vocabulary such as 'TIARA', 'SHOES' and 'BALLGOWN'.

Comments: Campaigners have got it all wrong. Newsagents' shelves are upside down. The lad's mags with semi-naked ladies on the cover are much more likely to warp my mind than those of my kids. Putting them up high at my eye-level isn't too handy. Meanwhile, this kind of nefarious, pink brain-rot goes just where my girl can see it.


Don't get me wrong - there's some decent Disney Princess merchandise out there. Sproglette got a fantastic book/music-player combo for Christmas that I'll review if I ever find it for sale anywhere. That phone thing isn't bad either. This publication, however, is somewhat worrying.

Yes, Disney's Princess magazine - 'Where every girl can be a princess!' Read about Beauty and the Beast organising a party, Cinderella opening the royal gardens to the public and Jasmine putting on a parade. Cheer with the common people. Gasp at the pink decor. Marvel at the amount of corseting that must be involved.

It's all just a little bit scary. (Not as bad as the Christmas annual, though. That has Jasmine brightening up the slums of Agrabah by sprinkling them with sequins).

Dubious social messages and gender stereotyping aside, the puzzles are OK and there's plenty to colour in. The instructions on how to make things are dreadful, however. Want to make a crown? Well, what you have to do, apparently, is 'Cut a crown shape from card and decorate it with jewels.' Genius, eh? (Oh, and that's shiny, pink card, by the way, in case you were in any doubt. Preferably, you should use pink glue and pink scissors as well.)

The jewellery is as durable as it appears but it does look quite cute when worn. At least, it does when worn by a small child. If she insists on you wearing it, pink had better be your colour.

I do wonder about the brain-washing effects this might have on my girl but maybe I shouldn't worry - Sproglette has just gone through the magazine scribbling over the princess' eyes with black felt-tip 'so they can't see'. Maybe we'll turn her into a physicist yet (with pink shoes and a tiara).

Disney Princess jewellery.
Four rings - that's a lot of bling for one small girl.

Conclusion: You might want to humour your little princess every once in a while but think carefully before letting doting grandparents get her a subscription.

  • Features both Belle and The Little Mermaid. (Note to self: Must get out more.)
  • The 'free' jewellery will probably hold its appeal for longer than the inflatable Fimble (or whatever else) that's stuck to the cover of CBeebies Magazine.
  • Er...
  • Contains scary, anorexic role models who seriously need to get a grip.
  • Make-it-yourself pages are ludicrous.
  • Will have you sharpening a guillotine in no time.
  • Just wrong in so many ways...
Rating: 2/5.

Disney Princess Songs book and music-player.
In contrast, this is actually really great. Good luck trying to find one on eBay.

Hama beads

Hama beads box.

Price: £Various.

Contents: A typical set consists of:
  • Two or three peg boards.
  • A stupidly large number of cylindrical plastic beads in a variety of colours.
  • A few little stands for displaying completed designs.
How does it works? A pattern or picture is created by placing the beads onto pegs on a board. A special sheet of paper is placed on top of the design and then a hot iron is rubbed over it for a few seconds. The heat fuses the beads together. The paper and board can then be pealed off to use again.

Hama beads contents

What does it make? A thin, but reasonably durable, mosaic.

How long does it take?: Ten square inches of board (for small beads) should keep a three-year-old busy long enough for you to clean most of the house. (You might want to leave a Tweenies DVD on to keep them company...)

Age: 3+ for safety but 5+ is the recommended age to make sure they can cope with the fiddliness. My three-year-old gets by, though.

Comments: Sproglette persuaded me to purchase a small set of this against my better judgement. I assumed she'd get bored and frustrated and give up after five minutes. (I know I would). Still, she smiled and said, 'Please!' which is more than the boys ever do, so I decided to just go with it. To my surprise, when she's in the mood, she can spend hours patiently searching out the exact beads she wants and painstakingly threading them onto the pegs. OK, she doesn't have the ability to design proper pictures but, because the boards are shaped, all she needs do is fill every peg in order to create something with a recognisable outline:

Hama beads penguin.
It may look like a paintball massacre but it's definitely a penguin.
Hama beads hearts.
The heart board is quite small. She does that one a lot...
Hama beads pink heart.
...but we're out of pink beads.

Sprog2 has even joined in on occasion. The whole room was filled with the quiet hum of little minds concentrating really, really hard.

There are apparently three different sizes of bead. Bigger beads presumably mean that they're easier to handle but you get fewer beads. Fewer and easier beads means a dirtier house - it's probably worth experimenting to find the optimum balance between your child's patience and the amount of time you get for cleaning.

Conclusion: I can't see every child going for it but those that do will be absorbed for hours.

  • Encourages patience and concentration.
  • Colourful.
  • Has the potential to keep them quiet for a long time.
  • You might even get some coasters out of it.
  • Kids might give up really quickly.
  • A half-finished project is a storage nightmare.
  • Requires locating your iron and dusting it off.
  • You'll have to transfer each finished design from the table to somewhere where you can iron it. Don't sneeze.
  • Small children + a tub of 3000 little plastic beads. What could possibly go wrong?
  • Probably best not to put hot drinks on those coasters...
Rating: 4/5.

Mass Effect (Xbox 360)

Rated: 12.

Story: It's 180 years in the future and humanity has spread to the stars using ancient alien devices called mass relays which form a web of faster-than-light routes across the galaxy. Turns out, though, there are plenty of other races using the relays, too, and humankind must earn status and respect in the interstellar community.

You are Commander Shepard, a human military officer, who has been singled out to be humanity's first SPECTRE operative - a special agent working for the galactic government. You quickly find yourself zipping all over the place in an effort to thwart a plot which threatens all sentient life in the galaxy.

This being a role-playing game, you get to run menial errands for all sorts of people on the way...

Gameplay: You and a couple of computer-controlled companions wander round closely confined alien environments. Events are viewed from a third-person perspective. Combat plays more like a squad-based shooter than an RPG, taking place in real-time. You get to hide behind objects and actually aim your weapons but you can pause things to give orders to your friends.

Much of Mass Effect is spent exploring and talking to people. Conversations involve choosing replies from a limited set of responses but the set up for this is slicker than normal for this type of game. People ask you to find/kill/persuade something/someone for money/information. (Delete as applicable).

You also get to drive round rocky worlds in a tank quite a lot.

Save System: Auto-save on entering new areas. Manual save available when not in combat.

Comments: It would be easy to fill this review by listing the many faults of Mass Effect. Almost every aspect of it is broken. I will resist, however. The game should be admired for its ambition. It's a galaxy-spanning space opera involving an epic story and difficult moral choices. It is Babylon 5: The Game, at last.

Except, obviously, it's not set in the Babylon 5 universe. Also, all the characters are really generic and it takes itself far too seriously and the interface is clumsy and...

Nope. It's no good. I can't resist after all. The thing is knackered in just too many ways. Here's a selection of the problems:
  • Technical issues. Mass Effect looks quite nice in screenshots but in motion it's full of stuttering and pop-up.

  • Irritating inventory system. Comparing and equipping items is so clumsy that I began to dread finding new stuff. It nearly always turned out to be junk anyway.

  • Dull back-story. The developers have gone to a great deal of trouble to create a detailed history for the game and they're desperate to share every detail. It's not that interesting, however.

  • Unrewarding character advancement. Improving your character is normally one of the main draws of an RPG but there's little customisation here and going up a level often doesn't bring much reward.

  • Uninteresting characters. You really wouldn't be upset if half of your team fell out an airlock.

  • No sense of scale. Planets are big places. How come everything of note on each world you visit is in the same square mile?

  • Lazy level design. Many levels are small and linear; some are just plain incompetent - the two useful areas of your ship (the ones you have to visit all the time) have some pointless corridors and a lengthy loading screen disguised as a lift between them.

  • Tacked on side quests. There are lots of missions to undertake that aren't part of the main story. These all take place on barren, barely distinguishable worlds with lots of mountains that are tiresome to navigate in the tank. The destination is always a mine, a warehouse or an underground bunker. Every mine is identical to the next but with differently placed crates. The same goes for the other types of location and any spaceships that require being boarded. Poor.

  • Ropey combat. This isn't Ghost Recon. Ordering your companions about is inexact and hampered by a dubious camera. Enemies often just rush at you.

  • Silly missions. You're a special agent on a quest to save the galaxy; why do you have to buy your own equipment? Does humanity seriously have no one else to switch off a rogue computer on Earth's moon? Is this really the time for prospecting? Why hasn't anyone else found the artifacts you keep tripping over?

  • Slow pace. Cut-scenes, conversations, lots of running backwards and forwards, stacks of loading screens and plenty of uneventful driving.
There are other minor issues (and probably some major ones that I've blanked from my mind) but, essentially, nothing seems finished. There's just an air of 'this will do' about it all, as if the developers were relying on hype and the fact that RPG fans are used to putting up with this kind of thing and would buy the game anyway.

They got away with it. Despite its flaws, Mass Effect is vaguely enjoyable, it had strong sales and there are glowing fan reviews all over the internet. It's a big budget, non-Japanese, science fiction role-playing game featuring space travel. As such, there really isn't much competition on consoles apart from the Knights of the Old Republic games. I guess it will have to do while we wait for that proper Babylon 5 game that will never happen. I'm not sure I can face the two planned sequels, though, unless the developers put some real effort into fixing most of the problems. They won't get away with it again.

Conclusion: If you loved Knights of the Old Republic you'll like this... a bit.

Graphics: The game features possibly the best character models ever but dumps them in often uninspiring environments. Motion stutters and details sometimes pop into view a second or two late.

Length: Medium if you just whizz through the main story. (Recommended.) Very long if you do all the side quests. (Don't do it. Really. It's not worth it.)

Rating: Just barely 3/5.

Shoot 'Em Up (DVD)

Starring: Clive Owen, Monica Bellucci (Persephone in the Matrix sequels), a baby, some carrots & Paul Giamatti (who'll look familiar from a million places but you'll have to Google him to be sure exactly where).

Rated: 18.

Story: Smith, an angry loner, comes to the rescue of a heavily pregnant woman who is being chased by hitmen. He finds himself steadily embroiled in a conspiracy as he attempts to save the baby from increasingly extreme assassination attempts. Luckily, he's been trained extremely well to kill with both guns and carrots.

Comments: There are a few scenes at the beginning of this film which are hugely reminiscent of Children of Men with Clive Owen protecting a baby that he's had to help deliver under difficult circumstances. This time, however, he gets guns rather than flip-flops. Lots and lots of guns.

Pretty soon, he's doing acrobatics with a newborn in one hand and a machine-gun in the other, taking out dozens of enemies at a time. It's all a little over the top until you realise that this is, in fact, the best film of a videogame ever made. One guy carving his way through a horde of inept bad guys is a scene I've played through a hundred times but it's seldom been filmed with such style. Of course, there is no actual videogame tie-in because that would just be a far too sensible media cross-over but the film apes the feel of a whole army of games that feature shoot-outs in warehouses full of crates.

Clive Owen does an excellent job as the enigmatic lead and copes surprisingly well as an action hero. The other main characters are OK but come off worse from the cheesy script. It may be that the whole thing is trying to be cheesy, though. It's hard to tell and that's the main problem with the film - it never quite finds its identity. It's too outlandish to be taken seriously but seldom funny enough to be a spoof. This is typified by the anti-gun message, which is cleverly ironic in a movie featuring a main character who only survives thanks to easy access to guns. Or maybe it's just stupid. I'm not sure.

Still, Shoot 'Em Up is a good effort with superb action sequences and a hero who spends much of the film actively involved in childcare. Hurrah!

Not so good if you don't like gun fights, though...

Conclusion: It's slightly too silly and confused to be an absolute classic but it's still one of the better action films of recent years.

Explosions: Er... Actually, now that I think about it, there may not be any. Shoot 'Em Up is all about the guns. This is where the similarity with games breaks down. One of the fundamental rules of an actual shoot 'em up is that the bad guys must build their fortifications out of explosive barrels. It's the law.
Guns: Lots and lots.
Brainless goons: More than that.
Carrot-induced fatalities: Many and varied.
Life-saving uses of a soiled nappy: One.

Rating: 4/5.

Pop-Up Pirate!

Pop-Up Pirate! box.

Price: £10.

  • 1 pirate.
  • 1 barrel.
  • 1 barrel base.
  • 24 coloured swords.
  • Stickers.
Gameplay: Players take it in turns sliding swords into holes in the side of the barrel until the pirate pops out. The hole that makes the pirate pop changes with each game.

  • New rules: To be the one to launch the pirate.
  • Old rules: To avoid making the pirate pop up. Each round, the player who launches the pirate is eliminated until only one player is left.
Game length: 1-5 minutes, depending on chance and the decisiveness of those playing.

Number of players: 2-4.

Age: 4+ officially. Children younger than that can manage but they may struggle to insert the swords properly. They're also far more likely to inadvertently lean over the barrel as they do the inserting, thus risking taking a pirate to the chin.

The game is unlikely to hold the attention of children much older than five for long (unless they start experimenting with different projectiles and younger siblings).

Pop-Up Pirate! contents.

Comments: I have fond memories of playing this at a friend's house when I was four or five. Unlike with Mouse Trap, however, it turns out that my recollections have not been corrupted by age and sleep deprivation. Pop-Up Pirate! is actually quite decent. True, there's not really much to it, but that means children of different ages can play it without the older children having an advantage. It's not as frustrating as Snakes and Ladders and the sudden-death nature of the game seems to keep children focussed even when it's not their go. There's little need to keep reminding participants whose turn it is and there's no hunting around for dice last seen being lobbed over a child's own shoulder, ricocheting off the cat and bouncing amongst the wires under the TV unit.

The game can be over almost instantly but this isn't a problem because it can be started-over almost instantly too. It's the kind of game you'd expect to play a few times in a sitting anyway.

Pop-Up Pirate! is exciting, colourful, quick to set up and can be explained in a few words. This makes it a good game for getting visiting children settled.

Conclusion: It's not going to keep them entertained for hours but it's a useful distraction for fifteen minutes every now and then.

  • Short.
  • Simple.
  • Contains a mild element of suspense.
  • Small children are delighted when the pirate pops up.
  • The swords are easily scattered round the house.
  • Putting on the stickers neatly is very difficult. (Those with OCD may want to leave them off to be on the safe side.)
  • It's sometimes possible to insert a sword at a slight angle and avoid tripping the mechanism.
  • I keep wanting to take our one apart to see how it works.
Rating: 4/5.

Pop-Up Pirate!

Highlander: The Source (DVD)

Starring: Adrian Paul.

Rated: 15.

Story: The world has descended into chaos and a small band of immortals sets off in search of the fabled 'Source'. Unfortunately, random passers-by want to eat them, and the Source has a very camp guardian who wants to chop them into tiny pieces. Cue some lack-lustre sword fights...

Comments: This fifth Highlander film was originally intended for theatrical release but, instead, went straight to Sci-Fi Channel.

Which just about says it all.

A paper-thin plot, aimless action and confused characters combine to make The Source a total mess. It's the kind of film where things explode simply for the sake of it. Even better than that, despite listing the basic rules of the Highlander universe at the start, the film seems to delight in breaking them. There's even a dodgy Cardinal in it for no real reason. Fantastic.

Since it features characters from the TV series, The Source might hold some nostalgia for fans but, more likely, it will just sully fond memories. Happily for everyone else, the movie's so inept on occasion, that it's actually funny. Also, thanks to both the participants in the final battle being endowed with super speed, it's all over mercifully quickly.

Conclusion: A film so bad that it fast-forwards itself.

Explosions: Three or four.
Big swords: Loads.
Ludicrous astronomical events: One. (Repeated).
Award nominations: 'Priest with the bizarrest haircut', 'Worst blade-cleaning montage' & 'Most gratuitous use of a fuel truck'.
Chance of franchise ever recovering: Well, at least we have the impending game tie-in to look forward to...

Rating: 1/5.

Dungeons and Dragons: Tactics (PSP)

Rated: 12+

Story: Honestly, I have no idea, despite the fact I played this for several hours. There's something about a prophesy and impending doom. Since the first cut-scene doesn't appear until after the second mission, it's like the game itself doesn't even care what's going on.

Gameplay: Painstakingly guide a group of up to six adventurers around dungeons and battlefields, fighting monsters and gathering treasure. Combat occurs in a turn-based fashion. Most of your time will be taken navigating menus, moving the characters laboriously down corridors and managing what they're carrying.

Save System: Save at any time.

Comments: Some games require a beard. Facial hair is essential for stroking while considering the next move, for scratching while pondering the impenetrable rules and for pulling out in clumps while wrestling unsuccessfully with the controls.

Dungeons and Dragons: Tactics is one of those games.

If you have never played any Dungeons and Dragons before, then steer well clear. The learning curve isn't so much vertical, it actually overhangs. I played plenty of D&D as a teenager, I'm a fan of turn-based board games and I have a physics degree. I still found this game hugely difficult to understand. That might be forgivable as 'depth' if the whole thing weren't such a tedious faff to play. In theory, computerising the complex D&D rules should have taken the effort out of playing but, in reality, the simplest actions, like changing weapons or moving across a room, have been transformed into something lengthy and involved. Meanwhile, since the dice rolls and calculations are now hidden from the player, it's very hard to work out why the zombie your entire party has been hacking at for the last five turns is adamantly refusing to fall over.

Even if you can recite the latest Dungeon Master's Guide off by heart, the frustrating interface and thread-bare story are worth avoiding anyway. Break out some miniatures and invite a few friends round instead.

Conclusion: Not worth growing a beard for.

Graphics: Nothing special and the magical effects are disappointing. Cut-scenes consist of text and a few static drawings.

Length: Long.

Rating: 1/5.

Money Train (DVD)

Starring: Wesley Snipes, Woody Harrelson & Jennifer Lopez.

Rated: 18.

Story: Snipes and Harrelson are brothers (don't ask) and work as undercover cops on the New York underground. Snipes is the sensible one and Harrelson is the crazy one. They both fancy their new co-worker (Lopez). It all leads, by way of endless 'witty' banter, to a heist of the train carrying the subway's takings.

Comments: Don't be fooled by the first five minutes. They give the impression that this might be entertaining but fail to prepare you for the hour or more of uneventful cop/love-triangle/bickering-brother cliches that follows. The last twenty-five minutes of train-based mayhem might be OK if you somehow manage to still care about any of the characters by that point, you don't mind that nothing makes sense and you haven't lost the will to live. Even then, it's all pretty daft and contrived.

Conclusion: A predictable buddy movie is genetically spliced with an idiotic action flick. The resulting monster has the charm of Snipes, the subtlety of Lopez and the butt of Harrelson. Discerning film-lovers hunt it down with pitchforks.

Explosions: None.
Believable characters: None.
Funny jokes: None.
Predictable but stupid plot developments: Plenty.

Rating: 1/5.

Disney Princess Talk 'n Teach Telephone

Disney Princess Talk and Teach telephone.

Price: £20.

Contents: An old-fashioned telephone receiver and base with light-up number buttons and built-in phone book.

Gameplay: There are a number of games that can be selected:
  • Find the number. The player is asked to find a particular number between 0 and 9.
  • Find the picture. The player is asked a question such as 'What was turned into a carriage?' and must press the button with correct picture.
  • Memory. Three buttons light up in turn and the player must remember the sequence and repeat it. If done correctly, an extra number is added to the end of the sequence. (Four numbers is the maximum, though).
  • Shopping. The player must look up and enter the three-digit number of the correct shop when prompted.
  • Music. Pressing each button plays a different tune.
Also, each of the four princesses featured has their own special button. Press it and enter the correct three-digit number to hear one of their favourite tunes.

Object: To be indoctrinated in the ways of sparkly pink consumerism.

Game length: Until the batteries run out.

Number of players: 1.

Age: 3-5 years. Three-year-olds will stab at the buttons rather than playing the games. Five-year-olds will need to be into the role-playing aspects of it so as not to become bored.

Comments: What is there to say? Just look at the picture and you'll know whether the Talk 'n Teach will blend into your life. If you have a small girl who likes pink stuff with Disney princesses on, she'll love this.

Well, OK, I guess there is quite a lot of Disney princess stuff out there. I'd better give you a little more information to aid your decision-making, should you foolishly venture into the dreaded pink aisle of Toys'R'Us.

This is actually more complex than it first appears. Trained by various other toy phones I've been subjected to, I was expecting it to merely play tunes and identify pictures and numbers. It does do those things but there are additional games and features. That said, it's a bit much for a three-year-old to cope with without supervision. In the Memory game, trying to enter the numbers too quickly means that they don't register. In the Shopping game, turning to the page of shop numbers resets the question. In the Find the picture game, knowledge of the stories is required. These little issues make the Talk 'n Teach confusing and it can be hard for small children to know if they're doing the right thing.

If you're going to have to sit and take an active role, you'd be as well doing something more convincing. (CBeebies games, for example). Older children might get on better but, since getting the answers correct doesn't bring much reward, there's little incentive for them to persevere.

Still, ignoring the limited educational potential, it's an attractive toy phone. It's got flashing lights, plays tunes and has pictures of princesses on it. If you have a small child who likes that sort of toy, they won't be disappointed. Obviously, you'll be paying a premium for those princess pictures but that's the nature of merchandising.

(It's possible you may be thinking of buying this for someone else's small child. If you don't check with the parents beforehand, you might want to consider an evil cackle as you hand it over.)

Conclusion: The price, noise and sheer horror of this are unlikely to make it your first choice as a birthday gift for any little girl in your household. It's not as awful as it looks, though, and, let's face it, if you take the little girl in question to Toys'R'Us with you, then your choice may not come into it anyway.

  • Plenty of tunes, lights, options and pictures.
  • Will keep little girls busy (in a noisy kind of way).
  • Has the phone numbers for Belle and The Little Mermaid.
  • Overly complicated.
  • Little boys may not be so thrilled.
  • Sanity threatening music and dialogue.
  • Only two volume settings. ('Loud' and 'Still louder than you'd like'.)
  • Belle and Ariel never answer my calls.
  • Made from toxic levels of sugar and spice.
Rating: Pink/5.