Partnering with Tearfund

A summer of film

I've been too busy reviewing diced onion and LEGO to keep up with all the films I've been watching recently. Here's a quick rundown of most of the flicks that have had a chance to warp my mind in the last few months. Some were good, some were bad and one was Jumper:

I am Legend (15) - Will Smith is the last man left alive in the crumbling, zombie-infested remains of New York. He attempts to find a cure for zombie-itis while trying not to go mad from isolation.

It's essentially 28 Days Later with a bigger budget, increased action and much, much more Will Smith. Very tense in places. 4/5.

Ghost Rider (15)- That age old dilemma: you've paid Nicolas Cage a whole heap of money to star in your movie and you want to show him off, yet you've cast him as a character with a digitally altered voice and a flaming skull for a head. How do you get your money's worth? Have him wander around looking normal but consumed by angst for most of the movie, of course! Then make all the CGI action scenes entirely over the top to compensate.

Peter Fonda gets handed the role of the Devil himself and yet still manages to turn in a performance barely less comatose than in Thomas and the Magic Railroad.

Nonetheless, it all rattles along in a daft, nonsensical kind of way. Passable. 3/5.

National Treasure 2 - Book of Secrets (PG)- A second dose of Mission: Impossible meets The Goonies. It's a non-stop romp but totally ludicrous. It's about as likely as finding the lost Ark of the Covenant in your sock drawer... only to discover it was put there by Abe Lincoln as a cryptic signpost to King Solomon's mines.

Enjoy it but don't think about it. 3/5.

No Country for Old Men (15) - As with most Coen brothers movies, it starts in the middle, ends in the middle and has lots of middle in between. It's very entertaining middle, though. Just don't expect much closure. 4/5.

Jumper (12) - There must be a great film to be made about a person who can teleport anywhere at will. This isn't it. Makes Ghost Rider look like Faust. 2/5.

The Bourne Ultimatum (12)- Better than the second one but not as good as the first one. Almost devoid of character and memorable moments, however. You might be as well off watching the first one again. 3/5.

Hitman (15) - The best videogame to movie conversion so far? Possibly. As good as playing Hitman: Blood Money on 360? Not even close. 3/5.

Arlington Road (15) - Jeff Bridges starts to think his neighbours are crackpot terrorists. No one believes him. Is he going mad from grief over the death of his wife or is he about to get caught up in a hugely implausible plot to blow up the FBI?

Take a guess. 2/5.

Enchanted (PG) - The kids get to watch a decent movie about a cartoon princess who is banished to the real world. You get to watch Amy Adams. Result. The film is slightly too caught up in cleverly referencing Disney's entire back catalogue when it should be being funny but it's still good.

Like Shrek played straight. 4/5.

That's it for now. Coming soon - a whole load of games that I only played for an hour or so before getting fed up.

Be afraid.


A sand-table full of toys.

Price: £20 - £100 + the cost of the sand and toys.

  • A large receptacle for sand, toys and (maybe) children.
  • Cover.
Gameplay: Children race to see who can transfer as much sand as possible from the sandpit to the surrounding area, their own shoes and each others' hair. In the process, castles and excavations may be briefly formed.

Object: To get the children outside but contain their activity to a limited area so it's easy to keep an eye on them while you sit inside and have a coffee and read the paper.

Game length: Until they get bored... or it rains.

Number of players: Depends on the size and type of sandpit you've shelled out for.

Age: From as soon as you're able to trust them not to eat sand, up until they're at least six.

A sand-table being played with.

Comments: I seem to remember promising more reviews of outdoor toys if we had some decent weather this summer.

I guess that didn't go so well.

Ho well, never mind, now that here in Scotland the schools have gone back, we're bound to have plenty of sunshine for a week or two. Before all the leaves fall off the trees and we enter six months of darkness, I might as well share a few thoughts on sandpits.

You have four main options:
  • Plastic sandtable. This consists of a tray (deep enough to hold about four inches of sand) which is supported on short legs. Kids stand around it to play. Usually the tray is divided into two halves - one for water and one for sand.
  • Plastic sandtray. This is a little larger but sits on the ground. Children can climb in.
  • Wooden sandtray. A major installation for your garden. This has a foot-high wooden wall surrounding a base that can have an area anything up to the size of a single bed. It's not going anywhere in a hurry once it's full of sand.
  • A hole in the ground lined with a tarpaulin. Cheap but requires a shovel.
We have a sandtable and it has worked well. It's not very big but we've had five or six children playing around it at a time. A similar size of container on the ground would be a tight squeeze for a single child to sit in if they had the temerity to want a bucket and spade in there as well. I can't imagine that kneeling or crouching round the edge of a sandtray would we too comfortable - the kids might get fed up before I'd finished my coffee.

Of course, with the sandtable, my children don't get the full experience of rolling around in their own little bit of private beach but, then again, I don't need to give them a shower afterwards. A quick brush down followed by a hand wash and they're ready for tea.

If you want something on a grander scale, you might as well dig yourself a proper sandpit rather than messing with one of those wooden things. A hole in the ground will be easier to dispose of when the kids are older and only slightly less portable than a big wooden box full of sand.

Whatever you get, you will need a cover. This is essential to stop the sand drying out and blowing away or getting soaked and turning into swamp. It will also keep off cats, pigeons and, as my parents learnt to their cost when I was small, cows. The waterproof, stretchy cover on our sandtable has lasted years without leaking. It nearly always seems to be sagging under a heavy puddle, however, and can be hard to remove without mucky water running off into the sand.

A sand-table with a wet cover.

Our particular sandtable is no longer made but there are plenty of alternatives around. Watch out for intriguing holes in the design where children aren't supposed to put sand. Children will put sand in them. Also be wary of handy bits of shelf round the edge of the table - a child filling a bucket that's on one of these shelves will tip approximately half of every spadeful of sand on the ground. Oh, and don't believe the picture on the box of a child happily playing with sand in one half of the tray while their sibling gaily guddles about with a boat in sparkling water in the other half. They'd both be up to their elbows in mud within minutes.

Conclusion: Sand is a low effort way to keep the kids entertained for a bit but you need to consider carefully what scale of set up you're prepared to deal with.

  • Gets them playing outside without you having to run round after them.
  • As long as the cover is on properly, it's available for use the moment the rain stops. Unlike other outdoor activity, you don't have to wait for everything to dry out.
  • Creative.
  • Messy in a way that doesn't require much laundry.
  • Can require laundry if things get out of hand.
  • You'll need to replace escaped sand on a regular basis.
  • Takes up lots of space.
  • Some sand will end up in your socks even if you don't go anywhere near the thing.
Rating: 4/5.

Tomb Raider: Anniversary (Xbox 360)

Rated: 12.

Story: Lara Croft shoots to fame in Tomb Raider, a haunting, atmospheric adventure that finally allows people to live out their Indiana Jones fantasies (and, let's face it, gives teenage boys certain other fantasies). Big budget sequels follow but they never quite recapture the magic - too much shooting, daft difficulty levels, often forgettable locations and little evolution in terms of controls or gameplay. The wheels start to come off. Hollywood churns out a couple of exhilarating but nonsensical movies. Then Angel of Darkness is released.

It's awful. Ms Croft's career hits the rocks (with a trademark scream and splat).

Years pass. After a stint in rehab, Lara returns under new management, looking better than ever. Legend still has too much shooting and some generic locations but at least the controls aren't too bad. Maybe the Tomb Raider franchise isn't dead after all.

Someone has the bright idea of remaking the original.

Gameplay: Watch Lara's backside as you make her leap, climb, swing, run and swim around ancient tombs in search of artifacts. There's some shooting when creatures leap out at you and a handful of boss battles but the main emphasis is on finding routes round the vast environments, often climbing to dizzying heights.

There are health packs and ammo clips littered about but many are in hard to reach places. Each level also has a few treasures to recover. Collecting them is optional but unlocks bonus material. Most are well hidden and hard to get to. The rest are incredibly well hidden and surrounded by instant death.

Save System: Regular checkpoints. The last checkpoint reached can be saved manually at any time. Annoyingly, it's sometimes possible to fall off a high ledge, make a miraculous landing and find yourself back at a previous checkpoint.

Comments: Finally, seven sequels later, they've managed to come up with a Tomb Raider that's as good as the first one. Oh, hang on, it is the first one...

Fortunately, it's more than just the original with tarted up graphics. Many environments have been opened out to be bigger, better and more imposing, while remaining eerily familiar. Others have been re-imagined to take advantage of all the extra skills Lara has learnt over the last decade, from climbing to swinging from a grappling hook. Everything feels less confined than in the last game, Legend.

Meanwhile, some of the more frustrating aspects of the original have been removed. The tedious block moving puzzles are gone, along with the worst of the time-limited tasks and the stupidly difficult sections near the end.

Even better, the control system allows for both precision and fluid motion which always seemed like an impossibility in the Tomb Raider of old. Jumping straight after a wall run often goes badly - 'No, Lara! The other way. The other way!' - but, apart from that, a long downward plummet is usually the result of player error rather than poor design.

Now they've got the mechanics and graphics nailed down, let's hope the developers can learn from this remake and create a new adventure with the same atmosphere and sense of scale.

Conclusion: It's the best Tomb Raider since, well, the first one... Worth playing even if you finished the original.

Graphics: Lovely apart from the squint-inducing haze effect in the limited number of locations featuring bright sunlight. The game also slows down in large open areas.

Length: Medium (but unlocking everything could take a very long time indeed).

Rating: 4/5.

Be Kind Rewind (DVD)

Starring: Jack Black, Danny Glover, Mos Def (Ford Prefect from Hitchhiker's Guide) & Melonie Diaz (who's been in lots of worthy sounding films that I've never heard of. This should maybe have been a clue...)

Rated: 12.

Story: A nutty conspiracy theorist (Black) magnetises himself in a hugely unlikely fashion and wipes all the VHS tapes in the video store where his friend (Mos Def) helps out. In a panic, they remake the movies themselves using whatever props they can cobble together. Gradually they rope in the rest of the community to help out.

Comments: I haven't been so shamelessly and blatantly mis-sold a movie since Bridge to Terabithia. The trailer concentrates on the DIY films, featuring amusing clips of homemade versions of Ghostbusters and Robocop and Rush Hour 2. It makes Be Kind Rewind look like a manic comedy poking fun at Hollywood blockbusters.

The film is actually more of a drama than a comedy, and off-the-wall rather than funny i.e. it's totally daft and occasionally dull. Most of the plot revolves around the main characters' attempts to save a video store that is insolvent, falling down and almost devoid of stock (even before the bonkers 'magnetic man' incident). Yeah, it's nice when everyone starts working together and they discover their creative talents, but you can't help feeling there must be a better goal they could aim for. Does anyone really want to rent Ghostbusters on VHS?

The homemade movie clips are pretty few and far between. They're easily the best bit of the film but you'll have seen the highlights in the trailer. I'm guessing you could turn up stuff that's even better with a quick trip to YouTube. These clips would have the added advantage of not featuring Jack Black.

I can't remember Mos Def's performance in The Hitchhiker's Guide. I suspect I won't remember his performance in this by the end of the week. Danny Glover is as entertaining to watch as usual, though.

It's all just a bit of a mess really. Be Kind Rewind doesn't know what it wants to be or why. In fairness, it's never awful but, then again, it's seldom particularly good either. While my wife and I were halfway through watching, our AV-switcher had a spasm and lost the signal from the DVD player. We were dumped into the middle of The Matador, starring Pierce Brosnan, which was on TV and neither of us had seen. Probably the biggest indictment of Be Kind Rewind's confused nature is that it was over five minutes before we realised this was what had happened...

Conclusion: Wait until someone does a homemade remake and posts it on the internet. Watch that instead.

Explosions: One.
Improbable events: Plenty.
Creative use of tinsel and double-sided sticky tape: Excellent.
Villains: Developers, lawyers, DVDs and a cat.
Unlikely discoveries: Inserting random sections of other movies into this one actually improves it.

Rating: 2/5.

Iceland diced onion & sliced pepper

Bags of frozen onion and peppers.

Price: £1 for a 1kg packet of frozen diced onion or sliced, mixed pepper.

Comments: I vaguely remember that I used to cook. I'd select a recipe, buy the ingredients and lovingly craft a meal. The results were usually quite tasty.

Now I don't cook - I merely prepare food. The kids won't eat much besides sandwiches and raw fruit and vegetables. It's a suitably nutritious diet but it doesn't involve much culinary skill.

For logistical reasons, my wife and I don't eat until after the children are in bed. I'm tired and hungry by then, so I want the food to be pretty much ready the moment Sproglette's light goes out. This means trying to concoct something while simultaneously overseeing the bedtime routine. It's usually easiest to to close my eyes, rummage around in the freezer and shove whatever comes out into the oven. This doesn't work so well with ice-cream but the results are nearly always tasty enough and much, much quicker to obtain than preparing stuff from scratch.

These packs of chopped onion and pepper have made a difference, however. They've made 'proper' cooking seem possible again. I can bung some in a pan and I'm halfway to a meal already, without having to faff around in the manky depths of the drawer at the bottom of the fridge. It's a great way to make mince more interesting. A bit of meat and chilli becomes fajita filling. Add cheese and a couple of eggs, and it's an omelette. Almost anything can be bulked out and jazzed up.

I've even taken to sprinkling some in with the cheese when making toasties. Mmmmmm...

Conclusion: It took me a moment to locate these in the freezer cabinet at my local Iceland store the other day. The mere thought that they'd been discontinued made me freak. (Hence the review. Everyone go buy some NOW, just to make sure they keep stock levels high.)

  • Counts towards your five-a-day fruit and veg total.
  • Saves on time, tears and money.
  • Means there are always peppers and onions in the house and you can be certain they won't have turned blue.
  • Adds taste and colour to almost anything (except cake).
  • Results of cooking are more watery than cooking from fresh.
  • Slices of pepper are quite small.
  • Freezing & extra cooking not great for your carbon footprint.
  • The kids probably won't touch the stuff.
  • Once you get the toastie-maker out of the cupboard, you'll be living off charred bread and cheese for days. Even a smattering of onion isn't going to make that healthy.
Rating: 4/5.

3 Pay-As-You-Go mobile broadband

What is it?: A little gadget which plugs into a USB port of your laptop, allowing internet access at broadband speeds anywhere you go. (Well, anywhere covered by 3's new high speed network and not in a basement or with thick walls. Probably best not to stand next to a tree, either...)

Price: £50 for a pack containing a USB modem, SIM card and USB wires. Top-ups must then be purchased to pay in advance for the amount of data downloaded:

  • 1 GB - £10.
  • 2GB - £15.
  • 7GB - £25.
Once activated, the top-ups are only valid for 30 days, whether the data allowance is used or not.

How does it work?

  1. You simply pick up a modem from any electronics store, put in the SIM card and plug it into your computer.
  2. The software installs automatically from the device itself.
  3. You are painlessly connected to the internet.
  4. It turns out you're only connected to 3's site and you need to buy a top-up.
  5. You register your credit card, only to discover that it takes seven days to be authorised. £10 is taken from it but you can't buy a top-up yet. Meanwhile, you start getting charged £1 PER MEGABYTE because you haven't bought a top-up yet.
  6. You go to Tesco and buy a top-up from the checkout.
  7. You trek back home in the rain.
  8. You log on, activate the top-up and get to keep up-to-date with all your favourite blogs for a month, even while on holiday (as long as you don't stand next to a tree in a basement).
(Some of these steps may not be entirely necessary.)

Comments: When Sprog1 was born, we didn't even have internet at home. When we finally got dial-up, I went online a handful of times a week. Then came broadband, wi-fi and this website. Now I start feeling unwell if I haven't checked my email for a couple of hours. The thought of being disconnected for a fortnight when we went on holiday this summer brought cold sweats and a rash.

After a bit of hunting around, 3 seemed the best (i.e. cheapest) option to provide mobile internet for a few days every so often. I suppose, technically, going to internet cafés would have been cheaper but it would have been far less convenient and secure. Also, I'd probably have lost out overall through stuffing myself with premium-priced coffee and cake.

There are subscription packages if you want to use mobile broadband all the time. You get the modem 'free' but you're tied in for eighteen months. The Pay-As-You-Go is more flexible. The main downside to the PAYG is that, although you pay for a certain amount of download capacity, you only get 30 days to use it. This is irritating but, if you simply look at it as a month of surfing for a tenner, it's still perfectly reasonable. (We didn't get through half our Gigabyte top-up in a fortnight.) You can now also buy the modem in a selection of starter packages where it comes pre-loaded with some download capacity. The time-limit for using this capacity varies, so they might be worth looking into, depending on your needs.

After a few initial teething difficulties (see above), the modem worked smoothly and without much faffing about. Speed wasn't quite on a par with our 2Mb home connection but this was seldom noticeable during normal surfing. Unfortunately, switching users in Windows Vista seemed to confuse the modem, causing some plugging and unplugging, coupled with a touch of frustrated muttering. This was nothing compared with the muttering that would have resulted from trekking to an internet café in the rain, though.

Having to pay for the amount of data downloaded rather than the amount of time spent online took some getting used to. It was pretty handy as I sat staring at a blank screen in Blogger, thinking of a hundred ways to describe gnomes, however.

The only question mark over the modem is signal strength. It's possible to check network coverage on a postcode by postcode basis but it's worth taking this information with a pinch of salt. We had better reception in a top floor flat in St Andrews than on the ground floor in central Edinburgh. When we next visit my parents in rural Norfolk, there's a good chance I'll have to climb a water tower to update this review.

Conclusion: Mobile broadband without a subscription. Great for staying online if you're taking a holiday in the UK. You'll want to examine network coverage carefully, though.

  • Relatively cheap.
  • Flexible pricing system.
  • Easy to use (provided you don't totally ignore the instructions like me).
  • Allows you to keep up with DadsDinner wherever you go.

  • Not so useful if you're going to be using it all the time...
  • ...or for a day or two every so often.
  • Quite a large amount of money to pay up-front if you're not certain about coverage.
  • Could go badly if you're hoping to use it in a basement in the middle of a forest.
Rating: 4/5.

Alone in the Dark (Xbox 360)

Rated: 15.

Story: You wake up with amnesia and in close proximity to an elderly gentleman who believes that only you can save the world. Then you have to fight your way out of a zombie-infested, burning building via a poorly lit underground parking lot. Somebody's after the philosopher's stone, Lucifer is preparing to make an appearance and pesky spider things keep jumping at your head.

Fortunately, this pretty much uses up every gaming cliché in existence and things finally begin to pick up. You find yourself roaming Central Park in the dark.

You aren't alone...

Gameplay: This is an adventure game with plenty of combat. You can swap between a third-person view and a first-person view at the touch of a button. First-person is good for shooting; third-person is compulsory for hand-to-hand fighting and for solving some puzzles.

There's a huge mixture of gameplay styles. Sometimes you're creeping round dingy buildings searching for clues like in Resident Evil, other times you have to drive around at high speed, then there are shooter sections and occasionally there's lots of jumping and climbing as it all goes Tomb Raider. Although this means plenty of variety, it also seems to mean the developers didn't have enough time to make any of the different styles work properly.

Save System: Regular checkpoints that can be saved manually at any time. Quite where you'll end up and what you'll be carrying when you load a saved game isn't quite as predictable as you might like, however.

Comments: Few games in recent memory have made me want to throw my controller through a window quite as often as Alone in the Dark. The control scheme generally varies between awkward and broken. Even selecting an item from the inventory screen is a pain. Since much of the game is spent selecting items from the inventory screen while being rushed by hungry zombies, this is something of an issue... I came close to giving up on numerous occasions because I simply couldn't get the main character to do what was required of him without blowing himself up, falling from a great height or getting his brain munched. Grr.

Nonetheless, I persevered. For every stretch of pain, Alone in the Dark throws up a superb edge-of-the-seat sequence, an atmospheric location or a great puzzle. Exploring the spooky, totally open environment of Central Park is a revelation for survival horror games. Having to actually think to find a way forward makes a change. Throwing a bottle of petrol and then shooting it in mid air never gets old.

There are definitely many great gaming moments to be had.

If only the bits in between weren't so daft and annoying...

Conclusion: A game to love and hate in equal measure. Then hate a bit more. Then love. Then to have very mixed feelings about as, just at the point you think you're almost finished, you discover it's twice as long as you were expecting. And then...

Oh, just rent it and see what you think...

Graphics: Fantastic. Great fire effects and lighting. Plenty of nice animation touches and some excellently designed locations. Only the monsters are a little generic.

Length: Well, that depends... You could bury your controller in the front of your TV before the first hour is up. That would make it a very short game. Then again, if you're persistent but ham-fisted it might stretch out to medium length.

Rating: 4/5.

(The Wii and PS2 versions are supposedly very different. Be warned.)

Little Tikes Cozy Coupe car

Little Tikes Cozy Coupe

Price: £55.

Contents: Sit-in car with:
  • Steering wheel which turns.
  • Beepy horn.
  • Petrol cap which opens.
  • Swivel front wheels.
  • Working side door.
  • Ignition key.
  • Storage shelf behind driver.
Age: 18 months to 5 years officially, but larger five-year-olds will need levered out with a shoehorn.

Comments: Every parent and toddler group has one of these and the kids always fight over it. Usually, the first child to arrive will install themselves in it and trundle around all morning, refusing to ever get out. They scream if another child even looks at them sideways. If you're lucky, the child's parent will drag them out bodily at some point, leaving every other child in the room to battle to be last last-toddler-standing as they mob the vacated toy. If the parent is oblivious or has dozed off, you have to teach your own kid to carjack - it's a toddler-eat-toddler world out there.

Given the above, these are obviously highly desirable items. We picked one up second-hand, thinking it would be great. Unfortunately, although they work well in a church hall, Sproglette struggles to make the the thing move over the slightest crack or bump on the slabs behind our house. It's heavy and it's harder for the rider to get leverage than it is with the kind of ride-a-long vehicles where the child sticks their feet out to the side. I end up having to push. This is far too much like hard work (and not good for my back). Also, sometimes her feet get caught underneath.

Little Tikes Cozy Coupe interior.
There's a new design that's less chunky but it looks fairly similar. This is the version all the local toddler groups have. (Their ones are normally less damp.)

There's nowhere near enough room in the house for us to have it inside and it would take up half the shed if we put it in there. This means it has to sit outside in all weathers. The stickers have dissolved. The seat collects a layer of slime pretty quickly and the back shelf always has two inches of water in it. I take a couple of minutes to clean it up, Sproglette gets in, she moves six inches and then gets stuck. I push it along the path for fifty yards, her foot gets caught, I extricate her, she gets out and then she walks home. I have to push the empty car back to the house.

This isn't entirely how I envisaged things when we bought it.

Sproglette is very proud of the car, though. She points out the window and says, 'That's my car!' It also serves as somewhere for her to sit and eat biscuits.
Conclusion: Fantastic... if you have your own ballroom. If not, you should leave it for parent and toddler and work on your child's carjacking skills.

  • Cool.
  • Bright colours.
  • Very manoeuvrable on a smooth, flat surface.
  • Doesn't cope well with rough ground.
  • Stickers aren't waterproof but the car is very large to store undercover.
  • Seat and shelf fill up with water.
  • Steering wheel turns but doesn't actually steer. This is 'interesting' training for when children graduate to a more sophisticated vehicle - they have a tendency to attempt to turn corners solely by the power of their mind. (It's fortunate that pedal trikes don't explode on impact....)
Rating: 5/5 if you want it for a toddler group, else 2/5.