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Mulholland Drive (DVD)

Starring: Naomi Watts, Laura Harring and Justin Theroux.

Rated: 15.

Story: An aspiring Hollywood actress (Watts) attempts to help a beautiful amnesiac (Harring) remember who she is and why she's carrying a bag full of cash. Meanwhile, a director (Theroux) has a run-in with the mob and a hitman bungles the theft of a book of phone numbers. Or maybe they don't. Maybe that's already happened or is going to happen or maybe it's all a dream. But whose dream? And what's that odd blue key about and why is the bogey man camping out behind a diner? And who were those people before they became other people? And... Argh, here comes the attack of the scary pensioners! Run away!

The End.

(Or is it The Middle in the wrong place? Who knows?)

Comments: Having small children has affected my life in various ways. One is that I haven't been to the cinema much in eight years, another is that they've Swiss-cheesed my brain. This combination of issues means I've got plenty of films to catch up on but that I sometimes get confused over which one is which. I thought this was going to be a hard-nosed thriller featuring Tim Robbins. Turns out I got the wrong address. That's Arlington Road. (Good thing I'm writing reviews not driving a taxi.) I wasn't entirely prepared for a David Lynch movie.

Yep, it's time to break out the dancing dwarves...

As soon as I realised my mistake, I began to expect levels of weirdness equivalent to a bad episode of Twin Peaks. Thankfully, Mulholland Drive quickly develops into a dark but interesting mystery with a bit of oddness thrown in (like a good episode of Twin Peaks, hurrah!). It all seems to build towards a final forty-five minutes of fast-paced revelations and shocking conclusions.

Then, suddenly, there's some gratuitous lesbian sex that's raunchy enough to seriously raise the eyebrows of any spouse, grandparent, small child or pet who unexpectedly walks into the room at the wrong moment. After that, it's all mind-bending strangeness. If you've ever been up late at night watching repeats of Top Gear with a grouchy baby and drifted into a bizarre waking dream involving walking teeth and Jeremy Clarkson in drag, you'll know the kind of thing I'm talking about.

Much is explained by the fact that the project was originally filmed as a pilot episode for a TV show. When the show was turned down, Lynch shot some more footage and made it into a self-contained feature. Rather than try to tie up all the loose ends, it would appear he threw in a whole lot more, added a surreal twist and left the movie as a brain-warping conundrum. Whether the puzzle has a solution, however, is open to debate.

I had to go look up Wikipedia in order to find out what was going on. Apparently no one's totally sure. The New York Times wrote that while some might consider the plot an 'offense against narrative order ... the film is an intoxicating liberation from sense, with moments of feeling all the more powerful for seeming to emerge from the murky night world of the unconscious.'

Er, yeah, whatever. Personally, I think there's a con being pulled here and the film is nonsense dressed up as genius. Never mind that the results are entertaining, it has to be said that the Emperor has no clothes.

Conclusion: An intriguing thriller that slowly turns into a bizarre attempt to mess with your head. Watchable but ultimately unsatisfying.

Explosions: None.
Mysterious cowboys: One.
Subplots with no resolution whatsoever: At least five.
Number of surrealists it takes to change a light bulb: Fish.
Who killed Laura Palmer?: That would be telling.

Rating: 3/5.

Patapon (PSP)

Rated: 7+.

Story: You are the god of the Patapon - a two-dimensional race of stickmen vaguely resembling Mike from Monsters Inc. You must try to recapture the glory days of Patapon supremacy by using your divine powers of rhythm to lead them to a sacred relic at the edge of the world.

Gameplay: The Patapon move from left to right through the levels, taking on wildlife, monsters and opposing tribes. You must guide them towards the promised land by tapping out drumbeats on the shape buttons of the PSP in time with the beat. Different combinations of buttons issue different commands, such as advance, defend or attack. As the game progresses, you gain the ability to control various types of Patapon. Some have spears, some bows and some melee weapons. Different Patapon are more effective depending on which commands you give your army.

Between levels, it's possible to trade items acquired during combat for more troops and to select improved equipment and armour.

Save System: Manual save between levels only. The levels are pretty short, though.

Comments: Considering how many games I play, it's rather embarrassing how bad I am at them. I normally struggle through, though, quite often swapping perseverance and cunning for actual skill. By sheer force of will, I made it to the end of Tomb Raider III, which is probably a great deal better than most people managed, and, while ninja skills and twitch reflexes aren't my thing, if you want someone who's good at finding AI quirks or gameplay loopholes to exploit then I'm your man. Generally, I get by.

One genre that is pretty much beyond me, however, is rhythm action. I can't even clap along with a beat to save myself, so trying to press buttons in synch with music is harder than changing a nappy with one hand and feeding a toddler with the other. I just can't do it.

Despite this, I can usually have some fun with rhythm games by relying on the visual prompts. Which makes it a problem that Patapon doesn't really have any...

This is down to the game's relative complexity. It involves not only getting the timing right but choosing the bars of 'music' to command the Patapon in an appropriate fashion for their situation. Deciding what to do, remembering which sequence of buttons to tap and matching them to the beat is a lot of fast-paced multi-tasking. Other rhythm games give plenty of warning as a particular button press approaches but Patapon can't because it's up to the player which button to press. The only visual cue is that the border of the screen flashes with the beat. To the musically-challenged like myself, this is no help whatsoever.

I did OK to start with and, after a little practice, I even felt I was getting good at the game. Then, halfway through level five or so, the beat changed and I was totally unable to control my Patapon. At all. They just kept falling over and making sarcastic comments about how rubbish I was. The sad thing is, they were right. I had to give up.

This was a shame because the game has a refreshing visual style, decent sound and is quite fun. The length of time it takes to issue commands can be frustrating and there's a lot of replaying of levels required to build up resources but the idea of a rhythm-strategy game is unique. Whether the concept stretches for the whole game, I don't know... and I guess I never will.

Conclusion: A great and innovative game. Probably. If your percussion skills are limited, you might want to go with a rental rather than a purchase - there's almost certainly only so much being booed by stickmen that you can take.

Graphics Sharp, atmospheric and unusual. Like one of those silhouette puppet shows.

Length: A quick poll of people on the internet who have rhythm suggests Medium to Long.

Rating: 4/5 if you can clap to a beat and walk in a straight line at the same time. If this combination of activities is liable to cause you injury or misfortune, however, you might want to give the whole thing a miss.

Swingball Junior Basketball

Swingball junior basketball box.

Price: £30.

Contents:
  • Hoop with back board.
  • Adjustable stand allowing the hoop to be between 1.5m and 2.15m high.
  • Base (which doubles as the box).
  • Mini basketball.
  • Pump.
Gameplay: It's basketball! Theoretically, there are two teams and the members of each team bounce the ball around, throw it to each other and try to score by getting it through the top of the hoop. In reality, for this to work, you need a large, flat, open area with a hard surface. For it to be fun, you also need older children with decent coordination and roughly similar ability.

Most likely, you'll end up having kids standing in line to take turns shooting penalties or you'll organise a competition to see who can score from the furthest distance.

Object: To get the ball through the hoop as many times as possible without losing the ball in the neighbours garden or a fight breaking out over whose turn it is.

Swingball junior basketball.

Game length: After you've gone to the trouble of putting it together, you'll want them to play it for at least half an hour.

Number of players: All the children you have, plus every other child in the neighbourhood who happens to be passing.

Age: Any child who can hold a ball will want a shot, even if they can't actually throw... or walk. If you have a child under three, be prepared for plenty of dangling a toddler over the hoop while they think very carefully about how best to drop the ball through.

Comments: Hooray! Sunshine! Thanks to all the rain last summer, I barely managed to review any outdoor gear. With luck, things will be better this year - we've had several (almost) nice days already. Of course, since Sprog1 and Sproglette have incredibly pale skin, I should probably make the most of it just now. If it gets really sunny, they'll explode in balls of fire as soon as they head out the door.

That never make for a fun game of tennis.

So, while I can still get the kids outside without needing umbrellas or having to coat them with an inch of sunblock, it's time to evict the spiders from the shed and see what fun stuff is lying around. Top of the pile is Swingball Junior Basketball.

Despite the manufacturer's assurances, it takes a fair amount of putting together. Trying to take it apart again to fit neatly back in the box is seriously not worth the effort. Once the ball's inflated, it won't fit anyway. We normally just take the stand out of the base and lean it up a corner of the shed. The base is supposed to be filled with sand or water for added stability but a couple of medium-sized rocks work just fine and are a lot less effort.

The ball bounces well and is a good size for small hands. It's a little small and light to control while dribbling, however. It's best to stick to throwing and shooting. The hoop is hinged so that, if anyone tries swinging from it, it folds down rather than breaking. A rubber washer helps prevent the adjustable mechanism from sliding down by itself but ours perished after a year or so. Happily, this had no adverse effects and simply made altering the height easier.

It's possible to miss out a section of the stand and make the maximum and minimum heights 45cm shorter. This is plenty high enough for under-fives.

All in all, the set does its job as a basketball hoop that can be set up almost anywhere. It's sturdy and looks good. Kids are desperate to play with it. That said, basketball is a tricky game to play without the ball being fumbled and skidding off in all directions or kids getting in a scuffle. You'll need a good surface and have to put in plenty of coaching before there's any chance of a proper game. If you're going to go to that much effort, you might want to invest in something more permanent. Still, Swingball Junior is great for target practice and far easier for young children to get to grips with than any racket games.

Swingball junior basketball.

Conclusion: This is an outdoor game enjoyed by children of all ages and the adjustable height means that everyone can take part. Just don't expect to get any serious basketball going.

Pros:
  • It's outside.
  • Develops aiming skills and coordination.
  • Doesn't involve a TV, Mario, Pok√©mon or Sonic and it's not pink.
  • You don't need a suitable wall to stick a hoop to.
  • Can be easily adjusted for children of different sizes.
  • Throwing a ball into a hoop is always fun.
Cons:
  • Fiddly and time consuming to set up if it's been packed away completely.
  • As closely related to real basketball as a plastic club and a ping-pong ball are related to real golf.
  • Nailing a wastepaper basket with the bottom knocked out to the side of the shed would be almost as good.
  • Actually, just putting the bin in the middle of the lounge and lobbing screwed up paper balls at it would be close enough (and would save you having to go outside... Oh, hang on...)
Rating: 4/5.


Stargate SG-1 Season 1 (DVD)

Starring: Richard Dean Anderson, Michael Shanks, Amanda Tapping, Christopher Judge and Don S Davis.

Rated: 18. As far as I can tell, this rating is pretty much down to some brief full-frontal, female nudity in the pilot episode. The rest of the series ranges between PG and 12.

Story: In the Stargate movie, the US military discover and activate a device which allows a team to travel through an interstellar worm-hole to the planet Abydos. They find a human civilisation very similar to ancient Egypt and make some friends. Then an alien pretending to be the god Ra arrives in an enormous spaceship and things start getting hairy - especially when it turns out the alien has been pretending for a very long time and really is, in some sense, Ra.

The TV series begins a year after the events of the movie. A way is found to access scores of other stargates and more teams are sent out to explore. Unfortunately, Ra's race, the Goa'uld, are somewhat upset by what transpired on Abydos and view humanity as a nuisance to be dealt with. The exploration teams must seek out information, technology and allies in an effort to protect Earth from attack. Team SG-1 is composed of Colonel Jack O'Neill (wise-cracking toughnut) and Dr Daniel Jackson (civilian archaeologist) from the film, along with Captain Samantha Carter (airforce pilot, astrophysicist and babe) and a guy in a red shirt whose days are numbered as soon as the team manages to recruit Teal'c (a warrior formerly enslaved by the Goa'uld).

Most of the stargates lead to worlds with human populations seeded there by the Goa'uld as a slave supply. These human societies are usually technologically primitive and each is descended from a distinct civilisation from Earth's past. ('Hey, look! This week it's Vikings!') They also usually have a problem that only space adventurers who've never heard of the Prime Directive can solve... Since SG-1 contains an expert on all the relevant topics (i.e. ancient cultures, science, aliens and shooting stuff), they're perfectly equipped to sort things out...

Comments: How late am I to this party? I'm a full nine series behind. Thirteen if you include the spin-off Stargate: Atlantis. I've got a bit of catching up to do...

I actually bought this about three years ago to watch while sitting up during the night with Sproglette. I only managed the first five or six episodes, however. It got to the stage where I couldn't entirely be bothered to put the DVD in the machine and ended up watching repeats of Top Gear instead. The pilot episode is good but it's quickly followed by a selection of clunkers involving modern Americans imposing their morals on ancient cultures. These episodes are predictable and tedious.

Making another attempt to watch SG-1 more recently, I almost gave up again. Fortunately, around about episode eight or nine, things start to pick up. The team gets taught a lesson in humility, the situations become more interesting, the back story is fleshed out a little and the episodes become better entwined. The final disc is very entertaining.

The series as a whole has plenty of rough edges, though. For a start, Richard Dean Anderson just doesn't seem quite right in the role played by Kurt Russell in the film. He's not macho enough. (On the other hand, he's likable and I have fond memories of MacGyver, so I'm willing to let him off with it.)

Another element which grates is the bizarre way that the galaxy is inhabited entirely by people who speak modern English. The film makes a big deal of Daniel Jackson having to learn to speak ancient Egyptian to communicate with the people of Abydos but the series ignores the issue almost entirely. Occasionally, SG1 find they understand every word that's said to them except the most important one. This is essentially a pretty cheap way to build suspense and just makes you wonder how they can understand everything else. The truly odd thing is that it would be easy to explain the whole set up in terms of some magic technology conferred by passing through the stargate and which is broken or damaged on some worlds. The writers apparently just don't care. Amusingly, half the cast don't even seem sure how to pronounce the name of the alien race they're fighting.

The biggest problem is the lack of subplots in most of the episodes. This means that the main plot of each episode has to fill out the full forty minutes. There ends up being padding and postulating where there should be some light relief or a secondary mystery. It's like having an episode of CSI with only one murder rather than two - without all the cutting back and forth, unlikely twists and logical flaws are very obvious.

All this is acknowledged by the fact that there's a 'Best of Series One' DVD available which features the first episode and the last three. If you only watched this, you'd miss out on some interesting bits and pieces but it might be the best course of action if you're low on patience.

Conclusion: Starts well and ends well but must have come pretty close to getting cancelled somewhere in the middle. Rent the pilot episode. If you like it, then it's worth persevering.

Explosions: Some.
Excellent episodes: Not enough.
Dodgy science: Plenty.
Minoans speaking English: A surprising number.
Chance of Season 2 being better: High.

Rating: Variable. Disc 2 is a definite 2/5 experience while Disc 5 (the final one) is more 4/5. I guess it all averages out to 3/5 but the strong ending has made me keener to watch Season 2 than might otherwise be the case. (That and the current bargain price of the box sets, anyway.)

Bridge to Terabithia (DVD)

Starring: Terminator 2, the older brother from Zathura, Trillian and the inflating gum-chewer from Charlie and the Cholocate Factory.

Rated: PG.

Story: Jesse (Josh Hutcherson) is in the fifth-grade. He feels under-appreciated at home, gets bullied at school and has a crush on his music teacher (Zooey Deschanel). Life isn't great. Then he meets new girl Leslie (Anna Sophia Robb). She's cute but crazy as an umbrella made of cheese. They create an imaginary, fantasy kingdom in the middle of the woods. Their experiences there help them deal with and overcome their everyday problems.

Comments: If all you know about Bridge to Terabithia is what you saw in the adverts, then this isn't the film you're expecting. It's not the Golden Labyrinth of Narnia where a ten-year-old decides that life sucks but then discovers a magical world where they learn to value themselves and others. This is a movie where a ten-year-old decides that life sucks and then discovers that life really, really sucks but learns to get over it by imagining trolls.

On its own terms, it's an affecting tale of children struggling to cope with isolation, criticism and bereavement. It's difficult to view Bridge to Terabithia without a host of expectations brought about by countless other films and its own advertising campaign, however. These expectations make the few short sequences of CGI confusing. I'm pretty sure the animated sections are there just to show the audience what the kids are imagining and I don't think they're meant to imply that the magical kingdom is 'real' but I'm not certain because I'm so used to films with actual elves and pixies, talking lions and Quidditch. I kept having to suspend my suspension of disbelief. This was slightly painful. The problem was made worse by my children constantly asking what was going on and which bits were pretend. I simply didn't know the answers, which simply made them ask all the harder.

Then the last half an hour turned out to be incredibly sad and I had to deal with a whole load of other questions.

I spent much of the film wondering where it was going. Even the end left me bemused because it's hard to work out the message. I suspect the general idea is that we all need a safe place to hide away from the world and that it's good to pretend and imagine. Unfortunately, the beautiful CGI blurs the line between a tactical withdrawal into day-dream and a full-scale retreat into delusion.

My eldest is nearly eight and the film was a bit over his head. He's never much been into make-believe, which didn't help, but the movie is probably more suitable for older children. Bear in mind that they could find it emotionally traumatic, though, so you might want to watch it with them.

Conclusion: A decent family drama that doesn't do what it says on the tin.

Explosions: None.
Bullies: Some.
Ending: Confused.
Sympathetic teacher, crotchety teacher and annoying younger sister: All present and correct.
Killer squirrels: Several... or none. Or maybe several and none. Who knows if they're really there? Perhaps they're quantum squirrels - only there if you think they're there and spending the rest of the time hanging out with Schrodinger's Cat. Don't ask me - I'm off to watch The Goblet of Fire.

Rating: 3/5.

Dead Head Fred (PSP)

Rated: 15.

Story: You're Fred, a private investigator on a mission to bring down the mob boss (Pitt) who's ruining your home town. Except he kills you before the game even starts. You wake up to find that a mad scientist has brought you back to life with a brain in a jar for a head. Normally, this would make you a bit of a freak, but Pitt's nuclear power plant has turned much of the local populace into zombies, mutants, monsters and psychos. You set off to crack some heads and, er... borrow them...

Gameplay: Dead Head Fred is a third-person adventure with a heavy emphasis on hand-to-hand combat. You get to wander the town, fighting monsters, receiving missions from the inhabitants, unlocking new areas and locating extra heads with useful powers such as water-breathing and immunity to fire. You can swap between any of your accumulated heads quickly. Each is effective against different types of monster.

There's a linear main quest to defeat Pitt but doing other missions brings money, items, head upgrades, worms and fish. (Really.) You occasionally need a big wadge of cash to continue the main quest but most stuff just leads, one way or another, to obtaining extra healing potions.

Save System: The game can be saved at any time but progress is only recorded up until the last checkpoint. Checkpoints are usually extremely frequent, however.

Comments: This is one of those games.

One of those games that's always OK, sometimes good and frequently promises to be great... but never actually is. It's fun enough but somehow lacking. It should be an excellent cross between Ratchet & Clank, Zelda and Resident Evil. In reality, it's a weird mish-mash of beat-'em-up, platformer and adventure that never completely succeeds at anything.

At heart, there are some great ideas here. The head swapping should have produced clever puzzles. The role-playing elements should have added depth to the combat and jumping. Unfortunately, the level design is basic and much of the gameplay is merely walking from area to area, putting on the appropriate head and then hammering the attack buttons. The developers seem to have attempted to cover over this by adding in any number of superfluous features like working pinball machines and fishing mini-games but the game is too long and it's all just spread too thin.

This 'throw everything at it and hope it gets better' approach is exemplified by the vast numbers of side quests. Nearly all of them involve going somewhere, killing some monsters, collecting an item and then returning to the place you started. Since going through any doorway results in a pause, a short cut-scene and then a lengthy loading screen, traipsing all over the shop for the sake of a few dollars hardly seems worth it. There's really little need anyway. Once you've got the hang of the combat, there's seldom much call to use potions, so money is only required to buy essential disguises. It's possible to pick up sufficient for this without too much effort.

Still, there's just enough variation to maintain interest and the story is intriguing. The Film-Noir-with-zombies setting sometimes becomes a little too bizarre but the script contains a number of good jokes and keeps you persevering.

Even taking all its failings into account, Dead Head Fred is a decent game if you like third-person adventures and you've already worked your way through both PSP Grand Theft Autos, Daxter and Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters. Be prepared to be patient with it, though, and don't expect it to suddenly flower as time goes on - the first couple of hours are pretty representative of the whole game.

Conclusion: A great concept let down by lack-lustre level design.

Graphics: Competent. The game runs smoothly but many of the locations are quite bland and angular. It looks like an early PS2 game.

The loading screen will be burned into your brain by the end.

Length: Long.

Rating: 3/5.

Transformers action figure - Final Battle Jazz

Transformers action figure.

Price: £15 but there's a good chance that your local toy shop will have a bargain bin full of these, along with Dr Who cat people and little plastic pirates that vaguely resemble Johnny Depp. (The Keira Knightley action figures are all gone - sorry...)

Contents:
  • One Autobot that can transform between a robot and a car.
  • Detachable gun and shield.
  • Projectile for the gun. (Not shown in the picture. It's blue and shiny and I can't find it anywhere.)
Age: 5+. This seems about right. Any child under five is going to struggle a lot getting the thing to transform. (As opposed to everyone else, who will only struggle quite a bit.)

Comments: I never had any Transformers toys as a kid but I always kind of hankered after them. It's a robot and a car! Wow! (I'd rather have had an Imperial AT-AT Walker, obviously, or that Action Man death-slide or a Big Trak, but I certainly wouldn't have minded finding Megatron and chums under the Christmas tree.) I did get to borrow a friend's Transformer once. I remember it being chunkier than this one and, well, a bit easier to transform, to be honest. A handful of twists and you were done.

Those days have apparently gone the way of Big Trak and decent Star Wars films...

Sprog2 got Final Battle Jazz for his birthday and had absolutely no clue what it was. The recent movie is rated 12 so he hasn't seen it and he wasn't aware of robots in disguise. He put the unopened blister pack on the shelf and forgot about it. I was tempted to show him the toy in operation but, realising it might be tricky, I waited until the evening and then tested it out. (Purely for research purposes, you understand...)

The diagrammatic instructions were incomprehensible. ('You fold what where now?') After about five minutes, I'd got this far:

Transformers action figure. Still nearly a robot.

The joints were stiff but everything else felt somewhat fragile. I was constantly afraid I was going to snap a bit off while attempting to get the hinges to function properly. This wasn't helped by the fact that I wasn't entirely sure what the proper functions of most of the hinges actually were.

Another ten minutes got me to here:

Transformers action figure. Origami robot disaster.

This was not a good place to be. Five minutes later, I was back to here again:

Still nearly a robot.

As I sat there, trying to figure it out for my six-year-old child, I couldn't help thinking that I needed a six-year-old child to figure it out for me. Nonetheless, I clung to the knowledge that I have a physics degree, and I had another go at deciphering the instructions. After a little while I made some progress:

Transformers action figure. Almost a car!

The end seemed in sight.

It wasn't:

Transformers action figure. Origami robot disaster again.

By this point, I'd realised that some of the hinges really did need a large amount of force and that, luckily, the toy wasn't as fragile as it felt. I yanked it around some more until, at last:

Transformers action figure. It's a car!

My thumbs were very sore but I was done. I sighed with relief and then considered turning it back into a robot now that I'd 'got the hang of it'. Thankfully, I resisted this urge and went and got a beer. I left the car out for the morning.

When I came down to make breakfast, Sprog2 was sitting at the table with the Transformer in his hands and he shouted with glee, "Look, Daddy! It turns into a robot and back into a car again!"

This was quite demoralising. I imagined he'd figured the thing out in the time it had taken me to get dressed. Then he happily pulled the arms sideways and flipped out the head. Voila! A robot:

Transformers action figure. Car with head.

Then he shoved it back together again. He seemed pleased.

I'm not going to let on, if you don't...

Conclusion: Cool but strangely reminiscent of assembling Ikea furniture.

Transformer instructions.

Pros:
  • It's a robot that transforms into a car!
  • Even has a projectile weapon.
  • Gives you an excuse to wander around talking like Optimus Prime all day.
  • You know you want one.
Cons:
  • Actually getting it to transform is harder work than being a contestant on The Krypton Factor.
  • Stiff joints coupled with flimsy bodywork - not a good combination.
  • Projectile is liable to be lost behind the sofa within minutes.
  • You don't want one as much as a replica Millennium Falcon.
Rating: 4/5.

Gun with projectile.
Ah ha! Found it!