Partnering with Tearfund

Paycheck (DVD)

Starring: Ben Affleck, Aaron Eckhart and Uma Thurman.

Rated: 12.

Story: Michael Jennings (Affleck) is an electronics genius who secretly reverse engineers technology for big corporations. They lock him in a lab for months, he steals their competitors ideas and then they wipe his memory so no one finds out. In return, he gets a huge paycheck.

He decides to take one final job, only to wake up oblivious to the last three years and with nothing to show for it but an envelope of twenty everyday objects he can't remember why he mailed to himself. Then people start trying to kill him. It's like the office Christmas party worst-case scenario.

Mysteriously, the objects turn out to be exactly what he needs to MacGyver his way towards some answers as to what is going on...

Comments: Fed up with movies which start at the end and work backwards to hide the predictable nature of the events? Here's a film where they clearly wrote it backwards and then decided to show everything forwards.


Well, to reveal anything more would be to give the game away but the plot of Paycheck is essentially a convenient excuse to make a frantic sequence of improbable escapes seem plausible. For once, surviving one-in-a-million scrapes is a feature and not a reason for scorn. The result is fast-paced and exciting. Ultimately, however, it's all perhaps a little too neat and relies too heavily on its central premise - characterisation is non-existent, there's no real backdrop to the story and everything depends on not just one, but two, unlikely technologies. Don't think about it very hard, though, and Paycheck is rather entertaining. (Maybe even because it skips over so many details.)

With plenty of running about and not much contemplation, Ben Affleck isn't stretched (luckily). The rest of the cast have to make do with characters pulled straight from other movies. There's the evil corporate guy, the efficient henchman, the scientist love interest, the comic sidekick - pretty much everyone you'd expect really apart from the ageing mentor only a few days away from retirement.

Conclusion: A great idea executed merely competently. A little more care (and a different cast) could have made it superb.

Explosions: A couple of big ones.
Ben Affleck running away: Lots.
Uma Thurman looking attractive: Surprisingly little.
Technical plausibility: On a par with cold fusion.
Entirely new uses for a paperclip: One.

Rating: 4/5.


Dungeons and Dragons (DVD)

Starring: Jeremy Irons, Justin Whalin, Zoe McLellan and Richard O'Brien.

Rated: 12.

Story: In a generic fantasy empire, a small band of adventurers drawn together by fate must embark on a quest to recover a powerful magical artifact, save the empress and defeat an evil sorcerer.

And, yes, it does all involve a drunken dwarf, a haughty elf, a sneering henchman, some wandering around in a forest and Jeremy Irons waving his arms about while cackling...

Comments: In many ways this is a bit of a disaster. For starters, there's very little content to tie it directly with the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game. From the use of magic to the types of monsters, nothing is entirely right. All that really distinguishes it from other swords and sorcery movies is the name. Starting out with a scene that literally has a dragon in a dungeon doesn't make it D&D.

Most of the cast are out acted by their own hair and Irons seems desperate to be somewhere else (as can be seen by the face he pulls at the end of some especially drawn-out arm waving in one of the deleted scenes). On top of that, the film has been rather poorly edited and it's entirely obvious where scenes have been pulled. This has usually been done to remove particularly clunky dialogue but it still plays havoc with the film's flow and continuity.

Nonetheless, Dungeons & Dragons is quite fun to watch if you've ever done any roleplaying. It may not have many proper D&D references but it is strangely reminiscent of a fantasy adventure improvised by a group of students for a laugh. The unlikely situations, stereotyped characters and wise-cracking dialogue actually add to the atmosphere. It's only on the few occasions when the film starts taking itself seriously and characters pontificate about freedom and equality that things drag. Have some lead figures lying around ready to paint at these moments...

Dungeons & Dragons could be described as Star Wars meets Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Lord of the Rings... in a dark alley and bearing a grudge. The result is a mess but it's worth watching all the same just to see Tom Baker with pointy ears.

Conclusion: Travels beyond awful and out the other side.

Explosions: Some decent CGI dragon breath.
Dungeons: Four.
Dragons: Dozens.
Ideas ripped from elsewhere: All of them.
Killer Persian rugs: One.

Rating: 3/5.


jOG (Wii)

jOG box

Cost: The RRP is £20 but it seems to be selling for £25 most places.

  • A pedometer with an attached wire to plug into a wii remote and a socket in which to insert a wire from a wii nunchuk.
How it works: The pedometer clips to your belt while playing normal Wii games and counts the number of steps you take. Stop jogging and the Wii no longer receives signals from the thumbstick on the nunchuk. In many games this means your character stops moving and suffers a horrible death. You have to jog or die...

Or you can just tap the button on top and play in peace as the pedometer ceases doing anything at all.

jOG attached to a remote.

Object: To get some light exercise without leaving the house or becoming bored.

Game length: Until you decide you could really do with a sit down.

Comments: Put simply, jOG is a device that forces you to jog on the spot while playing Wii games and, to be honest, that sounds a little daft. After all, if you really wanted to run on the spot in front of the telly, you could just do it while watching CSI and save yourself twenty quid.

Except, of course, there's little chance of you doing that in reality. You're going to lie down on the sofa after five minutes with a beer and a packet of crisps. By affecting the game, jOG forces you to keep going. Yeah, you could switch it off but that feels more like cheating than sitting down for 'a little rest' and, besides, building up a step count high score is quite compulsive.

That said, there are certain games where jOG is rather pointless. Quiz games, racing games, Guitar Hero and anything else which doesn't use the thumbstick aren't going to bring much exercise. Also, it's pretty tricky aiming accurately with the wiimote while jogging. The manual suggests playing as if jogging while holding a tea tray in an effort to keep your hands steady. Personally, I like to think of it more as the world's first Riverdance simulator.

I've mainly tried jOG with Disaster: Day of Crisis which works very well. The sections involving running about are regularly interspersed with cutscenes and lightgun style sections. This means regular breaks from jogging. More than that, having to actually run while pegging it from a virtual volcano does add to the feeling of immersion. The only problem occurs with one minigame which involves aiming the wiimote at a particular point on screen for several seconds while twirling the thumbstick. Achieving this while jogging is beyond me. Perhaps Michael Flatley could manage it but I keep having to flick jOG off for a few moments.

LEGO Batman, where use of the thumbstick is almost constant, is much more of an effort. Two levels of that and I totally need to lie down on the sofa with a beer and a packet of crisps in front of CSI...

Oddly, jOG probably works best with games which are the complete opposite of the short challenges of Wii Fit. A half hour burst of a long adventure where you get to run around exploring is likely to provide a decent workout. Games such as Okami, Bully, Zelda and Resident Evil 4 are the way to go. Unlike the Wii Fit balance board, jOG gives you the chance to exercise while playing proper games and so will potentially keep you interested for longer.

The pedometer itself is reasonable quality and has a battery to retain your 'score' while not in use. It doesn't count or show a display without an operational wiimote attached, though, so it's no use while not playing a game. (There's a PS2 version with what appears to be a wireless pedometer which is much more self-contained.)

jOG almost certainly isn't the answer to childhood obesity. I suggested my boys try it out and they started taking a sudden interest in quiz games, racing games and Guitar Hero. Likewise, it clearly isn't going to get you fit without a healthy dose of will power and a stack of great games. Nonetheless, it could help. I keep finding myself looking forward to using it. Suddenly games are fun and virtuous.

The only real issue with jOG is the price. Not so very long ago, Kellogg were giving away pedometers with the purchase of a couple of boxes of Bran Flakes. This being the case, £25 for a pedometer with an extra bit of wire and an electronic cut-off switch seems a bit steep. Still, it's a lot cheaper than a gym subscription and you can use it without leaving the house.

jOG close up.

Conclusion: Jogging on the spot has never been so enjoyable.

  • Makes exercise fun.
  • Can make games more fun too.
  • Works with plenty of titles.
  • Clips easily, has a good length of wire and the off button is in an accessible location.
  • Expensive.
  • If you have downstairs neighbours they may not be thrilled.
Rating: 4/5.

Sweeney Todd (DVD)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall and Sacha Baron Cohen.

Rated: 18.

Story: An eighteenth century barber has his wife and child stolen by a wicked judge who gets him transported to a penal colony. Years later, the barber returns, seeking revenge. When his plans don't go well, he takes out his frustration by giving a whole load of customers very close shaves and forming a lucrative business partnership with the lady who owns the pie shop downstairs.

Mmmmm... Gravy...

Comments: Thanks to a mechanised display at the Museum of Childhood, even my four-year-old knows the basic gist of Sweeney Todd - people go into the top floor wanting a shave and come out the bottom floor in parcels of pastry. There's not much more to it than that. The film expands on this with a subplot about Todd's lost daughter and adds some love interest with the pie lady but it's all rather predictable and hinges on huge coincidences. As with most musicals, the plot is merely an excuse for some singing. The songs in Sweeney Todd are nowhere near good enough to hold things together, however. None are particularly memorable and some are actually grating.

The visuals of the movie are more of a draw than the music. The sets, make-up and costumes are designed to give an impression of black and white which means the thick, red blood stands out strikingly. Unfortunately, combined with the liberal spurting effects, this makes the gorier scenes reminiscent of low budget zombie films rather than anything more artistic. As a bonus, though, since everyone looks as pale as if they've lived in a cave for a decade, Bonham-Carter appears healthier than normal.

The best bits of the film are the scenes with Sacha Baron Cohen. The rest of the cast do fine but it's ultimately a waste of everyone's talents. I prefer my daughter's version:

Everybody, everybody, everybody, everybody, everybody likes being a person.
Nobody, nobody, nobody, nobody, nobody likes being a pie!
Conclusion: People go in, pies come out. Now with added singing.

Explosions: None.
Cockroaches: Plenty.
Low point: The duet between Rickman and Depp. (Ooh, my ears!)
Blood: Gloopy and pink.
Cornish pasty, anyone?: Maybe I'll pass just now, thanks...

Rating: 2/5.


Trivial Pursuit (Wii)

Rated: 3+ but play requires strong reading skills and a good deal of general knowledge - under-12s don't have much hope.

Gameplay: There are three modes:
  • Classic multiplayer: This is essentially a computerised version of the standard Trivial Pursuit board game. Travel round the board answering questions in categories such as History or Entertainment. Get a question right and you get to take another go. Each of the six categories has a special square which earns you a coloured wedge for your playing piece. Victory is achieved by collecting one of each type of wedge, returning to the start and answering a final question. Unlike the board game, the questions are multiple choice, can involve maps and pictures, and have a time limit.
  • Facts and Friends multiplayer: This is Triv made fast and more competitive. There's only one wedge of each colour and players win them by earning enough points in a particular category. Points are awarded for answering questions correctly and for guessing whether other players will get answers right or wrong. Once a category has been won, the corresponding spaces disappear and the board shrinks. Once all the categories have been won, wedges are converted to lives and the overall winner is decided by quick-fire questions everyone has to answer at once. Special squares add further complications, bringing such things as double points and allowing wedges to be stolen.
  • Single player: This is the Classic game with an added point system so you can play on your own for a high score. There are also achievements to be collected for doing well in different ways.
Save System: Automatic saves at regular intervals and the option to save and quit between questions.

Comments: As a board game, Trivial Pursuit shouldn't really work. It's long, frustrating and frequently involves sitting around for ages with nothing to do while someone else has a lucky streak. There's little interaction between opposing players. Kids and OAPs are usually at a disadvantage. It's not so much a pastime as a chance for those who know too much to show off.

And yet... I have many fond memories of playing Triv.

At family gatherings, it's the one game an entire room full of people can participate in and feel they are contributing. The range of questions means a team consisting of a granny, an uncle and an obscure cousin of indeterminate age have a good chance of wiping the floor with a gaggle teenagers who think they know everything because, let's face it, they really don't know who starred in Brief Encounter nor where the 1976 Olympics were held. The whole point of the game is to listen to them earnestly debate the possibilities for five minutes and then guess Munich anyway.

This computerised version of Trivial Pursuit misses the point. By introducing time limits in an attempt to speed the game up, it takes away much of the opportunity for team play. There's simply not long enough to go through to the kitchen and ask your mother-in-law what song Cliff sang to win the Eurovision Song Contest.

Another advantage of the board game is that most people in a team don't need to be anywhere near the board. Thanks to the picture and map questions in the computer version, however, everyone has to be sitting where they can see the telly. Not only that but the small text size makes it necessary to be closer to the screen than normal to avoid eye strain.

Disappointingly, there are no sound or video clips or anything much beyond a few pictures to expand the concept beyond the restrictions of the board game. If you want a classic game of Trivial Pursuit you'd be as well buying a normal set.

That said, the Facts and Friends mode does make the game faster and more fun in ways that would be difficult without a computer. Everyone takes turns in quick succession and there's never a lengthy, frustrating hunt for that final wedge. Team play is impossible, though, and the extremely tight time limits in the endgame mean only fluent readers have a chance.

The single player game is reasonably fun for half an hour but its long-term appeal is limited to those who really like high scores.

On top of all this, there are a number of minor niggles. For instance, it's very easy to press the wrong button when sliding a slider and so mess up an answer with no chance of taking it back. Conversely, it takes several button presses to actually roll again when landing on a roll again space. This is infuriating. Thankfully, at least the annoying voice-over guy can be switched off.

Conclusion: A basic and somewhat broken version of Trivial Pursuit. It seems designed for flatmates rather than families.

Graphics: They do the job but little more. The text is too small, it's not always possible to see the whole board, it can be difficult to tell yellow and orange apart and there's no option to use Miis.

Length: A Classic game can go on for a couple of hours with four players. Facts and Friends can be whizzed through in forty minutes. Pictures, maps and even questions can start reappearing after only a few games.

Rating: Judged purely on it's Trvial Pursuit merits, it's a 3/5. As a game in its own right, it's a 2/5.

Death Race (Blu-ray)

Starring: Jason Statham, Tyrese Gibson and, oh my goodness, is that Ian McShane!? (Remember Lovejoy?)

Rated: 18. (Apparently it's only a 15 on DVD, although I have to assume it's still a bloody tale of revenge, featuring convicts murdering each other using killer cars. Perhaps there's less gore or they bleep out all the swearing. Who knows?)

Story: In the near future, a former racing driver gets framed for murder and just happens to end up in a privately run prison which supplements its income by broadcasting gladiatorial races between the inmates on pay-per-view. Winning five races means freedom.

To add some spice, the cars have guns and the co-drivers are busty prisoners from the women's penitentiary down the road...

Comments: Right, before I go any further, I should probably point out that Death Race really is as daft as it sounds and is dumber than a toddler with a nappy full of hammers. People blow each other up while driving very fast. That's about it. This movie makes The Condemned look like a thoughtful reflection on the morality of violence as entertainment.

Death Race is gory, predictable and totally unbelievable. That said, if you're looking to watch some mindless explosions while collapsed on the sofa with a beer, it's slick and has impressive effects. The racing has obviously been influenced by a number of computer games, so this is maybe one to try after a hard day with the kids when you fancy a shot of Burnout but holding a controller feels a little too much like effort.

The cast do fine with what they're given but Jason Statham needs to consider his projects more carefully. Could he really not find better vehicles for his talents than this and In the Name of the King? Also, I spent the whole time expecting McShane to offer him some dodgy paintings (which was somewhat off-putting).

Conclusion: It's people driving at high speed while shooting at each other - nothing more nor less.

Explosions: Lots.
Cars with guns: Several.
Startling plot twists: None.
Gritty concrete locations: Constant.
Dodgy East Anglian antique dealers: One.

Rating: 3/5.


Pink Magazine

Pink Magazine. For little girls who love pink!

Cost: £2 per issue. (New issues come out every three weeks or so.)

  • A 36-page magazine, about 3 pages of which are adverts and 3 are simply pictures.
  • 'Free gifts'. The copy I was forced to buy had a sheet of stickers and a lip gloss case in the shape of a mobile phone.
Age: The target age is 3-9 years. Half the puzzles are things like word searches which are beyond most four-year-olds, however, while others involve merely counting to five. A 4-6 age range is more realistic.

Pink Magazine plastic tack.
The phone-shaped make-up case... and some cute kittens.

Comments: Never trust a magazine with a picture of a cute kitten on the front which has a speech bubble reading, 'I love Pink!' - the contents are unlikely to be good for your brain. Unfortunately, Sproglette saw it and loved it. A magazine 'For little girls who love PINK' really could have been designed specifically for her.

But, yes, it is pretty awful...

Pink Magazine. A maze and some spot the difference.

Although there aren't many pages dedicated to advertising, it's hard to know sometimes where the features end and the ads begin. Much of the magazine seems to be blatant plugs for books, TV shows and merchandising. There are only two proper stories and the rest is short puzzles, colouring in and stuff to cut out. Some of the stuff to cut out is back-to-back with features.

The stickers kept ripping when Sproglette removed them from the backing. They're also not the kind that can be peeled off and used again. Since they weren't related to the contents of the magazine itself, she stuck them straight onto the front cover:

Pink Magazine covered in stickers.

The lip gloss case is quite attractive but the gunk itself is too thick to spread with the brush provided and I'm less than thrilled with the thought of it going near my daughter's mouth. Happily, it's nearly invisible once applied, so she tired of it quickly.

The most entertaining part of the magazine is showing it to other parents in the playground at school. Those with young girls nod sympathetically; those with only boys gape in astonishment and fear...

Conclusion: Numberjacks Magazine would be best but, quite honestly, I'd rather buy Disney's Princess than this.

  • Pinkness, princesses and cute, furry creatures - the stuff of little girls' dreams.
  • Tiresome puzzles, dodgy make-up and cheap stickers - the stuff of housedad nightmares.
  • Sponsored articles.
  • Low production values.
  • Activities require wildly varying ability.
  • Even the cute cats look fed up.
  • Many young girls won't care about these problems and will grab the latest issue from the rack every time you go to Tesco.
  • Scarily, scarily pink.
Rating: 2/5.