Partnering with Tearfund

Avatar 3D

Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Uhura from Star Trek, the conflicted Terminator from Salvation and a host of characters that even special glasses can't make three-dimensional.

Rated: 12A.

Story: 150 years in the future, a paraplegic ex-marine gets the chance to go to the planet of Pandora and try to convince the 'primitive' indigenous people to quietly move out of the way of the human mining corporation that wants to plough up their home. Instead of talking to them in person, he remotely controls a specially-grown alien body. This is supposed to help gain their trust but, unsurprisingly, just freaks them out. To compensate, he has to study their ways and customs, ride a flying lizard and learn to hug trees.

Yep, it's Dances with Wolves in space...

Comments: Hooray, I finally dragged myself out of the house and made it to the cinema to see Avatar. Was it worth getting snowed on and then having to cough up £9.10?

Erm... Sort of.

It's certainly visually spectacular with plenty of action, explosions and impossible scenery. (Floating mountains, anyone?) The plot, however, is very predictable and the characterisation is paper thin. This would be OK if the film was a frantic ninety minute adventure but it's over an hour longer than that. A message that's blatantly 'Corporations = bad, Army = bad, Indigenous people = wise and strong and wonderful' might have been a revelation once upon a time. These days, the absence of any shades of grey feels almost dishonest.

The 3D effect is very different from the limited amount I've seen previously. Toy Story often takes place on distinct 2D planes whereas Avatar has proper depth to objects. There's also no noticeable blurring in fast-moving sequences. Bizarrely, though, there's a lot of distracting fuzziness in static scenes. The makers have gone with a depth-of-field effect so that only items at a particular distance are in focus - stuff much closer or further away is blurred. This is more relaxing on the eye than having everything in focus at once and works great in the action scenes where attention is automatically drawn to the excitement. It's not so good when people are simply standing around talking - it's easy to end up glancing elsewhere and become distracted by fuzz.

Avatar has been very successful but that's probably more down to good timing than anything else. It's the first major 3D release that isn't an animation aimed primarily at children. As such, watching it results in a certain amount of wide-eyed wonder. Having said that, I'm still not sold on 3D. Seeing it in 2D would have been different but I suspect equally enjoyable.

Is it worth rushing to catch it at the cinema while it's still on in 3D? Not desperately. DVD would be fine. Despite the flaws, 3D is unlikely to go away and, in another year or two, we'll be inundated with films that exploit the technology better and also have a decent script. Save some cash for then.

Conclusion: Not a patch on Titanic.

Explosions: Loads.
Big, blue aliens: Loads.
Monsters with sharp teeth: Loads.
Convincing lines of dialogue: Not so many.
Times I jumped 'cos I thought something was going to hit me in the head: One
Times I had to hit myself in the head at the dumbness of it all: Three or four.

Rating: 3/5.


G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra (DVD)

Starring: Christopher Eccleston, Darth Maul, Dennis Quaid, the green girl from Star Trek, Sienna Miller, Marlon Wayans (remember him from Dungeons & Dragons? No? Maybe for the best...) & some generic action guy (Channing Tatum).

Rated: 12.

Story: An elite unit of super soldiers must recover some 'nanomite' warheads that have been stolen by a lunatic and his army of henchmen. In an effort to stop him destroying Paris, they, er... destroy Paris.

Comments: And I thought Outlander was daft...

The plot of G.I. Joe makes very little sense. There's all kinds of nonsense involving unlikely technology and overblown conspiracies but you can't help feeling that both sides are simply too busy travelling the globe blowing things up to think about what they're doing.

Luckily, they move very fast and the explosions are enormous.

For a movie based on a range of action figures, G.I. Joe has clearly had a large amount of money thrown at it. Things almost constantly leap and drive and fly and go boom, so there's little time to worry about why on Earth they're doing it. The chase sequence through the French capital is particularly fresh and exciting.

There's a large cast of heroes and villains, each with their own specialities. Despite a fair number of flashbacks to explain motivations, however, the pace seldom flags. Although the the set-up feels quite like X-Men, there's none of the angst. Within moments, it's time to blow stuff up again.

In many ways, G.I. Joe is great. It's a non-stop rush of dumb spectacle with a high profile cast and some intriguing ideas. Sadly, it's maybe just a bit too dumb. I can put up with an awful lot if it leads to some really big fireworks but, honestly, this is the kind of film where ice sinks. Even while watching Sienna Miller and Rachel Nichols fight each other in the middle of a pyrotechnic apocalypse, I was still thinking, 'What? But why? Eh? That'd never work? And, oh goodness, please, please, will someone tell Christopher Eccleston to stop with the Scottish accent?'

Ho well, at least it's much better than the game. It's probably not as good as a whole load of action figures and accessories, though...

Conclusion: Lots of fun but liable to make you stupid.

Explosions: Loads.
Emotional realism: Lacking.
Scientific realism: Slim.
Political realism: Sparse.
Any kind of realism whatsoever: Pretty much absent.
Does that matter if it means the chance to watch beautiful people throw each other about while France blows up around them?: Possibly not.

Rating: 3/5.


Mouse Trap! (again)

New Mouse Trap box.

Cost: £15 (plus medical expenses).

  • Game board.
  • 4 plastic mice. (Red, green, yellow and blue.)
  • 32 plastic cheese wedges. (8 of each colour.)
  • 3 ball bearings.
  • 1 6-sided dice.
  • 2 rubber bands. (Both required.)
  • An enormous assortment of cardboard and plastic pieces to assemble into traps.
Gameplay: An adult reads the assembly instructions in an increasingly bemused fashion as children jump around the room asking questions and offering advice. The adult starts putting stuff together. The children commence wrestling and knock everything over. Shouting ensues.

If it is the first time the game has been played, bedtime may arrive before play progresses any further.

Once the board is complete (with three traps and a flushing toilet in the centre to release the balls), the playing pieces are lined up in front of the sweeping broom trap. This is then set off and the player whose piece is launched furthest across the room goes first.

Players take it in turns to roll the dice and move the indicated number of spaces. Landing on a trap space is rewarded with two pieces of cheese but requires the toilet to be flushed, setting off one of the three traps at random. Mice that are caught lose a piece of cheese and then the trap is reset.

There are a few special spaces but the branching pathways on the board mean that only the 'Go to next trap' ones see much use.

New Mouse Trap.

Object: To be the first to collect eight pieces of cheese.

Game length: 10-30 minutes, depending on the number of players and how lucky they are. (Don't forget to add set-up time.)

Number of players: 2-4.

Age: 6+ but a four-year-old can easily play with adult supervision. Even ten-year-olds may need adult help with setting-up.

Comments: We had to give the kids extra coaching on being grateful this Christmas. Sproglette kept stamping her foot and throwing a tantrum if she opened a parcel and found something she didn't like. Even if she did like what she got, she kept demanding more. Sprog1 did much better - he was polite and enthusiastic about whatever he got... before discussing at length whether it was identical to the version he already had. Sprog2 opened stuff, shrugged and wandered off.

We really had to work on their thank-yous, fixed grins and innocent enquiries about receipts.

Of course, when Sprog2 unwrapped Mouse Trap!, they were all genuinely pleased. It was me who had to maintain a forced expression of delight.

You see, they already have an older version of Mouse Trap!. It's dull, fiddly, infuriating, tedious and one of Sproglette's favourite games. As such, it will be amongst the first things I take to Oxfam as soon as the kids leave home. Honestly, I'd much rather do the washing-up than play it.

I wasn't exactly thrilled to get a new set that's so different from the original we've ended up keeping both of them. I haven't had to play them one after the other yet but I'm sure it's only a matter of time...

The new version is at least a lot more fun to play than the original. The traps are functional right from the start and each player gets a few shots of setting them off. This is a major improvement. There's also a little bit of strategy involved in choosing which way to go when the path round the board splits.

Unfortunately, a whole new load of problems have been introduced:

Setting the game up for the first time takes forever and is definitely a night-before job. Even on subsequent assemblies, it's still a significant task. Allow a minimum of five minutes and make it ten if you've got 'help'.

New Mouse Trap disassembled.
How does this go back together again?

The rules are fairly long and unnecessarily complicated for something that's in reality little more sophisticated than Snakes and Ladders. (Allow another five minutes for looking over them.) Various spaces send mice backwards or forwards, with or without setting off the traps or gaining cheese. It's also possible to obtain a spanner to briefly clog up one trap but it's usually not worth taking a detour to collect. The most effective tactic is nearly always to avoid the additions and head straight for the traps.

New Mouse Trap instructions.
One side of the instruction sheet.

On a more basic level, the playing pieces fall over all the time, the broom isn't wide enough to launch all four of them at the start and the cage trap is (amazingly) more fiddly to set than in the original.

The biggest issue, however, is that it's very hard to see where you're going. The traps are so large and solid, choosing a path requires constant peering and bending and bobbing about in an effort to see the path. Since a lack of spaces means a roll of six can lead to a trip halfway around the board, almost every shot is a spine-twisting contortion. Mouse Trap! is the first board game to give me a bad back.

Conclusion: More fun to play than the old version but the overall experience isn't much better.

  • Everyone gets a shot at setting off the traps.
  • Fast-paced (once you get started).
  • Looks great.
  • Lengthy, complicated set-up.
  • Involves regular, fiddly resetting of traps.
  • Rules need stream-lined.
  • Actually painful to play.
Rating: 2/5.