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DancingCopper

DancingCopper
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Member since: 10.10.2008

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      05.02.2009 09:38
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      Avon's back looking to reclaim his streets

      Having devoured the first two series of The Wire, I had already bought series three and four before finishing the second. This meant I could move seamlessly into the third. I was definitely addicted, although programmes of The Wire's calibre make me wonder about their sustainability. The scope and pace of the first two series were incredible, a tour-de-force of substance combined with style.

      Could they repeat the magic for a third time?

      Whereas the second series could be enjoyed without seeing the first, in my opinion the third cannot. So, if you've not watched it, go and get it now...it's totally worth it! However, if you are still not convinced, here is a brief introduction to The Wire.

      Set in the city of Baltimore, Maryland, The Wire was first screened in 2002. It meticulously tells the story of a police unit's attempt to bring down a powerful drug-dealing gang. At the top of this gang was Avon Berksdale, seemingly untouchable because of the self-disciplined way he managed his business. Told from a range of perspectives, both legal and criminal, the story was played out as mobile phones and pagers were monitored and a case finally threatened the Berksdale empire. From less than encouraging beginnings, the wire tap unit moved closer and closer to success.

      The second series introduced a different group of targets, focusing on the Baltimore docks. The Berksdale story became secondary, although it was still played out violently and tragically.

      The third series again returns us to the drug-dealing street corners of inner-city Baltimore. Avon Berksdale returns to win back his pride and position in the city's criminal fraternity. The person who has kept his empire in operation, Stringer Bell, has his own ideas about how to develop, with a more business-orientated approach. The wire tap unit, having blown open two major cases, has considerably more prestige than it did in the first series, although the lives and ambitions of its members grow ever more complex. Success does not temper their apparent self-destructive natures, nor their persistent bed-hopping.

      Having been caught out with wire taps before, Berksdale's gang are aware of their mistakes, but whether it will make them more careful is yet to be seen. Once more, we have peripheral characters further complicating the narrative. The eternal wheeler-dealer junkie, Bubbs, continues to push his luck on the streets. Omar's character is expanded and is clearly an audience favourite, a modern-day Robin Hood-like character.

      The third series introduces a more political angle as we continue to follow the twists and turns the Berksdale drugs money has taken. Aidan Gillen, superb in Queer as Folk, joins the regular cast as an ambitious Baltimore councillor. Police Major Colvin, nearing his retirement and tired of the seeming stalemate in the drugs war, comes up with a radical solution to containing the problem in his district. We also witness the rise of an even greater threat to the Berksdales than the wire-tap unit. Marlo, an ambitious drug dealer, has his sights set on taking control of west Baltimore's street corners, even if they are occupied by other gangs.

      The third series is as compelling as the previous two. It remains fresh but is able to develop central characters further than series one and two. You can see additional plot threats woven into the narrative which could play on and on over several series. This highlights the reality of criminal activity and those seeking to control it - it is an endless battle. The other HBO series I have been addicted to in recent years was prison drama OZ. Like the Wire it was ultraviolent, character-driven and complex. By its third series OZ was beginning to look repetitive, predictable and tired. The Wire, on the other hand, seems to only just be getting going.
      ---------- Product Information ----------

      RRP: £39.99 Play.com: £17.99 Amazon: £14.98

      Number of discs: 5
      Classification: 15
      Studio: Warner Home Video
      DVD Release Date: 5 Feb 2007
      Run Time: 780 minutes
      DVD Features:
      Main Language: English
      Available Audio Tracks: Dolby Digital
      2 audio commentaries
      ASIN: B000KGGP0S

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        29.01.2009 18:24
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        The business end of a body workout

        The secret to successfully maintaining an exercise regime is variety and Wii Fit just isn't doing it for me like it used to. The little comments you get when you do the body test irritate me and catching fish in a penguin costume just doesn't make me laugh like it used to. I still enjoy the yoga every now and then, but the gym instructor is still wearing the same clothes and my Wii Mii is still rotund!

        A sequel is due out in the near future, but I need something to help me NOW. By coincidence I stumbled across My Fitness Coach and thought it looked interesting. The words 'Get in Shape' on the cover were like a challenge I couldn't refuse.

        If you're expecting this to be similar to Wii Fit, you'll find it is a very different beast. It makes no use of the balance board, little use of the controller, and has a more no-nonsense approach to its task.

        When you first load it, the introduction is a cringingly, over-energetic pastiche of bad keep-fit experiences...loud music, images of summer beaches, lots of movement - maybe that's what exercise is now, but it scared the hell out of me!

        The first menu screen enables you to load or create a new profile, or have a 'guest pass' workout. Guest pass enables you to exercise without having to go through the process of setting up an accurate assessment, requiring time and a fair amount of information.

        I'd already decided I wanted to get serious, so created a profile. I meant it when I said this takes time. You have to measure your chest, bicep, waist and hips; take a reading of your resting and working heart rates; select what you want to focus on from a range of goals, including weight loss, flexibility and strength. Finally you choose the duration of your sessions and the days you want to work on them - these are flexible, so you can change them at any time.

        Having been through the setting up process, I was ready to start. You're introduced to the instructor, Maya. This is an incredibly life-like AI character, presumably modelled on a range of fitness instructors. To start with you choose the type of work-out you want to do and the duration. The game itself makes a recommendation, based on your ultimate goal, but you can change it.

        You also get to select the music you want during your workout, and the on-screen background. As you work through the game, more variations of music and setting are unlocked. But these are merely window-dressing for the main experience.

        The final selection process you go through is choosing what equipment you have available to use - such as yoga mats, weights or a cardiac monitor. The programme then adapts your workout according to your resources. With a database of some 500 exercises, you don't need anything to feel the burn!

        And so the workout begins. It's a similar experience to a workout DVD. Maya talks you and walks you through each exercise, with the visual angle shifting to make sure your body is where it's meant to be. During the exericse sequence, you see how much time you have remaining on screen, starting from 15 minutes and going up in increments to 120 minutes.

        At the bottom of the screen, the exercise you are working on scrolls from right to left, so you can see how long you have remaining. This is a useful motivational tool, as when you're aching, you can see that you get a rest soon. Rest breaks are built frequently into the programme. Having had a good warmup, you usually get about 10 seconds between exercises - all part of the routine. During longer workouts you have extended breaks enabling you to drink water. Maya looks after you! At the end, there's a cooldown, although I felt this was a little brief and you should probably continue after she's finished.

        The second time I played, I had an hour-long workout and I felt exhausted afterwards. The next day I ached, but in a good way that said I was actually addressing the problems I'd set out to. I've still got a long way to go before I've exhausted all the things this 'game' can do for me and I'm still feeling motivated.

        I think this motivation comes from the genuine sense of one-to-one training you get. I've been quick to slag off Ubisoft in the past, so credit where credit's due. They have done an excellent job of rendering a fitness coach - and I don't mean that in a salivating, chauvinistic way. I mean the comments made during work-outs really do motivate and there are some unnecessary but quirky traits. These include, pausing and tapping her foot while waiting for the beat, stretching off between exercises.

        Having completed a series of exercises, you're asked if you are working above, at or below a comfortable level, and the workout compensates depending on your answer, adapting your next workout for maximum benefit.

        I'm really enjoying this at the moment and do feel it's going to really benefit me. If you don't want to join a gym or pound the pavement in public, this is the way forward. Feel inspired and go feel the burn!

        ---------- Product Information ----------
        I bought my version from Game, in-store for £17.99. It was the same price in a near-by HMV, but I have seen it cheaper on-line.

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          27.01.2009 13:37
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          There are more people to evesdrop on than drug dealers

          Second series are fragile beasts. If the first series has been unsuccessful, it's doubtful another will follow; if they've been successful, you might get more of the same - without the novelty or surprise factor (24 anyone?); production companies might throw more money at the sequel to create better effects or get better writers, losing the appeal of the original format. They are definitely tricky to get right.

          The second series of The Wire succeeds where many have failed. It is as cintillating as its predecessor. It's possible to watch the second series without having seen the first, as the primary case is new. You would however be missing out on the gripping experience and character development provided by the first series.

          For those unfamiliar with the show, The Wire follows the lives and investigations of a Baltimore police unit, specialising in acquiring evidence by use of wire taps - bugging pagers, mobile phones and land lines to build cases against shadowy gang leaders. We are presented with an intimate insight into the lives of officers and dealers alike. Baltimore, with one of the highest rates of gun crime and gang violence in the USA, was an excellent backdrop for such a series.

          The second series features much the same cast as the first, as the repercussions of the first investigation are still being felt. The programme remains fresh by introducing another investigation providing an insight into another prominent aspect of Baltimore society. The focus shifts from the housing projects to the docks where again, layer upon layer of self-advancement is played out.

          Once more the distinction between good guy and bad guy is blurred, adding to the dynamic narrative. Most of the police officers are at best angry and frustrated, at worst self-destructive; the gang-bangers are intelligent and articulate in their dog-eat-dog world.

          There is also the same depth and quality to the story-telling, with humour and violence as much a part of daily life as investigation and dealing. The series does for police drama what Donnie Brasco did for Mob films. Rather than being glamorous, we see criminal investigation and drug dealing as tedious, monotonous and inescapable. Petty squabbles reverberate through the police department and criminal gangs alike - knowledge is power in The Game, and not many people have more than a limited perspective.

          Still impressive, still compulsive and worth every one of those 780 minutes to watch.

          ---------- Product Details ----------

          RRP: £50.00 (!) Amazon: £14.98

          Number of discs: 5
          Classification: 18
          Studio: Warner Home Video
          DVD Release Date: 10 Oct 2005
          Run Time: 780 minutes

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            26.01.2009 13:17
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            Cops and gangs slogging it out on the streets of Baltimore

            The Wire premiered in 2002, but I didn't watch it until 2009! I had been aware of it, had wanted to see it, but not so much I was prepared to go and buy it. In the end it materialised in the form of a Christmas present and I liked it so much, I've bought up the next three series.

            Years ago I read an excellent article about the changing complexion of legal and medical television series. How characters in the sixties were portrayed as steely-eyed heroes, changing into more vulnerable, complex characters through the seventies and eighties, before becoming hard to distinguish from the low-lives they were dealing with in the nineties.

            Police Drama in particular has has examples which have catapulted the genre forward. From Z Cars to Hillstreet Blues, Miami Vice to NYPD Blue, each takes a different look at perspectives of crime.

            The Wire focuses on crime relating to drugs in Baltimore. This is a great city to focus on for such a theme, as the murder rate is significantly higher than other US cities with tough reputations, like its neighbours, New York and Washington.

            The angle taken by this programme is how you can build cases based on listening in to people's phone conversations. This is nothing new, but the detail paid to lives of cops and dealers makes it compulsive viewing.

            On the one side, you have the untouchable Barksdale family, clued up drugs dealers running a slick operation, on the other you have a group of misfit police officers messing things up, fighting with each other, but becoming fixated on solving crime on their little patch of Maryland.

            The attention to character detail is second-to-none. We are given intimate insights into the lives of police officers and gang members, watch their successes and failures, their glimpses of humanity before returning to what they call 'the game', which could end in any of them dying on a daily basis.

            The story-telling is fast-paced and slick, with false starts, twists and turns aplenty. It has all the grit of Oz, the ensemble narrative style of Boomtown and the most realistic representation of grinding away at street-corner crime you'll see.

            Another nice touch they have in the programme, is keeping the same theme music in each series, but changing the singer and the style. Not a big point, but it's the attention to detail and quality that make this a great series.

            ---------- Product Information ----------

            from Amazon
            RRP: £50.99 (don't believe it!) Amazon: £14.97

            Number of discs: 5
            Classification: 18
            Studio: Warner Home Video
            DVD Release Date: 18 April 2005
            Run Time: 720 minutes

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              26.01.2009 09:45
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              From Outremer to Selkirk via Paris, the changing fortunes of a Templar

              WARNING - as the review of the third volume in the Brethren trilogy, information about the previous books is referenced. Read these books, Brethren and Crusade, before reading this review.

              Requiem is the third volume in Robyn Young's excellent Brethren trilogy. Requiem was the first book for about four years I had been anxious to get hold of weeks before its publication. Now I know what the people in bookshop queues felt like the night before a new Harry Potter book was launched.

              The story continues the saga of Will Campbell, who began his journey two books and thirty years earlier as a sergeant in the Templars. Over those two books we saw him gain influence in the Temple and become an even more prominant member of a secret group within it, the Anima Templi. There aims were to seek an end to the destructive cycle of crusades and jihads that blighted the Holy Land.

              By the end of the second volume, this objective has been lost, as has Outremer itself. This was what led to my anticipation of the third book. Crusade had dealt with the escalating conflict between the Christian and Moslem worlds, culminating in a decisive victory. Where could the story go after that?

              Requiem is a different animal to its predecessors. We trade in the dusty streets of Acre and Jerusalem for the claustrophobic alleys of Paris and London. The narrative is more complex as well. Rather than two powers manouvering around each other like predators, we have multiple layers of intruige eating away at European politics like parasites.

              Will Campbell's last thoughts in Crusade are continued in Requiem, becoming the catalyst that effects all other characters. His hatred of and desire for revenge on Edward transport him across Europe and the loss of Elwen leaves him angry and rudderless.

              Robyn Young has once again successfully interwoven history and fiction into a gripping narrative. From King Edward's wars in Scotland to the decline of the Templars themselves, we watch history unfold through the eyes of Will Campbell. Young continues to excel at story-telling, moving effortlessly from sickening violence to heart-aching love with no let up in quality or pace.

              The only problem I had with Requiem was feeling a little bogged down in politics at times. Knights clobbering each other I can understand, french aristocrats whispering in dark corridors I struggle with. There is an awful lot of that - Francis Urquhart would be proud of the efforts to undermine various powerblocks. At times, all this politics left me mentally exhausted, as though I'd been swimming through treacle.

              It's worth keeping going because there are some great moments and it is a worthy conclusion to the Brethren saga.

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                07.01.2009 12:38
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                A superb piece of fiction, giving insight into the workings of the Roman world

                I had mixed feelings about buying this book. It was initially the two for one deal that won me over. First, I had never heard of Conn Iggulden and I'm usually cautious about reading things by authors I am unfamiliar with. Second, Iggulden had a high work output - The Gates of Rome is itself the first in series - and there is always the fear of quantity over quality. Third, I am again careful about beginning a series of books, as I will usually continue until I've read the lot.

                My first impression, reading the opening chapters, was not particularly favourable. I found the writing style clunky, with jarring timeshifts. I began to think I was reading something akin to Andy McNab with sandals. Rather than making the most of a bad situation and sticking the books on Green Metropolis, I stuck with it, and am SO glad I did.

                With hindsight I think the opening chapters were so jarring because an awful lot of exposition had to take place in as little time as possible. The reader finds themselves immersed in ancient Rome which is physically a very different place to a familiar modern setting. Iggulden does not stop with such superficiality, and we are given insight into everything from family life, religion and politics in meticulous detail. My knowledge of Roman life comes largely from GCSE Latin many moons ago and watching the BBC's superb I Claudius, but Iggulden's story backed up what I knew and taught me a great deal besides.

                The story is focused on the early years of Gaius and Marcus, inseperable friends from different backgrounds but with continuously intertwined destinies. Their growing up is constantly disrupted by the turbulent politics of the Roman world, even though they are distant from the city itself.

                Events finally conspire to bring the two to Rome where they meet Gauis' uncle, Marius, a larger-than-life soldier and consul of Rome. The two friends become enmeshed in the power play between Marius and his rival consul, Sulla. The two consuls hold the senate and the entire Roman world in their grasp but, as Gaius speculates, one city is not big enough for two such personalities.

                The Gates of Rome was a superb read. Once established, the narrative flowed at a swashbuckling pace, with the graphic detail of combat making me wince. As I said, this is not a low IQ guts-fest, and it is the intelligent communication of the relationships between the different characters and their personal motives and fears that gives the book its soul. There is violence and plotting, romance and bitterness, and a wonderful sense of destiny. Not for a long time has a book felt like a documentary where I felt I was witnessing statesmanship and intrigue first-hand.

                At the end of the book, there is a chapter on the accuracies of the fiction, with Iggulden's reasons for changing certain facts for dramatic effect. Again, this demonstrates the careful planning and research undertaken which, in my opinion, paid off. As you learn about Gaius and Marcus, you'll understand the role they play in the shaping of the Roman world, and I can't wait to read the next book.

                ---------- Product Information ----------

                RRP: £6.99 (amazon.co.uk: £4.29)

                Paperback: 640 pages

                Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd; New edition edition (1 Sep 2003)

                Language English

                ISBN-10: 0007136900

                ISBN-13: 978-0007136902

                Product Dimensions: 17.2 x 11.2 x 4.2 cm

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                  05.01.2009 14:36
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                  Tour the streets of New York while being chased by cops and smashing stuff up.

                  I'm not the biggest fan of Ubisoft. Yes, they've brought out some good titles but some of the ones I've most enjoyed playing have had serious bugs on them. I only picked up Driver: Parallel Lines because I got it free with another purchase - if it was another lemon, it wouldn't have cost me anything.

                  I remember playing the original Driver game back in 2000 on the Playstation. What had been thought shocking at the time doesn't seem at all controversial now. You got to drive around four different American cities, ramming police cars and other vehicles, watching pedestrians dive out of your way, as you tried to complete a variety of missions. It was all ok because you were really an undercover cop named Tanner after REAL baddies. It was fun in its limited way, making you feel like you were in a Bullitt/Starsky & Hutch hybrid.

                  Then Rockstar brought out the Grand Theft Auto series which blew Driver out of the water. It really hit its stride with GTA3 and you got to pretty much run over anything in anything. There was even a cheeky reference to Driver, where you had to complete a mission by ramming Tanner off the road.

                  After the widely acknowledged lemon that was Driv3r (Driver 3 - see what they did there?) a rethink was needed, and Parallel Lines was the result.

                  The protagonist is no longer closet do-gooder, Tanner. Instead, you are TK, a young getaway driver, caught up in some heavy stuff. Another difference is the action takes place in only one location, New York. The rendering of the cityscape is superb. With a massive number of streets to explore, you get a feel for the identity of the different districts of the city. The enhanced naughtiness means the game has been given an 18 certificate.

                  As with the GTA series, you are able to run around if you want to, or sieze control of other vehicles. This was always a limitation in the original Driver, as once you trashed your car that was it. Now you can pinch another and resume the chaos. Another GTA similarity is finding missions within the game, rather than choosing a mission and then entering the game environment.

                  The greatest improvement is the ability to customise your cars. From paint jobs to nitros, you get to pimp your ride - providing you have the money.

                  The name Parallel Lines comes from the fact that within the game you move from 1978 to 2006. This means the whole game environment changes, from the city streets you drive along to the music accompanying you. It's not quite as good as the GTA radio channel changer, but it's good blood-stirring stuff.

                  As this is the Wii version, you have the illogical joy of the wireless controls. I've not played the game with a steering wheel, so have had to get used to the 'air driving' experience. There's a lot to control and, at times, I miss the simplicity of the Playstation's console.

                  Overall, the game has been enjoyable. It's not Grand Theft Auto, but the experience is more engaging than the original, though not as fulfilling. Recommend it as a second hand purchase or BOGOF - there should be a few copies out there.

                  ---------- Product Details for Wii Version ----------

                  RRP: £39.99

                  Amazon: 32.99 (+ steering wheel £39.78 (usually 64.98))

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                    22.12.2008 16:56
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                    The twilight of a silent movie star transferred to stage

                    The first thing I had heard about this production was that it was being directed by Craig Revel Horward - the nasty judge from BBC's Strictly Come Dancing (the one who also comes out with the most constructive and least hyperbolic comments, in my opinion).

                    I knew Sunset Boulevard had been made into a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber but had missed it the first time round. I can't say I'm drawn to some of his works - Jesus Christ Superstar had the messiah upstaged by Judas, Starlight Express seemed so selfindulgent and if I hear Memory one more time...

                    I can forgive everything because he brought The Phantom of the Opera to the stage and he has done a lot to revitalise the West End with The Sound of Music, Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and Oliver!

                    Sunset Boulevard is based on the 1950 film of the same name, written and directed by Samuel 'Billy' Wilder. It stared William Holden as Joe Gillis and Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond. The latter is a faded and reclusive silent movie star, with the former a new writer trying to break into Hollywood. The dog-eat-dog world of the movies is as true today as it was back then, meaning the themes still resonate with a modern audience. The film was a superb example of the noir genre, from the narrative voice-over of a dead body through to Norma's dillusional walk down the staircase.

                    It is always a tough job translating a piece of art from one form to another and putting this story on stage could have led to a very poor, amateur-looking whodunnit play. I was unfamiliar with Lloyd Webber's music, and found it disappointing, humourless and unmemorable but you need to watch this play for the acting.

                    Revel Horwood's choreography and the performances of the entire case were nothing short of stunning. In most other shows the performers and musicians are distinct. In some, such as Grease or Chicago, the musicians feature as performers within the story, usually as minor characters. In Sunset Boulevard, the musicians are the actors. They sing, dance, play and deliver dialogue often at the same time as plucking, blowing or banging. They also move some of the set. I was blown away!

                    Kathryn Evans was excellent as Norma Desmond. She radiated that middle-aged desperation the part needs, delivering Norma's songs with passion and anguish. She was the only performer who didn't also play a musical instrument - but she did have a rather precarious staircase to contend with.

                    Ben Goddard, as Joe, turned from Hollywood hopeful to self-congratulatory toy-boy with ease. How he can turn out that performance eight times a week is amazing. He truly was all-singing, all-dancing.

                    The remainder of the company complement superb musical prowess with credible performances - something that the West End frequently lacks. Revel Horwood's influence is clear in the tight choreography which includes ballroom and latin steps as well as some superb theatrical devices - slow motion dance sequences, combined with eerie music and effective lighting create some truly haunting moments.

                    The stage is fairly simple by West End standards. The small space has to accommodate the musicians and their instruments, being so integral to the show. The central feature is Norma Desmond's famous staircase and it does maintain the feel of a film set. There is also some clever use of projection. The Comedy Theatre was small, but charming and with better leg room than some flea-pits.

                    The negatives are, as I said, mostly to do with Lloyd Webber's music. The theatre itself suffers from that all-to-familiar West End problem of being unfit for purpose. Too much use of smoke and poor ventilation made my eyes sting, and the temperature of the auditorium made me nod off a couple of times. Based on the material Revel Horwood was working with, he created a superb piece of theatre.

                    It was very disappointing seeing such an empty auditorium but I don't think it's a show likely to pull people in. It doesn't have the humour of Cabaret, or the family appeal of The Lion King. It's got a mediocre score and a soulless story. What it does have is an incredible display of performers' versatility and a director who knows what they want without relying on technical effects. I don't think it will be on for very long, and young kids will hate you for taking them (because you forgot to get The Lion King tickets), but it is excellently put together and shows, in my opinion, that you can polish a turd.

                    ---------- Show Information ----------

                    Showing from Monday 22 December 2008 to Saturday 18 April 2009

                    Official Website: http://www.ambassadortickets.com/896/667/london/ComedyTheatre/SunsetBoulevard

                    (this will give you an idea of ticket prices, but shop around to pick up the best deals)

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                    • Shall We Dance? (DVD) / DVD / 52 Readings / 50 Ratings
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                      22.12.2008 12:28
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                      Richard Gere learns to dance with Jennifer Lopez

                      Dance is a tricky subject to incorporate effectively in film. Al Pacino's tango in Scent of a Woman was stunning and Singin' in the Rain makes me smile like a buffoon, but not even Gregory Hines could save Tap, and I would gladly pay for the cells in my brain that remember Lambada to be cauterised. I'll have to watch Strictly Ballroom now, for even THINKING about that!

                      Shall We Dance? had the potential to be a camp disaster. Not only was it a film about ballroom dancing, it co-stared Jennifer Lopez. While I think she has made some interesting professional decisions, she has also squeezed out more lemons than the Jif factory. Like most males who have seen this film, I think I was on the quest for bonus points. I'd watch Richard Gere prance about for 90 minutes, she'd have to watch Rambo IV.

                      Curse my sentimentality, I liked the damn film! To make it worse, Queen Lemon was pretty good. So, what redeems this film and why have I watched it on at least two occasions since, BY CHOICE?

                      Shall We Dance? is a 2004 remake of a japanese film, staring Richard Gere as John Clark. Clark is a successful and charming lawyer, with a wonderful family. He seems to have the perfect life, but lacks something nonetheless. On the commute home one evening, he passes a run-down dance studio where he sees a dancer rehearsing.

                      Mesmorised by her performance, he stops in to the studio and ends up being press-ganged into a beginner's class. He finds himself in the company of two other misfits, with their own reasons for wanting to dance. His next shock is that his teacher is not the stunning performer he saw previously, Paulina (Jennifer Lopez), it is the slightly sozzled Miss Mitzi, as faded as the sign that bares her name over the dance studio.

                      If this was a mediocre dance film, the rest of the plot would be formulaic, with Clark gradually improving in ability until he has some kind of choreographic showdown. But this isn't a film about dancing. As with the best kind of films in this genre, dance is not the subject it is the medium of the narrative. In Shall We Dance? it is what brings the characters together, it is what brings them happiness and it is the mirror that shows them the realities they are trying to hide.

                      For some this is about lost dreams and faded aspirations, for others it is as simple as a hatred of being overweight or a comment on sexuality. For Clark, it is about daring to want more, when what he has already is close to perfect. This gives the film its heart and soul - it takes the American Dream to its ultimate conclusion and comments on our relationships in today's society. It's a message as potently delivered as that in American Beauty except here no-one has to die.

                      The key cast is superb. Richard Gere is a paragon of restraint in his portrayal of Clark. When you compare it to the other lawyer role he has played recently, Billy Flynn in the 2002 film Chicago, you see the breadth he has as an actor. Lopez also delivers a restrained performance, crackling with all the hidden passion of a Tango. Susan Surandon, as Clark's wife Beverly, portrays a sense of domestic bliss when on screen with Gere. Stanley Tucci stole the show for me as Link Peterson, by day a colleague of Clark's, by night a sequinned demon of the dance-floor.

                      Many films claim the tagline, 'a modern fairy story'. Shall We Dance? really is. As a film about dancing, the soundtrack is very important and has been superbly put together. Elements of ballroom and latin are woven together with mood music, maintaining all the passion, humour and energy of the dancefloor. The sequence accompanied by Peter Gabriel's 'The Book of Love' will have all but the hardest hearts melt.

                      This is a great film to watch as a family, a couple or on your own with a big tub of ice-cream. It will make you feel good and want to go and live out some of your own dreams. And if you've never been in a dance class, you might find yourself looking for one.

                      ---------- Product Information ----------
                      RRP: £17.99 (Amazon: £5.48)

                      Classification: 12

                      Run Time: 101 minutes


                      DVD Features:
                      Main Language: English
                      Available Audio Tracks: Dolby Digital 5.1
                      Sub Titles: Bulgarian, Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, Greek, Icelandic, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Swedish
                      Hearing Impaired: English
                      Disc Format: DVD 9
                      Feature Commentary With Director Peter Chelsom
                      Beginners Ballroom
                      Behind The Scenes Of Shall We dance
                      Pussycat Dolls Sway Music Video
                      Deleted Scenes With Optional Commentary By Director Peter Chelsom

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                        22.12.2008 10:54
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                        Relive school the way it was in your nightmares

                        In the mid 1980s, I can remember a game called 'Skool Dayz' which I played on a ZX Spectrum. For a couple of weeks, I was distracted from Jet Set Willy by this blend of comedy and ultraviolence. Your character walked around a two dimensional environment, trying to steal things, knock teachers over with a catapult, avoid getting punishments and kiss girls.

                        Step forward in time twenty years and Bully arrives on the Wii. Simplifying Moore's Law, a game should be twice as good as its predecessor every eighteen months. This means Bully should be quite a lot better than Skool Dayz. Oh my, how much better it is!

                        The plot of the game is straight forward. You take on the role of 15-year-old student, Jimmy Hopkins, sent to a New England boarding school, called Bullworth Academy. While appearing to be something of a thug, Jimmy is actually more of a Robin Hood-type character, helping the nerds and misfits, as they are pummled by teachers, jocks, greasers and other knuckle-headed stereotypes.

                        The playing area is huge, taking in Bullworth Academy and its surroundings. It has a late 50's / early 60's feel, like Dead Poet's Society. This suits the mood of the game perfectly, creating the perfect nightmare of a boarding school. If you want to see this nightmare in action, watch the film 'If...' with Malcolm McDowell.

                        Bully was developed by Rockstar, the studio that gave us the Grand Theft Auto series. There are similarities in the format of the games. Bully provides you with a free-roaming landscape, peppered with objects and people you can interact with. There is a storyline which unfolds as you select and complete missions on your travels. You can choose to attend your classes or play truant - if you choose the latter, you have to be careful to avoid being caught.

                        There are enough missions to keep you going for hours and the scholarship edition contains even more for you to do. Simply exploring the environment (without getting caught) will take you a long time.

                        As someone still getting used to the Wii's unique controls, I'm still finding out what Jimmy is capable of. Certainly, the game makes full use of the Wii's versatility. It's no surprise that you require the numchuk controller in addition to the main one. The numchuk is held in one hand, while the main controller is held in the other. During fights, you hit your opponent by making a punching motion.

                        As you become more familiar and nimble, you can use other buttons while you punch to perform actions such as head-butting and taunting. You also develop an arsenal of stink-bombs, marbles and other trouble-making paraphenalia. Add to this walking, running, jumping, creeping, skateboarding and a host of other ways of travelling and Jimmy is so versatile he makes the original Lara Croft look like Pac-Man.

                        Bully has been given a '15' rating, and deserves it. It is violent and contains strong language. Attempts were made to ban the game, as they have been for years - Postal and Manhunt are two examples off the top of my head. That's a debate for another day, but keep children below 15 away from this game.

                        As an adult, I appreciated the irony of the game. To me the violence is cartoon-like, impressively animated and engaging. It's the same experience I had when I played Skool Dayz years ago and, as then, I don't feel a need to thump someone when I turn the game off. There's so much more to this game and once again I am impressed with the bug-free playability of a Rockstar title. I hope Ubisoft catch up with them.

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                        • Jacob's Ladder (DVD) / DVD / 60 Readings / 57 Ratings
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                          17.12.2008 09:43
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                          Soldier wounded in Vietnam returns home having psychotic episodes

                          The representation of psychosis in art has always fascinated me. Edvard Munch's painting 'The Scream' resonates with a sense of fractured personality. Sarah Kane's play, 'Psychosis 4.48' hauntingly recreates the pain and confusion for a theatrical audience. More recently, the BBC's drama 'Life on Mars' tackled the subject with a superb sense of paranoia. If you like these ideas, or you just want an unusual and challenging film, try 'Jacob's Ladder'.

                          The idea of Jacob's Ladder is taken from the book of Genesis. Jacob has a dream about a ladder between earth and heaven, on which he sees angels climbing up and down.

                          The film tells the story of Jacob Singer, an American soldier wounded during the Vietnam War. He returns to America, attempting to resume a normal life while being rehabilitated by Louis, part shrink, part chiropractor. Six years after his return, he continues to have a variety of frightening experiences seeming, at first, to be products of his troubled imagination. These experiences grow increasingly malignant, seeming too real and dangerous to be merely constructs of the mind.

                          Singer learns of something called 'The Ladder' and how it may be linked to his psychotic episodes. He sets out to learn more about it, and hopefully overcome his problems. The ensuing psychological thriller is like a game of cat and mouse, except every time Singer (and the audience) feels he is getting close to finding out about the mouse, it changes into something else.

                          Tim Robbins is superbly cast as Singer. Like Tom Hanks, he encapsulates American ordinariness in much of his work. He never seems presented as an A List actor, usually being 'that guy in The Shawshank Redemption', or 'that guy in The Player', or 'that crazy guy in War of the Worlds'. His seeming descent into insanity is delivered with his usual understatement, accentuating the sense of confusion and fear.

                          Danny Aiello (The Godfather; Part II, Leon) is also excellent as Louis. He soothes Singer's body and mind, and serves as both guide to Robbin's character and narrator to the audience.

                          Adrian Lyne's direction captures the fear and unpredictability of psychosis, not only through the performances of his performers, but also through clever use of film techniques.

                          As an audience, we share in these feelings. I do not think the film could work if we did not. The ending might be regarded by some as a cop-out but, if you're enthused enough to watch the film a second time, it fits superbly. Jacob's Ladder is a strange and disturbing film, maybe not the best choice for a date, but if you want something to think about, or merely scare yourself, I recommend it.

                          ---------- Product Details ----------

                          RRP: £12.99 (£4.98 from Amazon)

                          Studio: Optimum Home Entertainment

                          DVD Release Date: 22 Sep 2008

                          Run Time: 108 minutes

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                            10.12.2008 11:24
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                            Doomsday survivor must battle killer plants and crazy people to survive

                            This review refers specifically to the 1981 BBC adaptation of John Wyndham's novel, rather than the 1962 film. In the early 80s when I was tiny, I had to go to bed before nine o'clock. For a few weeks, this meant I could be terrified by strange creatures stalking my tv screen, but never the resolution. The fact I had to watch on a small black and white tv because the main set was designated to Coronation Street merely highlighted the scariness of the experience. Welcome to the Day of the Triffids!

                            First of all, a little background about Wyndham's original story first published in 1951. The Day of the Triffids tells the story of Bill Masen, following a natural disaster and the devastating effect it has on the earth's population. For reasons that gradually become apparent, Masen has escaped the fate of the majority of the human race, but the world he is faced with is a far more uncertain and dangerous place.

                            In addition to this natural disaster, Masen must learn to live with the omnipresent Triffids. These are plants with a variety of attributes that make them unique. They are deadly, being equipped with a whip-like stamen covered with poisoness barbs. One hit is usually enough to result in death. Triffids appear to have an intelligence equating them more to animals than plants, as does the ability to move and seemingly communicate.

                            Prior to Masen's adventure, the mysterious Triffids were grown in a variety of places, from farms to domestic gardens. People were able to maintain them safely - until the disaster that befalls them at the start of the story. This means the plants are everywhere and nowhere is safe.

                            The Day of the Triffids was always a risky project to transfer to the screen. The concept of walking, talking killing plants borders on the ridiculous. Wyndham's novel succeeds because Triffids are merely one feature of his doomsday scenario, the most exotic sign of society's disintegration. His account of Masen's struggle in the new world is gripping, moving and frightening.

                            The 1962 film failed in my opinion because its scale was too big, in much the same way Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds was a disappointing adaptation. Too many big bangs merely highlighted the ridiculousness of the scenario.

                            The BBC adaptation is much more faithful to Wyndham's novel. The Triffids themselves are not the best creation from the effects department but they do their job, if you're willing to suspend your disbelief. What makes it gripping is the performances of the central characters and the way they interact with the good, the bad and the insane in post-apocalyptic England.

                            Bill Masen is played by John Duttine (Who Dares Wins, Jesus of Nazareth) with great credibility and earnestness. It is a performance that harks back to the BBC dramas of the seventies and early eighties, where you used to get Acting rather than the cult of personality. He superbly communicates Masen's confusion, smouldering with a mixture of respect and hatred for the Triffids.

                            Masen is accompanied for much of his journey by Josella Payton, played by Emma Relph (The Professionals, The Witches). Again, per performance is understated and belieavable.

                            The locations used in the series are well chosen and diverse. We travel from the heart of the city to the middle of nowhere, meeting nice people, nasty people and Triffids along the way. The production effectively utilises the medium of television, using small-scale effects and tightly controlled camera angles. This means more focus can be given to the emotional and mental situation of the protagonists, rather than the visual spectacle of where they find themselves.

                            As an example, think about seeing a riot on screen. If we see hundreds of people trying to hit each other, we can appreciate the violence but not the hatred or fear of the people involved. Now picture a tiny section of that riot, where you never see more than five people fighting. We see their hatred, we watch them as they fight to survive. This is what the BBC's adaptation does well and I applaud it for it's delivery of Wyndham's original ideas. This easily makes up for the dodgy creatures, in the same way the original Doctor Who episodes made up for them with belieavable performances and gripping narrative.

                            Following the success of other BBC reimaginings, like Doctor Who and Robin Hood, they are going to remake The Day of the Triffids. I'm sure they will create something visually spectacular, but they will be hard-pressed to match the psychological thrill and fear of this early 80's masterclass in the use of the small screen.

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                            • Kethani - Eric Brown / Fiction Book / 56 Readings / 52 Ratings
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                              10.12.2008 09:39
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                              Aliens turn up bringing the gift of immortality, a good and bad thing

                              There are broadly speaking two viewpoints from which science fiction is written. Let's call one Executive and the other Blue-collar.

                              Executive science fiction is the high level, galaxy-shaping stuff. Star Wars would be an example, as would Frank Herbert's Due series. Both of these deal with inter-galactic politics, the shaping and destruction of worlds and the movement of millions of lives, moved around namelessly like a game of Risk.

                              Blue-collar science fiction is at the other end of the scale. The frequently confused, usually isolated character caught up in something they don't understand. Alien is an example, as is John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids. This viewpoint has always engaged me more than executive science fiction, which is more of a passive, voyeuristic experience.

                              Kethani fits into this second category, with one difference from any other example I can think of. Rather than a sense of confusion, there is a sense of tranquility.

                              The idea is a simple one, playing on one of humanity's great 'what if...' questions. What would our lives be like if we were given the chance to be immortal?

                              There doesn't appear to be any catches. One day, thousands of giant white needles appear all over the world, and an alien race, the Kethani tell the populace they are giving them the gift of immortality. The process takes place immediately after a person's death, so in a sense they are resurrected. There is no pressure put upon these people, known as Returners, but they are offered a choice - they can return home to the lives they led before, or they can go out into the galaxy as ambassadors of the Kethani.

                              This is all back-story, so i'm not really spoiling anything for you. Like I said, this is Blue-collar science fiction, so the actual story unfolds at a much lower level. There are, in fact, several stories told from different viewpoints. This means we get to see the positive and negative impact of the Kethani from a range of perspectives. The common link is these characters all meet every Tuesday evening in their local pub, drinking and talking about the world around them. I found this similar to Douglas Coupland's style, of which I am a big fan.

                              The narrative unfolds in two ways. First of all, despite the amazing no-strings-attached gift offered by the Kethani, some people have reservations. These are for various reasons, in scenarios played out in ways that elicit a range of emotional responses as you read. Other people can't wait to embrace this opportunity, with immortality being secondary to having the chance to live in a better way.

                              The second way in which the narrative unfolds is the idea I talked about, that something huge is happening around the central characters. Things so big, they are barely touched on, because we couldn't understand the scale or complexity of them. Initially I found this frustrating. I wanted to learn more about these enigmatic aliens and their gift. But the story works much better because we are not given the detail to grasp these ideas.

                              My only criticism is that after a while the book becomes too formulaic. Each new chapter focuses on a new character, or so it seems. This means you have to form an opinion from scratch, rather than having a flowing narrative. Sometimes this works, but other times it is too clunky. There is never a massive amount of character elaboration or detail which I have slight negative feelings about, however you may see this as a positive thing.

                              It's a very easy book to read which could appeal to a wide audience demographic. It could equally appeal to few people, so I guess you'll need to give it a go to find out. Superb as a travel book, the fact the story seems to unfold in near-permanent snow-fall makes it idea to read during Winter.

                              ---------- Product Information ----------

                              RRP: £10.99 (£5.49 from Amazon)

                              Paperback: 304 pages

                              Publisher: Black Library (6 May 2008)

                              Language English

                              ISBN-10: 184416473X

                              ISBN-13: 978-1844164738

                              Product Dimensions: 22.9 x 15 x 2.3 cm

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                              • The Prophecy (DVD) / DVD / 67 Readings / 65 Ratings
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                                09.12.2008 10:32
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                                Civil war in heaven has two armies of angels converging on Earth

                                Occasionally a film comes along that does not fit into any of the boxes we like films to fit into. Frequently these films are dire, bursting at the seams with their own sense of self-importance, tedium being passed off as art. Sometimes, however, you find something special.

                                For me, The Prophecy fits into this category. At the time of writing, a series called Apparitions on the BBC tells the story of the tangible conflict between God and Satan on Earth. It is a clever and frightening program which I immediately compared favourably to the ideas in The Prophecy. And here we are.

                                The Prophecy, released in 1995, tells the story of a war in heaven spilling over onto earth. Surprisingly, it is not Lucifer and the legions of hell waging conflict, it is rather a civil war between those angels loyal to God and a breakaway faction led by the archangel, Gabriel.

                                At the beginning of the film, the two sides are locked in a stalemate, and both send angelic soldiers to Earth. The main figure, loyal to God is Simon (Eric Stoltz - Two Days in the Valley, Rob Roy). He reveals much of the back-story to the film through narration and interaction with Thomas Daggett (Elias Kotas - Zodiac, The Thin Red Line). Daggett is a police detective and former trainee priest, who withdrew from a religious life because of the terrifying visions he saw of angels massacring each other.

                                Shortly afterwards, Gabriel arrives. This is not the golden-haired stereotype depicted in a multitude of icons. This is a vengeful, merciless and obsessed individual, brilliantly played by Christopher Walken (Things to do in Denver when you're dead, Antz). There is something on Earth that he needs to break the stalemate in the heavenly war and he will stop at nothing to find it. With Simon and Daggett attempting to follow, a chase ensues across Arizona.

                                The reason I can watch The Prophecy more times than I can watch other films is because it appeals to me on different levels. First, it is a simple story of good versus evil, with the two sides battering each other in frequent, violent skirmishes.

                                Second, this simple story is developed in an unusual way. I always loved the rich imagery in John Milton's epic poem, Paradise Lost, and The Prophecy creates something similar for the silver-screen generation.

                                Third, the central performances are excellent. It would be very easy, given the subject and characters, to create something over-the-top and grotesque - with Good versus Evil as blindingly obvious as Peter Pan and Captain Hook. The characters are however played with layers of complexity, having strengths and weaknesses. The performances are honest, with no attempt to play on stereotypes. This restraint, combined with the pace at which the story progresses creates an engaging film and the scenes where the two sides come into conflict are superb.

                                Walken reprised his role in two sequels and there have been two additional films made without his character.

                                RRP: £14.99 (4.98 from Amazon)

                                The trilogy is also available for £13.99 or £12.67 from Amazon.

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                                • Immortal Beloved (DVD) / DVD / 59 Readings / 56 Ratings
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                                  08.12.2008 10:12
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                                  Beethoven writes letter to mysterious woman, secretary tries to find who she is

                                  Immortal Beloved is a 1994 film starring Gary Oldman as the composer, Ludwig Van Beethoven. The premise of the film centres on the finding of a letter in Beethoven's personal effects after his death. The letter is addressed simply to 'My Immortal Beloved' and becomes the obsession of Beethoven's former secretary, Anton Schindler.

                                  Schindler, (Jeroen Krabbé - The Living Daylights, Ocean's Twelve), takes it upon himself to find the identity of this mysterious woman. He retraces the life of Beethoven, interviewing people who had known him. In particular, he focuses on several women who, for different reasons and at different times in his life, could have been Beethoven's Immortal Beloved.

                                  To tell a story through the medium of interviews would be a desperately dull affair. Director Bernard Rose (Candyman, Anna Karenina) brings these episodes to life, with Gary Oldman creating a passionate, brooding and destructive Beethoven, who seems intent on alienating everyone around him. He dominates the film, delivering in my opinion one of his best and least cluttered performances.

                                  Beethoven is the architect of much that happens to him, but he is also swept along by events that are much larger than he is. His stubbornness, initially making us perceive him as dislikeable, becomes a trait we regard sympathetically and perhaps with a degree of pity. Underscoring his fluctuating moods we have the man's music.

                                  Obviously a film about one of the greatest composers the world has known will be dominated by his work. The problem is choosing the most appropriate music to underscore the project from such a huge repertoire. The film succeeds in its choices, with the tangible excitement of the 9th Symphony, the intimate passion of the Moonlight Sonata and many more. Sometimes, these pieces merely underscore the unfolding episodes in Beethoven's life, at other times they are themselves woven into the narrative.

                                  Comparisons are likely to be drawn with Amadeus, Milos Forman's Oscar-winning film about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, another celebrated composer and musical prodigy. Beethoven and Mozart are both superbly talented but fundamentally flawed. The stories in both films unfold retrospectively after the composers' deaths, with a mystery to be investigated - in one it is claims of murder, in the other the identity of a mysterious figure. Both take considerable liberties with historical truths for dramatic effect.

                                  There is of course the significance of the composers' music in their respective films. Immortal Beloved is not merely an attempt to recreate the same Oscar-winning formula as Amadeus. Forman's film focuses on Mozart's desperate desire to be accepted by the Austrian elite, and a rival's desire to prevent it; Rose's Beethoven does not seem to care what other people think about him, or he would rather they did not like him.

                                  While Amadeus is a good film because it adapts Peter Shaffer's superb play, making use of his ability to communicate through language, Immortal Beloved is meant for film. In Amadeus, the emperor Joseph II describes Mozart's music as having too many notes. I prefer Immortal Beloved as film because I felt Amadeus had too many words - superb for the theatre but a little drawn out for film. Immortal Beloved is loud, colorful and vibrant and Gary Oldman appears to leave a trail of broken hearts and destruction in his wake, all accompanied with the most wonderful music.

                                  It is surprisingly difficult to get hold of a copy of Immortal Beloved and I hope they release a new DVD soon. It is definitely worth getting hold of a copy if you can find it.

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