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    • Caprica / TV Programme / 62 Readings / 58 Ratings
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      05.01.2011 18:35
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      The unpopular Battlestar Galactica prequel, cancelled in its first season.

      Were prequels prominent in mainstream TV and cinema before The Phantom Menace, or am I just too young to remember? Didn't the very word 'prequel' used to have a sense of novelty about it - the way 'reboot' no longer has either? The last decade has seen a seemingly increasing number of franchises being stretched beyond breaking point by stepping back and giving us answers to questions we never knew we had - and when we think about it, don't really care about, since we already know how things end, have seen all the exciting stuff, and know who won't die.

      There's probably at least one example of a good prequel out there somewhere that's succeeded in truly expanding and enhancing a successful franchise and introducing it to a new audience (maybe that Star Trek film, now I think about it), but it sure isn't Caprica.

      Unless you're a sci-fi loving nerd from space, you probably haven't heard of this series, especially with TV networks' ridiculous broadcasting schedules trying their damnedest to prevent the show developing any kind of casual following. Caprica was billed as an attempt to create a science fiction family saga, sort of like Dallas with cyborgs and a less insidious theme tune, and was also a prequel to the successful 'reimagined' sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica, which concluded in early 2009. Now that Caprica has concluded too, after a grand total of 18 episodes, it would be fair to say that it failed to succeed in any of these respects - as a Galactica prequel, or as a science fiction show aimed at a more mainstream audience.

      The fact that this series was cancelled before its first season finished airing is not indication alone of its low quality - after all, plenty of series have been cancelled before their time, due to low ratings or networks failing to 'get it' (Farscape springs to mind, and I'm reliably informed that Firefly was pretty good too). But it wasn't only low ratings letting Caprica down, as the series didn't even seem to be very popular with its niche market.

      The mixing of genres wasn't handled very well - sci-fi fans didn't want to watch a soap opera, and soap fans are hardly likely to tune into a show featuring killer robots and holo-bands. Perhaps most tellingly of all, even die-hard Battlestar Galactica fans didn't really like it. That's putting it mildly - from some of the reactions I've seen on the internet, some consider its existence to be outright blasphemy. Which is apt, considering the prominence of religious themes in this increasingly dull show.

      To use an over-used example from the sci-fi realm, the origin of the Cylons (read: robots) as shown in Caprica feels like a case of 'midichlorians.' This was the unpopular explanation given for the existence of The Force in the Star Wars prequels, which served to demystify and effectively spoil the mythology of that franchise by providing an unnecessary answer to a question no one had asked in the first place.

      I can't really remember the midichlorians thing myself, not being enough of a masochist to have ever re-watched the Star Wars prequels (though enough of a masochist to have sat through the whole of Caprica, evidently). But there are further allusions that can be made between Caprica and the worst elements of the Star Wars prequels - notably the tangential and tedious plots that never feel like they're going anywhere, over-reliance on CGI, and all the bloody teen angst.

      That's right, Caprica taps heavily at the I-hate-my-parents nerve from day one, and despite the writers commendably making several clear changes to the show's direction across the course of the 18-episode series, based on what seemed to be working and what didn't (and they didn't always get this right), this root never goes away. One of the teens calls her mother a 'stupid, disgusting cow' towards the end of the run, in a scene typical of the show's edgy realism and down-with-the-kidz credentials.

      Caprica's failure wasn't a shame, and its cancellation was inevitable and deserved. The first five minutes of the pilot episode, featuring terrorism, tragedy and big explosions, showed great promise that was never really followed through on, and the rest of the series was largely a meandering mess of disparate plot threads - some of the least interesting of which ended up taking centre stage as things progressed. The focus on religion was particularly disappointing, considering the general fan backlash against how this was handled in the later episodes of BSG before it, and the writers also relied far, far, far too much on cliffhanger endings featuring important characters being held at gunpoint, stepping off bridges, or otherwise pretending to die prior to their certain rescue the following week. The fact that most of Caprica's core characters were really irritating only made the inevitable character-on-beeping-life-support-machine reveals all the more infuriating.

      That's not to say that the performances were bad, as people like Eric Stolz and... actually, I can't think of anyone else who put in a really impressive performance. Esai Morales never had a chance to do much of anything as grieving lawyer/father turned mobster Joseph Adama, whose character arc was probably the least well executed of the lot, and watching the teen cast (okay, twentysomethings pretending to be teens) is mostly excruciating, in the way I imagine a typical scene from Roswell or Dawson's Creek to be. In other areas, the special effects were pretty good. Of course they are; it isn't 1996 any more. You can get decent CGI puppies in toilet roll adverts these days.

      With the news that creator Ronald D. Moore is now working on a second BSG prequel titled Blood and Chrome, which will follow the events of the first Cylon war (and doubtless bring a whole load of continuity problems of its own), the writers have hopefully learned from their mistakes here. There should be little room for religious pondering or teen angst in a series set in the midst of a bloody (and chromy) war, and while it's almost certainly destined to fall in the shadow of the excellent Battlestar Galactica itself, at least there's some hope of a decent series that isn't ashamed to call itself science fiction. Even if it's essentially another pointless prequel.

      The last five episodes of Caprica just aired on the US Sci-Fi channel in a typically disrespectful burn-off marathon. They'll probably be on Sky at some point, and you can get the whole series on DVD. I don't know why you'd do that though.

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        22.03.2010 15:27
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        Made-for-DVD continuation of the re-imagined series (2009).

        Ronald D. Moore's acclaimed 'reimagining' of the Battlestar Galactica sci-fi franchise in 2003 brought a lot more to the table than just swearing and improved CGI effects (though it has those too), carving a separate identity from the well-loved original and grabbing the attention of critics as well as teetering precariously on the edge of mainstream acceptance for its frank and unapologetic presentation of such pertinent contemporary issues as the war on terror, suicide bombings and government corruption - all veiled slightly by being set in space and centring on a human civilisation with subtle differences from our own, as if that was fooling anybody.

        Despite the main plot heading down some slightly bizarre avenues over its four-and-a-bit-year run, Battlestar Galactica still stands as one of the strongest, most consistent and most thoughtful TV series I've ever had the pleasure of watching. It's really good. So good, in fact, that I couldn't bring myself to review the series proper, for fear of failing to adequately express just how good it is. So fortunately, if only for that reason, the powers-that-be commissioned this follow-up story to tie up some loose ends, give fans a little more of the BSG universe, and attempt to give a newfound coherence to some of the show mythology's more incoherent asides by taking a revisionist approach.

        In satisfying the first two criteria, Battlestar Galactica - The Plan exceeds admirably. Unfortunately, it never really succeeds in trying too hard to graft the illusion of a grand scheme of things onto a series that essentially, and very understandably, tended to evolve according to the whims and changing focuses of its writers over four years. It's sort of like a full-length version of those 'webisodes' they released between the second and third seasons of Lost, attempting to fill in some of the gaps but doomed to be ultimately extraneous.

        To avoid making this review even more alienating to non-fans than this TV movie already does quite well by itself, I'll give a brief overview of what it's about. The Plan is a part-nostalgic, part-revisionist, part-original retelling of the first two years of the series, beginning chronologically with the events in the original three-hour miniseries that saw the 12 colonies of humanity wiped out in an unprovoked attack by the Cylons, a race of robots and humanoid clones that were created by humans several decades earlier to be their servants, only to rebel and eventually go their separate ways following a bloody war.

        Over the next two years, the surviving 50,000 or so humans wandered through the universe in a debilitated fleet of spacecraft led by the mighty Battlestar Galactica, occasionally getting into scrapes with the Cylons while also dealing with humanoid Cylons who had infiltrated the fleet, some in key positions of power.

        This TV movie opens and closes with a conversation between two of the Cylon models known as Number One, played by science fiction veteran Dean Stockwell (probably best known as Al from Quantum Leap), in which they debate whether the Cylon attack on humanity was really the correct 'plan' of action. One of the major plot threads that runs through this film, which re-contextualises a number of events that happened over the first two seasons of the show from the Cylon perspective, is seeing how the two different copies of Number One are affected by their experiences of living among humans to reach such different verdicts. Unfortunately, the other sub-plots introduced for the film don't work as well, and largely feel like re-workings of old ideas from episodes.

        By featuring an abundance of stock footage from relevant episodes of the series, The Plan is partly a good excuse for a money-saving clip show, though to its credit the use of old material never feels gratuitous. That's more than can be said for the several instances of full frontal female nudity, as the producers seem intent on showing off the loosened restrictions of the made-for-DVD format with juvenile abandon. If I was about 16, these wouldn't count against the film (they'd probably add a star or two to be honest), but it does feel quite pointless. And it's not as if any of the main stars get their kit off - well, no more than they usually do - so there's nothing to get excited about in a 'Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me' way.

        My main problem with The Plan is that it doesn't truly satisfy any target audience. While it's nice for the fans to see the connections between some events that were previously left up in the air, some of these revelations are actually a little disappointing, and the whole thing smacks far too much of George Lucas-style revisionist TV history, even tactfully re-editing iconic scenes from the series or adding snippets of new dialogue (the television equivalent of bending jigsaw pieces so they fit any shape) to try to make sense of a story that already made adequate sense if they'd just left it alone.

        New fans will be put off by the jumping around and assumptions of existing knowledge, while existing fans may be left wishing they could see more original footage of the actors, only a select few of whom appear in new material, the rest only being seen in archive footage. By taking place in season two of the show, back when the status quo was as relatively uncomplicated as it could hope to be, The Plan is at least less alienating to newcomers than it would be if set in season four, but it still makes enough references to later events in the series' continuity - including spoiling what is probably the series' biggest mystery, the identity of the Cylons - to potentially ruin things if a newcomer saw this first and then decided to track down the rest of the series.

        Maybe I'm complaining too much; Battlestar Galactica finished its final season with a definitive ending, and this is a bonus chance to hang out with the characters for another couple of hours. If the unsanctioned comments of director/star Edward James Olmos are to be believed, this is likely to be the first of several TV/DVD movies expanding the Battlestar Galactica franchise, along with the new spin-off Caprica which I've yet to be interested enough to watch.

        I don't know if the mediocrity of The Plan necessarily indicates that the series' achievements are all firmly lodged in the past, but I still wouldn't consider it essential viewing even for casual fans of the show. As for the four main seasons and 2003 mini-series, well, you should own those on DVD already.

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          15.02.2010 09:30
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          James Randi investigates the claims of psychics (1991)

          James Randi is one of the most well-known paranormal investigators and sceptics, most notably as founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) which has for many years offered an award of $1,000,000 for anyone who can demonstrate their psychic abilities in laboratory conditions that both parties agree upon beforehand. The prize has been hanging in the air for decades now, and still hasn't been claimed. Indeed, the world's foremost self-proclaimed 'psychics' seem bizarrely reluctant to put their skills to the test. You know, almost as if their powers are a load of made-up rubbish.

          (To be fair to psychics, I have met and befriended many of them over the last few years, and I no longer believe that they're all liars. Some are just deranged).

          Like many sceptics - Derren Brown among them - Randi began his career as a magician, and says he started to dedicate himself to exposing charlatans when he saw just how many performers were claiming their magical feats were due to psychic abilities. The fraud Uri Gellar is Randi's most famous case, as the spoon-bender tried unsuccessfully to sue Randi following the publication of his book 'The Truth About Uri Gellar,' and television performances in which Randi was able to successfully recreate all of Gellar's supposed feats through simple conjuring tricks. Only in recent years has Gellar publicly admitted that he may not have psychic abilities after all, though he's still evidently happy to accept the accolade when it's banded around by people who didn't get that particular low-key press release.

          'James Randi: Psychic Investigator' was a television series of six episodes that aired on Channel 4 in 1991, and is now available to watch back on torrent sites and video sharing sites such as YouTube, in nostalgically poor VHS quality. While not exactly a landmark paranormal show, its intention is much more noble and practical than most of the others that came in its wake, as rather than simply showcasing a supposed paranormal demonstration with the underlying message that this stuff probably does exist, it strives to put claimants to the test under incredibly simple conditions.

          The show's title is apt. Randi has stated on many occasions that he doesn't like to be seen as a 'debunker,' but rather as an investigator. While there may be a certain level of satisfaction in seeing an arrogant spoon-bender suddenly fail to perform after you replace his customised equipment with regular cutlery, the JREF and other organisations would welcome displays of genuine psychic phenomena if the occasion ever actually arose, which of course it never has. Despite the typical opinion that followers of the scientific method are arrogant, there really is no arrogance on display from Randi and the gathered sceptics in this commendably fair series.

          There's a huge amount coming from the side of believers however, as they struggle to justify their failed performances in the face of negative evidence, particularly the repugnant 'psychic surgeon' Stephen Turoff in the series' most memorable episode.

          Turoff claimed he could cure peoples' ailments without invasive surgery, though his unqualified and ridiculous methods still put patients at risk of infection, and when asked to justify himself he could simply use the convenient scapegoat that the surgery was being performed by 'Dr Khan,' a dead healer with a borderline-offensive Asian accent who possessed Turoff during the procedures. The guy is a menace, and depressingly, an internet search reveals that his business is going stronger than ever. Similar to another of Randi's more famous debunkings, that of 'faith healer' Peter Popoff, who tragically seems to be doing better than ever in today's paranoid and gullible climate.

          The format of each episode is roughly similar: Randi begins by demonstrating through sleight of hand how to achieve some of the supposedly psychic feats that audiences are about to see, and leaves it up to viewers to decide for themselves whether what they are seeing is genuine or fraudulent. Some of the UK's leading 'psychics' of the time are invited on to the show and applauded for their bravery in trying to practice their range of arts - from mediumship to astrology, dowsing, psychometry and graphology - and put to a simple test, the result of which is proven statistically with no bias from either side.

          In all but one of the episodes (one experiment on dowsing), the psychics were - drumroll - shown to have no magical abilities whatsoever, their analyses and claims being no more accurate than what would be permitted by random chance. This sole positive result may be leapt upon as evidence of the existence of the paranormal by believers, which would be sort of missing the point. You can't selectively decide that one out of six shows (and only one experiment within that show; the other dowsing attempts all failed) is a positive result. One lucky experiment out of twenty or so is expected according to random chance.

          It's an informative show, and there should really be more like it today. Maybe something presented by Ben Goldacre or Simon Singh about the dangers of alternative medicine such as acupuncture , homoeopathy and chiropractic, demonstrating why none of these treatments is effective or beneficial in any way. It could save a lot of people a lot of time, money and suffering if these things were more widely reported, plus it would be pretty funny seeing practitioners struggling to justify themselves.

          You can find out more about how all of today's media-friendly 'psychics' (and I do mean all of them) lie and cheat their way to success by checking them out at the comprehensive badpsychics.co.uk

          Keep it rational!

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            14.02.2010 11:45
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            The only museum in the world dedicated entirely to the pencil

            Keswick is one of the most beautiful and tourist-friendly towns in The Lake District, home of many breathtaking views that have long made it a popular destination for those looking to get away from it all, as well as more mountaineering shops than anyone could possibly need. Bizarrely, the town also features some really inappropriate museums too.

            To its credit, the Pencil Museum wasn't chosen randomly - unlike its close neighbour the James Bond Museum (yeah, Keswick - that place that's synonymous with 007). This museum is constructed out of a functional unit next to the much more impressive Cumberland pencil factory, where they make all those high quality pencil crayons that the kids at school who belonged to more well-off families than you did flaunted so proudly. You know, the pencils that were supposed to work like watercolour paint if you wet the nibs, but which ended up making your hands stink of graphite for seven years instead.

            The company is proud of its contributions to the pencil industry, which led to the creation of this attraction - which proudly informs visitors that it is the only museum in the world dedicated entirely to the pencil. There is perhaps a reason for this.

            Upon entering the Pencil Museum and paying the only slightly cheeky entrance fee of £3.50 (adult), visitors proceed through the only theme park-style exhibition, a replica of the Seathwaite mine were graphite was discovered, seemingly by a race of crumpled-faced sub-humans if the poorly maintained figure is anything to go by. Once this rather pointless embarrassment is out of the way, visitors are free to explore the compact museum, which features places to sit and draw (probably the best part, and while you could technically do this anywhere it's handy to have access to some slightly mangled pencil crayons). There are also 'interactive exhibits.'

            Well alright, not really. There is an over-ambitious movie theatre though, which plays a 10-minute video ad nauseam demonstrating pencil production and showing some kids colouring things in, along with some non-celebrity opinions from what seems to be people who just like using Derwent watercolour pencils. The film concludes by playing an extended portion of Raymond Briggs' the Snowman, which was famously animated using the factory's pencils. It's a bit of a tenuous link though, and questionable justification for playing the excerpt hundreds of times each day, without any kind of commentary to try to make it more relevant.

            You might think I've made the Pencil Museum sound a little boring so far, but I haven't even got to the main attraction yet. All the best museums have something of colossal proportions to wow audiences - whether it's a monstrous Tyrannosaur skeleton or gigantic turbines and steam engines - and what could be more exciting than seeing the world's largest functional coloured pencil firsthand? Well alright, it's enclosed in a case to protect its majesty, but it's still an impressive sight (it's 26 feet long, who's going to steal that? And how could they possibly make use of it without a giant colouring book?)

            If this review seems a little sarcastic, I should confirm that I did enjoy my visit to the Pencil Museum on a recent break in Keswick, being fully aware even before we approached that I was not its target audience - indeed, from all the positive comments left in the visitor book it seems that kids find it both fun and educational (though strictly about pencils and nothing else).

            The museum may be a little lacking in attractions and misguided in its reverence of pencil crayons, and essentially a front to sell loads of overpriced Derwent products in the gift shop that's as big as the museum itself, but it's a fun little attraction that makes Keswick a better place. I'd take it over the James Bond Museum any day. Did 007 have a pencil?

            Well yes, he did actually, and it's on display in this museum. And you get a free souvenir pencil to lose on your own schedule.

            The Cumberland Pencil Museum is clearly signposted all around Keswick, and is open from 9am to 4pm all year round except the usual Christmas holidays, on which days you can get your pencil crayon fix from watching the Snowman again and again and again.

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            • Weatherseal / Local Service / 28 Readings / 26 Ratings
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              13.02.2010 13:50
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              The worst company in the world (again)

              Weatherseal Window Systems uses illegal and immoral business practices to sell poor quality windows to blameless fools.

              It was good to get that out. Rest assured, I'm planning on justifying all those outrageous statements.

              Firstly, I have to admit that I used to work for Weatherseal for a while, in the now-distant past. My excuse is that I'd been unemployed for six months and dooyooMILES weren't proving to be quite enough to cover the cost of rent and food, so I was desperate enough to take their morally repulsive job and illegal pay on the mental condition that I would escape as soon as possible (it took four and a half months in the end).

              This allowed me to see how the organisation was run, at least from the admittedly lowly position of a telephone canvasser in a regional call centre. I can honestly say that the branch manager was the most offensive person I've ever met, using desperate fear tactics in a hopeless attempt to motivate 17 year olds to be more aggressive on the phone. It was amusing and inevitable that her much fairer replacement managed to yield a much stronger result, and retain more staff, through the unconventional method of being nice.

              Of course, this is a review of the company as a whole, not just one rotten apple. But I heard enough complaints about the poor quality of Weatherseal's windows - and more importantly, the service of their sales staff - that I'd warn anyone against using them. The only problem is, I don't have the inside knowledge to know whether any of the competitors are any better, and I'm not going through all that again just to find out.

              You only have to check the website of the Information Commissioner's Office (www.ico.gov.uk) to see that Weatherseal has been served with several enforcement notices regarding its illegal cold-calling practices. This means that not only were they calling around randomly in the hope of baiting unsuspecting homeowners with their lying offer of "free windows, doors and roofline," but they were also calling numerous people who had gone to the trouble of registering with the Telephone Preference Service (www.mpsonline.org.uk/tps) to avoid just that type of sales call. As for the rest of you not currently registered with the TPS, these people can phone you whenever they like, so I suggest you sign up now (they phone mobiles too).

              As mentioned above, the sales tactic of canvassers revolved around promising the chance of winning free products, which is an incredibly loose reference to the few properties that end up feature in the company's products brochure, which get a discount. The call centre I worked at had a suggested script stating that homeowners had a 1 in 12 chance of getting their work done free of charge, which was clearly a blatant lie. The other lie, which can't reasonably be excused as an exaggeration, was that the salesperson would only take "up to an hour" of the customer's time demonstrating their products, with "no hard sell." Of course, no greedy salesman would really be doing his job if he stuck to an hour and took "no" for an answer, and the most common complaint I received during my time there was of overly pushy, offensive salespeople who took up hours of peoples' time.

              As for those who were happy to go through with the process and buy some windows, I'm sure many of them were satisfied. They're just UPVC windows after all. But inevitably, there were also many customer complaints of poor quality products and non-existent after-sales service to take care of them. Plus, once Weatherseal has you on their database as a previous customer, they will never leave you alone. Our call centre had ancient piles of past customers that would be phoned repeatedly, no matter how many times they stated their disinterest.

              If companies such as Weatherseal do end up phoning you (though they never use their real name - typically opting for the non-existent 'Feature Homes' or 'Ideal Homes' to avoid scaring people away with the disreputable brand name at the first hurdle), the only way you can be guaranteed of getting removed from their database is to specifically ask to be removed. The company has to comply with this by law, but it depends to an extent on who's handling the call, and if they or the branch manager can be bothered to take the details down to pass on to the Do Not Disturb database.

              Simply saying you're "not interested" isn't enough, as those numbers are still recycled again and again. Even if you say you live in a council or rented property where you can't make changes like install double glazing, they'll still call you again - just in case you were lying.

              People do.

              The company's poor treatment of the general public even extends to the poor sods manning its call centres, who are paid pretty offensive wages. I was happy to take the £4.50 per hour at the time (it's about nine dooyoo reviews, right?), but even with the promise of huge rewards for those who were the best at being pushy and ignorant, I never saw these materialise. And I actually got pretty good at being bad by the end of it.

              Weatherseal really doesn't seem too happy about this information getting out, either. As soon as I left their employment (on the day I was paid £50 for a week's work, just because they could get away with things like that), I made a rage-fuelled video for YouTube with text explaining much of what I've just told you, in text form. Although it was produced in anger, it was an entirely fair and accurate video that gave little person opinion and merely pointed out what was easily found elsewhere on the internet - but of course, it was negative publicity in the burgeoning domain of social media, so it had to go.

              Though I was surprised when I got a phone call at my (much better) new job from a man who was probably claiming to be higher up in the organisation than he actually was, telling me to take the video down or face a lawsuit. Obviously, I conceded (I may be a web vigilante fighting against the tyranny of corrupt companies, but I'm not an idiot), and like Grant Management before them, Weatherseal has miraculously manipulated a clean set of search results that give no clue as to the truth behind the company, until you look a little deeper (or easier, just add 'complaint' to your search term).

              The initial excitement of being threatened with legal action aside, I soon became more interested in how exactly they had tracked me down, to my mobile number no less. The guy said he was aware I used to work for Weatherseal, and when I caught up with a friend who still worked there the following year he said word had got around the office, so I'm at least glad I proved to be a minor menace to them.

              I don't know what cold-calling script Weatherseal is using nowadays, but you can be sure it's along the same lines. I'd be interested in reading other peoples' reviews of this company, I'm amazed that the category didn't exist here until I suggested it.

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                12.02.2010 20:26
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                The worst company in the world

                Mention the name 'Grant Management' within earshot of a group of twentysomethings anywhere in Edinburgh or Glasgow (and possibly elsewhere; their reach is depressing), and you'll be regailed with stories of burst pipes, illegal entry, broken boilers, vanishing deposits and Grade 1 Environmental Health Risks, among other things.

                Unfortunately, we didn't think of asking these people when choosing our flat with Grant Management a couple of years ago.

                I'm aware that any flat agency that spreads itself as wide as Grant Management has somehow managed to achieve will have the occasional dodgy property, and also that people tend to be more vocal about negative experiences than positive ones, but even taking this into account it really does seem that no one has a good word to say about Grant Management. And I'm afraid I'll have to go all mainstream on this one and join the dissenters.

                I don't have many standards from a property - I've always chosen to live in cheap flats, and have had a good run thus far with amusingly dodgy landlords (even if they were a little on the racist side), but living with Grant Management was a new one on me. On average, I really don't think a week went by without at least one problem rearing its ugly head across those twelve long months.

                I'll start at the beginning, with the contract signing. Needless to say, there was some discrepancy between the things we were told when being given a guided tour of the property and the things that these statements later evolved into. Take the £75 administration fee, which we were told was to cover the cost of obtaining our references... only to be told that we were to provide our own references. We reported this to the City of Edinburgh Council, who found it quite interesting, but not as interesting as they found the complete absence of a HMO license that's supposed to be essential for properties of three or more people.

                Although these things seemed annoying at the time, in hindsight it feels rather petty to moan about a vanishing £75, especially when we fast-forward to the tedious process of getting back the deposit, something that was only achieved after months of regular phone calls to various disconnected employees within Grant Management's seemingly independent offices on Coates Crescent and Nicolson Street in Edinburgh. There was also their attempt to lumber us with a £140 cleaning charge, and the times they debited hundreds of pounds without permission, for seemingly no reason, stealing our money. We did eventually get everything back, but it was an annoying process.

                But hell, that's just money, and insignificant compared to some of the really bad stuff. Like the time we found mould in our property that Grant Management failed to take notice of until it was officially classified as a health hazard. And those pesky bed bugs. Or the numerous times they let themselves into the property without the required 24 hours' notice, one time even to show round prospective tenants who seemed even more confused than we were (I can only imagine how many times they let themselves in when we were all out at work and unable to catch them at it).

                There was more, but I'm getting a little depressed remembering it all. The worst part is, we really weren't alone in our experience, and despite formal complaints to the council, it seems Grant Management is somehow getting away with all this, on a very regular basis.

                I normally give companies a lot of leeway - I wouldn't think of sueing someone if I found a mouse's head accidentally esconced in my Snickers, for example - but with Grant Management it's different. I'm not prepared to simply eat around the disgusting article this time.

                This company damages the quality of life for hundreds of young people and students each year, meaning it really is a menace. If you search around, you can find plenty of horror stories from Grant Management tenants and survivors on the internet, though sadly none of these negative reviews seems to appear high up in search results, which must be some huge credit to whatever agency's in charge of Grant Management's SEO strategy. I wonder if this review will ever register in a position noticeable enough for people to take notice? Hopefully, a few more negative reviews might save people from making the same mistake so many others have done, and go with a letting agency that isn't completely terrible.

                It depresses me to walk down any residential street in Edinburgh or Glasgow and see Grant Management's signs jutting out of another godforsaken property like a Jolly Roger. Still, the Grant Management experience wasn't a completely worthless one, as at least it taught me the lesson to always be scrupulous when choosing landlords in the future. You can have that one on me.

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                  05.02.2010 20:09
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                  Daleks' Invasion Earth: 1992 A.D.

                  An early 1990s video game based on Doctor Who, Dalek Attack is one of those arbitrary artefacts - like The Raggydolls and Asda Billy Bear luncheon meat - that has the undeserved accolade of being a core part of my childhood merely through the virtue of being in it and taking up valuable time.

                  Fortunately not very much, as I couldn't even beat the second level.

                  It's not that much of a Doctor Who game, or at least it doesn't offer anything that will appeal especially to Doctor Who fans beyond the licensing and use of familiar characters. It's mainly based around doing big jumps and shooting baddies with laser beams, something I can't remember featuring too heavily in classic Doctor Who episodes. Maybe I'm wrong, and there really is an episode in which the Doctor floats through London's sewers in a hovercraft shooting laser beams at giant snake heads and collecting pieces of his own branded logo circa 1975 (I'll be honest; the further I got into that supposedly sarcastic sentence, the more I believed the first level might actually be an authentic adaptation of 'The Serpent of Flengroth' or something).

                  What I'm saying is that there's probably very little overlap on the Venn diagram of people who like Doctor Who and people who like repetitive, generic platform shoot-em-up games. Who am I kidding, there was never any difference.

                  Daleks have always provided an effective source of terror. Alright, so they may look like pepper pots and have the voice of Zippy from Rainbow, but their alien appearance means they aren't as time-bound as something like the Cybermen, whose design tried to keep up with the speed of technology and thus changed with pretty much every appearance. Daleks can be pretty terrifying, and unless you really have watched old Dalek episodes so many times that the effect has worn off - or simpler, watched any episode of the new Doctor Who - it's still pretty terrifying the first time you pop through a door and see one on the left side of the screen yelling at itself to exterminate your poor character. The fact that getting shot by a Dalek really, really hurts makes the threat all the greater.

                  The story's as basic and obvious as it needs to be, to justify inserting the Doctor into Dalek-occupied London of the late twentieth century. I can't really remember it, but I know it has something to do with their creator Davros, who presumably crops up at a later stage than I was ever able to access.

                  There were a number of video games we had for the Amiga that ended up being most memorable for the quality of their animated intro sequence (Bullfrog's 'Syndicate' springs to mind, mainly because I never worked out how to actually play the damn thing), and while Dalek Attack isn't quite in this league, the sad truth remains that the opening animation is a lot better than the actual game: a melodious synthesised rendition of the iconic Doctor Who theme accompanies a pretty basic visual of a swirling galaxy before a face that's supposed to be Sylvester McCoy's executes the most drawn-out wink I've ever seen, and after the title card appears we're given the brief plot exposition, with a nice backing beat.

                  Actually, for all its flaws it should be noted that this animation is only slightly worse than what actually passed for the show's opening titles in the 80s, and the synthesised theme only slightly less jarring. What was wrong with the murky tunnel effect of the 70s? That was brilliant.

                  Probably the best thing about the game, and its only real attentive detail for fans, was that you could choose to play as one of several Doctors, while the second player - if you plugged in a second joystick or, more hilariously and impossibly, a mouse - could play as what I imagine are supposed to be some of the more famous human companions that accompanied the Doctor on his televised voyages. I always played as Tom Baker, who could be known by his trademark scarf. I think another one was supposed to be Patrick Troughton, or at least some short, wrinkly get in a tuxedo, and Sylvester McCoy if you couldn't be bothered to change from the default, or were strange.

                  The gameplay is easy to pick up, and the same as thousands of other platform-based shoot-em-ups that involve leaping between platforms, going in and out of repetitive rooms, shooting the same sprites again and again and collecting things because they're there and presumably good for you. The worst aspect of the game was its sound effects, which - beyond the aforementioned title song and sampling of "exterminate" - were just terrible. There was a sort of grunt sound for deaths, pitched low when it was robot baddies and pitched high when it was unfortunate humans, and the lack of background music made the whole thing feel sparse and empty, and not in a clever way.

                  So it's not that much of a Doctor Who game, but I can't hold that against it, as anyone checking out the box - with its cover image of Dalek devastation and necessary Doctor Who logo shrunk to a size more fitting to its loose association with the series - would know what they were letting themselves in for. It wasn't a very good game, but it wasn't terrible. Nothing for you to worry about though, as there's zero percent chance you'll ever come across it or find it influencing your life in a signficant way. Makes you wonder what the point of me reviewing it is, really.

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                    28.08.2009 14:39
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                    Andrew Collins and Richard Herring take a sideways look at the news, with swearing.

                    The Collings and Herrin Podcasts are a popular series of weekly discussions between broadcaster Andrew Collins and comedian Richard Herring, which have been entertaining a growing cult fan base in varying degrees of quality since January 2008.

                    Last summer saw their first live podcast experiment at the Edinburgh Fringe, when the podcast had reached the then-unimaginable count of 25. A year later, with several more live appearances under their collective belt, Collins and Herring booked a sweaty room in the cavernous Underbelly at the ungodly breakfast hour of 12.20pm for five consecutive days, charging a meagre ticket price for dedicated fans eager to see the magic unfold in the flesh.

                    Rather than just downloading the shows for no money at all, which would all be uploaded within hours of recording as usual.

                    A core tenet of this podcast embraced by its creators has always been its unscripted, unedited nature, which has traditionally seen a lousy podcast one week followed by dynamite the next, or most commonly an average show with peaks and troughs. It was interesting to catch up with the podcast on the final day of its residence, when the dedicated pair were thankfully still on top form and showing few signs of tiredness outside of general Fringe exhaustion - particularly Herring, whose stand-up show Hitler Moustache has been running concurrently every evening.

                    But the relaxed nature of these one hour six minutes and thirty-six second chats (based on the arbitrary cut-off point decided by Collins' sound recording software) means that the podcast can't feel too much like work, especially when Collins and Herring are staging the event for very little in the way of personal gain.

                    But there was still no laziness with the content or opportunities to recycle successful routines from the previous days, as each recording has been released into the public domain for the thousands of listeners who couldn't be in attendance. This means that anyone who fancied coming along to more than one recording, including the few ridiculously loyal buffoons who confessed to having attended all five shows, will find it a slightly different experience each time.

                    There was a great atmosphere at the recording. Despite the off-putting early hour, the low ticket price and suitable publicity meant that at least a few people had come along without really knowing what to expect, but the feeling was still one of community, if a particularly nerdy and internet-loving community. The audience was treated as a collection of regular listeners, but it's not as if there's a great deal of backstory that needs exposition, and tales of the week's events were nostalgically recounted to ensure everyone was filled in.

                    The professional comedian of the pair, Richard Herring is naturally the more entertaining, and has great confidence with audience interaction. As a freeform example of his style, the live podcast makes a great companion to his tightly structured solo show, but he and Collins now seem completely at ease presenting their ramblings in front of a live crowd, with none of the tentative feeling of last year's "experiment."

                    If you weren't in the audience, you missed out on five minutes of fairly uneventful afterglow after the recording reached its end point, and the opportunity to receive a free Stinger chew bar courtesy of the well-meaning fans who continue to present the double-act with misguided gifts. All five live podcasts are available to download from the British Comedy Guide, in addition to the whole archive, and more live podcasts are on the cards in the future. For fans, it's a great opportunity to see behind the scenes and be reminded that these men have actual faces and stuff.

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                      28.08.2009 09:55
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                      This year's Fringe offering from Dead Man in a Box.

                      This year's small-scale Fringe offering from improv troupe Dead Man in a Box, Who Killed Dead Man in a Box? is an entirely improvised murder mystery that involves the audience and tests the performers' mettle and reaction time in making sure the hour-long performance is actually any good.

                      With the exception of tried and tested performers, improvised comedy always brings an exciting element of risk, but from the opening scene it's clear that the team are experienced and adept at thinking on their feet while creating characters pretty much from scratch, even if the guy who takes on the lead role of detective is clearly head and shoulders above the others, whose backgrounds seem to be based more in acting than comedy.

                      This doesn't present a problem, as the detective is more than capable of extracting laughs from any scene, and when his cohorts are in the zone and able to bounce off each other, it makes for a highly entertaining show that's all the better for providing each audience with a unique theatrical experience.

                      That's not to say the team doesn't fall back on a couple of safety guidelines, just to make sure this isn't a complete shambles. The play follows a loose structure beginning with interactions between the suspects in the aftermath of the pivotal murder, followed by the detective's individual questioning of each. These scenes are intercut with flashbacks before the final denouement. And while it may be obvious that the escalating nature of the plot means that the final, most likely suspect is going to be the who what dunnit, it's fascinating, tense and even a little exhausting seeing the decision making process occurring in the later scenes between performers who are aware they have to bring the chaotic events to some kind of coherent resolution.

                      The action is decided at the onset by asking the audience for three basic criteria of location, the profession of the deceased, and the cause of death. After this, the performers are on their own. Without a script, this is naturally a hit or miss show with some scenes that just don't really work, but occasional smatterings of comedy gold are guaranteed, and made all the more satisfying for their off the cuff nature. The low ticket price of £6 helps too, and makes any criticisms all the more redundant.

                      If this wasn't your kind of thing, it might be the next day. However generically similar each performance may prove to be, this is one Fringe show that would certainly merit a second outing, if only they hadn't left so early.

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                        25.08.2009 14:11
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                        Sell a Door Theatre Company.

                        Robert Gilbert's new production for this year's Edinburgh Fringe explores ideas of guilt and the justification of killing, set against the backdrop of political turmoil in an unnamed Middle Eastern state.

                        With its cumulative themes of racism and homophobia, 'By Order of Ignorance' runs the risk of being too sincere and preachy, but after two rather extraneous exposition scenes that seem more intent on clearing up any potential accusations of homophobia than anything else, the tense and uncomfortable play begins in earnest.

                        Performed in real-time by three talented men of Sell a Door Theatre Company, this forty-minute performance takes full advantage of the claustrophobic set in presenting the dilemma of two allegedly innocent Westerners held at gunpoint by a disturbed suicide bomber.

                        John Edon plays TV personality Jeff with convincing presence and insecurity, and his unlikely partnership with Carl Vorwerk's homophobic US infantryman Davey expands this beyond a mere us and them scenario, particularly as David Hutchinson's initially comedic suicide bomber Mo reveals increasingly dark shades of his own past and present.

                        Hutchinson (writer and star of last year's 'The Secrets Inside') excels as a troubled young man dragged into something he doesn't understand and driven by a desire to prove himself, and the interaction between the three makes the action unfold with satisfying and exciting tension.

                        The makeshift theatre of the Space venue is so compact and intimate as to really involve the audience in the drama, though whether you're brave enough to risk a front row seat and be engulfed is up to you.

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                        25.08.2009 14:00
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                        A new production of Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas' musical.

                        It's about time I got round to seeing Jerry Springer - The Opera, the controversial musical written by Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee, who previously worked together on the equally blasphemous, almost entirely forgotten Sunday lunchtime TV series This Morning With Richard Not Judy.

                        Despite being naturally wary of musicals (surely the most despicable theatrical genre after mime) I've only heard good things about the show... oh, apart from some negative response from fundamentalist fascist group Christian Voice, whose hostility evidently hasn't been tempered one jot in the aftermath of their failed blasphemy lawsuit, as they still bothered to send one old man to hand out protest flyers and receive bewildered looks from the queue.

                        We may all be going to Hell, but that's where all the good music is anyway.

                        Jerry Springer is as good as I expected, and expectations were high. A relatively modest production in George Square lecture theatre, the casting was still excellent, full of talented singers who lived up the high quality of the script. You probably know what it's about already: a musical pastiche of the group of assorted freaks and screwballs who whore themselves for fifteen minutes of shame on the popular American talk show, with a second Act exploring more existential themes to really question the value and justification of such shameful filth. There's also a guy who likes to defecate himself and a Christ who is a bit gay.

                        It's funny, smart, goddamn impressive and shocking in a very satisfying way. However much the show has been pulled apart and over-hyped by the blasphemy trial, it's still genuinely chilling to see a parade of Ku Klux Klan members march onto the stage before being brilliantly deflated, and even the most liberal atheist will find themselves slightly shaken by the accusation that the Virgin Mary was the victim of a divine rape. If you haven't seen this already, you'll have plenty of chances. A cultural phenomenon that, for once, deserves the accolade.

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                          21.08.2009 14:41
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                          Daniel Kitson's new stand-up show.

                          Daniel Kitson is one of the most respected and beloved names on the stand up circuit, despite being entirely unknown in the mainstream sphere dominated by a tedious elite of TV funnymen interrupting women on Mock the Week. Winning the coveted Perrier award in 2002, Kitson could have been up there, and for a very brief time was, until his conscience and self-confessed pretentious morality triumphed over the need for mainstream success, and he opted to play low-profile comedy clubs on Sunday to Thursday nights exclusively, distrusting a weekend audience that might not 'get' his inimitable style of condescending arrogance and inspirational melancholy.

                          Still in his early thirties, Kitson has the aura of a sage far beyond his years, and it's not just because of that unruly beard. While he denies himself mainstream opulence, Kitson need not worry about breaking even: his name carries enough weight to sell out the Stand Comedy Club for twenty nights far in advance of the Edinburgh Fringe even beginning... which is sort of the problem.

                          I'd seen Daniel Kitson twice before, in a ramshackle 2004 show that disappointed me after all the hype, and in 2007 in one of the most awe-inspiring performances I'd ever witnessed, destroying any arguments against the validity of stand-up as an art form. I'd put down my initial disappointment to a lack of life experience, visiting the Fringe as a naive, pre-University eighteen-year-old, but this most recent outing cleared up the confusion: Kitson can write an incredibly tight and inspirational show, but is quite frequently underprepared and - to almost certainly be entirely unfair to the hard-working performer (who is also staging a theatrical show elsewhere) - even a little lazy.

                          The theme of this year's show is death, both our attitudes towards it and our experiences of it, but in these early performances a larger theme is the incomplete shoddiness of the show itself. Kitson is apologetic and admittedly very, very funny about the ramshackle state of his script, fully on display on a nearby stool, but as the night drags on past the promised 90 minutes, even the most sincere and apologetic self-deprecating remark audibly loses some of the support from a loving audience whose patience is formidable, but not infinite. It's a real shame that it affects the overall experience so much, as a really tight performance of this well thought-out, borderline profound show could rival his 2007 masterpiece, It's the Fireworks Talking. But it's some way off yet.

                          The bits of actual 'show' between the significant pauses are really pretty excellent though, and still unlike anything else you'll see at the Fringe, however much the younger breed of 'gentle' comedians try to measure up to their hero. From revealing insights into gluttony and living alone to inadvisable late-night flirty texts and self-important yet ineffectual stands against the pollution of pop culture, it's a story that most members of the audience will find themselves relating to in varying degrees, dipping in and out at select moments. While the overall focus on a poignant, sombre theme means this show lacks some of the beautiful tranquillity of Kitson's last Fringe outing two years ago, it's still a show that will stay with the audience for some considerable time, and will eventually win out over any mild irritation caused by its excessive, meandering length.

                          This'll be great when it's finished.

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                          14.08.2009 14:00
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                          Stewart Lee at the Stand.

                          Stewart Lee continues to demonstrate why he's one of the greatest living stand-ups. Voted the 41st Best Stand Up Ever a couple of years ago in a meaningless poll that the performer amusingly took to heart, Lee's rise from quite-good nineties comedian to stand-up virtuoso has come with an inverse desire for less attention and less showy venues. This year's Edinburgh Fringe show sees him return to the traditional comedy club environment of the Stand, publicised by a minimal campaign using only the most negative publicity accrued over the years.

                          Even without his recent TV series, Stewart Lee's name carries a lot of weight in the comedy world, and he could sell out the Stand no matter what. Something that's now been proven, as the leading critical quote on his poster courtesy of the Birmingham Sunday Mercury, states:

                          "His whole tone is one of complete, smug condescension."

                          You might hate it, but if you do, you're stupid. This isn't some kind of 'Emperor's New Clothes' thing.

                          Since his triumphal return to stand-up in 2004 following the Jerry Springer: The Opera debacle, Stewart Lee has consistently pushed the boundaries of the stand-up form. Each year's show of brand new material manages to live up to the last with comforting accuracy, and all contain surprises even for the obsessive devote. 2007's show was remarkably pleasant after the anger of its predecessor, 2008 had some eggs in it, and Lee's new show, titled If You Prefer a Milder Comedian, Please Ask for One, is the most surprising yet. But if I told you why, it wouldn't be a surprise.

                          Basing his premise on Frankie Boyle's recent observation that there are no funny comedians over the age of forty, forty-one-year-old Lee sets out to prove that old men can still get angry about things, even if that anger tends to be more directed towards high street coffee chains, city people moving to the country and Mark Watson's pear cider advertisement. A routine about Top Gear presenters goes so far beyond decency that it couldn't even be considered libellous, and the unexpected finale seeks to break down the last taboo of stand-up in remarkable style.

                          Watching Stewart Lee perform is like watching a chess grandmaster, as jokes and routines are played far in advance, only to resolve in spectacularly unexpected fashion at a later stage. Not that there's always a need for a punchline when a well-timed silence does just as well. But this isn't to say that Lee is averse to relying on tried-and-tested formulas, as amidst the new directions, fans can still expect the comedian to deconstruct his own material from the onset; to suffer a mental breakdown; to repeat a phrase until it loses all meaning, and to go on for far too long with one idea.

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                            13.08.2009 14:26
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                            A zombie musical.

                            You should know what you're getting yourself into when you attend a zombie musical, and I can confidently state that Fusion's performance of Andy Evans' 'Chomp' at the Edinburgh Fringe did not let me down. After all, my expectations were safely on the extreme side of low.

                            I'll get it out of the way and state that Andrew Lloyd Webber and whoever else is involved in producing terrible yet inexplicably popular West End and Broadway musicals have nothing to worry about. Although the writing is competent and campy in all the right places, and Jack Pudsey's music is tolerable at best (and only mildly irritating at worst), we don't have a cult hit on our hands.

                            The young performers sing over a backing track that's subject to the usual technical difficulties expected of a ramshackle festival show (the CD cut out at one point and the singers admirably continued, creating an enjoyably weird atmosphere), but there's not a great deal here to satisfy die-hard fans of either the zombie or musical genres. It's more of a bland meeting ground between the two, though it's enjoyable enough for being so.

                            As a zombie story, the play satisfies many B-movie gimmicks, from the nerdy professor to the over-confident hero, his tragic love interest and his nemesis, but although there are clearly moments of deliberate over-the-top camp acting, I fear that irony cannot take full credit for the quality of the performance as a whole. They do alright, but the lead guy is about two feet shorter and ten stone lighter than his feature film equivalent would be, and it's hard to take any leading lady seriously when she's wearing braces.

                            There were a couple of very nice touches to elevate this above a mere school production, most entertainingly the zombies entering from the back of the theatre and shuffling along the aisles at an early point, but there was really nothing to top this in the remainder of the show, and very little in the way of gore beyond blood capsules. Would a couple of limb props really have put them out?

                            But this is just my personal grievance/fetish, and to be honest I wouldn't have been truly satisfied unless one of the performers had torn off an unsuspecting child dancer's arm and drenched the crowd in blood, like that bit in 'the Addams Family' that traumatised me when I was five.

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                            12.08.2009 14:30
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                            Temple Theatre.

                            Temple Theatre's award-winning show 'Out of Chaos' comes to the Edinburgh Fringe for 2009, and presents a deliberately confusing, often perplexing smorgasbord of multicultural delights that all comes together in the end...

                            Actually, that's a lie, and would sort of ruin the point.

                            Six performers of mixed cultural and ethnic heritage take turns supporting, interrupting and fighting each other to narrate a mixture of classical myths and personal tribulations in a show that explores the inherent misunderstandings of communication in all walks of life, explored through lengthy, passionate monologues in Spanish and Japanese, and relationship breakdowns. The show examines how stories can be misconstrued when passed on, or misinterpreted by both parties. Perhaps there can never be a universal truth.

                            The show begins with a monologue explaining the Ancient Greek origin of the universe, an attempt to create order from chaos, a theme that hangs over this diverse and exciting show. One moment an unsettling angry tirade, the next a spontaneous, energetic dance erupts from nowhere, followed by a soothing musical number.

                            Despite this self-conscious obliqueness, or more likely because of it, 'Out of Chaos' is an enjoyable and accessible show. Multi-lingual narratives are illustrated with revealing mimes, ensuring that the audience is never left too much in the dark - except when it is more effective to do so - while frequent medleys reprise much of the action thus far in a manner that almost, almost begins to make some sort of cohesive sense.

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