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sunmeilan

sunmeilan
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      20.06.2010 16:19
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      Best for fans of the series

      Two young lovers, Otori Takeo and Kaede, just want to be together. However, there are more important things at stake. Takeo, the leader of the Otori now his adopted father is dead, has unwillingly pledged his allegiance with The Tribe, of which his real father was a member before his death. The Tribe need his powers, most notably his ability to make himself invisible, and will kill him if he does not help them. Kaede, meanwhile, has inherited a relation's land, but, because she is female, must fight to keep them. She is of a non-Tribe clan and therefore cannot be associated with Takeo, even though she is carrying his child. The future of the lovers seems as though it must be separate - Takeo takes another lover and Kaede is being courted by a neighbouring lord. Is there any hope for them? Or are they doomed to never meet again.

      This is the second of a collection of books about the Otori - a tribe of people in feudal Japan. Although the author, Lian Hearn (real name Gillian Rubinstein) is an Australian author who developed an interest in Japan and decided to set her books there, putting in a huge amount of research as a result. I'm not familiar with Japanese martial arts/fantasy books, but there are a few similarities with Chinese martial arts books of the Jin Yong vein - and it is for this reason that I read the first book in the series - Across the Nightingale Floor. That is quite some time ago now and I was worried that it would take a while to pick up on the story, which it did. For anyone who hasn't read the first book, it will be a bit of a struggle to follow what has happened before, but it isn't impossible for anyone who is so inclined.

      The characterisation isn't really the best part of the novel. Takeo and Kaede, the main characters, have already been developed in the previous novel, during which they grew up, so there isn't much for them to do here apart from continue as they are. Takeo continues to be a rather mysterious character, which, considering his parts of the novel are told in the first person, is a little strange. Coming straight into this novel, he would probably seem rather flat and distant, relying on the action to keep him going. Unfortunately, his allegiance with The Tribe means that he is undergoing a period of strict training to hone his skills, which doesn't call for much action.

      Kaede is supposed to be a rather pure young woman with the desire for her subjects to be happy - although she realises that several wars must be fought for that to ever happen. Again, she seems rather flat in this novel, with only the occasional hint of something deeper beneath the surface. This is just about enough to keep the story going, but a little more effort could have made her a much richer character. Her yearning for Takeo is a little nauseous and immature; then again, she is only just an adult, so that perhaps shouldn't be surprising. Anyone with a romantic streak in them will probably not have a problem with that side of things though.

      It is hard to tell just at what age group the books are targeted. It is certainly adult reading - there are sexual references that young children wouldn't (or shouldn't) understand - so probably age 15 and upwards. However, it feels quite young, perhaps because of the naivety of the romance. The story is quite complicated, although it is a lot less complicated than the previous book, mainly because of all the alien names - all the characters, and there are a lot of minor ones, have Japanese names, and then there are the places to get to grips with as well. Thankfully, there is a character list at the beginning of the book which explains the relationship of all the characters and where they are based. There is also a map, which helps the reader to visualise everything.

      With regard to action, this books seems to be a stepping stone between the first and third book, and nothing else. Whereas in the first book, it is all go from start to finish and there are a number of wars that take place in the third book, the characters seem to do little in this one except sit back and prepare for the way ahead. That is fine, every epic story has its slow parts, but it is a shame that they all seem to have fallen in this volume. That isn't to say that it is too dull to read, because it isn't, but anyone who hasn't read the first volume is probably not going to be all that impressed. It all depends on expectations. Although there are some similarities with martial arts stories, it should be noted that this is more of a fantasy story than a martial arts one - the 'skills' that Takeo learns are probably martial arts, but that isn't really discussed.

      Although Lian Hearn isn't a native Japanese speaker and wrote directly in English, she has tried to tell the story with a Japanese feel. It is hard to describe just how she has done this. It is never grammatically incorrect, yet has the feel that it could be a translation - this is probably because the sentences are kept short and uncomplicated. This is perfect for the book - the Japanese names are going to bewilder a Western reader anyway and if the language was too literary, it would have been a struggle to get through it all.

      Compared to an author like Jin Yong, which is probably very unfair, this pales into comparison. The richness of Jin Yong's descriptions are unsurpassed - and I'm clearly not the only one who thinks so. Nevertheless, this is a reasonable book in its own right, particularly when you consider that it is the second book in a trilogy. It is weaker than the first book, but, as mentioned, it really is a stepping stone to prepare the reader for what is going to happen in the third book, when all hell lets loose. I would really recommend starting with Across the Nightingale Floor, but if you don't, this is still a fair read. Three stars out of five.

      The book is available from Amazon for £4.97. Published by Picador, it has 336 pages. ISBN-10: 0330412736.

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        19.06.2010 09:51
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        A good Wexford story

        George Marshalson loves his eighteen year old daughter, Amber, dearly, although she hasn't always been the easiest of daughters since the death of his wife at an early age and his subsequent remarriage. When he finds her body just a short walk from his house early one morning, he is devastated. Another family is to be just as devastated when a second girl, Megan, is found dead and, as she was friends with Amber, it is obvious that the two deaths are linked somehow. As Chief Inspector Wexford begins to investigate, it soon becomes clear that Amber and Megan were involved in something less than sanitary. Nevertheless, although there are plenty of suspects, there is no proof that any of them committed the murders and the months begin to tick by. Can Wexford get to the bottom of the case, while coping with his own daughter's decision to have a baby for her ex and his new girlfriend?

        Ruth Rendell is an author who can be very touch and go. Some of her books are brilliant; others are decidedly ropey. Her best work is usually saved for the Wexford series and thankfully, this is no exception. Chief Inspector Wexford is a great character. He is a family man, without the usual baggage that so many fictional detectives have - he doesn't have women problems and he's not a big drinker. His only vices are good food and the occasional bout of sarcasm. In each book, he has a family 'crisis' to deal with, and this one is no different. His daughter, Sylvia, is pregnant with her ex's baby, that she is planning to carry and then give up for him and his childless girlfriend. Wexford and his wife are deeply upset, believing that Sylvia is not making the right decision; the situation is all the more poignant because Amber and Megan were pregnant when they died, which could be connected to the case.

        Wexford's sidekick, Inspector Burden is another great character, although he unfortunately doesn't feature all that much in this book. He is very strait-laced, although he too has children, and is often disapproving of the state that the murder victims find themselves in. His background is very interesting and it's just a shame that we aren't really given an update to it here. However, there are a number of other younger officers who come to the fore here, one of whom plays a major role in the breaking of the case. Much as I like Wexford and Burden, Rendell has done the right thing to start introducing some fresh blood into the series - after all, murder investigations do involve much more than just a couple of detectives.

        The plot is a good one; there are a number of suspects and information is drip-fed to the reader slowly during the course of the book so that the pacing is even and there is never time to get bored. There are perhaps too many red herrings, which make the story a lot longer than it needs to be, and at times, it becomes difficult to follow who is who - there are just so many characters and it is hard to remember exactly what role they play without skipping back a couple of chapters. A list of the main characters and a brief introduction to their role in the book would have been really useful just to prevent the constant back-skipping. However, on the whole, it is a well-crafted piece of crime fiction and is actually a lot less complicated than some of her other Wexford novels.

        One criticism I have of the book is that it is becoming more and more clear that Rendel is aging and has a different outlook on detection compared to her younger colleagues. This is obviously a very natural thing; however, there is constantly a feeling that she really doesn't know very much about technology and its role in solving crime. Everything seems to come down to old-fashioned detecting; Wexford even seems to frown upon using the Internet to gain information, even when it would be the most time-efficient way of finding it. In some ways, this is good, because the concentration is on the interactions between the characters and the police, who are forced to use creative thinking to solve the crime. However, it also makes the book feel unrealistic in this day and age, especially compared to authors such as Peter James, who are really up on their technology.

        I'm not the biggest fan of Rendell's writing style. It can be incredibly sloppy at times, as though her editor hasn't done a proper job. This particular book isn't too bad, although some of the sub-plots could have been streamlined a little more than they were. Rendell does enough to tell the story, but no more, and there are certainly much better and more consistent writers out there. Ultimately, though, most people reading this genre will not be looking for a good piece of literature - they just want a good story that keeps them turning the pages, and from that point of view, Rendell does deliver. Sometimes though, the writing style between the Wexford series and Rendell's stand-alone novels is so different that I wonder if she has a ghost-writer. Obviously, I have no evidence to suggest that is true, but it is often hard to believe that it is the same author.

        For fans of the Wexford novels, this twentieth novel in the series is a must-read. However, it will also appeal to those who are new to the series, although there is definitely an advantage to reading the books in order - just to get to grips with Wexford and Burden and their back stories. The book is certainly a page-turner and the minor quibbles I have can easily be forgiven. And there is a lot to be said for the fact that this series has been going on for so many years now and yet Rendell is still able to come up with a fairly original storyline. It's definitely worth a read if crime fiction is your thing. Recommended.

        The book is available from Amazon for £3.96. Published by Arrow Books, it has 384 pages. ISBN-10: 0099491141

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          12.06.2010 13:31
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          Unintentionally amusing budget horror

          When the bodies of several missing adults are found in the town of Gatlin, Nebraska, everyone is flummoxed because it seems as though the only people who could have been involved are the children of the town, who seemingly killed their parents and are obsessed with the fields of corn. Yet the authorities don't believe this, and are busy trying to persuade everyone that the children must be innocent, moving them to new homes to start a new life. Journalist John Garrett travels to the town with his son Danny, hoping to get a story. They stay in a house with one of the orphaned children, who is withdrawn and very strange. The murders continue, each of which seem to be linked with the town's children. Danny falls in love with a local girl, Lacey, and is determined to stick around, although his relationship with his father is poor. Yet it seems that this could be the worst decision he has ever made, especially when the children try to win Danny over to their side. Can the Garretts work out what is going on and manage to stay alive at the same time?

          The original Children of the Corn was based on a short story by Steven King. This sequel was made eight years later, in 1992, directed by David Price. To say that it is a budget horror, with the emphasis on budget, is an understatement. Everything about it screams budget, from the acting to the special effects. Nevertheless, if watched in the right frame of mind, it is cheesy enough to be amusing viewing. The concept to the whole film, about fields of corn that have a mind of their own, is utterly ridiculous; but then the film doesn't really pretend to be anything but. Fans of budget horror will probably get a kick out of watching it, but it really isn't a film that is worth making a lot of effort to see. There isn't really any need to have watched the first film in the series, this is a stand-alone story on its own.

          The main actors, Terrence Knox and Paul Scherrer, as John and Danny, give reasonable performances compared to the rest of the cast. Neither of them are brilliant, but they do the job required. Paul Scherrer is slightly annoying at times as the typical stroppy teen who thinks life revolves about him, but then that is probably exactly what was intended. Both Danny and John are given love interests, which is supposedly to give some depth to their characters, but as they do nothing more than roll around kissing, it doesn't do a great deal for them. Terrence Knox is perhaps a little on the boring side as John; he certainly could have put a little more effort into the role to improve it. He's certainly not a face I will remember in the future - however, compared with some of the other members of the cast, who were horrendous, that is a good thing.

          The actor/character who stands out the most is Marty Terry, who plays sisters Mrs Burke and Mrs West. As Mrs Burke (or was it Mrs West?), she plays an elderly lady who is convinced that the children are evil and have something to do with the spate of killings. Determined to escape their evil, she is intending to leave the area by literally putting her house on the back of a trailer and taking it with her. Unfortunately, her acting ability is terrible and her fear comes across as hysterical and much too exaggerated. It is quite funny at first, but after a while, it becomes painful to watch. Thankfully, both she and her sister die in two of the funniest ways that I've seen in a long time - made all the more palatable by the fact that the characters are such a pain in the neck. I'm not sure that this was what was intended though! Micah, played by Ryan Bollman, who is the leader of the children is marginally better, but mainly because he doesn't shout and stomp around until the end - much of the time, he just looks miserable and moody.

          The story really is a stupid one, although there is a possibility that it would make more sense had I seen the first film. I doubt it though. The children are worshippers of the corn, which has the ability to come to life and attack people who have annoyed it. This is portrayed in the film largely by animated sequences in which the corn is seen becoming evil and committing murder. It could have been quite effective - fields full of plants that are taller than the average human are quite creepy, presumably because anything could be hiding in the midst without being seen. Nevertheless, it doesn't really work as a serious attempt at persuading the viewer that such a thing could happen, mainly because of the special effects. Resorting to animation is never the best way to go in the midst of a film that is not animated. As a comedy, it works a little better, although it would have been better if the comedy angle had been worked on a little harder.

          The rest of the special effects are fairly poor, although it's perhaps not surprising for a film that is nearly twenty years old. The dead bodies we see at the beginning of the film don't look at all realistic, nor does the dead hand that Danny and girlfriend Lacey come across half way through a snogging session. Probably the worst of all though is seeing Mrs West (or is it Burke) being catapulted in her wheelchair through the window of the local diner. It is so obvious that it is a dummy and not a real person that it is laughable. I appreciate that the actress probably didn't want to be thrown through a glass window, but there are ways and means of making it more realistic that the director clearly didn't think of here. However, again, this adds to the comedy and this time, the humour, whether intended or not, really does work.

          There is a rating of 18 on the film. This is probably debatable - it isn't anything like as gory as Hostel or the Saw films, and the fact that it is so silly, it's funny, really takes the sting out of it. A 15 would have been more than adequate. However, if you don't like your teens watching this sort of film, then you would do well to keep them away from it.

          Apart from the usual audio commentary, which I couldn't bring myself to listen to, the extras include a theatrical trailer, biographies of the cast members and a photo gallery.

          This is very clearly not a well-made film, either from the point of view of the production, acting, or the story. However, there is a niche for this sort of budget horror if you have a warped sense of humour (and I quite understand that the majority of people won't). You really need to enjoy comedy horror that isn't really supposed to be comic. If you don't, then you will want to stay well clear. Otherwise, it might just be worth a watch, but I'd recommend trying to see it for free rather than wasting any money on it. Three stars out of five.

          The DVD is available from play.com for £1.66. It is also available from Poundland.

          Classification: 18

          Running time: 92 minutes

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          • Bucket of Blood (DVD) / DVD / 83 Readings / 80 Ratings
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            08.06.2010 13:16
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            Thoroughly enjoyable black and white film

            Walter Paisley works in a trendy cafe where artists, poets and authors converge to discuss their latest projects. Ignored by most of the regulars, he has a crush on Carla, who is the only artist to take any notice of Walter. Walter spends his time off trying to model with clay, without much success. Then he accidentally kills a neighbour's cat and to hide the evidence, he covers the cat in clay. He takes it to the cafe, where everyone is amazed at his new-found talent. His next project is a statue of a man - which also happens to be a corpse covered in clay, unbeknownst to his new admirers, and more are to follow. Carla is particularly impressed, until she realises that Walter has feelings for her and is forced to turn him down. Will she be the next victim, or will someone work out what Walter is up to before it is too late?

            This is a 1959 horror film by director Roger Corman. Not having heard of it, I had low expectations, presuming it was going to be a budget horror with little appeal. I was pleasantly surprised - this is an unusual little gem that many people will unfortunately overlook because of its age. Roger Corman is perhaps best known for his directing of the original Little Shop of Horrors, as well as a series of Edgar Allan Poe story adaptations featuring the wonderful Vincent Price. The film was undoubtedly made on a tight budget; nevertheless, it is a good story, made better by the marvellous acting of the lead actors.

            Walter Paisley is played by Dick Miller. Paisley is a funny little man, who appears to be not quite all there. Constantly ignored and belittled by the customers in the cafe, he has no real friends and longs to be someone important. Miller plays the character to perfection, with just the right amount of creepiness, yet managing to inspire a lot of sympathy in the viewer. It is perhaps a little bit of a stereotype of a serial killer, but it's nevertheless done an awful lot better than many more modern versions. He really does manage to hold the film together single-handedly, although Barboura (that's not a typo!) Morris as Carla is also great and adds a little bit of eye candy to the film.

            The story really is a very simple one, but that is actually one of the strengths of the film. It is easy to follow and there are no irrelevant threads that go off in all sorts of strange directions. It is fairly obvious from early on in the film what is going to happen, although how it ends isn't all that easy to guess. The simplicity of the plot is highlighted by the fact the film only lasts for 66 minutes. The problem with so many films today is that they go on for far too long and lose the viewer in the process. This one is the perfect length; it finishes when it naturally runs out of steam and many modern directors could do with taking note of this.

            The film was made in 1959 and this can be seen in the quality of the DVD and the special effects. It is in black and white and the picture is often shaky and unclear. The use of light appears to be done rather badly, with weird flashing effects at times that don't really improve the viewing experience. The director tried to get around the special effects by not showing the deaths in any great detail - the only complete dead body we see is that of the cat (which is clearly fake). On the whole though, this works fairly well because it helps to build up the atmosphere without ruining it with poor quality effects. The rating of 15 is actually unnecessary - 12 would probably be fine, provided that your 12 year old isn't overly sensitive.

            There isn't much to criticise about the film, it is certainly an under-rated little gem. However, the beginning of the film perhaps isn't as compelling as it could be. Setting the scene, it shows Walter working in the cafe, but concentrates on one of the artists performing for the first few minutes. It could certainly have been a little more interesting. Thankfully, it doesn't take long before the viewer's attention is grabbed. The other niggle for me is that a cat is killed. I'm a cat lover and hate to see cruelty to animals of any kind. Nevertheless, it is so obvious that the cat is not real that it really is a minor niggle.

            There are no extras with the DVD - this is a shame, I would have liked to find out more about Roger Corman.

            I really enjoyed this film and I'm thrilled I came across it by accident. It isn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and I know that the lack of clarity and the fact that it is in black and white will put a lot of people off. However, the quality of Miller's acting and the simplicity of the plot make this a film well worth watching - provided that you like horror of course. I'll certainly be making an effort to watch more of Corman's work. I certainly recommend the film, four stars out of five.

            The DVD is available from play.com from £2.79.

            Classification: 15

            Running time: 66 minutes

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            • Hijack (DVD) / DVD / 68 Readings / 66 Ratings
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              06.06.2010 18:39
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              Entertaining, but unoriginal

              Vikram was once a pilot, but after the plane he was flying was hijacked and his wife was killed, he gives up his career to become an airplane maintenance man. His life now is his daughter, Priya. At the same time, a major terrorist called Rashid Omar has been captured by the authorities, despite his colleague's best attempts to bust him out of jail. The terrorists decide to hijack a plane so that they can use the hostages as a bargaining tool to get Rashid out of jail once and for all. The only problem is that Priya is on the plane that is being hijacked. Once Vikram finds out, there is no way that he can sit back and wait to find out what happens. He uses his knowledge of airplanes to break into the plane and then, with the help of air hostess Saira, he plans to pick off the hijackers one by one. Bearing in mind the hijackers' phenomenal strength and manpower, can he achieve the impossible? And what happens if the hijackers find out who he is and that Priya is on the plane?

              This 2008 Hindi language film is directed by Kunal Shivdasani, and is based on the story of a real hijack, with a good dose of Diehard and Flightplan thrown in - the latter because some of the action takes place in the under-carriage of the plane. Knowing that the film was considered a box office flop and that it appeared to be so similar to Diehard, I didn't really have high expectations. Nevertheless, no-one can deny that the action doesn't let up from start to finish and although the film certainly isn't without flaws, it is very entertaining. The first thing many people want to know when watching a Bollywood film is whether there is any singing and dancing. There is, but it is kept to a minimum. One routine is in a nightclub and so is perfectly in place - it's a shame that the main dancer, apparently Brazilian, is strangely dressed in a series of tight, rubber leotards and seems very out of place. The other routine involves Vikram and is a flashback to the first meeting with his wife. It's a bit sickly, but the song is pleasant to hear and it does help to cement the fact that Vikram was devastated by her loss.

              Vikram is played by Shiney Ahuja. He's a good-looking man who keeps in shape, so his transformation from lowly mechanic to one-man action hero isn't entirely outside the bounds of reality. His love for his wife and child immediately help the viewer get behind him though and there's no doubt that he is a pleasure to watch. He apparently did a lot of the stunts himself, and although I've seen better and cleverer stunts in Hollywood films, they are perfectly adequate for the purpose of the film. I'm not going to put him at the top of my favourite actor list, but I'd certainly be willing to watch more of him. The air hostess, Saira, is played by Esha Deol, who has apparently been panned by the critics for her performance. I thought she was fine though. She's attractive, looked scared and angry when she needed to, and generally provided a flash of glamour. She has a couple of dodgy lines, but that's the fault of the scriptwriter.

              Unfortunately, some of the other characters are a bit silly and turn what should have been a very serious drama into something with a few flashes of misplaced humour. Most notably, there is K K Raina as Rashid. When we first see him, he is sitting in a cage, being transported to a high security unit, and he looks incredibly evil - which, as he is, is perfectly acceptable. He is completely bald, but has a really bushy beard. As the film progresses, however, he starts to act increasingly oddly - I think the aim was to show that he is a complete nutcase, but he overdoes it to the extent that he becomes a complete caricature. Then there is a group of four young people on the plane who act like idiots and, because they annoyed one of the hijackers before boarding, get picked on. They, along with a honeymooning couple and an idiotic businessman who thinks he can stand up to the hijackers, are so unrealistic that it is painful to watch. They are neither funny, nor do they attract sympathy. A little less over-acting would have gone down much better.

              The plot, for all it may not be original, is a good one. It is relentless from start to finish and although the film is about 2 hours long, it is never boring. The hijackers are as unpleasant as they could possibly be and there is continually the knowledge that, at any minute, another hostage could die. There is certainly plenty of death in the film; to the extent that I lost count of how many murders were committed. The fact that there is an attempt to bring the hostages into the story before they board the plane is commendable; it gives the viewer the chance to develop some kind of feelings for their fate. Unfortunately, this is one area where the film falls flat, because these characters are so annoying that it is almost a relief when they are finished off. The ending, with family members and friends throwing themselves at the dead bodies of their loved ones is a little cringe-worthy to watch, but that is probably a cultural thing and anyway, none of us know how we would react until we've been in a similar situation.

              The special effects and stunts are fairly well done. When someone is shot dead, they look like they are dead and the way they fall looks realistic. Shiney Ahuja's floor dives and action scenes in general are good. There is one ridiculous point, however, when a nightclub is bombed before the hijack takes place. This is portrayed by lots of smoke and flames, with four silhouettes being thrown into the air by the blast. It looks incredibly fake and sits really badly with the rest of the film. A little more effort surely wouldn't have added much in the way of cost to the budget and would have made it look so much classier. Thankfully, that is a one-off - although as it comes so soon after the start of the film, it could put a lot of people off.

              The film is in Hindi, although there are constantly sentences and phrases in English littered throughout the film, especially when the focus is on the authorities who are trying to deal with the hijack. I didn't have a problem with the subtitles; they were easy to follow and were natural, apart from the song lyrics, which, as often happens with Bollywood films, are incredibly cheesy!

              The only special features are adverts for forthcoming attractions and currently available films from Eros, the distributor. There are also clips of three main songs - the two mentioned above and another one played during the credits at the beginning and end.

              I've seen much better made films than this; nevertheless, it is very entertaining, I thought the pacing was great and the main performances are good. Action films aren't usually my thing, but perhaps because this is based on a true story, it worked for me. Had a little more effort gone into the special effects, the secondary characters and the script, which was beyond cheesy at times, I would certainly recommend it more highly. As it is, it's worth a watch if you get the chance. Three stars out of five.

              The DVD is available from play.com for £12.99.

              Classification: 15

              Running time: 118 minutes.

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              • 666 The Child (DVD) / DVD / 65 Readings / 64 Ratings
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                04.06.2010 13:07
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                There are much better horrors out there

                Erika Lawson is an anchor for a news channel, whose career is going from strength to strength. Happily married to her cameraman husband, Scott, when a child is left orphaned following a plane crash, she persuades Scott to adopt the child, Donald. Donald moves in and all seems to be going well; while Erika and Scott are out at work, Scott's father, Jake, cares for Donald. However, Jake is soon beginning to see another side of Donald, especially when he stabs a dentist and a dental technician in the eyes after they try to give him treatment. Jake later dies horribly, when a ceiling fan comes lose and finishes him off. Then a nanny called Lucy moves in and Scott is relieved that she and Donald immediately hit it off. Something is not right with Donald though and Scott is beginning to realise it. Can he find out what is wrong and put a stop to it before it is too late?

                As a budget horror, expectations were low for this film, and it was really just as well. Horrible devil children are a common feature in horror films, but there are any number that have been done much better than in this 2006 version. The child, Donald, is played by BooBoo Stewart - rather an unfortunate first name for an child actor who has so obviously made a career booboo. To be fair, he isn't terrible as Donald; he acts like a child who could do with some serious discipline, so it is not difficult to dislike him. However, the soulful stares over all that he surveys are boring and could have been handled so much more intelligently, both by the actor himself and the director. The fact that he is performing in a pretty terrible film in general really doesn't help matters.

                Scott and Erika are played by Adam Vincent and Sarah Lieving. Scott has the larger role and is adequate in it; he really does the best that he can. He really does look devastated by the loss of his father and, towards the end of the film when he begins to realise what is going on, it does seem as if he is really into the role. I was less sure of Sarah Lieving. Erika has a personality transplant half way through the film. She begins it as an ambitious, but likeable, news reporter, but becomes more and more of a cow throughout the film, although the reason for this is completely unclear. Her character was supposed to engender sympathy, but really fell completely flat. This is possibly not the actress' fault, but it nevertheless doesn't work.

                The nanny, played by Nora Jesse, is just strange. She is another character that likes to give long, soulful stares into the distance, often while holding hands with Donald. She presumably has some link with the devil, but it isn't explained and, apart from being a potential love interest for Scott (she tries to seduce him), there doesn't seem to be much of a point to her character at all. I felt momentary sympathy for Jake, Scott's father, for having to babysit such a horror of a child, but the Bob McEwen's performance was generally so awful that it didn't last for long.

                This is generally a very weak story that a ten year old could have made up in ten minutes. There is a vague attempt to explain why Donald is the way he is - some Bible verses are spouted at us - but it just wasn't good enough to draw the majority of viewers in. There are obvious similarities to be made with The Omen, but this just comes off a very poor alternative. Something needs to be right in a film to please the audience to a certain extent - that can be the story, the action or the acting - but when none of these elements are pleasing, it results in a very poor quality film. Only fans of budget horror are going to be able to sit through this, and then copious amounts of alcohol are probably needed.

                The special effects are, you've guessed it, terrible. The worst one was when Donald stabs the dentist and his technician in the eye - the blood spurts out like coloured water and doesn't look in the slightest bit realistic. It doesn't even look as if it is coming from their eyes. The special effects that follow are just as weak; thankfully though, much is left to the viewer's imagination. Nevertheless, for a film made as recently as 2006, the effects really aren't good enough - except for a school child's film project perhaps. Had the atmosphere been built up a little more effectively, the poor effects might have been covered up, but unfortunately, there is very little to be scared by in this film.

                The only special features are adverts for other horror films. There is no explanation of how the director's cut is different from the other version, although I suspect it is because it is bloodier; the other version has 15 rating on it.

                This is a film for the hopeful budget horror fan only. If you are the sort to sit down expecting that the film will be good, or else you'll switch off, then you won't get very far. You need to have the patience (or stupidity) to keep watching in the hope that it will get better. There are certainly much worse films out there, but there are also much much better ones, so unless you can watch this for free, I really can't recommend it. Two stars out of five - and that is only because Adam Vincent wasn't completely awful.

                The DVD is available from play.com for £11.99. Don't do it. Mine was £1 from a car boot and even that was too much.

                Classification: 18

                Running time: 80 minutes

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                  02.06.2010 13:05
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                  Great crime fiction set in Shetland

                  Catherine Ross is mature beyond her sixteen years and, as an incomer to Shetland, finds it frustratingly restrictive. However, her maturity doesn't stop her from becoming murdered and it is down to her neighbour, another incomer called Fran Hunter, to find her body. The immediate suspect is an elderly loner who lives nearby, Magnus Tait, especially as he was suspecting of causing the disappearance of another girl several years before. Jimmy Perez, a local detective, is soon on the case, aided by a team of detectives brought over from Inverness. Perez is not convinced that Tait is responsible for Catherine's death. There are a great many other potential suspects and it certainly seems as though most of them are hiding something. Can he tease out the information he needs before an innocent man is accused of murder? Or is the obvious choice the real murderer all the way along?

                  This is the first book in the 'Shetland Quartet' by Ann Cleeves, featuring Jimmy Perez who, despite his name, was born and bred on Fairisle. Although he is not the most exciting of fictional detectives, the author does make some effort to give him a real personality. Originally from Fairisle, his mother now wants him to return and run a croft and, following his divorce from Sarah a few years before, Perez is seriously considering this. His job is usually fairly routine, so Catherine Ross' murder is a real challenge for him - probably something he needed for his own peace of mind. It's a great start to a character, who is clearly going to grow throughout the course of the quartet and, along with the other characters in the book, he provides a real reason to keep reading.

                  There are a number of other characters in the book who play an important part, none more so than the murdered girl herself. Catherine Ross is not a particularly pleasant girl. She is perhaps too clever for her own good and certainly comes across as patronising and rude to both adults and her contemporaries. Throughout the book, as the story is revealed, the reader is able to really get under her skin and it is partially this that makes the book so readable. There is also much insight into her friend, Sally, who has a strict mother and feels increasingly isolated because of it, and Fran Hunter, who has a young daughter with a local man, from whom she is now divorced. Fran turns detective in the story, but it doesn't feel Miss Marpleish and unrealistic - instead it is very natural given the circumstances - a community where people do get together and talk about their fears and suspicions.

                  The setting, in Shetland, is well described in that the relationship between the local people feels very accurate. Life is a lot more old-fashioned than it is in most other places and anyone who doesn't fit in with the ideals of the islanders is frowned upon. However, the author could have gone to a little more effort to describe the surroundings. There is very little visual description of the islands and it seems like a wasted opportunity. There is some effort at the beginning of the book when Fran looks at the view around her house with an artist's eye - looking at the misty colours of the hills and sea. There is also a lot of description of the festival of Uphellyaa which takes place in January and is a backdrop to the book. Despite this, I still feel as though more effort could have been put into describing the scenery. It's not a major problem though, especially when the story is so good.

                  The plot is most definitely a good one. It really is compelling reading, because it is obvious that Magnus Tait could be the murderer, but that there are also a number of other suspects. Then the story of the previous girl who went missing is also woven in. The author has done an excellent job of building up the atmosphere, then leaving the reader in suspense for a few pages, before imparting the next bit of information. This pacing is really well done, because it is difficult to put the book down without wondering what will happen in the next page or two. The ending is almost impossible to work out. I had a number of thoughts on who the real murderer was, but I was completely wrong, and suspect that the majority of people are going to have the same problem. This makes reaching the end of the book just that bit more satisfying. Then there is a great cliffhanger for Perez right at the end of the book that prepares the way for the next book.

                  The book is very well-written for a work of crime fiction. It isn't overly literary in any way, but the language flows well and creates the right atmosphere for a murder mystery. Generally, it felt as though the book had been well-thought out, from the language used, to the length of the chapters. This is a fairly chunky book and it takes some time to read, but because of the way that the book is cut up, feeding the reader chunks of information before skipping on to something else, it is very easy to read quickly. For the beginning of a quartet, it is certainly very promising and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

                  My only regret with this book is that I have already read the third book in the series, Red Bones, and so have some idea of what happens to Jimmy Perez in the second book. For any newcomers to the series, I strongly recommend starting with this one. It really sets the scene, introduces the characters (some of whom reappear in the series) and generally whets the appetite. That isn't to say that Red Bones isn't a good book, because it is, but this is one series that would really be beneficial to read them in order. This is an excellent book, one I enjoyed from start to finish, and anyone with an interest in crime fiction and/or life in Shetland will almost certainly find it as enjoyable as I did. Highly recommended.

                  The book is available from Amazon for £4.04. Published by Pan, it has 320 pages. ISBN-10: 0330512943

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                  • Sonny (DVD) / DVD / 83 Readings / 82 Ratings
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                    27.05.2010 13:21
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                    A little gem

                    Sonny returns home to 1980s New Orleans after a stint in the army. His mother, Jewel, is still running her brothel, complete with new prostitute, the lovely, blonde Carol, who instantly appeals to Sonny. Sonny used to work for his mother as a gigolo before his army days, but is determined not to go back there. Unfortunately, none of his job opportunities work out and he ends up having to turn tricks, satisifying middle-aged women for his money. His relationship with Carol develops, but although she seems to want to settle down with Sonny, Sonny runs a mile, still determined to get himself a proper job and encouraged to do so by his mother's partner, Henry. Then something happens to turn his life upside down and it seems as though his life could be on the rocks for good. Can he pull himself together? Will he finally settle down with Carol?

                    I had no impressions of this film before I watched it. Made in 2002, Nicolas Cage's debut directorial effort, it didn't really hit anyone's radars and was generally considered to be a flop for Nicholas Cage. I was therefore amazed to find it was a real quality film that I found gripping from start to finish with, as far as I am concerned, very few flaws. The highlight of the film for me was undoubtedly James Franco's performance as Sonny. James Franco is probably better known for his roles in 'Freaks and Geeks' alongside Seth Rogen, Spider Man 3 and the drug dealer in Pineapple Express. Here he is amazing. He is very moody and sensitive - think James Dean (and in fact, he has played James Dean) - without being annoyingly over the top and I found him mesmerizing. Some of the scenes where he loses his temper are incredibly realistic and very scary The fact that he is rather gorgeous doesn't go amiss - although that is honestly not the reaon that I was so impressed. This man is very talented.

                    Harry Dean Stanton was also superb as Henry. There is a real father/son rapport between the two, especially because Sonny didn't know his real father and this is deeply touching to watch. It is clear that Henry really wants Sonny to do well for himself and he manages to convey this with very few words. His role is quite small, but, as it turns out, it is a pivotal one and it is worth paying attention to - not that anyone could possibly not notice him anyway. Mena Suvari was initially less impressive as Carol - purely because she seems to be a hard-faced woman who knows how to deal with men only too well and in more ways than one. However, as the film progresses, she really comes into her own and shows a side to her that isn't superficially present. It's not an outstanding performance, but she proves she is more than just a pretty face.

                    Any Brit will know Brenda Blethyn's name is synonymous with quality acting, having moved from more comedy to drama in the past few years. Here, I think she is sadly miscast and I found her performance a little uncomfortable to watch. As Sonny's mother, Jewel, she is a blowsy madam, who loves her son and partner, but relies on them entirely for her survival - even though she is obviously a very competent woman. The problem with Blethyn's performance seems to be the accent. I'm not sure whether it's just that it isn't good (I can't really judge myself) or whether it is more that I'm not used to hear such a strong Southern accent coming from her. Whatever it is, she didn't convince me, and although it is not a shocking performance, I had expected more. James Franco and Harry Dean Stanton outshone her by a mile. Nicolas Cage has a cameo appearance as a cocaine-sniffing weirdo, but blink and you'll miss it.

                    The subject matter of the film is not going to be to everyone's taste. It is a tough and gritty look at the prostitution/gigolo business and there is a lot of sex and violence involved. The sex isn't as graphic as I thought it might be - there is a classification of 18 on it - but there is a lot of bumping and grinding and language that you wouldn't want your mother to hear. Sonny's sudden temper tantrums are very violent and unexpected and, although I had a great deal of sympathy for his predicament, he wasn't someone I would like to meet when he was in that frame of mind. Of course, any film that revolves around prostitution is not going to be suitable for children, so you will want to make sure that any youngsters are well out of the way before you turn this on.

                    The story was excellent; it gripped me from start to finish in a way that not many films do. It helped that I had little idea of what was going to happen (and I've tried to ensure that the synopsis above is as vague as the one on the back of the DVD), but I think I would have enjoyed it anyway. The script is tight and not over-done - much of the emotions are portrayed by the performances rather than what the actors say. The visual side of the film is also good. Cage uses the front door of Jewel's brothel as a kind of symbol and it works very well. I also loved the settings - mainly New Orleans and its opulent side, compared to the more squalid brothel that Jewel owns. There are lots of bright colours and camera angles that, although not overly clever, work well in the context of the film. The overall effect is of classiness and I think Nicolas Cage has done well to attain that.

                    There is a rather good soundtrack accompanying the film. There is a real mixture of classical, country and rock and it works brilliantly. Tracks include Ring of Fire (although not the Johnny Cash version), Moonage Daydream by David Bowie, Sweet Dreams by Patsy Cline and some Vivaldi and Beethoven thrown in for good measure. It doesn't take over from the film at all - the emphasis is very much on the characters - but blends well into the background.

                    There is just one extra with the DVD - a trailer.

                    I thought this film was superb; I love finding films that I've not heard of but that blow me away and unfortunately, that doesn't happen very often. I will most certainly pay more attention to James Franco in the future - he is clearly a very talented actor and I hope that he becomes better known. As for Nicolas Cage - perhaps he should do a bit more directing - so long as it is of this standard and not the remake of The Wicker Man standard. He might be able to pay off some of his massive debts then. If you've been put off Sonny by his name being attached to it, or simply because you haven't heard much about the film, don't be - I think it's well worth watching. Highly recommended.

                    The DVD is available from play.com for £4.99.

                    Classification: 18

                    Running time: 106 minutes

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                      26.05.2010 13:02
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                      Compelling reading

                      Katharine of Aragon, Spanish Infanta (Infanta was the name given to the younger daughters of the Spanish Royal Family) was born to Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. Affianced from an early age to Arthur, the oldest son of King Henry VII of England and so she was sent, while in her teens to Britain, where she was later married to Arthur. Arthur, however, was frail and the marriage was never consummated, although it was happy, before Arthur died, just a few months after the marriage. Katharine was then kept in England while King Henry VII and her father haggled over the payment of Katharine's dowry. In that time, her household was in virtual poverty, ignored by both the Spaniards and the English Royal Family, and, to all intents and purposes, she was imprisoned. Her only way out of her predicament was to marry Prince Henry, the heir to the throne. Yet, for whatever reason, there seemed to be a conspiracy against her to avoid this. How can she turn her situation around?

                      The story of Katharine of Aragon is no secret. Everyone knows that she was the first wife of Henry VIII of England, who, although maybe not at first, treated her appallingly. Yet to many, she is just a face and a name. Jean Plaidy has attempted to bring her to life and, although her story is classed as fiction, it has been praised by historians for being historically accurate. Quite how much is fictional is hard to judge without being an expert - presumably the main framework of the book is true, but what the Infanta says and does in between is based on the author's imagination. Nevertheless, this is an incredibly powerful read, which really does bring Katharine, and her struggles, to life, along with, to a lesser extent, that of her older sister, Juana, married to Philip of Spain.

                      Katharine truly becomes a real character here, rather than just a name, one with which the reader can identify. During the course of the book, she ranges from her teens up to early twenties, so she is young and fun-loving. Her marriage to Arthur was happy, although brief, but at that point, she was still too young to understand what could become of her. It is during her time as a virgin widow that she really grows as a person, and the way that she is treated by the English Royal Family is truly shocking - although not physically abused, she is bullied and treated as a second class citizen. Jean Plaidy has done a fantastic job of developing her character; so much so that, by the end of the book, it is immediately tempting to move on to the next book in the series (The Shadow of the Pomegranate), which describes her marriage to Henry. Even though we all know what happened to her marriage, it is still intriguing to know a little more about the real person behind the Queen.

                      What stands out most of all in the book is the easy way with which Jean Plaidy describes the political machinations of the time. Again, I am not sure exactly how accurate it all is, but am sure that most of it is based on fact. The wrangles between the Spanish and the English are particularly fascinating - particularly when bearing in mind the amount of time it took to get from one country to another at that point in time. However, it is perhaps the attention that is paid to Juana, Katharine's sister, that was most enjoyable. Juana, Isabella of Castile's heir, marries the beautiful Philip of Burgundy, known as Philip the Handsome, but suffers terribly at his hands, because of his philandering. Her behaviour, referred to as 'mad' by many, was distinctly odd, but is very clearly the result of severe depression or possibly some other form of mental illness. This has really piqued my interest and I hope to find out more about her.

                      Despite the fact that is at least based on a true story and Katharine spent much of her time during the book barely able to leave the house in which she lived, the story never becomes boring. This is because Jean Plaidy picks up on other stories to intersperse with that of Katharine's - such as that of her sister. This does fit in perfectly with the book though; the emphasis on Juana is primarily there because she visits England at one point, following a storm at sea, and sees her sister. Katharine's maids of honour also have a part to place in sub-plots - one of them, despairing of ever being able to find a husband because of their position, finds herself a Spanish banker and marries him. Other members of Katharine's household prove to be less than trustworthy. It all comes together to make a gripping read - and the young Henry VII (then the Prince) also has an occasional mention.

                      The book is very competently written. Plaidy manages to make the book flow well throughout; despite the subject matter, it is never pretentious or literary - it is just a simple story of someone's life told in language that anyone old enough to read well can follow. There are a lot of names to take in, which is occasionally confusing - especially the Spanish ones - but it doesn't take long to get to grips with them, because Plaidy always makes it very easy to follow. Historical fiction such as this is quite common nowadays, with authors such as Alison Weir and Phillipa Gregory proving to be particulary well-known, but Plaidy is the one that I always turn to where possible, simply because of the consistent quality of her work. The fact that it was written back in the 1960s is of no concern.

                      Anyone who is interested in this period of history should read this book; however, it is just as relevant to those who aren't particularly interested. Plaidy turns Katharine of Aragon into a real flesh and blood woman, who, although not quite on the bread-line, suffers in a way that would be understandable to most women. Whether viewed as a story or historical fact, there is much to please the reader, and it is certainly a great starting point to delving further into the annals of history. Highly recommended.

                      The book is available from Amazon for £5.80. Published by Arrow Books (a reprint), it has 400 pages. ISBN-10: 0099493144

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                      • Step Brothers (DVD) / DVD / 80 Readings / 74 Ratings
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                        24.05.2010 22:40
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                        Childish, but much better than expected

                        Brennan and Dale are forced together because Brennan's mum marries Dale's dad. Yet Brennan and Dale aren't your average step brothers because they are 39, yet both still living with their parents and are without a job. At first, they hate each other, but soon come to realise that they actually have a great deal in common, especially when they gang up against Brennan's younger brother, a successful real estate agent who wants to sell Dale's dad's house. However, as they come together in friendship, their parents decide to retire and go sailing, leaving the two boys at home on their own. Bearing in mind that neither of them are used to living alone, will they be able to look after themselves without falling out again? Will Brennan's mum be able to relax knowing her son is probably causing havoc at home?

                        Will Ferrell is an actor I really struggle with; I find him deeply annoying at worst and at best, he is just not that funny. For this reason, I avoided this film for a long time, thinking that it was just going to be more of the same. And it is more of the same. Yet, perhaps because his presence is diluted by John C Reilly, this film is thoroughly enjoyable - stupid and childish, yes, but definitely entertaining. As Brennan, Ferrell plays an adult child, complete with childish tantrums and strops - the only time he shows his age is through his (often disgusting) sexual sense of humour and his masturbating. Thankfully, we don't see him masturbating on screen, but it is talked about and we do get to see him wiping his 'nut-sack' over his step brother's drum set (thankfully, it was a fake set of balls!). He is outrageous and silly, but his performance doesn't take the whole film over for a change, and so it is just enough to be funny without going too far over the top.

                        In many ways, John C Reilly is a mirror image of Will Ferrell - not just in looks, although they do actually look quite similar - but in his performance. Nevertheless, I found him more appealing that Ferrell, perhaps because I'm not so familiar with him as an actor and so his performance was a little more refreshing. I really enjoyed the way that he and Ferrell bounced off each other, just like two five year olds might. It shouldn't have worked, it should have been deeply embarrassing, but it did work and was thoroughly enjoyable. Like Brennan, his sense of humour is often a little close to the cuff and I can thoroughly understand that many people would find it offensive. It worked for me though and I'm now persuaded that I should watch Talladega Nights.

                        Also fantastic were the parents; Mary Steenburgen as Brennan's mother and Richard Jenkins as Dale's father. Mary Steenburgen was particularly good, acting exactly as you would expect the mother of a five year old to act, with a completely straight face. Jenkins was also great - especially when Brennan pushes him to extremes and he snaps and gives him a good spanking! Adam Scott as Brennan's slimy brother, Derek, is also good, although a little over the top. Kathryn Hahn plays Derek's down-trodden wife and falls in love with Dale because of his way of dealing with Derek. Hahn goes a little too far in the role and, although funny to an extent, leaves a slightly bad taste in the mouth. A little more control in the performance would have gone a long way.

                        This is absolutely a guy comedy. It is full of dirty jokes and sexual references that you wouldn't want your gran to hear. It also isn't suitable for children, hence the 15 rating, although I can imagine that many have seen it. The childishness of the humour makes it most appropriate for men in their late teens and earlyish twenties, but will really appeal to anyone with a silly sense of humour who isn't averse to a lot of sexual content. Then again, it is hard to believe that anyone who doesn't have that sort of a sense of humour would watch a film starring Will Ferrell anyway. If you disapprove of that type of humour, stay well clear.

                        With regards to the plot, there isn't really a great one - this is a story about the relationship of the step brothers and their immediate family. The focus is really on the one-liners, the humour and the ridiculous escapades that the brothers get themselves into. This is fine for this type of film. Again, if you're hoping for a thought-provoking film dealing with serious issues, you wouldn't really be watching a Will Ferrell film. I did think that the film tailed off a little towards the end. Some of the funniest parts of the film were towards the beginning - or perhaps it's just that one person can only take so much of this type of humour before it begins to lose its freshness. Nevertheless it is generally a really entertaining film - if the humour is your type of humour.

                        There are several special features. Firstly, 'extended and alternate scenes' - these are a bit of light-hearted fun, not necessary to watch though. The same goes for 'Line-o-rama', which zones in on some of the one-liners from the film. 'Dale vs Brennan' concentrates on the rivalry between the brothers before they become friends - it's lifted straight from the film, so it's nothing but a chance to see highlights again. The gag reel is actually very funny. It shouldn't be, after having seen the film, but there's something highly amusing about watching the actors try to cope with their lines and failing because they can't stop laughing. Or maybe it's just me. Finally, there's a music video that is partially shown in the film, involving the step brothers rapping. There isn't much to it, so only worth a glimpse if you're a real fan of the film or the main actors.

                        Sometimes, watching a film that doesn't involve switching the brain on is exactly what is needed, and that is definitely the case with this film. The humour is highly stupid, very dirty and more or less relentless, so if that is what you want, you shouldn't be too disappointed. If that doesn't appeal, then try another genre. For what it is, this film delivers; for me, the added bonus is that Will Ferrell doesn't take the whole film over, allowing John C Reilly to do his stuff as well. Ultimately, that is what made it work for me. Recommended.

                        The DVD is available from play.com for £3.99.

                        Classification: 15

                        Running time: 98 minutes

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                        • Urban Legend (DVD) / DVD / 61 Readings / 58 Ratings
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                          23.05.2010 12:58
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                          Same old, same old

                          Following the death of a young girl who was hacked to death by a murderer hiding in the back of her car, Natalie, who knew the murdered girl, is at University, taking a course about urban legends. This includes the story of the University's own legend - that of a professor who killed six of his students. Natalie believes that her friend's death was related to one of the urban legends and, after another murder, comes to the conclusion that a serial killer is echoing urban legends. No-one believes her at first, but as the body count starts to grow, her friends, Paul and Brenda, begin to realise that there might just be some truth in what she says. Natalie, meanwhile, believes that the killer is after her- and it could just be related to something she did in the past. Can she and her friends stay safe? Or will the killer eventually catch up with Natalie.

                          Directed by Jamie Blanks, this 1998 film is often brushed aside as just another slasher film - and that is for a good reason, it is just another slasher film. The only real difference with the story is that it is based around a series of common urban legends, rather than just the one legend that most slashers are based on. Nevertheless, if you like the odd scare, a bit of mystery and lots of gore, you can't go too far wrong with Urban Legend - provided that your expectations aren't too high.

                          Alicia Witt plays the lead role of Natalie and she is perfectly competent in the role. The fact that she looks great doesn't hurt either. She perhaps overdoes the terror towards the beginning of the film, but, as it happens, it is called for and her reactions improve during the course of the film. There isn't much character development throughout the film, so she doesn't have much of an opportunity to show off anything other than how to look terrified, but then, this is a slasher and character development isn't really necessary. The same can be said for Rebecca Gayheart, who plays Brenda. She is a little more smug than Natalie and appears to have a bit more about her, but ultimately, her main characteristic is looking scared out of her mind.

                          Tara Reid (American Pie) is one of the more familiar faces in the film as a friend of Natalie's. Her character isn't that different from the one in American Pie (although Urban Legend came first), so she doesn't really bring anything exciting to the table. Jared Leto, who is top billed, plays Paul, but is largely disappointing. He's smug and way too suave to be likable, although he's supposed to be playing the hero of the piece. He could have been interchanged with almost any good looking Hollywood actor and it wouldn't have made much difference. The only other role worth mentioning is Robert Englund as Natalie's Professor - it's not that he is particularly outstanding, it was just good to see him as someone else other than Freddie Krueger.

                          If you're looking for scares, there are a few, although the build up to them is not as effective as it could be. At the beginning of the film when the girl is murdered by a mad axe man in the back, it is obvious from quite some time beforehand that this is what is going to happen, so it isn't really something that is going to make you jump. The same goes for the other murders; a little less preparation beforehand would have made everything much more scary - we even get to see pictures of a couple of the murders before they've happened. It is a budget horror, but that isn't much of an excuse for the pacing. There are a few false alarms, where the viewer is led to believe that something awful is about to happen and then it doesn't. These generally fall a bit flat, so don't add anything to the film as a whole. Thankfully, there are a couple of twists towards the end that keep the viewer's attention before the desire to give up becomes too strong.

                          The fact that it is a budget horror comes out strongly with regard to the special effects. The gore really isn't that noticeable, because most of the deaths are seen from a distance, or are represented by pools of blood and a quick flash of the dead person's face. This shouldn't really be a criticism, except that it does make the characters even less of a person than they were before, so the viewer is left not really caring that someone has just died. Having said that, it is better than having to watch poor special effects. There is a classification of 18 on the film; this is perhaps a bit over the top, but certainly the content means that it is unfit for children under 15.

                          There are a few special features, including the usual theatrical trailer and filmographies of the main actors and actresses. The behind-the-scenes featurette doesn't really give the insight into the film that I was hoping for. It is only a few minutes long and basically retells the story, with the odd clips of interviews with the actors. It's more of an advert for the movie than it is an explanation of what went on behind the scenes. Finally, there's an audio commentary for those who want to sit through the film while someone the director explains scene by scene why the film is presented in the way it is.

                          I don't think anyone is going to watch this film expecting a masterpiece. However, if you're after something that doesn't involve a lot of thinking, with some blood and gore thrown in, then it's worth a watch. Just don't expect to see anything original and you won't be too disappointed. Just make sure that there aren't any children around while you are watching. Recommended to horror fans, three stars out of five.

                          The DVD is available from play.com for £3.99.

                          Classification: 18

                          Running time: 99 minutes

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                            20.05.2010 22:41
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                            A great Gothic mystery

                            Sian has recently joined an archaeological dig in Whitby. Troubled by horrifying nightmares after an accident in Bosnia that left her badly injured, she is trying to get by one day at a time, while trying to forget about the pain in her leg that she believes could be cancer. When she meets Mack and his gorgeous dog, Hadrian, she feels a flash of life return to her again; even more so when Mack presents her with a centuries old murder mystery that she feels compelled to solve. She also hopes that the fact that she can do something so satisfying will bring her closer to Mack. Will she be successful? Will she forge a new relationship with Mack - or are her deep-rooted issues too great to overcome?

                            Set in Whitby around the Abbey, there is a very Gothic theme to the book, backed up by the numerous references to Dracula. This is perfect for a murder mystery, because it sets the scene perfectly. It must be stressed, however, that the mystery isn't really the focus of the story overall. It is very much about Sian and her rite of passage from utter despair through to a glimmer of hope; the mystery is just there as a device to get her from one extreme to the other. That didn't concern me in the slightest. I loved both Sian's story and the mystery part - I think they worked very well together to present a fulfilling and intriguing story. Considering the author is actually Dutch and grew up in Australia (although he now lives in the Scottish Highlands), I think he did a fabulous job of capturing the Northern feel of Whitby.

                            I thought Sian was a very well drawn character. She isn't immediately likable - she is very prickly and clearly finds it hard to socialize. However, the reason for this, merely gently hinted at to begin with, soon becomes clear and she really grew in my estimation. Faber turns her into a very sympathetic character, with whom I could really identify. For anyone who doesn't like the touchy feely aspect of Sian's story, however, there is no need to be concerned. It is kept brief and at least partially covered up by the mystery angle. Sian really is the only character with any development - the story is told from her point of view. However, enough is told of Mack to be intriguing - and I really wanted them to get together, although this is far from being a love story. The relationship that builds up between Hadrian (the dog) and Sian is really touching and very well done.

                            The way that the book is written is excellent. The author uses very precise language that is deliberately concise, yet manages to convey a great deal. The reader is able to get a real feel for the main settings of Whitby that the story takes place in and the site of the dig with its hundred and ninety-nine steps is particularly vivid. This is a novella, so is very short, at just over 100 pages and there are no chapters as such. This isn't a great problem, because there are longer than usual paragraph breaks to show where the reader can leave the story for a while. Nevertheless, I would have preferred some more obvious breaks.

                            The only major criticism that I have has nothing to do with the author, but rather the publisher. The print on each page is very narrow, presumably to make the book look longer than it really is. I found this a waste of paper, especially in this day and age of being environmentally-friendly, and would much rather have had a shorter book with fuller pages. The aim is perhaps to age the book in the style of the eighteenth century (which is when Sian's 'mystery' took place), but it really didn't impress me very much.

                            The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps was excellent and would certainly like to read more in that ilk. I'm a fan of mysteries anyway, but the added bonus of the interesting character and the Gothic setting make it that much more enjoyable. I'll certainly look out for more books by this author and hope that they are of this quality, because it doesn't get much better than this. Five stars out of five, highly recommended.

                            The book is available from Amazon for £6.90. Published by Canongate books, it has 288 pages. ISBN-10: 1847678912

                            This review was first published on curiousbookfans.co.uk.

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                            • More +
                              19.05.2010 13:08
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                              Worth reading if you're patient

                              Detective Chief Superintendent Fran Harmer is struggling to juggle her important career and the care of her aging parents, who live far away in Devon while Fran is in Kent. Her boss and long-term colleague, Mark Turner, realises this and refers her to a new case which will hopefully make her life a little more manageable. The new case involves investigating a two year old crime, which left a woman, known as Elise, in a permanent coma. Although no-one has been able to find out who she is or why she was attacked, she does have a visitor - a University professor called Michael Pitt who visits her regularly who tried to revive her at the scene. Meantime, a young girl is abducted and Fran is still having to take time off work to help out with her parents. On top of that, a relationship seems to be blooming with Mark. Can she manage to keep everything under control and solve the crimes at the same time?

                              Fran Harmer is not your average, thirty-something, successful female detective. Instead, she has been through the wringer of life and has really proved herself. Now though, she is considering retirement as the only way to cope with her aging parents and, going through the menopause, she is concerned that she can no longer cope with her job. This could make her less attractive to your average reader. Nevertheless, it makes a pleasant change to read about someone with a slightly different outlook on life for once, especially because she is a combination of smart and clever, while having all sorts of hang-ups underneath. This is the first book in a series and, as a start, it does seem as though the series could have plenty of promise, especially as the role of Fran has been so carefully built upon.

                              The problem with this careful character-building is that it has been done to the detriment of the story. The first half of the book describes in great detail how Fran is forced to drive backwards and forwards from Devon all the time, how her parents mis-use her, how she never manages to get enough sleep, and generally how she is feeling as though she needs to be put out to grass - especially when her hot flushes attack her at inopportune moments. The main crime of the book, that of the coma victim, is glossed over to the extent I wondered if it would ever get going. I'm old enough to be able to sympathise a little with Fran and her problems, but, for a work that is supposedly crime fiction, I thought the characterisation was overkill. The author would have done much better to weave the crime in with the personal element, rather than leave it until the last half of the book. Many readers are likely to be put off reading any further before the real issues are dealt with.

                              When the crime story really does get going, it is a good read, mainly because so much starts to happen all at the same time. This is probably a very good example of exactly how a crime investigation takes place. Nothing much happens for a considerable amount of time, followed by everything packed into two or three days. Nevertheless, this is a work of crime fiction and, as such, a little leeway can be taken to ensure that the pacing is much better than it was here. The long conversations between Fran and Mark, and Fran and her junior officer, were a little tedious at times because they were so basic. It didn't help that the conversations often went on for so long that it became difficult to follow exactly who was saying what. Again, it's probably a good example of how things are really done - but most readers don't want to know all about the tedious side of police work, unless it quickly leads to a break.

                              On the plus side, it does show that Judith Cutler has done plenty of research. One of the positive things to come out of all the tedium is that she shows the hierarchy of police work and how it can be necessary to use your wits to short-circuit all the 'rules and regulations'. For once, the fact that Fran is a woman doesn't really come into it. She is shown as strong and successful, and if there is a problem amongst her colleagues, it is that she is respected over and above many of her male colleagues - she certainly doesn't struggle to make her mark because of her sex. As most books with a female lead detective almost invariably deal with the sexist element, it is refreshing that this one doesn't - although quite how realistic that is is hard to judge.

                              Although it is initially deeply dull, Fran's parenting problems do become more interesting as the book goes on. Both of her parents treat her appallingly, despite their age. They see her as useless, ugly and good for nothing but to look after them - and even then, she doesn't do it to their satisfaction. They clearly need to be cared for, but not by Fran. Unfortunately, Fran can't see this and is prepared to give everything up for them, even though those around her know it will be deeply detrimental for her. As this is an issue that affects many people, it is something that is ultimately very interesting and, along with the crime threads, does make the second half of the book very entertaining. Had Cutler managed to spread this throughout the book rather than cramming it into the last part, the book would have been much better for it.

                              Cutler's way of writing can't really be faulted. The language is, like most crime fiction, straightforward and to the point, which is exactly what is required for this type of book. The chapters are of a good length - not too long to be boring, or too short to be pointless. The dialogue is perhaps not as good as it should be. There is the issue of losing track of who is saying what, because the dialogue goes for so long. However, there are also times when the dialogue starts to sound a little wooden. There is always an important place for dialogue in crime fiction, but it is slighly overdone here.

                              Provided that readers can manage to get through the first half of the book, this is a good story that is worth sticking around for. Unfortunately, I think that many people will have put it down long before then, wondering if the crime element of the story is ever going to get going. Having finished the book, I am impressed enough to want to try the next book in the series, but I will only give her one more try - there are much better authors out there, who are able to maintain a reader's interest from page one. If you like gentle crime fiction without too much blood and gore, with a great deal of characterisation, then this may be for you. Three stars out of five, recommended with reservations.

                              The book is available from Amazon for £6.99. Published by Allison & Busby, it has 396 pages. ISBN-10: 0749081252

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                              • Storm Warning (DVD) / DVD / 82 Readings / 79 Ratings
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                                15.05.2010 13:57
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                                Australian horror - and it's pretty good

                                Pia and Rob, an Australian couple, decide to spend the day fishing, but then end up drifting towards a swamp where, because of a coming storm, they are forced to seek shelter. Miraculously, they find a farmhouse and knock on the door for help. There is no-one there, but the door is open and so they go in to find a phone. Then the owners come home - and they are not happy. Brothers Jimmy and Brett are furious that the couple have just walked in and refuse to offer them any help, claiming that they have no phone and that the storm means they are stranded for the time being. When Poppy, their father, arrives, Pia and Rob realise that they are not going to be able to escape the farmhouse, storm or no storm, especially when Rob takes a bullet to the leg and Pia is threatened with rape. Then Pia comes to her senses and decides that she is not going to go down without a fight. Will it be enough to save them? Will she have to undergo rape in order to live?

                                This is an Australian film that seems to be little known over here, which is a great shame. Although it is no classic, it is a well-made film with some good performances and special effects. The highlight of the film is undoubtedly Nadia Fares as Pia. With her French accent and model looks, she initially comes across as spoiled and irritating and I presumed that she was going to be a character to whom the viewer wouldn't be sorry to say goodbye. That all changes when she is put under pressure and she rises to the challenge beautifully. It's a pleasant change to see a woman kick butt in this sort of film, and whereas some of her escapades are pushing the boundaries of realism a little too far, she is very entertaining to watch. She doesn't lose her femininity though either, which, considering what she has to do, is quite amazing. For once, this is a horror film character that is actually likable.

                                Her husband Rob, played by Robert Taylor, is less impressive, but then he isn't supposed to be. Sidelined fairly early in the film, he doesn't have the chance to do much more than look like he's in pain while he watches his wife go beserk. This helps to highlight Pia's incredible actions, so it isn't really a bad thing. The mad family, made up of Jimmy, Brett and Poppy, are all excellent. Poppy, played by John Brumpton is truly terrifying; his evil apparently knowing no bounds. Jimmy (David Lyons) wasn't much better, especially when he seems to soften at one point, only to come back even stronger. Brett (Mathew Wilkinson) is slightly simple and does appear to be won over by Pia at one point, seeming to add a potential escape route. As a family, they were amazingly sadistic, lived like pigs, and were incredibly realistic, which really adds to the whole atmosphere of the film.

                                The main reason that the film has become a quiet favourite amongst many horror fans is that it is chock-full of gore scenes. This perhaps shouldn't have been a surprise, bearing in mind that the director, Jamie Blanks, also directed Urban Legend. Nevertheless, Storm Warning is a cut above Urban Legend - at least in my book. Considering this is such a low budget film, the special effects are impressive - not perfect, but very fitting and believable. Some of the most horrible scenes involve a contraption made of wire and flying farm tools that attacks one of them, stretching his skin in ways that you wouldn't believe; a man with severe penis damage; and a dog eating someone's blood-strewn crotch. It isn't a pleasant watch and certainly isn't something you'd want to see while eating your dinner, but it is very well-done and fits in perfectly with the atmosphere. It is obviously not in the slightest bit appropriate for children, and thoroughly deserves its 18 rating.

                                Having said all that, it is really the atmosphere that makes the film. From the minute the couple drift in close to the swamp, surrounded by what look like mangrove trees with their trailing roots, there is a sense of eeriness, of no escape. Then the farmhouse, which is filthy and looks uninhabitable, furthers the suggestion of 'abandon hope all ye who enter here'. Although the gore is visually fascinating to watch, provided you don't mind that sort of thing, it wasn't all that necessary, because the feeling of claustrophobia before anything happens is actually more scary than anything else. However, when combined with the strange family and the violence that they emit, followed by all the bloody fighting, the result is a film that will satisfy many fans of horror and possibly some who enjoy thrillers that include violence.

                                The story is a very simple one. It has been done before; done to death in fact, so it is actually amazing that this film manages to bring a fresh angle to it. It doesn't result in an amazing film - few horrors are these days, because there just aren't that many surprises left - but it is a perfectly entertaining watch. The ending is no great surprise, but it could have gone a different way if the director was so inclined. The set is very basic, much of it takes place in the farmhouse or the nearby shed, but that is all that is needed and adds greatly to the claustrophic atmosphere.

                                There are a few extras. The first is a Behind the Scenes featurette. There is no narration, it is just made up of shots of how the film was made, particularly with reference to the make-up and special effects. It is quite effective though; there was clearly a great deal of work that went into making the film. Some of the special effects use very basic devices, but they have been very well integrated into the film, so that they always look realistic. There are cast interviews with the sadistic family members - it's perhaps worth a glance, but no more. Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.

                                I enjoyed this film. I went into it with low expectations, having read just a couple of reviews on it, but it was surprisingly enjoyable. The fact that the main character is a woman who doesn't just sit back and take what is thrown at her was appealing and I thought she gave a good performance. Australian film doesn't seem to reach these shores very often, which is a shame, because there are some worthwhile films that we're missing out on. If you like horror, then this is definitely worth a watch. Recommended.

                                The DVD is available from play.com for £4.99.

                                Classification: 18

                                Running time: 86 minutes

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                                • The Uninvited (DVD) / DVD / 82 Readings / 80 Ratings
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                                  12.05.2010 14:35
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                                  Finally, a good recent horror

                                  Anna has had a stint in hospital to recover from a breakdown following the death of her mother. Relieved to finally be going home, she is thrilled to see her father and her sister, Alex. She isn't quite so pleased to see Rachel, however, their former housekeeper who her father has now moved in as his lover. Alex is angry that Anna left her alone to cope with Rachel and the pair begin to discuss the possibility that Rachel isn't who she claims to be. The more they investigate, the more it seems that this isn't the case. When a friend of Anna's claims to have seen something suspicious the night of her mother's death, the sisters are even more suspicious. Can they prove who Rachel is and what happened the night their mother died?

                                  Based on the Korean horror, The Tale of Two Sisters, I watched this film with some trepidation. Re-makes are rarely impressive, especially, it seems, when they are Hollywood versions of Asian films. The Tale of Two Sisters is a stunning film - it is visually beautiful and the story is so full of twists and turns that the viewer really is left wondering what on earth is going on. It is easily one of my top ten favourite films. However, this re-make is a great film in its own right. It may not be quite as good as the original, but anyone who hasn't seen the original won't know any different, and, in any case, the storyline is tweaked enough to make it more original than may otherwise have been expected.

                                  Emily Browning (Lemony Snicket's An Unfortunate Series of Events) plays Anna. She is a very childish looking actress and that is exactly what is needed here, because she is only supposed to be fifteen (although the actress was already twenty when filming). She appears to have fully recovered from her breakdown, although still clearly has a few hang-ups about her mother's death. Once she meets up with Alex again, however, she begins to exhibit some of the behaviour that probably resulted in her being institutionalised in the first place. Nevertheless, it appears that she really does have a point this time. Browning managed to portray all this brilliantly. She is aloof when she needs to be, yet can immediately change to hysteria, all very naturally. Hopefully, she will continue to go from strength to strength - she seems very much at home with character roles.

                                  Arielle Kebbel as Alex is less impressive, although only marginally so. She is an enigmatic character, apparently very hurt by her sister's defection, especially as Anna didn't reply to any of her letters. Her relationship with their father and Rachel is strained, presumably because she doesn't approve of Rachel, and they rarely talk. Kebbel doesn't give a bad performance; it is just that the viewer doesn't really get the chance to get under her skin. This is for a reason, but it doesn't become obvious until later in the film. I liked Elizabeth Banks as Rachel. I've always thought of Banks as a comic actress - I loved her in Zack and Miri Make a Porno and Scrubs - so this role was very different for her. She dealt with it well; not brilliantly, but she showed the right amount of sugary sweetness with an edge of steel underneath. David Stathairn as the girl's father was average - partly because he is so distant, but partly because he speaks probably the most important line in the whole film and doesn't really do it justice.

                                  Although the direction of the film was obvious to me from the start of the film, because I have seen the film on which it was based, it was, nevertheless, an excellent story. There are a number of similarities, but there are enough differences for it to be fresh. This version is much less confusing and ambiguous, partially because there are fewer cultural references to worry about - the Western names alone help to make things a little easier to follow. Possibly someone completely new to the film will struggle a little to begin with, it may even take a couple of watches to fully understand it, but rest assured that everything does eventually make sense - provided that you concentrate for the course of the film, of course.

                                  Visually, this isn't a patch on A Tale of Two Sisters, which feels incredibly gothic and desolate, with the only bright spots being the flashes of red that appear throughout the film. The Uninvited is a visually attractive film though - the use of red against white is eye-catching, for example, and the film is generally well-made. It doesn't quite have the visual excitement of A Tale of Two Sisters. There are moments when Anna sees things that (presumably) aren't there and these visions are technically great, but just don't quite have the same creepiness that the original did. Again though, for anyone who hasn't seen the original, it isn't going to make a great deal of difference. It isn't entirely clear for much of the film whether it is about to take off in a supernatural direction, or if it is all in Anna's head. I would have preferred the supernatural element to be stressed a little more than it was.

                                  There are a couple of extras with the DVD. The making of featurette is interesting, consisting mainly of the producers, the writers, the directors Charles and Thomas Guard, and two lead actresses. Then there's the usual deleted scenes - worth a watch if you liked the film. Finally, there's an alternate ending. This lasts for about thirty seconds and is far from being the alternate ending I had in mind - it really makes no difference to the film overall.

                                  This is a really intriguing film that I wasn't expecting to be as good as it was. It isn't faultless, but it is much better than most of the recent spate of Hollywood horror that has come through. It is a thought-provoking film that can't just be watched with partial concentration; some may even need to watch it again to work it all out. Whether it is best to watch this film or The Tale of Two Sisters first depends on your personal tastes - The Tale of Two Sisters is subtitled and a little more convoluted, although it is the superior film, and won't appeal to everyone. It is, however, worth watching at least one of them. Four stars out of five.

                                  The DVD is available from play.com for £5.99.

                                  Classification: 15 (for some disturbing images)

                                  Running time: 87 minutes

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