Sunday, December 31, 2006

Happy Feet

We finally got in to see Happy Feet last night, third time lucky as we'd ended up seeing both Flushed Away and Pan's Labyrinth the last couple of times we'd gone into town intending to go see it. Here's the gist of the story…
Deep in the Antarctic, the Emperor penguins pair together by finding another who's heartsong resonates perfectly with their own. When Memphis (Hugh Jackman) and Norma Jean's (Nicole Kidman) songs tell them that they're for each other, then that was that and when they're blessed with an egg, it's Memphis's job to keep it warm over the winter while Norma Jean goes off to sea with all the other females.

But when little Mumble (Elijah Wood) is born the next Spring it's soon obvious that he's different from the rest of the new brood. He simply can't sing but instead he tap-dances like a whirlwind. Worried that his seeming disability will affect his future, his parents try everything to get him to sing and to stop dancing but it isn't long before he comes to the notice of Noah (Hugo Weaving) and the elders. The fish are scarcer this year and the elders soon blame young Mumble and his different ways for angering the penguin god and causing the shortage and they cast him out of the flock.

In his wanderings, fleeing from a ravenous leopard seal, he meets a group of little Adelie penguins led by Ramon (Robin Williams) who show him that there are other ways and other cultures. After he talks to Lovelace (Robin Williams), the Adelie flock wise-man, it becomes obvious to Mumble that there has to other beings out there, aliens who are responsible for the fish shortage and they all set out to find out who or what they are…

Happy FeetLorna had been keen to see this movie ever since we saw the trailer but there's just something disturbing about singing penguins if you ask me but the animation looked fantastic so I was hooked as well.

The story is a fairly straightforward dig at man's alienation of anyone different or disabled and how we so easily lay the blame for all our ills on anything that doesn't conform to our notion of normality. There's a fair bit of humour in there but there are also a few scary moments so I wouldn't recommend it for very young children.

Happy FeetHugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman can sing pretty well so their roles as Mumble's parents pan out quite well and Brittany Murphy, who plays Mumble's friend Gloria, also delivers on the vocals. Robin Williams and his accompanying troop of Adelies also give a pretty account of themselves as well and there's a good backing cast of singers so the numbers come pretty thick and fast in places.

The animation is superb! Everything from the way their feet leave little trails in the pack ice and snow, the way the bubble trails squirt and drift as the penguins and fish speed through the water, the old whaling station set with its ice-floes and the killer whales, the skuas and elephant seals to the hard, driving cold that is the Antarctic in the depth of Winter. Visually, it's a very stunning movie and the camera angles and panning shots add much to the effect as well. The only negative aspect was the fact that the animators had given the female penguins a bit of an hour-glass figure, which just looked a bit odd. Animation fans will love it once they get past all the singing and dancing!

Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy, Family, Musical.
My Rating: 7/10

Friday, December 29, 2006

Thud! - by Terry Pratchett

Thud!, the 30th instalment in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, is set in the sprawling metropolis of Ankh-Morpork...
Sam Vimes has a problem, well actually more than one. Lord Vetinari has given him a new recruit for the Watch, a vampire. Okay Sally is a Black Ribboner from the League of Temperance and has sworn off sucking anyone's blood but fear of the vampire is in your genes isn't it and Sam's only human. Sgt. Angua is positively more than human and she doesn't like the idea either. I mean - a vampire in the Watch!

On top of that, with the anniversary of the Battle of Koom Valley coming up, the Dwarfs and the Trolls are at it again. Fighting I mean! Each side blames the other for ambushing their side and starting the battle and every now and again, they get to fighting it all over again and Sam really doesn't want the streets of Ankh-Morpork awash in blood. Things go from bad to worse when a senior Dwarf turns up dead with his head bashed in and there's a Troll's club lying by his side.

There's also Mr. A.E. Pessimal, the government inspector who wants to go though all of his paperwork and then there's the darkness that's hovering at the fringes of reality and looking for a way in or at least someone to hold the door open for it. But the real problem is, it's late and Sam just has to get home for six o'clock and absolutely nothing is going to stop him from getting there on time.

As you've probably guessed, this is another tale of the City Watch with all the usual characters such as Commander Sir Samuel Vimes, Captain Carrot, Sargeants Fred Colon, Angua, Detritus, Cheery Littlebottom, Corporal Nobby Nobbs and Constables Reg Shoe, Dorfl, Igor and Visit The Ungodly With Explanatory Pamphlets. Of course that lot includes a mix of humans, dwarfs, a werewolf, a troll, a golem, an Igor, a zombie and Nobby Nobbs.

It's a pretty complicated plot with several murders, the theft of insane artist Methodia Rascal's 50-foot painting of The Battle Of Koom Valley from the museum and the mystery as to just exactly what the Dwarves are doing under the streets of Ankh-Morpork. The painting, along with its companion book The Koom Valley Codex, is said to contain hidden messages that could lead the lucky solver to a fabulous treasure hidden in Koom Valley. On top of that is the seriously amazing fact that Nobby Nobbs has a girlfriend and she's an exotic dancer to boot.

Thud tackles topics such as racism and intolerance with the general Troll/Dwarf conflict and the werewolf/vampire tension between Angua and Sally. It also covers the downside of drug abuse in the story of young Brick the Troll. Pratchett always seems to take some serious social issues like these and have us laughing and snickering from cover to cover regardless.

Then there's Thud itself, a boardgame first introduced in Going Postal and which is based loosely on the Battle Of Koom Valley and seems to resemble a variation of Chess. If you're interested (or just plain mad), then you can join the Thud community and play online.

I really liked Sam's new Disorganizer Mark Five, "The Gooseberry™" since I have the unfortunate task of managing a Blackberry™ estate. Oh for a fleet of little imp inhabited handhelds instead of the gremlin infested ones we have now. Another very funny book from Mr. Pratchett!

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Fantasy.
ISBN: 0-552-15267-6
My Rating: 8/10

Friday, December 22, 2006

Stargate Lives On

Just spotted on the excellent Stargate site GateWorld is the news that a third Stargate series is in development and probably due for release in 2008. It's early days yet and they haven't yet revealed what the storyline is going to be about but I'm happy that the series will continue.

Stargate SG-1 was phenomenally successful, running for 10 seasons, and Stargate Atlantis is showing all the signs of continuing that success.

I've been a fan since the movie appeared in 1984 so, with a new series of Atlantis coming next year and a couple of movies also in the works, we should be well catered for in the Stargate universe for a few more years.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Pan's Labyrinth

Pan's LabyrinthAfter a very long days Christmas shopping and a quick burger meal, we went to see Pan's Labyrinth, or El Laberinto del Fauno to give it its real name. I was quite surprised to see it only showing in a few places so we thought we'd better get in and see it before it disappears from the local cinemas altogether. I guess foreign, subtitled movies don't fair so well in Glasgow, which is a pity - market forces I suppose. Anyway, here's a brief introduction to the story…
It's Spain, 1944 just at the end of the Spanish Civil War. The young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) travels with her pregnant mother to live in a rural military outpost commanded by her new step-father, a captain in Franco's army. Post-war Fascist repression is at its height and Captain Vidal (Sergi López) is particularly brutal and sadistic in his fervour to root out the remaining communist fighters still holding out in the surrounding mountains.

Ofelia, like most other girls her age, still believes in magic and romance and she brings along her collection of fairy tale books even though her mother thinks she should put such childish pastimes behind her. However, on the way there, her mother takes unwell and the car has to stop for a while and Ofelia wanders off a little way off the roadside where she discovers an old carved stone and a very unusual dragonfly, which follows them on their way.

When they eventually arrive at the outpost, an old abandoned mill, she quickly realizes that her new father has no interest in her at all and only cares that his new son will be born by his side, regardless of his wife's ill health. With her mother confined to bed, Ofelia discovers an old maze in the gardens beside the mill and can't resist exploring it. It's a brooding place of winding paths and at it's centre is a well with steps leading down into the darkness. At the bottom of the steps Ofelia meets a faun who tells her that she is a fairy princess and, in order for her to return to her people, she must first pass three trials…

Pan's Labyrinth
Written, produced and directed by Guillermo del Toro (Cronos, Blade II, Hellboy), this film is a masterpiece of fantasy fiction - a dark and Gothic fairy tale set against the grim reality of war. Don't be put off by the subtitles, it's a very visual film and reliance on dialogue is secondary to the powerful imagery of the movie. It is however quite brutal and gory in places so maybe not for the squeamish and definitely not a fairy tale for the kids.

With beautiful cinematography by Guillermo Navarro (Hellboy, Jackie Brown, Desperado) and a hauntingly dark musical score from Javier Navarrete, we're led into the world of faery where fauns, sprites and monsters roam on just the other side of the wall and into the very dark world of pain and torture that was the Spanish Civil War. We very quickly discover that Captain Vidal is a sadistic sociopath who has no love for his wife or daughter and delights in beating and torturing anyone who stands in his way. We also learn that the rebels in the hills are being aided by the locals, in particular the doctor and the Captain's own housekeeper, who's brother is one of them. Small wonder that a little girl dropped into this dark and dismal world would seek refuge in fairy tales and imaginary creatures.

The performances by the main players are excellent - Ivana Baquero plays the child Ofelia to perfection and Sergi López is brilliant as the baddie of the piece. There's good support from Ariadna Gil as Ofelia's mother and Maribel Verdú as Mercedes the housekeeper. Visual effects are also very good and, although the fantasy scenes aren't perhaps as frequent as expected, they are beautifully realized.

If you like fantasy movies, then this is really worth seeing on the big screen but don't delay too long or the subtitle Philistines will have had it consigned to specialist theatres before long. With a string of awards and nominations, this is well recommended and I'll definitely be buying the DVD when it hits the streets.

Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Horror, War
My Rating: 9/10

Friday, December 15, 2006

Judas Unchained - by Peter F. Hamilton

Judas Unchained is the conclusion to the Commonwealth Saga tale that started with Pandora's Star. It's a tale of first contact with an alien species that goes badly wrong and results in mankind fighting to save itself from extinction. Here's a brief summary of Pandora's Star for anyone interested in reading both books…
It's AD 2380, and humanity has colonised over six hundred planets, all interlinked by wormholes. This Intersolar Commonwealth has grown into a quiet, wealthy society, where rejuvenation and re-life techniques allow mankind to live for centuries.

When an astronomer observes a pair of stars over a thousand light years away vanish, the Commonwealth is anxious to discover what actually happened. However, wormholes can't reach that far so they have to build the first faster-than-light starship,
the Second Chance, and when it gets there they discover that both entire systems have been sealed inside impervious force fields.

Like Pandora before them, they learn that curiosity can be very dangerous and whoever sealed these systems away from the rest of the universe had a very good reason for doing so. But there's also someone or something that wants them to open that box

With the cat literally out of the bag and the Dyson Alpha aliens loose and bent on the total annihilation of mankind, the story continues with Judas Unchained…
After 300 hundred years of behind-the-scenes manipulations, the Starflyer, whose very existence had been long dismissed by the authorities as the ravings of niche terrorist group, has succeeded in engineering a war that could result in the destruction of the Commonwealth.

While the invasion from MorningLightMountain and its vast alien army continues to wreak havoc among the outer worlds, the leaders finally acknowledge that they must fight a battle on two fronts and unite to meet the threat of both the Starflyer and Dyson Alpha aliens.

However, the Starflyer's agent network is deeply insinuated within the Commonwealth at all levels and preventing it from getting back to Far Away and freedom while also trying to hold off and defeat the Dyson Alpha aliens will not be an easy task.

The Commonwealth Saga is grand science fiction at its best with a well crafted and detailed plot, well-developed characters and plausible technology. The alien species are also very well realized - the enigmatic Silfen, Tochee, the Raiel and of course, MorningLightMountain and its horde of motiles. If anything, Judas Unchained is even better then Pandora's Star as the pace picks up and the plot threads come together for a pretty nail-biting finish.

You'll find everything that makes a great story here. From the rich and powerful ruling dynasties trying to outmaneuver each other in the political arena, the Guardians of Selfhood trying to make the Commonwealth believe in the Starflyer, the police investigators trying to bring the Guardians of Selfhood to justice as terrorists for an atrocity they unintentionally committed years ago, the sexy journalist trying to get the scoop of a lifetime, wormhole technology inventor Ozzie Isaacs on walkabout, the completely alien MorningLightMountain trying to logically remove what it sees as a threat to its own existence and the Starflyer manipulating things in the background to suit its own ends.

If you liked Hamilton's Night's Dawn Trilogy, then you'll like this series as well. Highly recommended!

Genre: Drama, Science Fiction, War
ISBN: 0330493531
My Rating: 9/10

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Ho Wong, York Street, Glasgow

With Lorna's sister and her husband over here for a few days, we met up after work at the Marriott Hotel with plans to go and have some dinner and then maybe a drink or two.

We started wandering along Argyll Street back towards the centre of town and spotted the Ho Wong, an innocuous looking Chinese restaurant just off the main road down York Street. We've been working near here for almost a year now and had never noticed it before so it seemed worth having a closer look.

It was a horrible night out, all dark and rainy but the frontage looked inviting enough so in we went and entered a very plush and sumptuous world of thick carpets, solid looking carved wood chairs and vases of fresh flowers. It was quite busy and I think we were lucky to get a table for four even at so early a time slot.

The menu is more traditional than your average Chinese restaurant but not overly so. For example, there were no curries, chop sueys or chow meins in sight but neither were there any chicken's feet dishes so everything should appeal to us more squeamish diners. It leads off with a huge range of starters and then into a very comprehensive list of seafood, poultry, meat, duck, satay, bird's nest, sweet & sour, sizzling and vegetarian dishes so there should be something there for everyone.

Prices are also higher than you'd pay for a standard centre of town restaurant but again, not off the planet. We're lazy and opted for the set meal for four and were treated to a delicious medley of dishes. The starter was mixed hors d'oeuvres (butterfly king prawn, barbecue spare ribs, deep fried wunton, prawn toast and chicken satay) followed by aromatic crispy duck with the usual accompaniments. The main courses were fillet of beef Cantonese style, steamed king prawns with black bean and garlic, chicken in chilli and salt, sweet & sour chicken and Singapore style noodles and to follow we had a choice of ice creams or sweets and coffee.

We washed it all down with a glass of Tsingtao and a couple of bottles of wine and we were royally stuffed. I have to say I enjoyed the lot and we could hardly finish it all. It was still busy when we left which, for a Tuesday night, is quite good going. They were even giving away Chinese piggy banks and calendars in the run up to the year of the pig so Evelyn will be going back to Gibraltar with some more souvenirs.

Cuisine: Chinese
My Rating: 9/10

Monday, December 11, 2006

Flushed Away

We stayed in town on Friday night, had an Italian and then headed for the movies. Since Happy Feet was out at last, we thought it'd be fun to go and see it but, given that it had just hit the streets here, it was full. That left us with Flushed Away or Pan's Labyrinth and since the latter didn't start till much later, we opted for Flushed Away.

To be honest, I didn't fancy this at all. It just seemed too "English" and all that London oriented patriotism just doesn't hit any fun buttons with me at all and it sounded like it'd be like an animated Hugh Grant movie. Still, Wallace & Gromit are brilliant so it seemed worth a try…
Roddy (Hugh Jackman) is a rat, a pet rat and a pampered one at that, living in a grand house in the plush London Borough of Kensington. All's well until a sewer rat called Sid (Shane Richie) finds his way into the mansion and Roddy finds himself flushed down the toilet and into the underworld of the sewers below called Ratropolis.

Of course, Roddy wants to get back home as soon as he can but, as luck would have it, he falls into bad company right away when he's caught up in the theft of a valuable ruby from The Toad (Ian McKellen), the leader of the Ratropolis crime gang. He also meets Rita (Kate Winslet), an enterprising rat scavenging the sewers in her little boat the Jammy Dodger, and both of them manage to escape The Toad's clutches along with the master cable for the sewage workings.

The Toad needs that cable for his dastardly master plan, which is to open the flood gates during the half-time interval of the world cup final and so drown the entire population of rodents, whom he despises. So the pair soon find themselves hunted by The Toad's buffoonish henchrats Spike (Andy Serkis) and Whitey (Bill Nighy) and, when they fail to capture them or the cable, he sends for his cousin Le Frog (Jean Reno) and his team of ninja frogs.

Well, I was wrong and it was actually quite entertaining once I'd turned off my "hate all English toff gits" mode. Why Hugh Jackman was cast as an English rat goodness only knows but he does carry off the stupid accent quite well and I expect he had a bit of fun doing it too. The characterizations from Andy Serkis, Bill Nighy, Ian McKellen and Jean Reno are all top notch and they really carry the comedy pieces while Jackman and Winslet pretty much stroll through as the hero and heroine of the movie.

The singing slugs are of course the real stars here and if you don't laugh at the antics of the ninja frogs and the one doing a Marcel Marceaux spoof while The Toad is on the phone, then you're from a different planet. There's loads of humour in there for all ages and like its predecessors, The Curse Of The Were Rabbit and Chicken Run, this is full of little homàges and references to other movies and it'll take few viewings to catch all of them.

Aardman have a had a great reputation as claymation artists and I suppose this was the inevitable move to progress to more modern methods. However, while they've moved to 3D digital animation, the movie has retained the look of a claymation production and I'm not sure it works like that. Better if they'd just moved on and embraced the new technology altogether and given us a visual treat like Shrek or Ice Age.

Stiil, it's worth seeing if you like animated comedies and I'm sure most kids will love it.

Genre: Animation, Comedy, Family
My Rating: 7/10

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

ChoicesUK CDs and Mobile Phones

Online DVD and Video Game store Choices UK are now selling music CDs and mobile phones. They've been a pretty reasonable supplier for some years now and I've bought quite a few DVD box sets off of them in the past as they do some pretty good deals now and then.

I was looking for a few CDs and have to say that I wasn't impressed by their prices but they are offering a 5% discount on your first music order up until the 31/12/2006. Just enter the code ROCKON at the checkout.