Sunday, July 29, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the fifth tale about the young wizard Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and a pretty close sequel to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, in which we learn that Lord Voldermort has indeed returned and plans to pick up where he left off…

With the Ministry of Magic and most of his schoolmates choosing to disbelieve both Harry and Professor Dumbledore's warnings that Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned and is planning to attack at any moment, both are targetted by Cornelius Fudge (Robert Hardy), the head of the Ministry and who suspects that they're out to build a wizard army and take over for themselves.

Fudge installs Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) as the new Defence Against The Dark Arts teacher but she's obviously there to gather evidence against Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and Harry and to supress any possibility of them raising an army of wizards. But that's exactly what they need to do in order to prepare for the impending attack from Voldermort and his Death Eaters and so they secretly begin recruiting and training by themselves.

All the while Harry is having dreams and visions he can't explain, visions in which he sees himself as Voldermort and he's searching for something, something he needs very badly.

This is much more of a thinking man's storyline this time around. There's little of the fabulous visual effects seen in the previous movies and the plot centres on the political manoeverings by the Ministry, who refuse to believe that the dark lord has returned from the dead. The leader of the authorities sees Dumbledore and Harry as threatening his personal powerbase and so attempts to thwart them at every turn and in so doing, leaves Voldermort free to build his forces.

Harry still has allies in the form of the Order of the Phoenex, a group dedicated to defeating Voldermort and that's where it lost me. Trouble is, almost all of his friends are members and he isn't. Hermione, Ron and all the Weasleys, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson), Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) and Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) are all in this convenient little group so why haven't they surfaced before now? All they appeared to exist for was to give the book a title.

Frankly, I didn't enjoy this movie as much as the earlier ones. maybe it's the translation to film that leaves out too much of the background story but it wasn't as well structured as it could have been. The thing Voldermort was searching for didn't seem important enough to structure the plot around either. If it has been, then surely Dumbledore would have either destroyed it or kept it much better protected.

Anyway, I'm waffling a bit. If you're a fan of the series, then you'll probably have read the book and are wondering what I'm going on about as it's all obvious. It's enjoyable enough, just not as good as the earlier ones.

Genre: Adventure, Drama, Family, Fantasy
My Rating: 7/10

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Shrek The Third

Shrek The Third is, as the name implies, the third Shrek movie and we've been to see it. This Summer's been a bit of a movie overfest, what with having seen Die Hard 4.0 and Fantastic Four: The Rise Of The Silver Surfer and with The Simpsons Movie, Transformers and the latest Harry Potter and more still to see. Anyway, back to Shrek The Third; here's the short description of the plot…
Fiona's father King Harold (John Cleese) is dying and Shrek (Mike Myers) is being groomed as the heir to the throne of Far, Far Away. However, Shrek doesn't want to leave his beloved swamp for a life at court so he sets off with Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) to find young Arthur Pendragon (Justin Timberlake), the next in line to the throne.

While Shrek's away, the scheming Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) gathers an army of thieves, witches, monsters and cutthroats and takes over the kingdom, imprisoning Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) and Queen Lillian (Julie Andrews). Can Shrek persuade Arthur to take the crown and get back in time to save Fiona and her mum or will those two fiesty gals have their own plans to retake the castle and oust Charming?

To sum it up simply, it could have been better. Don't get me wrong, it's not a bad movie and there's plenty to laugh at in there but it just wasn't up at the same level of the first two movies. All of the favourite fairy tale characters are there - Donkey, Dragon, Puss in Boots, the Gingerbread man, Pinocchio and the Three Blind Mice as well as few others like Snow White, Cinderella and Rapunzel so the scope for laughs is as good as ever and there are quite a few very funny scenes, just not as many as I'd have liked.

There are two plots on the go. Shrek and Fiona want to get back to their swamp so Shrek heads off to find Arthur and convince him that the throne is his for the asking and Prince Charming wants to take over what he sees as his rightful crown and so seizes his chance when Shrek is away. Both are fairly simple and work quite well as vehicles for a fair amount of funny scenes so if you liked the first two movies, then you might well like this one too. It's not quite as good but we laughed enough to make it a worthwhile night out.

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

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Planets Of Adventure - by Murray Leinster

Planets Of AdventurePlanets of Adventure is a collection of two novels and some short stories, comprising classic works of early science-fiction from the 1920s up to the 1950s…
The Forgotten Plant - This tells the tale of a world which was, by chance, "mislaid" by he galactic bureaucracy. Its terraforming project left incomplete, it evolved into a nightmare planet of giant insects and spiders. When a space-liner crashes on the world, the human survivors and their descendants have to learn to survive this version of hell.

The Forgotten Planet was Leinster's rewrite and novelization of three previously published novellas: The Mad Planet (Argosy, June 1920), The Red Dust (Argosy, April 1921) and Nightmare Planet (Science Fiction Plus, June 1953). This is classic B-movie stuff with giant, man-eating spiders and forests of enormous mushrooms.
The Planet Explorer - As humanity spreads throughout the galaxy, the colonization of new worlds is strictly monitored and controlled. As often happens, what appears to be an apparently hospitable planet may well contain undiscovered dangers. It's the job of the Colonial Survey Office and one man in particular to help avert these disasters.

The Planet Explorer started off as four separate tales: Sand Doom (Astounding, December 1955), Exploration Team (Astounding, March 1956), Critical Difference (Astounding, July 1956) and The Swamp Was Upside Down (Astounding, September 1956). Leinster rewrote them to give them all the same protagonist and then re-issued them under the name Colonial Survey in 1956 and then as The Planet Explorer in 1957. We get to follow Senior Colonial Survey Officer Bordman through his career as he has to deal with four of these "problem" worlds.

The other five tales (Anthroplogical Note, Scrimshaw, Assignment on Pasik, Regulations and The Skit-Tree Planet) are short stories published in various magazines between 1947 and 1957 but each is a science-fiction gem and well worth reading.

Murray Leinster (aka William Fitzgerald Jenkins) is one of the fathers of science-fiction writing and this little collection, compiled and edited by Eric Flint and Guy Gordon, is a cracking example of his work.

Okay, some of these stories may feel a little dated but that's what they are. This is a galaxy where rocket ships still land vertically on their tale fins, robots are clanking automata and advanced alien civilizations can still fall foul of a common cold.

Genre: Science-Fiction
ISBN: 0-7434-7162-8
My Rating: 8/10

The Novice - by Trudi Canavan

The Novice is the second volume in The Black Magician trilogy and a sequel to The Magician's Guild, continuing the story of Sonea, the little girl from the slums who has now been accepted as a novice in the Magician's Guild.
Sonea is now a novice and has moved into the Magician's Guild in order to begin her training. However, her fellow students, the sons and daughters of the realm's most powerful families, see her as an upstart from the slums who should be seen to fail at whatever cost.

When High Lord Akkarin takes her under his protection Sonea is even more despondent as she knows he harbours a dark and sinister secret. Isolated from her family and friends, despised and bullied by her classmates and living in dread in the High Lord's house, Sonea must rise far above her training to meet all of these ordeals.

The Novice follows much the same pattern and writing style of its predecessor. It's a very easy and predictable read but entertaining nevertheless and the plot is getting a bit more complicated but not overly so. Canavan's writing style hasn't improved as far as I can see but its simplicity may appeal to a younger audience.

There are basically two story threads on the go this time. The main one being Sonea striving to keep one step ahead of her enemies and pursue her studies while avoiding Akkarin and the other following Lord Dannyl as he wanders foreign lands trying to find out what Akkarin was up to while he was abroad.

Adds a bit more depth to the story following on from The Magician's Guild so if you've read that and found it enjoyable enough, then this won't disappoint either.

ISBN: 1-84149-314-7
Genre: Adventure, Fantasy
My Rating: 6/10

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

We went to see the second Fantastic Four movie, The Rise Of The Silver Surfer, the other night. It's set two years after the events of the first movie so here's the basic plot…
While Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) are preparing for their wedding, a silver object enters Earth's atmosphere radiating cosmic energy that creates massive molecular fluctuations and causes deep craters at locations across the Earth. That cosmic energy also affects their old adversary, Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), freeing him from his metallic imprisonment.

When Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) chases the object, he discovers that it's an alien being (Laurence Fishburne), riding what appears to be a silver surfboard. Johnny's encounter, which he barely survives, has an unexpected side-effect in that, if he comes into contact with any of the other three heroes, their powers get swapped. Meanwhile, Dr. Doom tracks the alien and attacks him but he is easily defeated by an enormous blast of cosmic energy, which also restores his health and appearance. Trading on his experience, Doom convinces the military that he should be allowed to work again with the Fantastic Four in order to capture this creature and learn its purpose.

Of course, our heroes aren't happy about that and Doom has plans of his own as regards the alien and the alien, well he's only preparing the Earth for its destruction.

Silver Surfer
The Silver Surfer is a story line going back to 1966 and Fantastic Four #48 when he decided that the Earth would satisfy the hunger of his master Galactus, Devourer of Worlds. It's a fairly complex storyline and the Surfer is a much deeper character, which the film hasn't really had the scope to explore but I think they've done a pretty reasonable job given the time limitations. Comic purists won't like it of course but as a movie sequel, it's better than the original movie.

I'm still not convinced by the romance between Reed and Sue as I don't think Ioan Gruffudd carries the character of Richards that well. Jessica Alba, on the other hand, does an excellent job as Susan Storm. The banter between Johnny and Ben (Michael Chiklis) continues as before and these two really get most of the comic pieces, although the power swapping thing gives rise to quite a few humorous moments as well. Julian McMahon is back as Dr. Doom but doesn't really get as meaty a part as he had in the first movie; he's almost a side character for the majority of the movie. As seems traditional now, co-creator Stan Lee also gets a small cameo part in the movie.

We quite enjoyed this movie. The action keeps going along at a decent pace, the effects are pretty good all round and, if you liked the first movie, and some of you did, then this will satisfy your appetite for super-heroes even more. The Fantasticar is an added bonus!

Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science-Fiction
My Rating: 7/10

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Historian - by Elizabeth Kostova

The HistorianThe Historian attempts to pick up the threads of Bram Stoker's Dracula and expounds the idea that the 15th century vampire is still among us, walking the Earth as an undead creature of the night.

It tells its tale in much the same way as Stoker did, in a series of journals and letters, only this story spans three generations in its search for the resting place of the medieval monster that Stoker's Dracula was based on. He goes by many names - Vlad The Impaler, Vlad Drakul and Prince Vlad Ţepeş.

The three generations' stories are nested within each other and, while the book follows the latest quest to find the fiend, we are also treated to the historical progress of the previous two which, as you've probably guessed, ended badly.

It has to be said that, while the book promises a lot, it is a very slow and laborious read. We follow the tale of a sixteen-year old girl, who's father is an important diplomat and he's taken off on a quest to find his old University mentor, who he believes has been kidnapped by Dracula. The fact that her mother has gone missing, presumed dead, is also factored into it.

Vlad The ImpalerSo we get a narrative by the daughter, the notes and journals of both the father in his youth and in his search for his mentor and then even earlier ones from the mentor himself. Their travels cover a fairly wide expanse of Europe from the Romanian region of Wallachia, which is where Vlad Ţepeş originated from, through Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Austria, England, The Netherlands and Spain.

Kostova weaves a detailed tale containing much about the life and deeds of probably one of the worst tyrants of European history so, in reading it, the reader will learn a great deal of the history of Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Unfortunately the characters embued with tracking this villain down are pretty weak. They are, for want of a better word, academics and not the Indiana Jones kind of academic. They are researchers to the core and, while the story is interesting in places, it didn't grip me as a good horror novel should. There's very little action and almost none of the building dread required of such a work and, given the inconclusive ending, it was an unsatisfying read.

Genre: Horror
ISBN: 0-7515-3728-4
My Rating: 5/10

Monday, July 09, 2007

Die Hard 4.0

We went to see Die Hard 4.0 last night. Here's a brief introduction to the plot. Although, thin as it is, I don't want to give too much away…
When the FBI command centre's computer systems are interrupted, Deputy Director Bowman (Cliff Curtis) orders a round up of known hackers capable of perpretrating the intrusion. Trouble is, someone else is already killing them off one by one.

When Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) is tasked with picking one of them up and delivering him to the FBI in Washington D.C., he interrupts the assassination squad just as they attempt to kill the hacker, Matt Farrell (Justin Long). Of course our hero foils the plot, kills a few bad guys and gets his man to D.C. but that's only the beginning. A group of well organized terrorists are instigating what is known as a "Fire Sale"; the systematic disruption of the computer systems that control the transportation networks, financial systems and utilities like power, water and gas across the U.S.

When Bowman says "Thanks for delivering the boy John, we'll take it from here!" you just know he won't leave it alone and, when the terrorists try again to kill Matt, things start to get really hot and McClane goes into overdrive.

The Americans are calling this "Live Free or Die Hard"'; what a crap title for a movie! Anyway, that aside, you just know when a movie's going to be a good one. We'd just been for a curry and were feeling a bit overfed and bloated so were worried we'd doze off in the warm and dark cinema. Not a chance! Die hard 4.0 action gets going almost from the beginning and just doesn't stop for breath long enough.

Willis is on pretty good form and handles the violence and one-liners much as you'd expect. Justin Long is excellent as the poor little unsuspecting hacker, dropped into a scenario where people can actually get killed for real and not virtually. Mary Elizabeth Winstead also puts in a good show as his daughter Lucy.

The special effects are pretty good as well. How do you take out a helicopter with a car or get an F-35 fighter to take out a huge section of freeway? As ever the bad guys are crap shots and McClane systematically goes through the lot of them while getting ever nearer to Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), the arch villain of the piece.

Okay, as stated already, the plot is a bit thin and some of the things in it just wouldn't be possible. I mean how can a trained fighter pilot miss a huge truck more than twice with guided missiles and since when did a secure facility guard open the gate before asking what the bad guys were doing there. So, don't concentrate too much on the detail and just enjoy the romp. Popcorn movies don't come much better than this.

If you're a fan of action movies, then this is definitely worth checking out.

Genre: Action, Adventure, Thriller
My Rating: 8/10

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Bye Bye Orange!

I think I’ve finally decided to dump my Orange mobile phone as their coverage in the West coast area of Scotland is abysmal.

We're just back from a week in Morar and the only place I could get a signal from Orange was in Mallaig but I’d taken my T-Mobile work phone with me as well and it had no trouble getting a signal in Morar. I did a service scan and I could see both Vodafone and T-Mobile signals but they’re both unavailable to my Orange phone. Fair enough if I was out walking in the hills but Morar is a decent sized wee village with a train station.

We had the same problem last year on Skye and in Gairloch and Poolewe several years ago and frankly, it’s unacceptable. I could go almost anywhere abroad and get a service via roaming agreements but when I can’t make a call from my own country, it’s time to find a service provider with better coverage