Favourite Children and Young Adult Books

Monday was International Literacy Day, so I decided I’d do a list of books that I loved as a kid, or as an adult but feel will work for kids.

It’s not an “all kids should read” list because I hate those things, as on the adult lists there are always books that I’ve never read or heard of, and some I’ve hated (hello Charles Dickens and James Joyce), so these are just my personal recommendations, and what, I might try and guide little Shane to check out.

I’ve done my top ten in vague order, and they’re a mixed bag, all are probably suitable for 7-8 years plus, but some are probably better off being left until they’re in their teens.

10. Harry Potter series by JK Rowling

JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series are incredibly well crafted adventure stories for kids and the first three in particular are fantastic reads. The later installments bloat a little but by then you’re hooked and Rowling crafts characters you really care about and a fantastic magical world. She should also be commended for making reading cool for a generation of kids and hopefully creating a lifelong love of books.

harry potter books

9. The Princess Diaries series by Meg Cabot

A teenage girl in the States is actually a Princess in Cabot’s series which are cringe inducingly hilarious. Princess Mia is a relatable, believable heroine and they’re incredibly entertaining quick reads.

8. The Diary of Anne Frank

Confession time. I haven’t read all of this book. I started to read it when I was probably at the wrong age, and Frank’s pre-hiding entries annoyed me. I suspect that this is more due to my own immaturity at the time, as opposed to any failing on her part. I think this book is important because seeing it through the eyes of a young girl is a good way to teach kids about history and ensure that the holocaust doesn’t fade with each passing generation.

7. Ultimate Spider-Man by various

In my early teens I discovered comics and while I’ve always been a reader I think they definitely helped cement reading as one of my major passions. Picking a comic for a young audience is tough, and with many having back stories that span decades and can be rather convoluted it’s hard to find an easy jumping on point.

However, Marvel’s Ultimate universe, which rebooted several heroes in a more contemporary, realistic (as realistic as heroes can get) world is probably the best place to start. It’s scrapped a lot of the back story and started afresh. For younger readers the best intro is Peter Parker as Spider-Man, because he’s close to their age and one of the more fun heroes.

The series has great moments and if it grabs them there’s always the other Ultimate titles and the original Marvel universe. And DC. Basically this is the gateway drug into comic book geekdom.

Wall crawling

Wall crawling

6. Anything by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman is genius. Pick any of his novels and go for it, his magical, clever fantasy novels are gems. My personal favourite is probably American Gods.

american gods

5. Anything by Terry Pratchett

Pratchett’s hilarious fantasy novels are amazingly complex and loaded with daft humour and sardonic asides. Some function better with older audiences who will get more of the references and allusions, but all are entertaining enough that even if some pass you by you’re still entertained. Start with the Truckers books before going on to the fantastic Discworld series.

4. Matilda/The Witches/Boy by Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl was a genius. His kids books are filled with grizzly detail and his greatest skill is that he never talks down to his audience. There are dark moments shot through but plenty of laughs too. I’ve narrowed it down to three- Matilda is Dahl at his most charming, while The Witches is full of creepy invention and suspense. His autobiography of his childhood, Boy, is also blessed with the same mix of charm and glee in the disgusting, and features some wonderful anecdotes.

3. The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins

In a dystopian future a young girl is forced into taking part in a violent gladiatorial contest against other teens. Through this she becomes a folk hero and rebellion figurehead. It’s high-tempo, action heavy stuff with a fantastic heroine in Katniss Everdeen and the third installment, which some have slated worked for me as it shows the murky, harsh reality of war. Fantastic stuff and all three parts have been reviewed on the blog before- 1, 2 and 3.

2. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green.

I wrote an in depth review here, but in summary, Green’s story of two teenage cancer patients who fall in love is heartbreaking and affecting, but still has enough bite and wit to avoid being excessively maudlin. But have some tissues ready.

the fault in our stars

1. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I studied this at GCSE level and it remains one of my favourite books of all time. Narrated through the eyes of a child who doesn’t always understand what’s going on, Lee’s only novel focuses on the simmering racial tensions in the Deep South in the 1930s, centred around the trial of a black man accused of rape. It’s dramatic, intense stuff at times but there is plenty of humour and in Atticus Finch, Lee creates one of 20th century literature’s greatest heroes- honest, fair and a fantastic father, it’s the kind of character everyone should be exposed to.

Peck as Atticus in the movie version

Peck as Atticus in the movie version

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


See you in the funny pages

It’s weird how you make a note of certain news stories to tell people you know, based on their interests. The other day my brother in law told me a story about comic books, because I love comics, similarly stories about movies and zombies are usually brought to my attention.

The story comes from Sheffield, where an art gallery has been hosting an exhibition called Heroes. One of the pieces is a papier-mache statue entitled “Paperboy” by artist Andrew Vickers.

paperboy

As you can see, Vickers used old comic books to make the statue, having found a stack of them in a skip. He salvaged them and used them to make his art, which is a pretty cool way of recycling, even if I’m still a little annoyed at the first person for dumping them in a skip. 

Vickers’ piece was on display when owner of local comic shop World of Superheroes, Steve Eyre was having a butcher’s. Suddenly, he recognized one of the comics being used. It was from the very first issue of the Avengers, from way back in 1963, when Earth’s Mightiest Heroes teamed up to fight Loki.

avengers1

Now, being a collector who actually owns the very same issue, Eyre knew that it was a pretty valuable comic, at around £10,000. But it got better/worse when he kept looking at the comics used to see if he recognized around six more rare issues and estimated that the comics used would’ve had a value of around £20,000. 

Well ain’t that a kick in the head?

Eyre told Vickers, because, well you’d want to see somebody’s face when they realized they’d just used £20,000 worth of stuff for something they could have done with about a tenner’s worth of books from their local comic book shop. 

Vickers is quoted as saying:

To be honest I’m shocked but money has not got such a value to me. I think it is funny.

And maybe he has had a laugh about it, but I guarantee his first thought was probably “Oh, Andy you daft twat!”

Still, great publicity for the exhibit I suppose. And it is rather interesting that a work of art is actually worth less than the materials used to make it. 

Story here.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Superheroes and Titillation: Breast cancer awareness

Okay, its the customary apology/ass covering time. I realize that breast cancer and cancer in general is a sensitive subject and I don’t intend to cause any upset or offence with what I’ve written and I apologize if any is caused.

I’ve been wanting to right about breast cancer awareness for a while now, because I saw something a few weeks back that I thought was worthy of mentioning, however, other stuff has distracted me and it was only when another breast cancer story came along that I decided I’d actually sit down to write this.

Here’s the thing, I get that breast cancer is a terrible disease to get. I can only imagine the severe distress being diagnosed with it must bring and the trials of the treatment which will follow. I appreciate that for many women its a condition that is awkward or embarrassing to discuss, and that there can often be an urge to bury their head in the sand, in a “what I don’t know can’t hurt me” kind of way.

Firstly, let me just say don’t do this, ladies. I get that no one wants to have their bits prodded by a stranger, but if it was me, I’d want to know, I think the constant doubts and worries would mess with my head a whole lot more than the actual condition in some ways. I know that it must be embarrassing to have to show your breasts to someone you don’t know well (believe me, I keep my mannaries under wraps as much as possible) but these are medical professionals, and their first priority and thought will be about your health and not “what a cracking pair!”

I also understand that there must be a great fear in women of the possible consequences and a concern about losing something which is so intrinsically linked to femininity, in the same way that I think all men fear that losing a testicle will somehow make them less of a man. It won’t. Liking Twilight definitely does though.

And this brings me to my dilemma regarding breast cancer awareness.

Of course I can see the benefits to it and am a massive supporter of it, because, as the saying goes, forewarned is forearmed. Women, and men, but more on that later, should know what to look out for and that at the same time further knowledge of the condition might lead to a reduction in embarrassment in seeking treatment. It’ll never go away completely because of the way breasts have been sexualised in our society, but hopefully it can be lessened and help more women receive treatment sooner.

And just for good measure, here’s a guide of how to check yourself out:

However, I can’t help feeling that in the awareness stakes breast cancer is pretty well known compared to other forms of the disease. I realize it effects large numbers of women every year, but perhaps the focus should be spread out more towards the other forms too.

For example, when I was at uni they had breast cancer nights, where you got a pound of entry if you wore an item of pink clothing and money was raised for breast cancer charities. It was a good idea, and one of several charities that benefited from my drinking. However, as far as I can remember breast cancer was the only cancer that regularly had its own nights.

I also remember that they put cherry Lambrini on offer for one of them because it was pink and it proved that nobody can drink that stuff in a masculine fashion. I also drunkenly discussed the self examination with a female friend and offered, in probably a sleazier way than I care to remember, to assist her in checking if she was okay.

They put the sentiment on a T-shirt, which walks the fine line between funny and sleazy.

But that’s just me.

Anyway, the reason I wanted to write originally was because while reading a comic the other week I stumbled across Marvel’s full page advert to raise awareness of male breast cancer. The story features two of Earth’s mightiest heroes, Captain America and Iron Man discussing the fact that Tony Stark has been distracted due to his concerns regarding his recent tests for breast cancer. Its a fairly basic one page ad but I think Marvel should be applauded for their efforts in raising awareness of the fact it occurs in men.

Being a guy who gets cancer must be quite tough, as it is something usually connected with women (of the 50,000 people diagnosed every year in the UK less than 400 are men, although you have to wonder how many guys don’t even bother checking themselves) and there’s still a high level of ignorance regarding male breast cancer, I mean, if Tony Stark doesn’t know about your average Joe probably doesn’t either.

As a man who has quite an impressive set of mannaries I can appreciate that you don’t want to draw any more attention to them and that they do make you feel a bit less manly. But that’s just me and my insecurities. I think people need to realize that breast cancer is nothing to do with gender and just a form of cancer that develops in the tissues that make up male and female chests. The thing is, in a way, while the term “breast” is anatomically correct it does bring with it connotations of women.

Marvel’s stance on breast cancer extends to female sufferers too, and they joined with DC in launching a campaign that encouraged self checking and featured four characters performing self checks, including She Hulk:

She Hulk was joined by Storm, Wonder Woman and Catwoman.

Now, I appreciate that breast cancer is unrelated to breast size, but surely if you’re going to use superheroines you’d, ahem, break out the big guns and go with Power Girl?

I don’t think I’ve legitimately had a reason to type “Power Girl boobs” into Google before

Anyway, I don’t mean to trivialize the issue although that is what a breast cancer ad campaign in Chile is being accused of doing. Its recent video, “Por Amos a las Tetas” (roughly translated as “for the love of boobs”) has come under fire, here’s the vid:

Some people have said that the video is sexist and pointless and despite its message to men of “if we like them so much we should take care of them” its been dismissed by many, saying that while men might, um, “enjoy” the video they’re unlikely to give any further thought to breast cancer. Which might be a fair point but at the same time, the video has got people talking about it and might work on some men as it might make them raise the issue with their partner.

So, while its an odd tactic to use I think its different and it has already raised awareness. And no, I’m not just supporting it because I quite liked watching it.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Say it ain’t so, Lance

Whatever happened to the heroes?

The Ultimate Warrior’s a right wing nutter, Hulk Hogan’s a bit of a douche, Slash used to get so drunk he’d wet the bed, Clint talked to an empty chair, Nick Clegg turning on his promises as soon as he got a slight taste of power, Cyclops killed Professor X.

I know that no one is ever going to be a perfect, Superman-style hero but it seems that increasingly people I admire are shown to be seriously flawed. Sometimes this doesn’t matter, you can set aside a moment of weakness or folly and still admire them, and occasionally the flaws are part of what makes me like them (Eric Cantona, Hunter S Thompson, The Punisher).

Recently the USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency) has published a report in which they’ve labeled cyclist Lance Armstrong a “serial cheat” and have stripped him of his titles.

Armstrong in happier times.

Its a disappointing end to the career of an athlete who I genuinely respected and admired. Armstrong’s autobiography It’s Not About the Bike is an inspiring and well written account of his struggles with cancer, his treatment and his return to his sport to win the Tour de France in 1999. In the book he came across as a tough, likable bloke who dealt with his illness with great strength of will and his overcoming of this to return to the top of his sport is truly inspiring.

He would go on to win the six more Tours, leading to an unprecedented 7 win streak.

Armstrong became one of my heroes, as well as a hero for people the world over.

So, how do I feel after this recent scandal? Well, a little disappointed, sure. Its a sad chapter in his career and I know that for many people its ruined his entire reputation.

But here’s the thing, even with this scandal I have a lot of respect for the man. It appears that the central issue in the current report comes from blood tests taken in 2009 and 2010. That’s four years after his last Tour de France victory.

Nothing was discovered following his victories, and the Tour de France has regular tests. So, while he may have cheated later on in his career, I can’t see any reason of stripping him of his titles.

The USADA seem to have gone all out after Armstrong, and I can’t help finding it all a bit petty. Attacking him for his entire career seems unfair, when there’s no evidence of any previous wrongdoing, like I said, if he’d cheated wouldn’t results have shown that earlier on?

I agree that for the season he was discovered cheating he should be disqualified, but taking away his previous achievements seems unfair. The USADA is going after cheats in sport, its not hunting down killers or bringing down organized crime, surely there must be a statute of limitations on its powers. A bit of perspective here, people!

Often when I watch the crime show Cold Case I find myself struggling to care about the mysteries, partly because of the annoying central character and poor writing on the show, but also because I find myself thinking “seriously, dude got killed 40 years ago, does it really matter whodunit?”

Also watching the pale faced moper at work I got the feeling she worked cold cases ‘cos she couldn’t hack the pressure of current homicides

And that’s my feeling here, its so far after his Tour de France victories what the hell can be gained from going after him like this? As far as most people are concerned, he won those 7 titles and if they are stripped from him will the people who finished second really get any satisfaction from being given the honours now? Probably not. Nobody wants to win that way, and also, they’re gonna know they didn’t really win them.

Also, I can’t help but thinking that this is more damaging than they imagine. By going after those Tour de France victories and his record, the USADA is risking destroying one of the most iconic and inspiring sporting figures of recent times, one can’t help feeling that in this case it might be better to “print the legend”.

Why not just let the case be? Prosecute for the events in 2009-10, and punish appropriately, then leave it at that. Mistakes or wrongdoing at one point doesn’t cancel out the successes and victories of the past. Especially with regards to drugs cheating, evidence of cheating at one point does not suggest an entire career of substance abuse, merely that as he aged Armstrong resorted to these wrongful methods, if no evidence was available in 2005 or previously then you can’t have a go at those successes. He might have been better then because he was younger.

So, yeah, I guess while I’m disappointed with Lance Armstrong it hasn’t changed how I view him. I still think he’s an inspirational cat, he’s a guy who came back from a massive adversity, returned to the top of his sport, appears in one of the best cameos ever (Dodgeball), raised millions for charity research and treatment, and he shacked up with Sheryl Crow.

Dude’s still a hero of mine.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Unloading the Brain Box: Life Stories, Learning and Leaps

Again these questions come courtesy of Plinky.

Name your top 3 pet peeves

  1. People who don’t say “thank you” when you hold the door for them. I mean, come on, its basic manners, people!
  2. When people say “of” when they mean “have” as in “I should of known”.
  3. The fact Marvel Comics go from one massive “event” story to another with very little down time in between them. Seriously, how are new or returning fans supposed to get back into it when it always seems to be going through some massive upheaval.

Seriously, this looked like it was probably awesome, but I’ve lost all track of the continuity

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning? The last thing you do before going to sleep at night?

Sad as this sounds, the first thing I do most mornings, unless I got somewhere to be, is reach for my iPod. This is mainly because its my clock but I’ll then usually check my e-mails, Facebook and Twitter. Yes, I’m that much of a social networking addict.

Before going to sleep I do the a little ritual I like to call the cramp dance. This basically involves bending each leg 8 times and then shaking my feet. I did this once because my leg was feeling a little stiff and didn’t cramp up, and since then its developed into a weird OCD thing that I have to do not just every night, but every time I get back into bed during the night.

If you could take a class on something for the next 2 months, what would it be?

I’d love to learn a martial art, karate or something, that’d be kinda cool to learn. Maybe even tai-chi because I hear that’s quite calming and stuff. But yeah, that’s what I’d like to learn.

Or cooking. I don’t really know how to cook much, so it might be nice to be able to cook a proper meal for myself. Probably healthier too.

Reality TV: Trash or treasure?

Oh, come on, its definitely trash.

But in the same way that some times all you want is an Indian takeaway or a burger, trashy things can sometimes be just what the doctor ordered, when you’re stressed out or over tired you just need something entirely vacuous to help you pass the time, and that’s when reality TV really shines.

And some of them are kind of entertaining, I got majorly addicted to Beauty & the Geek a few years back and I could watch the “Ink” shows all day. Also, I have a soft spot for Keeping Up With the Kardashians which, while incredibly moronic, is strangely addictive due to their frankly ludicrous lifestyle and the loud mouthed charms of the foxy Khloe Kardashian.

Khloe Kardashian posing for Peta

You’re writing your autobiography. What’s you’re opening line?

Depends how my life goes but here are a few possibilities:

  • “First of all, you’re welcome for that whole saving the world thing.”
  • “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start”
  • “Now, this is a story all about how my life got flipped-turned upside down”
  • “Once upon a time…”
  • “I am not a beautiful and unique snowflake.”
  • “As I sit here in my mansion in the hills and Rihanna is cooking our steaks, it feels a million lightyears from Swansea”
  • “Spoiler alert! I’m alive at the end of this book.”

Skydiving. Would you do it?

Hell, yes.

Annoyingly they don’t let you do it by yourself and I’m still too much of a chubster to do a tandem skydive.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Sick Day Movie Marathon

So, as mentioned on Monday I’ve been ill the last few days. I’m on the mend, but still a bit yukky so hoping that a full night’s sleep tonight will mean I’m good enough to return to work tomorrow. Anyway, to pass the time as I lay sniffling in bed I turned to LoveFilm (seems like I’m going to benefit from being a member) and had myself a movie marathon. I managed to get through four flicks in total and so here are my thoughts.

I kicked things off with a DC animated movie, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies. I love DC’s animated stuff, and this one was quite good fun.

Plot: Lex Luthor has become President of the USA, most of the heroes have signed up to work for the government, but Superman doesn’t trust his former enemy and Batman has suspicions too. When Superman is framed for killing a supervillain the two are forced to go on the run, and must try to expose Luthor as well as stopping a kryptonite asteroid from destroying the Earth.

Review: DC’s animated stuff is quite well done, and the voice cast here is pretty impressive, especially Kevin Conroy returning as the Dark Knight. The plot is quite good, even if it feels a little rushed in places and a bit more build up might have been nice.

The animation is visually striking, but the editing is sloppy and there’s far too many times when the characters stand there in silence at the start or end of a scene.

The only real mistake is the character of Power Girl as voiced by Allison Mack. I love PG, she’s a confident, strong female heroine but here she’s turned into a bit of a wet blanket and needs telling what to do. Its a real shame to waste such a good character and you kind of wonder if it would’ve been better to switch it to Super Girl, who’s more of a fit with the sidekick like role in proceedings. Of course, this could just be geeky nitpicking and me being a bit annoyed that one of my amazonian fantasy figures was transformed into a weak little girl who needed telling what to do.

Mishandled- Power Girl

However, there are nice touches and the interplay between the two title characters is done quite well. Verdict: 6/10.

My second flick featured costumed crimefighter, but couldn’t have been more different, ladies and gentlemen, Kick-Ass.

Plot: Awkward, geeky teenager Dave (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) decides to become a costumed vigilante despite having no skills or training. The only thing going for him is that all the punishment he’s received has deadened his nerve endings and pain receptors so he can take quite a pasting, and he soon becomes an internet sensation. However, he soon realizes he’s out of his depth after he is rescued by two tougher vigilantes Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and his 11 year old daughter Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), who are highly trained and vicious in their quest for justice on gangster D’Amico (Mark Strong).

D’Amico however thinks Kick-Ass is responsible for the death of his men and theft of his money and tries to bring him down, failing at every turn. His geeky son, Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) has an idea though and poses as a costumed hero himself, hoping to lure Kick-Ass into a trap, becoming Red Mist. As he realizes Kick-Ass is not their man it seems too late, the wheels are in motion and a showdown is on the cards.

Review: The film tidies up Mark Millar’s brutally dark and comic series, but its still a hard hitting, entertaining vigilante flick which manages to spoof the superhero genre while still delivering stunning action sequences.

The cast are phenomenal. Mark Strong is always good value and Cage reins it in for a lot of the flick playing the weird Big Daddy, a brutal Batman-like character who’s shown to have a geeky side and is often tender with his daughter, despite having transformed her into a ruthless killing machine.

ATJ is great as the endearingly naff wannabe hero, bringing a real loser charm to the role. Also, there are times when as a former geeky teenager his voice over and actions are painfully close to the truth. Kick-Ass has no skills and is at times a bit of a wimp, but there’s a naivety and desire to be a hero that makes him likable, and he refuses to stay down. He looks laughable in his makeshift costume and his fledgling romance with a classmate is handled extremely well and rather sweetly.

As the gangster’s son posing as a hero, Mintz-Plasse is rather good. He brings the geeky, awkward traits showed in Superbad and Role Models and its quite touching to see this shy, nerdy guy trying to please his tough guy father and earn his respect. He’s a sympathetic villain and works because he’s so similar to the hero.

The film however is stolen by Moretz as Hit Girl, the foul mouthed, incredibly brutal schoolgirl vigilante. It could’ve been a cheap gag or shock tactic, but Moretz delivers all of her lines with integrity and verve, and you just kind of go with it. There is a shocking side to seeing a child dish out all this violence and the climactic battle with D’Amico is a tad uncomfortable as he lays the smackdown on her. But I guess that’s the point. The film has tons of nice touches and great characters, but its Moretz’ Hit Girl who’ll stick in the mind longest.

Moretz as Hit Girl- Stealing the show

All in all its a funny, engaging and twisted little flick with great action sequences and a dark humour that I really dug. Verdict: 8/10

A massive shift in tone now as we move on to Larry Crowne, a rather sweet affair starring Tom Hanks, who also writes and directs.

Plot: Larry Crowne (Hanks) is a happy decent guy who works at a superstore and likes his job. However, due to not having any higher education he’s let go because he can’t advance any further. Faced with financial problems Larry decides to get an education, returning to college where he studies economics and speech. Having ditched his car for a scooter Larry is befriended by free spirited student Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who he’s a little smitten with. However, he also has a bit of a crush on his jaded, borderline alcoholic lecturer Mercedes (Julia Roberts).

Review: I liked this flick, but at the same time its riddled with flaws. Firstly, it kind of drops the ball on what could have been an interesting look at the challenges faced by the older generation in the economic crisis, with Larry having foregone formal education and served in the Navy for 20 years. Also, while Hanks is as charming as ever in the lead, you kind of wish Larry would get mad just once, instead he’s a laid back, affable bloke who aside from a bit of moping and awkwardness takes everything in his stride.

Julia Roberts does well as the fed up lecturer stuck in a loveless marriage who arrives at work each day hungover and tries to cancel as many lectures as she can. You know she’s going to end up with Larry and the fellow student is just a subplot, and it happens with inevitability rather than credibility.

Their romance feels rushed and half-baked, seriously there’s like one, maybe two scenes that we’re supposed to see as the foundation of a connection. In other hands this movie would tank badly, but the combined power of Hanks and Roberts means its still kinda sweet, even if it falls flat frequently. It could’ve been more interesting and a lot braver, so its disappointing that its quite so lacklustre, and the supporting cast are incredibly one dimensional, that being said, it does feature George Takei, which is worth a point. Verdict: 5/10.

Last up is Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm.

This rather generic poster makes the brothers look more heroic than it should.

Plot: In the 18th century, Will and Jake Grimm (Matt Damon and Heath Ledger) are travelling con artists who fake witches and demons and then get paid to vanquish them. However, they run into trouble with the French authorities that are occupying Germany, who expose their ruse and force them to travel to a remote town where the kids are being kidnapped and there is talk of witches, the idea being that the Grimms will expose the truth and restore order. However, when they get there they begin to witness things they can’t explain, and enlist the help of a local guide, Angelika (Lena Headey) who’s sisters have been taken. Could it be that there are really stranger things afoot here, and is it tied in with a local legend regarding a powerful and vain witch-Queen (Monica Bellucci)

Review: I love Terry Gilliam’s movies and this has a lot of his hallmarks- goofy humour and a love of the grotesque, dirty side of human life, with the characters spending a lot of time in the mud.

Damon and Ledger are both on fine form as the con-men brothers, with Damon shining as the swaggering, smoother leader and Ledger the one with qualms who wants fairytales to be real. They bicker with great effect and despite Damon’s Will occasionally bullying his younger sibling there’s genuine warmth between the two.

The pair are hopelessly out of their depths when faced with a real threat and Headey’s woodswoman has to take charge frequently.

Its not Gilliam’s best, and a few thoughts are left half finished and there’s a vibe of sloppiness around the edges, but that kind of adds to the charm. In a world of polished movies its nice to see Gilliam’s work retaining its rough edges and individuality. The special effects are rather good, and there’s a creepy vibe at times, you just wish he’d maybe taken a little longer putting it together, especially the backstory of the villainous queen. Verdict: 6/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Movie Review: Dredd

Are you alone as you sit down to read this? Have a look around just to be sure nobody’s around because I have a secret to share…Okay, ready?

I have a bit of a soft spot for the 1995 Sylvester Stallone movie Judge Dredd.

 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s nothing like the comics, horribly cheesy, features far too much Rob Schneider and is generally a bit naff. However, I’m a big Stallone fan and I can enjoy the film because I’ve completely divorced it from the source material.

Over 15 years later Dredd returns to the big screen, and the new film is a very different beast.

In a desolate, post-war future most of the world has been transformed into a desolate wasteland known as the Cursed Earth, mankind has withdrawn into immense, sprawling cities, chief among them Mega City One, which covers the North East corner of what used to be the USA. The city is made up of massive tower blocks that rise above the remnants of the old cities and towns, and due to the vast size  and sheer number of inhabitants (800 million) the city is a violent, crime riddled dystopia.

The law is enforced by the Judges, heavily armed cops who are able to dispense justice on the spot, serving as judge, jury and executioner . One of the best is Judge Dredd (Karl Urban), a tough, grizzled veteran who is charged with evaluating a rookie, Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), who effected by the residual radiation from the war has mutated to possess psychic abilities. Dredd is skeptical of how she’ll manage, but takes her out into the field.

They arrive at the scene of a grisly triple homicide at the Peach Trees block where they arrest a gang member responsible for the killings, Kay (Wood Harris), and plan to take him back to the hall of justice. Kay works for Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) a vicious gang leader who’s at the centre of a new drug sweeping the city, slo-mo, which makes time slow down for the user. She ordered the killing of the three men who represented a rival gang. On hearing that Kay is being taken for interrogation she locks the block down, sealing Dredd and Anderson within and ordering all gang members to take them out.

Heavily outnumbered, Dredd and Anderson need to find a way out, fight off the gang and bring Ma-Ma to justice, and begin to fight their way up the tower.

I really dug this film, at a little over 90 minutes its a very pacy, explosive action movie with a relatively simple plot reminiscent of this year’s The Raid. The film opens with a short voice over from Dredd that sets up the future world and then pitches us right into the action with a car chase as Dredd takes out a couple of perps. Then he meets Anderson, they go to the building and its not long before it all goes to hell for them. Its not a film that hangs about.

One of the things I really liked is that it comes a lot closer to capturing the tone of the comics, which was always a darkly humourous, hyper-violent and misanthropic vision of the future. Forget Mos Eisley, Mega City One is the ultimate hive of scum and villainy. The city is realized in a pretty cool way, rejecting some of the comics’ more OTT stylings and instead crafting a more realistic city where the towering blocks rise among the ruins of the old world (although I was disappointed that they didn’t follow the comic tradition of having blocks named after celebrities).

Mega City One

A similar attitude is taken to the look of the Judges and their gear, which is a more realistic version of the comics and ensures they avoid the campness of the Stallone flick. The iconic helmets remain (and Dredd’s stays on this time, fans will be happy to hear) but the rest of the gear is toned down a bit, the shoulder pads aren’t as impractically massive and the uniform is replaced with armour which makes sense given the situations the Judges find themselves in.

As the man himself Urban is well cast, he has physical presence and delivers Dredd’s lines in a suitably gruff, tough manner reminiscent of the character’s inspiration, Clint Eastwood. With half his face covered its a tough job to convey emotions, and Dredd is quite reserved but Urban manages in the way he shifts his jaw to hint at Dredd’s inner rage and struggles to control it, as well as delivering many of his lines with a dark, sardonic wit.

Physical presence- Urban as Dredd

Urban is good casting because while a fairly established actor is not a mega star who’s face would have to be revealed as was the case in ’95. He does a very good job, convincing as the hard as nails Judge and making the fascistic Dredd likable.

Urban is ably supported by Thirlby as Anderson. Thirlby’s slight frame and slightly elfin features lend her a sense of fragility that contrasts nicely with Dredd who at times appears to be a relentless force of nature. However, that’s not to say Anderson is some weak damsel-in-distress figure, as at times she shows real toughness and a hard streak within. She is however less comfortable and cold blooded than Dredd is when dispensing justice and is forced to meet the family of one perp she wastes.

Thirlby as Anderson

She’s a believable rookie, showing the skills she’s been taught but also the inexperience when called on to use them, and its easy to see why she impresses Dredd over the course of the film. She’s the audience’s entrance point into the world, someone who’s not so at ease with the killing and bloodshed as Dredd and raises interesting questions about the film’s hero as well. Was he once a hesitant rookie? Or was he always the ruthless lawman?

Her psychic abilities are a nice touch, she scans Dredd and there’s a hint that something lies beneath his rage and control, and it comes in handy throughout the film. It really helps develop her scenes with Kay, who attempts to rattle her by thinking of her sexually and in a darker way that isn’t revealed to the audience. Its also central to what I think is one of the film’s best, and most powerful scenes, where after Dredd roughs him up, Anderson takes over and psychically interrogates him. We get a brief glimpse of the discussion within his head, and just as it looks like Anderson is going to become a victim she flips it. The scene is slightly uncomfortable, but the filmmakers show good judgement in not showing us all of what happens in his head, just the real world consequences. Cutting back into the room to see a broken suspect and a steely, in control Anderson.

Thirlby is convincing in all aspects, as a shaky, unsure newcomer and the tough core that lies within.

As the villain, Headey is good value, making her Ma-Ma a grim, unstable and vindictive crime boss. She doesn’t get that much screen time but what she does get she uses extremely well, making Ma-Ma a vile, menacing villain.

Vile and menacing- Headey as Ma-Ma.

The film is shot wonderfully well, the slo-mo drug giving the director a chance to shoot these extremely slow, strangely beautiful sequences where water drops, glass shards and smoke swirl around slowly in an odd, dream-like way. The actions sequences have a real hardcore, gory edge to them and there are a couple of wince inducing moments, but its nice to see a film which doesn’t try and soften the blows. The violence here is brutal, real and utterly compelling.

I was a little miffed that I had to see it in 3D, but I must say that, while I’m still against the whole 3D thing, this was one of the better uses of it- the slo-mo sequences in particular benefited from it and for much of the film it wasn’t intrusive, which is nice.

Verdict: Urban does very well as the badass Judge and the interplay between the gruff veteran and the shaky rookie is largely well handled and peformed. The film’s world is wonderfully created, with the filmmakers respecting the source material without being shackled to it, allowing them to change things so they work better in a different medium. The simple plot works for the gruff, no-nonsense character and its extremely good fun, with hard hitting action sequences and some nice visuals. Would quite like to see the lawman return to the big screen again. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Fish Story

Right, I’m away for a couple of days so the next few posts have all been written earlier this week, so apologies if anything I say becomes cruel or insensitive due to unfolding events. Anyway, normal service should resume on Tuesday.

Its been a while since I last blogged about my pathetic love life, and not much has changed. On the recommendation of a friend I joined Plenty of Fish, an almost entirely free dating site and added my profile. I’ve exchanged messages with a couple of girls, one of which seems to have already fizzled out, but some more might actually lead to a proper date before they bin me.

Anyway, here are some thoughts I’ve had while internet dating:

Taglines

Taglines or whatever they call them, are the little one-liners you add that will go on your profile. They’re like a brief introduction and should be used to hook suitors. Maybe showcase what you’re looking for or what kind of person you are, but they prove to be a mixed bag.

Ideally they should just be short and sweet, and most are rather bland, but as ever there are some people who go the extra mile. I’ve seen a few funny ones (“The girl above me hates animals” and a curvy girl who described herself as a “forgetful bulimic”), cheekily cocky ones (If Carlsberg made women…) and some are just flat out cringe inducing, including one who actually wrote “Bella looking for her Edward“. A Twilight reference? Really? I’m out.

Hmm, sometimes it’s hard to know what image you want to use. Here’s option “A”:

Or there’s “B”:

Similarly, lay off the Mr Grey stuff, most blokes won’t have read the books, it’d be like me writing “Looking for my Ororo”, most people will just go, “you what?”. Although the ones who get it might actually be more like me.

Storm- the perfect woman?

Taken as read

Okay, ladies, I’m going to level with you- stop putting down that you hate liars/cheats/players. We know you do.

Nobody likes those people. We don’t need you to tell us that, we’ll assume its the case anyway.

And who’s it going to put off? Actual liars/cheats/players are just gonna go right ahead whereas all the other guys will wonder what kind of baggage you’re going to bring to the table.

So, from now on let’s just all assume everyone hates liars and players and leave it at that. Its like those “like this if your against child cruelty” things on Facebook. We don’t need to put it down because most of us are against it without having to express that thought. I doubt someone’s sitting there going- “Well, I was going to smack my kid around but it looks as though most of my Facebook friends might turn on me if I do”.

What’s in a name?

If you’re looking for a serious relationship maybe you should avoid going for something like “Sugartits” as your name, because, well, its gonna attract the wrong element.

Get on with it

Why do people insist on writing “never know what to put on things like this” at the start of their “about me” section. Its maddening. Come on, maybe its true but you don’t need to write it down. And is it really that tough? Its 2012, you probably have a Facebook profile, all you need to do is say what you’re like and what you’re looking for.

I mean, sure its always awkward walking the tightrope between trying to sell yourself and coming across as a bragging douche, but let’s all face it, there are harder things to write about, just jot down a few sentences and stop whinging.

Oy vey!

Actually saw someone who put on their profile the following statement:

Love music don’t have a pacific taste.

If I could’ve reached through the internet right then, I’d have pimp slapped her.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO


The Problem With Daleks: A Sort of Review of “Asylum of the Daleks”

Doctor Who returned last night and I sat down to watch it, but I have a confession to make.

I don’t really like Doctor Who.

Actually I’ll rephrase that, while I like the show, which often features some rather brilliant ideas (the creepy angel statues episode was one of the scariest TV shows I’ve ever seen) and some good characters (I quite like Amy and Rory, and I really dug River Song and Captain Jack), I have serious problems with the show and can’t see why some people rave about it. It doesn’t help that I find the character of the Doctor fairly uninteresting and a bit a of a tool.

Matt Smith as the Doctor- Bit of a tool

But, these are problems to go into at a later date, today I’m just going to focus on the Daleks.

Now, they featured in last night’s episode and if you haven’t seen it, be warned there are spoilers ahead.

The episode entitled Asylum of the Daleks, saw the Daleks lure the Doctor (Matt Smith) into a trap, along with snatching his companions Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill), who appeared to be about to divorce. The Daleks have developed freaky humanoid-Daleks, who look normal until the eye thingy pops out of their forehead. The Daleks, who are quite terrified of the Doctor need his help to go down to their “asylum” to stop whatever’s causing problems and risking releasing hundreds of insane Daleks into the universe.

They receive transmissions from a young woman named Oswin (Jenna-Louise Coleman), a quirky, wonderfully intelligent girl who’s crash landed on the planet and been stranded there for a year. She aids the trio, as they attempt to get there to deactivate the force field so the orbiting Daleks can destroy the planet. But Amy loses her protective bracelet gizmo that protects them from the “nanogenes” which start turning you into a Dalek puppet.

Amy and Rory reconcile, revealing the reasons for their split and the Doctor finds Oswin, who turns out to have been fully converted into a Dalek, but has managed to retain some humanity by retreating into a fantasy world where she survived alone in the ship. Heartbroken by this revelation Oswin lowers the force field, and erases the Doctor from the Daleks’ memory banks. The Doctor and his companions escape to the Dalek ship, the planet is destroyed and the Daleks have no memory of the Doctor, responding to him with “Doctor who?”

Amy and Rory return home, and a jubilant Doctor continues on his travels.

There were things I really dug about this episode- the idea of the Dalek asylum was inspired, and the battle scarred, demented Daleks were done quite well. Also, there was something creepy about them all standing apparently dead and then springing to life.

And I like that the Daleks are the only enemy that the Doctor hates. With others he’s always trying to give them a chance or the benefit of the doubt, but when confronted with these he’s fairly remorseless about killing them. Its the only time that the dark side they keep hinting at gets glimpsed.

I also really liked the character of Oswin, who was brilliantly sexy and flirty, and really charmed me. I liked that she was extremely clever and outdid the Doctor. Its a shame they killed her off, although given the whole time-travel thing maybe they can reintroduce her at a later date, or rather an earlier one.

Oswin.

I even quite liked the goofy comedy of Rory bumping into the reviving Dalek and not understanding it saying “Eggzzz” before it finally strung together the species’ catchphrase.

But it was riddled with problems- firstly, and this is something they’ve done regularly on the show, they showed their hand early thus spoiling the “big reveal”. As soon as the infected Amy saw the Daleks in human form I twigged that Oswin was going to turn out to be infected, and I’m not the quickest, so others may have gotten that even earlier on.

Also, the Amy-Rory soap opera felt a little tired and predictable, you knew they’d get back together. As sweet as the characters are and as good as Gillan and Darvill work together, I’m rather glad they’re due to be written out, because there’s nowhere left to go with them.

Finally, the Doc seems quite happy with the Daleks asking “Doctor who?” but wasn’t that the big, important question that caused so many problems in the previous series?

The other problem is my long standing issue with the Daleks.

The Daleks are the Doctor’s most iconic foe and a part of British pop culture, Kit Kat even used them in an advert back in the 90s.

But while they used to be the stuff of nightmares and a serious threat to the Doc they’ve become so watered down that all sense of menace is gone. The makers of the show have used them so often and had the Doctor defeat them with such apparent ease that his statement last night that they were one of “the most advanced warrior races in the universe” almost laughable.

Daleks- Not scary anymore

The show’s writers have managed to take the Whoniverse (I’m assuming that’s the term they use) equivalent of Lex Luthor, a major, serious, respectable arch-nemesis and turn them into an easily vanquished joke like Stilt Man (yes, I know I switched between DC and Marvel but I couldn’t think of a weak DC villain off the top of my head).

Stilt Man, probably moments away from the Punisher kicking his long-legged ass

And the ending, well, robbing them of their memory means they lost the only thing they really brought to the table- their history and mutual hatred with the Doctor grounded them and they fitted in with the writers’ desperate attempts to make us believe that Matt Smith’s character was once some fearful warrior when for the most part he comes across as an irritating children’s TV presenter.

In fact it makes them even less of a threat as now they don’t even have the inside track on his weaknesses and habits.

So, Doctor Who‘s back, and the first episode pretty much captured everything I like and dislike about the show. Good ideas created before the ball is dropped.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Keep it simple, stupid!: A post about gaming

I’ve recently bookmarked a site called Plinky which gives you daily prompts for blog topics, which will help me out because sometimes I struggle to find stuff to write about every day. Anyway, the prompt that I’m using today is:

What’s your all-time favourite video game?

Now, despite my utter geekiness, I’ve never been much of a gamer. I’ve never even owned a console of my own.

Sure, I’ve played a lot of games over the years, usually with friends, and there have been games I’ve loved playing like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Skyrim, Smackdown vs RawSuper Mario Land and Tiger Woods PGA Tour, which became a big part of my university life.

I have very little time for real golf, but at uni spent hours playing a computer game version.

There have even been games that I’ve gotten hopelessly addicted to, for example, Halo, which became an all encompassing obsession during my time at uni and remains the only game where I’ve completed multiple installments, getting as far as 3. I had a similar thing with Gears of War, which me and my buddy Ralph played through in a few days at uni, fuelled by Red Bull and Pringles.

The hero of Gears, the badass Marcus Fenix

But, for all the enjoyment I’ve got from playing these games, I’ve never seen why some people go insane over gaming. I’ve never understood the way gamers always try and justify their hobby, the highfalutin way they talk of plot and all the other gamer terms that are made to make it seem like a grown up, respectable way of spending your time.

Why is there this need to justify our hobbies? Or to make our pastimes seem more developed than they are?

I have the same feeling for the term “graphic novels” among some comic fans, yes there are some that are closer in structure to novels than traditional comics, but what is wrong with the term “comic books” or “comics”. I’m a comic book reader. I read comics. Comic book fans regularly lament that a large portion of the public still has a view of comics as something goofy and childish, although, surely, by now this can’t be true anymore. They complain that comics should be seen as a more respectable medium, but why should others give it respect when some of its own fans hide behind words designed to make it seem like something different.

If some comic fans are still uncomfortable saying that they read comic books then why should people respect them, when we don’t even respect them enough to be honest about our tastes?

Similarly with computer games, why do they have to be worthy and meaningful, and mature? Why can’t gaming fans just be honest? They love games because their fun, because they’re a way to unwind after work or to escape the day-to-day. That at some level it doesn’t boil down to anything more than just quite enjoying shooting aliens and monsters, because regardless of how they try to develop the plots that’s the real draw, its why people play Halo, its why we used to play Quake and its why before that we used to play Space Invaders.

We don’t have to explain ourselves, we should be free to just say that the reason we like the latest game is because its fun, it passes the time and it looks awesome when you blow some alien’s head off.

So, what is my all time favourite game? Well, its a game that doesn’t have much of a plot, in fact, there’s no plot at all. I’m talking about Tetris.

Tetris- still awesome.

Its an incredibly simple game, but the simple ideas are often the best and that’s why, despite being almost 30 years old is still something which anybody can play and everybody will get addicted to. Visually its not the best, but it doesn’t matter, the central idea is infuriatingly captivating and you don’t need much else.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.