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Why aren't there more games out there like this?
The Witcher is based on the series of fantasy novels by Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski, though the story in the game itself is an original one. The protagonist is Geralt of Rivia, a witcher, who from mutagenic potions and years of training is a tough and dedicated monster hunter. Thought to be dead, he mysteriously reappears near the witchers' stronghold, Caer Morhen, with severe memory loss.
The story is more mature than most with difficult decisions at every turn, usually with no 'right' choice, but one that seems to be the 'lesser of two evils.' The world Geralt inhabits is dark and realistic, with issues such terrorism, drugs, prostitution and ethnic cleansing being just some of the things he has to face. The consequences of your actions usually come back to haunt you at a later stage of the game. The world is nowhere near as large as in many other RPG's, which does feel a little restrictive, but also favours quality over quantity. The characters are well drawn and believable. People go about their daily lives around him, the villages and city bustling with activity. In content the world is very adult, with Geralt able to indulge in pleasures of the flesh with alarming regularity! You have relatively few options in character creation and development, which will put off some people. Personally I found it easier than trying to get to grips with the bewildering array of options of race, class, sub-class, proficiencies etc. that many RPG's give you to contend with at the start. There are still ways to tailor Geralt's skills to your preferred playing style by focussing on his swordsmanship or magic. Upgrades in the form of bronze, silver and gold talents are given on each level up to spend as you will, bearing in mind you will not be able to accumulate enough to specialise in everything. Geralt is the only playable character in the game so it limits re-playability and is also probably not the best choice for gamers who prefer party adventuring.
The engine is based on the one employed by Neverwinter Nights 2, but this feels considerably different, especially in terms of combat, where timing your attacks is crucial to defeat tougher opponents. There are 'strong,' 'fast' and 'group' styles which are used against enemies as appropriate to their own abilities. Geralt uses a steel sword against humans and the like, while his silver sword is far more effective against monsters. Magic is extremely simple to use and can be easily used in combination with physical attacks without slowing down the action.
Simply put, 'The Witcher' is one of the most entertaining, involving and original role-playing games seen on the market in quite some time. For fans of the novels, it captures their spirit excellently, and is well worth seeking out. It is also worth mentioning the soundtrack which is superb. I had some trouble with reliability playing under Vista, but not enough to serious affect my enjoyment.
Delightful Medieval Mystery Series
Cadfael is a medieval detective series set in mid-12th Century Shrewsbury against the backdrop of a devastating civil war. It is based on the entertaining and popular series of novels by Ellis Peters, the pseudonym of Edith Pargeter. The protagonist is a Benedictine monk, Brother Cadfael, the crusader-turned-herbalist at the monastery of St. Peter and St. Paul, who finds that the only way to get justice for the corpses that come under his care is to investigate the murders himself.
Many of the intricacies and sub-plots that brought such life to the source material are cut out to fit the stories into 75 minutes. Only 13 episodes of the 20 available books were filmed, which is a shame, although from reading the entire series I would say that arguably the best stories got through. The adaptations are good despite their limitations, but it is noticeable when the original (and superior) dialogue is used. The sets and costumes look great and the Hungarian location is a more than adequate substitute. The authenticity in the series is much higher than in most films set in the era.
The role of Brother Cadfael is played brilliantly by Sir Derek Jacobi, who delivers a performance that really brings out the different facets of the complex character of a former crusader and sailor who settles for a quiet life in a monastery. Though he was not the first choice for the role, it is hard to see how anyone could have improved upon his work except to perhaps bring out more of the Welshman in him. The support is mostly excellent, with actors such as Terence Hardiman, Julian Firth, Michael Culver etc. turning in memorable performances. It is a shame that they could not have had more consistent casting of law man Hugh Beringar and it is not just the actor that changed – he went from being a level-headed and intelligent man in the Sean Pertwee era to someone who believed in testing guilt by throwing the accused in a river during the Anthony Green phase! Unfortunately occasionally there is some unintentional hilarity from the poor dubbing of the Hungarian extras.
Cadfael is worth seeking out if for no other reason than because it is a refreshing change from the CSI-type mysteries that fill our screens, with a different setting and a focus on knowledge of human behaviour rather than forensics (though Cadfael is well ahead of his time in the latter discipline!).
Simon the Sorcerer (1993)
"Simon the Sorcerer" features the adventures of a teenage boy, who manages to enter a fantasy world courtesy of a spell-book he comes across in his attic. The premise is a little weak, starting you off without much in the way of instruction other than you somehow need to defeat the evil sorcerer Sordid. You are however allowed to explore a large portion of the map without having to solve any puzzles giving you greater freedom than most adventure games do. There are many colourful characters around (mainly from a wide variety of fairy tales) who need Simon's help and it is up to him to provide it. These include the Billy Goats Gruff, Rapunzel and even talking woodworm! The voice acting is excellent, with Simon's voice done by Chris Barrie (Red Dwarf).It is a pity that he did not return for any of the sequels.
The interface will seem remarkably familiar to anyone who has played any of the early LucasArts games such as "The Secret of Monkey Island," with various commands available to you such as "consume" and "wear." There are slightly more than you need as "use" could cover half the functions. You also start with a postcard for saving and loading your game and a map that neatly allows you to travel instantly to some of of the major locations you have previously visited such as crossroads. This makes it a lot easier to traverse the large landscape that varies from swamp, to forest, to frozen wasteland. The graphics, though VGA, are beautifully drawn and so pleasant to look at that it lends weight to the argument that 3D photo-realism is not necessary in adventure gaming. The environments are rich in detail and many contain background animation of squirrels, birds of prey, snakes etc. that add to the charm.
I am also impressed that patches are available on the AdventureSoft website to enable the game to be played on Windows XP/Vista, the kind of support that is so lacking on so many older games and makes them virtually unplayable today. Another reason to play this highly satisfying adventure that has aged surprisingly well.
Fields of Glory (1993)
Competent Napoleonic Battle Simulation Game
'Fields of Glory' by MicroProse is a strategy game which features the four historical battles that occurred in the 100 days campaign of 1815, namely Quatre Bras, Ligny, Wavre and Waterloo, but also adds two fictional battles that could have happened if history had taken a slightly different turn, Nivelles and Wagnele.
The battles take place in real time and are scored according to casualties and objectives completed like capturing key positions or dispatching troops off the map, e.g. at Wavre where the Prussians can be sent to reinforce Wellington at Waterloo. You get a top-down view that cannot be rotated, though the magnification can be changed to three different levels, with the middle being the most useful.
The lowest tactical level of unit that you control is a brigade for infantry and cavalry, and battery for the artillery. Any smaller and controlling 70,000 plus troops at once would have been unwieldy and impractical. The graphics are nothing special with pixellated, badly animated troops with one man representing about 70 or so in real terms. This does create impressive size armies on the battlefield that other strategy games rarely match.
Tactically, the enemy is not particularly astute, often doing nothing and leaving the initiative with the player. When the A.I. does launch attacks, it will usually pay little attention to the terrain, so that men and cannon get bogged down trying to cross a river while your artillery picks them off at leisure. This can get a little tiresome when playing as the allied forces (Anglo-Allied or Prussians) as you are on the defensive in all the battles. It is possible to change the course of history, though this is mainly due to the fact you can see the enemy positions and strength the latter ability is taken away however on increased difficulty settings.
You are rewarded for using the correct tactics i.e. infantry will have a much better defence against cavalry if they are in the square formation, and will inflict more musket casualties on enemy infantry if arrayed in line. There are some unrealistic features such as counter-battery fire which was rarely encouraged during the period for its lack of accuracy. In 'Fields of Glory,' one battery can easily rapidly wipe out another. As a resource about the 100 days campaign it is far more successful, with informative biographies of all the divisional commanders and above. It is an extremely well researched database that will be interesting for anyone keen on learning more about the period.
Carry on Quizzing (2006)
Good Carry On DVD Trivia Game
'Carry on Quizzing' is an entertaining DVD interactive quiz game. It is hosted by Richard O'Brien who is pretty good, though his connection to the long-running film series is tenuous at best (he was an uncredited extra in 'Carry on Cowboy'). His links are amusing and he displays the easy charisma that made him such a popular presenter of the 'Crystal Maze,' but it would have been better if there had been more links to make multiple plays more rewarding. In particular his 'round one' joke gets tiresome pretty quickly.
The game is divided up into four rounds of five questions each, though there is not much difference between each round as they are all a mixture of categories. At the end of every round you or your team move along the corridor in the Carry on 'Hall of Fame' to a picture of one of the films or the stars. This is a little confusing as there does not seem to be any reasoning behind the order. There are over 600 questions containing stills images, quotes, and short, classic clips from the film series. The difficulty of the questions ranges from very basic to extremely obscure ones that even dedicated fans are likely to struggle with. This is because they often ask about the careers of the actors and crew outside of the Carry Ons. The game is better for multiple plays than some of the other DVD quiz games I have played where there seem to be much fewer questions or at least bad technology that allows a number of the same ones to be asked practically every game. There is a single-player mode as well as a multi-player mode, both of which work well though the latter relies on people not peeking at which buttons on the remote control other players/teams press.
The game is not without problems however. For example there are some noticeable mistakes in some of the answers, so that the correct answer is deemed wrong. There are enough of these that I really think there should have been a greater amount of error-checking done before release as it is extremely annoying. It is difficult to play a game or two without at least one of these errors and therefore despite its many qualities I cannot recommend it unreservedly.
On Location: The Carry Ons (2001)
Interesting if flawed look back
Excellently presented by June Whitfield, the star of four "Carry On" films ("Nurse", "Girls", "Abroad," and "Columbus"), this documentary looks back at the places used for filming in the course of the series. It is included as an extra in the Region 2 DVD release of "Carry on Girls." It starts off well at probably the most photogenic building used, Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire which became "Château Neuf" in "Carry On Don't Lose Your Head," but most of the other locations are far less interesting and glamorous such as the wood store at Pinewood Studios. Eventually it mainly serves as an excuse to show extensive clips of the films themselves, often with little or no relevance to the location, particularly as many are clearly filmed entirely inside the studio itself.
It also includes some comment from the producer of all the films, Peter Rogers, who provides some insight into the making of the series, though fans will probably already know most of the trivia already.
Considering the furthest away the team travelled for filming was Mount Snowdon for "Carry on up the Khyber," and that most of the buildings used are within easy reach of Pinewood Studios it is disappointing that so very few locations are actually visited during the programme. Although there may have been some changes since shooting, many of the buildings such as churches and public houses must still be standing today and have some interesting stories to tell. Therefore overall it comes across as a little disappointing and could have been far better.
Decoding Cadfael (2008)
Enjoyable revisit of the medieval detective series
"Decoding Cadfael" is essentially a series of recent interviews of people who worked on the thirteen-episode series as well as detective story writers and archive footage of the late Edith Pargeter, who wrote the books under the pseudonym of Ellis Peters. Her biographer is also featured and helps fill in the details that the author cannot. This programme does well to avoid interviewing 'celebrity fans' that ruin most retrospectives with their banality. The interviewees all seem to have fond memories of the programme, especially Sir Derek Jacobi, who clearly regrets that the seven remaining novels were not filmed. The one jarring note is writer Bert Coules who for some reason seems to be championing Philip Madoc for the role, which though he was admittedly excellent in the BBC radio version (that Coules adapted), it is a bit late in the day to recast the title character when the series ended prematurely in 1996. It is good to see the likes of Terence Hardiman, Julian Firth and Michael Culver whose appearances on television are sadly few and far between of late.
The narration is by Sean Pertwee, who not only seems to do the voice-over for a remarkable percentage of UK television documentaries, but also starred as the first four episodes of the series as Hugh Beringar, before unfortunately leaving the series. For these reasons the commentary is in safe hands, although his script is unfortunately a little repetitive thanks to the apparent need to reiterate a sizable chunk after each advert break.
The documentary mainly covers the difficulties they had to get Cadfael made. Edith Pargeter had problems in even getting the books published until Umberto Eco's fantastic novel 'The Name of the Rose' was brought to the big screen and suddenly medieval fiction became popular. Delays then cost them Ian Holm as the sleuthing monk as being slow to start production meant that he took on other projects in the meantime. Though much of the material had been revealed in previous interviews it is still an entertaining fifty minutes or so for fans of a detective that seems to have been unfairly forgotten.
Kakushi ken oni no tsume (2004)
Moving tale concerning the last days of the Samurai
Director Yoji Yamada covers the same ground as with the masterful and Oscar-nominated Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibei, 2002) with a very similar story set in the mid 19th century Japan, showing how the rapid cultural changes were affecting the 'ordinary' people. Though seen by some as merely a remake of his earlier work, it is a great work in its own right.
The protagonist of the Hidden Blade is a low-caste samurai from a small village, Munezo Katagiri (a splendidly restrained performance by Masatoshi Nagase), who is in love with his servant Kie (Takako Matsu, also superb), but because of their relative difference in status he is unable to marry. He also comes under pressure from the chief retainer of the clan due to the fact his friend has been declared a traitor. Katagiri has to live with the knowledge that his father committed hara-kiri over a seemingly trivial matter to regain his honour, while the chief retainer demonstrates that he has little of this quality himself. This is against a backdrop of the Samurai converting to firearms and artillery despite the opposition of many to these as cowardly weapons. There are some humorous scenes of the clan retainers trying to get to grips with western military training such as drill and cannon firing.
The camera-work is simple and effective, completely lacking in the CGI that most modern filmmakers seem unfortunately unable to live without. The pacing of the story is beautifully done, so that the film, though long, never becomes dull despite the relative lack of action - there are only two fight scenes to speak of. This does not detract from the movie at all as this is about far more than simple carnage and reflects the fact that Katagari is reluctant to kill despite his skill with the sword. There is far more focus on the themes of love, revenge, duty and honour, and is all the better for it.
Gold Rush! (1988)
Entertaining and Informative 3rd Person Adventure
In "Gold Rush!" you play as Jerrod Wilson, a Brooklyn newspaper editor who receives a letter from his long-lost brother and must make his way to Sacramento in California in 1848, just before the great gold rush of 1849. What is remarkable in this game is that you are given three ways of getting to your destination, by ship around the Great Horn, by boat to Panama (then overland) or by stagecoach. This adds to the replay-ability factor and each of these has its own perils, such as scurvy, mosquitoes, Indian attack etc. many of which are random, so you have to follow the old Sierra principle of "Save early, save often" to avoid your adventure ending in disaster. This is a frustrating aspect of the game, as is the fact that many activities are timed. Too much time wasted in the early stages and your quest is over before it has begun, though it does have the effect of heightening the realism.
"Gold Rush!" was one of the last Sierra games to use the AGI (Adventure Game Interpreter) engine and uses it far more effectively than some of the earlier efforts. However it can still be a frustrating experience when you know what you want your character to do, but are unable to come up with the right words! The setting is one that is rarely explored and is more involving for that reason. The copy protection required getting the right word from the manual, which was extremely educational in learning about the fascinating history of the period, something that is missing from a lot of games these days.
Though the graphics are exceedingly dated due to the limitations of the technology available in 1988, there is a certain charm to them, particularly to nostalgia fans. If you are looking for a game that has a quality plot, with interesting characters and plenty of challenges you could do a lot worse than having a go at this.
Original and Fun
It was a fantastic idea to combine Lego and Star Wars into a single game. Though the target market is children, there is enough intelligence and humour in the game to attract adults - particularly helping their kids out in the simple to use co-operative play. It probably has a nostalgia appeal to those grownups who played with Lego in their youth. Using Lego also allows the game to look great without requiring ridiculously high specs for your computer and the original John Williams soundtrack in the background adds greatly to the general atmosphere.
The storyline follows roughly the plot of Episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, with 5-6 missions per episode, ranging from action/adventure to pod racing and space ship combat. This also includes boss fights with the likes of Darth Maul, Count Dooku, and General Greivous. Puzzles and obstacles are overcome by using the appropriate character for the situation, so that for example when the use of the Force is required you would use a Jedi character.
Though the single player campaign is relatively short, especially as you are only punished by dieing with a small loss of Lego studs (basically money) the game rewards multiple plays. It does this by giving rewards for getting enough studs in a level or finding all the 'minikits' that combine to build a vehicle, rewarding you with more studs that allow you to buy extra characters - there are 56 playable characters altogether, or giving you access to the bonus level. At its time of release there was also the added benefit of getting a sneak preview of some of the scenes in "Revenge of the Sith."
Overall a very enjoyable and fun game, though not without a few minor flaws that are greatly improved upon in Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy.
Jean de Florette (1986)
Wonderful Period Film
When Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil) returns from his military service between the two world wars he has a dream of growing carnations a scheme that his uncle Cesar/Le Papey (Yves Montard) quickly understands. However they soon realise that they need a great deal more water, a problem that can be solved by a spring that has long been forgotten in a neighbour's field. The neighbour dies and it is left to a hunchbacked tax collector Jean (Gerard Depardieu), who also has a dream to live as a farmer. As their dreams are not compatible, Ugolin and Cesar block up the spring and plot to rid themselves of their unwanted neighbour.
Director Claude Berri shows great skill in bringing the classic Marcel Pagnol novel to the big screen and does it without losing any of the integrity of the source material, making a masterpiece of cinema in the process. Having seen it for the first time some years ago as part of French class at school, it has not disappointed on repeated viewings.
The acting from all the cast is impeccable, especially the three leads, Yves Montard, Gerard Depardieu and Daniel Auteuil, whose names are not among the most famous in the history of French cinema for nothing. Casting Elisabeth Depardieu (at the time the wife of Gerard) in the role of Jean's wife adds something to the realism and Ernestine Mazurowna acquits herself admirably in her only film role to date as Jean's daughter.
The film acts as a beautifully observed study in human nature and morality. What I love about the book is that unlike the majority of fiction that labels actions in black or white, all through both parts of this drama there are shades of grey. Despicable though the actions of Papet are, he is working for the benefit of Ugolin rather than himself. Also, though most of the villagers appear to suspect that Papet and Ugolin have blocked up the spring, none seem willing to do anything about it and they just watch Jean on his way to his inevitable destruction, so the whole blame can not be left at the doorstep of the Soubeyrans. It is interesting how different the characters of the three leads are. Simple-minded Ugolin gradually loses patience and is corrupted by the far more intelligent and hard-hearted Papet into following his greed. Jean remains steadfast despite all the setbacks he faces, remaining good and ever optimistic despite his increasing troubles.
The decision to use Giuseppe Verdi's 'The Force of Destiny' as the title music is entirely apt, though makes more sense after the viewing of 'Manon des Sources.' The cinematography is also superb, making a stunning backdrop to the film and capturing the mood of the story perfectly. Though it is debatable as to whether or not this film or the sequel is superior, I prefer to think of them as two halves of a whole rather than two separate entities. Manon des Sources is pretty much required viewing for anyone who wants to get a fuller appreciation of 'Jean de Florette.' Cinema at its best.
A Time to Kill (1996)
Glossy legal thriller with a rotten core
"A Time To Kill" is based on the John Grisham novel - in Mississippi two drunken rednecks brutally rape and attempt to murder a young black girl. Her father, Carl Lee Hailey (Samuel L. Jackson) in his grief and anger shoots both men as they enter the courthouse for their pre-trial hearing and faces a trial that could lead to his execution if he is found guilty of their murder. An ambitious young lawyer, Jake Tyler Brigance (Matthew McConaughey) takes on his defence no matter what the cost to his family and friends who are under threat from the Klu Klux Klan.
The problem with the central premise is that Carl Lee Hailey guns down the two men before their trial so we don't know for certain they are going to get away with their terrible crime - and with the evidence against them it would be a racist jury indeed who found them innocent. This takes away a lot of the empathy for his plight as he clearly premeditates the killing and he is prepared to leave his family destitute if he receives life imprisonment or the death penalty. The only defence really offered is that it is racist to consider his actions unjustified, even though he manages to badly wound a police officer (leading to the amputation of his leg) - clearly an accident, but firing guns in crowded rooms is bound to cause that kind of mishap. The direction and editing do not help, with pointless scenes such as those that set to prove that Lee Hailey killed the men - a fact that wasn't in doubt. The handling of the whole racism issue is clumsily handled, as we are frequently told that the area is racist and yet they elected a black sheriff.
Brigance is hardly a sympathetic character either, spending the evening before the start of the biggest trial of his career getting drunk and flirting with one of his helpers while his wife is out of town. The cast of the film is hard to fault, with even minor roles portrayed by famous artists such as Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey, Donald and Kiefer Sutherland and Patrick McGoohan. This tends to be a distraction as very few of the supporting cast have much to do. There is a strong script and fine acting all round, though McConaughey in his breakthrough role is somewhat overshadowed by the rest of the starry cast. The script is strong, in particular the closing speech of the trial is very powerful as it describes in greater detail the full horror of the actions of the murdered men. However the script in the main is heavily biased towards a very specific agenda and is highly manipulative.
Overall the film left a bad taste in my mouth when the credits rolled as the message it seemed to be delivering was that it is okay to be a vigilante and anyone who thinks Lee Hailey deserved punishment for his actions is a racist. While I felt sorry for him and did not think he deserved the death penalty, allowing him to get away scot-free was going too far in my opinion. Not having read the novel I am unable to say where exactly the fault lies, but the cast despite their best efforts are unable to raise the material beyond its limitations.
Medieval II: Total War (2006)
Truly Epic Strategy Game
Medieval II: Total War was seen by some as a backward step since at first glance it appeared to be no more than an update of the original game, when a number of fans were eager to see another era covered. However the amount of new features more than justifies the decision by Creative Assembly. The graphics are a major improvement, and although a pretty decent system is needed to show them in their full glory, they can be really spectacular. The units themselves are richly detailed, showing upgrades on the battlefield such as better armour and the units are no longer the clones they were in Rome: Total War, with different faces, shields and helmets making up realistic-looking troops. The in-game videos of assassination attempts make a welcome return as you see your assassins more often than not bungling their sabotage/murder attempts and meeting a sticky end.
Just about the biggest innovation is that settlements can either be castles or cities, with their own set of soldier types and buildings. The castles also make less money and are harder to capture. This is a feature I really like since it means there is a greater scope for specialisation. The campaign map is also larger so that you can face the mighty invading armies of the Mongols and Timurids in the east and late on in the game there is even the possibility of invading the New World - though the Aztecs in your way are no pushover.
There are other units on the campaign map to take into consideration such as the merchants who you can position on resources shown on the map to add to your coffers. Heretics and witches appear in your lands and if not swiftly dealt with may bring down the horror of the Inquisition upon you. Indeed religion and and in particular the Pope plays a stronger role this time around, with him giving you missions if you are Catholic faction, and excommunicating you if you are disobedient or are aggressive to your Catholic neighbours. However the improved priest promotion system means that when the pope dies you have the chance to get your cardinals elected as his replacement if you have one.
The action takes place between roughly 1200 and 1500AD in the grand campaign and you are initially given the choice between only 5 factions (England, France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire and Venice), but meeting the victory conditions allows you to play one of the many other nations caught in the struggle, from the Moors in the southwest to the Russians in the northeast. Each faction has its own unique units and there are such a wide variety (over 250) that it takes a while to get to grips with each new one as they all have their strengths and weaknesses - such as the Danish who have great heavy infantry, but weak cavalry, or the French who have fantastic heavy cavalry, but suffer from weak infantry early on in the campaign. The main draw of the game is the real-time battles, which can be fought between thousands of troops, particularly if you are trying to defend your city from the Mongol hordes. The controls are relatively simple, particularly if you have played any of the other titles in the series.
The game is not without its flaws however and the AI and diplomacy system leave something to be desired. There are apparently a number of bugs, though I have been lucky to not have been troubled by them myself. There are also criticisms over some of the historical accuracy, but overall the developers have done a great job of balancing the history and fun game-play. Frustratingly there is still no option other than to auto-calculate naval battles, leaving the fate of your fleets to chance. Very much recommended to strategy game fans, particularly those who enjoy the micro-management aspects as much as the massive real-time battles.
Scars of Dracula (1970)
Among The Best Of The Dracula Series
Scars of Dracula, without a pre-sale agreement with the U.S. was therefore filmed on a low budget, and while this shows, it does not prevent this from being one of the most memorable and unfairly derided of the long-running vampire series.
Christopher Lee turns in an excellent performance as the Count, and has plenty of screen time and dialogue compared to "Dracula: Prince of Darkness" (1966), where the script was so woeful he refused to say any of it and ended up saying nothing at all. He is helped by an impressive supporting cast familiar to Hammer fans such as Patrick Troughton as Dracula's servant, and Michael Ripper as the local landlord. They outshine some of the main cast and give the film the depth it otherwise lacks. Director Roy Ward Baker has apparently said in interviews that Dennis Waterman was miscast, but he is really not too bad in his role as the more thoughtful and serious of two brothers (the other is played by Christopher Matthews).
The special effects are laughably poor as usual, especially the incredibly fake-looking bats on strings. Also it is not a good idea to look too closely into the plot, which is stretched and contains some noticeable holes. Unlike the other entries in the series, Scars of Dracula actually uses some scenes recognisable from the Bram Stoker novel, which is an improvement. The story holds few surprises for anyone who has seen any of the other films before as they tend to follow the same formula. Perhaps due to the era or the competition this film also features more sex and violence than most of the previous entries combined. The sets are quite impressive, as is the atmospheric score by James Bernard.
Though not the best of the Lee Dracula films, Scars is nonetheless an enjoyable watch, especially compared to the later efforts that showed a real decline in quality.
Sharpe's Siege (1996)
Exciting Entry in the Series
Sharpe's Siege is set against the backdrop of the beginning of the British invasion of France in 1813, towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars. With the classic Bernard Cornwell formula Major Sharpe (Sean Bean) has to face enemies both from his own side, this time in the shape of an incompetent young Colonel (Christopher Viliers) and from the French, led by General Calvet (Pierre Oliver) and his old adversary Major Pierre Ducos (Féodor Atkine).
After Sharpe's Regiment where the bulk of the action took place in England, this entry sees the welcome return of Philip Whitchurch as Captain Frederickson, one of the more colourful characters in the entire series. The guest stars in this entry are also memorable and well-acted.
Though not the best in the series this episode in particular has a great balance of drama, action and humour as the heroes have to overcome the odds yet again. There are also some interesting sub-plots including Harper's toothache and an outbreak of fever back at the British camp. The story has been changed somewhat from the Bernard Cornwell novel, but it is plain to see how sticking strictly to the original material would have put this production heavily over budget.
The fact that the characters are in France are a sad reminder that the series was drawing to a close, but there is still some way for Sharpe and Harper to march...
A Tribute to the Likely Lads (2002)
Pointless and Inane Remake
This is a pretty pointless remake of a classic episode of "Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads" - 'No Hiding Place,' first shown in 1973. In the same way that the Gus Van Sant remake of "Psycho" fails to capture anything of what makes the Hitchcock masterpiece great, this falls flat on its face trying to match up.
I suppose that the programme does work as a tribute to the Likely Lads as it shows how great the original really was, and what fine performances Rodney Bewes and James Bolam turned in - especially in comparison. It is also a sad reflection of the state of British television comedy today that the vastly overrated Ant and Dec are supposedly among its brightest stars.
Offering nothing new except bland delivery and worse acting, the programme comes across as a complete waste of money. Showing the original series would have been a better way of bringing the adventures of Bob and Terry to a new audience. It is nothing more than extremely lazy programming. Comedy fans avoid.
Appallingly Bad Christie Adaption
At first glimpse this adaption looked good with some atmospheric set and costume design combined with some excellent cinematography. Unfortunately these are about the only redeeming features in this mess.
The writer has included so many modern-isms it is a wonder they bothered to keep it as a period piece at all. Perhaps Mr MacRae simply couldn't be bothered to do any research into the period and just imagined he was writing an episode of British soap opera Eastenders? The real sign of laziness however is adding an old Nazi war criminal, the softest and most obvious of targets it seems as it won't offend anyone. Also putting in Louis Armstrong and yet another lesbian subplot for no apparent reason was hardly a masterstroke. If he wanted to change the story that much he could have made a completely original title instead of this clumsy rehash of the book (as was done with some success in the Margaret Rutherford films). This would probably have made the whole production a lot more enjoyable.
It was a big mistake to add in so many new characters as it becomes impossible to really care about any of them. Geraldine McEwan is even more ditsy and irritating than usual and is nearly superfluous when most of the detective work is done by Martine McCutcheon playing her customary and increasingly tiresome cockney sparrow routine as a hotel maid.It is surprising that these liberties were allowed to be taken with the plot and characters after hearing how much pressure was put on David Suchet's performance by Christie's descendants, when filming Poirot.
The background music is almost deafening and makes hearing the dialogue a real chore, especially in the first few scenes. How anyone with half a brain could fail to spot this in post-production I really don't know. It is a common failing in modern television to try and jazz everything up with a loud soundtrack.
Perhaps this series could be seen as lightweight Sunday evening entertainment and they are certainly nothing more. It is typical of the PC, dumbed-down television that we get in the UK. Purists will undoubtedly prefer the 1987 Hickson version, infinitely preferable to this nonsense.
Best of the Prequels, but still sadly lacking
Revenge of the Sith, the last entry in the long running series (we hope!) starts off well, with an epic space battle and a couple of nice comic moments with R2-D2. However it is not too long before everything turns sour and for mainly the same reasons as before. Please note that there are some major spoilers henceforth:- Firstly, unsurprisingly the script is woeful (yet again), making the dialogue in most soap operas look like Shakespeare. This in turn affects the acting as the players struggle to get any conviction across about what they are saying. This is particularly true of the romantic scenes between Anakin and Padme where the chemistry is so minimal that these moments are simply dull as in "Attack of the Clones." It is a pity that Christopher Lee, one of the better actors in the prequels and indeed the whole saga is on screen for such a short period of time, sidelined and killed off early on to make way for a weak robot/alien hybrid enemy General Greivous, another CGI character. Only Lee, Ewan MacGregor, Ian McDiarmid and Samuel L. Jackson really manage to rise above the material in any way.
The special effects are overdone again, but not so badly as the other prequels where there seemed to be a desperate need to fill the background with endless distracting visuals that detracted from the atmosphere rather than added to it. ILM can undeniably create some spectacular visuals, but there is still a lack of restraint in their use, something that has afflicted the film industry as a whole for some years now. Lightsaber fights make up some of the most memorable scenes in the saga, and there are more in Revenge of the Sith than in probably the other five films in the saga put together, but unfortunately quantity does not make up for quality. Most fights look like opponents just swinging their weapons as fast as possible in the hope of hitting something rather than using any genuine strategy not to be wondered at when half the combatants are CGI.
The pacing is poor and has been for all the prequels - compare the time-span of episodes I-III and IV-VI, and it helps explain why Revenge of The Sith is badly rushed, with so many characters killed off during the running time that it is difficult to care too much about any of them. Anakin's turn to the Dark Side is terribly executed and so easy that it makes you wonder how much goodness he had to start with if the threat of the loss of his wife in a dream causes him to betray all his friends and become a child murderer. There are also inconsistencies in the plot leading to the original trilogy such as the fact it takes the Emperor twenty years or so to get rid of the senate when it took only a fraction of that time to end the war and destroy almost the entire Jedi order. The tone is much darker even than "The Empire Strikes Back," the best entry in the series, and there is little of the familiar trademark humour than made the equally famous weak dialogue more forgivable. When I saw it in the cinema most of the audience laughs came from moments that were clearly not intended to be funny, such as Darth Vader's "Nooooooooooooooooooo!"
Overall, Revenge of the Sith is more exciting than the other prequels, has a more coherent storyline and in fact seems to have learnt from some of the mistakes from these, but not fully enough to really stand out as a much better film. On the other hand with these films there was little onus on George Lucas to correct these things as he knew that he could hardly fail to receive a massive profit no matter what he put out on screen due to the vast number of loyal Star Wars fans.
Murder by Decree (1979)
Engaging Take on Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper
Although hardly an original concept (for example James Hill's "A Study In Terror" (1965) which featured both Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper and even also had Frank Finlay as Inspector Lestrade), it is natural to cross the paths of the most famous fictional detective and the most infamous criminal of Victorian London.
There are some failings in this concept. Firstly, it being almost inconceivable that Holmes fails there is a need for a cover up since the perpetrator of the Whitechapel Murders was never caught, which leads to a plausible sounding solution that however very few academics credit - and for good reason.
Christopher Plummer makes an excellent Holmes, even if he is hampered by the fact that the great consulting detective is different from the book and other screen versions - even crying in one scene. This is likely to annoy purists though I felt it worked in this instance. There is precious little of the trademark Holmes dialogue or actions that are commonplace in the extremely long canon of films such as the inevitably massive list of deductions gleaned from a single room or even a single object. Plummer is ably matched by James Mason as Watson who effortlessly makes the character his own and making him more believable than the many caricatures over the years. Their double-act is the highlight of film as so many promising Holmes films have been weakened by poor casting in one of the two leads. Not many of the other characters have the chance to make much of an impression mainly due to their lack of screen time, though Genevieve Bujold and John Gielgud are notable exceptions, while Donald Sutherland feels a little out of place in his small role. It is no easy feat however to condense the vast amount of suspects and clues that surround the case and so this has to be forgiven in order to fit in all into about 2 hours, including the background plot of politics and corruption of the age.
The atmosphere is excellent, both in the cinematography of the streets wrapped in dense ever-present fog and the chilling score that maintain the tension of the film without resorting to the level of gore in some of the other versions of this story. "Murder by Decree" is definitely worth seeing for fans of the Arthur Conan Doyle mysteries and the mystery of Jack the Ripper.
Should Be So Much Better
On Breakfast the presenting is a little better than that in the regional news programmes, but not much. Interviews with politicians have to be left to Dermot Murnaghan, who if not actually grilling the MPs like Paxman still manages to show how they will avoid giving a straight answer if they possibly can. They manage to get an often varied and impressive list of guests. However sometimes this panders to the situation and many of the guests are 'experts' with rather dubious qualifications such as one medical expert who mispronounced testosterone several times in one sentence. The trouble (and it is not the fault of BBC Breakfast) is that most news in general these days is almost entirely based on hype and hyperbole, so that for example they have to bring in a doctor to reassure the viewers about the latest health scare that eating a apple a day will increase your risk of breast cancer or something equally ridiculous.
The way the news is chosen is interesting as at one point in July 2007 they managed to stick to floods in Britain that killed 4 people for almost the entire running time, while nearly completely ignoring a cyclone in Pakistan that left hundreds of thousands of people homeless. They seem quite happy to repeat the same lack of news every few minutes. When a car was discovered with a bomb inside this was literally the only information that they seemed to have available, along with about 20 seconds of footage that showed a policeman at the scene getting into his car and taking his hat off. This was shown a numerous amount of times throughout the morning and they featured a parade of terrorism experts and the like, none of whom could shed any light whatsoever on the situation or speculate to any degree with so little to go on. Completely pointless, much like the flood coverage which mainly featured various presenters standing around in a puddle every day for weeks while revealing little of interest about the situation.
Mostly BBC Breakfast seems to serve as advertising for other BBC programmes, with many interviews and features focusing on these, giving a biased version of how good these shows are. Some of it is a waste of time - for example having the failed candidates from 'The Apprentice,' who say barely anything they did not say on the extra show presented by Adrian Chiles the night before. Otherwise they seem to think that every viewer is fascinated to know how the latest winner from their musical reality shows is doing, hardly newsworthy. At least the bias means that they do not try to tell us how supposedly hilarious abysmal reality show 'Big Brother' was the night before like many other daytime programmes do ad nauseam.
On a good day, if there is a lot on in the news, this can be watchable and informative, the trouble is those days are few and far between, especially when celebrity gossip such as David Beckham's new hair style seems to be considered front page news. There have also been some improvements in the presenting line-up, giving it more consistency.
Overall though, when it is time to leave for work, you rarely feel like you might be missing something in the last hour worth seeing.
Mostly Excellent Adventure With Some Flaws
In Angel of Death, our hero George Stobbart has again fallen on hard times and is working in New York at a Bail Bond Office in a crummy neighbourhood. However his reputation is widespread and he suddenly finds in his office the mysterious and beautiful Anna Maria who has a job for him, but she has some men following her...
There are some definite improvements from the last adventure. The reliability is considerably better as it did not crash once on my PC, which is not something I can say about BS3. The puzzles are more varied and more logical, with less pushing of boxes to solve every other problem. The use of a PDA for hacking is an original feature that is entertaining if slightly over-used. The graphics look impressive throughout the game. The story is good if you can ignore the large plot holes that make motivation sometimes unclear.
There are some great wacky minor characters that outshine some of the repeated ones - it really is a small world when you come across some of the same people in every game no matter what the location. The most irritating point in this is when George states that he first met Duane Henderson in Quaramonte City (BS2 instead of Syria in BS1), when surely even the most casual of fans could have got this right. It just makes the game look a little rushed. Nico is again voiced by yet another actress - why is this when Rolf Saxon has remained as George throughout? At least the voice acting is almost universally good, with a large talented cast that means the characters all sound different and real - how many adventure games can claim that? The dry humour is still there in abundance as George has a mine of stories about his family and plenty of wisecracks even when in the toughest of situations, but probably the highlight is the hilarious "is it safe" dialogue, presumably inspired by the infamous dentistry scene from "Marathon Man." It would have been helpful if the designers could have added a way to skip dialogue as this can be annoying.
The camera is often a worse enemy than the main adversaries as it will quickly swing around especially when you reach doorways and can be a real pain if you are in a hurry. Control when going up and down stairs is almost impossible at times without using the keyboard.
BS4 may have its problems, but it is still streets ahead of most of its competitors who in the main can only come up with weak murder mystery adaptations based on Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle - a new Broken Sword game would still come near the top of my wish list, closely behind Gabriel Knight 4. Without spoiling the ending, it would be a shame to terminate the series here. With its globe-trotting nature, there are plenty of places and secrets to explore yet.
Fascinating And Chilling
Conspiracy - the story of a secret conference at Wannsee on the outskirts of Berlin in the winter of 1941 for the purpose of discussing the final solution to the 'Jewish Problem.' This is a gripping dramatisation based on what is known of the meeting from the sole surviving record.
Kenneth Branagh (who in my opinion unfairly missed out on winning best actor at the 2003 BAFTA awards) as Heydrich, Stanley Tucci as Eichmann and Colin Firth as Stuckart really stand out in a strong cast of mainly British actors who wisely fore-go the usual comedy German accents that would have greatly diminished the impact of what unfolds.
There is a sense at disbelief at the unfolding conversation - aside from the topic discussed this could be an ordinary company boardroom meeting discussing why profits are down for that quarter. Genocide is talked about when the next sentence is about the quality of the wine served. The obsession of the need to eradicate the Jews comes across as utter madness - especially when Heydrich calmly informing everyone how the murder of millions of Jews in gas chambers is to be brought about then minutes latter talks about how the adagio from 'String Quintet in C Major' by Franz Schubert will "tear your heart out." Simply inhuman. The arrogance is also appalling when the military situation was beginning to deteriorate rapidly with reverses on the Russian Front and the USA entering the war
Dr. Kritzinger(David Threlfall) is probably the most interesting character as he seems to be the most reasonable person at the meeting and thus the one the average viewer probably identifies themselves with. He wants no part of the horror about to be unleashed, but when challenged by Heydrich he has no choice but to acquiesce when told "you will answer now... or you will answer later." Essentially they are all told that their authority has been usurped by the SS and that they should be grateful for it, as they are relieving them "of a burden." It is easy to moralise, but what would most people do in the situation when taking a stand would mean dire personal consequences?
Many of others appear to take great pleasure in the proceedings, especially Martin Luther (Kevin McNally) who comes across as a petty bureaucrat but volunteers his services for the firing squads. Many of the others are similar in that they come from rival factions of the Nazi party all jostling for power.
At one stage Dr. Stuckart talks about it being a victory for the Jews if they are dehumanised, and I could not help thinking that this was also appropriate to the Nazis who are all too often depicted as grotesque caricatures with no resemblance to real human beings whereas the people portrayed here are too familiar for comfort. Like some other recent works such as the brilliant Downfall (2004) give a better insight into the minds of some of most evil men in recorded history. This is achieved mainly through the great acting and the inspired script that are even more effective than presenting the bare facts in a documentary would be.
The ending where the fate of all the men present is shown is disturbing as many of them virtually walked free, though those most culpable (Heydrich and Eichmann) met deservedly terrible ends - but it begs the question of where guilt for these crimes against humanity begins and ends. Truly thought-provoking television.
South at Six (1961)
No News A Speciality...
South Today has the unenviable task of trying to fill 30 minutes with the days events in the south region of England, which often is very little. Much of the 'news' reports are merely pre-empting - "next week a **** exhibition will open," "there will be a commemorative event about **** tomorrow," "what is going on this weekend" etc. and so the "Today" part of the title is downright misleading. I suppose I would prefer this to drive-by shootings and terrorist attacks in my area, but there really is not enough material to engage the viewers for even the whole half hour. I suspect that many like me simply use the programme as background noise for during cooking in the evening. It could easily be cut to 10 minutes and nothing important would be missed.
A lot of the presenting comes across as almost unprofessional, with Sally Taylor and Roger Johnson seemingly doing their best to fill as much of the programme as possible with their supposedly hilarious banter, made all the more inane by their laughing like hyenas at their own rubbish jokes. To be fair it does not help when a significant proportion of the outside broadcasts have the sound or picture failing so that they have to do something to cover the gap. Of all the presenters only Dani Sinha really comes across well as a serious newsreader and does a creditable job.
Another positive is that at least it manages to repeat itself less than Breakfast News which will happily repeat no news every couple of minutes for several hours. The programme is just another symptom of our apparent need to have the news immediately and constantly available no matter how little there is.
Beat the Burglar (2004)
Seen One, Seen Them All...
The concept for "Beat The Burglar" is that an ex-burglar (Mike Fraser) attempts to break into the houses of volunteers to put their home security (or lack of it) to the test. Then they look over the devastation caused by a burglary and make improvements to reduce the risk of it happening for real. Unfortunately most of the willing participants are of the type that think that putting the front door key under the mat or nearby flowerpot is highly original and safe, so that frequently it only takes the "burglar" seconds to make his entry before trashing the place looking for valuables.
The programme may help to shock some viewers into doing something about their security and so there is a beneficial side, as the participants often get extremely emotional as they watch on TV even though they know that it isn't for real. Coming back to a burgled house is a traumatic experience and any reduction in incidence is all to the good. The experiment is interesting as the 'victims' are often perplexed by the fact that the burglar would search the children's rooms, as though they somehow have a conscience about what do.
Sadly the show is extremely repetitive with very little difference between episodes. It would work in a one-off special type scenario, but fails badly in a series format as the method of entry and advice given is virtually the same every episode so that there is no incentive to watch more than one. Most of the advice is extremely obvious and commonsense in any case such as fitting burglar alarms, deadbolts to the doors, proper locks on the windows and gates etc. though it is dispensed like real pearls of wisdom. In some cases the measures/devices are already in place, but the owners are too lazy to use them thinking that it will never happen to them.
Watch one episodes if you are concerned about your home security. You will then have seen all you need to.
Dragons' Den (2005)
Superior If Flawed Reality Show
Dragon's Den is a welcome relief in the constant scheduling of the usual type of reality show where people generally people sit around whining and/or swearing for no apparent purpose. The idea is that contestants come to a panel of five 'dragons' (highly successful business people) with a project or concept that they hope to get some investment in. The programme focuses on the business pitch and the reaction of the 'dragons'. It is a strong concept, offering an insight into the way that companies start up and hopefully encourages talented individuals into taking the plunge and setting up for themselves, a class of people that the UK lacks at the moment.
However it keeps in the cruelty that the British are so fond of (how else could someone like Simon Cowell become so popular?). Much of the berating is deserved as some contenders try to get hundreds of thousands of pounds for a small fraction of their tiny company whilst being completely clueless about such simple things as their turnover or net profit, but it often comes across as arrogant rich people ridiculing the dreams of ambitious entrepreneurs. The ridiculous nature of some of the products suggests that either screening applicants was limited or they were let through just for the dubious entertainment value of 'the Dragons' making fun of them. The comments are often unnecessarily barbed instead of constructive, and while this is defended as 'cruel to be kind' frequently it sounds more like the panel are trying to outdo each other to get themselves on the trailer. Some of the panel appear a lot more helpful than others, like Richard Farleigh who usually had some good advice for the contestants who were unsuccessful, while Theo Paphitis comes across as the most shrewd of the bunch.
Apparently Peter Jones is leaving which is not much of a loss as recently he has seemed more interested in boosting his ego and trying to be funny than investing - shame he is about as amusing as a documentary about the Holocaust. Lately also the panel seems to be extremely cautious, almost always refusing to take on a project by themselves, instead trying to get a partnership with another Dragon, which takes away from their supposedly bold entrepreneurial nature. The programme has also declined in quality recently due to the editing which allows you to predict which ideas will get investment by the running order and removes most of the tension. The annoyingly insistent commentary by Evan Davis repeating the rules of show and everything that has just gone on in the show also detracts from the viewer's enjoyment.