Sunday, 26 July 2009

The Men from the Forest - part 1 of 3

When the men of Karletto look back on their lives, when they are just cobwebs clinging to a bed, they all remember their trial in the forest. They feel cold because they will never know that warmth again. That fever. A burning, as powerful as an earthquake and as dangerous as a demon confounded. It was locked away long ago.

You’ve probably passed through Karletto, you didn’t take any notice because, well, why would you? Just a small village, a way-station for travellers from the bustling metropolis of Jahrad, the southern port, on their way to Meerith-Tal, the capital of the nation, the shining jewel. And this village, just a link in the dull chain that connects these gems of life and interest. Just a small village, sat on the edge of Razor’s Whim, a dark-waste forest. You probably shivered when you looked up at the towering jet-ash trees, their dark branches clawing the sky.

Why would anyone live so close to such a forest? You thought to yourself. But then again, those who live here probably don’t have a choice. Despite your comfortable night in the inn, the hearty meal you enjoyed, you are shivering within your soul. You shrug this place off your shoulders and walk on.

Young Benjamin Thorn lives in the village of Karletto, and will for all his life. All he knows is the little wooden houses, the mill sitting astride the stream, the tavern, where people come and go, come and go. His face glows as he trots along the village’s only street, health in his legs, the strength of youth in this back. The grand old maids watch him, smiling as they sit in their doorways; sewing the magic threads onto the cloth of the scrolls they sell in the marketplace.

Sweet boy, they are saying, but behind their wrinkles and grey hair lies a fear. They know that if he catches one more snowflake he’ll be crushed under the weight of his own innocence.

Benjamin survived however, living a normal life until his fourteenth birthday. It is tradition in Karletto for the boys of this age to be sent out into the woods for three days and three nights, facing the elements, living in the wild. They would return as men, but none of them ever said why. Benjamin was actually the first youngster to take the trial. No-one knows why his father, a tall, rough man with eyes that flashed, blinking moonlight, decided to send his son into the forest. Some say he had made a bargain with dark powers, some say he thought the boy would benefit from the harsh life, and some say he doesn’t even know himself. But from that time onwards, all the boys from Karletto take the trail into the forest.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

"Would you like a bag with that?"

I must confess I've been slacking off a bit over the past few days. This was actually posted on Saturday, I think Blogger has done some magic with it and sent it back in time. I guess most writers must find the biggest problem to deal with is inspiration. You feel massively inspired one day and wish you had more time to write. And then the next day you'll have loads of free time and no passion at all, and spend the day watching reruns of Friends.

Lauren and I went across the rolling hills of the shire to visit her family in Devizes the other day. That makes it sound really far away, it's only fifteen minutes along the road. Lauren's little sister absolutely loves me. She's four (I think) and she used to cry when I went into the same room as her. That was a great first-impression when I met Lauren's Dad and step-Mum. "Hi I'm Sam, Lauren's boyfriend. Your daughter appears to think I'm the anti-christ." But after having to sit next to me in the car on a journey down to Portsmouth she's realised I'm not pure evil and loves me to bits.

It is tiring though, being a four year-old's best friend. Everytime we go over there I have to play a myriad of games, the favourite often being 'hide something then make the other person find it.' This time is was 'shopping' which I had to join in with. The game consisted of me buying a pile of books with those little plastic toy coins we all used to have, then I would become the shop keeper and sell them back to her. So essentially I had to do what I do at work over and over again for the pleasure of a child. Wait till she has a part-time job. Then I'll come in over and over again and she how she likes it!

When we had to go, Lauren's sister burst into tears. I didn't know whether she was genuinely upset that we were leaving or if she wasn't finished shopping and protesting about her transaction being left half-calculated. Anyway, she used to cry when I turned up, now she cries when I leave. I think that's better really, although if she didn't cry at all it would be perfect.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

A Life Thwarted

Oliver Mansell sat at his desk. It had become his desk over the years. Whenever he went to work he always sat in this spot, the furthest to the left, from the customer’s point of view. Not that he really cared. It would be a change to sit in one of the other two places. He didn’t ever get upset if a new staff member sat in ‘his’ seat, although someone would generally whisper quietly in their ear, and they would flush red, apologise and move aside to let him sit down. He didn’t really mind though.
It was a Wednesday, busier now that that phone company were doing the two-for-one deal on tickets. Relentlessly he checked codes on mobile phone screens, punched in the numbers on the computer, watched the little blue stubs pop up like toast from the slot in the counter, and handed them over to the customers. He watched them walk away, laughing, smiling, over to the food counter to buy over-priced sweets and watered-down soft drinks.
He repeated his task, almost establishing a rhythm in the jumping of the tickets, anticipating what film the customer desired to see. After working there for goodness knows how long he had acquired a certain amount of skill in guessing what the customer was there to watch. He would hover the mouse-pointer over the option he considered most likely, awaiting their answer. Some nights, when he was particularly bored, he would keep score for himself. 
As he watched the tickets arrive through the slot in the counter, Oliver remembered all those years back, how there had been something magical about the tickets appearing through the surface of the desk, as if mystically summoned or produced by tiny creatures in a miniscule factory. But now he’d had to check and change the ticket paper so many times, all the magic had gone, leaving him with the mundane reality that it was just a piece of machinery.
There were two other employees on the desk with him tonight, as it was busier than usual. Oliver had nicknames for everyone who he worked with, not that he ever used them to people’s faces. Furthest to the left from him was “Claudia Shuffle”, a stunning young blonde who scuffed her feet across the floor whenever she walked. In the middle, between himself and Miss Shuffle was “Jean Claude Van Dumb”, a muscle-bounded gym freak, who definitely had more brawn than brains, in Oliver’s opinion. They probably had nicknames for him, he thought. ‘Baldy-locks’ or ‘four-eyes’, something really original. He didn’t really care though.
“Oi, I sed two fuh James Bond.” Disturbed from his daydream, Oliver looked up to see a young lad and what must be his girlfriend, both clad from head to toe in neon sportswear, the boy wearing a baseball cap that slanted ridiculously off to the side. Oliver looked down at the “15” certificate for the film and back at the slouching teenagers.
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to see some ID or I won’t be able to let you into the movie.” Dripping with smugness, the couple both produced citizenship cards proving their ages, smirks daubed across their zit-filled faces as they took their tickets, muttering insults under their breath as they slunk away.  As there was no one else to serve at that point, Oliver turned back to peruse the computer screen.


Something struck him on the head. Shocked and confused, he looked down and saw that the projectile had been an unusually large chocolate-covered raisin. Looking over the pick-n-mix he saw the teenage couple, shuddering with repressed laughter, pretending they had been looking the other way the whole time. Red with embarrassment, Oliver looked around to see if anyone else had witnessed the incident. To his increased shame, his two colleagues on the desk were also trying not to chuckle.
“Are you alright?” managed Van Dumb, stifling a giggle. Oliver muttered something. Why didn’t he just get up, march over there, and order them off the premises? Why did he take this kind of abuse? He was so ashamed of himself, a thirty-seven year-old man, made an object of fun by puss-filled louts! But he didn’t get up, he stayed sat in his seat and let the rage subside and sink down inside him. The truth was, he didn’t really care.

The End

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Mistabishi - Drop - Review

Music by Jamie Pullen, produced by Jamie Pullen and published by Hospital Records.

When you were standing in the office, staring blankly at the sheets of A4 paper relentlessly dropping into the tray, did you feel musically inspired? Mistabishi did, and he didn’t stop there, producing probably one of the best drum and bass albums this year.

Making his debut on Hospital Records in the later part of 2007 with the piano-led rave ‘No Matter What’, Mistabishi quickly gained critical acclaim, in particular from radio one’s Zane Lowe, Jo Whiley and Annie Mac. Now returning with his first studio album, the drum and bass innovator has generated a rising band of followers and has been nominated for the ‘Best Newcomer Award’ at the Drum & Bass Arena Awards 2009.

I first discovered Mistabishi the same way most casual drum and bass enthusiasts would have done; through the radio one promotion of his tune ‘Printer Jam’. A wonderfully inventive piece of music employing the whirrings and chirps of an ancient printer, the story goes that the song was created when the artist knew he was facing job loss and wanted to make use of his last few days in the office. Therefore he took his recording equipment in and sampled the sounds for his music, using the sonic by-product of the machinery to produce a pounding drum and bass anthem.

Of course with a song like ‘Printer Jam’ there is the danger that people will either dismiss it as a gimmick, or be disappointed when the other Mistabishi tracks do not have exactly the same ethos and feel. The ‘true’ drum and bass fans would mock the mainstream interest as a fad and Mistabishi would remain a favourite only to a select few. But this would only be a danger if the rest of Mistabishi’s tracks did not deliver the same level of ingenuity and passion, which happily is not the case.

Although pigeonholed as a drum and bass artist, Mistabishi demonstrates that he is not bound by genre with the vast array of styles and influences found on Drop. There certainly is a powerful drum and bass presence throughout the album, but even within that aspect there are differing facets. The grimy and gritty tones and beats of tracks like ‘Printer Jam’ and ‘Damage’ are contrasted by the ethereal synths and chilled feel of ‘Heaven’s Sake’ and ‘The View From Nowhere’. Breaking from the drum and bass mould Mistabishi dabbles in dub-step with relentless grinding of ‘White Collar Grime’ and ‘Wipe Your Tears’, the latter of which features a clever windscreen wiper sample. The use of trance-style piano riffs pummelling over the rhythms of ‘No Matter What’ demonstrates that even with his first hit track, Mistabishi is not content to churn out the expected, throwing off conformity from any aspect of his music.

Mistabishi has been described as the ‘Tyler Durden’ of drum and bass, a description that Drop supports very well. Although there are relaxed, ambient areas of the music, the album is laced with an unnerving edge, the feeling of violence and feral energy beneath the surface, which sometimes breaks through. In the same way that Fight Club’s protagonist eschews the mainstream material conformity proscribed for society, Mistabishi’s music seems to suggest a search for alternate meanings in a world that has been sold short by the vendors of greed and selfishness. Creativity brought on by the financial collapse is definitely a motivating factor Mistabishi, with Drop as the call to leave your office cubicle and find something that actually matters.

The only thing I don’t particularly like about this album, and it’s only a tiny little flaw, is that it has one of those extensive final tracks, made up mostly of noise in this case. Hidden tracks and silent gaps really annoy me, right from the days when I used to listen to Korn and had to skip the first twelve tracks on their album Follow The Leader to get to the music. On a practical level it wastes space on your hard-drive and MP3 player, which is just frustrating unless you have software to remove the gaps. Not a big deal really, I just would rather it wasn’t there.

Mistabishi’s Drop will not disappoint hardcore drum and bass enthusiasts or those enticed by hearing ‘Printer Jam’ in the mainstream setting either. Full of interesting and varied styles, the album speaks an ethical message on greed and materialism but without preaching or condescending. A unified collection of catchy tunes, Drop will get you on your feet and dancing in no time.

If you like this, then try: Badmarsh&Shri, Bloc Party, Chase & Status, Enter Shikari, Faithless, High Contrast, DJ Hype, Innerpartysystem, Pendulum, The Prodigy.

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside... when it's not raining

It's nice to sit inside and watch the rain, warm and dry. It's not so nice knowing you've gotta go out in it in a short while.

I went to Bournemouth yesterday and was blessed with quite nice weather down by the sea, although it was a little bit cold and windy. I went with Lauren and my mates Matt and James, the latter of which frequents Bournemouth regularly as he is at Moorlands Bible College not far away. We stopped in there on the way back, which was interesting. James writes a blog about spiritual ponderings called 'Duffy's Deliberations'. It's in my favourite sites section, check it out.

Of course the reason we could go to Bournemouth was that Lauren's car is now back on the road after a year. She was a little nervous about driving again but got back into it really quickly. Just like riding a bike really.

Got a new review to post, which will be on shortly. Just got to cross the 't's and dot the lower-case 'j's.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - Review - RETRACTION

It has been brought to my attention that I posted some misinformation in my Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince review. While John Williams did work on the score of the film, it was Nicholas Hooper who was the composer. This has been corrected in the review.

Also I forgot to add the name of the actor playing the eleven year-old version of Tom Riddle, who was played by Hero Fiennes-Tiffin. This has also been ammended in the review.

Apologies for these mistakes, feel free to bring any others, be they grammatical, factual, nummerical, even if they're just opinions you don't agree with! Thank you for reading.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - Review

Directed by David Yates, starring Daniel Radcliff, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and Michael Gambon, written by Steve Kloves.

Brimming with darkness and gloom but also a surprising amount of clever comedy, the story of a young boy thrust into an extraordinary world of magic is back this summer, prompting an army excited youths and secretly excited adults to descend upon their local cinema to watch the latest instalment in the escapades of Harry Potter.

The film of the sixth book in J.K. Rowling’s best-selling series of young-adult fiction, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince follows its protagonist’s sixth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where dark deeds are afoot that will change the lives of not only the students at the magical academy, but those of the entire wizarding world, while we muggles (non-magic folk) don’t suspect a thing. As well as struggling with the normal pressures of teenage life Harry (Daniel Radcliff) must discover what his arch-rival Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) is up to in the upper regions of the castle, knowing that the schemes of the dark lord Voldemort must be involved.

It is not possible or sensible to go into too much detail involving the plot of The Half-Blood Prince, not just in the interest of avoiding spoiling the film for those not familiar with the story, but because so much happens throughout the narrative. Trimming the book’s mammoth story back to a more concise version seems to have been the focus of the film’s screenwriter Steve Kloves, making the plot rely heavily on the assumption that the viewer will have read the previous books in the series or at least watched the films. Although appearing slightly disjoined at points, I feel that the film’s plot rewards those who have invested themselves into the series, getting straight to the point and not covering old ground where possible.

As an adaptation of a novel it is inevitable that comparisons will be made between the original book and the film, the usual one being that the film ‘leaves too much out.’ It is rather short sighted to assume that the film should be completely faithful to the novel. David Yates’ task, which he excels at, was to identify the areas of the novel that were particularly cinematic and show them in a way that the book could not. It is an artistic obligation for the filmmakers involved to use their creative licence and knowledge of the Harry Potter universe to remould and add to the story, to heighten its effect as a piece of cinema. The scene in which Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) and Fenrir Greyback (Dave Legeno) attack the Weasley homestead is great example of Yates’ team putting their own touch to Rowling’s story in its conversion to film.

Much is often made of the Harry Potter books and films getting darker as the story progresses, maturing as its audience does. However The Half-Blood Prince achieves something more impressive than being a haunting tale for young adults; it is actually quite funny. The humour present in the film goes beyond the childish slapstick comedy that other films for youngsters would be content with (see the new Star Wars films for horrific examples), employing witty dialogue and perfect timing from the actors. The jokes and laughs work in unison with sinister elements of the story, enhancing the horror of the bloodthirsty curses and evil deeds within the story. However some punches are pulled in the regards to the inclusion of children in the audience, due to the film’s ‘12A’ certificate. For example, in the scene involving the destruction of a bridge in London by dark wizards, no one is visibly hurt, which seems quite unrealistic as the attack is proclaimed as causing a high death toll in the wizard newspaper ‘The Daily Prophet’. The harrowing finale of this section of the series has sparked controversy, being seen as downplayed and at worst unfaithful to the novel. These opinions aside, I see the close of The Half-Blood Prince as a way of sombrely setting the scene for the final two films, where there will be no shortage of battles and chaos.

After eight years working together on the Potter series, Radcliff, Watson and Grint have definitely gained a vast amount of experience as actors, demonstrated in this film. Possibly their strongest performance yet, the three young people playing Harry, Hermione and Ron work together excellently, showing genuine friendship and intense passion in their roles, although Radcliff still hasn’t learnt to smile without grimacing oddly. Also providing a sterling performance is Tom Felton, playing the troubled Draco Malfoy. Felton, who has a relatively small amount of screen time in the previous instalments, rises to the challenge of presenting us with an isolated youth tormented by the evil heritage he dare not disappoint. The all-star cast of British actors who make up the rest of the characters, including Michael Gambon as Professor Dumbledore and Jim Broadbent as Horace Slughorn, all deliver strong performances, and no less would be expected from them.

As with the other films in the Potter franchise, The Half-Blood Prince looks spectacular. The costumes conjure the alternate wizard world adeptly, as do the fantastic locations, especially the chilling Victorian-style orphanage where Professor Dumbledore meets the young Tom Riddle (Hero Fiennes-Tiffin), the future dark lord. Special note has to be given in regards to the Hogwarts School, sorrowfully shown in a way that foreshadows its death as a place of freedom and happiness, as Harry and his comrades will not return as students again after this chapter of the tale. The visual and special effects flawlessly depict the magic and wonder of the series, in particular during the Quidditch match, a sorely-missed aspect of the Potter universe which returns after not featuring in the previous three films.

As well as stunning visuals Nicholas Hooper's score floods the viewer’s ears with aural pleasure. The main theme present in all the Potter films has changed for this instalment, no longer mystical and enchanting but taking on a dark warlike feel, prophesying the epic battles to come in the two final films of the series. Playing on the right emotions at the appropriate time, the music is irrefutably one of the key elements in the film's success.

Aside from a couple of small niggling flaws and the unavoidable issues with plot, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a charming film (no pun intended) that takes the audience to the darker places of J.K. Rowling’s imaginary world. It will make you laugh, cry and definitely jump out if your seat at least once, and will make rereading the final book an irresistible idea in preparation of the final thrilling chapters of the franchise.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

The Prince and the Bridge - Chapter 6 of 6

Once again, the years passed on, as they have a habit of doing. The young man stayed with the girl and her father, working as a carpenter and woodcutter. His years living as a bridge had endowed him with a knowledge and love of working with wood and trees, allowing him to craft the most beautiful objects. Some people told stories that he could talk to the tree nymphs in the forest, asking them for their wood, and only taking when they allowed.

After patching up the girl's rickety and broken house the young man returned to the river and built a new bridge where he had once been imprisoned. He would sometimes go back to the water’s edge and look into the distance across the plains, travellers wondering why his piercing gaze was so steadfastly fixed on the royal palace. He provided for the girl and her father without asking for anything in return other than a room in their house and a place at their table.

As the girl and the young man got to know each other it was obvious to all the villagers that they were destined for one another, and very soon the young man announced that they were engaged to be married. The wedding was held in a leafy forest glade, and fairies flew amongst the trees, showering the delighted guests with sparkling dust that brought good fortune. The young man built a sturdy timber house for his wife and himself to live in, where they raised three children, two boys and a girl.

Time continued its unending march, the girl’s father died, and young couple became an old couple, grey and wizened, but still full of love. They never revealed the secret of the their meeting, treasuring the tale in their hearts. But somewhere, as children are tucked up in their beds, the story of a prince and a bridge may drift in the window, coaxing them into sweet sleep, and a happy ending.

The End

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

What a pretty boy

Firstly, I've got to give a massive shout-out to Stu Fenwick for my new blog logo. Stu, you're a legend! Here are the versions of the logo Stu made.

And this is the second slightly different one.

I love having talented friends! If anyone else wants to draw/paint a logo for me, feel free. I'll change my logo monthly or something like that, so they all get shown.

I'm off to the cinema tonight to watch Harry Potter: The Half-Blood Prince, and expecting it to be fantastic. I haven't reread the book on purpose because I think it's more enjoyable that way. I'm sure people will disagree, but I think that I'll just notice all the bits left out if I watch it after reading the book.

I bought a couple of albums yesterday, Drop by Mistabishi and Killswitch Engage's new album, which is self-titled (although they already have a self-titled album, which will make things confusing). So expect some reviews in the next few weeks.

Monday, 13 July 2009

"I love his face!"

I had a very interesting day yesterday. My mate's girlfriend was down to visit him from London and I found out that she thinks I'm hilarious, which I have no problem with, just another person to add to my army of fans. But I wasn't so impressed when finding out that the reason for her amusement in my presence is that she "loves my face!" Is that an insult shrouded in a compliment I detect? Oh well. I just think it's funny cos my girlfriend hates it when people laugh at me, she tells them off for 'encouraging' me.

Last night some of my friends came over and we spent 2 or 3 hours making music on my macbook. The song we made was horrifically funny, but I think you probably had to be there to enjoy it fully. I've realised though that I spent £130 on Logic Express software (which is really cool), thinking I would use it for my short-lived band, Helvetica Outbreak, and now all I use it for is to make comedy songs. So if anyone wants to record some songs or make some music, please feel free to make use of my expensive and hardly used music software!

The Prince and the Bridge - Chapter 5 of 6

As winter deepened, snow fell upon the land, turning the ground to a cold fluffy blanket. The prince grew wearier and weaker as he gave away more and more wood. As he creaked and groaned, he knew he would not last much longer. He had pondered this moment for a long time, and he knew what he would do. With one final grinding of stone and crunching of wood, he fell, down into the churning icy waters.

As the girl took her usual journey along the snowy road, she found the bridge destroyed, bits of stone and splinters of wood littering the riverbank and floating in the water. As the dismayed girl was wondering how to cross the river she noticed that on the ground, where the wood was normally piled, something lay in the snow. The girl knelt down and picked it up. It was a small wooden heart, ornately carved and polished, a thing of great beauty. It captivated the girl, causing her to forget everything else that could sway her attention. She knew that this gift was from her mysterious benefactor. Overcome, she began to cry, her tears melting the crisp snow. 
“The man who made this for me, he will be the one I love,” she uttered aloud. “There can be no other.” She brought the wooden heart to her lips and kissed it. 
With a flash of blinding light the heart flew out of the girl’s hands. Startled, she leaped back, falling to the ground. A bright mist surrounded the heart as it lay on the ground, so bright the girl had to close eyes and shield her face. Slowly, the mist began to fade, revealing the body of a young man, clad in green and brown. The girl watched in amazement as he rested on the white ground. As if waking from a deep sleep, his eyes opened and he breathed a deep breath. Frightened, but also curious, the girl crept over to the young man.
“W-who are you?” She stammered. Very slowly, the young man sat up, flakes of snow clinging to his thick brown hair. He looked deep into the girl’s eyes.
“I had a magic spell cast on me years ago, trapping me as the bridge that crossed the river,” he explained, the girl’s jaw dropping with wonder. “I was the one that gave you the wood, I hope it was enough.”
“It was more than enough”, said the girl in awe. “Our fire was always lit and we had so much I sold the extra pieces.” The young man took the girl’s small hand in his. 
“The wooden heart I made for you was the last piece of myself I could give. Your kiss must have broken the spell.” He bowed low before her. “I am forever in your service.” The girl blushed.
“You’ve done so much for me, your kindness kept my father and myself warm and happy. I am the one that is in your service. Would you come back to my house and let me make you a meal? That is, if you don’t have anywhere else to go?” The young man turned his piercing blue eyes back across the river, looking towards the city and the palace in the distance, shrouded in snowy fog. 
“No,” he said, turning back to the girl with a smile on his face. “It would be an honour.”

Saturday, 11 July 2009

The home delivery van beckons

I've got that sinking feeling when you know you're starting work in an hour. But on the plus side I'm going out for a curry tonight. Woop! Long live the Spice of Bengal, Calne's premiere Indian resturant and possibly the best resturant in the whole town... out of the four or five we have. Ah, life is hard living in the ghetto of the Shire.

Watched Bruno last night, might do a review for it, if I can be bothered. It wasn't amazing and I have no desire to ever watch it again. Not much else to say other than that. But it will be fun to do my first bad review, as all the others so far seem to be very positive.

I will leave you with a thought to ponder; when Obi Wan Kenobi said "if you strike me down I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine" to Darth Vader in Star wars: A New Hope, did he actually mean "I will be become more blue and see-through than you can possibly imagine?" Just a thought.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

I'm listening to The Mars Volta for the first time in ages...

... which has nothing to do with this post really. Just checking in. Apologies for the inconsistancy in my posts recently, I doubt anyone noticed but i try to post the new sections of my stories every four days. My tendency for perfectionism showing through. Or is it OCD? I don't particularly know (or care).

Anyway, I've been trying to infiltrate a terrorist stronghold off the coast of Alaska, and the genetic super-soldiers within said stronghold have been causing me some bother, preventing me from posting on my blog. Or, my internet wasn't working. Which ever is more believable.

Been replaying Final Fantasy VII, hence the classic review. That game never gets old! When the prospect of spending time leveling up is actually something you look forward to, you know you've got a good RPG. Or a dangerous obsession. I've just arrived at Cosmo Canyon, for the FF fans out there, and am about to take on the dreaded caves. Shouldn't be too hard though, my characters are pretty tough. I always level up Aeris primarily, cos otherwise you can't get all her limit breaks, before the second disk (for anyone who hasn't played the game, I won't spoil why that is).

I got a guidebook for FFVII a while ago, I don't use guidebooks on the first time with games but I like having it there on the second play through, just to find all the secrets and stuff. However, I wouldn't recommend this particular book, as it has some glaring errors and sloppy mistakes, e.g. claiming that it is impossible to unlock Aeris' final limit break before disk 2, which any FAQ worth its weight in gil (gold for non-FF freaks) will show to be a falsehood. So don't get the Bradygames guide for FFVII, save some money and find one online, there are tons of good ones. The Piggyback guides for the other FF games are much better on the other hand.

That's enough FF talk for one post I think. Here's a little challenge for you. I rang my grandma this evening and had a chat with her, and she really appreciated it. I don't wanna be patronising but I think older people deserve our interest and time, and I don't think they get enough of either. I'm speaking to myself as much as to anyone else. So your task is to ring/visit/write to your grandma/grandad/grandparents/random older person you know, and if you already do those things on a regular basis, well done! Let me know how it goes.

The Prince and the Bridge - Chapter 4 of 6

It was nearing winter, the trees were shedding their leafy coats, and frost lay upon the morning ground. The prince would have shivered if he could feel the chill, stretched out naked in the cold. Through the hazy mist he saw someone approaching the city, heading for his bridge. As the person drew nearer, he saw it was a young girl wearing a ragged blue cloak. The prince saw hundreds of girls cross over the bridge, but as he strained his gaze, he saw that this girl was unusually beautiful. Feelings not felt for so long stirred within him, the golden hair cascading onto her shoulders, her rosy cheeks, the way her cloak wrapped tightly round her small frame, staving off the cold, all enflamed the prince, his vision locked on the girl. She was his ideal visage of perfection. Then he saw her eyes, and was overcome by how much sadness lay within them.

Why should someone as beautiful as her be so sad? He pondered. He wished he could help her in some way, he wished he could turn her frown into a smile. As the girl crossed the bridge, a nobleman on a horse galloped past, thundering along the road.

"Please sir!" Cried the girl. The nobleman stopped, his horse rearing up.

"What do you want?" He asked, his frosty reception matching the weather.

"Can you spare a penny for a poor soul?" Begged the girl.

"Don’t you have a job?" Sneered the man.

"I go to the palace everyday for work but they often send me away," explained the girl. "My father is ill and we have no wood for a fire and no axe to chop any with."

"Not my problem," growled the nobleman, and with that, he spurred his horse and galloped away. The poor girl sighed and carried on her despondent journey to the city. The prince seethed with anger towards the rude nobleman, outraged that he only stopped to humiliate the young girl. Then, an idea struck him, a plan of how he could aid the beautiful peasant.

Every morning, if the girl returned with no work, the prince would pry some pieces of wood off himself and toss them up next to the river bank. To start with the girl was too scared to take the wood, afraid that someone else had dropped it and would return for it later. After a few days, when she realised no one else had taken the wood, the girl began to carry the pieces away with her. Everyday she looked a little happier, the prince’s heart bursting when he saw her beaming smile.

However, soon the bridge began to become less stable, wobbling and creaking as people crossed. Sometimes it would take all the prince’s effort not to fall into the rushing river below, as the travellers crossed over his back. People would say to each other,

"Someone really ought to fix this bridge, it’s getting very dangerous." But no one actually took the time to do the job. The prince still found bits and pieces of wood he could give to the girl. Every time she found a pile of wood waiting for her, the beautiful girl would gaze upwards, hands clasped, and say,

"I thank the gods for blessing me, please bless the soul who does this kindness unto me." Warmth would rush over the prince, filling his heart with love. He wished he could regain his human form, just to serve her forever.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Streets of Rage is amazing, but is it better than Mario Kart?

I'm at my friend's house watching my girlfriend play on the Wii. As stated above, I'm currently enjoying the garish colours and synth tones of a certain megadrive game that involves walking sideways and beating people up.

Went to my friend's wedding on Saturday, which was really nice, congrats John and Sophie. In contrast to last week (during which I worked constantly at my part-time job) I've got fairly few shifts this week, so I'm enjoying a bit of time off at the mo.

I've learnt today that compared to most other people in the world, I suck at Mario Kart. I swear that game is simultaneously the best, and most frustrating game ever. It's definitely the game that has caused the most arguments in my experience, because everyone who plays it has invested a large part of their childhood into it, therefore making a loss even more painful and humiliating. But on the flip-side, it's completely different when you win, even if it was all down to a random blue shell.

Hope the stories and reviews are being enjoyed by all, I'm currently writing a sci/fi noir story, will post it when it's finished.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

The Prince and the Bridge - Chapter 3 of 6

Years passed on, the lands changed, and the prince stayed on the bank of the river, trapped in wood and stone. Because he was no longer human, the prince did not age. He lived on as his parents grew old and died, succeeded by his brother. The people of the kingdom forgot their lost prince, although now and again someone might remark,
“Do you remember the lost prince?” Sparking conversation like a match amongst dry leaves. However, just as all fires eventually die, the discussions would fade, leaving the thought of the prince hidden in the recesses of memory and time.
After the prince was first transformed, he would passionately try to reveal his identity to anyone who crossed the bridge. He creaked him boards and ground his stones, sometimes trying so furiously he would almost throw himself into the river. 

After many despondent months, the prince ceased his efforts, residing himself to spending his whole existence as a bridge. He began to watch and listen to the people who passed over him. He learnt about the hard lives of the peasants, as they trudged over him, backs aching and hands sore. He also saw the nobility, some of which were his old friends and admirers from long ago. He saw how mean, spiteful and proud they could be. In them he saw himself, long ago, prancing and parading around the palace, rude and impetuous.
Was I really that self-centred? He thought. Was I really such an ignorant fool? The realisation that he would never be able to right any of the wrongs he had committed sank over him, engulfing him in sadness. He would never be able to live a truly noble life.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Public Enemies - Review

Directed by Michael Mann, starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale and Marion Cotillard, written by Ronan Bennett and Michael Mann.

As the block capital introduction appears in white on a black screen it is obvious that there could not have been a more appropriate time for Public Enemies to be released. Set in the 1930s, in an America crippled by the Great Depression, one cannot avoid seeing the parallels between that period and the worldwide recession being faced today.

The difference however, is that John Dillinger, the legendary bank-robber and anti-hero of the film, was a beloved crook, an icon that the public adored. Today there are no treasured thieves and swindlers, only reviled criminals. It is interesting to note that with in the week before this film was released the fraudster Bernard Madoff was sentenced to 150 years for defrauding investors of an estimated total of £40 billion. On the very day the film came out the ‘Great Train Robber’ Ronnie Biggs was denied parole by the British justice secretary Jack Straw. Financial crime is definitely not a romanticised act today; there are no modern Robin Hoods, only MPs abusing allowances and banks haemorrhaging money not as a result of robbery but after years of malpractice.

With historical films it is not the revelation that is important in the plot, as most people who watch the film will already know the outcome. What is important is how the story is told, which viewpoints are adopted. Public Enemies does a sterling job of dramatising the famous scenes of Dillinger’s criminal career, such as the jailbreak carried out through the use of a wooden gun blackened with shoe polish. But the film’s real narrative triumph is in showing the man behind the persona, a man desperately in love with life, but on a path that could only end in destruction. Although the film leans more towards sympathising with the lovable rogue, it does depict the other side of the coin faithfully and fairly, showing the frustrations of the FBI in attempting to capture Dillinger and his crew, especially that of Melvin Purvis, the agent in command of the mission.

There are many elements of Public Enemies that imbue it with a film noir feel, although I would hesitate to categorically definite it as such. Aspects like the film’s lighting, where faces divided by shadow and streets are dark chasms of gloom, the sometimes muffled, strained way the dialogue is slightly hidden in the mix, and the corruption and violence throughout, all glisten with the touch of noir. An interesting facet of the film is the idea of Dillinger as a ‘homme fatale’, a man who carries a curse, bringing death to all who associate with him. The 1930s setting certainly fits with the detective fiction that film noir originated from, a nod to this shown when a ‘True Detective’ magazine can briefly be seen in the film’s background. Although it may not be a full-blown film noir (a topic for those more qualified than I to discuss), Public Enemies certainly draws heavily from the noir style.

It is inevitable that Public Enemies will be compared with Michael Mann’s previous bank heist thriller, Heat (1995), in which master criminal Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) faces his nemesis in form of Los Angeles cop Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino). The classic diner face-off scene in Heat, in which the two opponents casually chat whilst engaging in mental warfare, is echoed in Public Enemies when Purvis meets the imprisoned Dillinger, Depp and Bale relishing the chance to lock horns almost as impressively as De Niro and Pacino. The leading duos in both films display a similar relationship of professional respect combined with an unquenchable desire to be the victor of their struggle. But by no means does Mann fall into the trap of rehashing his older film with different characters and new setting but essentially the same plot. Public Enemies is a progression from Heat, demonstrating Mann’s skills and passions in a new light.

In terms of casting the film boasts some of the best actors in the business at the moment, all playing with gusto and enthusiasm. It seems that no one else could have been chosen other than Depp to play Dillinger, who swaggers confidently and invokes empathy, leaping over the bank counters like he was born for this role. Bale also fills out his character perfectly, presenting a cold, troubled and driven Purvis. The sultry Marion Cotillard shimmers as Dillinger’s beloved, displaying an iron-willed woman wrapped in fragility. Also worthy of note are Billy Crudup’s media-obsessed J. Edgar Hoover and Stephen Graham as psychotic killer ‘Baby Face’ Nelson, both savouring their time on scene.

Even if Public Enemies were no more than the sum of its parts, it would still be a remarkable film. All the elements involved ooze painstaking professionalism and effort, from the flawless costumes and realistic sets to the rich sound effects, such as snare-drum crack of the trademark Thompson machine guns used by the criminals and their pursuers. The film’s music is chilling and emotive in equal measures, blending contemporary songs into the soundtrack perfectly. The cinematography doesn’t go easy on the audience, mixing conventional shots with those containing awkward angles and uneasy duration, making us work to take in the picture. The screenwriting also must have been of the highest quality to produce the film’s scenes and dialogue, which crackles with energy and wit.

Public enemies doesn’t necessarily tell us anything we don’t already know about John Dillinger. It doesn’t reveal any hidden secrets or conspiracy theories, of which I won’t go into in case I spoil the story for those who aren’t familiar with the history. What Mann does do is show us a love story between a doomed man and his chosen companion. The story of a man who would never give up, never be held or controlled.

If you like this, then try: Heat, No Country For Old Men, Road to Perdition, The Untouchables.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

The Landmark Reviews - Final Fantasy VII

Directed by Yoshinori Kitase, written by Yoshinori Kitase and Kazushige Nojima, developed by SquareSoft (now Square-Enix) and published by SCEE.

I have fond memories of sitting in a friend’s living room when the advert for this video game came on the television, memories of not quite knowing what Final Fantasy was, but knowing that I had to play it. I remember renting a copy from the local video shop, firing up the old PS1 and sitting enthralled for hour after fantastic hour, dreading when I would have to hand the game back in! From that day, my fate was sealed. I was, and still am, doomed to be a Final Fantasy addict.

The Final Fantasy video game series began back in 1987, when the first instalment was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, console. Square-Enix was at that time known as Square, Enix dominating the RPG market with their Dragon Quest series. Final Fantasy I was Square’s first foray into the role-playing games, bursting onto the scene with ground-breaking graphics, story and game play, paving the way for eleven sequels (so far) and probably just as many spin-offs and related games. But the best of these, in my opinion, has to be Final Fantasy VII, released in 1997 on the Playstation 1.

When I first played FFVII I had never played a RPG and didn’t really know what to expect. It made sense that I would enjoy this type of game, as I had been a fan of the Fighting Fantasy adventure books by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, which contained the core elements of role-playing entertainment. From my childhood through to teens, I gorged myself on anything fantasy or science fiction, from books to films, and eventually games when my brother bought our first console, so the settings of the Final Fantasy games appealed to me instinctively.

FFVII is set in an alternate Earth of the future, where the corrupt and greedy mega-corporation Shinra Inc. rules the world with the iron fist of totalitarianism. Their mako reactors are sucking the Earth dry of its life force, polluting the atmosphere and killing the planet. Enter AVALANCHE, the eco-terrorist group led by the hot-headed and gun-armed Barrett, who is intent on crippling Shinra’s energy supply. But what secrets lurk in the dark past of Cloud, AVALANCHE’s gruff mercenary companion and former Shinra elite warrior. And who is the shadowy figure Sephiroth, Cloud’s mentor turned rogue who disappeared years ago, following an ancient myth that could spell destruction for the entire planet. More importantly, will Cloud ever choose between the high kicking bar maid Tifa or the mysterious flower girl Aeris?

Of course the plot summary above could never do justice to the enormity of FFVII’s plot, which spans three disks and includes a plethora of themes and tales. Each character has a story arc of their own, from the spy turned double agent Cait Sith (who happens to be a stuffed toy controlled by a Shinra official) to the foul-mouthed pilot Cid, full of bitterness at being thwarted in his lofty dreams of travelling into space. FFVII deals with the weighty issues of death, loss, war, pollution, self-discovery, religion, science, genetic experimentation, and of course the most important issue of all, love. The story will pull at your heart strings and even bring a tear to your eye at points, pushing the boundaries for how emotive and involving a video game can be.

Looking at the game by today’s standards, the visuals of FFVII have obviously aged and become obsolete. But when first released it took the capabilities of the Playstation as far as they could go, presenting the player with incredible graphics, from the painstakingly crafted backdrops to the manga-inspired character models. The game’s settings are spectacularly designed, ranging from the techno-slums of the metropolis Midgar to quaint villages and ancient temples spread across an enchanting and vast world. Not only that but the images and animations involved were iconic and instantly memorable, such as Cloud’s giant sword and spiky yellow hair, or the breathtaking summon animations and cut-scenes throughout. In short, it was one of the most beautiful games of its time.

Trying to summarise the game play of FFVII in a paragraph is like trying to contain the ocean in bathtub. In addition to the flawless core mechanics the video game boasts a host engaging and detailed side-quests and mini-games. The battle system of FFVII is a masterpiece, smoothly combining speed and intensity with micro-management elements and an abundance of attacks and skills. The fabulous ‘materia’ magic scheme is a joy to use and has the added bonus of being an inherent part of the overall story. The ‘Limit Break’ special attacks for each character are great fun and look fantastic. Enemies vary from tiny and easily dispatched rodents and insects, to the scene-filling behemoth bosses, ranging from massive gun-totting robots to fire-spewing dragons. But it’s not just about the fighting in FFVII. Fiendish puzzles, parallel storylines, hectic mini-games such as snowboarding and motorbike riding, military strategy and even animal breeding, are all elements of the hours of fun to be had.

The music of Nobuo Uematsu, found in most of the Final Fantasy games, deserves special mention in regards to FFVII. The game’s score is almost a character in its own right, expressing the depth of the emotion displayed throughout the story. Uplifting and energising at one point, then swiftly changing to dark and chilling, Uematsu provides the perfect aural backdrop for the perfect video game. In particular, ‘Aeris’ Theme’ is probably one of my favourite pieces of music ever, powerfully sorrowful and gently commanding. For those interested in Uematsu’s music, have a look for the Final Fantasy Piano Collections and also the two albums by Uematsu’s progressive metal band, The Black Mages.

One of the great things about the Final Fantasy series is that although almost all the games are not linked by storyline, they share common themes that are reworked for each new addition to the canon. FFVII contains the familiar appearances of moogles, chocobos, airships, the ever-present Cid (in a new guise of course); the mighty summon creatures and powerful magic spells such as ‘Ultima’ and ‘Flare’. These elements make FFVII instantly recognisable as part of the series, but also show how the developers at Square-Enix are never content to use the same tried-and-tested formula, constantly reworking and innovating.

It is easily understandable that I will have missed out certain things that I could have highlighted in regards to FFVII’s greatness. And that’s where you, the reader come in. As part of the Landmark Review series I would like the fans of each classic to add to this review in the comments section. Let me know what you think I’ve missed out, or what your favourite thing about this game is. In short, Final Fantasy VII not only changed the way video games and RPGs were made with its innovations and breakthroughs, but also changed the lives of millions of people across the world. Long live AVALANCHE!

If you like this, then try: Dragon Quest, any other Final Fantasy game, Kingdom Hearts, Rogue Galaxy, Star Ocean, Vagrant Story.