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The Cockburn Family Recommends:






A long and strange film with a peculiar introduction and an ambitiously weird phenomenon near the end.

If you like to see a bunch of people struggling to cope with death, love and the ability to answer difficult quiz questions then this film is for you. There is a range of different characters, not all of them the kind of people they first appear, whose stories overlap as the day progresses. After much anguish and swearing some of the issues are resolved, though I defy anyone to work out who committed the murder by listening to the explanation of the young rap artist.

Official Magnolia Web Site

Favourite moments include Tom Cruise's seminar "Seduce and Destroy", the improbable erudition of "What Do Kids Know?" and the final out-of-the-blue freak weather which I shall not describe here. Suffice to say that Exodus 8:2 appears occasionally in the background.

reviewed by Paul Cockburn, 30th October 2000

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Are you the sort of person who, when reading a whodunit, cheats by checking the last page? Then this is the film for you. The first scene provides you with a murder and a killer. Ah, but what led up to it?

picture of Memento
video cover

The main character has the extraordinary disability of having no memory beyond the previous few minutes. He cannot recall the beginning of a conversation or even the name of who he is talking to except by constant reference to a series of instant photos with scribbled notes. The more important facts about his life are tattooed on his body. As a viewer you share the character's bewilderment, his sense of "What's going on here then?", because the action is presented scene by scene in reverse order. In other words, the story is told backwards. As you watch the events unfold you do not know what happened just beforehand.

An unusual film with an intricate plot. It took two viewings and one discussion for me to be satisfied that I'd grasped what really was going on. Excellent!

reviewed by Paul Cockburn, 10th August 2002

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Mystery Science Theatre 3000: The Movie

Have you ever watched a movie that is so bad that you are forced to add your own comments just to make it bearable?

(for short)

The basic premise of this movie (and the TV series of the same name) is that an evil scientist, Dr. Forrester, has shot a man, Mike Nelson, into space. He then forces Mike, along with two robots, Servo and Crowe, to watch appalling sci-fi B movies in an attempt to destroy their will. Mike and the robots survive the movies by adding their own witty dialogue and comments.

The movie they watch is "This Island Earth", a classic from Universal International Pictures ("Hey Mike, doesn't the fact that it's Universal make it International?"). A nuclear scientist named Cal Meacham is contacted by a bunch of aliens led by Exeter and Brack ("So Brack, is that Polish or ... well no, I guess it wouldn't be."). He is then taken back to the planet of Metaluma where they want him to work for them. The aliens are humans with white hair and oversized foreheads and their spaceship is clearly four inches long. True 50s sci-fi.

It's a very funny movie that will keep you laughing right until the end. They even add comments to the credits ("So, if you picked something up once you're considered a grip?") so don't leave to early.

reviewed by Nathanael Cockburn, 17th September 2002

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Run Lola Run
(German Title: Lola Rennt - subtitled in English)

Just 5 minutes into the film the stage has been set: Lola must find and deliver 100,000 Marks to her boyfriend, Manni, across town, IN JUST 20 MINUTES.

From this point on, the excitement never stops. The story is told in three ways, where small time differences in Lola's actions cause major changes to the course of events. The film is packed with style, imagination and clever interactions between the different characters, with some humorous moments and genuine surprises thrown in.

"Run Lola Run" is an exhilarating, original film.

Paul's two-penn'orth: I agree with all the above, but I wish to add that a large percentage of the film consists of Lola running.

reviewed by Hannah Cockburn, 5th November 2002

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The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

A kind of historical fantasy time-travel horror story which took me a while to really get into, but was worth reading through to the end.

Anubis Gates
 book cover

The plot ranges through Egyptian sorcery, poetry appreciation, gypsy superstition, a villainous Punch and Judy man, a ruthless tycoon, a hirsute serial killer and divers beggars from the Victorian underworld, with a hefty smattering of romance and time-travel thrown in. I sometimes shared the frustrations of the hero in wondering just what was going on, but by the last page all was nicely resolved. A very satisfying read.

reviewed by Paul Cockburn, 6th September 2002

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The Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold

Examine the fantasy and science fiction section of any bookshop and you cannot fail to notice shelves groaning under the weight of books by Pratchett and Tolkien. The real test of a bookshop's quality is how many books by Lois McMaster Bujold adorn the shelves. In most cases the answer is close to zero. And this is a great shame because the Vorkosigan series is of somewhat higher standard than most of the surrounding books. Don't take my word for it. Check out the current position in the list of top 100 fantasy and science fiction books. Furthermore, three books in the series won Hugo awards and another won a Nebula award. (Science Fiction fans don't need to be told that these are the top awards in the field.)

What's so good about these books? Basically a strong central character, Miles Vorkosigan, who is physically frail but mentally hyperactive. He inspires loyalty amongst friends, is prepared to tackle difficult decisions and sympathises with the troubles of others. Lois McMaster Bujold has created a believable world which can often be harsh and unfair. Politics and war cause needless suffering and the heroes have to muddle through as best as they can.

To be honest, the first book I read (Brothers in Arms) was basically OK but nothing special. It was the second book (A Civil Campaign) which really hooked me, partly because I had a greater grasp of the kind of people and places involved and partly because I really grew to care about what happened to the characters. Each book is supposedly self-contained so the series could be read in any order, but my experience is that it took a couple of books before I felt I really understood what was going on. Why not try one or two for yourself? (Click here for more details on the books in the series.)

reviewed by Paul Cockburn, 18th December 2002

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Paul's Desert Island Discs

One of my endearing foibles is that I tend to make lists, keep records and allocate scores. For example I have gradually set up a database of all my albums including marks representing how much I like them. I was careful to award the top mark to a mere eight albums on the basis that this is the number allowed on Desert Island Discs. For the record, these are the current top eight, in chronological order. (more info here)

Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon: 1973
Rick Wakeman: The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table: 1975
Manfred Mann's Earth Band: Angel Station: 1979
The Alan Parsons Project: Turn of a Friendly Card: 1980
The Moody Blues: Long Distance Voyager: 1981
The Alan Parsons Project: Eye in the Sky: 1982
Mike Batt: The Hunting of the Snark: 1986
The Divine Comedy: Cassanova: 1997

compiled 23rd September 2002

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Babylon 5

It may seem a bit pointless recommending a series which is no longer on television, but the first season is soon to come out on DVD, thereby giving everyone the chance to experience for themselves the greatest science fiction series ever. To be honest, the first season did contain some of the worst episodes and was the weakest of the five seasons, but if you are prepared to stick with the story to the end, you're in for a real treat.

Lurker's Guide
 to Babylon 5

What makes Babylon 5 stand out above all the other long running science fiction series? You've all seen at least one Star Trek episode, haven't you? The episode you saw was no doubt a self-contained story at the end of which everyone and everything on the Starship Enterprise was pretty much back to the way it was as the episode began. Not so with Babylon 5. Although many of the episodes, particularly in the earlier seasons, did feature a fairly self-contained story, the series as a whole formed a much grander five-year storyline. The mastermind behind Babylon 5 was a writer called J M Straczynski who concieved a plot which would develop over five years of life in a space station in the years 2258 to 2262.

So, for example, in the early episodes you think you have identified the bad guy and the character introduced for comic relief. But things change. One of them goes on to be a callous villain and the other goes on to be a downtrodden victim - and not respectively. Later one of them is a tragic victim of circumstances and the other is a war hero and religious icon. The changing relationship between the two ends with one killing the other. This was foretold in the very first episode, but the way it happens is not at all as you'd expect.

I do have some quibbles over the technology. Why are documents printed on transparent acetates? Wouldn't that make them much harder to read? And why does the comm link take two free hands to operate? (It is stuck on the back of one hand and must be answered by pushing a button with the other hand and then holding the first hand up to the mouth.) Wouldn't they have invented some hands free form of communication by the 23rd century? However, these are mere trivia which do not spoil a spectacular adventure.

My favourite moment? Too many to list, but one lump-in-the-throat moment comes in the very final episode, set some years after the main action. One of the key characters knows that this will be his last day of life. It has long been known that his body cannot sustain him beyond this point. He decides to visit some old haunts but first has to say goodbye to his wife. They decide not to make a big deal out of this final farewell and she watches him walk away down the corrider. At the far end of the corridor, just before he turns the corner, he pauses. This is the heart-wrenching moment. He just pauses for a moment, but does not turn around. Then he continues round the corner and she never sees him again. It may not sound a big deal when written down like this, but after 110 episodes it's a real tear-jerker. It gets me every time.

reviewed by Paul Cockburn, 12th October 2002

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Illuminati is a card game based around huge world conspiracies and secret societies. Each player plays a major power group (e.g. The Bermuda Triangle, The Gnomes of Zurich, The Shangri-la) and their aim is to create a power structure from a pool of influential groups (Wall Street, The C.I.A.) and some less influential groups (Trekkies, Health Food Stores).

It's a fun game and the power structures that are produced can be quite amusing (The Democrats answering directly to the Republicans, the Mafia being run by the Supreme Court). The most unlikely player can suddenly win though a quick series of strategic take-overs and a powerful player can be crippled by a coalition of other players.

A game for the paranoid, conspiracy nuts, and anyone who wants to rule the world.

Oh, and you get to destroy the I.R.S.

reviewed by Nathanael Cockburn, 17th September 2002

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Twelve billion, five hundred and thirty two million, five hundred and ninety thousand, one hundred and sixty-eight. They don't write numbers like that any more. Sounds boring doesn't it? Well you couldn't be more wrong!

Maybe you have previously come across the number 142857, which admittedly doesn't look terribly exciting until you multiply it by 2 and get the answer 285714. Looks slightly familiar? It ought to. The digits are the same and even the order of digits is the same in a kind of roundabout cyclic way. When you multiply 142857 by 3 you get 428571. Multiplying by 4 gives 571428, by 5 gives 714285 and by 6 gives 857142. Beginning to get excited? You ain't seen nothing yet.

Now the number 12532590168 has no real beauty to commend it, but just look what happens when you convert it to base 13. It becomes 12495BA837 (where the digit A represents ten and B represents eleven). Now multiply by two and you get 2495BA8371, by three and you get 3712495BA8 and so on and so forth up to multiplication by ten which gives BA83712495.

And if you don't find that amazing, you can paint me pink and call me Wilbur.

reviewed by Paul Cockburn, 30th October 2000

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