Review: “Nefertiti” By Michelle Moran (Novel)

A few days before writing this review, I happened to see two documentaries about ancient Egypt. And, since I was in a bit of an “ancient Egypt” kind of mood afterwards, I remembered that I had a second-hand copy of Michelle Moran’s 2007 novel “Nefertiti” that a relative had given me several years ago.

So, let’s take a look at “Nefertiti”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2008 Quercus (UK) paperback edition of “Nefertiti” that I read.

“Nefertiti” is a historical novel about the reign of Nefertiti, queen and Pharaoh of Egypt. The story begins with a brief third-person description of how one of the elder pharaoh’s sons, Tuthmosis, dies in suspicious circumstances. Then, the novel is narrated by Nefertiti’s younger sister Mutnodjemet, beginning in Thebes when the sisters are teenagers and their influential father, Vizier Ay, manages to arrange a marriage between Nefertiti and the elder pharaoh’s only surviving son Amunhotep.

When Amunhotep is granted control of lower Egypt, he begins to order sweeping religious changes in addition to ordering the construction of a new city in the desert. Of course, Vizier Ay hopes that Nefertiti can influence the pharaoh to keep Egypt’s ancient religious traditions. However, the lure of power is strong and Nefertiti is eager to grab it…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a brilliantly epic, dramatic and atmospheric historical saga – although it is rather slow to start.

In essence, if you can get through the first hundred pages or so, then you’ll be rewarded with a wonderfully gripping story that reminded me of both HBO’s excellent “Rome” TV series (in terms of atmosphere, grandeur and style) and “Game Of Thrones” (in terms of ruthless political intrigue, drama, tyrannical rulers etc..). This novel is just as good, if not better, than these TV shows – but only once you’ve got past about the first hundred pages or so. So, stick with this book.

In terms of the historical elements of this novel – I am very glad that I watched a couple of documentaries before I read it. Whilst the story can of course be enjoyed as a simple drama/political thriller/romance/ historical saga without any prior knowledge, having a little bit of general background knowledge will help you to spot some of the novel’s moments of dramatic irony and/or historical accuracy (eg: there’s a throwaway line about Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus late in the book that is accurate to the archaeological findings in one of the documentaries I saw).

But, even if you know enough about the history to know how the story’s main events will turn out, most of the novel is still intriguingly gripping because of all of the various sub-plots and moments of drama. Because the novel is written from the perspective of Nefertiti’s sister, she is able to be involved in events, plots and romances that aren’t part of the well-known historical narrative. Likewise, some of the novel’s political schemes, plots and power plays are also rather unpredictable too. As such, the story can still be nail-bitingly suspenseful even if you know some of the history.

Plus, looking on Wikipedia, there does seem to be some deliberate artistic licence (eg: with regard to Horemheb and Mutnodjemet, with regard to how Nefertiti dies etc…). Although this isn’t historically accurate, it helps to add some unpredictability and drama to the story. However, when doing a little bit of background reading whilst writing this review, I suddenly noticed that two of the novel’s background characters (Ay and Horemheb) later became pharaohs, which is kind of cool.

In addition to this, the story is a grimly compelling drama about the nature of evil and the corrupting influence of power. Since, through Mutnodjemet’s eyes, we get to watch how Nefertiti goes from being a loving sister into a cold-hearted, selfish and imperious ruler.

In addition to this, the Pharaoh Amunhotep/Akhenaten is also a brilliantly chilling character too – he’s a religious fanatic, who is drunk with power and scarily incompetent too (eg: he orders the army to build him a new city, whilst some of Egypt’s outer territories are being invaded by Hittites etc..). So, this novel is a fascinatingly chilling glimpse into the nature of evil and tyranny too.

Yet, the novel’s emotional tone is surprisingly balanced. Unlike, say, “Game of Thrones”, this isn’t an unrelentingly bleak story. Yes, there are certainly grim, shocking, poignant, chilling, bleak and suspenseful moments but these are also balanced out with more joyous, heartwarming and peaceful moments. This novel is a wonderfully powerful emotional rollercoaster. So, if you want something that is a little bit like “Game Of Thrones”, but with a little bit less of a bleak tone to it, then you’ll enjoy this novel πŸ™‚

The religious politics of ancient Egypt are also a really interesting element of this novel too. Basically, the novel covers the relatively brief period of history where Amunhotep/Akhenaten changed the state religion from the religion of Amun (eg: the traditional deities like Horus, Osiris, Anubis, Amun-Ra etc...) to the worship of a single sun god called Aten.

In addition to showing some of the reasons why the Pharaoh did this – eg: a mixture of religious fanaticism and a way to take power away from the influential priests of Amun – Moran also adds a bit of extra drama and suspense to the story by showing many of the characters still secretly worshipping the old gods in a similar way to how Americans drank in speakeasies etc… during prohibition.

The characters in this book are absolutely brilliant and the decision to narrate the story from the perspective of Nefertiti’s younger sister – who just wants to tend a garden and start a family, rather than get involved in politics – is a surprisingly good one. Not only is she a really likeable character, but her humanity is also brilliantly contrasted with many of the more sociopathic and power-hungry characters that she encounters. Seriously, I really loved the characters and characterisation in this novel πŸ™‚

In terms of the writing and first-person narration, it’s fairly good too. The novel is written in a fairly readable style which is descriptive enough to evoke the grandeur and traditions of ancient Egypt whilst still being modern and matter-of-fact enough to be able to be read at a reasonable pace. The novel also uses a few Egyptian words to add flavour to the story, but the meaning is always obvious from the context – so, it never gets confusing.

In terms of the length and pacing, it’s reasonably ok. Although, as I mentioned, the novel is a bit slow to start, the final three-quarters of the book move at a reasonably decent pace. Whilst this isn’t exactly an ultra-fast paced thriller, the narration moves at a good pace and there are enough moments of drama to keep you gripped throughout most of the book. And, at about 420 pages or so, this novel is a little bit on the long side – but still just about compact enough not to feel bloated.

All in all, this is an absolutely brilliant historical novel. Yes, the first hundred pages or so are a bit of a slog but, once you get past those, you’ll be rewarded with a wonderfully gripping tale of power, intrigue, family and politics. I absolutely loved the atmosphere and characters in this novel too. As I mentioned earlier, if you like TV shows like “Rome” and “Game Of Thrones”, then you’ll probably enjoy this book πŸ™‚

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.

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Review: “Antediluvian Tales” By Poppy Z. Brite (Short Story Collection)

Ever since my very early twenties, Poppy Z. Brite (the pen name of the one and only Billy Martin) has been my favourite author. Although I could probably write an autobiography about the effect that his novels had on me during the two most important years of my life, I want to keep this article below two thousand words.

If you’re new to this author, then the thing to remember is that Martin’s stories are almost always more about the journey than the destination. They’re about spending time in various versions of New Orleans, hanging out with fascinating characters and just soaking in the atmosphere rather than about following a specific story.

Likewise, Martin’s exquisitely lush, vivid writing style is something that has to be read to be believed. Even if you don’t like horror or romance, then his books are still worth reading just for the narration alone!

But, one of the annoying things about being a fan of Martin’s stories is that they aren’t always the easiest thing to find in the world. Aside from his more well-known novels and short story collections, a fair portion of his works are rare, small-press “only published in America” type things. Sure, you can probably get them as e-books, but they are the kind of stories that I feel demand to be read on paper, the old-fashioned way.

Still, when browsing online a couple of weeks before writing this review, I happened to notice that a second-hand copy of “Antidiluvian Tales” was going cheap on Amazon. Well, relatively cheap. Even though it was an ex-library copy from America that would take a fortnight to cross the Atlantic, it still seemed worth getting. Hence this review.

So, let’s take a look at “Antedivulian Tales”. This review may contain some SPOILERS:

This is the 2007 Subterranean Press (US) hardback edition of “Antediluvian Tales” that I read (And yes, that blue thing below the angel is some kind of elaborate ink stain from the library it used to be from.)

“Antedivulian Tales” is a short story collection from 2007 which collects several New Orleans-themed stories that Martin wrote before Hurricane Katrina, in addition to a non-fiction piece about the hurricane. Given that the effects of the hurricane were one of the reasons why he retired from writing, there’s a certain poignance to this collection. It’s a glimpse back at a better time of the author’s life.

One cool thing about this collection is that it is only about 116 pages in length. Although this might sound like it’s a bit too short, it also means that it can be read cover-to-cover within the space of an hour or two. It’s a relaxing, satisfying experience that can be enjoyed without the time investment that would come with a longer collection. Plus, with the vivid narration and deep characterisation on offer here, the collection’s length feels like a brilliant example of quality taking precedence over quantity.

Another interesting thing about this slender collection of stories is how much of a mixture of Martin’s older and newer fiction it is. There are several stories that serve as short prequels to Martin’s “Liquor” novels. But there’s also a random story about absinthe, Mardi Gras and the 1990s. And there are a couple of 1990s-style horror stories featuring Dr. Brite, the coroner of New Orleans. Not to mention that one of the “Liquor” prequel stories is also an old-school 1970s-style ghost story too.

Yet, despite this large amount of variety, the stories are all linked together surprisingly well. This is mostly because of their shared New Orleans setting, Martin’s uniquely brilliant narrative voice and several of the themes running throughout the collection (eg: food, Catholicism, family, death, love, mystery etc..)

So, let’s take a look at the actual stories…

“The Feast Of St. Rosalie” is a slice of life story, focusing on Rosalie Stubbs during the titular “Feast of St. Rosalie”, a Catholic holy day in New Orleans. The story is one of those vivid, atmospheric and mostly plotless stories that is more of a character study than anything else.

“Four Flies And A Swatter” is this wonderful little story about a bar in 1990s New Orleans, the day after Mardi Gras. With only four random customers at the bar, one of the bartenders decides to dust off an old bottle of absinthe that he’s found. Not only does this story contain some very slight hints of “Lost Souls“, but it also contains an absolutely brilliant ending which is simultaneously uplifting, tragic, funny and creepy at the same time.

“Henry Goes Shopping” is a slightly funny short character study about Henry Stubbs. He’s about to buy some condoms, but finds himself in the embarrassing situation of standing behind a nun in the checkout line.

“The Working Slob’s Prayer” is more of a concrete prequel to the first “Liquor” novel, giving us a fascinating “slice of life” glimpse at the kitchen of the Peychaud Grill, where Rickey and G-Man worked before the events of “Liquor”.

Although this story is only sixteen pages long, it feels more like a novel πŸ™‚ Not only do we get to see lots of interesting characters, but there are several story threads and even a possible author insert too. Seriously, how Martin managed to cram all of this amazing stuff into less than twenty pages, without the story ever feeling rushed or superficial, I’ll never know.

“Crown Of Thorns” is the first of the two ‘Dr. Brite’ stories. The story focuses on both a rather strange autopsy and Dr. Brite’s relationship with his new boyfriend Hank.

Although the mystery of why a dead body was found with an unusual gourd in his chest is deepened rather than resolved at the end of the story, the conclusion still feels oddly satisfying. Plus, this story also contains an amusing little reference to “Liquor” at one point too.

“Wound Man And Horned Melon Go To Hell”
takes the form of a gleefully irreverent letter written to Jesus by Dr. Brite, relating the strange events that befell him and Hank whilst visiting a Russian-themed restaurant.

This is another mysterious horror story (with some brilliantly funny moments), that is also wonderfully evocative of the gothic fiction that Billy Martin used to write during the 1990s. Plus, the title is just awesome too.

“The Devil Of Delery Street” is probably the most unusual short story in the collection. It starts out as another prequel story about the Stubbs family, but soon turns into a 1970s-style ghost story with an atmosphere that is very vaguely reminscent of something like “The Exorcist” or “Carrie”. Like with the other horror stories in this collection, there’s a real emphasis on mystery here – which really helps to give the story a surprising sense of realism.

“The Last Good Day Of My Life (A True Story)” is an account of a holiday to Australia that the author took about a month before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans.

The segments about Australia are written in the lush, vividly descriptive way that you would expect – but all of this beauty is, of course, contrasted with the uglier events that would follow. Although the later part of the account focuses more on Martin’s emotional reaction to Katrina, it is chillingly punctuated with a couple of understated excerpts from a journal that he kept at the time.

All in all, this is a really interesting collection of stories. Yes, it’s the kind of thing that avid fans of the author (like myself) will get the most out of, but it also possibly serves as a really interesting introduction to the different types of fiction that Martin wrote before he retired. What this collection may lack in length, it more than makes up for in both quality and depth.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least four and a half.

Review: “Resident Evil: Extinction” (Film)

Well, after reviewing the first and second “Resident Evil” films, I thought that I’d check out the third one – “Resident Evil: Extinction”. However, I’m still not sure how many of these films I’ll review (hopefully, I’ll review the fourth one sometime, but I’m not exactly sure when).

Although I remember reading the novelisation of “Resident Evil: Extinction” when I was about twenty, I can’t remember if I’ve seen the film before. I’m pretty sure that I have, but I can’t be 100% certain, so it seemed like it would be worth taking a look at.

As usual, this review will contain SPOILERS. Likewise, the film itself contains some FLICKERING LIGHTS/IMAGES, although I don’t know if they’re intense or sustained enough to cause issues. Plus, this film is best enjoyed after you’ve seen the previous two films too.

So, let’s take a look at “Resident Evil: Extinction”:

And, yes, I know that there are six films (although this probably explains why this second-hand DVD boxset was so cheap).

“Resident Evil: Extinction” is a sci-fi/horror/action film from 2007. It begins with what appears to be a recap of the events of the first two “Resident Evil” films.

We see Alice awaken in the shower with no memory and begin to explore the mansion. But then she finds herself inside the laser tunnel below the mansion and it quickly becomes apparent that something isn’t quite right. After dodging the lasers and crawling through an air vent, she finds herself inside Racoon City Hospital.

So, this isn’t re-used footage from the previous film!

However, the hospital seems to be filled with random deathtraps. And, after dodging a guillotine blade, Alice is machine-gunned to death by some kind of futuristic landmine. As she dies, several scientists appear and carry her body away.

Well, that was a short film! What? There’s more…

They carry her body out of the building into a desert and throw it on a pile of identical cloned bodies. The camera then zooms out to reveal that all of this has happened inside a desert research facility that is surrounded by hordes of zombies.

A simple fence is enough to keep the zombies out?!?!? They’re strong enough to tear metal grilles off of windows later in the film.

The film then cuts to a voice-over which explains that, several months after the events of the second film, the world succumbed to the zombie virus and has been reduced to a harsh wasteland filled with nothing but survivors, the undead and the remnants of the nefarious Umbrella Corporation.

Meanwhile, the real Alice is exploring the Utah desert in search of survivors, whilst the other survivors from the first film have joined an armoured convoy in Nevada – led by Claire Redfield (Finally! It’s about time she showed up in these films!).

Better late than never, I guess.

Whilst all of this is going on, Dr. Isaacs is talking with Albert Wesker (again, Finally!). Wesker is now the head of the Umbrella Corporation and he allows Isaacs to continue his research into finding a partial cure for the zombie virus, so that the zombies can be used for forced labour. But because Isaacs’ cloning program hasn’t worked out well, he wants to track down the original Alice in order to use the antibodies in her blood…

One of the first things that I will say about this film is that it combines the best elements of the first and second films. Thanks to the good mixture of slower-paced suspenseful horror and thrilling fast-paced action, this is a fun, scary thriller film πŸ™‚

In addition to this, the film’s post-apocalyptic desert setting really helps to make this film a rather distinctive entry in the franchise too.

Yay! Post-apocalyptic wasteland!

The horror elements of this film work surprisingly well. In addition to the usual zombie-based horror and some more suspenseful scenes, this film also includes things like a genuinely creepy scene involving a group of deranged survivors, a few well-placed jump scares and a cool little homage to George A. Romero’s “Day Of The Dead” (when some scientists attempt to train a zombie). There’s also a greater emphasis on gory horror too, with this film being somewhat more gruesome than the previous two films.

Yay! It’s a homage to “Day Of The Dead” πŸ™‚

The thriller elements of this film work really well, with the survivors often having to fight or evade both groups of zombies and infected crows too. There are also enhanced zombies and a large monster too.

Like in the previous film in the series, the action scenes are all really well-choreographed. However, this film also tones down the “silliness” of the action scenes very slightly- with the combat seeming very slightly more suspenseful and realistic. Plus, since these action scenes occur less often than in the previous film, they are often more thrilling (since they’re contrasted with slower-paced scenes).

Unlike in “Resident Evil: Apocalypse”, the whole film doesn’t consist of scenes like this.

But there’s still the occasional enjoyably silly moment too.

One thing that really helps is that there’s more character-based drama. Although you shouldn’t expect massive amounts of characterisation, the film focuses more on the lives of the survivors as they try to find more fuel, stay alive and work out where they can hide from the zombies.

Likewise, the film’s villains also receive a certain amount of characterisation too, with the charmingly sociopathic Dr. Isaacs being an absolutely brilliant villain. Wesker, on the other hand, really doesn’t get enough screen time or characterisation.

Seriously, Wesker only appear in about three scenes. Three!

Carlos and LJ seem less like the cartoon characters they were in “Resident Evil: Apocalypse” and more like tough, but realistic, characters. Although Claire Redfield is nothing like the videogame character she’s based on – she comes across as a reasonably realistic and well-written/acted character, who reminded me a little bit of Sarah Connor from “Terminator 2”.

Yes, this isn’t even vaguely accurate to the games. But, this scene is still pretty cool nonetheless.

Likewise, Alice is still the same badass action heroine that we all know and love. However, her psychic powers have increased slightly since the ending of the second film, which have led to her being somewhat of a loner since she fears what they might do to those close to her.

The film’s supporting characters also include a few other interesting characters, such as a teenage girl called “K-Mart” who is Claire’s protege, a character called Betty who seems to be LJ’s girlfriend and a cowboy-like guy who, for some bizarre reason, has a British army rifle (that he uses as a sniper rifle).

Seriously, how does he even have this gun?

These supporting characters help to ensure that the film isn’t just about a few main characters – which helps to add some suspense and depth to the story. The fact that the survivors also have to protect a group of kids too helps to add some suspense to the film.

In terms of the film’s special effects, set design and lighting – they’re really good. The film uses a combination of practical and CGI effects, both of which seem to work reasonably well. Likewise, the film’s bleakly bright desert settings are contrasted wonderfully with some rather gloomy chiaroscuro lighting too. The film’s desert setting also allow it to include lots of intriguingly creepy abandoned buildings too, which helps to add some atmosphere.

Such as this creepy abandoned radio station.

Or this ominously disused petrol station.

In terms of the music, the film is reasonably good – with the highlight being a piece of music (that sounds eerily futuristic and distinctively “Resident Evil”) that repeats during several establishing shots. Likewise, when the survivors’ convoy is first introduced, the scene is set to Iron Butterfly’s “Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida”. Somehow, this piece of 1960s music works really well in context, and sounds suitably epic.

Although “Convoy” by C. W. McCall would have been hilarious in this scene!

All in all, this film is a brilliant mixture of the suspenseful horror of “Resident Evil” and the thrilling action of “Resident Evil: Apocalypse”. It is ninety minutes of pure post-apocalyptic sci-fi/horror fun. And it is probably the best film in the series that I’ve seen so far.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get somewhere between four and four-and-a-half.

Review: “How To Rob A Bank” (Film)

Well, it’s been a couple of weeks since I last reviewed a film. So, I thought that I’d check out a comedic heist movie from 2007 called “How To Rob A Bank (…And Tips To Actually Get Away With It)“.

This was mostly because I was in the mood for something a bit more light-hearted after spending a while playing “Silent Hill 3“. And, after looking for second-hand DVDs online, I ended up finding this one.

So, let’s take a look at “How To Rob A Bank”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild SPOILERS.

I don’t know why the cover art shows Nick Stahl holding a pistol. He’s completely unarmed for the whole film!

This film begins with a guy called Jinx (played by Nick Stahl) who is inside a locked bank vault with a hostage called Jessica (played by Erika Christensen). However, as soon as they begin talking, it quickly becomes apparent that Jessica is actually one of the bank robbers and Jinx is just a guy who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Yes, surprisingly, the sketchy-looking guy is actually the innocent bystander here.

Outside the vault, an armed bank robber called Simon (played by Gavin Rossdale) is absolutely furious about the fact that he can’t get into the vault. So, he calls Jessica… but Jinx picks up the phone instead. Needless to say, the two have quite a laugh about this bizarre misunderstanding and quickly become the best of friends:

Did I say “the best of friends”? I meant to say “bitter enemies”.

Of course, whilst all of this is going on, the police have finally shown up – led by Officer DeGepse (played by Terry Crews) who ends up talking to Jinx via mobile phone. Whilst all of this is going on, Jessica manages to trick DeGepse into thinking that she’s another hostage.

Reluctantly, Jinx goes along with it, before giving DeGepse Simon’s phone number. Simon is understandably annoyed that the cops have got his phone number, but DeGepse refuses to disclose who gave it to him (despite Simon guessing correctly rather quickly). But, then Jinx accidentally starts a conference call…

And, even more amusingly, Jinx tricks Simon into apologising to DeGepse, then tricks DeGepse into accepting the apology.

Needless to say, they’re all in a bit of a pickle….

One of the very first things that I will say about this film is that it isn’t really your typical Hollywood movie. In fact, it’s actually a low-mid budget independent film… and it is all the better for it!

Instead of flashy action sequences, the film focuses a lot more on dialogue, humour and clever plotting. Seriously, a good portion of the film is set within just one room and quite a bit of the film consists of people phoning each other… and it still manages to be a really interesting, and funny, film.

Unlike many heist movies, this one doesn’t focus that much on the elaborate (and mildly confusing) plot behind the heist but, instead, it begins “in medias res” and focuses more on Jinx and Jessica trying to figure out a sneaky way to get past both the other bank robbers and the cops. Although this film certainly contains a bit of suspense, it’s more of a clever comedy film than a thriller movie.

Most of the film consists of scenes like this… and it’s still a surprisingly good film!

And, yes, this film is funny. Although there are only a few “laugh out loud” moments, a lot of this film is filled with subtle humour, ironic humour and irreverent humour.

The bulk of the film’s humour comes from the surprisingly well-written dialogue (and the interactions between the characters in general) and the farcical premise of the film. There’s also a little bit of social satire, some amusing cutaway/flashback moments, some random 80s pop music references and a bit of slapstick comedy in order to keep the humour slightly varied.

For example, one of Simon’s henchmen has a malfunctioning pistol that keeps jamming throughout the film.

Although the film is a comedy, it still tries to squeeze in some endearingly cynical “Fight Club“-esque anti-corporation politics too. The most notable example of this being that the events of the film are set into motion because Jinx’s greedy bank has placed a surcharge on all ATM transactions, which means that he has to enter the bank to withdraw his last $20. And, yes, there are a couple of amusingly cynical speeches about this in the film.

One thing that helps to keep this film focused and interesting is the lean and efficient 78 minute running time. Unlike many Hollywood films, this film actually seems to have an editor and it is all the better for it. Although the film’s pacing sags a little during a couple of scenes, the compact running time helps to ensure that the story keeps moving and the audience remains interested.

Another cool thing about this film is that it was made in the pre-smartphone era. So, all of the mobile phones in this film are good old-fashioned flip phones (which used to be really cool 10-20 years ago) and they’re actually used as phones too. There’s no mobile internet, no “apps” or any of that nonsense. Seriously, there isn’t even any texting. There’s just three groups of people talking to each other on the phone. This helps to keep the film compellingly focused. Seriously, this film just wouldn’t work if the characters were using modern smartphones.

Surprisingly, the film’s flip-phones are also camera phones, but this feature thankfully isn’t used (mostly since some of the clever ruses in the film rely on the absence of cameras).

Another interesting thing about this film is how it handles moral ambiguity. Jinx is originally an innocent bystander, but he soon realises that joining in with the heist might help him get out of the bank. Likewise, although Jessica is initially a rather bitter and villainous character, she ends up being something of a “good criminal” after she realises that she’s in the same situation as Jinx.

So, yes, there’s actual character development in this film.

Likewise, Jessica’s mysterious boss – Nick – also seems to be something of a reluctantly “good” criminal as the film progresses.

Amusingly both DeGepse and Simon are both weary and cynical characters. In a way, they are literally polar opposites of each other, yet also have a lot in common in their amusingly frustrated attitudes towards the situation.

Seriously, I cannot praise the characters in this film enough! Although there isn’t a huge amount of deep characterisation, the characters come across as being somewhat more “realistic” than the characters in an average Hollywood movie. Likewise, a lot of what makes this film so good is the dynamics and interactions between the characters.

Of course, most of those interactions take place over a phone line – but they’re still amusing and/or compelling.

In terms of lighting, set design and special effects, this film is a little on the minimalist side. The bank vault is a fairly featureless white room and the bank just looks like an old American bank. Although, I noticed something eerily surprising about one of the film’s props…

OMG! I’ve just realised that the computer monitor for the bank’s CCTV is exactly the same type of monitor as the monitor on the computer I’m typing this review on!

The film has very few special effects and, aside from some clunky CGI renderings of the vault door mechanism, the film’s few practical effects work reasonably well. Likewise, although the lighting in this film is mostly fairly “ordinary”, there are a couple of moments of beautifully gloomy lighting here.

Amusingly, some cheaper mobile phones that were around in the mid-late 2000s actually had a LED torch feature – so, you didn’t have to use the screen as a torch.

Musically speaking, most of the film’s soundtrack isn’t very memorable. However, the ending credits are graced with a Duran Duran song which, when you’ve seen the film, will make a lot more sense.

All in all, this is a funny heist movie which relies more on well-written dialogue, well-written characters and clever plotting than on fast-paced action in order to remain compelling. It’s very different from the average Hollywood movie and is really interesting as a result.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.

Review: “Zombie Shooter” (Computer Game)

2017-artwork-zombie-shooter-review-sketch

Well, it’s been way too long since I last played a zombie game! So, when I saw that a game called “Zombie Shooter” was on special offer on GOG (it had been reduced from Β£4.99 to 79p) a few days before I originally wrote this review, I just had to check it out.

Plus, since this is a review of a zombie game, it almost goes without saying but I should probably warn you that this review will contain (unrealistic) GRUESOME IMAGES / BLOODY IMAGES.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Zombie Shooter”:

zombie-shooter-logo

“Zombie Shooter” is a low budget third-person perspective shooting game from 2007. It takes a fairly old-school approach to both the graphics and the gameplay, and is the kind of timeless 2D game that could easily have been released any time from the mid-late 1990s onwards.

Seriously, the minimum processor you need for this game is a Pentium III (unlike some modern 2D games that can require a dual-core!) and the download is only a slender 56mb in size (again, why are modern 2D games sometimes over 1gb in size?). Modern indie developers take note, this is how “retro-style” games should be made!

In many ways, the gameplay in “Zombie Shooter” is a little bit like a cross between “Serious Sam” and modern-style “Doom II” WADs. In other words, it’s the kind of game where you will be faced with ludicrously large hordes of monsters on a regular basis. Yes, there are also some mild RPG-like elements, but these never get in the way of the gameplay.

These RPG elements take the form of a limited character selection option at the beginning of the game, and the ability to use bonus items you find in the game (there’s none of this modern “pay to win” rubbish here πŸ™‚ ) to buy new weapons , buy more ammo, upgrade your weapons, buy extra lives and/or upgrade your character’s stats between levels.

Yes, this screen matters a LOT more than you might think. And, unlike in modern games, it ISN'T trying to swindle you out of real life cash either :)

Yes, this screen matters a LOT more than you might think. And, unlike in some modern games, it ISN’T trying to swindle you out of real life cash either πŸ™‚

Often, the best option isn’t to buy a shiny new gun, but to upgrade a few key weapons (pistols, rocket launcher and flamethrower) repeatedly. Likewise, max out your health stats first- you’ll need all the extra health points you can get!

For example, there’s a disc gun that can slice through lines of zombies. But, you’re still better off focusing on a few weapons rather than trying out novelty weapons like this one.

Since this game uses the dreaded checkpoint saving (albeit with a lives system), this also means that if you fail a level then you can try again using a different combination of weapons and/or upgrades. This helps to introduce an extra level of strategy to what would otherwise be a fairly standard action game.

And, yes, you'll be failing levels quite a bit. This isn't one of those ultra-easy modern games!

And, yes, you’ll be failing levels quite a bit. This isn’t one of those ultra-easy modern games!

This, of course, brings me on to the gameplay. One of the first things that I will say is that the controls take a bit of getting used to. Although the game uses modern-style keyboard/mouse controls, the character movement isn’t always as predictable as it might initially seem – due to the isometric perspective that the game uses. Plus, the mouse aiming can take a while to get used to too.

This isometric perspective can also mean that your view is occasionally blocked by walls too. So, expect a bit of frustration during about the first hour or so of gameplay whilst you get used to the perspective. It would have been better if this game had used a top-down perspective, but I can see why they went with the isometric perspective, since it allows the graphics to contain a lot more detail.

Not only can your character be obscured by walls, so can the zombies!

Not only can your character be obscured by walls, so can the zombies!

Likewise, due to the high number of monsters and the game’s zoomed-out perspective, it’s possible to lose track of where your character is during gameplay. Some kind of glowing outline would have really helped to make certain parts of the game a lot less confusing. Still, like with the controls, this is something that you’ll probably get used to after a while.

Problems aside, this game is fun! It’s fast, action-packed and thrilling. It’s kind of like a third-person version of all the great classic FPS games. You can find secret areas, you have to explore levels that are at least slightly non-linear (though much more linear than old FPS games) and you’ll need to use strategy sometimes.

As you would expect from a 1990s-style zombie game, this game is gruesome! In fact, this is probably one of the goriest games that I’ve ever played – with the levels literally being awash with blood at various points in the game. Seriously, it’s up there with “Brutal Doom” and “Left 4 Dead 2”! But, if you’re squeamish, then you can apparently change the blood colour in the options menu.

Although the gameplay can get slightly repetitive sometimes, the game helps to keep things interesting by introducing multiple monster types. The most inventive of these is probably a type of enemy who looks like a soldier at first glance but, when killed, will transform into a fast-moving mutant creature that resembles the “Tyrant” bosses from the old “Resident Evil” games. Although this game isn’t particularly scary, this certainly caught me by surprise the first time I saw it…

Yes, there's actual CREATIVITY with some of the monster designs!

Yes, there’s actual CREATIVITY with some of the monster designs!

The game’s difficulty curve is a little bit inconsistent too. The early levels will be surprisingly challenging, due to your character’s weak weapons. However, when you’ve upgraded the pistols to the point where they’re basically dual uzis, the game gets easier for a while….

Yes, the upgraded pistols are actually BETTER than the shotgun! Heresy!!!

Yes, the upgraded pistols are actually BETTER than the shotgun! Heresy!!!

And, just when you’ve been lulled into a false sense of security, you’ll find yourself playing a level which would be considered “excessive”, even by the standards of the modern “Doom II” modding community. But, like a challenging “Doom II” WAD, the game isn’t quite “unfair” though (eg: the levels are hard, but winnable).

Despite it’s relatively short length (it took me about 4-6 hours, spread over two days, to beat the main campaign), “Zombie Shooter” makes up for this by giving you an enjoyable, but occasionally frustrating, challenge on a regular basis. This also means that it never really feels like a “short” game either.

Yes, even THIS level can be beaten with enough perseverence.

Yes, even THIS level can be beaten with enough perseverence.

In addition to this, the game also includes a few cool set-pieces, like allowing you to control an automated gun turret in a nearby room.

Although this might seem a little bit boring at first, this segment is made more interesting by the fact that – if you don’t protect two doors near the turret’s controls, the monsters can actually attack you. If you stop using the turret to fight them, then the number of monsters surging towards the doors will began to increase…

Yes, this part is a bit more complex than it initially seems.

Yes, this part is a bit more complex than it initially seems.

The game’s final boss battle is worth a mention too. It’s as punishingly difficult as you might think (a fully-upgraded flamethrower is a must!) but, like in old-school FPS games, the boss can also be damaged by parts of the environment too.

In other words, if you turn on two generators and then lure the boss between two large tesla coils, then you can demolish about a fifth of his health bar in a few seconds.

Yes! This is gloriously retro :)

Yes! This is gloriously retro πŸ™‚

However, every time you do this, the game spawns in another horde of low-mid level monsters. So, as I said, make sure that your flamethrower is fully upgraded before you start playing this level.

From what I gather from the menus, this game also includes a couple of other gameplay modes (“Survive” and “Gun Stand”). I haven’t really checked these out at the time of writing – but, given the game’s short length, I guess that they add some replay value to the game.

In terms of stability, this game can be a little bit unstable. Basically, if you hit the “Windows” key whilst playing, then (on older PCs like mine at least) there’s a chance that you’ll need to restart your computer. But, apart from this (and a couple of temporary sound problems when I started the game for the very first time), it seems to be fairly stable and reliable. Even on my computer, which is a little over a decade old, the game only ever slowed down very briefly during the most intense sections.

In terms of music, the best track in the game is probably the main menu theme (which is suitably dramatic). However, the rest of the music isn’t really that memorable.

All in all, this game isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot of fun. It’s a low-budget action game which is resolutely old-school, and it is a joy to play. Yes, the controls and perspective can be awkward. Yes, it’s a little bit short (but it never really feels “short” when you’re playing). And, yes, you’re likely to ragequit a few times whilst playing. But, if you can get this game when it is on special offer, then you’ll get more than your money’s worth. Plus, it’s one of those games that “does what it says on the tin” too.

If I had to give this game a rating out of five, it would probably get somewhere between three and four. It’s really fun, if somewhat imperfect.

Today’s Art (17th September 2014)

Well, I’m still looking at some of my old drawings from 2007 and re-making better modern versions of them.

So, today’s (digitally-edited) watercolour painting is based on one of my first attempts at sketching from life – back when I was a student in Aberystwyth in 2007, I used to hang out in this cafe in the Arts Centre between lectures. And, one day in November, I decided to try to sketch the view from the window (I’ll include this sketch here as well).

Today’s painting is also another addition to my “Aberystwyth Series” of paintings – although I don’t plan to go back to making these regularly.

As usual, both pictures in this post are released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

"Aberystwyth - Heart In The Dark" By C. A. Brown

“Aberystwyth – Heart In The Dark” By C. A. Brown

And here’s my original sketch from 2007:

"Arts Centre Steps Sketch" Drawn by C. A. Brown in November 2007

“Arts Centre Steps Sketch” Drawn by C. A. Brown in November 2007

Today’s Art (16th September 2014)

Sorry for the long introduction but, I recently rediscovered some old drawings I made back in 2007 and I thought that I’d re-make at least one of them in my current art style.

Today’s painting is based on an illustration I made to a ( badly-written and thankfully unpublished) “Richs and Coates” story I wrote called “The Case Of The Sandown Gamblers” – which involved Richs and Coates solving a very contrived mystery on the Isle Of Wight.

The illustration is from this part of the story (complete with the original tense and grammar errors) where Coates strikes it rich:

“My next memory is of waking up behind the sand mound in the afternoon, unsure as to whether I’d fallen asleep or fainted from sheer exhaustion. As I opened my eyes, I saw Coates standing over me. Instead of his usual jeans and dark t-shirt, he was wearing a rather impressive suit. A cigarillo extended from one corner of his mouth and he puffed on it while talking to me in relaxed tones:
β€œLarry, you look terrible, glad to see that you survived last night’s ordeal though.”
β€œMore importantly, did the police get Ebenezer?”
Coates shook his head as he helped me to my feet, I brushed the sand from my jacket and stared again at his smart clothes. Chuckling, he continued:
β€œOh, these? Let’s just say that I was one of the casino’s first customer’s this morning after the police left.”

Like with all of these redrawings, I’ll include the original badly-drawn illustration from 2007 for comparison too.

As usual, both of these pictures are released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

"The Sandown Gamblers" By C. A. Brown

“The Sandown Gamblers” By C. A. Brown

And here’s the hilariously terrible original drawing from 2007 (Wow! The perspective is terrible!):

"Richs And Coates in 'The Sandown Gamblers'" Original illustration from 2007 by C. A. Brown

“Richs And Coates in ‘The Sandown Gamblers'” Original illustration from 2007 by C. A. Brown