Back in Black

Black DynamiteBlaxploitation is back. And this time it is back to stay.

Okay, maybe not, considering that Black Dynamite, as seen by us last Saturday at the Fantasy Filmfest in Frankfurt, is more of a blaxploitation spoof than a pureblooded representative of the genre. Also I doubt that many can achieve the level of brilliance that Scott Sanders, Michael Jai White and Byron Minns have created.

I’ll spare you a lengthy retelling of our previous experiences with blaxploitation, both spoof and the real thing, and ask you to just believe me when I say that not long ago I would have sworn on my cat’s immortal soul that me and the blaxploitation genre just don’t mix well. (It’s a different story for Jonas, of course; he adores it.)

Anyway, Black Dynamite swept me off my feet and left me feeling vaguely bereft at the thought that no sequel is in sight.

Can you dig it? Yeah, I can.

So go and watch Black Dynamite. Enjoy.

Lustrum

LustrumI have half a dozen book reviews I still want to write, but I wanted to get this one out of my mind as long as the memory is still fresh.

Two days ago I finished reading Lustrum, by Robert Harris. I am saddened to say that the book was good, so this review isn’t bound to be very funny.

Pompeii, Herculaneum, Paestum, Naples, Capri. Places I’ve been to personally, places that I love. They all have one thing in common: almost two thousand years ago they were thriving, buzzing parts of the Roman Empire.

Rome has held its sway over me for about fifteen years now. It started out as a sort of extra-curricular school trip that sounded like fun and has since then bloomed into a deep and long-lasting fascination with all things Roman (ancient Greek will do at a pinch, I’m not picky). I will, one day, write my own epic set in ancient Rome, but until then I’ll have to make do with the works of others on the subject.

In light of this passion of mine  it was only logical for me to read devour Robert Harris’s book Pompeii (okay, I’ll admit it, it was a gift from Jonas, it was he who pointed Mr. Harris’s work out to me first) and after that the first book of his trilogy on the life and works of the famous Roman politician and orator Cicero.

Marcus Tullius Cicero is a fascinating figure. Lauded by his contemporaries and later generations of historians as one of the most versatile minds of his time, he was a lawyer, translator, politician, orator, philosopher and linguist. What makes him even more interesting as a protagonist for a book is the fact that he was a contemporary of all the great names that one will associate with Rome at fist glance: Caesar, Pompey Magnus, Brutus, Lucullus, Crassus and many others.

While the first book, Imperium, chronicles Cicero’s rise to power through hard work and cunning, told through the eyes of his faithful slave (and friend) Tiro, the second book finds him at the height of his career. Newly elected consul, Cicero has to use all his wit to fight against his political enemies and smite down a conspiracy that might well mean the end of the Roman Republic. To say more would unfortunately contain many spoilers, so let it suffice to say that the problems only begin there.

I mention Tiro in the above paragraph, and in that character lies the book’s main weakness. It is a small flaw, one that barely merits pointing out, but I shall still mention it. Tiro, or Marcus Tullius Tiro as he became known after being freed by his master, is a real, historical character. Little is known of his origins, but what is known is that he was (among) the first to ever record a session of the Roman senate in shorthand and that this shorthand system, which was invented by him, gives us many useful words that survive to this day, most notably the ever-popular “etc.” In the book Tiro functions as the narrator, writing down the life history of Marcus Tullius Cicero many years after his death (history tells us that Tiro lived to a ripe age of 99 and died 39 years after his former master). And here lies my principal problem with the book (there is one other one, also connected to Tiro, but I’ll let that slip): our narrator, busily scribbling away at his former master’s biography before he himself croaks of old age, is a bit too intent on pointing out to us that he is writing this many years after the actual events have taken place. A few mentions less of “here my notes record” or “now I myself am old and feeble”, “if only he had known what I know today” etc., would have done the book a great service. Tiro seems to strive above all to destroy our immersion with his constant comments.

Don’t think that the book is bad now, it’s still plenty good. I just was annoyed by Tiro to a certain degree. I also think it gets better as the book progresses.

Back to the book:

Lustrum is, as I already knew, Latin for… well… a whorehouse. What I didn’t know is that is also means “a period of four years”. The book, as you may have guessed, easily accounts for both meanings of the title, and we see a lot more of Cicero than just what happened to him during the twelve months of his consulship.

Although the second part of the book suffers from certain structural issues (which are almost unavoidable since Cicero was, politically speaking, on a decaying orbit after his consulship and is thus demoted from active schemer to passive watcher), the book still manages to go out with  a bang. A bang that left me wishing that Robert Harris would hurry up and write the last part of his Cicero trilogy as quickly as possible.

Lustrum is to a large degree based on the actual historical events and Harris claims that he has taken excerpts from actual speeches by Cicero and his contemporaries as often as possible. I have no reason to doubt him. The book feels authentic and for anyone who shares my passion for Rome and her people it will be a joy to read. I can only recommend the book, but bear in mind that the enjoyment will be all the greater if you also read Imperium, with which Lustrum forms an almost seamless unit.

Search Engine Term Of The Week (Episode 3)

Today:

f

Robert Pattinson with a naked beauty

a) Well, not that I’m prejudiced or anything, but whom are you more interested in? Bobby or his companion?

b) Is Bob meant to be naked too in the desired picture? Or is his ruggedly handsome face enough? (If yes then congratualtions, you hit the jackpot, cause that’s, like, all there is.)

c) How many gazillion pages of search engine results did you have to go through to get to my blog?

d) Why? I mean, if you want to lose your eyesight you can always pour bleach in your eyes.

(Popular variations: Naked Robert Pattinson, Robert Pattinson Naked. Thus my master plan to get more hits on this site by cunning deception of the easily mislead masses is slowly bearing fruit.)

It Is Done…

RisenWe finished playing Risen yesterday.

The end came quickly and a little too suddenly for my taste. I had been holding on to the faint hope that the game might have more than four paltry chapters until just before the credits started to roll. No such luck, now we’ll have to wait until forever for the sequel. Gnargh!

But I digress. Let’s start at the top.

We’re both huge fans of the Gothic games. Gothic 1 & 2, that is – as far as I’m concerned there is no Gothic 3, and that one didn’t have an expansion either. What? There is such a thing? No, I don’t think so (sticks fingers in ears and starts humming a tune).

Anyway. The first two Gothic games, both of which I played together with my husband due to severely lacking hand-eye coordination on my part, are the pinnacle of the RPG genre. A genre that is prolific enough, but seldomly brings forth anything to be truly excited about. I liked Oblivion to a certain degree, although it was all in all terribly shallow and levelling enemies are the worst idea since reality TV. And Divinity was okay too, in a way. The same goes for Two Worlds, which of these three games is perhaps the one that I enjoyed most. But all of these games seemed to be lacking something: call it depth, call it refinement, call it quality. They weren’t bad, but they were far from brilliant. And just when we had given up hope that the genre would ever bring forth anything awesome again we bought Risen by German developer Piranha Bytes.

Risen starts out when the player character wakes up after being shipwrecked on the shore of a tropical vaguely mediterranean island. After you have fought your way up the beach, past vultures, wolfs and stingrats, the world, or rather the island, lies at your feet. The game offers you the choice of three principal career options: Bandit, Mage or joining the Inquisition.

I picked the Inquisition, power gamer that I am, and my husband, who was playing the game in parallel with me on his computer, chose the bandits.

From what I picked up I must say that the Inquisition seems to be by far the more cushy path. All you have to do is to get inside the city, which in my case was accomplished by running past most enemies on the way and bribing the gate guard with 100 gold, and once you’re inside  you get to work as a glorified errand boy until you feel strong enough to brave the wolves and stingrats outside the city walls. Oh, yes, and until you figure out how to get out again, I should maybe mention that part.

For a bandit life appears to be a lot tougher, since although you also get to run errands in the swamp the errands here involve killing megalomaniac fireflies and something that looks like it escaped from Frank Herbert’s Dune. Suffice to say that it’s not very easy without proper equipment or skills.

As for the mage path: I could not say, since I haven’t quite figured out how to play a mage. (Which is remarkable since I thought the game had tricked me into becoming one for quite a while until I figured out that in that case I should be able to learn rune sigil magic, which I wasn’t.)

One of the nice things, at least from my point of view, is that the story is far from the same for the different classes after that point. Until very late in the game the different factions will ask you to do things that differ from the other paths. Not in a game-changing manner, but enough so that it significantly raises the re-play value.

A slight blemish on the beauty of the game is to be found in the final chapter, however. Not only is it almost exclusively dungeon crawling, with next to no respawn in the actual game world, but the events leading up to the final boss fight, as well as the fight itself, take away almost any difference that the three classes might have had before that. I won’t say much about the actual fight, since spoilers are evil, but let it suffice to say that there is but one way to do it, regardless of whether you’re playing a magic user or a fighter. And I think that is a bad thing. It is a bad thing to the point where I was close to giving up on the game about five minutes before the end. (To be scrupulously honest: my almost giving up was also related to the fact that the final fight is ridiculously difficult and I’m not a good fighter at the best of times.)

That having been said: Risen is, apart form the final showdown, a joy to play. The world is alive with beautiful creatures, not all of them inimical; it also features tons of vertical space: ledges to climb up on and kill enemies at leisure with ranged attacks, mountains with beautiful vistas… and as a bonus everything is one giant cell (meaning no loading times when entering houses, dungeons, etc.). Another big plus are the NPCs. If you manage to disregard the skimpy clothing that the women wear you will find that most of the NPCs have individual dialogue and personalities and sometimes even more than one quest that needs solving (non-generic NPCs is something I can not prize high enough after drudging through 200+ hours of Oblivion). Also the fighting system is reasonably well balanced and gaining skill points truly makes a difference. And last but not least: you get to summon a skeleton named Fred.

Yes, Fred – or Freddy as we have come to call him. Freddy can handle himself in tough situations, is unexpendable when it comes to taking care of some of the stronger enemies. And to sweeten the deal he’s also low maintenance and, due to a rather helpful bug, will heal if you save and load.

Speaking of bugs: the game has none. At least no significant ones. There seem to be some issues with certain older series of Nvidia graphics cards, but that had already been fixed in the first patch. Jonas had some difficulties with his character being unable to tell the difference between what you mean with going into a building or jumping up on the roof (weird bug, I know), but that was an inconvenience at best. And then there is the friendly NPC health regeneration issue, with is highly beneficial to the player, and if it’s cheating to exploit a bug then I don’t care. Besides that, I had one crash in almost 50 hours of playing, which I think is acceptable. So thumbs up for the Piranhas: good work!

All in all my playing experience has been very positive. Risen, like its cousins from the Gothic universe, is not easy to play, especially at an early level. Also, and here it is different from Gothic, it never becomes easy. Even at level 25 you can still walk into a room and get shish-kebabed before you can say Jack Robinson (if you’re not careful). If that doesn’t frighten you, you will get rewarded with a nicely-told and well-written story, stellar voice acting (not as good as Gothic but miles better than anything else out there; at least in the original German), a beautiful gameworld and interesting, diverse quests that go beyond collect-the-seventeen-polkadot-lollipops territory.

I for one am greatly looking forward to the second part of Risen, so hurry up Piranhas.

P.S.: my husband, who is the game designer in the family, is bound to write his own review soon, which is bound to be slightly more analytical than mine, so keep your eyes peeled for that!

Like Phoenix From The Ashes

RisenJust in case any of you have been wondering why I haven’t updated the blog in nearly a week… the reason is called Risen.

Risen in the new game by German developer Piranha Bytes, the makers of Gothic 1 & 2. They are also, unfortunately, the makers of Gothic 3, a game which is pretty high on my list of things that I should undo if I ever were to get access to a time machine. (There’s other stuff higher on the list, but not much.)

Jonas and I bought the game about ten days ago and it is fair to say that it is slightly addictive. Jonas is good about stuff like that, he can still function normally in the presence of a good game. When I’m playing  a good RPG the only way to get me to do something else than play usually involves a crowbar.

Anyway… I solemnly promise to write a more detailed review of Risen when I’m done with the game, which should be in another few days, but for now I just want to say that Piranha Bytes have truly managed to redeem themselves.

It is true: after Gothic 3 I thought they had lost their minds and that putting them in an insane asylum, a really old-fashioned one without any computers, would be a splendid precaution.

But Risen makes more than up for the agony that Gothic 3 has inflicted on us. They graphics are beautiful. The fighting system is well balanced. Levelling is once again something to look forward too. You can climb (big, wonderful bonus!). And the story is sounding good so far.

Last but not least: the game is a Gothic game in all but name. There are a lot of small nods to the Gothic franchise and even the story seems to be based, at least partly, on one of the possible endings of Gothic 3. (No, this is not a spoiler. You get the relevant info in the first cut scene of the game and if you’re concerned that this might spoil your Gothic 3 experience: don’t, the game manages to do that on its own, it doesn’t need my help for that.)

Also, miracles never cease, the game seems to be pretty much bug free. There seem to be certain issues with a few types of graphics cards, but neither of us are affected by that and in any case there’s a patch out already that fixes it. The only other bug I have encountered is rather beneficial to the player, so I won’t complain.

So yay for Piranha Bytes and Risen on all counts. A more detailed review shall follow soon.

Two Hours of My Life I’ll Never Get Back

Land of the LostOkay… first of all, I’m not dead yet. Only very busy. And when I’m not busy I’m playing Risen. And when I’m neither playing Risen nor busy, I’m going to the cinema. Like on Wednesday.

On Wednesday we saw Land of the Lost. And that’s two hours of my life I won’t ever get back. Only it felt more like seventeen.

Why did we go to see that movie, I hear you ask. Did we not see the trailer? Did we not read the reviews? Have we lost our minds? Has our sanity deserted us? Should I maybe stop with the rhetorics and give you a straight answer?

Yes, we did see the trailer, and I admit that it was dreadful. And yes, we read the reviews, and they didn’t sound good either. But trailers can be misleading. (Okay, I’ll admit it, usually in a bad way – I’m thinking of Planet of the Apes here). And if I were to recount all the times in recent years when we absolutely loved a movie that had been trashed to tiny little bits by the reviews, this would be a much longer article.

The chief reason why we went to see Land of the Lost was that its director, Brad Silberling, has done some very impressive movies in the past. Moonlight Mile is one of Jonas’s favourite movies ever and both City of Angels and Lemony Snicket were pretty damn good. (I also loved Caspar to bits, but that was when I was fifteen.)

As for Land of the Lost: You got a director of proven brilliance, dinosaurs, time travel, A Chorus Line, parallel dimensions, lizard people, very good sets and locations and the producer of Eva Longoria Sex Tape as one of the screenwriters. What could possibly go wrong?

Mhm… reading what I just wrote, I can see the flaw in my argument. It’s called Chris Henchy. Not that I don’t think that his colleague, Mr. Alex McNicholas, isn’t equally responsible for this cinematical disaster. (Also he’s one of the staff writers for Saturday Night Live, which makes me think that the casting of SNL regular Jorma Taccone in the role of Cha-Ka the Eternally Awful might be his bad.)

It’s not just that the movie is incoherent – which it is, extensively so. Incoherent to the point where, in the very beginning, I was wondering if we were seeing a damaged cut or if the projectionist had once again mixed up the reels. (It happens. I spent most of my youth thinking that Pretty Woman was a postmodern masterpiece due to such a mistake.)

It’s also not exclusively due to the fact that it has enough poo and sex jokes to make Adam Sandler sick to the stomach. (Sex and poo joke density was measured at 11.73 on a scale of 1 to 10.)

Neither is it that the actors are telephoning in their lines. (Not true, I think they might have been using morse code.)

No, the actual reason for the incredible badness of this movie is the script. Our cat – yes you heard me, our fucking CAT – could have written a better script. She could have written a better script in her sleep, her paws behind her ears and drooling on our sofa.

We’re talking bad here on a level of  “the rustling of the popcorn bag in the row behind us was more interesting than the dialogue.” And I wish I was kidding, I really do.

The plot had more holes than a sieve. The parts that did make sense (in the broadest of terms) were boring. No, it’s not a good idea to have a ten minute speech about the true value of friendship, loyalty and love when a T-Rex is standing right next to you. And french kissing a monkey is not funny. Neither is A Chorus Line, at least not inherently so. (I love the show though, second musical  I ever saw.)  And I don’t want to see Anna Friel’s legs ever again. And the same goes for Cha-Ka, now officially the most terrible, awful, disgusting, dislikeable and stupid movie character ever. If Mr. Taccone would please contact me I’d be happy to give him his award, delivered speedily and with great precision through the barrel of a shotgun.

I can only conclude that Brad Silberling made this movie after falling on very hard times. Maybe he has gambling debts, borrowed money from the wrong people, now the Mafia is after him. He needs money, as quick as possible. Haunted, alone, a prize set on his head, dead or alive, his only chance is to direct a movie. Nothing matters, only the paycheck that will finally get the bounty hunters off his ass. So he does it. He directs Land of the Lost, forever ruining his career, but saving his live in the process. That has to be it. There is no other explanation.

The only question that remains now is this: has he never heard of Alan Smithee?

Search Engine Term of the Week (Episode 2)

Today:

the name verena where does it originate?

Since I’m interested in stuff like that, I shall give you a straight answer, unknown quester for knowledge. (But don’t get used to it.) And that answer is:

I don’t quite know.

So I did some research.

The name Verena is, depending on whom you ask, of Latin, Swiss, Russian, Dutch, Teutonic or Greek origin.

Verena might be derived from the Latin word for truth: veritas -atis f. [the truth , reality; truthfulness, telling of truth]; in gen. [honesty]. Same as the name Vera. Sounds good to me. If you don’t agree try vereor -eri -itus dep. [to be afraid , fear; to have respect for, revere].

As for Swiss: Verena is the name of a 3rd century Swiss saint. Only she’s not really Swiss, but from Egypt, and only settled in Switzerland after she sort of got stranded there when the army company she was with got slaughtered to the last man. Read the rest on Wikipedia if you like.

In Russian it’s supposed to mean faithful or loyal. I don’t know anything about Russian, so I can’t tell if that’s true or not. Maybe we’re still in the Latin realm here.

One lonely site claims that it means “from the bridge” in Dutch. Which reminds me of a bag of kittens weighed down with a brick in a rather uncomfortable way. Let’s move on.

And Teutonic? All I could find is that the name is, well, very Teutonic. The Germans use it, as do the Belgians and the Austrians (36th most popular girl’s name in 2004, yay!). So, if all the Germanic tribes use it, it must be, like, Teutonic, right? Anyway, it’s supposed to have originally meant “protective friend”. Fine by me.

As for Greek: I read in one place that it’s supposed to mean “true picture” and I guess we’re at the Latin theme again, with that. Jonas doesn’t know where that’s supposed to come from. Sometimes people confuse Ancient Greek and Latin.

The explanation that I like most comes from a birthday card that my grandmother gave me a couple of years back. It said that the name Verena originates from the Greek word fereniki which roughly translates as bringing victory. I’ve seen the same etymological origin claimed for Veronica, which is a very similar name. Who knows?

And if you want some statistics, here you go:

Verena ranked #2810 out of 4276 eligible names in a 1990 U.S. Census.

If you think that number is low you’ll be pleased to know thatVerena was most popular in 1898, God knows why. Maybe a lot of Swiss people moved to America in that year.

The current ranking of Verena is way past the 1000 mark at 11565, but one site says that the popularity of Verena is 4.349 on a scale of 1 to 6, whatever that may mean.

All the girls out there will be glad to hear that based on popular usage, it is 77.333 times more popular for Verena to be a girl’s name than a boy’s name.

According to one site it also rhymes with Andrena, Arena, Cyrena, Irena, Pyrena, Serena, and of course the ever popular Hyena; if you mispronounce it terribly, that is.