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Archive for February, 2010

If you are going to get picked up for amateurish over-enthusiasm, best that you get picked up by the experts.

Alexander Harron, a regular contributor to the fantasy blog The Cimmerian, has pointed out that I’ve read a little too much back to the original Solomon Kane from  Michael J. Bassett‘s film interpretation. It’s a more than fair cop as I readily admit to not having read the original stories.

What his comment has done is prompt me to take a look at The Cimmerian and discover a wealth of interesting fantasy-related writing. Describing itself as “A webshield and firewall for Robert E. Howard, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the Best in Heroic Fantasy, Horror and Historical Adventure”, The Cimmerian is a place for experts and specialists in a niche genre of literature. It is well worth a look and fans of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series or Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time saga will find plenty of information on older masterpieces that helped inspire these later works.

Alexander Pope said “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” When it comes to Heroic Fantasy, angels are amateurs – and you can say the same thing.

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Between work, casework, Council meetings and campaigning, Em and I like to pretend that we can do normal things.

Occasionally, this means doing something wild like going to the cinema at Bas Vegas (yes, there is a place – and to prove it, Jedward came). We benefit in Basildon from a luxury 12 screen Empire multiplex and so last night we decided to be very wild indeed and see two films back-to-back.

Both depict a battle between good and evil.

Both have their main protagonists wrestling with their conscience, searching for a very personal salvation.

Both are daring in their use of Christian symbolism.

Solomon Kane

Solomon Kane is one of the lesser known creations from the pen of Robert E. Howard, the pulp-era writer who created Conan the Barbarian, and first appeared in magazine stories in the late 1920s. In the 1970s and 1980s he appeared in several comics published by Marvel Comics and in 2008 Dark Horse Comics began a new run of Solomon Kane comics.  How on earth he has escaped Hollywood until now is completely beyond me:In Kane, Howard has the perfect anti-hero, a black-clad, sword-wielding soldier of God, attempting to atone for his murderous past and redeem his soul from the pact with the Devil that his past has created.

I’d not read the Howard original, nor seen any of the comics, and you can well imagine there is plenty of scope for movie-going pain in adapting a fantasy story for cinema. Cringe-worthy efforts that briefly topped my “Oh wow that is just the greatest film ever!” list during those teenage years of hormonally-challenged fantasy addiction include The Sword and the Sorcerer and Hawk the Slayer. (I have absolutely no idea how The Sword and the Sorcerer scored 80% on Rotten Tomatoes – it stars Lee Horsley, that bloke from Matt Houston, and is utter tripe!).

Solomon Kane is nothing like that.

Instead, in an England where it is either permanently raining or snowing, James Purefoy, turns in a brilliant performance as the brooding Kane, taking on the role of an avenging angel when the family who rescue him from brigands is ripped apart by Malachi’s evil henchmen. If you are unconcerned about spoilers, you can read the synopsis here.

Once again, the Czech Republic doubles as 17 Century England and if you have missed  The Prancing Pony since it vanished from our screens, then you’ll be reassured that Solomon Kane pays due respect to the role of beery, shadow taverns in the fantasy genre with one brief shot that could almost be an homage to the appearance of Aragorn in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. (I don’t ever remember GMing a Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay without a tavern – perhaps Stringbean will remember if he looks at this – and certainly inns and taverns are to be found dotted throughout Norrath, in both its Everquest and Everquest 2 incarnations). There is plenty of ferocious sword play, a reassuring absence of naked slave girls (you know the storyline has gone to pot when the producers rely on this device for a distraction) and titanic battles between good and evil.

It is interesting, too, to find a main-stream film so willing to display an overtly Christian symbology, even if some of its theology is distinctly shaky. Perhaps religion is the new rebellion in movie-making? In which case, expect lots more of Kane’s ilk in the months to come.

So Darin, if you are reading this, Solomon Kane is one for you and me – when we want to exorcise our darker sides and pretend we are sword-swinging avengers of Truth! In the meantime, just enjoy a well-made sword-and-sorcery romp which really does get your heart fluttering.

Precious

You could not get a more opposite film to Solomon Kane than Precious. Looking at its stellar cast list, including Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz, and the sheer star-power of its executive production team (it includes Oprah Winfrey),  it is difficult to believe that when this film premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival it had no distributor.

You should know from the outset that Precious is not an easy film to watch. Its themes of deprivation, abuse and hopelessness are shockingly realised in a grainy, realist style that strangely had me thinking of Taxi Driver in the way it suddenly exploded with rage and emotion.

Precious follows the story of an obese, illiterate 16-yr-old called Claireece Precious Jones, about to be a mother for a second time – impregnated for the second time by her own father. Living in Harlem with her abusive, repulsive mother, and suspended from school, Claireece grasps an alternative education opportunity to escape the circle of despair that is her life experience to date – and the experience of all those in her life to date. The film is unabashed in its determination to demonstrate the power of education as a tool for overcoming poverty and serves as a sombre reminder to those of us who take reading, writing and blogging for granted that there are millions even in prosperous Western countries who struggle to make sense of notices and signs, let alone comics and magazines.

But Precious stands out for one thing in particular.

Gabourey Sidibe, as Precious, gives one of the most astonishing performances I have ever seen on film. Bearing in mind that this is her début feature, I am not sure I have ever seen an actress more capable at conveying an appreciation of her circumstances. In a performance that juxtaposes the steely indifference necessary to survive her daily humiliations with the colourful energy and radiance in the fantasy sequences that Precious clings to, Sidibe is broken, proud, humble and funny. From the culinary horror of deep-fried pig feet which her mother forces her to eat, to the friendships she tentatively forges with other broken women in her special classes, to her glamorously spinning and glittering like Aretha Franklin, she mesmerises in the way she captures the duality of life lived and life dreamed.

In one moving sequence, she gazes in on a neon-lit church and the worship team rehearsing. She imagines herself singing and dancing with the others, her face alight with a sense of belonging, before realising that even the Church, with its messages of hope and invitation, is beyond her reach.

It is hard stuff. But worth every penny.

Born of Hope

And finally… For all you hard-bitten cynics out there, I am going to give you another chance to click through to watch Born of Hope.

Get over the weirdness of watching a movie on YouTube.

Get over the fact that it’s British.

Get over the fact that it’s made in Epping Forest and that the same woman stars, directs, produces, makes the costumes, runs the budgets, makes the tea and biscuits etc.

If you are a fan of the fantasy genre and you don’t watch Born of Hope you are missing a chance to watch something truly special: a fan-made film that should embarrass the producers of the likes of the “Sword and the Sorcerer” and “Hawk the Slayer” with its ability to transcend the limitations of budget, set and location. “Born of Hope” is a very worthy addition to the fantasy film genre.

I know some of you out there simply don’t believe me, or think that video on the internet is only for posting japes and the antics of exhibitionists. So go on… Be a little wild on a wet Sunday afternoon!

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I’ve not heard any news regarding progress on rehousing the collection of rare boats formerly stored at the Motorboat Museum in Wat Tyler Country Park. However, a friend has sent me three pictures of some of the magnificent boats once displayed there.

Closing down the museum was an act of cultural vandalism – something that Basildon’s Conservative Party seem prone to.

Enjoy the pictures – and if you have any more, please send them through.

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Dear Reader,

Several people have indicated that whilst they liked the dark and brooding look of the theme I had chosen, they found it hard to read. I was a little loathe to part with the ChaoticSoul theme as it gave Fragments and Reflections a distinct feel. However, I would rather it were read!

I’d be grateful if you could take a look and let me know if the new theme look is an improvement.

Best wishes,

Ben

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One of the country’s leading champions of those imprisoned in Syria for human rights abuses is  Maureen Thomas. The journalist Christiane Schlötzer recently sent her a copy of her article about the disappearance of Haitham al-Maleh that first appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung last weekend. Geoff Williams has translated that article.

“They fear an old man”

How a 72 yr old lawyer disappeared in Damascus

Haiham Maleh, Süddeutsche Zeitung

After  lawyer Haitham Maleh gave his last interview he received a telephone call. He was to report the next day to an office of the secret service. Maleh didn’t. A day later three men in civilian clothes were waiting for the 78-yr-old when he arrived to unlock his car, at midday, in the middle of Damascus. The three strangers overpowered him and forced him into a car. Now the Syrian lawyer gives no more interviews. Instead, his son  Iyas Maleh is giving them, and this week in Berlin he has been recalling his father’s fate.

It was the week in which the USA appointed an ambassador to Syria for the first time in five years of diplomatic ice-age. President Obama sees Syria as a signficant player in the Middle East and would like to release the country from its close alliance with Iran. Iyas Maleh regards the approach to Damascus  by the West with scepticism. “The offer to improve relations must be linked to conditions” is his demand. “Syria has to show that it respects human rights.” Europe cannot simply “turn away” Maleh told the Süddeutsche Zeitung . He didn’t understand that both the Union (CDU/CSU) and the FDP stressed in Parliament (Bundestag) recently that deportations to Syria should remain possible. The opposition had demanded a stop to them.

Iyas Maleh did not know where his father was for eight days after his kidnap in Damascus on 14th  October 2009. When he then  appeared before a military court it became clear to the son that it would be a long time  until his father was freed. The charge against him is one of “spreading false information and so undermining national morale”, an accusation frequnetly used “when they want to throw someone in prison. Punishment is 3 to 15 yrs imprisonment”.  Haitham Maleh has already served six years in jail. He was chairman of a prohibited “human rights organisation” in Syria. Most recently, in written articles and an interview with the London-based Arabic TV company  Barada TV  he insisted on the rule of law within the state and criticised state corruption.

Thanks to a letter smuggled out of prison Iyas knows that his father has to sleep on the floor of an overcrowded cell. Iyas Maleh was also once arrested, in 1980, after which he fled to the USA. The 49-year-old computer engineer has not returned to Syria since. He has three siblings also living abroad. Their father remained in Syria.

“This allegedly so powerful Syrian government is afraid of an old man,” he says bitterly.

Translated by Geoff Williams


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haytham al-malehVery worrying news from Amnesty International regarding the health of Hytham al-Maleh.

Haitham al-Maleh was born in Damascus, in 1931 holds a degree in Law from Damascus University and a diploma in public international law. He is an award-winning human rights activist and lawyer. On 7 December 2004 he received an award from the National Advisory Committee (French) for Human Rights for his research on torture. He received his award from the French ambassador in Damascus in a special ceremony because the authorities prevented him from travelling to Paris. On 11 March 2006 he was awarded a Dutch medal in recognition of his courageous struggle for human rights.

The text of Amnesty’s recent press release is reproduced below.

Please write as requested by Amnesty.



URGENT ACTION

Haitham al-Maleh’s health failing

Prisoner of conscience Haitham al-Maleh is very ill, and he has not taken any of the medication he needs since 11 February.

Since 11 February, the authorities have not allowed detainees in ‘Adra prison to obtain medication from anywhere but the prison pharmacy. Haitham al-Maleh will only take medication provided by his family, because he believes the prison pharmacy’s medicine is of poor quality.

He was brought before a military judge in Damascus on 22 February to face new charges of “insulting the president” and “slandering a governmental body”, in a public hearing. These charges were based on information from a prisoner detained for a non-political offence. Haitham al-Maleh said the information consisted of “lies and acts of provocation” by the prisoner.

Diplomats and two Italian lawyers representing the International Federation for Human Rights, an international non-governmental organization that aims at improving human rights protection, who had come to observe the trial session, were not allowed to attend. Haitham al-Maleh’s wife, who was present in court, was not allowed to shake his hand or talk to him. On his way out, security officers dragged him away from her when they embraced.

According to those who did attend the hearing, Haitham al-Maleh was so frail that his voice was weak. He had passed out during the week before the hearing, because he had not received his medication. The day after the hearing, the new charges were dropped under a presidential amnesty for prisoners convicted of minor offences, but the charges brought against him on 3 November still stand.

Conditions in ‘Adra prison are poor. Haytham al-Maleh sleeps on a mattress on the floor in an overcrowded cell. He has diabetes and an overactive thyroid gland and has not had any medication since 11 February, although he needs to take regular medication to treat both conditions. His health is deteriorating. Individuals suffering from diabetes and an overactive thyroid gland who do not take medication are at risk of severe weight loss, falling into a coma, and even heart and kidney failure. Unlike other detainees in ‘Adra prison, Haytham al-Maleh is usually accompanied by a prison officer when meeting with the prison doctor.

PLEASE WRITE IMMEDIATELY in Arabic, English, French or your own language:

Urging the authorities to release Haytham al-Maleh immediately and unconditionally, as he is a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression.

President

Bashar al-Assad
Presidential Palace
al-Rashid Street
Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic
Fax: +963 11 332 3410
Salutation: Your Excellency

Minister of Interior

His Excellency Major Sa’id Mohamed Samour
Ministry of Interior
‘Abd al-Rahman Shahbandar Street
Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic
Fax: +963 11 222 3428
Salutation: Your Excellency

Copies to: Minister of Foreign Affairs

His Excellency Walid al-Mu’allim
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Abu Rummaneh
al-Rashid Street
Damascus, Syrian Arab Republic
Fax: +963 11 332 7620
Salutation: Your Excellency

Additional Information

Haitham al-Maleh was charged by a military judge on 3 November with “conveying false news”, “weakening national sentiment” and “slandering a governmental body”. These charges relate to his public criticism of human rights violations and corruption by Syrian officials, which included a phone interview in September with a Europe-based satellite channel, Baradda TV.

Kamal al-Labwani

Prison authorities often encourage prisoners charged with or convicted of non-political offences to inform on political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. On 23 April, Kamal al-Labwani, a prisoner of conscience was given an additional term of three years in prison by the First Criminal Military Court in Damascus for “broadcasting false or exaggerated news which would affect the morale of the country” under article 286 of the Penal Code. This sentence was added to the 12-year term he was already serving on account of his work advocating peaceful reform in the country. This new sentence was based on the testimony of a prisoner in his cell in ‘Adra prison that Kamal al-Labwani had returned from one of the hearings of his previous trial and spoken disparagingly of the government. Kamal al-Labwani denied the charge and said prisoners detained for non-political offences were working in conjunction with the prison authorities, who had ignored his complaints that he had been assaulted twice in the prison.

Walid al-Bunni

Another prisoner of conscience, Walid al-Bunni, is serving a 30-month sentence for his involvement in the Damascus  Declaration for Democratic National Change, a coalition of unauthorized political parties, human rights organizations and pro-democracy activists from across the political spectrum. He was brought before Damascus Criminal Court on a new charge of “conveying false news” on 4 May 2009, based on the testimony of another prisoner. The new charge was finally dropped on 17 June 2009 and Walid al-Bunni was acquitted.

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I received an email a couple of days ago from Yvonne Williams (no relation!) with the happy news that Basildon now has its own radio station! Gateway FM is a community radio station which now has a license to broadcast on the FM frequency. In awarding the five-year license, OFCOM said:

“Gateway FM is a not for profit social enterprise. Its mission is to enhance community cohesion through developing a community radio station to reach, involve and serve the communities of Basildon and East Thurrock. The station proposes to present a mixture of output reflecting the range of interests and backgrounds in the target community.”

For those of you who don’t know much about Gateway FM, this excerpt from its website sums it up well:

“It is a local company dedicated to local people, staffed by local people and seeking to make our locality a better place to be.

It seeks to be accessible to everyone interested in media related activities irrespective of age, gender, ethnicity, disability, disadvantage, sexuality or faith…

In other words, really local, local radio, by, about and for everyone in that area that looks to Basildon as its main local centre.”

Until now it has been restricted to two 28-day broadcasting slots a year. That OFCOM has now awarded it a full license is very very exciting news for all involved. This now has the potential to become a tremendous community resource for our towns and villages in the Basildon area.

Just today, Gateway FM put the following press release on their website:

“The recent award of our community radio licence by Ofcom opens immediate opportunities to join this really local radio station and make it something very special within our community.

Volunteers can expect abundant training support and the chance to develop skills in areas such as  journalism, sports reporting, editing, computing, office administration, presenting, sales, writing for radio, researching, interviewing and teaching.

The atmosphere is friendly and exciting. You could be involved in interviewing a celebrity, going out and about with our roadshow or providing a voice-over. Above all, you can bring specialist knowledge, specialist skills and individual talent to the heart of our community and share in a community enterprise pledged to helping us understand and appreciate the diverse experiences, talents and traditions amongst us.

Just call 01268 521299 to arrange a meeting.”

Get involved! And in the meantime, you can look at their schedule and listen online.

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