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“The owls are not what they seem…”

I remember it vividly.

1990 and Twin Peaks had been the subject of fevered classroom conversation for weeks. There had been teasers and trailers. Deliciously, it was airing on BBC2. Mark and I were in our final year of sixth form, enjoying a friendship that had been long in the making: a knowledge of each other in primary school refined by the ruin of other friendships in secondary school and a discovery of shared interests in gaming and cards and quirky television.

Twin Peaks, the product of the warped creative genius of David Lynch and Mark Frost, was unlike anything else that had been on television. It was the 1990s and it was the first decade I felt I could truly own, really aware of the music and film and television informing the media culture we were growing up in. It was also the last Century of a dying Millennium and somehow the dark weirdness of Twin Peaks seemed utterly appropriate. And from the slow motion opening credits, accompanied by Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting score, I knew we were hooked.

The murder of Laura Palmer – and the seductive overtures of Sherilyn Fenn’s Audrey Horne – would overshadow our final school days.

That all seems a long time ago now and in the intervening years I forgot the specific qualities that made Twin Peaks uniquely brilliant. More sadly, friendships faded and with them the remembrance of things that made them live so vividly at the time.

Then, several years back I spotted Twin Peaks on DVD.

I couldn’t resist. I wanted to know if it had stood the test of time. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Like the very best wine and the very best whisky it had improved. In an almost Lynchian way, it didn’t feel dated – perhaps because so many of the usual markers that age television of a period (technology, city fashions etc) are absent. Instead it was fresh and provocative. And, once again, Twin Peaks accompanied the transformation of a relationship – this time in a very much better direction.

Having previously watched the whole of Sex and the City back to back with Em, Twin Peaks was always going to be something of a contrast. However, we were immediately immersed in Lynch’s mischievous and murderously dark envisioning, lapping up Agent Cooper’s humorous musings, Audrey Horne’s sensuous teasings and hankering after a mug of “damn fine coffee” and a slice of cherry pie.

Lynch is one of our favourite directors.

Even at his most disturbing, there is something shockingly honest about his camera and what it sees. Wild at Heart is one of the films that sticks most in my memory, my Midnight Cowboy or  The Graduate, seeing it for the first time after I moved away from home to begin my studies in Hull. Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern give two career-defining performances in this twisted celluloid nightmare that somehow veers just the right side of kitsch, ricocheting through the violent badlands of an America that is only equalled by that of Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone in its capacity for brutality. IMDb has a long list of film trivia that is testament to the influences on Lynch and which he recognises in Twin Peaks through wry asides and visual tributes.

Em loved it.

And we both shared the same enormous frustration at learning that the release of Series Two had been held up by legal wranglings. I was particularly keen to get hold of it as I had – have – seen every episode except the very last. Mark never spoiled it for me and I don’t know to this day how the series resolved.

On several consecutive August excursions to Cornwall we asked the guy in Moods and Visions, in Falmouth’s George’s Arcade, if it had been released. We always left empty-handed, wondering if we would ever get to sit down with Coop again.

Then, quite by chance, walking past Basildon’s HMV just last week, I saw it.

Series Two.

Tonight we went back to Twin Peaks and picked up where we left off. It is gloriously bonkers and I am glad to be back home.

Buy it. Watch it.

Enjoy it for the uniquely brilliant piece of extended television theatre it is.

And just in case you are reading, Mark, here’s another little reminder of 1990…

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It’s rare for Em and I to have the time or energy to go out in the week.

Every now and then, though, browsing around the net late at night, you stumble across something at exactly the moment you need it. At a pretty low point, I noticed Paloma Faith had added an extra concert to her sold-out two-gig finale at the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire. I snapped up a pair of tickets to the very last night of her month-long UK tour.

I don’t think I had been to see a gig in Hammersmith since I saw Queensrÿche on their  Operation: Mindcrime tour in November 1990 (remember that, Stringbean?).

There was something of a hiatus in my concert-going between 1991 and 2009.  I left off with Guns and Roses at Wembley Stadium on 31 August 1991 and resumed with a Jazz Café turn by the brilliant Mark Olson and Gary Louris of The Jayhawks on 12 May 2009. That was quickly followed by 14 May 2009’s stunning turn by Counting Crows at Wembley Arena. The review in The Times didn’t do it justice.

So going to see Paloma Faith was part of my on-going campaign to ensure I don’t slip back into a nineteen-year bad habit of not enjoying live music.

Hammersmith is a great part of London. It feels edgier and grubbier and more alive than the museum space of Westminster, a feeling heightened by a sharp March wind, soft rays of light from a setting sun and the collision of sharp scents – ozone, grilled and spiced meats, exotic tobacco and patchouli.

In a confident gig-going frame of mind I led Em purposefully through the streets of Hammersmith, having chosen to get out at Goldhawk Road tube station (I didn’t even know there was a Goldhawk Road tube station until we were sitting on the District Line at 6.15pm!). Having a pretty good head for directions, I found the Empire quickly and we joined the queue, feeling a little smug that we had found the place with little fuss. Unfortunately, I found the wrong queue, and on reaching the door we stepped out of the one for the stalls and joined the back of the one on the other side of the building for the upper tier.

It was well worth the wait.

The concert opened with Josh Weller, an indie popster with the most incredible hairstyle who previously collaborated with Paloma Faith on the single It’s Christmas (And I Hate You). His band were tight and their songs polished, though most of his set was ruined for me by the woman behind who insisted on talking (read shouting) to her friend through the entire performance (it was nearly a Jack Reacher moment). It was refreshing, too, to see a support act talking so fondly about the head-liner – he clearly has a huge amount of respect for his headlining colleague.

When Paloma Faith finally appeared, a few minutes after 9pm, we roared our approval.

I couldn’t get my head around the fact that this was her first UK tour.

She had energy and confidence and polish in spades, each number note perfect and delivered with phenomenal passion. With a dry and kooky sense of humour, she was backed up by a band of extraordinary talent, who were able to heavy-ify and disco-ify her songs according to Paloma’s mischievous wishes. Introducing her songs with a humorous and relaxed delivery, she was beautifully blunt about the journalist who had accused her of insecurities for highlighting her influences, saying she simply believed in saying “thank you”. She then launched straight into a superb rendition of Billie Holiday’s God Bless The Child.

And how did she bounce around the stage in what looked like four-inch heels? That is definitely a girl mystery.

If you know her debut album, Do You Want The Truth Or Something Beautiful?, you’ll know that each song is a creative juxtaposition of melodic even jaunty pop and haunting, occasionally heart-breaking, lyrics. For Romance Is Dead she selected a gentleman from the audience to serenade, hamming up her weary resignation to a love-life of plastic flowers and greasy fingerprints. Later, She poignantly reminded us of the loss of her friend that inspired My Legs Are Weak.

At the very end, closing the formal set list with Play On, and teasing her audience over the possibility of an encore as only someone with a working knowledge of burlesque could do, she had, by dint of omission, left us in no doubt as to her final number – the sing-along pop anthem New York. As the band struck up and Paloma pointed her mic to the audience for the sing-along choruses, it was great to know we were indeed at the start of something beautiful.

I was reading tips recently on how to write reviews and an “expert” writer cautioned would-be reviewers against describing something as “brilliant” or “fantastic”.

Well sod that.

It was a fantastic night out and Paloma Faith was simply brilliant. She will play on for a long time to come – and we can be grateful for that.

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“Men want to be him, women want to be with him…”

Like everyone, I have a secret vice or two. One of these is a penchant for airport thrillers, the sort of unputdownable page-turner that lets you be the bone-crunching, Glock-packing loner-hero you always intended to be before discovering computer games, cheese sandwiches and DVD box-sets.

The apotheosis of this page-projected  fantasy-self has to be Jack Reacher.

There are moments on late night vomit-comets out of Fenchurch Street when I consider swinging into action, despatching anti-social hoods left, right and centre. Then I remember I’ve only got a handful of shirts and that, combined with a pathological fear of getting my nose broken, lead me usually to consider waiting until I am more suitably attired.

Andy Martin, writing in the Independent, sums up Reacher brilliantly: “Reacher is a moody, modern outsider figure, one of the great anti-heroes. He is anti-capitalism, anti-materialism, anti-religion, with a fondness for anarchy and revolution: a liberal intellectual with machismo, and arms the size of Popeye’s.”

I am sure those who know me can spot the similarity.

It is more than a little ironic that Jack Reacher, the all-American action hero, romantic loner and chivalrous sharpshooter, is actually the creation of a Brit, Lee Child, who turned to writing at forty after losing his job with Granada TV. David Smith’s 2008 profile piece in the Guardian gives hope to all of us who are still nurturing hopes of becoming international best-selling authors.

So why my puppyish over-excitement?

Last weekend I happened to pass by Waterstone’s and discovered that Lee Child’s latest Reacher book was out: 61 Hours. And it’s brilliant. As friends and family can testify, the Smallest Room in the House doubles as the Lesser Library – and I am locking myself away in there with Jack Reacher on a regular basis.

There are rumours, too, of a Jack Reacher film, though nothing more recent than 2008 (on a cursory trawl). And whilst not strictly in keeping with Child’s description of Reacher, I can’t get away from the idea of him being played by the brilliant and chiselled Christopher Melloni, better known to many as Elliot Stabler in Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.

So if you’ve not done so already, and enjoy a pulp read with plenty of action and fast-plotted twists, introduce yourself to Jack Reacher and check out The Killing Floor. And if you are a UK inquisitive, you might want to check out Jack Reacher’s official UK fan site, too.

And one final warning.

If you are a lager lout on a late night last train out of London and you see me wearing jeans… Watch out.

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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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“Every time I go to a movie, it’s magic, no matter what the movie’s about…”

So said Stephen Spielberg, and if anyone should know about the magic of cinema it is Spielberg. From Raiders of the Lost Ark to E.T. to Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg has made some of the most memorable films of modern cinema.

I have always loved film.

Em and I regularly immerse ourselves in these other worlds, be they the latest Hollywood blockbusters or, when the mood takes us, a film from abroad. The poignant beauty of Uzak, the mischievous brilliance of Amarcord and the stark honesty of 35 Shots of Rum are among the films that have helped us pass many a Sunday afternoon curled on the sofa. If we are feeling brave we might try some of the more obscure and occasionally extreme cinema from around the world. In these moments we’ve flinched at the likes of Requiem for a Dream by Darren Aronofsky, sat shell-shocked through examples of the New French Extremity and laughed at the comic-book ultra-violence of Asian martial arts movies such as The Machine Girl. Or if it has been a particularly crappy week at work, it’s hard to beat a bit of Quentin Tarantino to Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill those particularly Inglorious Basterds you work with…

And, just sometimes, there is something so truly magical about a film that it burns itself into the memory, taking on a peculiar reality all of its own that weaves its narrative into your imagination in vivid and brilliant ways.

I remember, for instance, the first time I became aware of Star Wars, the fantastical saga by George Lucas set in a galaxy far, far away. Dad had scooped up my cousin and me and taken us off to Chelmsford (I think it was Chelmsford!) to see The Jungle Book. As we went into the cinema we could see the queues for Star Wars. And as I gazed up at a cinema screen for the very first time, the trailer, accompanied by the majesty of John Williams‘s towering score,  blew me away, taking my overactive imagination off to the Millenium Falcon and the race to rescue Princess Leia from the clutches of Darth Vader (it was a long time before I realised I really wanted to be Han Solo, not Luke Skywalker). Years later I finally saw the film and I remember how excited I was when I learned I would finally get to see it, albeit on a small television rather than the big screen.

Now, my film horizons broadened, I can appreciate its homage to the Western genre and see where Lucas was influenced by the heroic samurai in the films of Akira Kurosawa.

It was a similar sense of childish excitement that gripped me in anticipation of the start of Peter Jackson‘s Lord of the Rings trilogy. I remember the dark flickerings on the screen and the spine-tingling hush in the dark theatre as Cate Blanchette‘s Galadriel whispered: “The world is changed. I feei it in the water, I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost. For none now live who remember it.”

There is something quite awesome about Jackson’s capacity to fully immerse you in a world of elves and orcs, dark lords and lost kings and the Lord of the Rings trilogy deservedly won Total Film’s “Epic of the decade” accolade. Even now, eight years on (eight years!), I still get goosebumps when I picture that spectacular scene where Gandalf, riding Shadowfax, leads two thousand riders under the command of Éomer to charge down Saruman’s Uruk-hai. (And yes, I don’t care that it is different in the book – it works on film!)

When a series of films has captured your imagination so completely, it is with a sense of dread that you stumble across stories on the internet of fan-made films. There is nothing quite like the post-ironic comment of a clever-dick student spoof to destroy the sense of childish wonder that fuels excited reminiscinces. On first reading about “Born of Hope” I groaned inwardly and thought that, after the eye-watering budgets that Jackson needed to transport us to Middle Earth, a fan film would be a truly dreadful exercise in wrecking the magic of his majestic trilogy.

My trepidation was hugely magnified when I learned that the director, Kate Madison, was also writer, star, budget manager, wardrobe manager, producer, prop maker, costume designer and camera operator.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

“Born of Hope” is a stunningly realised homage to Jackson’s interpretation of Middle Earth. Madison, who spent her life savings of £8000 on the film, topped up with £17,000 in donations inspired by a trailer she posted on YouTube, has created something truly remarkable that complements Jackson’s trilogy in a way you cannot conceive until you’ve seen it.

Everything about it is first rate.

The acting, the battle scenes, the score, the costumes, the camera work, the dialogue… If there is such a thing as genius in film-making, then Madison is surely such.

The story of Arathorn and Gilraen, the parents of Aragorn, is barely a couple of paragraphs buried in the appendices of Tolkien’s sprawling saga. Madison has somehow turned these few lines that most will probably have never read into a gripping story of love, loss and battle that is entirely worthy of Jackson.

If this all sounds loony, and you think I am exaggerating, read the four star review “Born of Hope” received in The Times – and watch it free on You Tube.

Kate Madison’s gift to all of us who loved Jackson’s trilogy is 71 minutes of magic that evoke the shivers you felt the first time you saw the Nazgûl emerge from the shadows – and reminds you of those heart-pounding adrenaline surges as you glimpsed a flash of Aragorn’s blade or Gimli’s axe or Legolas’s deft bowmanship.

“Born of Hope” is £25,000, incredible talent and a whole lot of movie love.

You’ll never see Epping Forest the same way again.

UPDATE:

Due to a copyright claim by Konami Digital Entertainment CoLtd “Born of Hope” is no longer available on YouTube (what the hell is all the corporate vulturing about?). However, it is now available to watch on Daily Motion. Enjoy the brilliant efforts of Kate Madison and her cast and crew.

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The Strange Death of David KellyWith the Chilcott Inquiry proving a much more exacting process than many of us imagined it might, curiosity provoked me to buy a copy of The Strange Death of David Kelly by Norman Baker MP. Norman Baker stepped down from the Lib Dem front bench after the 2005 election, despite the offer to continue as Environment spokesman, so that he could spend time investigating the circumstances surrounding the sudden death of the United Nations’ pre-eminent expert on weapons inspections.

My curiosity was also piqued by the news that emerged earlier this year that Lord Hutton had requested a gagging order of 70 years on documents relating to Dr Kelly’s death, including the post-mortem reports and photographs. His inquiry was widely condemned at the time as a white-wash. I remember seeing the size of the report, watching MPs responding to its conclusions as presented by Tony Blair to the House of Commons,  and wondering how on earth they could make any sense of something so vast, with so much evidence, in the sort amount of time available to them to prepare for a government statement. Speaking to the BBC on 26 January 2010 about the gagging order, Norman Baker was typically forthright:

“It’s astonishing and unheard-of for material of this nature to be hidden away for any length of time, let alone 70 years.

Coroners’ inquests are held in public. Lord Hutton’s inquiry was unique in its format and unique in requesting restrictions of this nature.

His statement today undermines the validity of his own inquiry and gives further justification to the case being made by many for a proper inquest to be held into this most public of deaths.”

Writing in the Daily Mail on 25 January 2010, Norman Baker was even more blunt:

“Now we learn that evidence which was not presented at the inquiry has been locked away for 70 years – and this inquiry, remember, was to subject Dr David Kelly’s death to public scrutiny.

How could Lord Hutton have got it so wrong?

The reality is that his inquiry was fixed by Blair and his cohorts to produce the right result. If you put down the tracks, that’s the way the train goes.”

Think back seven years, to the frantic stories over the validity of the “dodgy dossier”, or to the earlier dossier with its claims that Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction in just 45 minutes. Think back to the surreal reports that Dr David Kelly had been found dead, just two days after he carefully and professionally gave evidence to the International Affairs Select Committee.

It seems like a lifetime away.

Seven years later, out of the Helleresque maelstrom of torturous logic twists that characterised so much of the political conversation at the time, it is easy to sweep this under the carpet of history and wait for it to quietly disappear. Commentators and analysts help push the subject to the margins, keen to avoid attracting career-hindering labels. A knowing journalistic smile places those who ask difficult questions in the company of loony conspiracists and authors of badly-formatted underground websites, moments before the jingling traffic report is read and the story is forgotten. Despite even Baroness Scotland writing to Sir John Chilcott to request that the inquiry include the death of David Kelly, a quick search of the transcript of evidence given by Tony Blair to the Chilcott Inquiry reveals David Kelly’s name doesn’t occur once.

As Norman Baker reminds us, we like to think that unpleasant things like political murder don’t occur in Britain.

So what of Georgi Markov?

What of Roberto Calvi?

What of Alexander Litvinenko?

If you are not going to buy the book, you can read a summary of the many questions in this article published by Norman Baker in the Daily Mail in October 2007.

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