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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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