Movie magic: Solomon Kane, Precious and Born of Hope (again!)

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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Cold war ghosts: legacies in concrete and film

At dinner last night, we talked about the way that the experience of war imprints itself on the experiences of individuals and societies differently, according to the war and the immediacy of its domestic impact.

Reflecting on that conversation, it struck me that growing up with the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction hanging over us left its own imprints. Less immediately dramatic, perhaps, than the years of evacuation, rationing and lights out of World War Two, but no less terrifying in its own insidious way, the Cold War offered plenty of sleepless nights to this over-active imagination.

I remember panicking when we were told that total annihilation was just four minutes away. Whenever the sirens were tested I found myself wondering if the radar I now know was based at Jodrel Bank had picked up inbound enemy missiles that would destroy my school and my family and the small world of Langdon Hills that I inhabited. I imagined Soviet tanks trundling through my childhood stamping ground of the Fränkische Schweiz and rolling across Western Europe, destroying everything in their path.

Television films like Threads and the Day After depicted the horrors of a nuclear Armageddon in chilling detail. I remember lying awake for nights, terrified of what would happen.

I also remember taking the bus to Romford to see Rocky IV in 1985 and being reassured that we would always beat the bad guys. How could we not be? Our plucky little hero was avenging his friend’s death and completed his training montage in the frozen Russian countryside with just a few logs at his disposal.

Drago on the other hand, his giant of an opponent, was wired up to the most sophisticated computers and pumped full of steroids – yet our man still triumphed and, in doing so, won the admiration of the Russian President.

Gloriously awful nonsense, but now, looking back, the parameters seem so much safer. In much the way that my father’s grandparents reflected on the unique camaraderie of the Second World War, the sense of social obligation and national community, I catch myself thinking back fondly to the geo-strategic certainty of a time when two superpowers leaned in on each other. The USA and the USSR were the hammer-beam roof of our geo-politics, creaking and immobile under the weight of their respective nuclear edifices.

In this changed world of terrorist cells, underground bombers, dirty bombs and cyber-warfare, such certainty seems oddly nostalgic. For me, that surreal stalemate of infinite nuclear escalation has woven itself into the fabric of memory, mischievously tangling itself with normative childhood archetypes of safety, and I find myself prompted to rueful reflection by the architecture of redundant physical structures or the clumsily amateurish animation of public information broadcasts.

They each harbour the childhood ghosts of lingering summers spent wondering on the end of the world.

The Nuclear Bunker at Kelvedon Hatch is a local example of such a building. I find a certain poignancy in the way that this extraordinary structure, disguised beneath a simple cottage and chillingly significant in its original purpose, has been reduced to such a level that it can now be hired out for parties. If you click the picture below you might see what I mean in the gallery that I have pulled together on Flickr.

Kelvedon Hatch Nuclear Bunker

In a similar way, the series of Protect and Survive public information films retain their ability to shock, despite their amateurishness. I still wonder if hiding under some doors and suitcases would ensure my survival in the event of a nuclear strike.

But perhaps the greatest reminder that this period in our history is dead and gone is the strange news that Latvia recently sold Skrunda, an entire Soviet-era town, now completely deserted. Click on the photo below and you will be transported to an eerie gallery on Flickr that paints a haunting picture of decaying urban sprawl  – its architecture, posters and purpose abandoned to the past.

skrunda

Here the ghosts of my childhood nightmares can still play amongst the radar stations and the tower blocks and the crumbling, brick-strewn classrooms.

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Motorboat Museum closure makes the news – will the Council listen? #basildon #toryfail

It is good to see that the local and regional media have been taking an interest in the Motorboat Museum, even if Basildon’s Conservative-controlled Council is no longer bothered what happens to the nation’s foremost collection of motorboats. Interestingly, the Council have confirmed to me that they made no effort to find a private sponsor and set aside no money to promote the museum (the budget for promoting it came out of the general countryside services promotion budget – so I guess it didn’t get very much).

Most of us would not have much time for the excuses made by a company that complained about falling sales having not advertised its products, so it strikes me as a little rich for the Council to complain that visitor numbers were falling when they did nothing to tell people the museum was there!

Before going on, I think I should make it clear that I see this as a matter of political will and prioritisation – and not something that is the responsibility of a countryside services budget already stretched to capacity. To that end I think it appalling that in the coverage I have seen, no administration councillor has seen fit to defend this decision publicly, instead choosing to hide behind officials and spokespersons.

It is probably all too late, at least in terms of saving the collection in Basildon, but this local and regional media coverage has been impressive.

Sophie Edwards had a good piece in the Echo which featured George Sawyer, the former world record holder who lives locally and who is a member of the Friends of the Motorboat Museum. He sums it up very well:

“He said: “If the collection is broken it will be a disaster.

“Basildon has really lost something. This museum was the only one of its kind in the world, which traced the history and evolution of motor boats.

“Hopefully the museum won’t be lost altogether, even though it will be sadly lost to Basildon.””

I was rather less measured, not least of all because I am fed up of tip-toeing around issues which are too easily dismissed as a minority issue or of limited significance:

““I don’t believe the council has invested any serious effort in maintaining the integrity of the collection.

“I have nothing against taking funding from Government for a new green education centre.

“However, if the council was bothered enough, it could have sought to preserve this nationally-significant collection.””

ITV’s London Tonight programme visited Basildon yesterday and spoke to George and Nina Sawyer at the museum. Whilst it is not on their main website, ITN sells clips of its footage and you can see it as a preview on their page.

And today, John Hayes featured the fate of the Motorboat Museum on BBC Essex’s prime-time “Drive Time” programme. The three minute feature on the Motorboat Museum is exactly 43 minutes into the programme.

Until the end of last year, school kids on their curriculum museum visits could see examples such as the Fairey Huntress, the boat that James Bond and Tatiana Romanova use to escape from SPECTRE at the end of From Russia With Love.

That is one of the most iconic chase sequences in any Bond film and I remember it fuelling many a childhood secret agent fantasy.

Now?

I am left wondering sadly how on earth Basildon Council can rationalise that the preservation of a nationally-significant collection like this simply doesn’t matter any more.

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“Born of Hope”: Amateur movie-making magic that needs to be seen! Really! #lotr #bornofhope

“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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A Mike Leigh gem – going “Nuts in May”

“Nuts in May” - from the BBC

I’ve just spent a very happy hour and a bit slumped on a sofa in front of a roaring fire, Em on one side,  a mug of tea on the other – and “Nuts in May” by Mike Leigh on the television. As with all his films, it is a perfect study of the quirks and imperfections of human nature – and the little obsessions that drive us all. If you can laugh at yourself, and you’ve not seen it, try and get hold of a copy. Better still, if you like character-driven cinema, that examines the way we complicate even the simplest things with our hang-ups, routines and prejudices, get hold of a copy of “Mike Leigh: The BBC Collection”, which contains all his surviving films, plays and shorts for the BBC:

If you want to read some reviews of “Nuts in May”, BFI Screenonline has a very good synopsis by Darren Rea. For a transatlantic view, RVA News has a very good review by Scott Burton. There is also an interesting piece by Ray Carney, excerpted from his book The Films of Mike Leigh.

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