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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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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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