Saturday, 10 March 2007

300

Of the movies being released this year, 300 may well have been the one I was most looking forward. In my youth one of my favourite films was 300 Spartans. And years ago I read the graphic novel 300 by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. Loving both the 1962 movie and the graphic novel based on the same historical event, 300 was definitely a film I wanted to see. That I got to do so on my birthday was an even bigger treat.

Like the graphic novel upon which it is based, 300 is based on the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BCE), in which a force of 300 men led by King Leonidas of Sparta faced down an army of literally thousands belonging to the Persian Empire (then ruled by Xerxes I). 300 departs a bit from the historical event, but it does capture the spirit of the battle in a way that a more historically accurate movie may not have.

Indeed, 300 is literally an overwhelming movie. Its strongest point is definitely its visuals, taken almost directly from the original graphic novel. The movie was filmed against a blue screen, using CGI to generate the backgrounds and many of the effects. As a result, 300 looks like no other movie before it. The imagery is surrealistic and wonderfully bigger than life, befitting an event which literally changed the course of history. The battle scenes are more violent than any movie I've ever seen, grandiose in the way that a historical epic should be. There is blood to spare in this film, and possibly more beheadings than in any film in recent history. Quite simply, if you are the least squeamish about violence in movies, then I can guarantee you won't like this film.

Grandiose visuals is not the only thing 300 has going for it, however, as it moves at the pace that is almost literally non-stop. Especially once the battle begins, there is almost never a quiet moment. Fortunately, its pace does not sacrifice a good story. This is a compelling tale with strong characters. Indeed, Gerard Butler (who seems to be making a career of playing legendary kings--he played Beowulf in Beowulf and Grendel) plays King Leonidas with honesty and conviction. This is a king who means it when he says that he would die for any one of his men. An equally strong performance is given by Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo, who is convincing as a woman who is as strong in spirit as the mightiest Spartan warriors. Rather than crying over her husband going to what is a certain death, this is a woman who willingly accepts his date with destiny.

In the end 300 is literally an overwhelming film. Forget that it departs a good deal from the historical record. Forget that at times it can be very unrealistic. This is the perfect visual representation of one of the greatest battles in history, overpowering at times but capturing the spirit of the Battle of Thermopylae.

Friday, 9 March 2007

Rap in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?!

Every year I look forward to the list of new inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And most years I find myself somewhat disappointed at the list. This year, however, I think I am more disappointed than I ever have been. While the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is inducting such worthy honourees as The Ronettes, R.E.M. and Patti Smith, they are also inducting Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. My objections to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five are very basic. Quite simply, they are not rock and roll. They are not even close.

For those of you who have never heard of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, they are pioneers of the so called musical genre known as rap. Their single, "The Message," released in 1982, was among rap's earliest hits. Now I will admit that this makes Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five important to the history of rap, the fact remains that rap is an entirely different genre from rock and as a result the importance of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five on the history of rock music is negligible. In my mind, including them in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would be like including Guy Lombardo or Merle Haggard. They may be important figures in their own respective genres of music, but they are not rock and roll.

What makes me angrier about this is that there are still many deserving artists who are clearly rock acts that have yet to be inducted into the Hall of the Fame. KISS had an enormous impact on Heavy Metal music and, for better or worse, the hair bands of the Eighties, but they are still not part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Judas Priest sparked the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, yet they have never been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Cheap Trick is perhaps the most famous Power Pop band around, with a history spanning over 25 years and a cult following, but they have never been inducted either. The Moody Blues have had a lasting impact on progressive rock and orchestral rock, but they still are not part of the Hall of Fame. To induct a rap group, which has had no impact on rock music, but not to induct important rock groups that have, is a slap in the face to these groups and their fans alike.

Admittedly, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has inducted individuals that I would not consider rock artists before and whose contributions to rock music were minimal at best, non-existent at worst. While I admit Miles Davis was a great talent, he was hardly a rock musician. And while I have always loved Bob Marley, I am not sure that reggae qualifies as rock and roll any more than rap. Still, I had hoped that this year perhaps the Hall of Fame would clean up their act and stick to purely rock acts. That they didn't cannot help but make me unhappy. I can't help but think that perhaps rock music needs another Hall of Fame, one whose definition of rock and roll isn't quite so broad as to include artists who obviously are not rock. As it is, next year I have to wonder if I can't look forward to Ludwig Von Beethoven and Buck Owens joining the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame...

Thursday, 8 March 2007

John Inman 1935-2007

John Inman, most famous for playing the flamboyant Mr. Humphries on the classic Britcom Are You Being Served died today at the age of 71. He had been suffering from Hepatitis A.

Inman was born in Preston, Lancashire on June 28, 1935. His family moved to Blackpool when he was 12. Even as a child he wanted to be an actor. His family even paid for elocution lessons. He made his stage debut at the age of 13 at Blackpool's South Pier. At age 21 he joined a touring repertory theatre company. He made his debut on the West End in Ann Veronica in the late Sixties.

Inman's greatest claim to fame would come through television. He made his TV debut in 1970 in a guest appearance in the sitcom Two in Clover. It was in 1972 that Inman was cast in the role of Wilberforce Claybourne Humphries on Are You Being Served. The sitcom was set in the aging Grace Brothers Department Store in London, where the menswear department was suddenly forced to share their floor space with the ladies department. Are You Being Served was an immediate success, lasting ten seasons and becoming a cult classic in the United States. It is still rerun to this day on both sides of the Atlantic. Mr. Humphries may well have been the most popular character on the show. Flamboyant and extremely close to his mother, Mr. Humphries' sexual orientation was always under question, even though it was never made explicit whether or not he was gay. The question "Is he or isn't he" was one of the show's long running gags. In 1976 he won the BBC Personality of the Year and was voted Funniest Man of the Year by readers of The Radio Times.

Inman also appeared on the sitcoms Odd Man Out, Take a Letter Mr. Jones, and Grace and Favour (the sequel to Are You Being Served). Following Are You Being Served, Inman became well known for his pantomimes, appearing in over 40 such productions across Britain.

Are You Being Served has always been one of my favourite sitcoms to come out of Britain. I must also admit that Mr. Humphries was always my favourite character on the show. The reason for this was quite simply Inman's comic talents. As Humphries he could be wonderfully over the top, yet at the same time the character possessed a gift for understatement. Indeed, as Mr. Humphries, Inman could get a laugh with a simple look. I must say that I am truly saddened by his passing.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Captain America is Dead

Today Captain America #25 (Volume 4) hit newstands. That event would not be remarkable save for two things. First, it is the final issue of the series. Second, it ends with Captain America being fatally shot by a sniper as he leaves a courthouse. That's right, Captain America is dead.

It has been a long run for Captain America, albeit with some interruptions. The character made his debut in Captain America Comics #1, March 1941. Created by comic book legends Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, Captain America was 90 pound weakling Steve Rogers, classed "4-F" by the military because of his poor health. Fortunately, Rogers received a reprieve in the form of a "Super Soldier" serum, which gave the young man superhuman strength. Rogers donned a costume and the name "Captain America" to combat America's enemies.

Although not the first patriotic superhero (that would be The Shield, published by MLJ Comics, now Archie Comics), Captain America was arguably the most popular. Following World War II, however, the popularity of superheroes declines sharply and the last issue of Captain America Comics was published in February 1950. He was revived briefly in 1954, but the revival did not last. Finally, when Stan Lee revitalised the Marvel Comics line in the Sixties, Captain America was revived once again, in the pages of The Avengers in 1964. He soon became the leader of The Avengers and also received his own title once more.

Despite Captain America's death, plans for a feature film to be released in 2009 are still underway. And Marvel Comics has not ruled out the possibility that Captain America will return. Indeed, in a medium where death is rarely permanent, I rather suspect it is very likely. Many will remember years ago when DC Comics "killed off" Superman. DC Comics always had plans to revive the Man of the Steel and did so after several months. I have to wonder if Marvel Comics could not be doing the same thing. They generate new interest in the character by killing him off, with plans of reviving him at a later date. I cannot say that is what they are doing, but it at least seems possible.

At any rate, I cannot say I would be happy if Captain America was dead once and for all. While I cannot say that Captain America was necessarily one of my favourite superheroes, I have always been partial to the Golden Age characters. Sadly, beyond the Sub-Mariner, Captain America was one of the few characters from Marvel Comics' Golden Age to see publication on a somewhat regular basis. To me then, in killing Captain America off, Marvel Comics is disposing of an important part of its history. At any rate, Marvel Comics won't be the same without him.

Monday, 5 March 2007

The Lost Tomb of Jesus

Generally, when I think of a movie director stirring things up, Oliver Stone comes to mind. Let's face it, his theories on the John F. Kennedy assassination have never failed to start arguments. This time around, however, it is not Oliver Stone who is stirring up trouble, but James Cameron, of all people. Cameron was executive producer on the documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus, which aired on the Discovery Channel last night.

The Lost Tomb of Jesus centres on the alleged discovery of the tomb of the family of Jesus below Jersualem. As a documentary I can't deny that it is very well done. Director Simcha Jacobovici allows everything to unfold like a good novel, rather than throwing everything at the viewer at once. And the information is entertainingly delivered. The documentary is indeed very engaging.

As to the evidence that this is indeed the lost tomb of Jesus, that is somewhat less compelling. While the coincidence of the various names (Yeshua/Jesus, Maria/Mary, and so on) makes it seem possible that this is the tomb of the family of Jesus, I am not so sure that is very likely. Indeed, what no one on the documentary seems to have pointed out is that while the names do indeed fit with those of Jesus's family, there are many names from his family that are conspicuously absent--his father Joseph and his brothers James, Jude, and Simon. While I am not going to say that this is definitely not the tomb of Jesus, I have to admit that it seems unlikely to me that it is (keep in mind that as I am not Christian, I don't believe Jesus bodily ascended into heaven, so finding a tomb belong to him is at least possible in my mind).

I don't think The Lost Tomb of Jesus is going to challenge the faith of any Christians. Nor do I think it is going to convince anyone that this is indeed the tomb of Jesus. That having been said, I do think it is an entertaining two hours covering what is at least an interesting possibility.