Friday, 4 April 2014

300: Rise of a Computer Game?

I've been looking forward to watching the sequel to 300 for a while. While there was a lot about the film 300 (and the comic it was based on) which jars when compared to historical fact, 300 is still a good film. The audience is made to care about its main characters and their fate, which makes the journey through the film more engaging and the ending all the more moving. The same cannot be said of 300: Rise of an Empire.

Yes, it’s an action packed film – but I found it difficult to give a damn about its characters. Also, it was so action packed that there seemed to be little time for a worthwhile storyline or any effective character building for the lead characters. The only characters with a lengthy back plot are Xerxes and Artemisia, both of which are completely fictional back plots intended to increase the supposed villainy, power and evil of each in the story (for instance, Artemisia was the queen of Halicarnassus and not the victim of the tragic story given in the film).

Part of the motive for this appears to be, once again, to set up the democracy and freedom versus tyranny and slavery plot-line. Similar was done in the first film but not with such a heavy hand. That becomes important when the audience has to put aside the knowledge that both Athens and Sparta had slaves and any democracy within Athens was solely for true born Athenians and not for slaves or people of foreign birth living and working in Athens. The critical quip used in many a film “all men are born equal and some are born more equal than others” is a witticism that has an unpleasant truth when applied to ancient Greece.

I find it a curiosity that the film is so unbalanced when it comes to action vs plot and character. The film is around 100 minutes long and an extra 15 to 20 minutes allowing better storytelling, making it a two hour film, wouldn't have been such a hardship.


I know people who got a kick out of the film. Their enjoyment, however, was in comparison with that of watching an action packed computer game and the similarity of the action to that in the game that ties-in with the film.   Speaking of which, here is the trailer for the computer game – which could be used as a trailer for most of what happens in the film.


Thursday, 27 March 2014

The Legend of Hercules, Not Really.

The film The Legend of Hercules is the kind of movie where I wonder why they used the name Hercules at all. In one way it is an okay action movie, if you can overlook the dull parts and a number of cliché scenes that would be more in place in a far less expensive movie production.

What I can say, without giving away any of the plot is that if you search for the myth of Hercules on the internet then you won’t learn any of the storyline of this particular film. The filmmakers seemed to have decided to completely abandon the myth and just use the name Hercules, along with the names of some of the other characters in the myth. In watching the film, I was reminded of two main areas of filmmaking of the past.

One is the Italian ‘Sword and Sandal” films, where sometimes fancy clothes and hairdos were more important than the story. In fact, some of the storytelling in this film very much borders on the style of the Sword and Sandal films.   

The other is the endlessly repeated message in American made films from the mid-twentieth century onwards, in which each Roman epic states that tyranny is wrong – a less than subtle barb at fascism, communism, and any nation seen as being of either ilk. This approach of tyranny versus democracy can still work in a film, as shown in the hit film 300 (whilst ignoring the fact that Spartans were tyrants who conquered and enslaved other people) – but only if it is handled correctly and not lathered in a bath of frothy clichés the way this Hercules film tends to do.

If all you expect from an action movie is cliché characters and occasional stylish slow motion fighting, then see this film. If you are looking for something more than that, choose something else.  

Friday, 28 February 2014

READING GREEK

Many years ago when I studied classical Greek as a student, the textbooks used were the set by the Joint Association of Classical Teachers (JACT). At first, using them was a combination of ease and yet feeling lost at times. You see, these were nothing like the previous textbooks I had seen and tried to use. An example, which is a good book but perhaps not for beginners, is Primer of Greek Grammar by Abbott and Mansfield. What undoubtedly terrifies someone new to the subject when they flick through the two hundred and twenty pages of this book is that it is mostly tables of grammatical data and small paragraphs of grammatical rules. That style of throwing an avalanche of grammatical data at a student (and little else) is from the age that the book was written in, the nineteenth century. In that century, even the books trying to provide a simple way to learn classical Greek still began with fifty to a hundred pages or so of grammatical tables. That is how it had been done for who knows how long. The latter part of the twentieth century saw many institutions trying new ways of teaching classical languages. One of those was and still is by JACT.

JACT wanted to do things differently. Instead of bombarding a student with a torrent of grammar in the hope that an understanding of the language would sink in via a monumental process of memorisation, and considering much of what was traditionally to be memorised would not even be used at a beginner’s level, they chose a core amount of grammar and vocabulary which could be learned in a different way – so that a beginner could learn to read classical Greek fairly quickly. And that is perhaps the simplest way of summing up the course: Reading Greek – which is also the name of course. The student learns the grammar and vocabulary of classical Greek by reading Greek from the very first lesson onwards. There is no need to learn a whole book of grammatical tables first or metaphorically swallow a dictionary of classical Greek. With each lesson the student is introduced to a small amount of grammar and a handful of Greek words to learn. They then translate a passage of Greek, which clearly illustrates and practises the particular grammar and vocabulary for that lesson. 

Yes, I know this sounds very similar to many language courses available today but that is only because of the brief description I have given. There are significant differences. One is the speed of learning in the sense of how quickly a student can start making use of what they have learned. The course has twenty sections with anywhere from five to ten lessons in each section. By section five, the student is reading extracts from a comedy by Aristophanes whilst learning about Socrates. I have yet to see any equivalent in a modern language course for beginners, French for example, where less than quarter of the way through the course the student is expected to read the original French of one of the plays of Albert Camus whilst learning about the ideas of Jean Paul Sartre.  Usually by one quarter of the way through a course of French the student has only become proficient in how to introduce themselves, order coffee, ask for directions, book a taxi, and so on. 

And that sums up another difference – the course teaches the student about ancient Greek culture and history in order to aid learning the language.  Unlike other language courses, it does not do this in a trivial way; one of the books (The World of Athens) is a history book written especially for the course. 

After I completed my course in my student days, I still kept my copies of Reading Greek although they were superseded by more advanced level books and I referred to them now and then whenever I needed some clarification of points from those more challenging books on the subject. Since then, JACT has produced a second edition which I was told was a significant improvement on the first edition. Over the years my temptation to examine the second edition and compare it to the first edition has come and gone and come again in a sort of circular torment. I finally gave in to that urge recently when the opportunity arose to put the two editions side by side and take a really good look. In one way, nostalgia encouraged me to be biased towards the first edition. In another way, nostalgia had to admit defeat because the second edition is genuinely far better. 

The second edition uses the same methodology as the first but is different in two ways by the revising and redesigning the main books of the course - Reading Greek: Text and VocabularyReading Greek: Grammar and ExercisesAn Independent Study Guide to Reading Greek  – to make using them easier. 

Firstly, the books are bigger and the design of the text has been laid out in a way easier to read and study. It may not sound like much but compared to the first edition it makes a big difference. 

Secondly, the first edition for some reason was designed with a notion that the student had a prior grasp of Latin and therefore some aspects of classical languages were not approached in a gentler way for the beginner; the second edition dispenses with that notion altogether and is written as if the student is learning any foreign language for the first time. Consequently, a lot more space is given at the beginning of the course to acquaint the reader with relevant terminology of grammar (in English) before explaining the equivalent grammar in Greek.     

In line with all this, the opportunity was taken to revise and update the history book, The World of Athens: An Introduction to Classical Athenian Culture (Reading Greek), into a second edition and for it to be published in a format matching the other books. JACT have also retired their single tape cassette for the course by recording a newer version which is a two CD set, Speaking Greek CD (Reading Greek). 

As a student, when I used the first edition, I was very glad of its existence. Now, having seen the second edition, I wish it had existed when I was student. But it did not; so hard luck on me.  

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Second Hand Book Inquiries

This is just a brief blog post regarding people who contact my website, or myself directly, wanting to sell me second hand books for my bookshop.  For some reason, I do not know why, there has been a recent increase in such inquiries from the general public and it is becoming unmanageable. And so, to reduce such inquiries, please note that I only ever buy books from authorised suppliers and not from the general public. 
The contact page of my website will be updated with a similar request. 


Friday, 14 February 2014

1000 Years of Annoying the French by Stephen Clarke

Sometimes you might notice a book about history that takes an angle of being idiosyncratic in some way.

The title may suggest humour or what the publishers like to quote on the back cover from unnamed sources as being “an irreverent” look at history. Upon reading the book, reality quickly hits home with how the promise of humour by the quirky title bears little relation to the mostly unfunny text inside. It is not far from being like the “click bait” used on newspaper websites to make readers click through to what appears to be an interesting piece of news that only turns out to be a space filling non-news story. And nothing kills interest in attempting to read all of something than when it turns out we’ve been misled as to the true nature of the article – or book. I am not saying that everyone is disappointed by such books; such books are in fact a good read and the target audience value them. Even so, there is a margin of people who buy a copy and then give it away on the basis that it wasn’t what they were led to believe. You would think that publishers would be concerned by this but no, they are not. Publishing has a long history of marketing books beyond their target audience in order to maximise profit. One way is to jazz up the title and cover. 

Another type of history book is the one that genuinely does its best to be funny. Unfortunately, reading some of these can quickly become a tiresome experience. There are many reasons. One is if the humour is forced; sometimes over-forced. The style of writing seems to overstate that a joke has been made. Long ago, one of my university tutors described the style to me as being like a command: “I have made a witticism, YOU WILL NOW LAUGH!!!” And like that last sentence that is what the style sometimes contains; lots of unnecessary exclamation marks and phrases in upper case characters. 

Wading through this lottery of popular history paperbacks can therefore be hit or miss for people who are only dipping into the subject for entertainment. If you are among those, then there is a book I highly recommend. It is so good some of you may have already read it. 

It is 1000 Years of Annoying the French by Stephen Clarke. The title does not even begin to relate how funny the book is to read. Although the title suggests a somewhat anti-French approach to the subject of history, that is not the case. Clarke bursts the bubble on many British and French myths about the history of those two countries and their relationships over the past one thousand years. The strength of the book, the strength of the humour, is that Clarke’s style and his ability as a writer is that of a genuinely funny raconteur. The book begins with William the Conqueror, explaining that he was not French and how he greatly disliked the French, and finishes on the Channel Tunnel and the realities of the English and French relations behind its creation. 

It is a thick book with six hundred and eighty-six pages but it does not seem like it as you read it. The saying “time goes quickly when you’re having fun” very much applies to this book.  

Friday, 27 December 2013

Goodbye LaBaL


The LaBaL was a 'Now and Then Quarterly Magic Magzine' (magazine-fanzine) published by Al Smith, and which ran for ten years. It was the successor to Abacus. It featured news, opinion, articles, opinion, magic tricks, opinion, reviews, opinion and more.

In 2013, Al announced he was retiring The LaBaL - perhaps for a new publishing project. In its last issue (October 2013), Al included a thank you to all those that have contributed articles regularly over the years. It is worth repeating that list here (in alphabetical order):

Ian Barradell, Steve Cook, Roger Crosthwaite, Roger Curzon, Eddie Dawes, Keith Downs, Peter Duffie, Alan Francis, Alan Gardiner, Brian Glover, Paul Gordon, Tony Griffith, Paul Hallas, John Helvin, Mike Hopley, Justin Higham, Paul Ingram, Jack Jansen, Lewis Jones, Peter Kane, Walt Lees, Phil Ogden, Jon Racherbaumer, Nick Trost, Stephen Tucker, Chris Wardle and Roger Woods.

I, for one, shall miss the magazine.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Genuine Web Links

I've received a number of messages from people stating that they thought they were connected to me on Facebook - only for them to find that the person(s) involved were just using my name. I can't imagine why anyone would do that where my name is concerned but apparently they have done. Therefore, I thought it might be best to list the sites I do use and provide the correct links.

My website: http://johnhelvin.net
MySpace (Please note that I seldom use this account these days)

I do have a Google+ profile but do not use it much.

I have been trying out Vizify but have not been impressed as yet; it seems to generate random errors in the data it presents on its pages.


Tuesday, 14 May 2013

LIMITED EDITION PRINTS NOW ON SALE

The prints of my pen and ink portrait of Tommy Cooper went on sale this week. I was pleasantly surprised by the prints; it is possible to see the varying tones of black made by the ink wash used on the larger dark areas  and even some of the brush marks. I had not expected that detail to show but it does; it is almost like looking at the original.
At present there is one on auction on Ebay with a starting price lower than the actual retail price. Visit the auction by clicking here.
Alternatively, full price copies can be bought on my website; to visit the page click here.
    

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

LIMITED EDITION PRINTS - TOMMY COOPER

Within a week or so the first of a series of limited edition prints will become available for sale. There will only be fifty copies of each one, making them an extra special collector's item. Each print will come with a letter of provenance from me. Each print will be printed on art paper and signed by me (and dedicated to the purchaser if so wished), ready for mounting and framing. 



More details to follow soon.

Friday, 5 April 2013

To George Osborne


To George Osborne,

You claim that Mick Philpott’s behaviour is the result of being on benefits. Then please explain the following by that theory. During Philpott’s teenage years to the age of 21, he was employed in the army. For two years in that period he dated a young girl named Kim Hill. When Philpott decided a dress Kim was wearing was too short, he shot her in the groin with a crossbow. When Philpott decided Kim wasn’t paying enough attention to him, he cracked her kneecap with a hammer. When Kim dumped him, he stabbed her over a dozen times as she lay in bed and when Kim’s mother tried to help Kim, he stabbed her as well. At the age of 21, the fully employed Philpott was convicted of attempted murder.  Mr Osborne, Please explain how (in your theory) the fully employed Philpott was somehow influenced by benefits to behave like that towards Kim Hill and her mother.

The truth of Mick Philpott’s history of violence and abuse to people is that whether he was on benefits or was fully-employed, he would still be the same immoral person in either instance.  

Here is another question for you Mr Osborne. How do you expect unemployed people to be given work when you have tarred them with the same brush that you have used on Mick Philpott to make anyone on benefits appear to be as bad as Jack the Ripper?