My Better Half Has Bitten Me | Revisiting Jennifer’s Body

That Karyn Kusama and Diablo Cody’s Jennifer’s Body (2009) is now a re-excavated post-#MeToo classic has become a bit of a trope, albeit one rooted in undeniable truths. Buzzfeed’s picked up on it two years ago, so that just about seals the mainstreamification of that take, and I’m glad it all panned out that way, don’t get me wrong.

But neither should that smoothen out its punkier bona fides. This is a film whose title and overall thematic contours are drawn from a song by Hole, after all… one that’s culled from its early-90s sophomore album Live Through This (1994), itself a solid-gold piece of early post-grunge whose inherent quality transcends any reputational iffiness that the legacy of Courtney Love carries with it. 

In many ways, I think it also course-corrects the riskily schmaltzy elements of Diablo Cody’s breakthrough, Juno (2007), by passing them through the B-movie horror lens. Yes, the film’s marketing department contributed to its initially dismal box office and critical performance by relying too much on the cheaply exploitative Megan Fox-isms; playing to the peanut gallery of horny teenage boys by presenting her demonically posessed man-eater character as something akin to Natasha Henstridge’s murderous alien seductress in 1995’s Species.

Apart from the now-documented sexism and idiocy that underpinned this entire marketing debacle, it must also be said that they missed a trick in other ways. There is certainly a schlocky exploitation element to Jennifer’s Body, but it’s informed by the same strain of subversive, tongue-in-cheek humour and cheekiness that characterises a lot of the vintage horror cinema that Cody and Kusama doubtlessly draw energy from. That its overlaid with Cody’s now-trademark crackling dialogue provides an added layer of cool, self-aware appeal, but its dark, disemboweling overtones ensure that it doesn’t slip into Juno’s sometimes grating over-cuteness. 

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Sated and well-fed: Megan Fox in Jennifer’s Body (2009)

After demonic-Jennifer claims her first on-screen victim, the unfortunate teenage boy’s father responds to the police’s promises that they will do their utmost to catch the perpetrator (whom they automatically and tellingly assume to be male) with a hilarious counter-missive: “I’ll get him myself! I will! You hear me, you bastard? I’ll cut off your nutsack and nail it to my door! Like one of those lion doorknockers rich folks got! That’ll be your balls!” 

But Jennifer’s Body will also continue to survive by dint of its sneakily truthful exploration of female friendship, and problematic ‘sisterhood’ as expressed during the turbulent high school years.

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Don’t you know that I’m toxic? Amanda Seyfried and Megan Fox in Jennifer’s Body (2009)

It’s rightly hailed as a feminist film, but it sugar-coats nothing, in a way that ties into its erstwhile spiritual predecessor: John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps (2000), in which this time literal sisters are forced apart when one of them succumbs to lycanthropy – a metaphor that once again plays out as the supernatural pushing already-latent hormonal angst into overdrive. (Film Geek Six Degrees of Separation Time: Ginger Snaps’ Emily Perkins has a cameo as a memorably disinterested abortion clinic clerk in Juno). 

Even prior to her demonic posession, Jennifer is a domineering, gaslighting presence for Amanda Seyfried’s aptly-monikered Needy – and it is Needy’s arc that we end up rooting for in the end, after she sheds her co-dependence on Jennifer to truly claim her full agency.

But the undeniable toxicity of their relationship does not in any way dampen the violation Jennifer suffers at the hands of the Satan-courting band Low Shoulder, who attempt to use her assumed virginity to seal a demonic pact that will secure their future success. That they get their just desserts by Needy’s hand in the end is not down to the mousy protagonist pathetically avenging ther domineering ex-friend. She does it for all womankind, not just for Jennifer’s sake. 

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A heroine we barely deserve: Amanda Seyfriend as Needy in Jennifer’s Body (2009)

Now it wouldn’t be entirely right to cast Jennifer’s Body as some sort of all-out gritty underground cult gem: while a lot of us agree that it was misunderstood and maltreated both from within and without upon release, it remains a sleek piece of mainstream horror top-billed by then white-hot Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried (both, let’s be frank, squeezed a bit too tightly into teenage roles that we’ll have to squint a bit to believe).

But even then, the very fact that it was produced by 20th Century Fox and given the spit-polished star treatment is likely what it led to it being shish-kebabbed on arrival, as this inevitably leads to it being catapulted into a rarified atmosphere of corporate bullshit whose baseline expectations have zero to do with memorable storytelling. Kusama and Cody did NOT play ball with this one. And thank the demonic deities for that. 

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I rewatched Jennifer’s Body after a day of packing more of our flat into boxes and suitcases for an imminent move to another apartment, in the peak of summer no less. This is both a physical and emotional struggle in many ways, so a degree of rawness at the end of the day is to be expected.

It certainly made me more vulnerable  to the  layers of nostalgia that this 2009 film is now riddled with: the references to MySpace, Low Shoulder tapping into the emo craze (see also: the Fall Out Boy poster on Jennifer’s bedroom wall), Needy’s schlubby boyfriend Chip using “everyone [at that bar] has a mustache” as a pejorative. 

A lot has changed in 11 years. 

 

Coronawriters: When Considering Script Notes, Do Not Be Haphazard

“Take no enterprise in hand at haphazard, or without regard to the principles governing its proper execution”

– Marcus Aurelius (Meditations, Book Four) 

Yes, I’ve been cracking open ye olde Meditations back up because some advice from the grandfather and grandmaster of Stoic philosophy would certainly not go amiss right now, when uncertainty is the order of the day and the mainstream world media — especially its malignant ‘social’ offshoot — is doing absolutely zero to counter the mood with some sense of sobriety or perspective.

But the above quote popped out for me, during my now once again regular re-read of the embattled Ancient Roman emperor’s diary to self, for reasons that have very little to do with the essential self-care we need all the more urgently at this moment in time.

No, the reminder to do nothing at ‘haphazard’ reached me on a more professional — or rather, vocational — level, as I felt it very much got to the heart of an important lesson I have learned about writing narrative stories — be they in prose or script format — over the past couple of years.

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Marcus Aurelius via Batman, or vice versa: Daily meditation with the Meditations, with journal entries jotted into the Bat-book

It’s not a glamorous fact of the writing life, and neither is it bound up to the ‘tortured artist’ archetype in any way. In fact, in a lot of ways what I’m about to talk about swerves directly into the opposite camp, and perhaps the times we are living in call for precisely the kind of habits that evoke a degree of control and agency over the traditionally — notoriously — chaotic process of making up stories from scratch.

I’m talking about finding the rationale that lies behind either your plot mechanism, or the choices your characters make, in the interest of improving them for the benefit of subsequent drafts.

Now ‘character’ and ‘plot’ are almost always inextricably bound together, or at least they should be. What should we call this? I’m struggling to think of a more bite-sized term for it right now. Is it as broad as ‘rewriting’ or ‘editing’? Is it just ‘tweaking’, or does that teensy word not quite do it? Maybe I’ll arrive to the correct term or neulogism, maybe not. The point is that the process I’m describing often takes on a similar trajectory: that of working away at issues, problems and unwanted lacunae through the process of writing itself.

For me, it’s important that this does not happen before a complete draft is well and truly finished. An imperfect draft, sure. But a complete one. That allows me to see the big picture — such as it is — and make a clear and rational assessment of what needs to be fixed.

That’s why the Marcus Aurelius quote resonated with me. Sending off that draft without having polished it up, or even stopping half-way through to tweak at something that I nervously, pre-emptively assume is gonna be a problem later on, would indeed by a haphazard way of going about it. A script, novel or short story often has a lot of stuff going on inside it. Even the most minimalist of stories and narrative situations need to be informed by subtext, by nested considerations that move things forward, that plant seeds in the reader/viewer’s mind before hopefully being taken to full term in the most felicitous way possible.

But beyond the disciplinarian ‘good sense’ of not rushing things and giving them their due before assuming they’re ready so that you can focus and/or indulge in something else, the Meditations quote also got at something I legitimately find pleasurable about this stage of the writing process.

Just like certain filmmakers live by the dictum that ‘directing is the price you pay for going into the editing room later’, I find the greatest pleasure in cutting underneath the draft I’ve just written (over and above the more obvious, superficial ‘cuts’ that are also inevitably made) and figuring out why something doesn’t work, and how it could work better.

I think the ‘fun’ of this process has a lot to do with a sense of regaining control over the work. Now that the draft’s done, there’s far less of that Dark Night of the Soul feeling descending, and the associated ‘staring at the blank page’ jitters that either accompany it or are triggered by it. I can finally bring the full extent of my rational and analytical mind to bear: the same mind that I’ve chiseled into a decent-enough shape through my academic training and working as a film reviewer for over 15 years.

So finally, a touch of the familiar, the graspable and the tangible appears through the haze of uncertainty that otherwise characterises the writing process. It’s an uncertainty that is conducive to both chaos and play, to be sure, so that it can be fun in its own way. But regaining a sense of control is also affirming and energising.

This brings me to the latter part of the Aurelius aphorism, the bit about ‘the principles governing its proper execution’. Because the process of making something better through this kind of reworking would be hollowed out if it didn’t consider the in-depth internal logic of whatever problem you’re facing.

My most immediate experience of this process had to do with responding to a script note that called for a pivotal event in the story to occur much, much earlier than it does in the script as-is. My producer and I both agreed that we should think of a way to take this criticism on board and implement it productively, without compromising the integrity of the script as a whole.

So I got to thinking about how this action would alter some of the characters’ actions throughout the script as-is. I went back to the quasi-literal drawing board, writing out the logical trajectory of these change in long-hand. The end goal of this was to have a clear, bullet-pointed battle plan for what needs to be done. The changes that need to be implemented so as to make this note work. And it did happen, eventually.

But before I could get there, I spent a few pages writing out the characters’ motivations for taking this particular action, in this particular order, to accommodate the changes in line with a new chronology. This also led me to reconsider some taken-for-granted aspects of the characters in question. I thought I knew them. Turns out I didn’t get a chance to know them all that well, before.

In working out a logic that would justify the alterations suggested by the note, new things clicked into place. No, that one character doesn’t have to be as passive as they appear. They do have a desire, it’s just submerged so deeply it’s barley visible. And we need to think of ways to make that pop out. And so on.

In short, the process got me thinking about the ‘principles governing the proper execution’ of this character, and a couple of others who orbit around them and are influenced by their actions. It felt both rational, and organic. Like a clear understanding of something that lives and breathes, and which may yet surprise you in positive ways if you lay down a good environment in which it can thrive.

Chaos is often the order of the day because we aren’t born with a map at birth and cannot see into the future, which is why good stories are built in a way that respects certain internal harmonies that promote coherence. Focusing on the elements of the craft in this way has helped me find a ballast in these times. There’s a baseline for who we are no matter what happens around us, and that internal coherence is crucial to maintain because of what’s coming at us all the time, pandemic or not.

PS: Keeping me sane and out of the maddening rigmarole of the frenzied news cycle are great reads such as this, and this, as well as the ‘Coronavirus Newsroom’ set up in the Members’ Area of the Rune Soup portal. 

Quarantine Prayers and Offerings

Prayers 

Just like many other freelancers the world over, the economic fallout of the covid-19 epidemic has left me scrambling for work that would ensure my livelihood in the coming months. Scrambling is something out tribe is accustomed to, of course, and I’ve often been in this situation before and have emerged (relatively) unscathed.

But of course, these are extraordinary times, during which some old clients will scram any prospective ones suddenly find themselves denuded of any lust for adventurous new collaborations.

Trolic Freelancing

Freelancing in marginally less trying times, with thought bubble lamp for added effect

To this end, I would like to invite anyone who does retain a sense of adventure during these trying times to consider taking on my services as a freelance writer with experience in various fields — journalism, content writing and scriptwriting being the main three, though I’d be more than happy to work on anything you’ve got going as long as it’s in English and the deadlines are humane.

Neither is there any need to simply take my own word for it, however: do take a look at what some kindly but exacting professionals had to say about my work in various fields by popping over to the ‘Services‘ section of this very site.

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Offerings

Though it’s hardly the Netflix back (and front) catalogue, some of my own work could very easily keep you company while you’re social distancing away at home.

Novel: Two

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My debut novel started life as a piece of flash fiction, tumbled into larger and more mottled being thanks to the steady encouragement of Merlin Publishers’ Chris Gruppetta and was released into the little slice of world that would have it at the beautiful Cafe Wignacourt in Rabat, my Maltese town-crush.

Very much a debut novel in spirit, tone and theme, it is a labour of equal parts love and pain: deeply autobiographical and largely told from the POV of a young child, for gods’ sake. Does it get any more debut novel-y than that?!

You can find out more about it here. Those of you in Malta and Gozo can currently avail themselves of a 25% discount from Merlin Publishers — a covid-solidarity move that applies to all of their books. Do also check out Awguri, Giovanni Bonello, featuring a vampire-tinged historical fiction tale that was a blast to write, and which dovetails nicely into our next item… 

Short Film: Camilla

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Literary film adaptation and vampires are just about two of my favourite things, so it was an honour and a pleasure to be able to adapt Clare Azzopardi’s ‘Camilla’ into a short film, together with Stephanie Sant (who co-wrote and directed) and under the ever-intrepid auspices of producer Martin Bonnici (Shadeena Entertainment). The film was made possible thanks to a competitive fund awarded to us by the National Book Council, whose sterling work can, I hope, continue unabated after all this mess is over.

Meanwhile, please feel free to enjoy our 21-minute slice of Mediterranean Gothic, cross-generational romantic intrigue and sexual discovery, all wrapped up in a coming-of-age story featuring a wide-eyed but hardly bushy-tailed protagonist, brought to entrancing life by Steffi Thake, working under the austere shadow cast by the inimitable Irene Christ.

Catching A Break… Or Not

We can’t manage to catch a break in Malta, can we? It’s been at least since last November that some kind of mental stability or continuity — the latter being a repeated slogan in the party leadership campaign that was to crown the November madness — was the norm in both public and private life.

I was actually on a break of sorts when that first crisis hit. High on the freshly released fumes of success generated by our being awarded the inaugural Malta Book Council feature film fund for our feature film adaptation of Alex Vella Gera’s Is-Sriep Regghu Saru Velenuzi, I decided to go for an early, modest version of a writerly fantasy and booked a ‘writing retreat’ at the sister island of Gozo in off-season.

It was a no-brainer, at least in theory. I chose to stay at the notoriously quiet village of Gharb, with a pipe-shaft view from my typing window and grossly over-pixelated landscape printouts hanging by the bed. So, no distractions there. The breakfasts were also nice and energising — full English, with a dollop of French sweets and Gozitan cheeselets on the side — and having paid in full for room and board meant that I was internally pressured to get cracking on the reams of research and story development that needed to be done.

Sriep Gozo Process

But the trip also coincided with the arrest of Yorgen Fenech, so I could forget all about isolation and silence, in the broadest sense of the word. How could I resist checking my phone when the political status quo of the island was being dismantled right before our eyes? Not least when the project itself hardly offered a neat cutoff point: my research dealt with political violence and corruption in 1980s Malta, and if anything was to be salvaged from the distraction it was that the resonances between then and now ensured that our film will be laced with an enduring, if unfortunate, relevance.

With the fallout came the protests, and an unprecedented political crisis culminating in the resignation of then prime minister Joseph Muscat and the election of Robert Abela in his stead, with a reshuffled cabinet following suit. As alluded to above, ‘continuity’ was the watchword, and Abela — to the cynical chuckles of many — quickly declared that ‘normality’ has been restored to the island.

The onset of the global covid-19 pandemic makes short work of precisely that kind of rhetoric. We have seen how it’s served to symbolically unseat the likes of Donald Trump, whose bluff and bluster collapses ‘like a flan in a cupboard’ when faced with a threat both invisible and undeniable. Though I would caution against declaring that ‘the Trump presidency is over‘ so categorically — the orange oaf has survived a record amount of scandals — watching him scramble for some political purchase while playing the same old xenophobic tunes is just farcical at this point.

But it’s not just limited to politicians. The sight of suddenly quarantined celebrity actors deciding to make use of their newly housebound condition to splice together a group singalong of John Lennon’s Imagine — “Imagine there’s no people” is hardly the thing you want to hear while a murderous pandemic continues to spread on a murderous rampage of the elderly and otherwise vulnerable — also points to the tone-deaf nature of another privileged class.

The cluelessness of the global rich is hardly news — Best Picture winner Parasite all but rendered it into an archetype, and these elites are actually nice — but a pandemic has away of making it all come out like a particularly eye-grabbing Lovecraftian bas relief.

So yes, we’re still very much not getting a break right now: not from the bone-headed stupidity of the global hegemony, not from the callousness and stupidity of those at the top. But we’re joined in this worldwide, and while the imposition to enforce ‘social distancing’ certainly lends fuel to the fire of certain xenophobic tendencies informed by the idea of the infectious and corrupting nature of otherness, we’re also getting to see limits of our status quo.

A status quo within which, as a self-employed freelance writer, I am likely doomed to remain on the fringes of, for better or worse.

(Here’s the bit where ask anyone who’s reading this to consider making use of my services as a journalist, content writer or scriptwriter during these trying times, as existing clients start to bail and any prospective ones suddenly be).

Perhaps some would call the largely worldwide self-quarantine a break of some sorts, though of course it’s not that, not by a long stretch. But it’s certainly a break in the aggressive sense, a rupture of the old routines we’re now scrambling to become accustomed to, with varying degrees of success, and each in their own way.

I’ll try to keep chasing the resonances. Even if they’re not all pleasant ones. Because in times like these, some kind of internal coherence is what we need more than anything else.

 

 

 

You have not been ‘good to her’! | Konrad Mizzi Gets His Knives Out

Perhaps the true emotional climax of Rian Johnson’s rollicking, wildly entertaining and fiercely intelligent murder mystery Knives Out (2019) comes midway through its final act, after Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), the beleaguered nurse to the recently deceased (and filthy rich) crime novelist Harlan Thrombey, is all but forced to apologetically prostrate herself in front of his sneering, sniveling and money-grubbing heirs.

A South American migrant whose mother is undocumented – that the Thrombey heirs and in-laws consistently getting her nationality wrong during police interrogations is one of the film’s best running gags; some say she’s from Ecuador, others from Paraguay – she does her best to placate the spoiled brood after a plot-important (and therefore spoilery) development flips the power dynamic between her and her erstwhile employers, edging the proverbial knives out of the rich family’s sheathes and placing the perennially good-hearted Marta in a thoroughly uncomfortable position.

Keen to show that she has no intention of offending or otherwise discomfiting the Thrombeys in light of this new development, Marta insists on pointing out how the family has been “good to [her]” by giving her employment and at least ostensibly making her feel part of the privileged Thrombey fold while she took care of their patriarch in his dotage.

The family takes this as a given, never for a second considering that there could have been any ‘decent’ alternative way for all of this to pan out. Being a migrant, her inherent abjection and lack of agency is the default setting she’s expected to operate under. Though nominally valued, the work she does for the family is not nearly enough to grant her anything resembling full personhood, and anything that crosses the line of that rigidly defined master and servant relationship is to be apologised for profusely, or else.

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Keeping up with the Thrombeys: After Harlan Thrombey (centre) is found dead in an apparent suicide, the rest of his family decend into a not-so-petty extended squabble over the spoils

It is at this point that Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) – Johnson’s wonderfully conceived riposte to the Sherlock Holmes/Hercule Poirot archetype, gleefully brought to life by a relaxed and game post-Bond Craig – crosses a line of his own. Lifting the veil of cold calculated deductive reasoning that has so far been his modus operandi (and that of his literary and filmic antecedents in the detective genre), he interrupts Marta by giving in to a bubbling ethical indignation:

“Excuse me. You have not been good to her. You have all treated her like shit […] You’re a pack of bloody vultures at the feast, but you’re not getting bailed out, not this time.”

We can make much out of Blanc being something of a ‘white knight’ in this situation, also pointing out that most migrants out there do not in fact have such figures bursting through to speak out in their favour when things get really tough. But within the context of the film, Blanc’s outburst serves as a welcome bit of catharsis. How much of this misguided, undeserved and disingenuous shit are we going to take, and for how long?

Disgraced former tourism and energy minister Konrad Mizzi recently evoked something of a similar reaction in local quarters after posting an incendiary Facebook post following a literally incendiary event in Marsa.

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“You fled your country. We saved you from drowning. We gave you shelter in our home. We dressed you, fed you. But now learn to respect us, our culture, our religion and the Maltese population,” Konrad Mizzi wrote on Facebook on January 8th, 2019, in the wake of a fire engulfing the Marsa Open Centre, which led to the arrest of 20 people.

Like the Thrombeys, Mizzi betrays no qualms at lumping all migrants in the same basket, with an added sting of political convenience handy to local politicians – particularly ones given the chop in the wake of shady financial dealings, who are now perhaps hoping that a new party leader will allow them to once again rise in the party ranks, previous sins washed clean as they are buoyed back into the public discourse by this recent appeal to far-right sentiment.

Mizzi does indeed expect all migrants to merely shut up and take any indignity thrown at them, except perhaps when they open their mouths to intone just how “good to them” we’ve been for allowing them the privilege of taking shelter on our island.

Never mind that the true source of the fire has yet to be determined, and never mind that this rush to condemn sits uncomfortably when compared to Mizzi’s own post-Panama political trajectory, during which we were all expected to let the legalisms that have exonerated him to speak for themselves.

Never mind that, even if the fires at the Marsa open centre are proven to have been deliberately started by migrants housed there, Mizzi’s diabolically moralistic generalisation cannot even begin to hold water: it assumes that all of the migrants there would have been in full agreement with any criminal action taking place.

And in this particular case, the notion that the migrants at the open centre should be grateful to us for ‘housing’ them is also off base: by its very definition, the open centre largely serves as a transitional space in which migrants are made to wait while their paperwork is processed and before they are given the go-ahead to either stay in the country or move elsewhere.

But apart from being an obvious and cheap attempt at garnering public support from literally the most toxic of national sources, Mizzi’s attitude is also redolent of the kind of ‘logic’ and ‘common sense’ which underpins some of the same toxicity within the migration debate. ‘We will charitably do our bit to welcome third country nationals into the country, but if they dare express anything other than adulation of even consider making minor legal infringements – infringements that we’d easily forgive among ‘our own’ – the only thing they should look forward to is swift deportation’.

KNIVES OUT Ana de Armas

Ana de Armas is Marta Cabrera in Knives Out (2019)

It is a logic that is accurately, meticulously and painfully articulated in Knives Out. In an early scene – or rather, early confessional flashback – Marta is brought in as an unwitting ‘exhibit A’ of the ‘good migrant’ by Richard (Don Johnson), as a tangible closing salvo to a family debate on Donald Trump’s heinous migration border policy (Ol’ 45 is not explicitly mentioned by name, but the correlation is impossible not to make). Conceding that ‘putting children in cages’ is a bad thing, Richard clings to legalisms:

“But I blame the parents […] for breaking the law. You’re going to hate hearing this but it’s true, America is for Americans.”

It’s at this point that Richard commands a vigilant and nervous Marta to come over, as if a walking, (barely) talking illustration of his point. Making a point to wave his polished-off cake plate at the trembling girl, to be taken away later, Richard carries on,

“Marta, your family came from Uruguay but you did it right, she did it legally, I’m saying. You work hard, and you’ll earn your share from the ground up just like dad and all of us did – Marta I bet you agree with me.”

Never mind Richard obliviousness to both Marta’s own true country of origin (something the audience itself never becomes privy to either, to be fair); the fact that Richard is also ignorant of her family’s legal status is of course the deeper cut. Once that truth is revealed – by one of the supposedly more ‘woke’ members of the Thrombey family – the information gives way to blackmail, not help from this monied and influential family. Truly, they have not been, and will insist on never being, good to her.

Many arguments in favour of existing, status quo migration policies accuse the ‘other side’ of sentimentality or misdirected compassion, of refusing to consider the rational underpinnings behind arguments like ‘America is for Americans’, ‘illegal immigrants are simply breaking the law’.

But pronouncements like Mizzi’s own are also an act of obfuscation, apart from being a vulgar attempt to piggyback on racist undercurrents in an attempt to salvage some form of political capital. In framing migration policy as little more than an act of charity, Mizzi conveniently dodges the responsibility of rigour that is crucial if one is to honestly engage with issues of such complexity.

It’s a smoke-and-mirrors exercise made possible through the mechanisms of privilege – Mizzi’s own monied background, his history as a politician which, however chequered, still garners active support from a vocal contingent of Labour supporters – and it’s also the main obstacle that Benoit Blanc faces as he attempts to crack the case he’s now facing.

Because while Marta’s part in Johnson’s serpentine plot is hardly as simple as her otherwise diminished social standing would suggest, the Thrombey’s arsenal of cash and influence goes a long way towards making the case as juicy and complex as possible, as an eleventh-hour reappearance of an absent Thrombey scion makes clear as the film transitions from the second act to its third.

KNIVES OUT Daniel Craig

Somewhere over gravity’s rainbow: Daniel Craig is Benoit Blanc

Blanc uses the title of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow to describe his working method to Marta – a famously impenetrable tome that neither of them have read, but whose title Blanc is partial to because,

“It describes the path of a projectile, determined by natural law. Voila, my method. I observe the facts without biases of the head or heart, I determine the arc’s path, stroll leisurely to its terminus, and the truth falls at my feet.”

Mizzi and other politicians of his ilk are in the business of putting themselves precisely in the path of the projectile, blocking a thorough examination of the truth by opening the floodgates to angry, misguided sections of the electorate who will offer them their support in the wake of such toxic battle cries.

It is a self-serving move masquerading as a beacon of wider social concern, and it precisely encapsulates the paradox of figures like Konrad Mizzi: well-oiled businessmen brought into the fold of an ascendant Labour Party and asked to deploy their technocratic skills in the interest of securing continued victory.

It’s a paradox that also came undone in the wake of a murder – that of Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose mysteries have been unravelled somewhat, but not in their entirety.

Camilla & Castillo | Engaging with Clare Azzopardi

To say that my adoptive home country is going through some turbulent stuff right now would be the understatement of an already-overstated century, but that doesn’t mean that wallowing in the chaotic morass is in any way productive or desirable… addictive as it may be.

Irreconcilable paradoxes and hastily grasped-at truths and half-truths are often the hallmark of great fiction, for the very reason that they tend to bug and scare us most of the time. This is where writers (and artists of every ilk) can actually step in to do some undeniable Good Work that affects Society at Large. By giving these ambiguities a thorough airing, they can allow us to point at our condition and feel truly ‘seen’.

Clare Azzopardi‘s latest novel Castillo is many things, but at its root is a desire to express the ever-relevant – and now, sadly, even topical – helplessness we feel when faced with endemic corruption and apparently sanctified violence. Amanda Barbara seeks out her estranged mother following the death of the father who raised her, only to learn that the matriarch was errant as well as absent: almost off-hand, she confesses to committing two murders a couple of decades ago and feels not a little bit of guilt about her actions.

Castillo by Clare Azzopardi

The real twist in the tale in many ways is the involvement of Cathy ‘K.’ Penza, also recently deceased and by all accounts the ‘cool aunt’ figure for Amanda… not least thanks to her side-career as the celebrated writer behind the ‘Castillo’ crime novels, extracts from which Azzopardi regales us with in interspersed chapters that deftly and joyfully display a masterful grasp of cross-genre pastiche.

It’s not just because of the novels-within-a-novel device – though this may be the most explicit manifestation of this strand of Azzopardi’s many talents – but with Castillo, Clare Azzopardi once again proves herself as one of the most engaging and full-rounded authors in the local sphere.

A novel about gender, motherhood, the reverberating and unresolved echoes of political violence past, Castillo always remains very much a detective novel through and through, albeit one with a ‘twist’, relegating the conventional cloak-and-dagger and noir trappings to the embedded fictional detective, but leaving plenty of work for Amanda to do.

This, to my mind, is the true strength of Azzopardi’s novel: never once does she drop the ball, never once does she forget to do the necessary TLC that ensures this aesthetic cohesion that makes the novel such a solidly held-together experience. The ‘Castillo’ chapters aren’t just a clever garnish, they are firmly rooted to it all. The spectre of violence made manifest. If journalism is the first draft of history, the detective is its first archaeologist, digging up bones marked with streaks of fresh flesh.

Here’s hoping Castillo is translated thick, wide and fast.

***

Some shameless self-promotion now, though not unrelated to the author under discussion. Last year, we’ve had the privilege of adapting a short story by Clare Azzopardi into a short film, and we brought in a landmark work by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu to help along.

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Camilla‘ was co-written by its director Stephanie Sant and myself, produced by Martin Bonnici of Shadeena Entertainment and made possible thanks to the National Book Council (Malta), after it won its Short Film Contest in 2018. The source material is taken from Azzopardi’s award-winning, female-centered anthology Kulhadd Halla Isem Warajh, and in adapting the story I did a bit of archaeology of my own, calling up Laura from Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ to serve as an audience stand-in and ultimately, protagonist, in the interest of keeping the enigma at the root of the titular character intact.

Both roles were played with sensitivity, grace and quiet potency by Steffi Thake and Irene Christ, and I couldn’t be happier with the end result.

‘Camilla’ is now free for all to see on YouTube, and I hope you enjoy it.

Film Reviews | Local Respite and Arthouse Oxygen After These Bloody Blockbusters

I’ve waited for the reviews to form a satisfyingly diverse cluster before putting this together, as it’s been an interesting couple of months at the movies. But here they are; some of my recent pieces of film criticism for MaltaToday, liberally cherry-picked and in no particular order.

Which is, of course, a total lie. Cherry-picking implies selection, and selection implies intention, which implies order of some kind.

In this case, we’ve see a few glittering diamonds in the rough just about rising up for air in an atmosphere suffused by entertaining, but equally suffocating, blockbuster fare.

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The Inevitable Epic: Avengers – Endgame 

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“Though an epic send-off may have felt like a foregone conclusion Marvel Studio’s unprecedentedly long-running superhero saga, the mammoth achievement that’s ensued is certainly no casual fluke. Carefully calibrated to give each character and sub-plot their due while never short-changing its emotional content, Avengers: Endgame gives itself the licence of sizeable running time to tell a story that is part dirge, part mind-bending time travelling heist and part meditation on friendship and power. The cinematic landscape may have been changed by these colourfully-clad supermen and women in debatable ways, but the byzantine byways of its interconnected stories clicking so satisfyingly together is certainly no mean feat.”

Click here to read the full review

Note: Check out a more ambitious, expansive and crazier foray into superhero-media criticism in this article, which I was graciously invited to pen for Isles of the Left

The Vicious Familiar: Us 

Us

“More ambitious and tighter than his barnstorming Get Out in equal measure, Jordan Peele’s second stab at film-making may have some rips at its seams, but in the long run makes for a thrilling feature with something to say. Satisfyingly structured and laced with nuggets of ambiguity that will burrow through the brain, it’s offers a full-bodied experience of genre cinema that feels sorely needed in a landscape oversaturated with superheroes and remakes.”

Click here to read the full review

Third Time Bloody: John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

Keanu Reeves stars as 'John Wick' in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 - PARABELLUM.

“Expanding on its world with a tightly-focused and clever simplicity that allows more than ample room for its trademark bloodbath-balletics to shine through, the third installment of the little action franchise that could continues to plough its way through the competition with violent, witty elan. A satisfying ride from start to finish, Reeves and Stahelski’s baby has grown up and taken the world by storm, while betraying zero signs of franchise fatigue so far.”

Click here to read the full review

Local Flavour: Limestone Cowboy

Limestone Cowboy

“Though lacking polish in certain areas and never quite managing to resist the temptation to stuff every frame with ‘local colour’, Limestone Cowboy remains an engaging and effective dramedy that successfully alchemises quirky Maltese mores into a feature of universal appeal.”

Click here to read the full review

Too Good For This World: Happy As Lazzaro

Happy As Lazzaro

“While offering an unflinching and deeply upsetting gaze into the unequal power structures of capitalism both past and present, Happy as Lazzaro also manages to be a rich and rewarding fable, limned with a magical glow that keeps cynicism and hopelessness at bay. Mixing in a team of first-time actors and non-professionals with established names, Alice Rohrwacher creates something of a minor miracle, which is likely to remain resonant for years to come.”

Click here to read the full review

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Coming up: Reviews of Vox Lux (dir. Brady Corbet) and Beats (dir. Brian Welsh). Check out my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram avatars for updates on reviews and other projects

 

Talking Camilla & Two on Taħt il-Qoxra | Radio Interview (Maltese)

Though the bulk of this weekend was taken up by that annual and very much welcome celebration of rock, punk and metal in my very own adoptive hometown — Rock the South — I also got the chance to make a happy pit stop over at the national broadcasting studio to record an episode of literary radio show Taħt il-Qoxra (‘Under the Cover’), hosted by Rachelle Deguara and broadcast on Sunday on Radju Malta.

It is now online, and you can have a listen by clicking here.

taht il qoxra

Joined by my co-writer on ‘Camilla’, Stephanie Sant (also the short film’s director), we delved into how the short film came to be; from my seizing of that rare and frenzied jolt of inspiration that led me to combine Clare Azzopardi’s subtle-but-cutting short story with Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla‘ as I jotted down the treatment; to Stephanie lifting the lid — somewhat — on the historically intricate backstory that served as our ‘true north’ for two key characters.

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Asked about how the indigenous film industry can up both productivity and quality, we jumped on the chance to evangelise the importance of having a solid script, while lamenting the prioritisation of film servicing over production in the local sphere.

All of this is burying the lede somewhat for me though… since the interview had to be done in Maltese given the programme’s format, approach and target audience, I couldn’t exactly wing it. But a spot of rehearsal earlier on seems to have done the trick, and the ensuing interview flowed along quite nicely, I felt.

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Towards the end, I also got a chance to talk a little bit about my debut novel Two — which is about Malta but is in fact written in English — just a few weeks shy of its fifth birthday. I’m glad that people are still keen to hear about its evolution and what it means to me, which is a great deal, even if projects like ‘Camilla’ are shinier and more exciting right about this point in time.

On that note, watch this space for news on future screenings of ‘Camilla’ — more info as soon as we have it, which will hopefully be pretty soon.

***

Watch the trailer for ‘Camilla’ here

Find out more about Two here

 

Easter Gothic | BILA, Camilla, Inheritance

Easter is approaching on this once-aggressively Catholic island, which is only marginally less so nowadays, as this snap I took a couple of days back gloriously, dramatically illustrates:

gudja

Easter of course also means spring in full swing, and the twisty turny weather that it brings with it has left me feeling a bit ‘off’ on a few days here and there, where drowsiness becomes the order of the day and where you feel abandoned to the mercy of the uncontrollable climate-gods and their whims — they are in you, controlling your moods and there’s not much you can do about it. Both humbling and annoying in equal measure, but I also know it’s nowhere near the deluge that is the summer-swelter juggernaut, for which I am subconsciously preparing with no small amount of trepidation.

But come rain on shine, my penchant for the cooling moods of Gothic melodrama will remain unquelled, and it’s not just the above photo that stands as proof of this. Recently, the punk-metal band BILA (no, they’re not all that sure about their genre-configuration either — I asked) got me on board to participate in the music video for their song ‘Belliegha’, in which I was tasked to play a folk monster by the video’s director, Franco Rizzo.

The no-budget, three-day shoot ended up blossoming into a glorious display of pulpy goodness, and it was about as fun to shoot as it is to look at, I reckon. You can check out the whole thing here. For those of you on the island and keen to hear more, BILA will be performing at Rock the South on April 14.

The Belliegha’s aesthetic certainly lies on the (deliberately) crummier side of what I’ve just been talking about, but we also had a chance to once again showcase our more elegant attempt at the Mediterranean Gothic during past couple of weeks, as the National Book Council invited co-writer/director, producer Martin Bonnici and myself to speak about our short film ‘Camilla’ at the Campus Book Festival.

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Flanked by Martin Bonnici (left) and Stephanie Sant (right) at the Campus Book Festival, University of Malta, March 29, 2019. Photo by Virginia Monteforte

The event was focused on adaptation, translation and subtitling, and to this end we were thankfully joined by Dr Giselle Spiteri Miggiani from the translation department, and someone with tangible experience of subtitling for television and cinema.

Despite having premiered back in November, it feels as though ‘Camilla’s journey into the world is only just beginning. Some encouraging feedback and an overall sense of enduring satisfaction with the work as a whole — bolstered by the memory of just how smooth a project it was to put together — leaves me with a decidedly un-Gothy optimism about its future.

But true to the spirit of fertility, resurrection and renewal that also characterises this season and its many associated festivals, there’s another bun in the oven that appears to be just about ready for consumption.

inheritance

After some five-odd years of rumination, regurgitation and tinkering, the fifth draft of a horror feature I’ve been working on under the auspices of the aforementioned Martin Bonnici appears to be production-ready.

Of course any number of things can happen in the run up to finally getting this thing filmed, but I can’t help but let out an extended sigh of relief at finally finishing a draft of ‘Inheritance’ that’s about as smooth as I’d like it to be — with the required suspension of disbelief being dialed down to a minimum, the dialogue as lived-in as it’s ever been, and the narrative beats aligned to both character motivation and the story’s thematic underbelly.

I’ll have to keep mum on details for the time being, not least because a jinx at this stage of the film’s evolution would be particularly heartbreaking. Suffice it to say that the project marks the fulfilment of a vow made back in 2014, on national media. A vow to make the Maltese cinematic space just that little bit punkier and weirder.

This all feels like good juju, since summer is approaching. And carving out a pretty alcove of darkness feels like just the thing. Take it away, Banshees…

banshees

Film Reviews | Too Much Colour, Some Black & White and the Perfect Middle

It’s been a while since I’ve posted links to my ‘day job’ film reviews here. There’s no strict or particular reason for this; it’s just something that I’ve been doing by rote for the largest chunk of what one could call my career (it is, in fact, the practice that kickstarted it all), so that it often feels superfluous to point to it in any explicit way.

But this is, of course, just my own psychological cushioning and laziness at play, and shouldn’t be given all the credence it’s been getting. So for whatever it’s worth, here’s a handful of recent reviews I’ve written up for ye olde and trusty homestead at MaltaToday.

Too Much Colour: Aquaman

aquaman

(…too much, but that’s okay…)

“While certainly not without its faults, James Wan’s brave and confident handling of the latest offering from the struggling ‘shared universe’ by DC moves at a steady clip despite its cumbersome running time and some perfunctory exposition. With nary an original beat in sight, what we do get is a classic hero origin story all set in a mesmerising undersea world that is not afraid to indulge the full technicolour bliss of comic book fantasia.”

Click here to read the full review

Two Colours Only: Roma

Roma

“An autobiographical story that somehow manages to feel both intimate and massive, Alfonso Cuarón’s trip down memory lane is a masterful feat of empathy and historical reckoning. In a world where repressive governments insist on barring entry to outsiders, and where a toxic political discourse based on constricting identity politics chokes the global conversation, Roma feels like a welcome breath of intimate and complex humanity.”

Click here to read the full review

The Colours Are Just Right: The Favourite

THE FAVOURITE

“Caustically funny without being flippant or excessively mean-spirited and beautifully wrought but eschewing visual fetishisation, The Favourite is a rare beast indeed: a sneakily entertaining anti-period drama that deconstructs the foibles of its erstwhile genre while sustaining the momentum of a mutually destructive human vortex that is perversely, beguilingly entertaining from start to finish.”

Click here to read the full review

To go along with the colour-wheel vibe established here, my review of Netflix’s Velvet Buzzsaw is out in today’s edition of the paper. Online version will be up in a few days’ time, but suffice it to say that my take is about as unflattering as anything Gyllenhall’s sneery art critic character could come up with on a good-bad day.