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 

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“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

 

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Book Reviews | Ancient Gods, Fallen Angels and Other Dissolute Beings Awaiting the End of the World

I’ve stopped logging my reading into Goodreads, mainly because I felt it was gamifying the experience for me far too much, and this really not the kind of headspace I want to be in when considering what I Wish to Read, what I’m Currently Reading and what I’ve just Finished Reading.

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As with most pseudo-social and insidiously easy-to-use interfaces, the Goodreads model only appears to respect the fluid ebb and flow that characterises the reading experience for most people. But in actual fact, asking us to list and show off our reading is just another way of adding undue pressure and exhibitionism over something that should be experienced in the deep inner recesses of our mind.

So rather than ‘clocking in’ – an even better term than logging in, I think, implying an employee-like schedule/adherence to the gods of social media – I thought I’d chat a little bit about some of the books I’ve recently enjoyed, in a way that’s hopefully more germane to the intuitive and flowing pleasure that reading them implies.

Mythos by Stephen Fry

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Perhaps opting to go for the audio route with this one was the best decision I could possibly make, as Stephen Fry’s self-narrated jaunt across the annals of Greek mythology is delivered in the lilting, bordering-on-placid notes that make him such a becalming yet enriching presence for many.

As regards the content itself, the tales are of course unbeatable in their timelessness, though Fry’s expansive approach is friendly and accessible, even if it risks ending up on the wrong side of avuncluar some of the time.

Much has been made of Mythos being published roughly around the same time as Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, and the comparison illustrates precisely what I mean: where Gaiman retells key episodes from Nordic myth in lean, seductive cuts of self-contained story, Fry plays the encyclopedic know-it-all card. Not content to simply give us the stories, he will emphasise the linguistic and cultural strands that characterise the gods and personages that populate the myths.

It makes for a far ‘baggier’ affair than what Gaiman has to offer in his shoring up of the deities from up north, but it’s no less entertaining for it, and Fry made for an amiable companion during my self-administered work commute.

A History of Heavy Metal by Andrew O’Neill

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While I did not go for the audiobook route when it came to this hilarious and unputdownable trip across a music genre that defined me as a young man (it was a chance find at a local bookstore — quite rare, given that Malta is rapidly becoming swallowed up by a giant chain on that front), O’Neill’s voice quickly burrowed its way into my brain.

Unapologetically subjective (“Whitesnake can fuck off”) and in no way a conventionally authoritative, sober historical tome, it nonetheless reads like an impassioned and thoroughly lived-in love letter to an expansive, beguiling and often problematic musical genre whose intensity is often impossible to recapture in any other medium.

And that’s just it: a sober analysis would not have passed muster — it would have failed to capture the knotted, abrasive wall of sound that characterises that amorphous term, ‘metal’*. O’Neill is our man for the job. A black magic-practicing stand-up comedian who is also the vocalist and guitarist for the Victorian-themed hardcore punk band The Men That Will Not Be Blamed for Nothing. Can you really think of anyone else able to take up that mantle with the requisite amount of jagged style and grace?

The book made me ‘LOL irl’ in a way that only the likes of Terry Pratchett have done for me in the past, and it was also a contributing factor to me saying ‘fuck yeah!’ when a couple of friends suggested we go see Slayer in Glasgow on a month’s notice. Never underestimate the power of literature to influence impressionable young minds, folks.

Lucifer: Princeps by Peter Grey

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While Lucifer may feature heavily in all things (or at least, most things) metal, Peter Grey’s careful and thorough exploration of the evolution of the figure we’ve come to know as Lucifer sternly discourages any such shallow appropriation. Published in a gorgeous edition from Scarlet Imprint (which Grey runs with his partner Alkistis Dimech), Lucifer: Princeps is a beguiling and not-easy read, cleaving close to Biblical sources in an attempt to closely trace the most significant instances of the Lucifer figure, in what also serves as a preamble volume for Grey’s upcoming, Lucifer: Praxis.

With scholarly precision and an impatience for romanticised reimaginings of Lucifer and all he stands for, neither is Grey dismissive of the figure he considers to be the repository of Western witchcraft. Instead, as he writes in the introductory chapter (aptly titled ‘A History of Error), “My aim is to be effective in sorcery, rather than be ensorcelled”.

Long John Silver by Björn Larsson

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A life of itinerant freedom has always held a fascination for me, mainly because it represented a brighter flip-side to the many limitations otherwise imposed on a former ‘third country national’ such as myself. So of course, I will be magnetically drawn towards pirate narratives, and Larsson’s novel, which I found in a gorgeous bookstore in Rome after having Googled it as Black Sails withdrawal kicked in, provided that… and more.

Indeed, this novel may have been published in the early nineties, but its gritty revisionism is closer to the spirit of something like Black Sails — and the plethora of unapologetically violent anti-hero narratives that populate the crates of contemporary ‘prestige TV’ — while also using a seductive first-person narration to draw us into the story of Long John Silver, both before and after the events of Treasure Island.

In fact, the true genius of Larsson’s book is not its apt emulation of old-school adventure literature, and neither is it his evocative and often disturbing ‘maturation’ of the same (the slave ship segments don’t make for an easy read, for one thing, but this only helps Silver rise in our estimation: he is a no-bullshit narrator, at the very least). It is that Larsson’s Silver plays the same trick he played on young Jim Hawkins. He gets you on his side.

The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay

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Ever since his twisty, layered, rich and creepily satisfying fourth novel A Head Full of Ghosts, Paul Tremblay has been on top of the list of writers to read for horror fans of all stripes, down from little old me and up to the likes of Stephen King himself.

The Cabin at the End of the World strips down his approach from the formally ambitious acrobatics of ‘Ghosts’ and is even more close-hewn and minimal than its immediate predecessor, The Disappearance at Devil’s Creek (which shows up in a sneaky cameo, an Easter Egg for true Tremblay fans).

Telling the increasingly harrowing story of a small family whose vacation at a remote rural cabin is cut short by a group of seemingly ‘well-meaning’ cultists, Tremblay’s latest initially reads like a screenplay, with his present-tense sentences flitting perspective from one character to another while maintaining a fluid third-person narration throughout.

It’s a shrewd formal choice that fits both the apocalyptic ticking clock that characterises the story — a looming axe that’s about to drop  (or is it?) — that generates both basic suspense while providing a rich fount of thematically-relevant ambiguity. But what really impressed me is that in the end, it actually feels less like a film than a harrowing stage play: something Sarah Kane or Philip Ridley could have written.

The limited setting and cast of characters makes it so: there’s something classically Greek about how this all pans out — all in real time, and forcing us to ask hard questions to ourselves, and our culture at large.

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If you enjoyed these mini book reviews, please consider buying my own novel, Two. It’s a coming-of-age story set in Malta that blends realism and fantasy, and it has been described as “dreamy, and poetic and often exquisite“. Find out more about it here.

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*Though I humbly put forward the ‘Thor vs Surtur‘ scene at the beginning of Thor: Ragnarok (2017), set to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’, as a pretty apposite distillation of what metal at its best should be all about.  

No Sleeping Beauties | Steve Hili on The Adult Panto

Anyone interested in the general direction of the Maltese ‘arts and culture’ scene is bound to have formed an opinion about Valletta 2018 — better known colloquially as “V18”, though its overstaffed PR machine has been keen to quash that tag of late, deeming it off-brand.

I’m writing this at the tail end of a balmy pre-summer’s day, after having actually enjoyed a V18-supported event, so I’ll keep both the ranting and mild hypocrisy down to a minimum here. But I will say that the focus on branding is starting to grate a little on me, along with the feeling that somehow, the whole initiative seems to be characterised by an insistent tendency to miss the wood for the trees.

This, along with the fact that consistency and sleek branding seems to run counter to the behaviour and reputation of V18’s Chairman Jason Micallef.

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Valletta, when it’s allowed to just do its thing.

No doubt already slotted in as a gaffe-prone, politically-appointed chair-warmer by a large chunk of those with an eye on the island’s cultural scene, the man is clearly a political animal, with a crude but nonetheless effective ability to tap into ready-to-burst emotional veins among the supporters of his political-ideological home base.

It creates something of a critical impasse, where anyone criticising Micallef and the Valletta 2018 Foundation is branded an elitist and, as the above-linked example involving Mario Vella suggests, something of an ingrate. Add a dash of that peculiarly Maltese brand of “If you don’t agree with what I’m doing it means you’re just a stooge of the other political party” into the mix – et voila!

But like I said, I’m amenable to take all of this philosophically, and even to wring out some positives from an equation whose results seem to be either a churn of deafening quietism (a large percentage of artists in Malta and Gozo are somehow tied to V18, and therefore contracted to remain silent on any shortcomings), or a pile of broken promises.

It creates something of a critical impasse, where anyone criticising Micallef and the Valletta 2018 Foundation is branded an elitist and even, perhaps, something of an ingrate

Because at the very least, V18 appears to have created something resembling a ‘mainstream’ under and against which other more independent-minded initiatives can emerge. It may all sound like scraping the bottom of the barrel of hope, but I think it’s a matter of focus and perspective that feels important.

It certainly had an impact on our devising of Apocalesque!, a comeback show for our little burlesque/cabaret troupe after a four-year hiatus. Somewhere down the line of devising scripts and planning rehearsals with our resident director Nicole, I was struck by the realisation of how most of our shows — having been performed during a time when the centre-right, ‘Catholic-Democrat’ Nationalist Party was still in power — would previously be concerned with issues of ‘public decency’ and censorship.

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Backstage at the Apocalesque, 17.05.18 (dress rehearsal). Photo by Jacob Sammut

We knew we were pushing an envelope that had more to do with matters of morality and antiquated laws — which have thankfully now gone the way of the dodo.

This time, however, the motivating factors had less to do with easily-understandable cries for freedom, and more about puncturing a zeitgeist based around gentrification and the grandstanding so eagerly offered up by Micallef and his ilk. With V18 swallowing up so much of the cultural oxygen, we felt compelled to blow some of our own air out.

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Undine LaVerve at the Apocalesque, 17.05.18 (dress rehearsal). Photo by Jacob Sammut

And I’m glad to see that we weren’t the only ones. Fresh off our show — and sharing one of our own performers, the inimitable Undine LaVerve — this year’s edition of Steve Hili’s Adult Panto puts the tale of Sleeping Beauty through its crude-and-rude wringer, and the go-for-broke approach was actually born out of a desire to swerve away from mainstream practices and do something loud and fun instead.

Throwing some insights my way, Hili recounts how the ‘Adult Panto’ series — now five editions old — in fact started off while he and other cast members would be goofing off backstage while taking part in the traditional Christmas pantos.

“I had been in a couple of traditional pantos and there always seemed to reach a point in rehearsals — when everyone was tired because we were in the middle of production week — that we would be messing about and coming up with our own jokes. A lot of these jokes were very very naughty, and we would always lament the fact that we could never actually use them in to what to all intents and purposes is a kiddies show!”

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The cast of Sleeping Beauty: The Adult Panto. Photo by Sergio Morana

That simple prompt led to a series of raunchy shows existing at the periphery of the local theatrical scene, but performed with what I suspect is the same devil-may-care gusto of our our burlesque acts.

Being largely based in the UK these days, Hili — previously an energetic fixture of local radio — extols the “DIY” approach to comedy, and believes this to be, ultimately, the most liberating approach to the material that one can adopt.

“I have found that creating my own work and shows really works for the type of comedy I enjoy doing and I am good at. You would hope that artists here would feel the urge to adopt a DIY spirit. As part of V18 or as a response to it. That would be quite a legacy.”

In fact, turning his guns on V18 in particular, Hili laments how the Foundation and everything associated with it has not been successful in fostering the kind of freewheeling atmosphere of creativity that he describes.

“The way I had hoped that V18 would work was like the Edinburgh International Festival works,” Hili says.

You would hope that artists here would feel the urge to do adopt a DIY spirit

“I had hoped that there would be lots of high-brow culture but that this would breed fringe events… I would hope that V18 was (and still is) a great opportunity for artists to take the bull by the horns and to create fringe events that offer alternatives including perhaps a way of dissecting the current political scene in a way that is free of the toxic environment that seems to have taken over the islands.”

Ultimately, however, Hili zones in on what will always motivate him to keep creating rough-diamond shows like this.

“We feel like we are thumbing our noses at authority. And I love it.”

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Photo by Sergio Morana

Sleeping Beauty: The Adult Panto will be staged at Spazju Kreattiv at St James Cavalier, Valletta until June 15. For more information, click here

Organised Chaos and Disinfectant Tang| Apocalesque

Burlesque, where you’re often left wondering just what you’ve gotten yourself into (again).

Burlesque, where (yes, it’s a place)… where a 3am Messenger missive calling for “unicorns and ceremonial knives” is entirely in line with established procedure.

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Kevin Canter. Photo by Jacob Sammut

Burlesque, where the same established procedures established themselves c. 2009, and, barring an odd hiatus here and there that’s also in line with the shambolic nature of this beast anyway, remain very much in force.

Burlesque, where ‘organised chaos’ is not the perfect method, but it’s the only one we know.

 

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Run-through wind-down, 14.05.18

Burlesque, which in our case isn’t even technically burlesque but kind of is and the vibe is there so we just go with it.

Burlesque, which is more of a fringe theatre event set up to provide some breathing room and colour in an island stifled by so many things, so often.

Burlesque, which we’ve run through yesterday against the antiseptic tang of a freshly-washed “alternative” cinema — whose slippery cleanliness a high-heeled centaur was very much apprehensive about.

Burlesque, which starts up again in three days (And runs for three days.)

Apocalesque, our latest iteration, needs you.

Book your tickets

Find out more here and here