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

 

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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.

backstage at the apocalesque

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

Writing and Rebuilding | Motivational Roundup

I’m just emerging from a nasty tussle with the flu, so I write this with a paradoxical mix of mental battle-weariness and an eagerness to Get Things Done, given the powerlessness that I’ve been forced to operate under for the past week.

It often shocks me just how much we underestimate the mental defenses we have or don’t have; how quick we are to forget that the intellectual constitution we build up is important to our day-to-day. Getting sick, even with something mundane as the flu, will remind you of all that real quick. At a certain point during the worst of the fever-dream deluge, I was actually facing a demon tempting me into oblivion — the oblivion of giving up whatever I was doing and going into a 9-to-5 kind of setup, that is — while a terrifying pool of black ink just unspooled around its horizontal, muscular form that continued to dwarf and dwarf me further. Yeah.

So now that all that’s more or less (thankfully) over, it feels apt — even, that derided and often ill-used word, “natural” — to take stock of some of the stuff I’ve been up to over the past few months.

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One of the main steps forward I’ve undergone professionally since October is accepting to return to a feature-writing gig at the olde homestead of MaltaToday. Well, I say “step forward”, when it actually constitutes something of a return to the stuff I used to do for them while full-time. But doing it at a freelance basis changes the dynamic somewhat, and actually reminds me why this particular facet of the job was always so satisfying.

That’s because it’s great to be given wider berth to explore topics that lie just outside my immediate comfort zone of the local arts and culture scene, given how a bulk of the features I’ve been writing concern issues like immigration, education, public transport and gentrification. Here are a few of my favourites from that batch.

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‘My father was embraced with open arms by the Maltese – if that hadn’t been the case, I wouldn’t exist’

Omar Rababah

Omar Rababah. Photo by James Bianchi/Mediatoday

Syrian-Maltese social worker Omar Rababah sat down for a chat about the double-standards that enable Maltese racism to thrive. As someone with foreign blood but who was also raised — if not, like Omar, born — in Malta, I found a lot with which to identify in his story, something that certainly comes out in the article itself.

Click here to read the article

How neoliberal capitalism shaped Tigné Point to sell the Valletta view

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Another piece that ended up being quite close to home, in more ways than one. A precis of an academic paper about the geo-economic dynamics of my old neighbourhood of Tigné in Sliema, the article details how the area gradually shifted from being primarily a place of, you know, basic human habitation, into a place that exists primarily to cater to the needs of economically steroid-pumped neoliberal capitalism.

Click here to read the article

Homophobic hate speech in Malta has decreased. Why are foreigners still a problem?

A recent report has shown that while homophobic tendencies have thankfully been on the decline in recent years — in large part, no doubt, to the LGBTIQ-friendly measures implemented into government policy — xenophobia remains rife as ever. The reasons for this are both predictable and revealing.

Click here to read the article

Can social media launch the revolution against our national dependence on cars?

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Out of the box, into the box: Parking Space Events

As a non-driver myself, I’ve experienced the ins-and-outs of the local public transport system through its many permutations over the years. It’s been challenging, but still not challenging enough to convince me to take up driving, particularly in as densely populated and heavily-motorised island like Malta. However, I’m in the vast minority on this one… a problem that this article addresses by speaking to a few individuals who are thinking outside the box in an attempt to circumvent the traffic problem.

Click here to read the article 

The view from the other side: Arnold Cassola on the Magnificent Süleyman

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Arnold Cassola. Photo by James Bianchi/Mediatoday

It always gives me great pleasure to puncture through any instances of jingoism, and in Malta’s case The Great Siege stands as just about the loudest of that genre of political rhetoric. I’ve done it in the past, and the latest publication by historian and politician Arnold Cassola gave me a chance to do it once again — albeit in a reduced, more subtle capacity. It’s a history from the perspective of the person that the kitsch-populist narrative will have you believe was the “villain” of the piece, and it makes for a great and necessary insight.

Click here to read the article

‘It’s bizarre how some people in funding bodies perceive critique as an affront’

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Karsten Xuereb

I’ve flagged up this chat with Karsten Xuereb — former Executive Director of the Valletta 2018 Foundation — not too long ago on this very venue, and it remains one of my favourite of this bunch so far. Namely because it’s so refreshing to hear someone speak openly about the systemic failures and own-goals of a project that was meant to deliver long-term success to the local cultural scene, only to be degraded into what looks to be — for the most part — a shallow display of crowdpleasing.

Click here to read the article

Turning ourselves into human capital

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Wayne Flask. Photo by James Bianchi/Mediatoday

And now for something a lot closer to my usual wheelhouse. I spoke to my good friend Wayne Flask right before the launch of his debut novel, Kapitali, published by Merlin and launched during last month’s Malta Book Festival. Though I have some reservations about the novel’s narrative structure — reservations that I’ve openly voiced to its author when prompted, I hasten to add — there’s no mistaking the urgency of its satirical ‘mission’, and I’m truly glad that it seems to have found an audience.

Click here to read the article

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There’s been some other stuff along the way too, and there will — of course — be more of it coming each week. Sickness or holidays, ours is a profession that never sleeps. But beyond all this, I’m also — as ever — eager to get back to a horror movie screenplay, whose on-the-page writing has finally kicked into earnest gear after years of treatments and synopses.

And in the wake of the very successful Malta Comic Con 2017, I’m only more eager to finish off MIBDUL — which, despite the many delays that dogged it, remains a beacon for me and, I’m sure, my collaborators. But another idea also hatched while chatting to some Greek creators over coffee and minced pie on that first comic con morning, so that needs seeing to as well…

Hey, we need to keep that black demonic pool at bay somehow, right?

More later!

High & Low | Edinburgh Fringe 2014 Reviews – Part 2

Southern-Fried Patti Smith: Christeene

Southern-Fried Patti Smith: Christeene

Click here for Part 1

AUGUST 2 – 22:10 – CHRISTEENE: The Christeene Machine

Southern-Fried Patti Smith in drag, with a dash of acid on a bed of sleaze.

Down in the Cowgate’s smoky Underbelly venue, the audience was being assaulted by a different kind of projectile fluid (see Part 1): a suspect jet of what we can only hope was water, emanating from Austin, Texas-based drag performer Christeene’s faux-vagina.

This prop pretty much sums up the concert-cum-cabaret act: unapologetically irreverent and often gross, but with an impish childishness that makes it quite endearing at the same time.

With songs like ‘Fix My Dick’ and ‘Tears from my Pussy’ (the latter – surprise surprise – being the number that gave way to the aforementioned projectile genitalia), Christeene’s schtick is far from subtle. But coupled with the performer’s Austin Texas pedigree, the between-the-songs banter is what makes the experience truly worthwhile.

As a stage presence she is both creepy and coddling. The mismatched pupils and blacked-out teeth are suggestive of an unsavory alleyway encounter, but Christeene milks this unsettling character to entertain rather than disturb.

Playing the dazed American visitor – one from the Deep South, no less – Christeene describes Edinburgh as being “like Disneyland… only with no creepy mouse comin’ up to ya and shit”.

“There be castles, fireworks and men in skirts playin’ music outta a sack… where the fuck am I?!”

But beyond the expletive-ridden drag-hillbilly facade there’s a genuinely romantic core to Christeene’s act, if you can believe it.

Accompanied by her two trusty dancers C-Baby and T-Gavel (refreshingly against-type, they’re not shy to let some flab hang out), that the Christeene Machine is all about losing your inhibitions should come as no surprise. But Christeene is also on a mission to liberate us from the deadening structures that crush our individuality and invade on our intimate private space.

Noting how ridiculous we’d all look tapping away at our smartphones – which we’re all “slaves” to – while also negotiating Edinburgh’s often-cobbled streets, Christeene implores the audience to safeguard that “little pony inside of you”, and to not let it be harvested by the relentless and numbing churn of the zeitgeist.

It’s not too dissimilar from the right-on live performance preaching from the likes of Patti Smith (whom I was also lucky enough to catch – on my adoptive home island, no less – earlier this year). Except that thankfully, Christeene does away Smith’s brand of post-hippie pseudo-spirituality in favour of an (un)healthy dose of Southern-Fried sleaze.

AUGUST 3 – 15:30 – Simon Callow in Juvenalia

Simon Callow in Juvenalia

A politically incorrect diatribe that grasps at topical relevance, but still boasts a melancholy core if you’re patient enough to look for it.

It is a testament to the healthy variety one can find at the Fringe (if, that is, you do in fact manage to machete your way through the stand-up comedy) that you can quite literally descend into an underworld to experience an act like Christeene on one day, and then head back up the next to watch a National Treasure (™) like Simon Callow channel an ancient Roman satirist.

That’s not to say that Juvenalia, a revival of Callow’s own 1970s take on Juvenal’s Satires, puts much stock in pomp and ceremony.

Working off translation by Peter Green (as adapted by Richard Quick), the show pitches the condensed and cherry-picked selection of Juvenal’s vitriolic rants against… well, pretty much anyone and anything… as nothing other than a stand-up comedy show (the show’s poster tagline spells it out for you: ‘Stand-Up Comedy as last delivered in AD 100’).

That particular gimmick may not have been the wisest. While taking the form of a sustained monologue, much in the same way as your run-of-the-mill stand-up comedy show would – Callow’s subject is not an easy pill to swallow, and the claims of Juvenal’s contemporary relevance are strained at best.

The fact is that the Roman satirist, while acerbically entertaining, remains a product of his time. That he is ‘democratic’ in his vitriol – virtually no class of citizen or ruler is spared from his acid tongue – cannot conceal the unpleasant prejudices that power his most sustained rants.

Juvenal’s misogyny is particularly hard to root for, and the production does nothing to contextualise it in a way that would make it palatable.

But though Juvenalia is sold to us as a stand-up comedy show that happens to be delivered from beyond the grave by a long-dead historical figure, it’s saving grace is in how it differs from other exponents of the genre it’s trying to ape.

By the end of the performance, you realize that, far from being a meandering monologue, Juvenalia allows for a change of pace.

Come the final act, we’re allowed a peek into a weary Juvenal; anger takes a back seat to reveal what’s at the core of his philosophy: a call for virtue in simplicity.

Though the show doesn’t do itself any favours by trying to compete with the myriad stand-up comedy events at the Fringe, the negative backlash it’s received feels slightly disproportionate.

Rather than a still-topical piece of mordant satire, Juvenal stands on its own as an intriguing character study – a sustained ‘unpeeling’ of a bitter man which at the end allows us to see the pain within.

Though Callow delivers his lines with gusto, judging by the marketing campaign and general pitch of the show, it seems as if he may be blind to the show’s true strength… even after all these years.

Next time: SCANDIMANIA! IZZARD! 

Fighting fire with Fire: Hunger Games & Creativity 101

Hearts and minds: Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson.

Watching the second instalment of the Hunger Games film franchise was a curious experience, more so than the original.

I’m not familiar with the Suzanne Collins source novels, so I’m coming into the series free of any expectations. What struck me more than anything this time around was the sheer extent with which the franchise appears to be playing a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too game with its viewers.

It’s a critique of our entertainment structures, of course: the idea of kids forced into televised gladiatorial combat is disturbingly close to what we see on reality television.

But there’s thrills and enjoyment to be had in watching our protagonists attempting to survive.

I’m feeling generous, so I’ll say this is actually a reminder of how good, compelling stories should be about that immersive experience: about riveting your attention, thematic paradoxes be damned. Stories aren’t uni-directional messages. The good ones have a capacity of altering their shape in whichever way they deem is best for their survival.

Often, they’ll latch onto classic predecessors. In the case of Catching Fire, Francis Lawrence made a very wise decision in this regard. He channelled one of the most vaunted, enduring ‘middle chapters’ from sci-fi/fantasy: The Empire Strikes Back.

Come the end of Catching Fire – mild spoilers ahead – the ‘rebellion’ is dispersed, and our heroine has been physically compromised (see: Luke sans hand). Worse, her partner-in-justice has been captured (see: Carbonite Han Solo).

But apart from this narrative puzzle-arrangement, a pervasive darkness is also allowed to settle over the entire film – the feeling that things have to get worse before they can get better.

There’s no dictum, no Creativity 101 cliché I like more than ‘Whatever Works’. Zeitgeist-prodding satire married with classic Joseph Campbell/Star Wars riffs definitely works for Catching Fire.

I wonder how much of this is deliberate; a strategic narrative positioning for maximum effect. A film adaptation, I suspect, would be more invested in that kind of thing – particularly a film adaptation of this size and financial girth.

But from my own experiences of writing fiction, I know that it’s virtually impossible to remember what your original ingredients were. Once the stew starts to simmer, it all tends to coalesce into one colour.

Again, only if the story is good. Only if you’re being honest, if you’re letting – or training – yourself to tell the story as consistently as you can, if you’re giving it all the attention it needs. Only if you’re using the right ingredients, at the right time.