Thursday, December 01, 2011

Christmas at the Movies




  • This article was first published on 01/12/11 in VIDA magazine.
  • Release dates are subject to change. All films released locally by KRS Film Distributors Ltd.

film of the month:


Every festive season, magical family films compete for our attention during the holidays. There’s usually one or two with a clear seasonal theme, but often anything spectacular and family-friendly will do the trick. Whether it’s hobbits on quests, children keeping burglars at bay, or green Grinches trying to ruin Christmas, many a box-office hit has made it’s grand entry thanks to that special December feeling.

Martin Scorsese films do not usually fit that bill. One of the most celebrated and respected directors alive, he usually makes visceral and thrilling films that you don’t get to enjoy until you’ve left sixth form. And if you’re not good with bloody violence, maybe not at all. But like many great artists, he tries his hand at different genres, just like he did with the historical biopic The Aviator a few years back. This time, he’s decided to embrace both children’s fiction and 3D filmmaking, in what is being hailed as a glorious fairytale.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret was published back in 2007 by children’s author Brian Selznick. Scorsese acquired the rights, and the screenplay was written by John Logan, who is the man behind such gems as Gladiator, The Aviator and Rango (and who penned the next Bond film). The story is set in 1930s Paris, with the titular character being an orphan who lives in a world of steam engines and clockwork toys, hidden away in a train station. With regard to the 3D, this is apparently no gimmicky afterthought conversion, but rather a full-bodied attempt by Scorsese to use the medium and weave it into his fantasy storytelling.

Asa Butterfield, who had a haunting main role in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, is Hugo. Also responding to Scorsese’s casting call are Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat), Ben Kingsley (Elegy), Jude Law (Closer), Chloë Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass), Christopher Lee (The Lord of the Rings) and Emily Mortimer (Shutter Island). This looks like one of those films that can appeal to those of all ages and all tastes in film. It will be fascinating to see how the man behind so many crime and thriller classics can adapt himself to the childlike and magical, and the early response from abroad suggests he’s done so with class.


also released this month:

New Year’s Eve

If you watched Valentine’s Day last year, think of this as the sequel. Same formula - more big names than you would find at the Oscars, each with a small plot that all falls magically into place for the big moment. Love Actually set the high standards for this sort of film, but unfortunately Valentine’s Day sacrificed detail and emotion to try and fit in more people. With a cast list too long to go through, let’s hope this doesn’t do the same mistake. If you want to get festive and see what the likes of Robert DeNiro, Halle Berry, Jon Bon Jovi, Michelle Pfeiffer, the newly single Asthon Kutcher (and many, many more) get up to at the stroke of midnight, this might be fun.


Machine Gun Preacher

Gerald Butler (300) stars as American biker Sam Childers, who gave up his drinking ways when he embraced religion, and now is an active protector of orphans in Sudan. I guess how much you enjoy this depends on whether you go for the preaching or for the machine guns.


Puss in Boots

A spin-off from the now-concluded Shrek storyline, this is all about the feisty ginger cat getting his own back-story and moment in the limelight. Sort of like Wolverine, but with smaller claws. Antonio Banderas is of course at hand to add the sultry accent that makes Puss such a kitty-charmer, and Salma Hayek voices one of the adversaries he encounters. Despite the groans that many elicit when such spin-offs are announced, this one is getting good reviews, mostly in the fun department.


Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

The first Sherlock Holmes film was incredibly fun, despite what the Arthur Conan Doyle purists might have thought. Guy Ritchie’s dark but crisp directing was a perfect fit for old London and Robert Downey Jr.’s aloof excellence brought Holmes to life in style. So here’s a second helping, and once again Jude Law is dragged along as the reluctant but essential Watson. Rachel McAdams (Midnight in Paris) also returns, and the new additions include Noomi Rapace (the Swedish Lisbeth Salander) and the inimitable Stephen Fry.



If you thought the Conan Doyle purists were angry, wait till the bard ones see this. A fictional re-imagining of English history, this film stakes the claim that Will Shakespeare didn’t write a single word of his works. Despite the solid cast (including Vanessa Redgrave, Derek Jacobi and Rhys Ifans), many are up in arms claiming this is the most silly film Roland Emmerich ever directed. And this is the man who gave us 2012.


Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Despite the up and downs of Tom Cruise’s popularity, there’s no denying that these films are usually fun, in a Bond vs. MacGyver kind of way. But after the excellent first one, the second had too much slow-motion and Cruise self-love, and the third was tarnished by one of the most far-fetched endings ever. So they took a break, but the franchise is now back, and the first promising sign was director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille and The Iron Giant) behind the camera. Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction) and Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) are back in the team, and new additions include Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker). The plot, should you choose to accept it, involves a bubbling war between USA and Russia.


Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked

Just when you thought they couldn’t come up with a more painful title than ‘The Squeakquel’, they did. Your kids might be excited to see more of our high-pitched friends, but you might want to take them to see Hugo first, for their sake and yours.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

November at the Movies



  • This article was first published on 01/11/11 in VIDA magazine.
  • Release dates are subject to change. All films released locally by KRS Film Distributors Ltd.

film of the month:

The Ides of March

George Clooney is not just a pleasant leading man with nicely-chiselled features. Amongst other things, he’s been trying his hand at directing for the past decade, and his 2005 film Good Night, and Good Luck, which he directed, starred in and co-wrote, is a flawless little gem that has class written all over it. He’s now returning to the political arena with another film in which he also stars, this time as an American presidential candidate.

As the presidential hopeful builds momentum and seems destined for the White House, his campaign is being run by a junior, but very talented, campaign manager (Ryan Gosling, who seems to be in everything nowadays, and was particularly good in the recent Crazy Stupid Love and Drive). Offers start to come in, as I’m sure they do in real life, of shows of support in return for favours later on. But the candidate tries to stick to his principles, and the campaign manager isn’t sure which side to stay on.

Rounding off the impressive cast are Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote, Magnolia), Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny, The Wrestler), Paul Giamatti (Sideways, Cinderella Man) and Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale, Syriana). With the media-heavy Obama campaign fresh in our minds, it’s easy to imagine Clooney in the role, and this time we get to see what goes on behind the scenes. With a title like this, I guess we can safely assume there will be a certain amount of back-stabbing.


also released this month:

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1

Yes, that is the actual title. Since the Harry Potter final film split seemed to work nicely, this other fantasy franchise decided to hop on the money train too. So the fourth and final book in the werewolves vs. vampires love story will be fleshed out into two films. This is great news for Twilight fans, I imagine. The chapter kicks off with a wedding, but it turns out that marriages between humans and the undead aren’t such a good idea after all. Needless to say, this is only for those who have watched (and enjoyed) the previous three films.


The Rum Diary

Johnny Depp continues to mix staple, blockbuster roles (such as the cash behemoth he heads as Jack Sparrow) with smaller, more intriguing films. One of his weirdest trips was the drug-fuelled haze of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, based on the book by Hunter S. Thompson, which was a perfect fit for the eccentric talents of director Terry Gilliam, and Depp. This new film is an adaptation of another book by the same author, and this time takes us to Puerto Rico, where an American journalist immerses himself fully into the local craziness, aided significantly by the joys of rum. This should be fun.


Happy Feet 2

Happy Feet was an icy-cool breath of fresh air, that came out of nowhere and was one of the most original, and enjoyable, animated films of recent years. But despite what appeared to be a fluffy, jukebox-style first half, it also dared to delve deeper, and had a few disturbing and thought-provoking moments later on. Thankfully, the sequel is still the work of George Miller (who was also the man behind Babe), so hopefully it won’t descend into cheap sequel-itis. Elijah Wood (you know, Frodo) returns as Mumble the penguin, although he’s now all grown-up and doing some parenting of his own. Also reprising their vocal roles are Robin Williams and Hugo Weaving, and joining the arctic fun are Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Pink, and Modern Family’s Sofia Vergara.


Tower Heist

I love heist films, and this one’s a comedy too. Director Brent Ratner has successfully juggled crime and comedy in the past with the Rush Hour films, and this time he has an incredible cast at his disposal - Ben Stiller (Tropic Thunder), Casey Affleck (Gone Baby Gone), Matthew Broderick (Godzilla), Alan Alda (M*A*S*H, 30 Rock), Tea Leoni (Spanglish) and Gabourey Sidibe (Precious). And adding some veteran mania to the comedy is Eddie Murphy, who might be hoping this film gives his comedy career a bump in time for next year’s Oscars, which it looks like he will be hosting.


Straw Dogs

This is an apparently faithful remake of the disturbing 1971 film, about a young couple who drop everything and go to live in an idyllic house in the woods. They start to be harassed and taunted by workmen and neighbours, with things eventually getting very out of hand. James Marsden (Enchanted, Superman Returns) and Kate Bosworth (Blue Crush, Superman Returns) reprise the roles originally played by Dustin Hoffman and Susan George. The original film was infamous for a few graphic scenes, so this might not be for everyone.



Disaster movies are fun. Those standard shots of newscasters announcing the tragedy, presidents calling for calm, and (this one is obligatory) people slowly getting out of their cars in standstill traffic, make for great cinema, with us viewers obviously rooting for the human race. And amongst all disasters, outbreaks are often the most chilling, since we have been subjected to similar, but thankfully better-controlled, epidemics in the past few years. No matter how scary an alien looks, it can’t cause as much paranoia and panic as an invisible virus that you could pick up by touching a door handle. Steven Soderbergh directs, and the ensemble cast consists of Marion Cottilard, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Winslet. It’s not every day we see a Best Actress winner be killed off in a film - but with three to choose from here, it’s safe to say we will.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

October at the Movies


Tintin Title


  • This article was first published on 01/10/11 in VIDA magazine.
  • Release dates are subject to change. All films released locally by KRS Film Distributors Ltd.

film of the month:

The Adventures of Tintin

Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg are, to put it mildly, quite big names in the world of cinema - the former having gone from interesting but small projects to the hugely successful The Lord of the Rings trilogy and beyond, and the latter being the man behind over three decades of blockbusters and some of the most famous films ever made. So the prospect of them joining forces on a project is very promising, and is bound to draw attention.

That project is the big-screen adaptation of the long-running and very popular Tintin comics - a Belgian series that ran for most of the 20th Century and was eventually translated extensively to reach a worldwide audience. Even to someone who has never read the comics before (such as yours truly), the image of Tintin, with his gravity-defying hairstyle and canine sidekick, is an instantly recognisable one. Spielberg and Jackson seem to be eager fans of the boy’s adventures, and this film is the first of a projected three.

The slightly controversial motion-capture animation style was chosen as the best way to portray the comics - the same melding of acting and animation that made The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol look very spectacular but rather creepy. Thankfully, the images and footage we’ve seen so far indicate that this time around the accent is more on making the characters look like the original cartoons, rather than too realistic, whilst still making use of the expressions and performance of the actors in the motion-capture suits.

Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot, King Kong) is the titular character, and motion-capture veteran Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings, King Kong, Rise of the Planet of the Apes), is Captain Haddock. Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost also star. Being a Spielberg-directed affair, the film also marks the much-welcomed return of John Williams to the film score scene, after a period of semi-retirement interrupted only for the Indiana Jones sequel three years ago. So we can expect great music, we can expect adventure, and since they had tonnes of individual comics to choose from, I’m pretty sure we can expect a great story.


also released this month:

Johnny English Reborn

British Agent Johnny English fumbled onto the big screen around eight years ago with the wonderful tagline “He knows no fear. He knows no danger. He knows nothing.” Combining the famous idiotic antics of Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean character with the modern world of spies and the secret service, the film was more or less a British version of the Get Smart TV series that Mel Brooks created in the 60s, and which also made in onto the big screen recently. Despite a mixed critical reception, Johnny English was a big hit this side of the Atlantic, so here is the inevitable sequel. With more gadgets, more espionage, and the same bumbling idiot at the centre, this should provide a predictable but enjoyable dose of slapstick entertainment.


The Three Musketeers

Here’s another classic story that filmmakers never tire of adapting, and apparently audiences never tire of watching. It seems only yesterday that we had the version with the Sting/Bryan Adams/Rod Stewart song, but that was a distant 1993, and since then we also had the loose adaptation The Musketeer in 2001. This new imagining has a line-up with makes the bad guys looks distinctly more interesting than the musketeers - with Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) and Orlando Bloom (Kingdom of Heaven) lurking in dark corners and sporting suitably-pointy facial hair; and Milla Jovovich (The Fifth Element) as the deceptive Milady. Fresh-faced newcomer Logan Lerman, who had the title role in the Percy Jackson film, earns his spurs as D’Artagnan, and the most recognisable of the three musketeers themselves is probably Matthew Macfadyen (Frost/Nixon, Pride and Prejudice). Jovovich’s husband Paul W.S. Anderson, who had a promising start to his career (Event Horizon) but who is now mostly known as the man behind the endless Resident Evil series, is in the director’s chair, which suggests that this may be a darker and more action-oriented take on Dumas’ classic tale.



There were at least four big dance films in the 80s, which combined a handful of catchy anthems with a young cast and lots of dancing to make feel-good films that were very popular. Footloose, which came after Fame and Flashdance, but before the huge Dirty Dancing, was the first starring role for Kevin Bacon, and his iconic and rebellious role will now be handed over to Kenny Wormald, who so far is known for his dancing but not for his acting. Dennis Quaid (The Day After Tomorrow) and Andie MacDowell (Groundhog Day) star as the uptight parents of one of the town’s hottest girls, who are against street-dancing and lobby to have it banned. Of course, true love and the power of dance will win out in the end, and everyone will live happily ever after, etc.. I just hope they somehow manage to keep ‘Holding Out For a Hero’ in the soundtrack.


The Lion King 3D

Any excuse to watch The Lion King again is fine by me, and any chance to see it on the big screen should be jumped at. Nearly two decades after Hakuna Matata became a household expression, Simba and friends have been given a 3D makeover, and we are being given a chance to rediscover one of Disney’s best-loved classics. That stampede scene should look pretty impressive.


The Debt

This month’s brainiest film is a political thriller that jumps between the 60s and the 90s to tell the story of Mossad agents on the trail of a Nazi war-criminal. It’s a remake of a well-received Israeli film from a few years ago, and is directed by John Madden, of Shakespeare in Love fame. Helen Mirren (The Queen) stars, along with Sam Worthington (Avatar), Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life), Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton) and Ciarán Hinds, who previously starred in the great Mossad thriller Munich.


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Screen Themes - MovieMusic Travels 4

For our last trip around the globe, we sample some gorgeous film scores from five different continents - including three of the most famous capital cities in the world, as well as a few exotic jungles and beaches.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Screen Themes - Music for Middle-earth

Three excellent films, three excellent scores. Peter Jackson and Howard Shore raised the bar very high at the start of this century. Nearly a decade later, nothing else has come even close.

Friday, September 02, 2011

The End of a Fanboy Era




  • This article was first published on 01/09/11 in VIDA magazine.


    This summer, as I walked out of the cinema with the Harry Potter credits music still running through my head, I couldn’t help but feel that a large chunk of my youth, which started back in 1999 during a midnight screening of The Phantom Menace, had come to a close.

    For those of us who had their late teens or their twenties during the past decade or so, the development of movie franchise ‘fandom’ has been very interesting to watch and, if so inclined, take part in. Over the course of twelve years and fourteen films, the Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises have managed to make their new releases into events which make otherwise-sane people queue up at midnight and discuss intricate plot details on online forums, while the filmmakers count their millions. Against the backdrop of the internet explosion, it has been a rapidly evolving marketing machine, but one that I was more than happy to be a consumer of.

    Back in the late 90s, before YouTube, facebook or ‘sharing’, the fevered anticipation for the Star Wars prequels still managed to spread like wildfire online. Apple’s much-loved iTunes film trailers were still a mundane Quicktime website, which was congested like never before when the first teaser and then trailer were released online, to unprecedented views and response. Online film trailers are now everywhere, but back then Phantom Menace managed to set the ball rolling in spectacular fashion, and I for one gladly waited an entire night for my moribund dial-up connection to download the highest-resolution version. As it turned out, the trailers would be possibly better than the actual film, but those are just details when the hype is so huge.


    Meet me at midnight

    The screenings were the next trend. Previously reserved for B-movies and late night entertainment, the witching hour suddenly became the best way to launch an event movie in style. The reasoning was simple - if the film studio has set a strict release date, why not watch it at 00:01 in the morning, to save you a few more hours of waiting? Thankfully, Malta caught on very quickly. Although Star Wars Episode I was released in most of Europe nearly 3 months later than the US (something that would be unthinkable today), the eager local fans still got a midnight screening on Malta’s largest screen, complete with Darth Maul and Darth Vader duelling on stage before the show began. I was initially slightly embarrassed to attend, and had to walk home afterwards (driving lessons were still in progress), but it was worth every minute. The packed cinema included everything from packs of unsightly males in matching t-shirts, to two of my lecturers and even the occasional attractive lass, and the excitement was palpable. So palpable, in fact, that we were more than willing to forgive the film’s huge faults, and return in similar style for the sequels three and six years later. I’ll never forget the magical hush as the words ‘A Long Time Ago, in a Galaxy Far, Far Away’ were projected onto the screen and my entire field of vision. It was well worth the walk.

    Besides the other Star Wars prequels, midnight screenings and cinema marathons soon became de rigueur for the Lord of the Rings films, Harry Potter (both book and film launches), and any other event movie that the distributors thought was viable enough. Part of the fun was obviously knowing that you’re surrounded by fellow fans, but the rush to be the first to see it also played a major role.






    Like most things in life, preferences varied. Personal favouritism tussled with objective criticism of the films to make some fans take sides. I had no problem at all mustering an army for the Return of the King midnight screening, but most of my friends abandoned me two years later for the last of the Star Wars films. And Harry Potter seems to have been the preferred domain of the younger crowd, and I for one was perfectly happy to read the books months and years after their release, and then see the films at my own pace. But all three franchises had a comparably impressive hold on generations X and Y. Looking back, it seems indubitable that LOTR far surpassed the other two in terms of film quality, with the three films being both amazing adaptations of the treasured books, and films accessible to a very wide audience. Which is why, like many of my friends, I suggested it to my parents, but would never dream of sitting them down in front of Attack of the Clones.


    Harry Potter has also proved to be a sharp adaptation job, also benefiting from one of the most impressive casts ever assembled, and the collaboration of the author. I suspect that if I were a decade younger I would have devoured them with greater zeal. But still, I enjoyed every one of them, and for an entire decade they were something to look forward to. Star Wars reigns supreme because of the indelible legacy left by the original trilogy, although despite George Lucas’ flaccid direction the three new films did manage to steadily improve, and were still a feast for the senses.


    Another level

    Of course, just like participation was optional, so was the level of involvement. Not everyone likes to remain spoiler-free until D-day, and then discuss and dissect films at length online. Not everyone needs to wear a wizard costume to the midnight screening. And thankfully not everyone chooses to name their son Anakin. I chanced upon the world premiere of the final Harry Potter film recently, in Trafalgar and Leicester Squares. I rather enjoyed it, although for me and many others it simply involved walking around the perimeter fence, trying to catch a glimpse of a star or two, and taking a couple of photos. Others had chosen to camp in the rain from two days earlier to get a good spot, and I saw mothers leaving the enclosure consoling teenage girls as they bawled their eyes out and stared at smudged signatures on their hand. To each his own, I guess. Midnight screenings might seem like insanity to many, and tattoos of the Millennium Falcon might seem like insanity to me. But that’s one of the beauties of fandom - you pick your level of involvement, depending on how interested you are (and how much time you have on your hands).





    So now what?

    Despite the glittering conclusions of the above three sagas, there are obviously many other ways for us to spend our time (and money). The fantasy genre, breathed back into life by Frodo and friends, is alive and very well, with numerous films following in Return of the King’s wake. None have been as good, so far, although the ongoing Game of Thrones TV series should keep appetites sated for quite a while, considering the great source material. Attempts at kindling new franchises, such as the Narnia series and the Inheritance cycle (Eragon), fell rather short of the mark. Twilight is raking in millions, despite scathing reviews of all the films, but their target audience is very narrow (and I am obviously not part of it). Science-fiction is of course constant, but again, not even a brilliant reboot of the Star Trek franchise possessed the necessary magic and sense of history to equal the scale of the Force. Plus, what’s the fun without lightsabers?


    Other genres and franchises have fan bases of their own, and I for one look forward eagerly to the final chapter in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, which has been quite unprecedented in terms of critical acclaim and fan appreciation. But I doubt that any superhero film, or any other film of huge proportions such as Avatar, could ever compete with something like middle-earth, because of the huge amount of detail that creators such as Tolkien and Lucas have put into creating their universe. Which is why you can find Master degrees in Tolkien literature, and countless novels set in the Star Wars expanded universe.


    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not tolling any death bells yet. As Hollywood obviously knows very well, where there’s money to be made and pocket-money to exploit, film franchises will find a way to re-invent themselves. Until then, we also have many tangential projects to keep us occupied. Lucas has clearly stated that he won’t make any more prequels or sequels, which is probably a good thing. But the rebels and the empire live on in video games, an animated TV series, and a possible live-action TV series that has been hinted at. J. K. Rowling has an intriguing online Potter project in the pipeline, although she has clearly stated that no more stories will be written about the bespectacled boy. Peter Jackson is filming The Hobbit at this very moment, which is great news for LOTR fans, although I can’t seem to get too excited about it yet. Of course, that will all change once I see the first teaser trailer.



    Films released this month:


    CONAN THE BARBARIAN - the film that made Schwarzenegger a star gets remade, with just as much muscles and probably more gore.

    FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS - Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis star as a couple of attractive friends who fool around but agree never to get romantically involved. Yeah right.

    TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY - classy cast, classy spy novel, classy period setting - this looks great.

    JANE EYRE - classics are called such for a reason, which might explain why this one is made into a film every ten minutes or so.

    THE CHANGE-UP - Two male friends. One’s house is littered with nappies, the other with thongs. They swap bodies for some adult comedy.

    KILLER ELITE - Jason Statham, Clive Owen and Robert DeNiro, plus guns, action and intrigue.

    COLOMBIANA - Zoe Saldana starts as a sexy assassin with vengeance on her mind. Nikita meets Kill Bill.


    Release dates are subject to change. All films released locally by KRS Film Distirbutors Ltd.

    Tuesday, August 09, 2011

    Screen Themes - Bond Music

    The enduring James Bond series has consistently great music - but not just the theme songs. Here are some highlights for the often unsung (literally) film scores, which are just as memorable.

    Tuesday, July 26, 2011

    Monday, July 18, 2011

    Thursday, June 30, 2011

    Thursday, April 14, 2011

    Screen Themes - MovieMusic Travels

    The last show before the Easter break, this hour of music from the four corners of the globe showcases some of the exotic locations and diverse instruments that cinema has to offer. This is some truly stunning music. Hope you enjoy it!

    Wednesday, April 06, 2011

    Spectacular, Spectacular - Baz Luhrmann and the Carnivalesque


    This is a guest post by my wonderful sister, Marie-Therese Camilleri.

    Laughter, colour, revelry and chaos. Clowns, fools and grotesque exaggeration. Such are the sights and sounds of a carnival, a Feast of Fools. The way Bakhtin infuses this liberal atmosphere into a particular literary form is what lies at the heart of his Carnivalesque. Like the carnivals themselves, the Carnivalesque is about breaking oppressive forms of thought, leading to emancipation of the human spirit in literature and, eventually, in many other art forms including music, fashion and film.
    While there have been a small number of films made to specifically and intentionally portray all the elements of the Carnivalesque, there are a select few which incorporate these elements subtly and effectively to blend into a particular mainstream genre. Probably the most well-known of these films are those by the acclaimed Australian director, producer and screenwriter Mark Anthony “Baz” Luhrmann. His first three films, known as the “Red Curtain Trilogy”, are all seen to incorporate elements of the Carnivalesque, more subtly in the first film Strictly Ballroom, released in 1992, and more recognizably in William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001).
    In each of the three films, we are told the story through an established and insistent thematic device. In Moulin Rouge! this is music, in Romeo + Juliet it is poetry and in Strictly Ballroom it is dance. All three films are built around a theatre motif, and it is for this reason that they are dubbed the “Red Curtain Trilogy”. Luhrmann’s idea was to represent the end, or the ‘curtain call’, of the older methods of entertainment: musical theatre, verse drama and classical dance, and merge them with the modern styles which have now overshadowed them. With the thematic device in place, Luhrmann engages his directorial style in which, perhaps better than any other filmmaker, he manages to capture the Carnivalesque elements of the surreal, inverted world of his characters without crossing the line into burlesque.
    In all three films, there are a number of Carnivalesque elements which contribute to the overall effect. Some are subtle, some more aggressive, and some utterly disconcerting. What ties them all together, however, is the editing. Luhrmann’s most recognisable trait is his knack for fast-paced editing, using all kinds of camera angles and techniques. His screenplay is full of fast-forwarding, zooming-in and the camera slamming in and out, creating dizzying montages. By taking an exaggerated and unrealistic approach to the ordinary components of filmmaking, the director demands the audience’s attention simply because such techniques are foreign to them. Dance, song, light, music and colour accentuate the rambunctious camera work and speedy editing. The audience is immediately dropped into a Carnivalesque world of musical and visual mayhem, and feel much like a foreigner would feel after having walked into the world of a full-blown carnival.


    Romeo + Juliet is based on what is probably the most popular and well-known of all Shakespeare’s plays. With so many versions of the play already released on film over the years, each reaching new heights in the name of originality, it was valiant of Luhrmann to even take on the challenge, let alone take it to a level most directors would never dream of. Due to the play’s popularity, he was very much aware that the majority of his audience would walk in to the cinema thinking they knew what to expect. In order to counter this, he used his soon-to-be trademark technique immediately, creating one of the most memorable montage scenes of his career. The opening montage sets the scene of Verona Beach. The frenetic shots of the dominating Capulet and Montague skyscrapers intercut with images of newspaper headlines, the towering statue of Jesus and scenes that look like a war zone make the start of the film visually astonishing and intellectually confusing. The audience is disarmed, stripped of any preconceptions, and we are made to watch the well-known play afresh.
    Luhrmann’s signature montages are also a common feature in Moulin Rouge! The opening scenes again establish the scene, and we get our first look at the famous nightclub. We meet the owner of the cabaret, Harold Zidler, and before we know it, we’re immersed in the hallucinogenic whirl of cancan skirts, red lips and top hats. As our protagonist, Christian, says in the opening scenes, this is the place where “the rich and powerful came to play with the young and beautiful creatures of the underworld”. These words accentuate the exotic mystique that surrounds the club. There is an obvious sensuousness that in the audience’s mind is meant to define life in the Parisian night club in the 1900s. The strong element of play, as well as raucous, sensuous characters, creates the carnival images one would expect to see in a spectacle. However, although there is a very strong theatre motif throughout the film, we are subconsciously aware that life in the night club is a delicate balance of real life and performance. It sits on a borderline between reality and art. This is a strong element of the Carnivalesque – there is little acknowledged distinction between the actors and the spectators. The audience become enthralled with life inside the Moulin Rouge, however why that is may not be that obvious. This attractiveness is another important feature of the Carnivalesque: There are no laws but the laws of the Moulin Rouge. Anyone who enters the club is subject only to the wild and carefree way of life for the entire night. The situation is the same during carnival – real life goes on hold. There is no life outside the carnival life, only raw emotion, seduction and titillation.
    Perhaps the most disquieting feature seen in all the films is the laughter motif. When watching the films, you’re sure to see a loud and flamboyant face fill the screen, belting out a long, monstrous laugh. Luhrmann might enhance the laugh’s effect by dragging it out in slow motion, or moving in to an extreme close up. The faces are usually caked in make-up, instantly drawing your attention to the carnival theme, as in Mercutio’s case during the Capulet ball in Romeo + Juliet or with the immense number of sleazy dancers spinning towards the screen in Moulin Rouge! Bakhtin wrote about carnival laughter, calling it the ‘laughter of all the people’.[1] Carnival laugher is ambivalent: at once happy and celebratory but also jeering and deriding. Laughter is a large component of the spectacle scenes in all the films. In Strictly Ballroom, the laughs are part of the performance, exaggerated, false and appearing as almost manic, but in both the Capulet ball scene in Romeo + Juliet and the scenes of night-time frenzy in Moulin Rouge!, the characters themselves are jesting and animal, wrapped up in the Carnivalesque atmosphere full of rogues and fools, unable to contain their frenzied emotions.
    Bakhtin’s Carnivalesque is most evidently manifested in the individual characters themselves. The supporting cast of Strictly Ballroom are a ridiculous bunch for whom dance is everything and winning the only option. It’s from the cast’s overdramatic displays of emotion that the film gets it’s wicked, crazy humour.


    Moulin Rouge! goes a step further, presenting possibly the most diverse supporting cast in a single film. We are introduced to Harold Zidler, the larger-than-life club owner with a figure and hairstyle to match. His bright orange hair and handlebar moustache do little to distort the wacky looks thrown from his darting eyes, and we can think of nobody better to manage the club and sell his courtesans. Known as the Diamond Dogs, these cancan dancers dominate the screen in a wild flurry of vivid debauchery and an extravagant array of sequins, feathers and fabulous costumes. Another character in the film is based on the great Post-Impressionist artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Luhrmann accentuated the artist’s eccentric features, making a caricature of him to add to the general emphasis on the surreal. Christian’s crew also includes Audrey, a transsexual playwright; a skittish and completely bald pianist named Satie and an incredibly talented Argentinean actor with an unfortunate case of narcolepsy. Needless to say, these characters are no coincidence. They bring the film to life, walking the fine line between reality and fantasy.
    The garish showiness of the Capulet ball in Romeo + Juliet embellishes the Carnivalesque features of the characters and draws attention to their significance which up until then may not have been so obvious. By means of costumes and the carnival atmosphere, Luhrmann is able to emphasize the contrast between the rivalled families. While the Montague boys don silly Viking outfits, and Benvolio a humble friar’s habit, Tybalt is dressed as the devil himself, and his cousins as skeletons. The message is clear: the Montagues just want to have fun, while the Capulets are foreshadowed as the evildoers of the film. During this scene, Mercutio is the life of the party, dressed up to the nines in a flashy drag outfit complete with a wig and heels. He is established as the most fun-loving character in the film, which makes his murder all the more terrible. Also during the ball scene we see Paris, the most establishment-minded character, in his immaculate gear of an enthusiastic astronaut. Juliet’s father is reminiscent of Caesar in purple robes, which complement his tyrannical nature, while his wife wears a gaudy Cleopatra outfit, which suggests her longing for tragic grandeur. It is through Luhrmann’s specific choice of costume that the nature of each character is made so vividly clear. This is interesting, seeing as how costumes are normally associated with hiding one’s flaws, one’s characteristics. People usually enjoy dressing up just to be able to act without consequence. Rather than allowing the characters to be someone different for a night, Luhrmann employs the Carnival motif to draw attention to their qualities.
    A particularly important feature of a Carnival is forcefully present in all three of the ‘Red Curtain’ films, and this is the suspension of all hierarchical precedence. Bakhtin clearly describes a carnival as being different from official feasts, where everyone was expected to display their ranks and merits and to stick to their assigned role and place according to their position. On the contrary, during the Carnival, all revellers were considered equal. There were no divisions of caste, age, profession or property.
    Such freedom and equality is an ideal longed for by many characters in countless films, however the link between the ideal situation and the reality of the situation during carnival can be noted throughout all of the Red Curtain Trilogy. Our “star cross’d lovers” in Romeo + Juliet illustrate this point in the most explicit way possible. Whether due to their undying love for each other or for their refusal to conform to the rules set by their families and society, their actions and choices throughout the film are clearly insubordinate – all the way to their tragic suicides. Similarly, but much more subtly, Strictly Ballroom sees Scott and Fran undermine all convention to follow their dreams, resulting in their toppling of the established board of judges. Satine’s love for Christian in Moulin Rouge! leads her to revolt against all the rules she has had to conform to throughout her life. She challenges the man who controlled her life and undermines the only person who can give her the job of her dreams.
    Resistance and rebellion are very common themes seen in a vast number of films; however Luhrmann brought something extra in backing these themes with the Carnivalesque motif. It may be said that among all the exaggeration and flamboyance, the protagonists felt all the more reason to resist the hierarchical constraints that they struggled against. One might venture to say that Luhrmann set all the elements of the Carnivalesque in place except for this one, in order to give his protagonists a reason to strive towards achieving an ideal situation, an ideal world which one would experience during the carnival.
    The Carnivalesque disturbance of the establishment was taken on more directly by Luhrmann himself during the production of Romeo + Juliet. A number of disrespectful elements are scattered throughout the film, including a joke played at the expense of the revered Globe Theatre which is depicted as a dodgy pool hall. Luhrmann also makes fun of the audience’s obeisance to Shakespeare. Even after completely disarming them of expectations in the opening montage, he goes on to pepper the film with signifiers from a number of other plays, such as the shop sign which says “The Merchant of Verona Beach” and a billboard stating “Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On”.

    On a more serious note, however, Luhrmann ridicules religion through his mise-en-scène. The enormous cathedral statue dominates the landscape of Verona beach, and both families and the society they live in are undoubtedly Catholic in their beliefs. Yet adultery, violence, drugs and revenge are a part of everyday life on the beach. Luhrmann expertly juxtaposes this with the abundant religious displays, highlighting the hypocrisy of the situation.

    Even in this, Luhrmann maintains the other elements of the Carnivalesque. The surreal element is ever-present. The Catholicism depicted is one which the audience will not be able to recognize. Hawaiian shirts covered in religious images, a priest with a large tattoo on his back, neon-lit crosses inside the cathedral and choral versions of Prince pop songs as an accompaniment to mass are all exaggerated versions of reality, taking it to the extreme, just like everything else in the carnival world.

    Of all the elements of the Carnivalesque, the most predominant would probably be that of images related to the body. Ever exaggerated, images of the human body associated with consumption of food and drink as well as with sexual life play an important role in creating the carnival atmosphere. Such images form part of what is known as grotesque realism, in which ‘the carnal, the comic and the cosmic all coincide in a revolution’.[2] The body and all that it does materially are regarded as something universal, belonging to all humans and therefore something positive. The most common themes of such images of bodily life are growth, fertility and abundance, and these themes are also manifested in the films in question.

    In both Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge! Luhrmann creates a world for his audience to walk into and understand without need for explanation. In the Capulet ball scene, we are shown a Bacchanalian feast full of grotesque imagery which is only excessively enhanced by the effects of Romeo’s drug-use. The same goes for the dizzying scenes of grotesque decadence during a night at the Moulin Rouge, with the camera focusing on the drunken and sweaty faces of the men alongside the bountiful curves and figures of the dancers.

    The films, just like Carnival itself, are a bombardment of images and sounds, an assault of the senses. Unabashed in their excesses of sensation, they celebrate the Carnivalesque amid passionate dances, bawdy, beautiful courtesans and doomed romances. They are set in highly theatrical, almost fantasy worlds brimming with grotesque realism. They are fanciful feasts for the eyes, just as Luhrmann intended.


    [1] Morris, Pam, The Bakhtin Reader (Hodder Education 1997), p. 200. [2] Mark M. Hennelly, Jr., Victorian Literature and Culture 30.1 (2002), p. 368 [accessed 11 January 2011].


    Mark M. Hennelly, Jr., Victorian Literature and Culture 30.1 (2002), pp. 365-381 [accessed 11 January 2011]. Pam Morris, The Bakhtin Reader: Selected Writings of Bakhtin, Medvedev, Voloshinov (Hodder Education 1997). Vera Zubarev, "Nature vs. civilization: a review article of films by Luhrmann" The Free Library (2009). . [accessed 11 February 2011]. Kenneth S. Rothwell, A History of Shakespeare on Screen: A Century of Film and Television (Cambridge University Press 2001). Jennifer L. Martin, “Tights vs. Tattoos: Filmic Interpretations of "Romeo and Juliet", The English Journal, 92.1, (2002), pp. 41-46 [accessed 11 February 2011]

    Thursday, March 17, 2011

    I like it in the dark

    This article was first published on 01/03/11 in Vida magazine

    Early on a recent Sunday morning, I was drearily heading home on a crowded night bus, glad to have found a seat amongst the many late-night revellers packed around me, who chatted, snacked, stared or merely closed their eyes and tried to hold their balance. My trusty iPod was keeping me company, with relaxing music providing an interesting soundtrack for the unkempt scene I was taking in. Half-way home, the guy sitting next to me whipped out his phone, plugged in his headphones, and to my surprise started watching a film. I say film because I distinctly caught sight of the 20th Century Fox searchlights swirling about, so this was no random YouTube clip or something his friends had emailed him. It might have been a high-end TV episode, but the explosions and traffic debris I saw out of the corner of my eye a few minutes later confirmed my early suspicion.

    Once the bus had spewn me onto the pavement and I was plodding home, I kept thinking about the man calmly watching a feature film amidst the bright neon and constant movement of the night bus. Would the huge team of people who poured months of their lives into that film have been shocked to see him treating their art so lightly? Or would they have been honoured that he was so eager to see it, or even that he was seeing it at all? Does it matter, after all, how we watch movies? Am I an obsessed freak for being reluctant to start a film unless I know I can watch the entire thing uninterrupted?

    Some like it small

    It’s no revelation that the way we watch film nowadays is changing drastically. A couple of generations ago, your options were - in the cinema, a good year or so later on video, or a good two years later on Italian TV, peppered with endless adverts and dubbed rather hideously. Nowadays, the gap between cinema and DVD is constantly shortening, and digital versions are often available online, whether legally or not, before that. Once films reach TV, the language, timing and viewing options are mostly under our control too.

    The size and location of the screen is changing too. What used to be cinema screen vs. home TV screen has now spread out to include laptop screens, phone screens, tablets and so, as well as moving location onto trains, planes, buses and practically anywhere you can sit down and click play. We can watch films whilst ironing, on the treadmill or even in a corner of our monitor whilst writing an assignment. But by making the viewing of films and TV series so easy and accessible, and by using it as commonly as reading a book for filling up our free or waiting time, are we losing out on the film’s immersive experience?

    Some like it solo

    With respect to most other art forms, cinema and TV differ in that they use all of our senses in concert, and in fact cinema can be said to draw on all other art forms.

    Music, however complex or brilliant, can be fully appreciated whilst staring out the window or gazing at the ceiling. You could even be out running, although occasional distractions might make you miss a beat or two. This is why live musicians often add spectacle, imagery or stage antics to add a visual element to their concerts. Reading and enjoying a good book can often be done despite being in a noisy environment, although some quiet music at home might be preferable. The visual arts, even at the their most high-brow end, are often appreciated and fawned over whilst listening to whatever muzak the art gallery is pumping out through the soffit speakers. When only one sense is needed for scrutiny, the others can temporarily be allowed to wander.

    But in most films, all the arts are used together and packed onto your screen. The writing is key, and whether the story is good or not often makes or breaks the film, just like most books. Quotable dialogue also stands out, and is an essential part of a movie’s durability in today’s social networking culture. The visual arts are also easy to pick out - they grace the sets, the costumes, the makeup and of course the special effects. Great films with great cinematography could probably be freeze-framed at any point to provide an image that would sit comfortably within any photography collection. And the music, of course, is another key element. Whether it’s a full-blown orchestra making a flying dragon seem ten times more epic, or a disco track from the 70s making a duel in the snow seem almost balletic, there’s no denying that watching a film with the sound turned off is like eating fine food with a blocked nose.

    Some like it in cinemas

    So with so many elements of a film to take in, it’s no surprise that ever since the good old Lumière brothers publicized moving pictures, cinemas have involved darkened auditoriums, large screens to give ample space to the detail involved, and a general consensus that, apart from laughs or shrieks when appropriate, people will keep mum. Some say that that’s why popcorn became so popular as a cinema snack - you can munch away without making much noise, as opposed to crisps, for example.

    And I believe it’s easy to see why. Despite my very frequent DVD viewings, I still make it a point to go and see highly-anticipated films at the cinema. It’s not simply a patience issue - not being able to wait until it’s released on DVD. It’s because for me, truly great films look so much better when they’re preceded by trailers, in the dark, taking up your whole field of vision, and at volume levels that would normally have your neighbours complain. Phones go off, bladders are emptied beforehand, food and drink supplies are at hand, and for two hours, the film is king.

    Some like it in groups

    Also essential to the cinema experience is the pack behaviour of the audience. Whenever someone asks me what the funniest films I ever saw were, I always think of three. American Pie, the South Park movie, and Borat. Crass, rude, loud, but all unbelievably funny. But also, and I don’t think this is a coincidence, all films that I watched in a cinema with friends. Laughing, crying and screaming at what’s on screen is so much easier and emotional when you’re surrounded by others who are doing likewise. It’s not that we need assertion that the joke we just heard is indeed funny. It’s just that some experiences are better shared. It’s why we recommend great songs to friends, or drag them to restaurants we love - sharing makes the experience better.

    On further thought I can think of many other hilarious films I have watched - such as recent re-viewings of Annie Hall or When Harry Met Sally, or the recent and rather different Superbad. But despite possibly containing just as many well-written laughs, they were unfortunately films I watched alone on a small screen, with my occasional laugh-out-louds echoing in my room. It just wasn’t the same as being in Malta’s largest cinema and glimpsing a sea of people bent over with laughter, or glancing aside at the contorted faces of your friends, blurred by the tears of laughter welling in your eyes. Remembering individual jokes or lines as you head home is often just as much fun as the film itself.

    The same goes for scary movies. The Ring in a packed cinema - one of the most terrifying film experiences I can remember. The Shining at home on my computer screen - a relative let-down. Yet a large part of me knows that had I been in a cinema (or born, for that matter) back in 1980 when the latter was released, I would probably be mentioning it in conversation as one of the most unsettling films I ever watched. On a less scary note, I was recently very fortunate to be treated to a sumptuous viewing of the The King’s Speech in a very old London cinema, with artsy decor, plush sofas for seats, foot rests, champagne and less than a hundred viewers who obviously wanted to watch the film in the best possible setting. It was perfect. I’m sure the film looks great in any setting, but would I have loved it so much on a noisy transatlantic flight?

    Some, alas, don’t seem to like it

    The privacy argument often comes to mind. When watching a film in the cocoon of your bedroom, you run the show. Cinema experiences, however great on a good day, can just as easily be ruined by inconsiderate neighbours. As early as 1993 I distinctly remember fuming through all of Free Willy as a guy behind me carefully translated every line into Maltese for his son. I never thought I could feel such hate, yet unfortunately at the time I was too shy to give him a piece of my mind. I remember a veritable concerto of ringing tones during my first viewing of The Two Towers (which was thankfully absent during the other three viewings). The dim-witted lady behind me, trying to explain the plot of Titanic to herself as it went along, is another film outing I’d rather forget.

    I’ve lived with people who press play on the DVD player, then rush off to make tea. “Don’t worry, start it without me”, they shout from the kitchen. But why? Why disrupt the first, often crucial five minutes of a film? Can’t we wait until everyone’s ready and then watch it together? Interruptions are a fact of life, unfortunately, but can’t we press pause while someone answers the phone? Why wave everyone on, and miss potential crucial scenes that were obviously left in the film for a reason?

    Some like it too much?

    Half-way through writing this article, I took a small break and headed for the kitchen to make an omelette. I found my flatmate watching 300 on his 11-inch notebook, whilst cooking rice, curry and hard-boiled eggs, and with the noisy extractor fan on full-blast. At one point he spent a good three minutes at the kitchen sink carefully peeling the hot eggs, as the Spartans unleashed hell on the kitchen table. He then finally sat down to eat, without ever stopping or rewinding the film. I commented on how we watch films compared to earlier cinema days, and his answer was simple and immediate - back then, a few films were released every month; nowadays, we are bombarded with numerous releases every week.

    So are we sacrificing quality for quantity in the viewing experience? Do we feel obliged to watch everything the studios churn out? Personally, I’ve noticed that I only watch a small percentage of new releases every given year, but those few will always have my undivided attention. And few settings better provide that undivided attention than a considerate audience in a cinema auditorium. Which is why I’m convinced that no matter how cheap home-cinema systems become, or how many households digital downloads reach, cinemas, in some form or another, are here to stay.