Even if we could dissociate it, at this point, from the monolithic cultural status it has gained as the Most Successful Film Of All Time, Avatar is an extremely difficult film to review. I can’t help but feel frustrated at its crippling, fundamental issues, its roll-call of cliches, the frustratingly missed opportunities at every turn. It’s not, strictly speaking, a great film. And yet I watched it in wide-eyed wonder, feeling like I was eight again and going to the cinema for the first time to see Jurassic Park. Which, in retrospect, wasn’t really a great movie, either. Still – that effortless, childlike joy has to count for something.

Let’s agree, straight off, that this is no Aliens or Terminator (though, on the other hand, it’s no Titanic, either). To be fair, it isn’t trying to be – where James Cameron’s 1980s masterpieces were taut, claustrophobic thrillers, Avatar shoots for the sweeping epic. It’s certainly the approach that fits the story best, and it’s in keeping with Cameron’s status as King of the World. But if only it could have been done with a little more vision. I don’t need to point out that the plot is – ahem – not exactly new; others have already done so eloquently. Now, this isn’t necessarily a problem – the story of “people A oppress people B, people B fight back” is an archetypal one, and, as Terrence Malick proved masterfully with The New World (2005), it can still lead to magnificent results. Sure, it’s an unfair comparison, but given Cameron’s evident ambition to make the Na’vi culture come to life, there’s none of Malick’s subtletly or intelligence here – the plot is drawn in broad strokes, and it’s very much a case of the noble savage versus the evil American military-industrial complex (which is all we see of humanity here). Apart from a handful of dissenting good guys, the humans in Avatar are glowering, pantomime villains – the corporate executives’ profit motive is clear enough, but what is it, exactly, that drives Colonel Quaritch’s psychotic hatred of every living thing on Pandora?

Perhaps a more relevant comparison that The New World is Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997), which shares Avatar‘s action-epic structure, its nature-versus-industry dynamic and its pantheistic mysticisim. And yet, despite all those similarities, what a different film it is: with neither side being entirely good or entirely, cartoonishly evil, both sides of the conflict seem equally valid. No easy identification is possible, and the viewer is forced to actually consider the merits of both sides and imagine what sort of compromise might be achieved. Compare this to Cameron’s film – there is no room for shades of grey in Avatar‘s black-and-white world, and – both dramatically and thematically – it suffers for it.

Equally disappointing is Cameron’s baffling lack of interest in the film’s central conceit. The idea of the avatar is an interesting and timely one, and yet, despite the titular prominence granted to the concept and the central role it plays in the opening scenes, it becomes little more than a plot device once we get to the action. There’s no development of the relationship between a person and their avatar. No hint of the physical toll that being essentially always awake must take. Not even the merest suggestion of the existential dilemmas brought up by inhabiting a second body. Okay, it’s an action film, but if you’re going to call your film Avatar and bring the idea up at all, for God’s sake, do something with it.

And yet, how much of this really matters? I’m still not sure. What I do know is that, as soon as the film left the confines of the military compound and ventured out into the lush jungles of Pandora, I remembered how I felt being eight and watching Jurassic Park on my second ever outing to the cinema, or being eleven and watching Independence Day. The word – and I don’t want to use it lightly – is wonder, and in its best moments Avatar made me feel that again. I don’t think that’s an unimportant achievement.

Many critic speak of the film’s astonishing visual sequences as if Cameron pushed a button on a computer and all these breathtaking images and masterful sequences came out automatically. There is vivid imagination, painstaking craft and remarkable technical achievements in every frame of Avatar – more than enough to remind us that, in terms of visceral, spectacular blockbuster entertainment, few film-makers come even close to Cameron at the top of his game.

There’s definitely a feeling that, given its investment in presenting a functional world and inviting the viewer to inhabit it, Avatar might have made for a better game than film – I’m not the first to point this out – but, having said that, the sheer sensual power of the world presented here is jaw-dropping, and the simple, archetypal narrative does a good job of leading the viewer on a whistle-stop tour of Pandora. The point, though, says a lot about the film: its flimsy narrative elements serve only as an excuse for the presentation of its remarkably-wrought world; whether or not that’s a valid approach for a film – I’m not sure.

So where does that leave me? I’m uneasy when people proclaim Avatar‘s greatness, and feel obliged to note its severe shortcomings; and yet the backlash is equally irritating. I have a feeling that viewed at home, without the benefits of its truly groundbreaking 3D techniques, its flaws will come more forcefully to the foreground, and it’ll be that much more difficult to be swept away by its simplistic narrative. Still, there’ll always be the memory of that glorious first viewing.

wizard-knight

Why is Gene Wolfe’s The Wizard Knight one of the most essential works of literary fantasy of the decade? What makes a work that so proudly emblazons itself with every tired, cliched hallmark of Tolkienesque high fantasy, seem so fresh, exciting and relevant almost a full decade into the twenty-first century?

Tolkien expressed sentiments to the effect that fantasy literature required a secondary world that is entirely stable, and whose reality is never in doubt or question. The reader’s suspension of disbelief, he suggested, depended on there being no doubt, within the space and fiction of the text, that the fantasy world is “real”. Compare Tolkien’s pseudo-medieval mythic milieu to, say, Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. Middle-Earth is a construct of impregnable solidity, consistency and palpable reality; you are never in any doubt, while you are reading The Lord of the Rings, that it is as real as England or Norway.

Wolfe’s world in The Wizard Knight is almost as solid, yet infintely more fantastical. An interlocking system of seven hierarchical worlds existing on different time-frames, this world in itself is an astonishing creation that gives rise to passages and images of almost stunning beauty. The human world, Mythgartr, is the middle world; beneath that lies Aelfrice, the world of the Aelf, a world of ancient, mossy forests, across whose sky the human seasons and generations play out in the space of a day. Above us lies Skai, the world of the Valkyries and of the Odin-like Valfather, whose magnificent castle some are lucky enough to glimpse once in a lifetime amidst the clouds of Mythgartr. And so on.

This seven-tiered cosmology is as intricate, engaging and wondrous a secondary world as any I have encountered in fantasy; however, in a move that would not be out of place in a modernist novel but that is virtually unheard-of in high fantasy, this world is filtered through a narrating consciousness that is dubious, naive, unsure of itself, almost certainly lost and confused, and not consistently honest. The voice is that of Arthur, a young boy, and the novel is an extended letter he is writing to his brother, Ben. Arthur seems to believe he and Ben are from America, but he is not sure where that is, or whether it is real, or why he is not in Kansas any more. He is not sure who he is, or whether his memories of Ben and America are real or figments of his imagination. And though the whole novel takes place in the “fantasy” world, there are a handful of instances where Arthur (or Sir Able of the High Heart, which is the name he ends up with) has visions that we recognize as “our” world. There is no stability to latch onto here, whether in the “fantasy” world, the “real” one, or the narrator’s perception of both. There is only a perplexed consciousness enmeshed in shifting realities.

Above all else, Wolfe is a prose stylist virtually unequalled in contemporary English-language fiction. He can write a passage about the rotting corpse of a knight magically animated as a fighting automaton and it brings a vivid chill to your spine as if you’ve just been introduced to the idea of the undead. He can describe a meagre band of knights heroically charging an army of giants and you can feel your spirits soar as if you’re fourteen and discovering Tolkien again. In The Wizard Knight, Wolfe reanimates high fantasy and conclusively demonstrates, in an era when the New Weird has captured the limelight, that there is life in the genre yet.

Just don’t expect him to give you what you expect. As always, Wolfe is poet and imagist first, and storyteller second; and Arthur/Sir Able’s narration, built on elisions, analepsis and metalepsis, hesitations, and occasional confused ramblings, only gestures in the direction of a coherent narrative. The story is there, and it does reach points of coalescence, especially in the second volume, where new levels of it come into view, but it is a story delivered in fragments. The Wizard Knight will spend chapter upon chapter building up to a grand, decisive battle, then suddenly skip forward several years, to when the battle is a distant memory.

What is it interested in, then? The main thrust of the story is Arthur/Sir Able’s love for the Aelf Queen Disiri, whom he first encounters at the start of the novel and whom, in the best courtlty love tradition, he must spend the remainder of the tale in winning. This being Wolfe, there is more to this than meets the eye, and it seems to be, especially given some late revelations concerning the nature of the Aelf, that Able’s relationship with Disiri is, at least on one level, Wolfe reflecting on the allure of fantasy itself – caught between the threat of escapism, the eternally unfulfilling, questing nature of attempting to grasp the imaginary, and yet, paradoxically, also the hope of the inspirational. In trying to be worthy of the Queen, Able makes himself a great knight, slays dragons, wins the legendary sword Eterne, becomes virtually a god.

There is certainly something about The Wizard Knight‘s whole-hearted adoption of the courtly medieval ethic that is troubling. It is, at heart, a paean to a hierarchically-ordered society with the King firmly at the top and God above him, and Able gladly adopts a rigidly codified ethics where he does not hesitate in violently striking his best friend for speaking out of place to a nobleman, feeling that it is his duty to do so since he is a knight and his friend a commoner. This makes Able  a distinctly unpleasant protagonist at times, and it’s a brave move – rarely is the protagonist as irrevocably a part of the secondary world, even in a moral sense, as Able is.  It’s certainly possible to argue that high fantasy as a genre is essentially predicated on such a hierarchical order of existence, and The Wizard Knight is without a doubt the first novel since Tolkien to have made me care so passionately about the divine right of kings. It cannot, of course, simply be taken as Wolfe’s elegiac lament for the good old days of monarchy and nobility; I am more inclined to think it is Wolfe’s way of confronting the reader with the political and ethical underpinnings of medieval fantasy, another aspect of the novel’s unfolding of the simultaneous dangers, raptures and possibilities inherent in the act of fantasy. It is, at any rate, another layer in this astonishingly dense, brilliant work, a novel that, like everything Wolfe writes, virtually demands multiple readings before revealing its secrets. The Wizard Knight is perhaps not Wolfe at his very best, but it is an essential work, another masterpiece, and confirmation that he stands among the greatest writers of his generation.

If any confirmation were needed, last night’s packed gig at MITP underlines what has been obvious for the past couple of months: Brikkuni have become the first bona fide superstars of the Maltese alternative scene. Yesterday’s gig united virtually every subculture, from punks to indie kids and literati, under one roof, mixed in with curious casual observers checking out what all the fuss was about. The turnout wasn’t just impressive – I don’t think MITP has ever been quite so crowded, and it goes some way towards illustrating the impact Brikkuni have had on the local scene.

I realize I haven’t written about the album itself, though I don’t think much else needs to be said. That it’s the best piece of recorded music to ever come out of these islands has become a cliche, but it’s no less true for that – and nor should it be taken as damning with faint praise. I consider Kuntrabanda one of the albums of the year, irrespective of country of origin, and, in conjunction with this year’s also-excellent Areola Treat EP, it suggests that the time has come to stop thinking of local music as somehow handicapped or disadvantaged. Kuntrabanda may not be a perfect album, but it can hold its own with the best of them, and the reason isn’t just that it’s a polished, musically inventive, exciting piece of songcraft. What truly makes the album great – and, unfortunately, what makes it virtually unexportable – is that it recombines all the genetic traits of Maltese culture – band marches, ghanja, spaghetti westerns on late-night Sicilian channels – into a whole that seems both intimately familiar and thrillingly new. It’s like a shift of a few degrees in viewpoint that suddenly makes everything fall into place. Before Kuntrabanda – and I realize this is entirely a failing in my own make-up as a writer – I couldn’t imagine good music being made in Maltese, or any art – music, but also films or novels – so specifically Maltese in character. Now, anything seems possible.

This was Brikkuni’s first gig after the album launch; for the first time, their audience came to the show knowing the songs inside out. This couldn’t have been more obvious yesterday – every single one of the songs on Kuntrabanda has become an anthem. Familiarity hasn’t dulled the impact of these songs; rather, it has further energized the audience. Half the crowd was singing along from beginning to end, and the scorching, energetic set had the feel of a victory march – Brikkuni have won their place, now it’s time for the celebration. 

Among all the familiar songs, of course, a standout moment was the inclusion of the band’s first new post-Kuntrabanda song. If there’s anything to complain about in Kuntrabanda, it’s that Mario Vella’s lyrics too often fall back on bile, sarcasm and satire – it works, and it’s the basis of the most anthemic songs on the album, but it does give rise to the mistaken impression that Brikkuni are a Xtruppaw-like “joke” band, and I can’t help but wonder what Mario can do with more varied material. The newest addition to the repertoire at yesterday’s gig, “L-Ufficju”, suggests they’re on the right track – a mellow (by comparison) ballad that makes bittersweet poetry out of the daily grind, it’s an encouraging indication of a band attempting to widen their horizons and not resting on their laurels. I can’t wait to see where they go from here.

australiaphoto

I’m a big, big fan of Luhrmann’s two previous films – Romeo + Juliet (1996) is not only the best film adaptation of the star-crossed lovers’ tale, but one of the best Shakespeare films in general, a heady pop-culture rush of breathless energy that seamlessly blends high and low culture to produce a film that is exciting, thrilling, tragic and alive. Moulin Rouge! (2001) was even better – an astonishing pantomime carnival of music, dance, colour, life and love, a manic display of kitchen-sink, throw-everything-at-the-screen, endlessly inventive filmmaking.

So what the hell happened with Australia? Apart from a (very, very) few moments, mostly in its okayish-I-guess first hour, Australia is precisely the sort of turgid, plodding, lifeless and uninspired “prestige” cinema that Luhrmann’s earlier films were such a refreshing antidote to. Where is all the energy, the wit, the visual imagination, the joie de vivre? Where is the never-pause-for-breath pace, the wit, the postmodern playing with genre, the fun?

Australia feels like Luhrmann behaving himself, wanting to show us he’s grown up, has put away childish things and is tackling Big, Important Themes. Racism! War!  Wait…maybe that didn’t come across clearly enough. RACISM! WAR! And rest assured that from the opening title cards explaining the background story of Australia’s “Stolen Generations” of aboriginal children to…well, the fade-out title cards talking about exactly the same thing, the film won’t let you forget for one second what it’s really about. There’s no avoiding the feeling that this is Luhrmann angling for a mantelpiece-ful of Academy Awards, reining in anything even remotely “edgy” about his film-making and aiming resolutely for the middlebrow – and it’s painful.

There are slight glimmers of hope in the first hour-and-a-half, which is where all the few recognizable hints of Luhrmann are concentrated. This section is basically a pop-buddy-Western, following the very English Lady Sarah Ashley and the very Australian Drover (Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, who both give in decent, if unremarkable, performances) in their quest to drive Lady Ashley’s herd of cattle to the port of Darwin before the evil cattle corporation can win the army contract.  There are a few decent moments of comedy, it moves along at a brisk pace, there are some diverting moments of excitement, one or two impressive shots, a romance, predictable character arcs, a happy ending, even a couple of sequences – I’m thinking especially of some early scenes in the Faraway Downs sequence – where Luhrmann’s former brilliance just about shines through. It’s hardly great, but it’s reasonable enough entertainment for ninety minutes – the kind of thing that would pass a lazy Sunday afternoon and be forgotten by the next day.

But wait! There’s more! Over an hour more, as it turns out, for once the film reaches this logical conclusion it just inexplicably starts again and keeps going on and on, bringing in the Japanese attack on Darwin and the forced deportation of half-caste children in a desperate effort for the film to justify its “epic” tag. Structurally, this puts the whole film out of balance – it feels like a half-decent film and its train-wreck, self-consciously “dark” sequel crammed into one movie. None of this latter part works well – narratively, it comes across as a series of increasingly outlandish coincidences and improbable circumstances, never gelling into anything coherent. The dramatic scenes are spectacularly mishandled and never steer far from the most hackneyed of cliches – most cringe-inducing is David Wenham’s comic-book caricature snarling baddie, a character who simply has no place in anything with even the remotest pretension to seriousness. The climactic Japanese attack, meanwhile, comes across as a third-rate, one-tenth-budget pastiche of Pearl Harbor (Michael Bay, 2001). Now when did I ever think I would be comparing Luhrmann unfavourably to Michael Bay?

Luhrmann has entirely jettisoned the rapid-cutting, frenetic montage style that was one of the most distinctive in contemporary cinema. The problem is that there’s nothing new to replace it, and all we get is a glossy, expensive-looking no-style, all soft focus, tourist-ad landscape shots and lingering sunsets. It’s artless, frequently clumsy and lacking in any substance. The landscapes look pretty enough but there isn’t even a hint of the eerie, spiritual majesty the Australian landscape acquires in, say, Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1976), or even John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005), while there’s none of the weight or gravitas of the epic to replace Luhrmann’s usual levity and energy. More than anything, Australia is stylistically bland and entirely dull, which is the last thing anyone could have said of Luhrmann’s earlier filmography.

Where the suffocating blanket of dullness lifts momentarily, all that we glimpse is confusion. There are moments where the landscapes and backdrops are so blatantly artificial that they almost seem an intentional pastiche of the Golden Age of Hollywood studio epics that the film so desperately wants to be. This is reflected in the film as a whole, which occasionally ramps up the camp and suggests an entertaining, kitschy pastiche of the classical Hollywood epic struggling to get through. Now that’s a film that Luhrmann could have made great. It could have been the most joyous, grin-inducing film of the year.  Instead we have a schizophrenic film that constantly feels unsure of itself – too scared to tip itself all the way into camp, too ridiculous and fake to muster any real drama or emotion, it walks a barren middle ground where it’s neither one thing nor the other, just two and a half very, very long hours of grand, loud, bombastic, tedious, hollow nothing.

Hi.

It’s been a while since my last post on here, for which I have no excuse apart from the old chestnut that other commitments/interests and life in general kind of got in the way. November disappeared in its entirety into the maw of a CELTA English-teaching course, December was taken up with screenwriting duties and festive preparations and, well, here we are.

I do intend to make posting here at least semi-regular (call it a slightly early New Year’s resolution) so, if anyone’s still checking in, I hope your patience will be amply rewarded.

I also want to take this opportunity to plug the newly-launched Schlock Magazine. It’s a WordPress-based monthly ezine featuring original fiction with a strongly pulp bias (if you’re not even slightly into horror, fantasy or sci-fi, it’s probably not for you.) It’s edited by my good friend Teodor Reljic, and (to declare my interest) the first issue, published this month, features (among many other excellent contributions) the first part of a story by yours truly.

Please do give it a look.

Sometimes it’s nice to not get quite what you expected. I watched In Bruges expecting another post-Tarantino and post-Ritchie slice of self-conscious cool, all motor-mouthed hitmen engaging in witty pop-culture digressions and almost-slapstick bouts of graphic violence.

Now, there are elements of this in In Bruges. It is undeniably about a pair of comically mismatched hitmen, Ray and Ken (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson), who certainly engage in their fair share of witty banter as they lie low in the titular medieval Belgian city after a job in London has gone horribly wrong; and there is a fair amount of violence involved in the tale. Fundamentally, however, it is something very different. The humour (and In Bruges is a very, very funny film) is dry, desperate and often painful; it is the laugh of the doomed man who has nothing left to lose and drowns himself in the absurdity of it all. It is a momentary flicker of levity over murky depths of melancholy, ennui and moral crisis.

All of this centres around Colin Farrell, and his performance here, especially to someone who was never much of a fan of his, is a revelation. He has, to be fair, acquitted himself well in some films, notably The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005). But he has done nothing, to these eyes, that suggested the depths of talent he makes evident here. His Ray is a figure of painful vulnerability, conveying a sharp and consuming sadness in every look. He is a man inescapably haunted and tortured by crushing guilt, a manic-depressive prone to despondent brooding broken by sudden eruptions of excitement or violence.

In Bruges is a character study wrapped up in a morality play. Once we learn the nature of Ray’s sin and its repercussions, the comedy dies away, bringing the film’s true colours (accentuated by Carter Burwell’s excellent dirge-like score) to the fore.  It soon becomes evident that the choice of setting is far from arbitrary; the medieval environment, heavy with the memory of the Dark Ages, is the perfect backdrop for this tale of transgression and retribution. Ken and mob boss Harry (Ralph FIennes) arrange themselves on opposite sides of Ray’s Everyman as agents, respectively, of forgiveness and vengeance, New and Old Testament, and McDonagh loads both script and image with enough Christian symbolism to lend the film a sombre, portentous quality, without slipping into cliche or leaden allegory.The thematic fulcrum of the film is a scene where Ray and Ken view Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Last Judgement” in a gallery; Ray, defiantly unmoved by anything else he has seen in Bruges, is clearly stirred, and bares his soul, entering a heartfelt reverie on sin, guilt, atonement and judgement.

The painting’s fantastical imagery is glimpsed again, its monstrous figures erupting into garish life on the cobbled town streets, in the powerfully surreal climactic scene, where judgement finally falls on Ray. It’s a remarkably well-executed scene that culminates in an unexpected, simple yet potentially profound twist that demolishes the rigid morality play code of ethics in one fell swoop.

It’s remarkable how well In Bruges integrates its disparate elements into a whole that feels entirely natural and right. At its most sombre and allegorical, it remains riotously entertaining; at its most whimsically comic, it is nonetheless deeply melancholy. It’s a difficult balancing act, but the pay-off is one of the best films of the year to date, and a hugely promising debut for writer/director Martin McDonagh.

Illustrating the missing link between PJ Harvey’s early 90s output and the abrasive end of hardcore, Made out of Babies’ third album ranks as one of the most satisfyingly gruelling listens of the year. It’s difficult to say whether these songs would be compelling without Julie Christmas’ remarkable voice, but it’s irrelevant -her versatile cords are never far from the forefront.

To say that Christmas’ vocal range is impressive is an understatement. On opener “Cooker” alone, she delivers an almost Bjork-like warble that soars into a full-bodied, powerful tones before exploding into ragged, gut-wrenching screams. It is this ability to shift from contained tension to savage ferocity at the drop of a coin that colours this album’s jagged and unpredictable emotional register.

If the rest of the band’s contributions struggle to match the raw power of their attention-grabbing frontwoman, there is still plenty to admire. Musically, The Ruiner never veers too far from the hardcore formula – and perhaps it’s a slight occasional reliance on off-the-peg moshpit riffing that keeps the albums from the ranks of the truly great. Nonetheless, there is more than enough variety and impressive craft here to keep one’s interest – from the grandiose melodic tones of “Invisible Ink”, perhaps the most immediately palatable song here, to the taut tension and relentless drive of “Grimace” and the driving, violent rhythms of “Bunny Boots”, the latter matched by Christmas’ most histrionic performance. For a good proportion of the album, Made Out of Babies pull off the tricky combination of strong melodies with quasi-metal intensity and power; in their finest moments, the effect is staggering.

Ultimately, The Ruiner is going to put off as many people as it attracts. It’s too bleak, unsettling and ragged to be an addictive listen, and it does make for an exhausting forty-two minutes. Nonetheless its impact is undeniable, and, even if it’s just slightly let down by a (very) occasional slide into the cliches of the genre, it comes, on its own terms, close to greatness.

Made Out of Babies on MySpace