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Army Surplus – A review of 300: Rise of an Empire

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I didn’t like the first 300. It was a dull, headache-inducing and seemed to have been written by a 14 year old boy. Nevertheless it was a monster hit, and with its mix of history with stylized violence and sex was hugely influential. It’s a surprise then that the sequel has taken such a long time coming.

Well, I say sequel, though it’s more of a story happening parallel to the events in 300. It follows Greek general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) who leads a war against the Persians, led by Artemisia ( Eva Green), a bloodthirsty warrior of the giant god-king Xerxes. The premise of looking at the other side of the war in 300, instead of just doing a prequel or sequel, is an interesting choice. Of course, following the Spartans after 300’s ending would make an Olympic event of logical gymnastics. I went in to the movie not expecting much, but hoping it would be stupid dumb fun. A guilty pleasure.

How wrong I was. It’s astoundingly boring. Lena Headey, returning as Queen of Sparta, starts the film with so much voice-over exposition that it’s as though the Star Wars opening scroll has been left running until it reaches the edge of the universe. It is supposed to enlighten us as to how Xerxes went from ordinary man to the giant deity he is, but this possibly interesting back story is explained away by Xerxes submerging himself in a magic pool and emerging fully transformed. How did he change? What was that pond of screenwriting convenience?  Why is dressed like a Brazilian Mardi Gras dancer? These are questions that I would be wondering if I cared at all.

Themistocles is a character without a glimmer of personality other than ‘tough’. At least Gerard Butler, the original’s protagonist, had a tongue in cheek wit, and lines so memorable that people now wear them on T shirts. Here, Stapleton’s Themistocles has dense dialogue, without any irony or humour, and every line is delivered with either a frown or a shout.

The idea of a female antagonist is an interesting one, especially since the first film was one of cinema’s biggest sausage-fests, yet Eva Green is far too femme-fatale elegant to convince as a brutal war lord. In fact, rather than gender balance, I suspect the only reason a female villain was included was to shoe-horn some boobs in.

The heavy use of computer graphics and slow motion gives the fighting a video-game look, which becomes very tiring, sort of like watching someone play PlayStation. The action in this film is on a much larger scale than it is in 300, yet is actually less exciting. While Zack Snyder, the original’s director, clearly has an eye for cool visuals, director Noam Murro thinks it’s all about quantity. So we get huge amounts of battle ships, thousands and thousands of soldiers, massive explosions. But the more we get the more we take it all for granted. And since it’s all clearly been programmed by men sitting at computers there’s no real sense of awe.

While the original had flaws, it was bold. It created something new, a film that looked like nothing we’ve seen before, and led to a barrage of copy-cats. This film is feels like yet another imitator. It doesn’t attempt anything new, just more of the same. It may have abs, but it doesn’t have balls.

 

Posted in Cinema, Opinion

Should films tell the truth?

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Films based on true stories are as popular as ever with the Academy Awards, with five ‘Best Picture’ nominations this year based on real events. But while Philomena has been praised for its accuracy, The Wolf of Wall Street and Captain Phillips have both been criticized for twisting the truth.

In the case of the Wolf of Wall Street, the real problem stems from the memoir written by real life ‘wolf’ Jordan Belfort, which the film follows very faithfully. Belfort is a very unreliable narrator, but then again what can you expect from a con man? Scorsese understands this and throughout the film has Belfort ( Leonardo DiCaprio) break the fourth wall by turning to the audience to tell his story, implying we are listening to this man’s own self-glorifying and possibly delusional tale of events.

However Captain Phillips, which is the far more straight-faced of the two, has raised controversy over whether the true story has been altered for dramatic effect. Many of the real crew members claim that Richard Phillips was no hero, and was an arrogant man who put lives in danger by ignoring numerous warnings of Somali pirates. It has raised concerns that director Paul Greengrass, despite his trademark use of documentary-style handheld cinematography, has made a Hollywoodized version of the truth where the Average Joe, played by the king of Average Joes Tom Hanks, overcomes the extraordinary and becomes a hero.

It’s easy to understand the concerns over accuracy. Films are popular, and bring exposure to real events and history that people may not be that informed about, and therefore one might assume the filmmakers have the responsibility to stick to the truth. This would especially be the case for recent events that deal with delicate subjects, such as Captain Phillips, where fabrication would be looked upon as bad-taste. This was very much the case for Diana, the biopic of the late princess, which was mauled by critics for having the stench of melodramatic artifice. Wikileaks film The Fifth Estate arrived with a tidal wave of bad press over it’s apparent dishonesty, with Julian Assange writing to Benedict Cumberbatch, the actor portraying him, to drop his involvement, afraid that the general public would be grossly misinformed about his organization. He needn’t have worried. It was the biggest financial flop of 2013.

However should inaccuracy be considered as a valid criticism? A film should primarily exist to entertain, and engage, rather than inform. In the hype surrounding the release of Django Unchained, many shook their heads in distaste at the thought of Quentin Tarantino treating a story concerning slavery with the same cartoonish excessiveness of Kill Bill, yet they only needed to look at how brilliantly entertaining his World War Two film Inglourious Basterds was to put their fears to rest. Inglouroius Basterds proudly gives the finger to historical accuracy, creating an alternate WWII closer in tone to the Captain America comics than Saving Private Ryan. By doing this, Tarantino liberates himself from the facts and focuses on giving us a good time.

The same can be said for Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, perhaps one of the most famous examples of Hollywood getting history wrong big time. Braveheart aims for the drama and romance of a Robin Hood legend, throwing in a crackpot love affair between the Scottish revolutionary William Wallace and the English princess, even going as far as to say that Edward III was Wallace’s son. By being free of the constraints of a factual biopic, Braveheart seems to mythologize William Wallace as much as his countryman do, which is what makes this film so enjoyable.

Many much-loved films have sacrificed authenticity for the sake of drama, among them Amadeus, which creates a largely fictional relationship between Mozart and fellow composer Salieri, Idi Amin biopic The Last King Of Scotland, where the protagonist is a fictional proxy for the audience, and A Beautiful Mind, which greatly exaggerates the hallucinations of it’s real life subject, mathematician John Nash. In fact, the man who is guilty for some of most blatant falsifying for dramatic effect is also the most revered dramatist ever, William Shakespeare, who spiced up his historical plays with ghosts and witches.

If filmmakers and the audience want the truth and nothing but the truth, then documentaries are where they should find it. Films should have the creative license to be as inaccurate as they like, as long as it makes them more gripping, interesting and entertaining. Audience members must remember that the cinema is a place of escapism, one where the facts will always have a liberal dash of fiction.

This article was first published in the February edition of The Insiter. Grab your copy from the designated pick up points.

Posted in Cinema

365 Days of Work – No Sleep for Sterlino

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Jack of all trades and master of most JON CALLEJA talks to DAVID GRECH URPANI about the secret to juggling between fashion, design, music and parenthood. As he embarks on a new project, InsiterOnline visits a creative polymath who has recently found his way back to campus.

Risk Win Big

Risk Win Big – Jon Sterlino (365 Days)

 

Better known as Sterlino, he speaks of one of his more recent feats – attracting mammoth clothing company Nike to one of his designs, which will be released under their brand this autumn. However, his story of creative work goes further back, boasting a long history of creative exploration spanning across all media.

The brain behind many of Malta’s sights and sounds – from glamorously simple designs sported by the likes Charles & Ron, to owning his own urban clothing brand Fat Gold and No Good and the sounds of the DJ Duo Mathematikal, Jon Calleja has had his fair share of contributions to the island’s aesthetics and branding.

The busy life of foreign clients and a multitude of specific requests does not come without its comic reliefs: “I had some commissions from India to create weird Bollywood posters like ‘Phata Poster Nikla Hero’”, he shares as he cringes momentarily, “trying to make that phrase interesting – twice as I had to redo it due to the client’s inability to spell – was quite the challenge.”

Having recently also become a father, you would think that Jon, more widely known by his alias Sterlino, is getting ready to tone it down a notch. This seems to be far from the case, however, as he’s just embarked on a new project in the form of a resolution for 2014.

Every day this year, he plans on posting an image a day of his hand drawn illustrations via his page Hello Jon. Already well into the third month, Jon’s project, aptly named 365 Days of Work / Play, keeps churning out stunning visual pieces, and is set to keep going strong all the way to January 2015.

“I fell in love with that shoe. I ended up creating my own t-shirts at an early age, using normal paint you could buy from an ironmonger”, he reminisces, Jon’s earliest inspirations were as spontaneous as his projects nowadays. He traces back his love for fashion and design to the moment that he first laid his eyes on the Nike Air Max 1 in the late 1980s.

Fast forward to 2000, and a 19-year-old Jon was just getting enrolled for a course in graphic design at the Targa Gap Art & Design (today’s MCAST).

“It was very limiting back then, so although I did learn quite a lot, you could say that some things ended up being self-taught,” he admits. This combination of education and experience culminated when he moved to London for two years to freelance at various design agencies. “Life in London is so different – I sometimes used to get inspired by people waiting in the London underground while commuting!”

Never to Late to Learn

“Never to Late to Learn” – Jon Sterlino (365 Days of Work)

Despite his staggeringly long and impressive portfolio, 33-year old Sterlino still believes there’s more to learn from life, and this year, he’s back to University following a Fine Arts degree in Digital Art. Although hectic at times, he says this is a perfect opportunity for him to rediscover things from a completely different point of view. However, Campus Life isn’t the only thing he’s returning to this year.

“It’s great to be back in the music scene,” he smiles, looking glad that we’ve moved on to his other passion. With the new addition to the family, Jon had needed a bit of a break from the scene. “Family always comes first. I’m blessed to have a wife who encourages me to do whatever makes me happy though, and this year felt ripe for a comeback.”

All things considered, Jon has the makings of the perfect dad. “Our house is littered with instruments, so I’m hoping that he picks up one of them and starts exploring the world of music. He’s already banging on this toy drum,” he beams, already very proud of one-year-old Jack. While he would obviously love it if his son followed in his footsteps, Jon quickly adds that he would never allow himself to force Jack to do anything that he doesn’t want to do.

Jon’s year sounds busy enough if you had to leave it at that, but so far we’re only looking at the tip of the iceberg. Also being the designing powerhouse behind FM, Money and Skipper magazines, multiple deadlines become quickly become a daily thing. How does he manage to keep up with so many different things and still produce such great results?

“I don’t know…black magic?”, he laughs nervously,“Seriously though, I try to make time for everything in life. If it’s something you love, you will undoubtedly make time for it.”

He goes on to recount all the nights he spent awake finishing a track or a piece of work. “Life is too short to not do whatever you love. Sleep when you’re dead,” he finishes off, already standing up, probably thinking of the dozen other things he needs to get done by the day’s end.

Photo by Nicky Scicluna

Posted in Comment, Culture, Interviews

The Lego Movie: Review

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When I first heard about The Lego Movie, I had no clue what the film could possibly be about. After all, when I played with Lego, all I had was a box of bricks that clicked together, and their potential for a block-buster (pun, I’m afraid, intended) seemed pretty slim.

However, the Lego universe includes countless sets, figurines, video-games and direct to DVD movies based on popular franchises like Star Wars and Indiana Jones. This allows directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord to fill their film with crazy worlds and a host of pop culture icons.

The film follows Emmet (Chris Pratt), an extraordinarily ordinary figurine, who goes about his days in a city made entirely out of Lego. There, people listen to the same song over and over, and knock down buildings only to rebuild them again. It’s a looped cycle of satisfied routine, similar to The Truman Show’s town of Seahaven. However, Emmet meets a woman named Wildstyle (Elizabeth Banks) , who looks like a Lego version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, who tells him that he is ‘the special’, the only individual who is capable of thwarting the Evil Lord Business’ (Will Ferrell) plans to freeze the world. This leads to an adventure where Emmet meets the ego-centric Batman (Will Arnett), a spaced-out spaceman (Charlie Day) and a wizard played by everyone’s favourite pair of vocal cords, Morgan Freeman.

The film is clearly made to appeal to adults just as much as it is to kids, if not more so, thanks to its tongue in cheek irony and self-referential sense of humor. The movie also has several amusingly bonkers moments that come close to what I imagine it’d be like to take LSD in Legoland. So many gags fly at you it’s hard to keep up. Many hit, but many miss, and the film seems as though it’s trying too hard to prove its own hip-ness. And I have an ominous feeling I’ll be hearing the ‘Everything Is Awesome’ song for years to come.

The worlds themselves, from the sprawling metropolis to the old west, are incredible to look at. These landscapes are computer generated yet have a stop motion appearance, and faithfully work within the confines of real Lego constructions. There really is something intricately beautiful about seeing everything made of tiny plastic bricks. However, when it comes to the many action sequences, the screen erupts into explosions of little bits and pieces, and can be frustrating to watch. In fact, the film is packed with a few too many action scenes, which would doubtless please kids, yet is a bit too hyper for me. I prefer the simpler storytelling charm of Pixar’s Toy Story films.

That being said, Toy Story is clearly an inspiration. Like Toy Story, the characters are fun and get great lines, especially Batman who steals the show, with Arnett gently parodying Christian Bale’s overly-brooding take on the character (which he both deserved and needed right now). The film’s ending also matches the very best of Pixar. Blockbuster films, especially kid’s films, tend to get tiring by the third act when the story needs to be wrapped up and originality is put to the side. Here, however, Miller and Lord give the plot a surprising turn that completely elevates the movie, from just daft fun to something quite special. You will leave the cinema with your heart warmed and a nostalgia for childhood playthings. Now where did I put those Lego bricks?

Posted in Cinema

Our visit to the PBS studios

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On Wednesday 19th February, a number of us, as members of Insite, were given a thorough tour around the Public Broadcasting Service building in Gwardamangia, now known as the modern creativity hub of Maltese media. After seeing first hand the amazing high-quality technological developments that have taken place in a building, which only a couple of years ago was an eye sore inside and out, one particular question continues to resonate inside my head:

Why do we still consider local television to be mediocre, even in the midst of this state-of-the-art refurbishment?

Could it be that the viewing public has not yet given PBS the opportune chance to use its newly attained tools to provide better quality television? Perhaps the current staff lacks the necessary experience to use the latest machinery? Or is it still too early for these improvements to actually give better results?

While all these guesses may be equally  true,  it is also practical to consider the possibility that the Maltese population, by being exposed to worldwide programmes, has mistakingly maintained the mentality that foreign material is always better.

While roaming around the building, particularly the behind-the-scenes areas such as the control rooms, editing suites and the quality control room, and when hearing the words of the staff members themselves, it is quite clear that there aren’t enough employees to deal with the magnitude of the work.

In order to carry the burden of moving PBS forward in technologically, more people need to be present. For instance, something already being done is encouraging young people interested in media, including students still undergoing their education, to use the new hub as an opportunity to work and learn in an inviting environment. This would give them a wide introductory vista to this ever-growing industry, and an absolutely reliable platform towards making a job in media a permanent career option.

Nevertheless, when comparing it to the past few years,  PBS has gone a very long way. The variety of programmes and channels ranging from television to radio, as well as the importance given to online transmissions and on-demand facilities, have contributed to getting Maltese media one step closer to reaching an international standard.

By branching out to events televised abroad, such as Eurovision, football championships and talent shows like the X Factor, PBS is continuously attempting to broaden its audience and provide it with as much of an interesting mixture as possible. While many of us prefer a Sherlock or Breaking Bad marathon, it is undeniable that TVM, Radju Malta and Magic Radio are a source of both information and entertainment for the whole island.

A mention and heartfelt thank you goes out to Rodianne Caligari who was our tour guide at the PBS premises, and also to the Insite executive for organizing this educational visit. Keep your eyes peeled for other similar events held by the Insite team in the near future.

Posted in Events, TV

Top 10 Moments of Brits 2014

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Considered to be the British version of the Grammys for the past 34 years, the Brits is the witty ad entertaining award show which is always sure to guarantee some amazing performances, awesome acceptance speeches, and the occasional unexpected blunder. Here, in my opinion, are the 10 most memorable moments from this year’s event which was held at the London O2 on Wednesday the 19th of February.

10. Ellie Goulding genuinely shocked

Most of us expected her to win Best British Female, but she definitely didn’t. Almost unable to speak, Ellie Goulding gave a hasty speech while trying to remind herself that the man behind ‘Purple Rain’ just handed her the trophy. Don’t worry though, she quickly came to her senses and performed an energetic mashup of ‘I Need Your Love’ and ‘Burn’ later on. And yes, this means Prince is still alive.

9. Katy Perry with her lifetime supply of highlighters

Looking like she just came out of a stationery, as well as giving some of our Carnival floats a run for their money, Katy Perry clearly showed off the biggest production of the evening. Apart from now slowly becoming predictable, and not really brushing up on her vocals, Katy miserably tried to put in anything Egyptian-related into her performance of ‘Dark Horse’. Insert a Sphinx headdress, and it would have been perfect.

8. Pharrell still very Happy with his hat

Closing the Brits are a huge shoe to fill, so Pharrell Williams again wore his American pilgrim headgear, since for some reason people now seem to know him more this fashion statement than his music. Teaming up with Nile Rodgers to perform his infectious hit from the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack, Pharrell ended the show in a great way. But seriously, am I the only person who can’t take him seriously with that goddamn hat?

7. Beyonce wows us all

Returning to the Brits stage after a decade, Beyonce was the complete opposite of her risqué appearance at the Grammys. No one can deny that this diva is still the most admired powerhouse in the music industry. A beautifully presented stage, the strongest voice of the night and a potential future Beyonce hit impressed everyone, proving you do not have to twerk to be memorable. We don’t need another Miley.

6. Harry Styles continuously teased

To accept their first award, the boy band everyone loves to hate were one member short when Harry Styles ‘had to do a wee’. This sparked on-going one liners targeted towards the heartthrob by the host James Corden, including my personal favourite when he told now-single Kylie Minogue “As for Harry Styles, I think you might a bit young for him”.

5. Bastimental

The most epic collaboration of the night came when British Breakthrough winners Bastille performed a mashup of hit singles ‘Pompeii’ and ‘Waiting All Night’ with Rudimental and vocalist Ella Eyre. The latter song went on to win Best British Single. This was one of those performances we couldn’t keep our eyes off of from beginning to end, including Ella’s black bodysuit. Google the image, you’ll thank me.

4. James Corden on fire, literally

This happened immediately after the opening performance by Arctic Monkeys, and I personally didn’t realize it was a stunt made just so that the host could say “that performance was on fire”. Yes, I am very gullible. You have to search for a video of it to fully grasp how believable it was, at least it was to me. But seriously, if you see an award show presenter with his arm aflame who starts shouting ‘Oh My God’, you have to end up checking whether you missed the April Fools Day memo.

3. Lorde in general

My obsession with this 17 year old’s music has grown to such a degree, that I couldn’t contain my happiness when Lorde beat pop superstars Lady Gaga and Katy Perry to win Best International Female. And Disclosure’s revamp of ‘Royals’, with Lorde herself providing the vocals, was almost better than the original. Say that she’s overrated all you want, but her deserved success at such a young age is undeniable. Thanks to her, I have accepted that I can never be part of the Royal family.

2. ‘Scotland, please stay with us’

This was officially the most random and confusing award given this year. In response to releasing a surprise album in 2013, David Bowie unexpectedly won the trophy for Best British Male, despite fan favourites Tom Odell and John Newman also being nominated. But that was the least of the weirdness. Noel Gallagher, evidently drunk, announced the ex-Ziggy Stardust as the winner, followed by the words “Did you think David Bowie would be here? He hasn’t got time for this s***!”. Well Noel, he could have at least left a thank you video. But no, he decided to send an even more drunk Kate Moss to accept the award on his behalf and read his speech, and who was wearing one of Bowie’s own costumes. And yes, the speech included the words: “Scotland, please stay with us”. Hashtag cray.

1. Alex Turner gets hilariously drunk

Good old Alex, the man you can rely on to make you laugh your socks off when he becomes extremely intellectual after a couple of glasses. After an abundant intake of champagne, the Arctic Monkeys frontman spent his acceptance speech for Best British Album philosophizing about the science of rock music. In the meantime, award presenter Emeli Sande stood on the side smiling awkwardly and wishing she had presented a different award. For ending his slurry monologue with the strong words: “Rock n roll will never die, and you can’t do anything about it”, I applaud you Alex. Nice save.

Posted in Music