All posts by Dua

The Deep Blue Sea (no, this isn’t the one with the sharks)

Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston in 'The Deep Blue Sea' (2011)
Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston in ‘The Deep Blue Sea’ (2011)

My reason for watching The Deep Blue Sea was Tom Hiddleston. That was it, that was my reason. What I didn’t know was that the film would charm a completely different side of me: the theatre-loving side, the side that swoons at the stylishness of good drama and the frankness and poignancy of it. The Deep Blue Sea is a stage play by Terrence Rattigan and though I did not know much about its background or how it has been performed for theatre over the years, I could still love Terence Davies’ screen adaptation of it for its trim and classy presentation, and its symmetry and brevity that were just so tasteful! Maybe I’m aging fast and so enjoyed it for these merits. Maybe it’s all the flavoured tea I’ve been drinking. Or maybe it’s my literature-appreciation training from school kicking in. But I feel there can be no denying The Deep Blue Sea is a very artistic movie.

The characters are few and they move between just a few predestined places, to bouts of exaggerated music, through stylized frames. And a story is told – rather an abstract one, but one we’re all familiar with. It is a story of personal conflict and love lost. It is a story about making choices. There are heights reached and depths hit, and the music swells or murmurs to accompany these movements. Neat and centralized shots in movies always appeal to me because I can imagine filmmakers like Davies lovingly deliberate over how to present a scene. The colours are faded, the light wintry – like in an old photo album. And like in an old photo album, in which many turbulent stories cling to the backs of the shyly coloured pictures, the emotions running through the film are very loud and very fiery.

The Deep Blue Sea

To her role as Hester Collyer, Rachel Weisz brings that tragic mix of stubbornness and extreme vulnerability characteristic of a little girl in love. Tom Hiddleston, as Freddie, is garrulous and cheery, and remarkably airy (I confess to numerous replays of his adorably delivered ‘I only did it for the Monet’). The buildup of their romance and its inevitable decline is almost effortlessly conveyed by the actors as they play out these two very differently driven individuals. Davies also adroitly shows what can be very challenging to show visually – the haunting of a mind. Memories keep tumbling out of Hester’s mind, opening windows into a very layered past, which – the viewer is left in no doubt – she has revisited so many times, it has become as played-out and scratchy as the radio music she listens to.

One sequence in the film – a flashback – is particularly beautiful. As we watch a devastated Hester rush down a subway station and pause right by the tracks, clearly struggling against a suicidal impulse, the view shifts and in one, long take we see Londoners huddled inside the same subway, on the tracks and platform, while bombs are heard falling in the distance. One of the refugees starts singing Molly Malone, the lovely, aching, Irish song, and the rest (all of them, the poor, the rich, the soldiers, the guards, the men and the women) chorus ‘Alive, alive, oh’ as dust falls from the subway ceiling to the floor, in sad accompaniment to the bombing outside.

It doesn’t happen every day that I watch a movie simply to gawk at a classy British actor and end up writing a review in the movie’s praise, but I wish it would happen more often.

Middle-earth, we meet again!

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

For fans of Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings and Peter Jackson, who thought that the immense and incomparable excitement brought to their lives in the early 2000s was over after The Return of the King, the news that Jackson would be undertaking a movie adaptation of The Hobbit came as a kind of Annunciation! It was a miracle, it was a trumpet being blown to announce the rebirth of that glorious universe called Middle-earth, it meant the dispelling of evil and foul-smelling feature films for three years as The Hobbit – made into three films – would come to rule the big screens in all its Tolkienish ethereality and Jacksonian efficiency.

Oh what a day it was when I first found out that three new movies featuring Middle-earth as only Jackson and his team can craft it were in production! It was like an Elvish dream sent to us from the Undying Lands. Then I had apprehensions that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey wouldn’t go up in cinemas in Pakistan. But it did. It went up two weeks after its international release date but it went up. And I was there at the ticket counter, getting my ticket to the first show in Lahore. I was overwhelmed. What would it be like? How would Middle-earth look after all these years? (Not that I hadn’t repeatedly watched the LOTR trilogy on DVD since 2003) Would the music be as haunting, the action as paralyzing? Would the battle sequences be as mind-numbingly heroic? My legs felt weak as I waited outside the theatre with my indulging family.

But I had nothing to worry about. As soon as the movie started, I felt assured that we were all in good hands. From the starting sequences of Erebor to the gathering of the dwarves at Bag End, nothing is out of place. The storytelling falls in with the fast-paced action and slick visual effects as smoothly as the dwarves’ voices do with each other when the chilling and wistful Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold is sung. And it gets better! By the time the company sets out, my goosebumps felt permanent! A good sign. The lovely contrast of cold and warm hues dominating the nocturnal Bag End scenes is an excellent reflection of how, at the heart of this large and looming adventure, nestles a fireside story.

An Unexpected Party: the dwarves at Bag End
An Unexpected Party: the dwarves at Bag End

In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, a lighter mood more suited to what is essentially a children’s tale as well as a great deal of underlying foreboding are conveyed so well that neither the seriousness of an epic nor the playfulness of a fable are compromised for each other. Glimpses of Thorin’s ancestral battles give added dimension to his character , making him even more of a heroic leader than he appeared to me to be in the book. At the same time, the fun-filled, most memorable scenes from the book, such as the company’s encounter with the trolls, are done in a hale and hearty spirit of storytelling that would have made even Tolkien smile. Seriously, half a dozen grumbling dwarves being rotated on a roasting spit while Martin Freeman attempts to rescue them with his strangely disarming, nervous sort of charm? Can fiction be filmed any better?

Gollum, of course, is brilliantly portrayed as ever, with Andy Serkis adding constantly to the creature’s reservoir of expressions and acoustics and facial contortions. The scene showing Bilbo (invisible with the ring on) deliberating over whether to kill Gollum or spare him, is rather moving and touches upon the theme of true bravery which continues well into the LOTR trilogy. A distinctly younger and less haggard Sméagol is also more pitiable because you can actually mark the beginning of his complete devastation, the very point from which his snuffling, wretched vendetta against the thief, thief, thief Baggins began!

Gandalf, super-wizard and uncontested mentor figure of all times, has longer and fancier combat moments in this film. And who doesn’t love watching Gandalf kick goblin butt? He is so thunderous and awe-inspiring in his iconic grey robe, the Orcs and goblins seem to just crumble in his path. Also, he’s not the only good wizard this time. Radagast the Brown also makes an appearance. His role is expanded and he is given more of a comical colour than many fans would have expected. But just when I was about to feel a slight danger of his becoming too silly for an otherwise larger-than-life feature, he saves Thorin’s company with an excellent diversion as it is being pursued in one of the most maddeningly thrilling scenes from the film.

'Gandalf? Not the wandering wizard?'   'The same'
‘Gandalf? Not the wandering wizard?’ ‘The same’

The characterization of the rest of the dwarves is also creatively done (of course! I hope everyone knows, by now, that I am basically writing an ode here). True to the standard gruff-and-hairy image of a dwarf are Dwalin and Oin and Gloin. And adding entertaining variety are the much-too-polite Ori, the wisdom-sprouting Balin and the handsome Kili, ready to take on any man of Númenor in the looks department. It is a hugely engrossing company, on the whole, which sets out to reclaim the Lonely Mountain from Smaug, a dragon I am literally on tenterhooks to see and hear!

If, from all this, it sounds like I watched The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey with my mind made up to love everything about it, then yes, maybe I did. And quite frankly, what’s not to love? I cannot stress enough the importance of good and sincere representations of heroism in this day and age. If dramatic visual effects are all-too-easily achieved now, then let them help in telling tales of bravery and friendship and coming-of-age in a convincing way! The techniques of film-making may keep changing but these are values we cannot afford to make antiquated. So, thank you Peter Jackson and team. This was much needed.

Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield
Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield

Moonrise Miles Make Sense

Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

If, on an especially imaginative day, you were to set out with a copy of Peter Pan, a few Grant Wood prints, some choir music and the pangs of a childhood romance, you would arrive at Moonrise Kingdom.

How can I thank Wes Anderson enough for giving me, in this day and age of gratuitous visual effects and beheaded movie plots, a beautifully creased canoe-ticket to sincere and heartfelt cinema? With its obsessively centralized frames, the poignancy of its ubiquitous plot, its periodic puffs of absurdism, its insufferable romanticism, its nods to the weary adults who have fought and failed, its nods to the children who are fighting and refuse to fail, its haunting music, its aptly timed thunderstorms and aptly timed conscience-awakenings, Moonrise Kingdom is one of the loveliest movies I have seen so far. I cannot stop thinking about it!

I have difficulty as it is keeping the Neverland-induced mix of feverishness, flutters and lumpy throat-ness at bay, and Moonrise Kingdom has now injected me with more of the same. The insular movement of the characters, the almost unreal Polaroid-coloured terrain are like the longing in your mind a dream leaves in its wake. If you have ever been a romantic in dogged pursuit of love, ridicule fast on your tail, you will experience palpitations caused by deep kinship while watching this film.

And no, Anderson does not cheer on the protagonists in any way so sentimental as to make you lose interest, he stirs some truly bizarre scenarios along with his support, some real kookiness. Mrs. Bishop making domestic announcements on a microphone, Suzy’s attack on an ill-fated scout with scissors (very Wednesday Addams style), that amusing, endearing confidence and worldly-wisdom with which Sam nods and says ‘True’ to things, Scoutmaster Ward’s well-intentioned marches and lunges which end in droopy blog entries (Edward Norton is remarkable as ever) and the climatic decision-making in animal costume at the steeple, together with the fall that culminates in the absurdly symbolic ‘Don’t let go’, are all examples of the distinct Andersonian flavour of the film.

Packed with vintage knick knacks, allusions to poetry and religion (our two strongest comforts and chokeholds) and little gestures of affection that are bound to eat into forgotten regions of you, Moonrise Kingdom succeeds where so many romantic comedies and dramas fail – in maintaining the sanctity of love.

 

 

A Breath of Fresh Eyre

Jane Eyre (2011)

Rendering a classic text onto film is risky, more so if said text has already been turned into a film before. Comparisons are bound to follow, in one , long, whiny trail of what’s-better-in-this-one and what’s-worse. I myself have been a disgruntled participant in this procession on many occasions, and had been looking forward to the new cinematic version of Jane Eyre with expectations kept willfully low, when it pulled a Bertha Mason and surprised me.

It was a sincere, beautiful rendition of the eldest Bronte’s claim-to-fame novel. And here is why:

  • The atmosphere. It is deliciously chilling, in perfect keeping with the Gothic spirit of the book, and is so tangible at points that it gives you goosebumps like few new thriller flicks do. From the opening sequence, Cary Fukunaga keeps you on tenterhooks. Those shots of the vast, hostile wilderness with the lone figure of Jane positioned variously in them, and the resemblance they bear to the dark, Romantic paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, and those tragic strains of a violin or piano accompanying the swellings in the story do the trick. Rochester’s ominous secret, the madwoman-in-the-attic bit, is also used well for atmospheric bonus. As in the novel, the filmmakers feed the audience’s terror by playing on the unseen, giving us little helpings of muffled laughter and mysterious creakings until we’re full with a typically Bronte-ish repast.
Jane Eyre (2011)
‘Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon’. Caspar David Friedrich. 1833
‘Moonrise by the Sea’. Caspar David Friedrich. 1822
  • The chemistry. After very long have I seen the kind of romantic oomph that Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender provide. Their ages are just right. Rochester was a lot older than Jane, and – this is important – neither of them was described in the novel as stunningly beautiful. Each had an elusive attractiveness, so thank HEAVENS they refrained from dolling up Wasikowska too much, or turning Fassbender into some Adonis. Toned down and mysterious, both act superbly, all the while channeling an energy that is more powerful because it is kept latent for the better part of the film.
Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender as Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester
  • The supporting cast. Judi Dench just adds a gold star to any film she’s in, doesn’t she? Having seen this paragon decked out regally as Queen Elizabeth or Lady Catherine de Bourgh, you can hardly envision her as the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax. But she pulls off the role as if it had descended to earth, custom-made with an apron, just for her. And that one line (‘How very French!’), the only haughty delivery from her throughout, is definitely worth watching for all of us who love her deep-set, British curtness. Dench having been duly eulogized, an honourable mention should also be made of actor Jamie Bell, who plays a nice, staid St. John Rivers.
Judi Dench as Mrs. Fairfax

Suffusion of a Floral Kind

Odilon Redon. ‘Violette Heymann’. Pastel on paper. 72 x 92 cm

Flora infuses so much of artistic creation that if one were to surround himself with books upon books and painted panels and canvases and then close his eyes, he would actually smell all those flowers compressed into words and folded in pigment. He wouldn’t smell the paper or the paintings, that combined smell of ink and book shops, wood and oil, he would smell roses and narcissuses and wildflowers. He could stuff all those books and paintings into a juicer and out would come not pulpy manifestos dripping ‘T’s and ‘I’s, heightened here and there with a blob of Persian Blue or Indian Yellow, but clear, perfumed flower juice.

I remember having read Emerson say that ‘flowers… are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty outvalues all the utilities of the world’. I was overjoyed at reading these words. My drawings and paintings are incomplete without flowers because they contain so much symbolic value, it’s boggling!

One of the most important symbols they stand for is, of course, man’s own mortality. Flowers enact that bloom-to-gloom journey so deftly and with so much exaggerated beauty (they’re such actors!) that it is insanity to not use them as a symbol for our own such invariable journeys, especially when ours come clanking with a heap of other things such as education, money-making, fiery brawls in the name of love, dinner concerns, hospital bills, anniversaries and anti-aging creams. We resist death till our last breath, flowers don’t.

Flowers, so authors, artists and bards have proven, are a neater and more presentable way of showing the loose-locked, haggling mortality. Fragility, vulnerability are themes that come with the package. But the best thing about flowers is that they also, like us, have a darker side. So it’s not just rosy-cheeked, wide-eyed maidens, susceptible to aging and dying, whom they represent but also temptresses with poisonous properties, old as evil, bringing death in their wake.

Gardens in literature are not exclusively happy places, that much is certain. Burnett’s ‘Secret Garden’ and Wilde’s ‘Nightingale and the Rose’ feature botany trailing metres of woe behind it. Poetry, too, testifies to that but the references are numberless, I wouldn’t know where to begin! In art, Chagall’s infatuated, levitating brides-in-white and flying fiddlers traverse skies spread with flowers or hover like drunk bees on summer nights around giant bouquets. And Odilon Redon’s chalky flowers manifest themselves out of dreamy, smoky backdrops of colour clouds. Innocence and purity poised against time. The passing by of things. Love fading. No, flowers are not happy props, nor gardens happy places.

Marc Chagall. ‘Bouquet with Flying Lovers’. Oil on canvas. 130.5 x 97.5 cm
Georgia O’Keeffe. ‘Black Iris’. Oil on canvas. 91.4 x 75.9 cm
Abraham Mignon. ‘The Nature as a Symbol of Vanitas’. Oil on canvas. 79 x 99 cm

But by the side we have also such darker allusions to flora as found in Hawthorne’s ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ and Rhys’ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ – gardens planted with menace, poison lurking unabashed, dressed in deceptive, flowery garb. The symbolic role of flowers broadens. The flower achieves the position of a mermaid song. Georgia O’Keefe’s ravenous botany leers and gapes. Abraham Mignon’s stagey and almost dangerous floral still lives stretch their tentacles. And then, there’s Mondrian.

How can one describe the flowers painted by this enigma? What I can gather from what I’ve seen of his work and what I’ve read about him is that he had a very, very polarized relationship with flora. He claimed to hate flowers, painting them only because they sold, and yet that quivering sincerity with which he painted them suggests otherwise. His lilies, chrysanthemums and amaryllises are like sad spectres made to pose singly in the light. Why is it that the lilies, especially, seem almost ashamed? That strange, watery way in which they stand there, quietly drooping and bleeding is more touching than some of the techniques of verisimilitude applied in paintings of great sacrifice or heroism.

Mondrian. ‘Lily’. Watercolour on paper. 25 x 19 cm

And yet why, despite this near translucence displayed by the flowers, did Mondrian distrust them? Was it because he felt that in all their lovely pathos, they would overpower his senses and steer him away from the grid-work and geometry of logic? Or because, more like the cold-blooded Doctor Rappaccini from Hawthorne’s story, he had dissected them and discovered that there was nothing but a bare-boned, stone-faced mechanism behind their beautiful facades?

The Two Portraits of Johannes

Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth in 'Girl With a Pearl Earring' (2003)

‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’ (Tracy Chevalier) – the book:

Vermeer is more of a thought than an actual person. He is like a very important reminder scribbled on the margins, never on the page itself, but teasing the reader’s consciousness throughout. His presence is skillfully brought to attention from the very start, by attributing to him a few but indelible qualities such as the steady sound of his voice and his minimal but resolute gestures. His two most prominent movements, for example, are grabbing a wrist to save a painting from being torn, and stating simply that the children have not been brought up well, to save a girl her job. He is a stranger in his own house, a cloud or moth or waft of something that seems to have drifted in, unable to form a relationship to anything or anyone else.

‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’ (Peter Webber) – the film:

Vermeer is less of a stranger and more of a prisoner in his own house. He is depicted more as shackled creativity than detached creativity. The air of barely controlled frenzy about him deviates from his calm bordering on impassivity in the book. In the book, one almost feels like probing the painter to take action at many points; in the film, the re-invented and somewhat Byronic persona assigned to him curbs that urge. It is, however, to be wondered at what works best; the poignancy is sharp, very sharp, in the book, when Griet discovers, a decade later, that the same painter whom she had given up as a glittering shard from a dream, nothing more, had managed to procure her portrait to look at her again. In the film, Vermeer is shown to be very blatantly snagged by her in comparison, and so the revelation to Griet at the end leaves a different impression.

…so I spun a wreath for the Followills.

The abominable excess, these days, of impatiently made music that sounds just too darn similar made me wonder if there is anyone who can vie for the role of classic in the years to come. What with teenage ‘rockstars’ being chugged out by unicorn-land TV, and music videos that are more ‘runway’ than ‘music’ anyway, the prospect doesn’t look too promising. But there are a few artistic melody-makers still, thankfully. Kings of Leon – definitely one of them (God bless those Followills).

Kings of Leon (brothers Caleb, Nathan and Jared Followill, with cousin Matthew Followill)

I’ve been listening to their last studio album since it came out in 2008, and not an inch of daylight sneaks into it. You don’t need to know what it’s called in order to tell what it’s about. It’s about night, it’s about love, it’s about all those daylight defences of yours peeling like old wallpaper come night. The vocals have an indelible pleading, thirsting feel to them. They’re night-creatures, these four. It’s like they took moonlight, vulnerability, highways and headlights, stretches of sleeping sand, and the crab that scuttles away from you when you light a match, and put it all under a giant, black microscope. But there is hardly anything inert about this music. It’s not the lullaby-like pushing-of-the-cradle kind of welcome for the night, it’s so charged with an energy bordering on frenzy.

I read that the album title, ‘Only by the Night’, is – in fact – from somewhere amidst Poe’s vast, icy factory of mind-boggling chills. Even better! Art meets art. Put in an Edward Hopper painting showing the strangely inviting, artificially lit up interior of a diner, fluorescent lights trying to keep the night at bay, and you’ve got nocturne in a nutshell.

Edgar Allan Poe
'Nighthawks' by Edward Hopper. Oil on canvas. 1942