Category Archives: Reviews

Magnificent Maleficent & Memories from Childhood

Note: This is not a review of Maleficent, rather a note on my feelings concerning this film. Please read it expecting a personal view, rather than a general analysis of the movie (oh, and watch out for spoilers)!

When I was very young, Disney’s Sleeping Beauty was one of my favorite animated films; I haven’t watched it in years, perhaps even a decade, but while I watched Maleficent, I felt those old feelings emerging out of a haze, dulled by time; I could remember my fear when Maleficent was about to make her grand appearance at the birth ceremony of Aurora. I could remember my anticipation to hear her next words. It was quite funny when I realized this line, ‘Royalty, nobility, the gentry and… How quaint! Even the rabble’ was embedded in my memory, although being so young, I had no idea what gentry meant, let alone any of the other words. I just remembered the mocking voice Maleficent spoke in.

Angelina Jolie as Maleficent
Angelina Jolie as Maleficent

Maleficent pleasantly surprised me. I was expecting a film more along the lines of Alice in Wonderland and Oz, decked out in overly-done CGI, forgetting allegiances to old scripts and characters. But Maleficent was not one of those; in fact, Jolie seemed to have Maleficent down pat, even adding her own extempore bits, which only enhanced her role in a magnificent manner. Maleficent was, after all, a girl, who had had her heart broken and faced betrayal through utmost cruelty. Imagine having wings and then having them torn from you- it’s hard to imagine at that but well, what a nice, feeling touch to the story.

Maleficent with wings
A winged representation of Maleficent

Maleficent was a powerful fairy- one who was relied upon for the protection of the forest, home to many magical creatures. Perhaps taking an environmentalists’ stand doesn’t go awry in this day and age- you begin to root for Maleficent, despite her stubbornness and her wish to bring death to a girl who has done nothing to deserve it. And you begin to hate Stefan, you really, really do. The additional treasure was the little 4-year old Aurora, played by Jolie’s own daughter Vivienne. Despite taking a turn for evil, Maleficent was unable to resist ‘little beastie’, the little Aurora for whom she developed actual feelings and for whom she almost sacrificed her life. I have to admit, watching Jolie with baby Aurora were some of the funniest moments in the entire movie.

Disney's MALEFICENT  L to R: Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) and Young Aurora (Vivienne Jolie-Pitt)  Ph: Frank Connor  ©Disney Enterprises, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.
L to R: Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) and Young Aurora (Vivienne Jolie-Pitt) Ph: Frank Connor ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The best parts however, are when vestiges of the original Sleeping Beauty come back to life; the remnants of a time long past, where fairies, happily ever afters and magical goodness was the order of the day for young children. It is possible that this perspective is merely the result of my affiliation to the late eighties and early nineties. I can see Maleficent received some very nasty reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. In any case, I’m not daunted by movie reviews in general, and Jolie’s performance still managed a proud walk-away, getting all the credit for making Maleficent at least watchable for those who were expecting more deviation from the original fairytale environment.

I, for one, am glad Maleficent was saved from becoming a twisted, myopic CGI disaster. Instead, it brought the long faded Maleficent to life; the iconic crown and the darkened silhouette lived once again as they graced cinema screens. The questionable futility of the young Prince, his diminished role, the decision of Aurora to take her life in her own hands and the pitiful attempts by the three good fairies to raise Aurora- all mark the ways in which this beautiful classic was changed in order to adapt to a more empowered audience. Yet, Maleficent herself did not change, her character was deepened, with a sad origin story, but the Maleficent moments remained original.

Thank you, Angelina Jolie, for helping my childhood resurface for the few precious hours I watched Maleficent.

Bonus: Watch the unforgettable ‘Awkward Situation’ scene from Maleficent below.

 

 

 

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Sylvester

Going down memory lane, I stumbled across something I wrote some years ago… Indeed, a book review about Sylvester’, one of my favorites from Georgette Heyer. Perhaps one day I should add more tributes to that master of Regency romance and ‘their cynical Lordships’, but until then, I leave you to read a short recollection of the book ‘Sylvester’.

Sylvester, Front & Back Cover (Arrow Books)
Sylvester, Front & Back Cover (Arrow Books)

 

The trials of arranged marriages are heartfelt. But what happens when the head of the noble household of the Raynes travels to the wilds of Wiltshire to offer for his childhood bride? If the bride is a headstrong, hoydenish miss, revolting against the conventions of teachings of womanhood; quite simply, utter disaster. Such is the cleverly constructed plot of one of my favorite novels of all times; ‘Sylvester’ by Georgette Heyer. This brilliant artist of societal portrayal in its humorist and gayest of forms manages to steals hearts yet again in ‘Sylvester’.

Sylvester, the head of his household at Chance was born to responsibility, wealth and privilege. His earliest days were spent under the aegis of an honor-obsessed uncle, old matrons and tutors who drilled in him the vestiges of obligations, pride and dignity. Losing what was close to him at the mere age of twenty-six years, Sylvester sets out on his mission to find a suitable bride who would take care of his disabled mother, his orphaned nephew, and provide companionship for his widowed sister-in-law. As per Heyer’s conventions, it is not a simple journey for Sylvester. He finds out from his godmother that he and Phoebe Marlow were destined to marry since their birth, as the plan was made and much cherished by both their mothers, who were best friends. But leading to the death of Miss Marlow’s mother, and her father’s second marriage to a rigid lady not liked by relatives, the plan was pushed away, and eventually forgotten. Now Sylvester, with determination and purpose, heads out to Miss Marlow’s estate, but finds her completely inappropriate to his taste. To a man of Sylvester’s birth and handsome looks, accentuated by cynically arched eyebrows, Miss Marlow was but a wraith of a girl, brown skinned and utterly dominated by her mother-in-law. What this unusual exterior hid, of course, was spirit, and the soul of an artist of great satirical skills, which expressed themselves in the form of writing. Miss Marlow, who had taken a dislike to Sylvester on occasion of her visiting London before, was extremely angered and insulted to find Sylvester as a house-guest for the weekend, especially when his purpose was made clear to her.

Undeniably, no girl wants to be overlooked ‘like a filly’, according to Miss Marlow. Thus, her scheme of running away, all the way to London to her grandmother’s protection, emerges. Aided by her childhood friend Tom Orde, she accomplishes this journey, but not without its mishaps, to find out that her grandmother is actually Sylvester’s godmother, who sent Sylvester to Wiltshire for the same purpose of offering for Phoebe Marlow!

It is Heyer at her best indeed. With sophisticated plot development, and the const ant arrival and departure of much loved characters, she keeps me enthralled to the pages of her novel. Laughing one minute, and anxious the next, I feel like I’m whirling around in the twisters of Heyer’s world with every page I turn. Sylvester is no doubt one of her masterpieces, and one of the all- time winners of Regency literature.

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.

Why I Like Love Stories: A Lesson from Silver Linings Playbook

I can assure you it is possible to fall in love with words. The biggest complication is finding someone to attach these words to. People say it’s typical that a woman falls for love stories. I can tell you how this best of all emotions has been taken apart by stereotypical thinking, seemingly making it lose all of it’s magic. But to be in love, and to want to see a love story as it unfolds is still the best feeling in the world. To be able to describe it in words that can be ethereal and illustrative, wondrous and unconditionally felt, is even better.

A Walk on Air (2013)
A Walk on Air (2013)

People attach all sorts of meaning to words, and sadly, some people attach none. To truly be able to understand what a person says is the greatest magic of all. Of course, this is all in relation to love stories. So the question, why I like them so much? The theme occurred to me while I was watching ‘Silver Linings Playbook’. It shows a love story which is so different from the average love story; it shows imperfect people. And it is so good to watch imperfect people in love. I am usually dominated by the idea of a ‘perfect love’, with perfect individuals, representing the pinnacles of all of human attributes, presented in the best way possible; holy, brave, humble. I can blame this on watching Disney movies while growing up; but who hasn’t fallen through this trap of conventional love at least once in their lives?

Screenshot from Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Screenshot from Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

In Silver Linings Playbook, both of our male and female protagonists are represented as flawed. Their feelings are a result of flawed actions which make them come together. Is everything a mistake or are mistakes in love just the way we see them because we want love to be so conventional all the time? It is never a story of her meeting him, ring on her finger, they lived happily ever after. The roller coaster ride of ‘getting there’ is the best part. When people are imperfect, they make mistakes. When they make mistakes, things go wrong. And the only way to prove themselves is when they make things right. That part is so amazing, proving what you can do for the people you love and what they can do for you.

The thing about love stories is that unless you’re brave enough to be in one of your own, you will never be in one. Why I like love stories is because I know they will hurt, they must hurt, otherwise it’s not worth anything. They will create storms in your life which you wished you’d never have to face and they will wake you up from the reality you are living in, just until your love story lasts. You can live inside a world where most things will seem like magic to you, where waking up in the morning will be something you want to do, where having moments of silence will be most wanted so you can let yourself relive everything all over again. And you will want to have words to immortalize your love, because there will be a time when you have it no longer but the words will never leave you.

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

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.