Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Princess Diarist - the lingering shadow of Princess Leia

book review 

Book: The Princess Diarist
Author: Carrie Fisher

She was born into Hollywood royalty, then soared to massive fame nearly two decades later after portraying an intergalactic princess in an epic space opera, only to remain inextricably linked to that iconic role for the rest of her life. For better or worse, Carrie Fisher could never escape the shadow of Princess Leia Organa, the bold and snarky heroine of the original Star Wars trilogy. Even at the time of her sudden death in December last year, the actress was in the middle of promoting a memoir primarily about the first Star Wars film, a book that, like most of her writing, sees her using her acerbic wit to discuss issues with darker undertones, and feels even more poignant in the wake of her untimely demise.

Published just a month before she passed away, The Princess Diarist finds the author reminiscing about events that happened four decades ago while she was working on the film that would propel her to international stardom as well as the impact this success ended up having on her life.

Fisher looks back at how she got her start in show business, despite not wanting to adopt this “fickle occupation” after watching her parents’ – screen legend Debbie Reynolds and crooner Eddie Fisher (who famously caused a scandal by leaving Reynolds to marry her close friend, Elizabeth Taylor) – fame diminish over the course of their lifetimes. She talks about getting cast in Star Wars, dropping out of drama college in order to star in this “little low-budget” space fantasy, and working on the movie in London in 1976 at the tender age of 19.

She discusses several experiences and topics directly and indirectly related to the franchise that would become one of the most successful film series in history, like her famous “cinnamon buns” hairstyle and what it meant to forever be Princess Leia, as well as later developments, like attending sci-fi conventions and signing autographs for money.

But the main focus of the book – and what seems like its raison d'être – is the revelation that the then-teenage actress had an affair with her “fourteen-years-older married co-star” Harrison Ford during the making of the first Star Wars film.

After attending a party celebrating director George Lucas’s thirty second birthday, Ford rescued an inebriated Fisher from the clutches of a group of boisterous crew members with dubious intentions, telling them that “the lady doesn’t seem to be very aware of what she wants” ... and then proceeded to make out with her in the back of a car. It’s an account more disturbing that romantic (even though Fisher seemingly attempts to downplay the many troubling elements of the story with her jovial style), and it marked the beginning of a three month tryst between the two actors, one of whom was significantly more invested in the relationship than the other – she was emotionally involved; he was distant, quiet, stoic, unavailable.

Fisher also shares passages from the diaries she kept while filming the movie which she recently rediscovered while expanding her bedroom at her house, and which seem to have prompted the writing of this book. The entries, which are mostly about Ford, reveal a vulnerable, insecure young woman struggling with her “sense of isolation and worthlessness”. Her words are heartfelt, but almost uncomfortable to read, perhaps too personal to be shared with the world. “If anyone reads this when I have passed to the big bad beyond,” young Fisher writes at one point in her journal (one of several times she mentions death and dying in the book), “I shall be posthumorously embarrassed. I shall spend my entire afterlife blushing.” And you can almost imagine her 19-year-old self chiding her older version for making these private thoughts public.

Then again, Fisher was always known for her candidness, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that she doesn’t shy away from revealing the vulnerability she felt in her late teens. But while The Princess Diarist is intimate, the author still doesn’t share any explicit details from her affair. She also doesn’t really share any significant stories from the actual making of Star Wars, so if you’re looking for interesting anecdotes from the set or experiences from working with Lucas and co. then this isn’t the book for you.

The Princess Diarist primarily focuses on Fisher’s thoughts and feelings, a considerable chunk of which are about “Carrison”. Her voice is consistently charming, despite the occasional oddly phrased sentence and her general tendency to ramble. The book is, however, too short and light on content, and could have been significantly more interesting to a wider audience if it had included some of her experiences from the set of the “cool little off-the-radar movie directed by a bearded guy from Modesto”.

All in all, Fisher’s third and, as it turned out, final memoir gives us a glimpse at the actress’s views on the sci-fi adventure that took the world by storm in the late 1970s and has remained massively popular ever since. Its main revelation is her only fling with a married man, an affair that happened even though she had seen the impact of infidelity in her childhood and never wanted to do to “some lovely, unsuspecting lady” what her father had done to her mother. The book benefits from Fisher’s sharp wit, and while it may not offer many details about the making of the film (as Star Wars fans would have hoped), the writer’s humorous, self-deprecating, frank style is still likely to charm its readers, even when what she’s writing about is ultimately quite heartbreaking.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 16th April, 2017 *

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Scrappy Little Nobody - Anna Kendrick's constant search for a punchline

book review 

Book: Scrappy Little Nobody
Author: Anna Kendrick

The recent popularity of the female memoir – or “femoir”, as it is colloquially being referred to – has resulted in a number of additions to the celebrity memoirs bookshelf. In the last few years, several female entertainers – including Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Chelsea Handler, Sarah Silverman, Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling, and Amy Schumer – have penned witty autobiographical books reminiscing about their lives and careers. And even though the limitations of the genre have become increasingly apparent with each new release, it still remains popular with readers (and a source of millions of dollars for both its authors and publishers).

Following in the footsteps of the aforementioned comediennes, actress Anna Kendrick too has published a collection of humorous essays in the shape of her memoir Scrappy Little Nobody, a sarcasm-drenched look at her journey to stardom.

The book chronicles Kendrick’s life from her early years in Maine to her burgeoning success in Hollywood. The 31-year-old actress talks about her “hyperactive little weirdo” beginnings; underage substance use, “light shoplifting”, and “bare-minimum teenage rebellion”; subsequent “experiments in adulthood”; and how she continues to be “a bit of a man-child”. Topics that repeatedly come up include her size and petiteness, being prone to anxiety, and her awkwardness which makes her “terrible in every social situation”.

On the acting front, Kendrick discusses her start in the entertainment industry at a young age, and shares memories of her early auditions, the efforts of her family to make her showbiz career possible, and her (negative) feelings towards child stars (even though she was one herself). She goes on to write about working in theatre productions, making independent films, and finally making it big with roles in movies like the popular Twilight saga (2008 – 2011), her Academy Award-nominated performance in Up in the Air (2009), and the commercially successful Pitch Perfect series (2012 – present).

Driven by her sarcastic, self-deprecating style, Scrappy Little Nobody finds the author sharing stories from the various stages of her life in a candid manner. But the tone makes you feel like she is trying a little too hard to seem charming and relatable. While there are times that the actress’s humour really does shine through, there are also plenty of moments where the jibes just feel forced or simply fall flat. The writer’s constant search for a punch line also makes it hard for the reader to get an intimate look at the author who seems to be hiding behind a wall of sneer. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Kendrick doesn’t let her words paint her portrait – she insists on constantly telling us about herself and her personality instead of letting us get to know her through her anecdotes and stories.

Also, there is not much substance in the book, and most of her discussions remain surface level. The fairly young entertainer seems to have lived a relatively regular, conflict-free life, so there don’t appear to be any particularly remarkable or unusual stories she can share with us.

To her credit, Kendrick never claims that her book has any depth, and states early on that she has “no advice” for readers. “I do have a truckload of opinions,” she adds, “which I will happily prattle on about to anyone who gives me an opening”, which is precisely what she does. The writer describes the contents of the book as being “for entertainment purposes only”, and if you’re a fan of her work and particularly her tweets, then it is likely that you will enjoy her sassy style and find the book entertaining. But it is hard to deny the fact that she could have made her essays a lot more interesting and compelling.

The Tony and Oscar nominated performer could have delved deeper into the topics she braces, or at least shared more stories from her acting gigs and interactions with other Hollywood stars. But even when she talks about working on her most well known projects, she generally doesn’t go into much detail; there are, however, times when she does choose to discuss something uninteresting at length and just comes off as dull. Kendrick mentions some of her co-stars – like George Clooney, Kristen Stewart, and Zac Efron – but you can’t discern much about them from her brief remarks. She discusses her love life in more detail than necessary though, and both her content and language often seem crude and unnecessarily profane.

Ultimately, Scrappy Little Nobody is a light, mildly enjoyable read, but it simply isn’t as delightful as you’d hope based on how charming Anna Kendrick seems on screen. Her uninhibited, rambling style does make you feel like you’re hanging out with an overly chatty friend, albeit a friend who doesn’t have anything particularly substantial to say. The book reads like a formulaic femoir, but fans will still enjoy the stories she shares from her personal life as well as from award shows and film sets. Everyone else, however, will probably be better off giving this one a pass. The actress needs to get more life experience and develop more maturity as a writer. Towards the end of the volume, she says she’ll “write another book when [she’s] seventy”. Maybe that one will actually be worth reading.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 9th April, 2017 *

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Boss Baby - predictable and forgettable

movie review

The Boss Baby 

Starring: Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi, Miles Bakshi, Jimmy Kimmel, Lisa Kudrow, Tobey Maguire
Directed by: Tom McGrath
Tagline: Born leader.

The addition of a tiny new member to a family is bound to change the dynamics of a household. A newborn demands a lot of adjustment from everyone, and this change can often be particularly hard on the firstborn who goes from being an only child to an elder sibling who is no longer the centre of his parents’ world.

That’s the predicament that befalls Tim Templeton (voiced by Miles Christopher Bakshi), a 7-year-old with an overactive imagination, whose life changes with the arrival of his baby brother.

The titular Boss Baby (Alec Baldwin) shows up at the Templeton house and immediately takes up all of his parents’ (Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow) love, time, and attention, leaving Tim feeling ignored. The newcomer instantly has his parents “wrapped around his chubby little finger”, much to the chagrin of his older brother. The peculiar baby wears a suit, carries a briefcase, and, as Tim soon realizes, can talk like an adult.

It turns out that the bossy toddler is actually a middle management employee at Baby Corp, and has been sent to the world on a mission to stop rival Puppy Co. from launching their newest puppy, as the adorable little canines have been stealing the babies’ share of love.

With each preposterous plot development, The Boss Baby moves away from its sibling rivalry premise and instead focuses more on its babies-versus-puppies mission storyline. And that’s precisely how the movie ends up losing its way. The film wanders from its relatable basic premise and ventures into a bizarre universe that it jumps through hoops to make sense of. The result is more tiresome and predictable than amusing or exciting.

The Boss Baby draws its core inspiration from author and illustrator Marla Frazee’s 2010 picture book of the same name, but then struggles to sustain its charm. Director Tom McGrath (who has previously co-helmed the Madagascar series) has created an animated adventure that tries to please its younger audience with silly slapstick while it makes the effort to amuse grownups with corporate management humour and pop culture references. But its convoluted story is just too weak to capture the interest of anyone but small children.

The voice cast, though competent, doesn’t bring anything memorable to this mediocre animated comedy. Baldwin is the only one who really stands out; both his style and character remind you of his 30 Rock, Jack Donaghy days. Bakshi is charming as the Boss Baby’s older brother. But Kimmel and Kudrow give unexceptional performances here (although that might be because the material they have to work with is unexceptional to begin with). Also on hand is Tobey Maguire, who provides the voice for adult Tim and is amicable but bland as the narrator of the tale. Even the generally remarkable Steve Buscemi is forgettable here as the Puppy Co. CEO antagonist.

Ultimately, this DreamWorks feature doesn’t have the magic of Disney or the emotional resonance of Pixar, but it will keep younger viewers occupied with its colourful animation and silly fun for 90 odd minutes while giving their parents the occasional chuckle on its way to its predictable conclusion.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune Blogs - 4th April, 2017 *

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Life - a waste of space

movie review

Life

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya
Directed by: Daniel Espinosa
Tagline: We were better off alone.

The possibility of life on Mars has been a source of endless fascination for us Earthlings. The existence of extraterrestrial beings along with its worst case implications form the basis of the thriller Life, a sci-fi horror vehicle that pairs a talented cast with a routine plot to yield mediocre results.

The action takes place on board the International Space Station, where a six member crew – portrayed by actors Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, and Olga Dihovichnaya – capture a capsule returning from Mars. Upon studying the Red Planet’s soil samples, the astronauts find a dormant organism that they manage to revive. But their excitement at the discovery of the “first incontrovertible proof of life beyond Earth” soon dampens as the initially single-celled being quickly grows and evolves into a vicious predator, escapes its containment, and starts feasting on the crew.

Stranded in space and hunted by the mutated monster, the astronauts struggle for survival as the creature chases them all over the orbital station.

It’s a claustrophobic setting tossed into the infinite vastness of space, and the result is both tense and stale. At its core, Life is basically a generic monster flick that doesn’t try to be inventive with its plot and sticks to a well-worn path. Like an amalgam of Alien and Gravity, Life keeps revisiting familiar territories, but Daniel Espinosa’s space adventure does offer some suspense and manages to avoid several clichés along the way.

The characters aren’t particularly well-developed or interesting, but the multinational cast that plays them is impressive, and to be fair, the order in which the individuals get picked off isn’t as predictable as it often is in such movies. But the entire project suffers from an overall lack of originality, and its inability to bring anything new to the genre makes the film feel redundant.

Ultimately, there is nothing special about the story or script of Life. The movie is well cast and visually impressive, but too derivative. You will probably enjoy the film if you don’t expect too much from this sci-fi horror flick and are content with a routine thriller.

Rating: 3 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune Blogs - 5th April, 2017 *

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Miss Sloane - talented cast, unconvincing drama

movie review

Miss Sloane

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Stuhlbarg, Alison Pill, Jake Lacy, John Lithgow, and Sam Waterston
Directed by: John Madden
Tagline: Make sure you surprise them.

With commanding performances in movies like Take Shelter (2011), The Help (2011), The Tree of Life (2011), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and A Most Violent Year (2014), actress Jessica Chastain has established herself as one of the most impressive leading ladies in Hollywood. Her acting talents are the main asset of the film Miss Sloane, a political thriller that benefits from Chastain’s ability to captivate the audience but, despite her best efforts, still isn’t quite as compelling as one would have hoped.

The movie explores the events surrounding the senate hearing of Elizabeth Sloane (Chastain), a high-power, workaholic lobbyist who she isn’t afraid of playing dirty to achieve her goals.

Driven, ambitious, ruthless, and very successful, Sloane’s entire life revolves around her work. But when she finds herself being forced to lobby for the firearm industry, she quits her job and joins a rival firm which is working in favour of a universal background checks bill. She squares off against her now-former employer, with both parties working on the opposite side of the issue and trying to one up each other in order to sway the vote in their direction.

It’s an interesting premise built around a polarizing topic, but how events unfold and the extent to which each party transgresses doesn’t quite ring true. The way Sloane treats people and the rate at which she burns bridges, for instance, makes it hard to believe her level of success.

Director John Madden has crafted a sleek and stylish drama but hasn’t imbued it with the depth that could have made the film more intriguing. The problem primarily lies with the script. It seems as if writer Jonathan Perera is constantly trying to emulate Aaron Sorkin – an impression made all the more apparent by the casting of The Newsroom’s Alison Pill and Sam Waterston in prominent roles – and consistently falling short.

Better writing could have made Elizabeth Sloane’s character more convincing. Instead, Chastain often has to rely on her considerable charm to make the protagonist more compelling, and even though she does rise to the challenge, her performance feels a little monochromatic because the filmmakers simply don’t give her the chance to exhibit her range and employ the subtlety that she excels at.

Chastain is supported by a very accomplished group of actors – which includes Mark Strong, Michael Stuhlbarg, John Lithgow, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw who in particular stands out in the role of Sloane’s colleague and a school shooting survivor – but even the efforts of a terrific cast can’t hide the shortcomings of the film. Ultimately Miss Sloane is just an uneven political drama that takes itself too seriously and doesn’t make the most of its fascinating setting and interesting plot.

Rating: 3 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune Blogs - 1st April, 2017 *

Friday, March 03, 2017

The Boss Baby preview

trailer review

The Boss Baby

If you’ve ever had the misfortune of watching the ‘90s (supposed) comedy film Baby Geniuses (1999), then you’ll be forgiven for being wary of movies with talking baby protagonists. So it comes as quite a surprise – and relief – that even though at first glance the upcoming The Boss Baby may seem like an animated rehash of the aforementioned cinematic atrocity, its trailer promises an altogether different, significantly funnier adventure.

The plot of the film revolves around the impact that the addition of a new bundle of joy has on a family.

The new arrival in this case is the Boss Baby (voiced by Alec Baldwin), a suit-clad, briefcase-carrying infant who joins the Templeton family, much to the dismay of seven-year-old Tim (Miles Bakshi), who sees his parents’ – Mr. and Mrs. Templeton (Jimmy Kimmel and Lisa Kudrow) – focus shift from him to his little brother.

While trying to win back their affection, Tim discovers that his newest family member can actually talk. The Baby, it turns out, is on a mission to find out why there isn’t enough love to go around anymore. The brothers will supposedly have to set aside their rivalry in order to restore the balance of love and make things right.

The voice cast seems impressive, even though Alec Baldwin’s involvement (as well as the character design) inevitably lead to Donald Trump comparisons.

The basic premise of the film – which is loosely based on Marla Frazee’s 2010 picture book of the same name – may not feel very inventive but it does have the potential of resonating with viewers, especially those with younger siblings.

While it remains to be seen how well the conspiracy elements will fare, The Boss Baby does seem to be quite amusing in the clips that focus on the family aspects of the story and the dynamics between the two brothers. As long as the mission storyline doesn’t degenerate into inanity, this DreamWorks Animation offering could potentially be quite entertaining.

- Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune Blogs - 3rd March, 2017 *

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Great Wall - Hollywood marries Chinese mythology to yield unexciting results

movie review

The Great Wall

Starring: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau
Director: Zhang Yimou
Tagline: 1700 years to build. 5500 miles long. What were they trying to keep out?

The East and the West have teamed up for the monster flick The Great Wall, a CGI-drenched big budget actionfest that comes off as nothing more than a wasted opportunity.

The Chinese-American co-production tries to marry Hollywood blockbuster sensibilities with Chinese mythology but forgets to add anything compelling to the mix.

The premise revolves around the legend that the Great Wall of China was constructed as a barrier against the Tao Tei – a horde of alien monsters that rise every 60 years as a reminder of what happens when greed is unchecked. Two European mercenaries – William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) – stumble across this secret after running into one of these dinosaur-like creatures while searching for “black powder” in China. But when they are captured by soldiers of the Nameless Order – a military division that specializes in fighting the Tao Tei – and find themselves under attack from these vicious beasts, the foreigners must decide whether they want to help the locals by joining the resistance or steal the black powder and escape with the help of fellow prisoner Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe) while the soldiers are occupied in battle.

How things unfold is an exercise in predictability. It’s hard to care about or be invested in anything that happens in The Great Wall. The plot is dull, the script is weak, the characters are unengaging, and the performances are lacklustre. Damon’s accent is all over the place. The female lead, Jing Tian, who plays the part of the unit’s commander, isn’t exactly going to win an Oscar for her acting. And Dafoe is completely wasted in his half-baked role.

Director Zhang Yimou keeps delivering non-stop action, probably to cover up the fact that nothing interesting is actually happening here. Ultimately, it’s a pity that so much money (the movie reportedly had a $150 million budget) and effort (there are a couple of standout visuals and sequences that clearly took a fair amount of work) was squandered on such an unexciting project. If only the filmmakers had focused a little less on CGI-driven action and more on character development and a better script, they might have been able to come up with something that was actually enjoyable.

Rating: 2 out of 5

- Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune Blogs - 21 February, 2017 *