Sunday, January 14, 2018

Haroon returns with another animated adventure


After the massive international success of the animated series Burka Avenger, singer Haroon Rashid recently launched another animated show, Teetoo and Tania. Aimed at children, the new series showcases some of Pakistan’s most prominent personalities and highlights social messages along the way.

We chatted with the artist – who is the founder and CEO of Unicorn Black, the production company behind these animated programs – about his latest venture.

Instep: Tell us about your new animated television series, Teetoo and Tania.
I am very excited about this new show.  The quality of animation is on par with top international animation productions, and the episodes themselves are highly entertaining and have strong, positive social messages.
The premise is a lot of fun. Teetoo is an alien bureaucrat that works for the Galactic Council. The Council has identified Earthlings as a threat to the very existence of the Universe due to their penchant for aggression and war. Teetoo surveys planet Earth and determines that it should be exterminated. Pakistan is the only country left to survey. He crash lands in the backyard of Tania, a 16 year old Pakistan girl, who rushes out to help him. Touched by her kindness, he advises her to leave Earth.
Tania is shocked and takes it upon herself to change Teetoo’s mind. And so begins Tania’s stories. In each episode, Tania tells Teetoo about a different Pakistani hero or role model. As Teetoo listens to these stories, he is forced to reconsider his assessment of planet Earth.

Instep: What inspired you to create this show?
Haroon: With Burka Avenger I was highlighting a fictional role model.  I thought it would be great to do a show about real life Pakistani heroes and role models.
At a time where there is much negativity about Pakistan in the media and press, this show aims to highlight Pakistani heroes and role models to inspire the youth of Pakistan. Furthermore, the series projects a positive image of Pakistan to the world. The show highlights heroes such as Edhi, who is considered one of the world’s greatest humanitarians, and Aitzaz Hasan, a school boy who sacrificed his life to prevent a suicide bomber attacking a school. Other well-known heroes include Muniba Mazari, Mushtaq Chappra (founder TCF), and many others.

Instep: Could you please tell us about the making of the show?
Haroon: The show was made at Unicorn Black, the animation production company I founded in 2012. The team had a lot of fun working on the show. Ali Safina was the voice of Teetoo, the alien. And Sara Rubab, who voiced Ashu in Burka Avenger, was the voice for Tania.
I have been a fan of Ali Safina’s work for a number of years especially his Milk Sheikh caricature. I wanted someone who can really create a character which sounds and acts from another world and he did that. So grateful for the amazing job he did.
Sara Rubab was also just brilliant as Tania. She is very smart and when we gave her the briefing, she went home and practised overnight and then next day just nailed it.
Animation is a collaborative effort. It takes a huge team to put together such a project. Nida Rehman was our production manager, Maryam Arqem our art director along with Yousuf Ejaz. Arif was our lead animator, and Zeeshan was our editor. Ommer was one of our key scriptwriters. This just a few of the 20 or so talented people that worked on Teetoo and Tania.
The quality of Teetoo and Tania is far superior to Burka Avenger. We set out to do that and we successfully achieved that. We actually animated the first episode twice. We spent a couple of months animating it and then we were like, you know what, we can do way better, let’s not compromise.  And the only way to improve it was for us to build the 3D models of the characters from scratch. So we went and did that. It was a long and arduous journey but one we thoroughly enjoyed.

Instep: Burka Avenger was a huge success and was broadcast locally and internationally.  Has it been difficult or easy to sell Pakistani animated kids shows to channels in Pakistan? Abroad?
Haroon: Burka Avenger won multiple awards and received press accolades worldwide and in Pakistan. The show aired on multiple TV channels in Pakistan and abroad; the show was dubbed into over 10 languages. When the show was released in Indonesia on ANTV last year it was the number one watched show in the 5 to 14 age demographic. For me this is a testament to Pakistani talent that the show was loved by people all over the world.
Teetoo and Tania is a project which is very Pakistani centric because each episode highlights real life Pakistani heroes and role models. However we have subtitled all the episodes in English and are uploading them online. This will give the rest of the world the ability to see all the wonderful work and sacrifices these real life Pakistani heroes have made. Pakistan suffers an image problem and it is up to all of us in our media to show the rest of the world a more balanced picture of Pakistan. The show is airing on PTV and all the episodes are available to view online as well to reach a world-wide audience.
If you have a quality production, then it is always easy to sell your show locally and abroad.

Instep: Unicorn Black is focusing on creating entertainment for children at the moment. Are there any projects – animated or otherwise – aimed at adults that are also in the works?
Haroon: I am very interested in working on projects for an older audience. I am full of ideas and stories for movies. At this point, we have just completed Teetoo and Tania so now we are deciding whether we should plan a full length animated feature film or dive into live action.

Instep: Is there a reason you have gravitated towards television instead of going for the big screen, like Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy has done with her 3 Bahadur series?
Haroon: I think with the success of Burka Avenger, it just made sense to do another animated TV series. It certainly was challenging. I directed and produced 52 episodes of 22 minutes each of Burka Avenger with my team at Unicorn Black. No animated project like this has ever been attempted before in Pakistan. This was over 1,100 minutes of animation. Most animated movies are not longer than 100 minutes.

Instep: You had a great run with Burka Avenger. What does the future hold for that character?
Haroon: I am super excited to announce we are working on a new Burka Avenger related project. No, not the movie. Something else that I am very excited about. I will reveal more details in the coming months.

Instep: What about your music career? Any development on that front?
Haroon: That is the golden question everyone keeps asking me. My music career did take a backseat as I jumped into animation production as well as working to create the Taazi music app. When I pick up my guitar and jam, I realise there is nothing else in the world that brings me as much joy as making music. But 2018 is the year I will release new music.
Last year, for August 14th, I launched a revamped version of my song ‘Dil Say Pakistan’ with Muniba Mazari and Javed Bashir. It received over 7 million views online, much to my shock and pleasant surprise. I thought the Pakistani music scene was dead. It is past the glory days, but there is still a strong demand. Pakistani TV channels and radio unfortunately mainly broadcast Indian and English content, so Pakistani artists have to turn to online avenues.

Instep: Are there any other projects you’re working on at the moment? What can we expect from you in the coming months?
Haroon: I am one of those people who is always working on something. My brain is always ticking along. Some of the crazy ideas will see the light of day; some may not. Hopefully some of them will go on to be successful and others may crash and burn. But the main idea is to passionately keep pursuing my dreams and use creativity, media, entertainment, and art as agent for positive change in this world.

- Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 14th January, 2018 *

Saturday, January 13, 2018

MMXVII - sigh

cover story

Say what you will about 2017 but you have to admit one thing: it could have been way worse. To be fair, the poor year never really had a shot at being normal, what with the omnishambles it inherited from its predecessor, 2016. Irrespective of the strife though, humanity continued stumbling on, one peculiar day at a time, not sure where it was collectively going, but adamant as all heck to get there post-haste. Our resilience was tested, but, to our credit, our spirit was never broken.

Here’s a quick look at the salient events that shaped our world during the last twelve months:

•    Donald Trump’s inauguration: 2017 decided to officially appoint a reality television personality as the President of the United States early on in the year so that everything else that happened from then on would seem less bizarre in comparison. With Hilary still sulking about Wikileaks, Russian intervention, and the curse of the Deplorables, Donald Trump was inaugurated in January and immediately started ruffling feathers, starting with a travel ban on citizens from several Muslim-majority countries. Trump also withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (January), the Paris Agreement on climate change (June), and UNESCO (October). And for an encore, 45 decided to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (December) because no hornet’s nest should be left unpoked. Protests and marches – some in record numbers – ensued.
•    Parachinar bombing: Senseless acts of violence broke our hearts a number of times during the year as the menace of terrorism sadly continued to plague the world, including our country. An explosion at a vegetable market claimed 25 innocent lives in Parachinar (January). A suicide bombing at the Shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalander resulted in the deaths of over 90 people in Sehwan (February). 18 lives were lost in an attack on the Mall Road (February) and 26 people were killed in another bombing in a vegetable market (July) in Lahore. A series of bombings led to over 90 deaths in Quetta and Parachinar (June). And an attack by suicide bombers on a church left nine people dead in Quetta (December).

•    North Korea crisis: Under the leadership of His Supremeness Marshal Kim Jong-un The Amazing, North Korea conducted several missile and then nuclear tests throughout the year, and ended up trading barbs with His Orangeness Donald Trump as the situation escalated.  Meanwhile, the Jong-un-est-of-them-all continued his mission to systematically exterminate all humanity – including his own family members (allegedly having his elder half-brother Kim Jong-nam assassinated in Malaysia in February), tourists (American student Otto Warmbier, released in a comatose state after 17 months in captivity in North Korea, died in June six days after his return to the U.S.), and anyone who dared question or doubt His Awesomeness – a quest that so far hasn’t been entirely fulfilled, much to his chagrin.
•    89th Academy Awards: First La La Land won the Best Picture award. Then, two minutes later, Moonlight won the Best Picture award. And then everyone spent the rest of the year arguing about whether La La Land or Moonlight should have won the Best Picture award.
The other main winners at the ceremony included Damien Chazelle (Best Director, La La Land), Casey Affleck (Best Actor, Manchester by the Sea), Emma Stone (Best Actress, La La Land), Mahershala Ali (Best Supporting Actor, Moonlight), and Viola Davis (Best Supporting Actress, Fences).

•    Pippa Middleton’s wedding: The sister of a woman who married a man who is the son of the son of a woman whose ancestors somehow managed to convince their country that they were superior to everyone else … married some rich guy. This classified as news in 2017.
Also, the aforementioned woman who married a man who is the son of the son of the woman who just happened to be born into a posh family … conceived another child. This qualified as a noteworthy piece of information in 2017 (September).
Also, the brother of the aforementioned man who is the son of the son of the woman who heads an archaic and utterly irrelevant institution … got engaged to a subpar actress. This made headlines in 2017 (November).
All of which leaves us to wonder … maybe nuclear annihilation by North Korea wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all.
•    Famine in Western Asia and Africa: Up to 20 million people faced the risk of starvation and famine in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, and Nigeria, the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II. But enough about that. Let’s talk about the British royals some more. What shade of lipstick should Meghan wear at her wedding? Discuss.

•    Mashal Khan lynching: Student Mashal Khan was killed on the premises of the Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan by a mob over fake allegations of posting blasphemous content online in an incident so shocking that it baffles just to think about the fact that members of our own species are capable of such barbaric brutality.
•    Nangarhar airstrike: With the goal of destroying tunnels being used by Islamic State militants, the United States dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb in its arsenal, the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) – a.ka. the Mother of All Bombs – in the Achin District in eastern Afghanistan, because it is obviously a good idea to drop a 21,000 pound bomb somewhere – anywhere – on this planet. A very sensible and responsible move, America. Thumbs up!
•    Fidget spinner popularity: Glorified ball bearings took over the world with the mystifying popularity of fidget spinners. Sales of the toy that supposedly relieves stress spiked as the phenomenon conquered the globe. Everyone and their dog succumbed to the craze, leaving the rest of us scoffing at the popularity of this utterly ridiculous fad ... while gleefully twirling the spinner in our own hands.
•    ‘Despacito’ remix release: Puerto Rican singers Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee released the song ‘Despacito’ in January and it became a minor hit that would have come and gone like countless songs before it … until April, when stupid Justin Bieber appeared on a stupid remix of that stupid song and sent it through the stratosphere, making sure we had to listen to it fifty million times a day over the next few months. And now, if we ever hear even a damn snippet of that damn song again, we are going to punch someone in the face.

•    Manchester Arena bombing: A bomb detonated as concertgoers were leaving the Manchester Arena following a gig by American singer Ariana Grande; 22 people were killed and 512 injured. Two weeks later, Grande returned with many of her famous friends to host One Love Manchester, a benefit concert that saw the city come together in a beautiful show of solidarity and resilience.
Music fans were also targeted in America in October, when a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers in Las Vegas, killing 58 and injuring 546 in the deadliest mass shooting by a lone gunman in U.S. history.
Other horrors caused by terrorists during 2017 included two simultaneous attacks in Tehran, Iran (17 dead, 43 wounded) in June; a massive blast caused by a truck bombing in Mogadishu, Somalia (512 killed, 316 injured) in October; and a mosque attack in Sinai, Egypt (305 worshippers killed, over 100 wounded) in November.

•    2017 ICC Champions Trophy: Relishing our unending ability to confuse the cricketing world with our consistently inconsistent form, Pakistan won the 2017 Champions Trophy. The cherry on the unexpected victory sundae? Beating India in the final. By 180 runs! The largest margin ever in the final of an ICC ODI tournament!
Yes. Really.
The Pakistani cricket team – mastering the art of unpredictability since 1952.

•    Chester Bennington’s death: Depression extinguished another bright, beautiful light when Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington committed suicide at the age of 41, two months after the suicide of his friend Chris Cornell who died at the age of 53.
Now would be a good time to go hug your loved ones. I’ll wait …
Done? Good.
•    Nawaz Sharif disqualification: With the Sharif clan under investigation for various corruption charges (to the absolute shock of absolutely no one), the leader of PML-N Nawaz Sharif was disqualified and barred from public office, leading to his resignation from the position of the Prime Minister of Pakistan, helping the country maintain its hundred per cent record of uncompleted tenures – not a single prime minister of the country has ever managed to finish their five year term in the country’s 70 year history.

•    Neutron star collision: I was searching, you were on a mission, then our hearts combined like a neutron star colli … wait, we aren’t talking about the Muse song? This one was an astronomy breakthrough with the first observation of an actual collision of two neutron stars? Oh. Oh well. *goes back to humming the Muse tune*
•    Rohingya persecution in Myanmar: The Myanmar military’s crackdown on Rohingya people, mostly Muslims, forced an estimated 600,000 refugees to flee the country. Nearly 6,700 Rohingya were killed in August. The situation drew criticism and condemnation around the world, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, was widely criticized for her passivity on the issue.
•    Ruth Pfau’s death: The extraordinary Ruth Pfau, the German-born Pakistani humanitarian who established 157 leprosy clinics across Pakistan, passed away in August at the age of 87.
•    Hurricanes: Nature’s fury unleashed in August, as the Category 4 Hurricane Harvey struck the United States causing catastrophic damage. The following month, the Category 5 Hurricane Irma hit the Caribbean, followed two weeks later by the Category 5 Hurricane Maria that struck Dominica and Puerto Rico, all causing deaths, damages, and destruction.

•    ʻOumuamua’s visit: The unpronounceable ʻOumuamua asteroid became the first known interstellar object to pass through our Solar System. Scientists discovered it in September when it was already heading away from the Sun. The asteroid is assumed to have looked at the condition of planet Earth from a distance and just said “nope” before quickly deciding to make a swift 20,000 year exit from our Solar System.
Meanwhile, Cassini–Huygens completed its very successful 13-year mission to study Saturn and its satellites, ending its voyage in September – nearly 20 years after it was launched – by plunging into the ringed planet.
•    iPhone X announced: Apple unveiled its most expensive smartphone, iPhone X (ten), marking the tenth anniversary of the iconic device. The smartphone was announced in September and released in November, giving us two months to come up with its US$1000 price money which was easy enough to do because who needed that second kidney anyway.
•    Punjab Nahi Jaungi release: Romantic comedy Punjab Nahi Jaungi was met with positive reviews upon its release and ultimately ended up becoming not only the most successful Pakistani film of the year but also the most successful Pakistani film of all time. Directed by Nadeem Beyg, the Lollywood hit has raked in an estimated PKR50 crore (~US$4.5 million). Other prominent local releases of 2017 included the comedy sequel Na Maloom Afraad 2 (September), the long-delayed Yalghaar (June), the middling Mehrunisa V Lub U (June), and the controversial Verna (November).

•    Harvey Weinstein scandal: A barrage of sexual abuse allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein led to his ouster from his film company. The dozens of woman who took a stand against Weinstein also inspired other victims to come forward and expose their abusers, sparking the global #MeToo movement and setting off a wave of similar misconduct allegations against other powerful men in every field. In America, actors (including Kevin Spacey, Jeffrey Tambor, Louis C.K.), filmmakers (Brett Ratner, James Toback), television figures (Charlie Rose, Mark Halperin, Matt Lauer), politicians (John Conyers, Al Franken, Roy Moore), and chefs (Mario Batali, John Besh) were among the many, many men who were accused of inappropriate behaviour and most of whom were removed from their positions; meanwhile, a man accused of sexual misconduct and unwanted advances by more than a dozen women continued to be the president of the country.
In Pakistan, former PTI member MNA Ayesha Gulalai accused the party’s leader Imran Khan (August) of harassment and was instantly subjected to victim blaming and shaming in a textbook display of #WhyWomenDontComeForward. The scenario pretty much repeated itself when Ayesha Ahad spoke about PML-N MPA Hamza Shahbaz’s alleged abuse (August). And Pakistan women’s national hockey team’s former goalkeeper Syeda Sadia accused the team’s head coach, Saeed Khan, of harassment (October); her teammate, Iqra Javed, came forward in her support and was promptly dropped from the squad.

•    Iran-Iraq earthquake: A devastating 7.3 magnitude earthquake in the border region between Iraq and Iran left at least 530 dead and over 70,000 homeless. Earlier in the year (September), a magnitude 7.1 earthquake in central Mexico killed more than 350, left up to 6,000 injured, and thousands more homeless.
•    Robert Mugabe resignation: The 37 year rule of the tyrannical Robert Mugabe ended after he was forced to resign from the presidency following military intervention in Zimbabwe because all bad things must come to an end.
•    Paradise Papers leak: 13.4 million confidential documents leaked from the Appleby law firm revealed the offshore financial activities on behalf of politicians, corporate giants, business leaders, and celebrities. The revelation that rich people and companies avoid millions and billions of dollars in taxes using offshore companies did not surprise anyone anywhere.
•    New orangutan species discovery: A small population of orangutans in South Tapanuli was identified as a distinct species in 2017. With only 800 individuals, the Tapanuli orangutan became the rarest great ape in the world.
•    Faizabad sit-in: A dharna over the changes in the Elections Bill 2017 brought the country to a brief standstill.
•    Salvator Mundi sale: Salvator Mundi, a painting that either was or wasn’t – but, like, really wasn’t – painted by Leonardo da Vinci was sold for US$450 million at an auction in New York, setting a new record for the most money ever wasted most expensive painting ever sold. The artwork was purchased by a Saudi prince on behalf of the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture & Tourism and will be on display at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
•    Reputation release: Fuelled by her beefs with Kimye, Katy Perry, her many, many exs, and seemingly about half of the world’s population, Taylor Swift made Reputation (one of the songs on which featured her friend Ed Sheeran, who also had a big year with his uber-popular album ÷). It became the highest selling album of the year within weeks of its release, leaving us to ask … where’s that North Korean missile when you need it? #JustKidding #ChoosePacifismEven WhenTheyMakeYourEarsBleed #WhyAmIUsingHashtagsInAnArticleLikeACompleteMoron?
Speaking of morons, the members of The Recording Academy thought Adele’s 25 was better than Beyoncé’s Lemonade, giving the Album of the Year award to the Brit (one of her five wins) at the 59th Annual Grammy Awards earlier in the year (February). Even Adele was baffled by their ridiculousness and pretty much Kanyed herself in her acceptance speech by acknowledging at length just how “monumental” Beyoncé’s record was.

•    Star Wars: The Last Jedi release: The money minting machine that is the Star Wars franchise gave us its VIIIth instalment in the year’s most anticipated cinematic release: Star Wars: The Last Jedi. By the time you read these words, the film will have grossed approximately one umptysquiddlyzillion US dollars.
The other big successes of the year included Beauty and the Beast ($1.26 billion worldwide gross), The Fate of the Furious ($1.239 billion), and Despicable Me 3 ($1.033 billion).
•    ISIS defeat: It was the beginning of the end of ISIS’s self-styled caliphate in the Middle East, as Iraq’s territory was "fully liberated" from "ISIS terrorist gangs", so at least something good came out of the year.

Women continued persisting; Britain continued Brexiting; fake news continued spreading; and the world continued spinning in 2017.

Here’s hoping 2018 brings with it less divisiveness, more happiness, and better tiding all around.

Happy New Year, everyone!

(Now go hug your loved ones once again.)

- Sameen Amer

Us Magazine, The News -  29th December, 2017 *

Most anticipated albums of 2018 (part II)

music mix

In this concluding chapter, we look at artists across genres, from pop, rock, hip hop, or indie, who have promised new records.

Cardi B
Her meteoric rise last year on the back of the surprise summer hit ‘Bodak Yellow’ turned Belcalis Almanzar – a.k.a. Cardi B – into hip hop’s most prominent newcomer. The rapper will try to prove that her debut single was no fluke and cement her place in the industry with the release of her first album this year. The record’s second single, ‘Bartier Cardi’ (featuring 21 Savage), came out a few weeks ago, with an album set to arrive later this year.

Death Cab for Cutie
“LP9 // 2018,” indie rock icons Death Cab for Cutie announced in a post on Instagram a few months ago, which means the group’s ninth album should be with us sometime soon. This will be the band’s first set without guitarist Chris Walla who announced that he was leaving the group during the production of their previous effort, Kintsugi (2015).

Father John Misty
After receiving critical acclaim for 2017’s Pure Comedy, Josh Tillman has already created its follow-up. Written over a six-week period while he was staying at a hotel and produced by Jonathan Rado, Tillman has described the forthcoming LP as “a heartache album”. Song titles for this new record reportedly include ‘Ouch, I’m Drowning’, ‘Dum Dum Blues’, ‘Mr Tillman, Please Exit The Lobby’, and ‘Well, We’re Only People And There’s Nothing Much We Can Do About It’.

Fans won’t have to wait seven years this time for a new Gorillaz album. After a much-publicized fall-out led to a long break for the British group, Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett eventually reunited their virtual band to create 2017’s Humanz. And now they seem to be making up for lost time, as a follow-up to their comeback record is already in the works and slated for a 2018 release. Details may still be scant, but a “new direction” has been promised by the duo, both sonically and visually.

Nicki Minaj
For a while it seemed like Nicki Minaj could release the follow-up to The Pinkprint (2014) in 2017, especially when she dropped three singles – ‘Changed It’ featuring Lil Wayne, ‘No Frauds’ featuring Wayne and Drake, and ‘Regret In Your Tears’ – on the same day. But the Trinidadian-born American rapper’s much anticipated fourth record has yet to surface. 2018 could finally be the year the album lands in stores, and the best-selling female rapper of all time is promising an epic new era for her fans, claiming that her next record will be her best work yet.

Selena Gomez
2017 was a year of ups and downs for Selena Gomez. While the singer struggled with personal and health issues, the songs she released – ‘Bad Liar’, ‘Fetish’, and ‘Wolves’ – did signal more growth for her as an artist as she experimented with her sound and tried to make some interesting pop music. These singles are expected to lead to an album in 2018, and while there is no release date yet, the singer has confirmed that she will be coming up with more new music this year.

The 1975
Their second album, I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It, was deemed by many to be one of the best releases of 2016. Now The 1975 will hope to continue their impressive streak with their third album, Music for Cars, which will come out this year. Frontman Matt Healy has hinted that the record will include songs titled ‘Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America’, ‘It’s Not Living (If It’s Not with You)’, and ‘I Always Wanna Die, Sometimes’.

- Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 13th January, 2018 *

Friday, January 12, 2018

Most anticipated albums of 2018 (part I)

music mix

Each year brings with it the promise of brand new music from some of the biggest and most celebrated artists in the world, and 2018 is no different. Whether you enjoy pop, rock, hip hop, or indie, this year has something (potentially) exciting in store for you. Here’s a look at some of the bands and singers who are expected to unveil their new records this year.

Arctic Monkeys 
We haven’t heard from the Arctic Monkeys since 2013’s critically acclaimed AM, but the group’s hiatus has now come to a close as the band members – who were busy with side projects – have reunited and are back in the studio to work on their sixth album. While there hasn’t been any official announcement yet, photos have emerged of the English rock band working on their upcoming record in Los Angeles, and new material is expected from them this year.

Ariana Grande
Ariana Grande is planning to once again rule the pop charts when she returns with new music in 2018. The singer is currently working on her fourth album which is likely to land this year. The record will serve as the follow-up to Dangerous Woman (2016), and will be her first new set since she found herself in the middle of a horrific tragedy when her fans were targeted by a suicide bomber after her concert in Manchester last May.

Bruce Springsteen
We’ve been waiting for an album of new material from Bruce Springsteen since 2012’s Wrecking Ball, and we can only hope that 2018 will be the year The Boss decides to drop a new record. The singer – who will continue performing his Springsteen on Broadway show over the next few weeks – has reportedly been working on a solo album, which, according to his manager Jon Landau, is a very “expansive” and “rich” record. We eagerly await its release.

Jack White
Jack White has been busy with several projects of late, but it’s been four long years since he released his last solo album. All signs suggest that his next solo effort is just around the corner. The former White Stripes frontman recently uploaded a video titled ‘Servings and Portions from my Boarding House Reach’ on YouTube that featured snippets of songs that will presumably appear on the follow-up to 2014’s Lazaretto. More info, as well as the disc itself, are likely to emerge in the coming weeks/months.

Justin Timberlake
He may currently be receiving flack for wearing black to the Golden Globe just after starring in the new Woody Allen film, but Justin Timberlake will be hoping to make headlines for more positive reasons in the coming months. The former N’SYNC singer is all set to headline the Super Bowl halftime show on 4th February and will release his fifth solo album, Man of the Woods, just two days before his big performance. Timbaland and The Neptunes are the main producers of the set along with the popstar himself. First single, the electro funk tune ‘Filthy’, is already out, and the album will also feature collaborations with Alicia Keys and Chris Stapleton.

Kanye West
Kanye West was missing from the music scene for much of 2017, stepping away from the limelight to take a much-needed break. If the grapevine is to be believed, the rapper will return to the spotlight in 2018. No official announcement yet on when Kanye’s new music will reach our ears or whether his eighth record will still be titled Turbo Grafx 16 (like he stated two years ago, only weeks after the release of The Life of Pablo (2016)), but fans are excited that a refreshed Kanye will make a comeback very soon.

Vampire Weekend
Singer Ezra Koenig has been teasing details about Vampire Weekend’s upcoming fourth album, tentatively titled Mitsubishi Macchiato, since last year, and the record is expected to finally see the light of day in 2018. Producer Ariel Rechtshaid has been involved with the album’s production. And long-term fans will be pleased about the fact that multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij, who left the group in 2016, will also appear on some of the tracks.

- Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 12th January, 2018 *

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Greatest Showman fails to put on a show

movie review

The Greatest Showman

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, and Zendaya
Directed by: Michael Gracey

Every once in a while, a project comes along that seems to have several elements that suggest the final piece will be stellar, but then fails to turn its promising individual components  into an impressive whole. The Greatest Showman is one such film.

Based on an intriguing real-life story, starring a terrific leading man, and featuring the musical work of award winning songwriters, the movie theoretically seems like it would be an entertaining home run. But what we find instead is a shallow, hollow musical that ignores the nuances of its actual story in order to create a saccharine, sterile, feel-good tale.

At the movie’s core lies the rags-to-riches story of Phineas Taylor Barnum, a showman who turned his fortunes by creating the Barnum & Bailey Circus. The terrific Hugh Jackman stars in the lead role, with Ellis Rubin portraying the younger version of the character.

The film charts Barnum’s life, from his meagre beginnings to his eventual successes. Driven by the desire to give his childhood-sweetheart-turned-wife Charity (Michelle Williams) – who came from an affluent background – and two daughters the life they deserve, the out-of-job Barnum sets up a circus showcasing “freaks” – including a bearded lady (Keala Settle) and a dwarf (Sam Humphrey) – exaggerating their oddities in order to bring in more visitors. He eventually gets side-tracked after bringing famed Swedish singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) to America before finding his way back and discovering what is really important in life.

It is all a load of drivel, of course. The opportunistic Barnum’s story seems more suited for a darker, grittier movie, not a shiny musical that paints him as a hero. Jackman, always a consummate entertainer, tries his best in the lead role, but there isn’t much he can do when his character simple isn’t very well developed. Michelle Williams is wasted in the role of Barnum’s wife. Zac Efron (who portrays a playwright who becomes Barnum's partner) and Zendaya (who portrays a trapeze artist and Efron’s character’s love interest) seem to have walked straight out of a Disney Channel film and onto The Greatest Showman’s set.

We jump from song to song, never pausing long enough to explore anything deep or meaningful. Part of the blame lies with Michael Gracey’s direction – the movie marks his feature directorial debut – and his inability to create the necessary drama and imbue it with interesting nuance, but clearly he alone isn’t responsible for this mess. There are also problems with the dull writing – Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon were in charge of the script – and busy choreography. The songs, too, fail to stand out, not because they are incompetently composed but mostly because they’ve been over-produced into similar-sounding, unmemorable tunes.

To be fair, the film is visually stylish, and its message of celebrating our differences is noble, but the vehicle that delivers this idea is too lacklustre to actually make an impact. Perhaps if the film had been telling the story of a different person and maybe just aimed at a younger audience, its cheesiness would have seemed less cloying. But Barnum’s tale deserves significantly more shades of grey in its telling and a project that is willing to be braver and take more chances instead of simply trying to appease the masses with forced inspirational fluff.

In different hands, and perhaps with a different tone, The Greatest Showman could have been much more intriguing. As it stands, however, the film, unfortunately, amounts to less than the sum of its parts.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

- Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune Blogs - 11th January, 2018 *

Monday, January 08, 2018

Can Disney live up to its own fantasy standards with The Nutcracker and the Four Realms?

trailer review

Over the decades, Disney has mastered the art of recycling popular stories and fairy tales and turning them into either animated or live-action cinematic adventures that charm audiences while ruling the box office. Their latest foray into fantasy adaptations is The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, a live-action reimagining of a Christmas classic.

Directed by Swedish filmmaker Lasse Hallström, the movie is based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by way of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s immensely popular ballet The Nutcracker. The trailer promises that Disney will put its own spin on the celebrated ballet by exploring a “dark side” to the Christmastime tale.

Mackenzie Foy (best known for portraying Renesmee Cullen in The Twilight Saga) stars as the protagonist, Clara, a young girl who finds herself on an adventure in a mysterious parallel world.

Keira Knightley looks as lovely as ever in her elaborate costume as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Plus we have Morgan Freeman wearing an eyepatch in the guise of Clara’s godfather, Drosselmeyer. Helen Mirren and ballerina Misty Copeland also appear in supporting roles.

But not much is revealed about the story in this preview; nor do we see enough of any of the principle actors to find out how well-cast they are in their respective roles.

Aesthetically though, the film seems gorgeous. There are beautiful outfits and colourful sets which suggest that Disney’s next holiday feature will be a visual treat. Plus the soaring score – James Newton Howard and Gustavo Dudamel are in charge of the music – promises to be very impactful.

On the other hand, it all just seems a little too akin to Alice in Wonderland and The Chronicles of Narnia, a comparison that befalls several epic fantasy adventures.

The film does have many of the elements that could potentially make it entertaining, but we still have a very long wait to find out how well all these elements will fit together. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms comes out in November later this year.

- Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune Blogs - 8th January 2018 *

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again - how can we resist it?

trailer review

Meryl Streep – widely regarded as one of the best actresses in the world – has starred in some terrific films. And – presumably to balance things out – she has also starred in Mamma Mia!, a shoddy jukebox musical that was basically little more than an attempt to cash in on the nostalgic draw of the popular ‘70s Swedish band ABBA.

Based on the stage musical of the same name, the 2008 movie had a flimsy storyline, uneven direction, and a cast that couldn’t even carry a tune … and yet it brought us so much campy, nonsensical joy that despite its many (many) flaws we had to admit it was a lot of fun. It didn’t come as a surprise that the romcom became a massive financial hit, and it comes as even less of a surprise that the film is now getting an inevitable sequel, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, which comes out in July this year.

A trailer for the upcoming film reveals its basic storyline – a pregnant Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) hears the story of how her mother (Streep) made something of her life all on her own – but also leaves us with so many questions.

First of all, where is Donna? Or, more precisely, where is Meryl Streep? Lily James portrays the younger version of the character in flashbacks (and, based on the trailer, seems very well cast in the role), but Streep seems absent in the present-day storyline. Is Donna – like some fans are suggesting – dead? Or is this just a red herring?

Secondly, how is Cher (who is 71) playing Streep’s (68) mother?

And finally, will they let Pierce Brosnan sing again? Please don’t let Pierce Brosnan sing again.

All signs suggest that just like the original, the sequel will also be an elaborate excuse to revisit old ABBA tunes. Familiar faces will return and familiar songs will be sung as we bask in the warmth of all the nostalgia. And even though we don’t expect Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again to be a masterpiece, how can we possibly resist it?

- Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune Blogs - 3rd January, 2018 *