Friday, December 31, 2010

MMX - a ride through 2010

cover story

Unless you’ve spent the last few decades living under a rock or vacationing in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri (or living under a rock while vacationing in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri), chances are you might have noticed that planet Earth isn’t exactly in the best shape. Every passing year has left permanent scars on the planet, and 2010 was no different. Here’s a look at the year that was:

The Backdrop
  • Terrorism: Just like the years that have gone before it, 2010 was not a big fan of peace. The year saw terrorist attacks and bombings in many parts of the world, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, Turkey, Northern Ireland, and even Sweden; attacks in various cities of Pakistan throughout the year claimed hundreds of lives. Globally, a few terrorist attempts were also thwarted, including the Times Square car bombing attempt (May) and the cargo planes bomb plot (October).
  • Natural disasters: Earthquakes, floods, typhoons, blizzards, landslides…the world experienced a number of catastrophic disasters during 2010. The worst natural disaster of the year was the Haiti earthquake (January), which claimed an estimated 230,000 lives, injured nearly 300,000, and left 1,000,000 homeless; other calamities included the Yushu, China earthquake in April (over 2,600 deaths); the Chile earthquake in February (around 520 fatalities); the Sumatra, Indonesia earthquake and tsunami in October (more than 400 casualties); and the eruptions of Mount Merapi which started in October (over 350 deaths). Also, the eruption of a mountain in Iceland disrupted air traffic in Europe (see April), while heavy monsoon rains caused extensive damage and devastation in Pakistan (see July).
  • Also, load shedding: [insert preferred expletive here]

The Events

- Year of Youth: 2010 was designated as the International Year of Youth (starting August 2010) by the United Nations. The youth of the world celebrated this by remaining generally unaware of the fact that 2010 was designated as the International Year of Youth by the United Nations. (2010 was also the International Year of Biodiversity.)
- Inauguration of Burj Khalifa: The tallest man-made structure ever built, the Burj Dubai Khalifa skyscraper in United Arab Emirates was officially opened, making it the tallest building in the world.
- Success of Avatar: Within days of its release, James Cameron’s film Avatar (2009) had been declared both as successful and as rubbish awesome as his 1997 film, Titanic. By January 2010, Avatar had surpassed Titanic to become the world’s highest grossing movie, and the first film ever to make more than $2 billion. 2010 also saw Pixar’s Toy Story 3 (released in June 2010) become the first animated film in history to make over $1 billion worldwide.

- Winter Olympics: Canada hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics, an event that was generally well received by the world. The biggest winners at the games included Canada (Gold: 14; Silver: 7; Bronze: 5), Germany (G: 10; S: 13; B: 7) and United States (G: 9; S: 15; B: 13). Pakistan made its first Winter Olympic appearance with skier Muhammad Abbas competing in the Men’s Giant Slalom event; he placed 79th, which means he wasn’t last, therefore hurray!! *confetti toss* The XIX Commonwealth Games in India (October) and XVI Asian Games in China (November) were also held in 2010; both events gave Pakistanis multiple reasons to celebrate as the country won medals in sports including wrestling, boxing, cricket, squash, and hockey.
- ROKS Cheonan sinking: A South Korean Navy ship, Cheonan, was allegedly sunk by a North Korean torpedo off the country’s west coast, killing 46 of its 104 personnel; this issue further deteriorated relations between the two countries, and the stability of the Korean peninsula would remain a cause for concern throughout the year.

- Shoaib Malik and Sania Mirza’s engagement: The Pakistani media suffered from a severe attack of TMZ syndrome at the news of Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik and Indian tennis player Sania Mirza’s engagement (and subsequent wedding in April), leading the nation to ponder important questions such as WHO CARES?!!

- Iceland volcanic eruption: The eruption of the impossible-to-pronounce Eyjafjallajökull – which possibly got its name after someone threw the letters of the alphabet into a hat and pulled out characters at random; either that or it’s Icelandic for "island mountain glacier" – left people stranded all over the place when it filled the sky with ash, causing enormous disruption to air travel in parts of Europe. The volcanic activity slowed down in a few weeks, and the eruption was declared officially over in October.
- Gulf of Mexico oil spill: An explosion at the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig resulted in the "largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry ", with thousands of gallons of oil gushing into the sea. Many efforts to stem the leak – which included stuffing the well with everything from golfballs and tyres to SpongeBob SquarePants and the souls of dead sea creatures – were unsuccessful; the leak was finally controlled in July, and the well officially sealed off in September.
- iPad: Apple launched its shiny new laptop-lite/iPod-mega tablet computer called the iPad; the gadget became a huge success. Later in the year (June), Apple released iPhone 4 which suffered from the much publicised antenna problem.
- N.W.F.P. renamed Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa: The name of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province was changed to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa after they couldn’t come up with something that was even more difficult to spell.

- Creation of synthetic genome: Scientists “created a functional synthetic genome”, successfully synthesizing "the genome of the bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides from a computer record”, and transplanting it into “the existing cell of a Mycoplasma capricolum bacterium that had had its DNA removed". I don’t have to tell you how important that is, which is good because I have no idea what it means.
- European financial crises: While parts of the world recovered from their latest encounter with recession, parts of Europe suffered from a sovereign debt crisis; Greece’s economy received a €110 billion bailout package by the Eurozone and the International Monetary Fund. Ireland would also continue to deal with its ongoing financial crisis and would get a €85 billion rescue package in November.

- FIFA World Cup: The football world cup made its way to the African continent for the first time as an invisible swarm of bees invaded the stadiums; conjecture suggests that the bees might have been upset about the annoying drone of the vuvuzelas, and claiming copyright infringement; the event also made the now-deceased Paul the most famous octopus on the planet following his 100% accurate match outcome predictions during the tournament. As for the football, Spain eventually emerged victorious, taking home the World Cup title for the first time.

- WikiLeaks and the Afghan war logs: After stirring controversy by releasing the "Collateral Murder" Baghdad airstrike footage in April, whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks published over 90,000 Afghan war documents, making Julian Assange an internationally recognized figure, and Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning – the alleged source of leak (who reportedly downloaded the information onto recordable Lady Gaga CDs by erasing the music and saving the intelligence data) – a prisoner who has since been held in solitary confinement. On the bright side, someone finally found a use for Lady Gaga CDs!
- Pakistan flood: Massive flooding took more than 1,700 lives and displaced millions following heavy monsoon rains in Pakistan; an estimated 20 million people were directly affected by the flooding. The country is said to have suffered from economic losses of up to 43 billion dollars; property, infrastructure, crops, and lives have been destroyed, some, possibly, forever.

- Cricket spot-fixing allegations: Pakistani players (Salman Butt, Mohammad Aamer, and Mohammad Asif) found themselves caught up in a match fixing scandal, after The News of the World revealed an alleged cricket betting scam centred on a Pakistan and England Test match at Lord's. With this, Pakistani cricket succeeded in its mission of always being in the news for all the wrong reasons. The tradition continued in November with wicketkeeper Zulqarnain Haider’s disappearance from Dubai (and subsequent reappearance in the UK) after receiving threatening messages from match fixers.
- End of U.S. combat mission in Iraq: American troops ended their combat mission in Iraq, marking the end of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" and the start of "Operation New Dawn" (from 1st September).

- Quran burning plan controversy: After announcing plans of burning the Muslim Holy Book on the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Pastor Terry Jones and the Dove World Outreach Center in America were condemned globally before backing down and cancelling the plan, giving the world a glimmer of hope that at times sanity does prevail. Earlier in the year, the Everybody Draw Mohammad Day campaign had generated anger among the global Muslim community and led to a ban on websites including Facebook in Pakistan during the month of May.

- Rescue of Chilean miners: 33 Chilean miners trapped nearly 2,300 feet underground for 69 days were lifted up, becoming one of the most, umm, uplifting events of the year, just as a light bulb lit up over the head of a Hollywood movie executive.

- WikiLeaks and the American diplomatic cables: Continuing on their mission to poke every hornet’s nest in sight, WikiLeaks released a collection of over 250,000 American diplomatic cables, revealing shocking details such as: war is bad, politicians are corrupt, and Santa Claus isn’t real. This, unsurprisingly, led to outrage against WikiLeaks: how dare they not let us live in blissful oblivion?
- Release of Aung San Suu Kyi: Burmese opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest; the pro-democracy leader who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 had been under house arrest for almost 15 of the last 21 years.
- Antimatter atoms trapped: For the first time in history, humans succeeded in trapping antimatter when researchers at CERN held 38 antihydrogen atoms for about one- to two-tenths of a second each. Now lets all hope the Illuminati don’t find out about this or it could lead to global annihilation, or even worse…another Dan Brown novel!

- Arsenic based life form: In the midst of a media hoopla, NASA scientist Felisa Wolfe-Simon published a paper claiming to have discovered a bacteria in California’s Mono Lake that can grow using arsenic instead of phosphorus; the implications of the GFAJ-1 (GFAJ = "Give Felisa a Job"; no, seriously!) bacteria were huge and the hype intensified because of NASA's extraterrestrial diversion and it’s possible link to alien life. Then someone read the paper and found that it was highly flawed. Now no one’s sure about any of it anymore, which means everything’s back to normal and life makes sense again.
- Lunar eclipse: A lunar eclipse coincided with the northern winter solstice on December 21 for the first time since 1638; the next time an eclipse will fall on the same calendar date as the solstice will be in 2094. The 2010 eclipse could be seen in parts of North and South American and Europe, but unfortunately was not visible from southern and eastern Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. I say we file a lawsuit against the moon for geographical discrimination. Who’s with me?
- New Year’s Eve: The world very eagerly bids farewell to 2010 and looks forward to 2011, a year that can possibly, potentially, hopefully be better than its predecessors. As they say, good things eventually come to those who wait, and wait, and wait...
  • Alexander McQueen (40) – British fashion designer.
  • Blake Edwards (88) – American film director; worked on films including Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) and the Pink Panther film series; husband of Julie Andrews.
  • Charlie Wilson (76) – American politician; subject of George Crile’s 2003 book Charlie Wilson's War and its subsequent 2007 film adaptation.
  • Dennis Hopper (74) – American actor; appeared in films including Easy Rider (1969), Apocalypse Now (1979), Blue Velvet (1986), Hoosiers (1986), and Speed (1994).
  • Erich Segal (72) – American author; wrote the novels Love Story (1970) and co-wrote the screenplay for The Beatles’ film Yellow Submarine (1968).
  • Farooq Leghari (70) – President of Pakistan from 1993 until 1997.
  • Gary Coleman (42) – American actor; best known for his role in the sitcom Diff'rent Strokes (1978–1986).
  • Gloria Stuart (100) – American actress; appeared in films including The Invisible Man (1933) and Titanic (1997).
  • Imran Farooq (50) – Pakistani politician; associated with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM).
  • Jerome David "J.D." Salinger (91) – American author; wrote The Catcher in the Rye (1951).
  • Juan Antonio Samaranch (89) – Spanish sports official; seventh President of the International Olympic Committee, served from 1980 to 2001.
  • Lech Kaczyński (60) – President of Poland from 2005 to 2010.
  • Leslie Nielsen (84) - American actor; known for his comedic roles.
  • Martin Gardner (95) – American mathematics and science writer.
  • Miep Gies (100) – Dutch citizen; helped hide Anne Frank and her family during World War II, and discovered Anne Frank’s diaries.
  • Patricia Neal (84) – American actress; most notable films included The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), and Hud (1963).
  • Richard Holbrooke (69) – American diplomat; served as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2009 to 2010.
  • Tsutomu Yamaguchi (93) – Japanese national; only person to have been officially recognised as having survived both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings during World War II.
- Sameen Amer

Us Magazine, The News - 31 January, 2010

Rewind (2010)

music in 2010

  • The Black Eyed Peas released their new album, The Beginning, which left us wondering if all four of them had missed grammar day at school.
  • Katy Perry, Ke$ha, and Lady Gaga continued to suck the soul out of music while rendering respectability obsolete. In related news, the correlation between talent and the ability to look trashy and wear meat continued to remain zero.
  • Muse lost a few dozen cool points by contributing yet another song to the Twilight series soundtrack. My Chemical Romance gained a few gazillion cool points by refusing to contribute a song to the Twilight soundtrack, and then writing a song about this!
  • Mumford & Sons released a very decent folk rock album. This was generally deemed as a bad move.
  • Weezer released an album that was considerably less atrocious than their last few albums.
  • Some of the biggest names in music got together to butcher the songs We Are The World and Everybody Hurts. Their only saving grace was that the singles were for charity and the proceeds went to the 2010 Haiti earthquake victims.
  • Lee DeWyze won the chance to be the next Taylor Hicks when he was crowned the winner of American Idol’s season 9 beating Crystal Bowersox, while AI’s ratings continued to decline. Simon Cowell left the show, soon followed by Ellen DeGeneres’ exit from the series, which led to an AI makeover; Kara DioGuardi departed as Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler joined the judging panel.
  • Biebermania swept the tweenage world as Justin Bieber serenaded listeners with thought provoking songs featuring meaningful lyrics such as "Baby, baby, baby, oh/like baby, baby, baby, no/like baby, baby, baby, oh/I thought you'd always be mine, mine." Deep.
  • John Mayer tried to make a second career out of saying stupid things.
  • Willow Smith’s debut song Whip My Hair became a YouTube hit. The jury’s still out on whether it was extremely infectious or extremely irritating. Or both.
  • Fifteen years after leaving the band, Robbie Williams rejoined Take That and the band released a new album, Progress; 90’s fan-girls rejoiced.
  • NKOTB + BSB = NKOTBSB = increase in sales of earplugs worldwide.
  • Florence and the Machine gained international recognition for their smart and absurdly catchy pop music. All the cool kids liked it.
  • Rihanna continued to remain ubiquitous.
  • Miley Cyrus released a ho-hum new album titled Can't Be Tamed, starred in the critically panned film The Last Song, dealt with her parents divorce, and reportedly broke up with Liam Hemsworth, all the while trying desperately to shed her Hannah Montana image. Oh and she also turned 18 and celebrated by smoking salvia. Good times.
  • In standard child star fashion, Demi Lovato checked herself into rehab after leaving the Jonas Brothers World Tour. Meanwhile, in a rare display of mercy on its viewers, Disney cancelled the Jonas Brothers’ TV series.
  • Newer artists including Diana Vickers, Lena Meyer-Landrut, Nicki Minaj, B.o.B., Jason Derulo, and Bruno Mars found chart success.
  • Eminem went from Relapse to Recovery, mounting a well-received comeback.
  • The new Hole album suggested that Courtney Love could use a hug…and a therapist.
  • Soundgarden reunited, as did The Dresden Dolls, and Bush.
  • Glee became the world’s guilty pleasure of choice.
  • Mr. and Mrs. Trent Reznor’s new band How To Destroy Angels released their debut EP to the general interest of nobody.
  • The world finally noticed Arcade Fire’s existence after they released their third album The Suburbs.
  • Christina Aguilera released an album. It was on the wrong side of listenable. She also starred in a movie. It was on the wrong side of watchable.
  • T.I. was released from prison. T.I. was sent back to prison.
  • Kanye West returned with a new album that was met with critical acclaim. Disappointingly, he didn’t interrupt any more Taylor Swift award acceptance speeches, even though the country starlet continued the tradition of getting showered with awards.
  • Duets were in vogue. Collaborators included Eminem and Rihanna (Love the Way You Lie), B.o.B and Hayley Williams (Airplanes), Lady Gaga and Beyonce (Telephone), Travie McCoy and Bruno Mars (Billionaire), Katy Perry and Snoop Dogg (California Gurls), Enrique Iglesias and Pitbull (I Like It), Robbie Williams and Gary Barlow (Shame), almost everyone and Nicki Minaj…
  • British girl bands Mini Viva and Girls Can’t Catch disbanded before anyone could even notice their existence.
  • Michael Jackson’s first posthumous album led to questions regarding its authenticity.
  • And artists including Lady Antebellum, Taylor Swift, Cheryl Cole, Linkin Park, Rihanna, Kylie Minogue, Katy Perry, Cee Lo Green, Gorillaz, MGMT, Usher, Imelda May, James Blunt, Maroon 5, and Shakira, returned to the charts with new albums.

  • Abbas Ali Khan: 2010 was a dead year for Pakistani music and industry. I don’t recall anything that caught my attention; the only thing relatively better was Coke Studio. In classical music, some great things happen; for example, the Tehzeeb Festival, which I attended and really enjoyed. As for me I only released a tribute track called Raat Yun Dil Mein Teri and got great response from people who understand that sort of music. 2010, for me, was a year for reinvention, and 2011 will be happening, InshAllah.
  • Annie Khalid: I think the highlight of 2010 as far as Pakistani music is concerned was Coke Studio, because there was such amazing talent coming out; this year was one of my favourites out of all the seasons because it just keeps getting better and better, and the public were more tuned towards that than anything else. People’s albums were released this year but there wasn’t much done about it – there was lack of promotion and publicity, so that was kind of the downside of Pakistani music. The highlight of my career for 2010 was Be My Baby, the collaboration with Jules; Kya Yehi Piyar Hai album being released; and also all of the charity work I did with the Red Cross for flood relief. Although it is a shame that Fire Records didn’t do as much as they could have as far as promoting my album was concerned – so much could have been done especially considering the fact that I worked so hard on it and there were so many people involved in the production of this album – and they didn’t really do anything for it, to be very frank with you, and that’s something I can honestly openly say; it’s kind of upsetting. That said, Kya Yehi Piyar Hai itself as a single was number one on all of the music chart shows in Pakistan and so was Be My Baby, so I’m happy. 2011 is all about collaboration for me. I’m looking so forward to 2011 because I’m going to be releasing a lot of collaborations with some big international and Pakistani artists; I’ve always wanted to work with different people so finally I’m getting to do that. I’m definitely thinking of making some new videos for my album and then I’m going to start working on my third studio album, so I’m really excited.
  • Goher Mumaz: Pakistani pop was overall down due to many reasons. There were no releases by mainstream artists. The one thing that took over 2010 was Jugni by Arif Lohar and Meesha and Mein Tenno Semjhanwan Ki by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan; these two amazing songs got the exact platform that they deserve. Our top-notch record labels failed to create an artist who could rule 2010. As for Jal, we just finished recording half of our new album and went on a 22-city concert tour of Pakistan, which went great. During that tour, I felt that the fans have been waiting for the new album because whenever we announced that we are coming up with the album, they went crazy! This means that our market has got potential, but probably some "big giants" are scared to take a few risks and release new albums. 2011 is going to be the biggest year for Jal once again, that I can assure you, InshAllah.
  • Mustafa Zahid: The Pakistani music scene graph was still going down in 2010. There was very less Pakistani content on music channels, and nothing got noticed because of the political scenario, hence everyone ended up doing nothing. As for Roxen, we did a track with RDB for their album, Worldwide; it is one of my most superb compositions called Teardrop (Aansoo); we also did another song for them for a film which is under production and will be released in 2011. We have also worked on a couple of other productions in Bollywood films, which are tentatively lined up for a 2011 release, along with our second album Bhoola Samundar.
- By S.A

Us Magazine, The News - 31 December, 2010

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Mis-hit by Mezrich

book review

Book: The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook: A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal
Genre: Non-Fiction, Business
Author: Ben Mezrich
Publisher: Doubleday
Excerpt: “One look at the kid, and it had been obvious to Eduardo that he didn’t know the first thing about the sort of social networking one had to master to get into a club like the Phoenix. But then, as now, Eduardo had been too busy chasing his dream to spend time thinking about the awkward kid in the corner. Certainly, he had no way of knowing, then or now, that the kid with the curly hair was one day going to take the entire concept of a social network and turn it on its head, that one day the kid with the curly hair struggling through that prepunch party was going to change Eduardo’s life more than any Final Club ever could.”

According to an often repeated maxim, “There are three sides to every story: yours, mine, and the truth.” However, with all the people involved in the tale of Facebook, the story of the world’s biggest social network has about a dozen different (and often contentious) sides. The Accidental Billionaires, the book that formed the basis of the critically lauded 2010 film The Social Network, chronicles the creation of Facebook in a Harvard dorm room by Mark Zuckerberg and his college friends Eduardo Saverin, Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes and the ups and downs following its success. It also includes Napster co-founder Sean Parker joining the company and the legal trouble faced by Facebook due to the assertion by three Harvard seniors — Cameron Winklevoss, Tyler Winklevoss, and Divya Narendra — that Zuckerberg had stolen their idea and intentionally mislead them.

The book, as Ben Mezrich states in the Author’s Note, offers “a dramatic, narrative account based on dozens of interviews, hundreds of sources and thousands of pages of documents, including records from several court proceedings,” and it seems to rely heavily on Eduardo Saverin’s side of story. This is the book’s first problem; Mezrich failed to find access to the account and perspective of Mark Zuckerberg, who declined to speak to the author, and without any input from Facebook’s chief creator and the person most responsible for its inception, creation, and success, there just isn’t much to the story. A lot has already been written about Facebook in magazines and on websites and The Accidental Billionaires is not only brought down by its unobjective sources and hindsight bias but it also fails to provide a unique take on the subject and is lacking in terms of content that would offer any revelations.

The book’s second problem is its style. The author works with limited content that has been stretched and padded to a book-length narrative, producing an account focused on being more dramatic than informative. The literary licence and practice of sensationalising the entertaining elements of the story in effect take away from the credibility of the book and at times, the poor style and language choices even come off as rather crude. Also, the book has no way of offering any form of conclusion on an active subject, and much has been added to the Facebook annals since The Accidental Billionaires was first published last year.

In short, the story at the core of Facebook’s inception could have been, and indeed has been, told better in fewer pages and seems more suited for an article-length piece. Most of the facts are even nicely summarised in the Wikipedia entries about Facebook and key people involved in the company. Plus, if you’ve been keeping up with the contentious tales and legal drama that have plagued the website, then you already know most of what this book aims to reveal. If you know nothing about the social network, then The Accidental Billionaires is probably not the best source to shape your perceptions of the company and its creators, as it clearly isn’t the most clean and objective take on the story.

- Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune - 12 December, 2010

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Nowhere to go

movie review

Movie: Frozen
Director & Writer: Adam Green
Rating: 2/5

What would you do if you, along with two friends, got stranded on a ski lift at a resort, run by careless staff with improper safety measures? Keep in mind that the resort has closed for a week and there are no chances of rescue as no one knows where you are. And to top it all, you don’t have a cell phone or any other communication device either!

As you might have guessed, the unfortunate subjects of Frozen - Dan (Kevin Zegers), his girlfriend Parker (Emma Bell) and best friend Lynch (Shawn Ashmore) - are stuck on a ski lift and have nowhere to go. At one point, the movie starts to feel like watching people sitting and arguing and whining and bickering while slowly getting frostbite, while you wait for something to happen.

When something does happen, it’s not a thrilling horror fest but more of a nitpicker’s dream come true. While the initial series of unfortunate events and misunderstandings could’ve been written off under the “it’s just a movie” rationale, the trio’s actions and reactions to their predicament quickly lead to disbelief territory. However, despite all its flaws, the film still has the whole “what would you do if” aspect to it. If you possess an awesome suspension of disbelief skills and a lot of patience, you might enjoy some of the drama that ensues. On the whole, while the premise had potential, the writer could not come up with enough material to create a captivating full-length film and the execution exhausted that brief idea and left its potential unrealised. Oh and be warned, the film is rated R for some disturbing images and language and is not recommended to those who can’t stand gore.

- Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune - 28 November, 2010

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Local developers take on antivirus market


Two Pakistani IT students – Hafiz Usman and Syed Imran Ali – have developed the Instant Virus Killer (IVK), a program that has been touted as Pakistan’s first antivirus software.

The duo were motivated to create the software after their own computer fell prey to a virus. “We ended up installing the operating system several times in a single day in order to fix the problem,” explains Usman. “That was when we decided to develop our own antivirus. Initially, we didn’t plan to release it as a product; however, when our friends and family used and appreciated it, we were motivated to launch it professionally. Afterwards we worked on it more consciously, tested it, and got it registered with the Government of Pakistan Intellectual Property Organization. It took almost two years for completion.”

The developers claim IVK continuously protects the operating system and data from viruses, immediately detects USB viruses, can repair corrupt files and can recover a failed PC in 10 seconds, a feature that the duo consider unique and extremely important. It also protects against worms, trojans, and rootkits and offers dual virus protection.

In a market where free programs, like AVG, Avast, and MSE, are easily available, IVK’s PKR 5,000 price tag seems steep. “We are providing lifetime protection with an additional recovery feature with no annual renewal charges,” says Usman, defending the pricing. “Most free antiviruses do not provide all their features in free versions. Moreover, they have no recovery functions.”

At present, the program only works with Windows – versions for other operating systems are planned for the future – and from everything that its creators say about it, IVK seems promising. In the absence of a trial version, however, one has no way of evaluating the product and can therefore not assess its effectiveness. The developers say they are aware of this issue and have received numerous requests for a trial version which is under consideration.

- Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune - 21 November, 2010

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Hot colours for cold weather


Each season, fashion addicts the world over are faced with the same dilemma — what to wear? Colours and fashion seem to change too quickly, making it hard to stay up-to-date. Thankfully we’ve trawled the fashion world to find out what the best-dressed Pakistani women will be wearing this season.

Black & Gold
One of the most stunning colours that are popular this coming season are black and gold. Metallic colours have been making an impression internationally and the local trends seem to be leaning towards a marriage of gold with black. This is a look that works especially well during the working week, where sombre suits can be brightened up with just a flash of gold. If yellow gold seems daunting, something a little more sophisticated, like old gold, almost a light bronze, with a hint of platinum, would be more suitable. Enhancing a black dress with a touch of gold accessories gives plenty of opportunities to create appealing outfits.

Navy blue
This blue isn’t what you wore to school. Instead, it’s a deep, elegant navy. It suggests seriousness and stability in the office but as evening wear, it makes you stand out, yet without being too obvious. For an up-to-date spin on navy, try teaming it with ice blue. This is a popular colour on the runway and looks beautiful with navy.

This is another stand-out colour. White is used so abundantly that it’s easy to take for granted. The trusty white shirt can team up with any suit and the same shirt can also work well with casual attire. It’s both reliable and trustworthy. White is more than just a business shirt. Think of an elegant white silk dress. It’s the epitome of purity and innocence.

One might think it’s hard to carry off red but think again. There’s a shade of red for every complexion; it’s just a matter of finding that perfect tone. Runways have been vibrant with red, with designers revisiting this classic shade. A red blouse or scarf can brighten up an insipid outfit. For special occasions, a red dress can never go wrong. It highlights the whole “lady in red” factor and makes the person wearing it the centre of attention. This warm colour can overpower everybody. Wear a red dress and you’ll find yourself standing just that little bit taller and smiling a little bit more. After all, who doesn’t want to feel special?

Dull orange
Finally we have muted orange. In the west, they are all about camel this season. From camel coats to tan suits – it’s everywhere. But here in the east, we’re brightening things up just a little bit. After all, it’s cold and dark and there’s no reason why one should settle for drab colours. Dare to wear orange! It’s not an over the top shade. Think sunsets, not tomatoes. If you’re nervous about this colour, team it with black or navy blue. Blue and orange are opposites on the colour wheel and each brings out the best in the other shade. Kind of like that good friend of yours that really tells you how that dress looks on you and gives you the courage to apply for that job. Orange might sound scary, but this shade is actually easier to wear than, say, yellow. An orange ensemble can look amazingly elegant. It’s just a matter of finding that right shade and once you have it in your wardrobe, the cold wintery days won’t seem so freezing.

So what are you waiting for? It’s time to solve those colour dilemmas and know which shades you need to be looking for. Now just think of all the fun you’ll have buying the shoes and accessories to match!

- By Anny & Sam

The Express Tribune - 14 November, 2010

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Pakistan's pop princess


Whether you love it or loathe it, you will have to concede that Annie Khalid’s debut song Mahiya was hard to ignore. The tune not only launched her music career in Pakistan but also propelled the starlet to national fame.

The 23-year-old singer was born in Lahore and raised in Britain. “I’m from a family of four children. I have two brothers and a sister. My elder sis is married and lives in Karachi; my elder brother is also married and settled in Canada; and my little brother is in university. My mum is a housewife and dad a psychiatrist and forensic surgeon with Scotland Yard.” Regarding her education, she explains it is currently on hold. “I have not completed my degree in psychology but plan on going back to it some time in the future. As for now, I am concentrating on my music career.”

Annie was drawn towards showbusiness from a very young age. “When I was a child, I knew I loved the stage. I had figured out what I wanted to do but wasn’t sure whether it was going be in dancing, acting or music.” She recorded her first song in her late teens and had no idea how it was going to turn out. “I just did it because I’m an impulsive person and at that time that’s what I wanted to do. I thought to myself, leave the rest to God and see how it goes.”

Her first release, Mahiya, from her debut album Princess (2006), was a huge success in Pakistan and even introduced her to Bollywood. “I wasn’t expecting Mahiya to be as successful as it is today,” she says. “I am a very optimistic person. I was just happy and felt really lucky because I know how people struggle for years and are still unable to gain recognition. I did a song and it became an overnight success. I just count my blessings.”

Annie feels that she has enjoyed recording her second album, Kya Yehi Pyar Hai (2010), more than the first. “Recording my first album was a good experience, but I enjoyed the second one more because I was really involved in the album. I had full control of everything and the entire process was amazing. Writing the lyrics, getting the compositions, doing the music, making the videos — it’s all been so much fun.”

As for the criticism directed towards her, she takes it with a pinch of salt but she does appreciate constructive criticism. “If you want to be competent at what you do,” she reflects, “then you have to understand, listen, and learn from what your well-wishers, fans and critics say.”

She thinks “performing live is way more fun than recording in a studio” because it gives the singer a chance to interact with the audience, something that hasn’t been possible recently because of the situation in the country. “The current music industry situation is disheartening because we are unable to perform and do as many gigs and concerts as we used to a few years back, simply because of the political situation and safety issues. Obviously, if we have a large crowd at our shows, we have a higher risk. For that reason, people are not taking the risk, and rightly so. However, artists are suffering because they are not able to interact with fans directly. If we release a new song, we can’t really get direct feedback.”

In her spare time, Annie loves to read, spend time with her family, socialise with friends, sleep, eat and has a weakness for chocolate. If she was given the chance, she would like to play the role of Cinderella in a film because “it brings back memories of my childhood,” and collaborate with pop princess Britney Spears and record a cover version of As by George Michael and Mary J. Blige because she finds the lyrics of the song to be beautiful. Annie would have loved to meet Anne Frank because of “the struggle she went through, living in the secret annexe, so secluded and isolated from the world but still managing to enjoy every moment and loving every second of her life.” “I’ve been writing a diary since I was about eight years old,” the pop star reveals. “I write columns in my spare time but I don’t publish them. I write them for myself. Sometimes I share them with my fans, friends, and family; they love them and like the way I write. I think I have a really good flair for writing.”

Annie picks “being appointed as the Red Cross ambassador for the Pakistan flood relief” as her biggest accomplishment and says she feels “honoured to be part of such a noble organisation.” The singer has announced that she will be donating all the proceeds from her single Be My Baby (mixed by DJ Judge Jules) which recently launched her pop career in the UK, to flood victims in Pakistan.

As for her future, Annie wants to further excel in her music career at home and abroad. “I want to represent my country all over the world and make use of my fame in a positive way,” she says. Besides being a singer, Annie hopes she can start acting. “Somewhere down the line I do hope to get into acting because I really enjoy it and I’ve had my taste of what it’s like to act through my adverts, so hopefully one day.”


If I could have a super power, I’d choose…
To fly. I have these dreams where I’m flying in the air, and I would just love to have that power and be able to slide and soar through the skies and the clouds.

If I could destroy the master copy of any song so that nobody could listen to it again, I would pick…
There isn’t really any song - not mine or anyone else’s - that I loathe with a passion. If a song’s not nice I just don’t listen to it. And I would never destroy the master copy of any song because the song that I dislike might be someone’s favourite or someone might really like it and enjoy listening to it.

If the chair I’m sitting on right now could talk, it would say…
“Damn girl, you’ve gained some weight on your bum/hips!” The other day I was looking through some pictures of a recent concert I did, and I thought wow, I have gained some weight on my bum and I wasn’t really happy about it. So if the chair could talk right now it would say, “lose some weight!”

If I had to pick another career, I’d choose to be…
A choreographer, because I enjoy dancing. I’ve been into dancing and have been taking dance classes for so long; I’d love to do it professionally.

If I could go back in time, I would…
Spend more time with my grandma, because I didn’t get to spend enough time with her. I was always travelling and she was such a lovely person; I just miss her.

- Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune - 7 November, 2010

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The vivacious VJ - Natasha Saleem


As the boom in the Pakistani pop music industry during the last decade led to the emergence of 24-hour music channels, Natasha Saleem became one of the most visible faces on music television. Her contagious cheerfulness and bubbly disposition has made the video jockey (VJ) a standout media figure, and her charismatic personality shines through in everything she does, be it hosting shows, interviewing celebrities or even acting.

The VJ-turned-actress has a BSc. in Economics and Management from the London School of Economics (external degree) and entered the media industry by chance. “My friend was going for a VJ audition at The Musik and I went along for moral support. While I was there, they asked me to try out and made me an offer then and there!” Natasha had previously gone to McGill University for her B.Com but had to return due to financial reasons. The job offer, therefore, seemed like a great opportunity. “I wanted to contribute towards my education and thought it would be a great way to save up. I never went back to McGill but I did fall in love with what I was doing and eight years later, here I am!”

Not only did being a VJ bring her success and recognition, but she says some of the most cherished moments in her life also came through this profession. “The industry was still in its infant phase; the concept of being a VJ was new – the excitement, the wonderment, it never grew old. I loved the fact that I could walk out on stage and have 8,000 people scream my name. It’s a totally different high. I have so many memorable moments,” she reminisces, “but there was a concert I was hosting in Lahore and the crowd was going crazy, including one guy hanging off the side of the building from above (to access the backstage area) who had his friend holding his feet screaming for me to sign his hand!”

The multi-talented star has tried her hand at modelling, hosting as an RJ and has now turned her attention towards acting. “Since I’ve recently started freelancing, I’ve had the opportunity to host for a bunch of channels, and while it is different from hosting as a VJ, it still comes to me naturally. Acting admittedly is new to me and poses a more exciting challenge.” It comes as no surprise that Natasha is motivated to broaden her horizons. “I was looking for something to challenge myself with and had just come back from doing a course in direction and filmmaking from the New York Film Academy when an opportunity to act in a great production came my way. I was surprised and excited at the prospect of this new challenge and thought it was time to venture into new arenas because as far as being a VJ was concerned, I’d done it all.”

“It has only been a few months since I’ve delved into the world of acting,” she says. “The work so far has involved Don’t Jealous —  a soap opera which is currently on air.” Her upcoming projects include soap opera Zip and a serial called Madhosh, both of which are expected to be aired soon. “The experience of working in all these projects has been great. The best part has been to act with some of the finest actors in the industry, like Amina Sheikh, Imran Abbas, Aisha Khan and Mohib Mirza to name a few, because there’s so much to learn from them.”

When asked what she enjoys the most about acting, Natasha replies, “Acting gives you the freedom to express the most intense emotions and the free pass to live life onscreen in a way that you normally wouldn’t.”  However, acting has drawbacks as well. For Natasha, the downside is “trying to get a regular routine in my everyday life, like going to the gym!”

Her hectic career gives her little free time. “I get to spend a lot less time at home or even with my friends but thankfully everyone knows my workaholic side well enough to understand.” She also tries her best to accommodate her hobbies. An avid reader, the VJ/actress has no qualms about describing herself as a bookworm. “I’m a big bookworm and I’ll even take my books on set with me. Travelling is another passion of mine. I love backpacking through countries, trying out new things, be it the local cuisine of any country or even scuba diving, which I recently ticked off my to-do list!” She also says that she is extremely close to her family.

“My brother is younger than me and is currently studying in Croatia and my mom is a famous tarot card reader along with being my best friend. My dad, a pilot by profession, lives in Turkey and I just got back from vacationing there!”

To do something well, she believes you must like what you do. “You need to be madly in love with what you’re doing. Any profession, be it banking, teaching, journalism or even running the country for that matter, needs you to constantly work at improving yourself. A career in the media is no different. This is not for an increase in pay or the boss’s approval but it’s purely to know you’ve done justice to your profession.”

Natasha lists “putting myself through college and knowing at the end of every day that I’ve given 100 per cent at work” as her biggest accomplishment so far. As for the future, she’s eager to go wherever life takes her. “Success is not a destination; it’s a journey. The plan is to make the most of that ride by staying hungry (striving for more) and staying foolish (never thinking I know it all)!”


If I could be present at a historic event, it would be…
The period right after Independence. I think we’ve forgotten what the struggle was all about.

If I had to pick another career, I’d choose…
To be a vet.

If I had to banish one word from any language, it would be…

If I could interview one person (out of anyone that ever lived), I’d love to interview…
Rumi, and maybe try to discover some of that beauty, love and madness he wrote about.

If I had to record the cover version of any song, I’d pick…
Rangoon Mein Khoya by Junoon, or Orange Sky by Alexi Murdoch. Of course this is assuming I could carry a note!

If I could change one thing about yourself, I’d change…
My selective memory.

If I could cancel a TV show, I’d choose…
So many! Haha!

I am looking forward to…
What the rest of my life has in store for me.

If I could make everyone read a book, it would be…
Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom.

If I could change one thing about the world, I’d…
Get rid of sickness in the world. I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to have kids with lung problems or heart defects. Realistically though, I’d want everyone to be more aware of people with special needs.
- Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune - 31 October, 2010

From voice acting to distracting

Are celebrity voice-overs in animated films really necessary?

A few years ago, when the animated film The Incredibles (2004) came out, the world was abuzz with just how awesome Pixar’s latest release was. I sat down to watch the film; all was going well until Mrs Incredible opened her mouth and out came Holly Hunter’s excruciating drawl.

Events repeated themselves a few months later when Madagascar (2005) was released. I got roped into watching it on the insistence of a friend who I discovered had never seen the TV show Friends and had no idea who David Schwimmer was. A decade-long obsession with the sitcom, however, turned out to be a serious interference, because every time Melman spoke, my mind went on an “Oh dear, I think that giraffe ate Ross!” overdrive. While I’ll reluctantly concede that it may be a tad too finicky to not be able to look past the celebrity voice-overs, I still think that it doesn’t seem like too much to ask of the filmmakers to use voice talent that can make us forget there is an actor behind the animation and focus on the character. Instead they leave us with an image of a celebrity speaking into a microphone.

For much of animation’s history, animated characters were voiced by trained voice actors (often doing a number of characters within the same film), who usually remained out of the spotlight. Then things started to change; Robin Williams became the voice of the Genie in Aladdin (1992), and Woody and Buzz Lightyear got their voices from Tom Hanks and Tim Allen in Toy Story (1995). And then instead of creating characters and then finding the fitting voice talents, studios started creating characters to fit celebrities.

Presumably, the idea is to attach star-power to a project but does showering big bucks on the Hollywood elite actually pay off? You could give examples both for and against this concept. Shark Tale (2004) and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003) both featured celebrity voices — one was a success, while the other was not. Do people — especially children, the major target market of animated movies (and presuming they even know who most of these stars are) —  really care if a penguin is sharing its vocal chords with Shia LaBeouf or Elijah Wood?

Some don’t seem to think so, including veteran voice actor Billy West, who has pointed out that trained voice actors are asked to guide movie stars for their roles in animated films. The only glimmer of hope comes from the fact that since studios like Pixar have made their brand synonymous with excellence, they may not feel the need to get celebrity endorsement for their films. Indeed some of their latest releases have suggested a slight tilt in this direction. For instance, WALL-E (2008), which turned out better than perfect, did not heavily rely on film actors; and Up (2009), which used star voices aptly, just might be the best film I’ll never want to see again (but only because I have a strict share of saltwater allocation per film, and Up made me use up my entire tear quota in just the first viewing). Anyhow, my point is this: film actors don’t necessarily make good voice actors, and it would make things better if studios would hire voice actors based on talent and not just star- power. Possibly, I’m just over-thinking or is it that people are so celebrity-obsessed that they will watch an animated film simply because they recognise a name in the credits, in which case, I apologise for wasting your time. Nobody is objecting to the use of big names when they actually fit — for instance, Ellen DeGeneres was a lovely Dory, Eddie Murphy made an entertaining Mushu and Donkey, and the Pixar-John Ratzenberger alliance is (still) quite amusing. However, in most cases, using recognisable celebrity voice-overs makes for a distracted viewing experience which only diverts one from the storyline.

- Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune - 31 October, 2010

Friday, October 29, 2010

Magic On Two Wheels – Kenny Belaey

cover story

Kenny Belaey
Nickname: The Magician
Date of Birth: 26-01-1983
Nationality: Belgian
Profession: Pro Rider
Disciplines: Trialbiking (20"& 26")

International sports activities in Pakistan have come to a crawl due to the reluctance of foreign athletes to visit the country. So it was hardly surprising that trialbiking world champion Kenny Belaey's recent tour of Pakistan served as a treat for the audience. The 27-year-old Belgian, who has mastered the art of merging daring bicycle moves and stunts with creativity, performed at various venues in Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad in a bid to promote the sport in the country as well as raise funds for flood victims. Us was lucky enough to get an exclusive interview with Kenny and ask him about trialbiking and his trip to Pakistan. Here's what he had to say…


Us: Please tell Us a bit about yourself.
Kenny Belaey: I started doing trials when I was 9, with only one goal, and that was winning! So anything I did was all in preparation of my performance. That also meant that I wasn't really a good student actually, because it's hard to combine school and hard work, plus I didn't get the support of the school to make my life easier. I always passed classes and topped sports education when I was 18 (high school) but never went to University. Let's just say I had different plans than the other school kids, and I'm glad it turned out fine. My parents have always been very supportive in what I did, because they saw that I was determined and not fooling around, so they let me do my thing, which I respect a lot; not all parents would do that. My brother Wesley is 4 years younger than me and is doing the same thing. He mainly does shows now. He stopped competing for a year and is taking care of our bike sales business that we both are running; we are importers of a Spanish bike brand, Monty.

Us: How did you become interested in bike trials? What prompted you to take up the sport?
Kenny: Our dad, a national motortrials champion, took us with him to his races. When we saw his colleagues' kids doing the same thing on a bike, Wesley and I wanted to do that too. Dad sold all of his gear and started driving us all over Europe so we could compete.

Us: What was it like winning your first championship? Have the subsequent wins felt different in any way?
Kenny: The first race I ever competed in was somewhere in the early '90s; I got the 3rd position. A couple of years later, I won my first cadet UCI World Championship in 1998 – that win and the last win in Canada (September 5, 2010) feel the same; only, the impact is bigger because now it's not just a hobby any more and a lot more is depending on it.

Us: You recently won the Elite World Championship for the fourth time, your ninth title overall. First of all, congratulations! Secondly, what do you think makes you so successful and able to stand out amongst all the competitors?
Kenny: Dedication, hard work and self-discipline, and most important of all: 'planning', because if I wouldn't [plan], I would go mad. It's not easy to combine training with a globetrotting lifestyle, but it works.

Us: What is your daily routine? How many hours a day do you train/practice?
Kenny: I train every day from 10 to 12 and from 3 to 5. That includes gym/bike specific rehearsals and improvement of jumps, running, cycling and plyometrics. In between, I try to rest as much [as I can] and take care of my businesses because I take care of my own management.

Us: Have you sustained any particularly bad injuries while training/competing?
Kenny: Apart from scratches and scars, I haven't broken a single bone in my body, but touch wood and hope for the best because in this kind of sport it's easy to get injured, of course.

Us: You're sponsored by various big brands. What importance does such sponsorship hold for an athlete?
Kenny: It's everything, because without sponsors we can't make a living out of it, and an athlete should only focus on his 'thing' and not be worried about 'how will I pay the bills by the end of the month?' For me, Red Bull has been the greatest brand to work with; it's all because of them that I have seen 20 countries, and they treat me like a king… although I know that's temporary, because when I come home I'm not a king any more and just Kenny, haha! But it's hard work, too: interviews, shows, touring, airplanes and squeezing training in isn't easy, but nothing comes for free, does it?


Us: How has your experience of visiting Pakistan been so far? And would you consider touring here again?
Kenny: I was very scared of coming because of [what I saw of Pakistan through] the media, but I would recommend people to definitely come here, especially to Islamabad in the mountains; it's very nice over there. And if my sponsors ask me to do it again, I would for sure!

Us: What are the things that you have liked the i) best and ii) least during this visit?
Kenny: The crowds were the best one by far from all my tours! I am not saying this to make you feel good, really. I didn't know 750 people could sound like 2500! The least: the bomb blast in Karachi really concerned me because I've been on that spot earlier, so you think about it differently than when you just see it on the news. I can't believe people can actually do that and I hope that will stop one day.

Us: What do you think is the scope of trialbiking in Pakistan?
Kenny: I don't think there are any trialbikers in Pakistan, but by showing this sport to the people they might be influenced to go out and try some basic moves on regular bikes, like standing still for example… you'll be amazed by how much this can help you, even in traffic from a safety point of view.

Us: Do you have any suggestions on how sports can be improved here?
Kenny: It needs awareness and people must really do sports; I am convinced 'sports' in general is good to do. It will make you feel better, and a person who feels better also has a clearer mind, and that's good for everything you want to do in life after sports, whether it's business, studying or just relaxing afterwards. Go for it!!

Us: You're supporting the 12-12 charity programme. Could you please tell Us about that?
Kenny: I always planned to support this charity fund, and when I knew I was coming to Pakistan, there was no doubt that I wanted to support the people in rebuilding their lives. My target is 2000 Euros for the next couple of weeks, and I already have over 500 now, plus when I return to Belgium I'll try to exceed that target; should be possible.


Us: Is there a lot of travelling involved in trialbiking? Does it in any way affect your personal life?
Kenny: Well, I like travelling a lot; otherwise I wouldn't be doing it for so long. My girlfriend [rider Fien Lammertyn] needs to accept it, for sure; she does it perfectly so I'd say there are no issues. Whenever I am home everything is better then; there is no routine in my life and that's how I'm used to it and how I like it so far. I think once I'll get older I might take it easy but right now, I'm far from that.

Us: If you weren't a trialbiker, what profession would you have chosen?
Kenny: That's very hard to say. I have really no idea but I know one thing… since I can't imagine a better life, I would most definitely not be as happy. And one thing is for sure, I am an entrepreneur; so I think I would start my own business and realise things… that's what I like – create what hasn't been done before and always aim higher. The sky is the limit.

Us: Do you have any hobbies? What do you do in your spare time (presuming you get any)?
Kenny: Playing the guitar, listening to music, watching a movie, fishing, but it's been awhile. And in winter, I do snowboarding.

Us: What's your favourite book, television series, movie, and band/musician?
  • Book: I only read magazines, no books. I like bike magazines and National Geographic because I like bikes and nature.
  • Television show/series: The Simpsons, but I have to admit I rarely watch TV.
  • Movie: The last one I saw was Knight and Day; that was cool. No real favourite, though.
  • Band/musician: Got so many! I like Joe Bonamassa's guitar skills; he's a Blues player. I like Metallica a lot because they have been there for so long and are still kicking it, big time. Also, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, so basically a lot of old school rock and roll.

Us: What do you hope to achieve in the future? What are your goals?
Kenny: I'll continue what I am doing already part-time right now while competing, which is promoting trials by organising competitions, managing riders, and selling bikes, and trying to bring [the sport] to levels that have never been seen before.

Us: Any message for the readers?
Kenny: I'd say go for it. Whatever dream you have, chase it and work hard because no one is going to ask you to live the dream for free. Try to find out what you like and make this your target. Once your target is reached, set a higher one and don't try to force it; it might take time though.

- By Sameen Amer

Us Magazine, The News - 29 October, 2010

Friday, October 15, 2010

At The Movies (VI)

movie reviews

Hollywood walks down familiar paths with stories of self-destruction, friendship, war, and zombies

How To Train Your Dragon
Voice cast: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jonah Hill, America Ferrera, and Craig Ferguson
Directors: Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois
The sweet tale of an unlikely friendship, How To Train Your Dragon follows the story of a young Viking named Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) who hopes to please his father (Gerard Butler) by becoming a dragon slayer, only to realize, after finally bringing down one of the most dangerous and elusive dragons in existence, that things aren’t how they should be. A cross between E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Lilo & Stitch, How To Train Your Dragon follows the same road that many have gone down before, but it does so in a delightful way. Based loosely on English children’s author Cressida Cowell’s novel How To Train Your Dragon, the action packed fantasy possesses characters that are endearing and encapsulates a bright message; sure there are parts of it that are clichéd, but on the whole it’s charm lies in its simplicity. Plus the animation is stunning and it isn’t hard to imagine that the film – especially the overhead shots of the realm of the Vikings and dragons – would’ve looked stunning on the big screen and in 3D. So while it follows a predictable story arc, the film works because of it’s simple charm and makes for an enjoyable watch.

Crazy Heart
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, Beth Grant, and Jack Nation
Director: Scott Cooper
Following a drearily hackneyed storyline, Crazy Heart chronicles the tale of a washed up, self-destructive country singer (Jeff Bridges) who meets a smart and charming woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who inspires him to rebuild his life. After trotting down an obvious narrative path, the film comes off as a superficial version of many films that have come before it – including its most recent counterpart, the vastly superior The Wrestler – recycling the same plot sans all the authenticity and charm, and eventually leading to an ending that is less than convincing. That said, some of the songs in the film (especially Fallin' & Flyin') are quite good, but as far as the film itself stands, there’s nothing here that you haven’t seen before. It isn’t abysmal; it’s all just too corny. Over-hyped and extremely overrated.

Green Zone
Starring: Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Amy Ryan, Brendan Gleeson, Jason Isaacs, and Khalid Abdalla
Director: Paul Greengrass
A fictional story inspired by Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s non-fiction book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Green Zone tells the story of an army warrant officer (Matt Damon) who is on a quest to find the elusive Weapons of Mass Destruction that were used as a pretext for the 2003 Iraq invasion, and becomes increasingly sceptical of the intelligence reports after repeated attempts fail to uncover any WMDs. Off he goes into conspiracy theory land, and you can easily guess the truth he will eventually stumble upon; not only do you know where the film is going, but unfortunately none of it seems even close to authentic. The movie relies on a highly predictable plot suffering from oversimplification of a complicated issue told through characters we never really get to know, and is, overall, a thriller that is disappointingly short on thrill.

Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs
Voice cast: Bill Hader, Anna Faris, Neil Patrick Harris, James Caan, Bruce Campbell, Andy Samberg, Mr. T, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Benjamin Bratt, Al Roker, Lauren Graham, and Will Forte
Directors: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
When endearingly clumsy inventor Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) discovers a way to turn water into food and invents the Flint Lockwood Diatonic Super Mutating Dynamic Food Replicator (or the FLDSMDFR for short), it is safe to assume that trouble can’t be far behind. Sure enough, things do go wrong, leaving him to make amends, along with the help of geeky weathergirl (and the object of his affection) Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), Sam’s cameraman Manny (Benjamin Bratt), the local hero ‘Baby’ Brent (Andy Samberg), and Flint’s pet monkey Steve (Neil Patrick Harris). Inspired by the children’s book Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett and Ron Barrett, the film is an imaginative blend of humour and morality, and even if you figure out where the story is heading, it still remains delightful as the events unfold. And it is powered by an awesome voice cast who make the characters come to life and brilliantly complement this unique comedy. On the whole, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs is an amusing 81-minute long fun-filled adventure, likely to be enjoyed by viewers of all ages.

Kick Ass
Starring: Aaron Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Nicolas Cage, and Mark Strong
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Based on the comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr., Kick Ass is the story of a comic book obsessed teenager who decides to become a super hero (which doesn’t go too well), while an 11 year old girl Mindy Macready (Chloe Grace Moretz) adopts the persona of Hit Girl, and along with her father, Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), sets out to take revenge from a crime boss (Mark Strong). In equal parts a parody of the genre and possibly one of its finest specimen, Kick Ass both embraces and satirises the comic book/superhero idea. It is hilarious and action-packed, although the violence and profanity therein is more than likely to be a huge turnoff for many and will ensure polarizing opinions from its viewers. My only gripe with the film, though, is that it starts off as the story of Kick Ass and turns into the story of Hit Girl, and while Hit Girl does steal the show (which is awesome because it makes the film fun), at the same time this makes one wish that the film had focused more of Kick Ass and his superhero-without-superpowers antics in this instalment and saved more of Hit Girl’s story for the sequel; yes, it probably wouldn’t have generated the same interest that this film did – which is why I’m sure many people would’ve preferred even more of Hit Girl in the movie – but I think the current film changes direction midway and it might’ve been fun to see it continue along the initial storyline; but that’s just my two cents. On the whole Kick Ass is an enjoyable dark comedy, but it certainly isn’t for everyone.

Youth In Revolt
Starring: Michael Cera, Portia Doubleday, Jean Smart, Mary Kay Place, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Long, Ray Liotta, and Steve Buscemi
Director: Miguel Arteta
Youth In Revolt, an absurdist coming of age tale adapted from C.D. Payne’s book series, narrates the misadventures of Nick Twisp (the increasingly typecast Michael Cera), who lives with his divorced mother (Jean Smart) and her succession of boyfriends, meets the charming Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), and then, with the help of his alter ego Francois Dillinger, proceeds to wreck havoc as he lives his vow of doing whatever it takes to be with her. The result is more pretentious than it is profound, as the film lacks the depth it wished it had, and tries too hard to be more artistic than it really is. The story is familiar, the humour doesn’t do more than deliver a few feeble laughs, and the cast has not been used to their full potential. My friend who recommended this film to me, however, maintains that he really enjoyed it, so maybe it’s just that I didn’t resonate with the protagonist…and thank heavens for that!

Starring: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin
Director: Ruben Fleischer
After the world is taken over by zombies, a group fights for survival in Zombieland, probably the best (or at least the most prominent) horror/zombie comedy since Shaun of the Dead (2004). With an impressive performance by the cast, especially Woody Harrelson, Zombieland is filled with humour, action, and quite a bit of gore, and is a captivating ride from start to finish. Sure there’s nothing profound about the movie and it isn’t aiming to change the world, and yes it doesn’t cover some groundbreaking new territory, but it is quite funny, and very likely to entertain its viewers.

- By Sameen Amer

Ink Magazine - Oct-Dec, 2010

Jukebox (VI)

album reviews

iCarly star Miranda Cosgrove makes an unremarkable debut, Hanson return with a solid pop record, while The Killers’ singer impresses with his first solo release

Brandon Flowers
Genre: Rock
The Killers’ frontman Brandon Flowers has embarked on a solo career with the release of his album Flamingo, a set of songs he originally wrote for his band’s next album before they decided to go on hiatus. Not surprisingly, the album – which takes its title from Flamingo Road in the singer’s hometown that is also the location of the Sam’s Town casino (which lent its name to the group’s second album) – retains the overall vibe of The Killers’ music. Flamingo includes a rueful ode to sin city in Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, a duet with Rilo Kiley vocalist Jenny Lewis in the form of Hard Enough, and Springsteen-esque storytelling in songs like Jilted Lovers & Broken Hearts and Was It Something I Said. But the thing that makes the album particularly impressive is that, minus the filler (and there isn’t much of that), all the songs are distinctive, and while the singer has stuck to what he knows best and made an album that sounds pretty close to something The Killers would do, the record is both very listenable and enjoyable; fans, especially, will not be disappointed.
Highlights: Magdalena, Crossfire, Was It Something I Said

Eliza Doolittle
Eliza Doolittle
Genre: Pop
Released to much success in the UK, 22-year-old English singer Eliza Doolittle’s debut album is a collection of breezy summer ditties, not particularly original, but pleasant enough to warrant a listen. The bouncy soul influenced pop obviously reflects influences such as Lily Allen and Kate Nash. The songs are propelled by the singer’s lovely voice, although the jaunty melodies sometimes fall into the chasm of sameness and hence lack memorability, but the album clearly demonstrates that the young songstress offers a lot of promise. The highlight of the album is the single Pack Up; with a chorus inspired by the 1910s marching song Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit-Bag, the single is the standout track in the set, and while the rest of the album doesn’t mirror it’s strength, it does showcase the singer’s ability to produce likeable pop. It now remains to be seen whether she can build upon the strengths and work on the weaknesses when she makes her sophomore effort.
Highlights: Pack Up, Missing

Shout It Out
Genre: Indie Pop Rock
Hanson have come a long way since the Middle of Nowhere days, when the release of MMMBop made the young band a global teen sensation. Since then, Isaac, Taylor and Zac Hanson have grown up musically, started their own record label (3CG Records), and released fairly good pop songs like Penny & Me that really ought to have garnered them more attention that they did. Now, more than a decade after hitting the mainstream, the brothers have released their eighth album, Shout It Out, a pop record that is driven by catchy hooks and ‘70s/‘80s pop sensibilities. The album includes infectious up-tempo songs, like Waiting For This and Thinkin’ ‘Bout Somethin’, that offer instant sing-along potential; however, the momentum starts fading towards the second half of the album, although it still remains quite listenable. Hanson fans, especially those who have been following the band since the beginning, will surely appreciate the band’s musical growth and enjoy this set.
Highlights: Thinkin’ ‘Bout Somethin’, Waiting For This, Kiss Me When You Come Home, Give A Little

Hey Monday
Beneath It All (EP)
Genre: Pop
After downsizing from an eight-song album to a six-song EP, Hey Monday have released their second offering, Beneath It All. Not so much Paramore-lite as something that would probably work if it were being marketed by Disney along with a Demi Lovato album, the band offers commercialised pop music that would be better suited to Kelly Clarkson or Hilary Duff. The upbeat sing-along pop songs are karaoke ready, even though a casual listener would have trouble distinguishing one song from another. Cassadee Pope’s vocals seem like a cross between The Veronicas and Avril Lavigne, and your response to them is likely to depend on how long it’s been since you were a tweenager.
Highlights: I Don’t Wanna Dance, Where Is My Head

Jason Derülo
Jason Derülo
Genre: R&B
After writing songs for the likes of Diddy and Sean Kingston, Haitian American singer, songwriter, and dancer Jason Derülo has launched his solo career with a set of songs tailor-made for Top 40 radio but bereft of any individuality. The kind of singer who likes to sing his own name at the start of his songs (for reasons best known only to him), the newcomer had a massive hit with the song Whatcha Say, the chorus of which samples Imogen Heap’s brilliant Hide and Seek which deserves a huge part of the song’s success; in fact, no other song on the album offers the same bite that Heap’s song adds to Watcha Say. The track The Sky’s The Limit, which is based on the ‘80s Irene Cara hit Flashdance…What a Feeling, offers some hope, but little else stands out on the record. The rest of the album just comes off as R&B-based dance pop, overproduced and auto-tuned to the point of indistinguishability. If he can add more of his personality to the songs and hold back on the auto-tune, then we might be on to something. Otherwise, this brand of catchy urban pop will not make him stand out in an already competitive landscape ruled by the likes of Usher, Chris Brown, and Ne-Yo.
Highlights: Whatcha Say, The Sky’s the Limit, In My Head

Miranda Cosgrove
Sparks Fly
Genre: Teen pop
We’ve grown accustomed to the fact that nearly every Disney starlet, no matter how vocally challenged, will try to enter the world of multi-hyphenates by adding the word “singer” to her resume. Following the same path is Nickelodeon’s Miranda Cosgrove, who you may better know as the star of iCarly or as Drake and Josh’s bratty little sister in Drake & Josh, whose debut album recently hit the shelves. The negatives would be that it is your average synthesized music that comes off as nothing more than homogenized pop fodder. But on the bright side, it’s only eight songs long, so it’s almost over even before it even begins; it’s like they knew going over half an hour would make the listeners suffer too much (although there is a deluxe edition that contains four extra tracks, but that’s clearly too many!). If you fall in the singer’s target market and/or happen to own records by Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, and Taylor Swift, then you might think differently about this album as well. As for everyone else, this is just another disposable bubblegum pop set that suffers from weak vocals and overproduction; you’re not missing anything.


Pearl Jam
Backspacer (2009)
Genre: Rock
Since both defining and being defined by the grunge scene of the early 90s, Pearl Jam have continued to be a vital presence in the world of rock for over two decades. While many of their releases in the last few years have been met by a mixed response, that doesn’t come as much of a surprise considering the colossal status of the band’s early catalogue; it can’t be easy to not get weighed down under your own legacy after having released something as definitive as Ten and Vs.. With their ninth and latest offering Backspacer, PJ have produced one of their most accessible records, marrying rock with pop sensibilities. From energetic rock anthems to contemplative mid-tempo ditties and bittersweet guitar-driven musings, Vedder takes a reflective look at love and loss in the eleven songs that make up the set, and even the occasional cliché comes off as heartfelt. Overall, the album may follow a lighter approach than their earlier work, but you can tell that the band are enjoying themselves, and hopefully the listeners will enjoy it too.
Highlights: The Fixer, Just Breathe, Amongst The Waves, The End

Daniel Powter
Under The Radar (2008)
Genre: Pop Rock
Not many of us had heard of Daniel Powter prior to the release of his self-titled sophomore album in 2005, but following the success of his single Bad Day, the Canadian singer-songwriter found himself in the spotlight. Bad Day was one of the best pop songs of 2005…and then it ended up becoming one of the most annoyingly ubiquitous songs of 2006. It was played repeatedly on TV and radio, it was the elimination/send-off song in the fifth season of American Idol, and it even made an appearance in a commercial. The singles that followed it, however, couldn’t mirror the success of their predecessor and most of them failed to find home in the minds or hearts of listeners. Three years later, Daniel Powter returned with a set of catchy mid-tempo tunes and piano ballads in his third album Under The Radar. Produced by Linda Perry, the set features twelve songs, including a new version of Love You Lately (which previously appeared on his second album), and Negative Fashion (from his debut album I’m Your Betty), along with a live rendition of Bad Day. Powered by pleasant melodies, the album offers more of what made Bad Day a hit; yet, at the same time, there is something that keeps the songs from being truly memorable. The best moments come in the form of the album opener Best Of Me, the eventually-uplifting My So Called Life, and first single Next Plane Home. But as Daniel Powter sticks to the same sound throughout – which does lead him to produce a set of decent, albeit samey, pop songs – the shortfall is that the album covers familiar territory and doesn’t offer much in terms of variety.
Highlights: My So Called Life, Next Plane Home

- By Sameen Amer

Ink Magazine - Oct-Dec, 2010

The Tube (VI)

tv series reviews
A look at the latest seasons of some of television’s prominent sitcoms and dramedies


Cougar Town
Season 1
Cast: Courteney Cox, Christa Miller, Busy Philipps, Dan Byrd, Josh Hopkins, Ian Gomez, and Brian Van Holt
Director: Bill Lawrence
Genre: Sitcom
Courteney Cox returns to the small screen in Cougar Town, the story of a middle-aged divorcee Jules (Courteney Cox) venturing back into the world of dating while raising her teenage son Travis (Dan Byrd). The series starts with the cougar (older woman going out with younger men) premise, but soon switches gears as the protagonist’s interests land on her recently divorced neighbour Grayson (Josh Hopkins); her caustic friend Ellie (Christa Miller), Ellie’s husband Andy (Ian Gomez), giddy assistant Laurie (Busy Philipps), and ex-husband Bobby (Brian Van Holt) round up the rest of the gang. Aided by an impressive cast, and occasionally featuring guest stars such as Sheryl Crow, Scott Foley, and Lisa Kudrow, Cougar Town clearly has a certain charm about it. Yet there is something oddly frustrating about the show from its very onset, primarily rooted in the show’s premise. For one thing, there’s the whole thing regarding Jules’ neuroses about aging, which probably wouldn’t have been nearly as annoying if the character hadn’t been played by someone as gorgeous as Courteney Cox; if anyone else in their 40s had her looks and body, they certainly wouldn’t have been complaining about it. And then there’s the occasional whiff of creepiness that the sitcom gives off every now and then that might put you off. As summed up in the exchange in one of the episodes – in which Jules asks her son why he doesn’t laugh at her jokes; “because they make me sad”, he replies – unfortunately some of the viewers might have a similar reaction to some of the shows attempts at humour. Then again, it can be hard to resist Courteney Cox’s charms, so ultimately, what you feel about Cougar Town will largely depend on whether it strikes a chord with you or not.
Status: Picked up for a second season.

Season 1
Cast: Lea Michele, Cory Monteith, Chris Colfer, Jane Lynch, Matthew Morrison, Dianna Agron, Amber Riley, Mark Salling, Jenna Ushkowitz, Kevin McHale, Jayma Mays, Naya Rivera, Heather Morris, and Jessalyn Gilsig
Genre: Musical comedy drama
Last season’s biggest hit (especially among teens with Twitter accounts), Glee follows the story of William McKinley High School’s glee club New Directions, as it struggles to return to its formal glory while the club’s members – a motley crew of divas, jocks, cheerleaders, and nerds – deal with personal issues; singing and dancing ensues as the underdogs prepare to compete on the show choir circuit. In short, the show comes off as High School Musical meets 90210 by way of Camp Rock, and while it doesn’t offer much in terms of smart, it makes up for this by offering heaps of mindless fun…presuming you can ignore the implausibility of its storylines (which you almost certainly can since you probably wouldn’t have turned to a musical comedy drama if you were in search of realism in the first place). The series also features guest appearance by the likes of Idina Menzel, Kristin Chenoweth, Molly Shannon, Neil Patrick Harris, and Olivia Newton-John, and it’s mixture of pop music covers and teen drama will surely make some people absolutely love it…while the rest will hate it for pretty much the same reasons. You could look at it as a corny, predictable, over the top, tired mix of clichés, or you might see it as a show that in part lampoons teen drama and in part embraces it. But it’ll be hard to resist television’s newest guilty pleasure, especially if you fall in the show’s teenage target demographic.
Status: Picked up for a second and third season.

Romantically Challenged
Season 1
Alyssa Milano, Kyle Bornheimer, Josh Lawson, and Kelly Stables
Director: James Burrows
Genre: Sitcom
Never have I been more certain of the impending demise of a TV series than I was while watching the premiere of Romantically Challenged, a sitcom following the well trodden path of a comedy centred around a group of friends who often find themselves in a coffee shop exchanging banter as a laugh track provides instant gratification to their wit. The plot, somewhat like Cougar Town, revolves around a divorced single mom Rebecca (Alyssa Milano) re-entering the world of dating, guided by her sister Lisa (Kelly Stables), and friends Perry (Kyle Bornheimer) and his roommate Shawn (Josh Lawson). Unlike Cougar Town, however, Romantically Challenged lacks humour, chemistry, and just about everything that would make a sitcom appealing; in fact, it almost makes Cougar Town look like a masterpiece in comparison. The setting is bland; the characters lack charm; the humour is scarce and forced. The material they’re provided with does a disservice to the cast, especially Kyle Bornheimer who got rave reviews for his starring role in Worst Week. And while it was clearly going for the elements that made shows like Friends a hit, Romantically Challenged just comes off as an unoriginal and predictable mess that can more aptly be described as comedically challenged. Uninspired and forgettable.
Status: Cancelled after four episodes.


The Big Bang Theory
Season 3
Cast: Jim Parsons, Johnny Galecki, Simon Helberg, Kunal Nayyar, and Kaley Cuoco
Genre: Sitcom
The brainchild of Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, The Big Bang Theory, a sitcom based on a group of socially awkward friends, wrapped up its third season a few months ago. The series chronicles the lives of experimental physicist Leonard (Johnny Galecki), his theoretical physicist roommate Sheldon (Jim Parsons), their friends, aerospace engineer Howard (Simon Helberg) and particle astrophysicist Rajesh (Kunal Nayyar), and neighbour Penny (Kaley Cuoco). But everyone who’s been following it for the last few years knows that it’s actually the Sheldon Cooper show, and at the heart of it’s success lies Jim Parsons, who just won an Emmy for the role (and seriously deserved to win, even according to Sheldon’s nemesis Wil Wheaton!). Jim Parsons continues to be amazing in the third season, and Sheldon and his fellow characters continue to be powered by a unique blend of nerd humour and clever writing; you might have to be a bit geeky to relate to it, which is why this might not appeal to everyone, but for those who are willing to embrace their inner geek and tap into the shows unique hilarity, they will find The Big Bang Theory absolutely addictive.
Status: Renewed for a fourth season.

Season 6
Cast: Adrian Grenier, Kevin Connolly, Kevin Dillon, Jerry Ferrara, Jeremy Piven, Perrey Reeves, and Rex Lee
Genre: Comedy drama
Having been on the air for more than half a decade, everyone is likely to have made up their mind about Entourage, the HBO series about a young actor and his group of childhood friends as they try to make it in Hollywood. Some of us adore it; the rest can’t understand what the fuss is all about. But no matter which group you fall into, season 6 isn’t likely to change your mind. The show continues to satirize Hollywood, but the focus has shifted from Vince’s (Adrian Grenier) career to more individual storylines for the other characters – Eric (Kevin Connolly) tries to establish himself as a manager while trying to win Sloan (Emmanuelle Chriqui) back; Turtle (Jerry Ferrara), who’s seeing Jamie-Lynn Sigler, starts college; Drama (Kevin Dillon) stars in a successful TV series; Ari’s (Jeremy Piven) frustrated when his friend’s domestic issues interfere with work. Yes, this shift brings the series down, but Entourage has spent the last six years making us care about the characters, and even if it isn’t as good as it used to be, we’re too invested in the characters to give up on the show now. And yes, Jeremy Piven is still brilliant, plus there are still many amusing guest appearance (Matt Damon in the season finale particularly stands out). So while it’s a lot more fun when it concentrates on Vince and Ari, for those who have stuck with it all these years, it’s still worth a watch. (That said, season 7 seems to be going even further downhill, but we’ll talk more about that in the next issue.)
Status: Seventh season currently underway; renewed for an eighth (and supposedly final) season.

United States of Tara
Season 2
Cast: Toni Collette, John Corbett, Brie Larson, Keir Gilchrist, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Patton Oswalt
Genre: Comedy drama
United States of Tara, the comedy drama based around a woman who has Dissociative Identity Disorder, returned for its second season with a more stable Tara, living without any visits from her multiple personalities, although predictably it doesn’t take long for her alters to return; this time Buck, Alice, T, and Gimme are joined by Shoshana Schoenbaum (her therapist alter) and Chicken (a representation of a 5-year-old Tara), making the gang a little overwhelming. As for the rest of the family, Tara’s husband Max (John Corbett) is on a mission to renovate a house he has bought; daughter Kate (Brie Larson) finds a job and then ventures upon an unconventional side project; son Marshall (Keir Gilchrist) struggles with his identity and tries to discover who he really is; and sister Charmaine (Rosemarie DeWitt) celebrates her engagement. There are instances when the banter feels too scripted or when the premise begins to crumble, and during these times, when even the viewer can’t help but echo Charmaine’s scepticism about the validity of her sister's disorder, a lot of credit goes to Toni Collette for making the character still feel interesting, and to their credit, the rest of the cast supports her admirably, because as outrageous as the show is, it’s strength lies is making the character’s struggles feel relatable, even though the setting might not be one that any of us are actually familiar with.
Status: Picked up for a third season.

- By Sameen Amer

Ink Magazine - Oct-Dec, 2010