Sunday, April 29, 2012

A mixed sound

album review

On their comeback album, Kids in the Street, The All-American Rejects try to widen their repertoire and opt for more experimentation

Artist: The All-American Rejects
Album: Kids in the Street

I almost find it hard to believe that it has been over three years since The All-American Rejects released their previous album, When the World Comes Down, mostly because its lead single, 'Gives You Hell', is still very firmly stuck in my head. Then again, it doesn't really feel like it's been nearly seven years since 'Dirty Little Secret' or ten - yes, a whole decade - since 'Swing, Swing' came out. So either my mind has been trapped in some kind of a time vacuum or The All-American Rejects have mastered the art of combining catchy hooks with infectious energy to create singles that have an uncanny habit of turning into persistent, unrelenting earworms.

Diehard fans of the band who are concerned with more than just the radio hits, however, must have found this same three year interval ridiculously long. And it's precisely these fans who will know the group's back catalogue well enough to notice the change in direction that The Rejects have taken with their latest album, Kids in the Street.

Since first coming together in 1999, the band from Oklahoma have seen considerable success with their singles and sold millions of records in the process while wading through the divisive waters of pop rock. Their fourth studio release, Kids in the Street sees the group continue refining their brand of power pop while expanding their sound and lacing it with retro influences.

Mostly a mid-tempo affair, the album features 11 tracks, all written by vocalist Tyson Ritter and guitarist Nick Wheeler, and produced by Greg Wells (Katy Perry, Adele, Weezer). Ritter's distinctive delivery still powers the songs and the focus of the content mostly remains on issues revolving around relationships.

Both album opener 'Someday's Gone' and the cheeky lead single 'Beekeeper's Daughter' don't stray far from the band's standard pop rock territory, but the album soon yields to more subdued material. Other than the stomping glam tinged 'Walk Over Me' which picks up the pace midway through the album, most of the tracks try to emulate measured maturity. The interesting treatments applied to 'Bleed into Your Mind' and 'Gonzo' effortlessly lure listeners in, while songs like the synth ridden 'Heartbeat Slowing Down', the vulnerable 'Affection', and the stripped album closer 'I for You' take the road of emotional balladry, and see the band experiment with electronics, strings, and varying tempos.

The album's highlight comes in the form of second single and title track, the nostalgic 'Kids in the Street', which finds a nice balance between The Rejects' more traditional sound and the evolution they yearn for. But all too often the songs seem uninspired and lack the very ambition that they are meant to exude. The thing that limits Kids in the Street is that the band seems to have held back, and at times their musical intentions remain unclear. Most of the songs on this album aren't as immediate as their hit singles, and the subtle experimental touches aren't enough to win over listeners accustomed to their more catchy pop ditties. Fans who have been religiously following the band for the last decade will definitely feel the difference and will, in all likelihood, be divided over the musical road the band has decided to go down and the producer they have chosen to accompany them on this journey.

Kids in the Street is ultimately a record that sees The All-American Rejects trying to widen their repertoire. Their traditional style is somewhat more subdued in favour of more experimentation, but while the album does begin with promise and offers some interesting content later, the sound doesn't always fully come together with conviction. All too often the band trades their infectious vigour for maturity, and treats these two elements like they're mutually exclusive; let's hope that by the next album they realize that they don't have to abandon one in favour of the other and learn how to strike the right balance between the two.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 29th April, 2012

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Young Adult

movie review: in the picture

Young Adult ***

Starring: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Patrick Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser, Collette Wolfe, Hettienne Park, Jill Eikenberry, Richard Bekins, and J. K. Simmons
Director: Jason Reitman
Tagline: Everyone gets old. Not everyone grows up.

Meet Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a narcissistic 30-something ghost-writer of the Waverly Prep young adult book series. She may have escaped small town mediocrity by moving to the big city, but her life isn’t going quite as well as she would’ve hoped; she drinks too much, her marriage has fallen apart, her series is being cancelled, and she is struggling with a deadline to finish her latest novel. So when an unexpected email about the birth of her ex-boyfriend Buddy’s (Patrick Wilson) daughter makes its way to her inbox, it hits a nerve and sets the action rolling.

“Can you imagine still living in Mercury” she asks a friend, “trapped with a wife and a kid and some crappy job? It’s’s like he’s a hostage,” she declares about Buddy, and thereby sets off on a self-assigned mission to rescue him. He may be happily married and content with his life, but that is clearly irrelevant. So back she goes to her hometown, and thus begins her quest to win back her high school sweetheart.

To say that Mavis has issues would be an understatement, and on hand to tell her just that is former classmate Matt (Patton Oswalt), a geek who became partially disabled after being beaten by jocks in high school. She barely remembers who he is when she runs into him after arriving in town, but he eventually becomes her unlikely confidant, and their odd relationship grows as the movie progresses.

As its oddball characters cross orbits, Young Adult spins an awkwardly riveting web. The film is an exploration of a character with no redemptive qualities, and while Mavis might be a wreck, she is still strangely mesmerising. A portrait of what happens to the beauty queens who graduated high school but her attitude never did, Mavis is still clinging on to the past, has a slew of bad habits, and her lack of self-awareness is appalling, but her persona makes for an interesting case study.

Young Adult reunites screenwriter Diablo Cody (Brook Busey) and director Jason Reitman, the duo that paired up to create the critically acclaimed Juno. Reitman has established himself with films such as Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air, and with projects like Juno and United States of Tara, Cody has displayed her knack for creating unusual characters and enveloping them in humour. In this case, however, the premise might have been set up as a dark comedy, but the film’s comedic undertones are buried under a layer of awkwardness. You might find yourself questioning the plausibility of some of the characters’ motivations, and the lack of redemption for the protagonist might exhaust your supply of patience. But even if that happens, what will keep you from giving up on the film is the performance of its lead actors. Both Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt are the movie’s biggest assets; their performances are right on the mark, and they bring their broken and damaged characters to life with expert precision.

Overall, Young Adult isn’t as immediate as the project its filmmakers are known for. It is an understated, cynical piece that explores the life of an unlikable character and its ideas take some time to process, but it is helped immensely by the performances of its cast, especially Charlize Theron who keeps you watching as the craziness explodes and the façade of the perfect life comes undone.

– Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 22nd April, 2012

Friday, April 20, 2012

Examination Don’ts

cover story

How to avoid the most common mistakes that students make while taking exams

While serving time studying at business school, I was fairly certain that the endless barrage of quizzes and exams was the ultimate form of torture, and that making silly mistakes in said exams was the very definition of frustration. It was only after working as a teaching assistant that I encountered something that was infinitely more frustrating: marking that endless barrage of quizzes and exams and seeing students make those same mistakes over and over and over again.

Whether it’s the stress of the process or fatigue induced carelessness, examinations can fluster the best of us and lead us into making mistakes that defy common sense. This is highlighted by the fact that there are several common mistakes that students generally make while taking a test, all of which become painfully obvious to the person who has to sift through a few hundred papers in a semester, burdened with the responsibility of awarding grades to the frazzled, hapless learners.

So - if not for your own advantage then at least for the sanity of the person who will have to check your papers - you might want to avoid the following mistakes the next time you take an exam:

Not writing your name/roll number on the answer sheet
If you have ever made this mistake, then you are not alone. As obvious as it may sound, it still isn’t uncommon for students to forget to put their identification details on the answer booklet, mostly because they’re in a hurry to start answering the questions. If multiple students make this mistake, especially if the exams aren’t being marked by your instructor (and even worse if the answer sheet is just a grid for marking MCQ answers with no handwriting identification), then it becomes very hard to figure out which paper belongs to which student. And in the worst case scenario, if you can’t be identified, then you can’t be awarded your score.
What you should do: Make it a habit to write down your name/roll number on each separate sheet (in case some of them come loose) as soon as it is handed to you. Make sure you don’t proceed with the exam until your name is on the paper. Recheck when handing in your exam that your name is on it.

Not reading the question properly
Every teacher that I have discussed the topic of exam mistakes with has highlighted this as the most common mistake made by students: not reading the question properly. Under time constraints and in a hurry to get to the question, especially when they are used to looking at a certain type of problem, the response is almost automatic: see the words or digits, and start solving. As a result, students are prone to misinterpret a question, leave parts of the question unanswered, or not follow some vital directions/instructions that could lead to a penalty.
While marking papers, it was almost heartbreaking to see students make this mistake; on numerous occasions they had come up with a perfectly logical answer, only it answered a completely different question than the one that had been posed to them. And unfortunately, answering the question you would like to have been asked or presumed you were asked does not win you points.
What you should do: Don’t rush into answering the question straight away. Spend the required time for reading the question statement and understanding what it says; rephrasing the given statement might help. And don’t presume that the question says what you think it does when you can actually read it and find out for sure.

Lack of proper planning
Jumping straight into the exam as soon as the questionnaire is handed to you might seem like a good idea, and it might be, except it really isn’t, especially not for detailed subjective sections. Plunging ahead without paying attention to the marks and importance of questions can ultimately cost you important points, and answering a difficult, confusing, time consuming problem first can fluster you on the next, easier question.
What you should do: If the length of the questionnaire allows it, go through the entire thing at the start of exam before attempting the questions and take a little time to plan the order in which your should attempt the questions. See which ones you know best and which ones carry the most weightage, and mark the ones you are iffy about while noting down all the points you can remember for each; by the time you come back to these questions later, your mind will have had a chance to process the problems and you might be able to handle them better. And clearly mark the questions that you have answered as you finish working on each of them so that you don’t inadvertently leave something unanswered.

The wall of text syndrome
Whether you know too much about the topic and want to communicate all your knowledge instead of precisely what the question demands, or if you don’t know the exact answer and therefore go ahead and list everything you can think of, in either case it might be tempting to regurgitate all the information you have. Unless you have a teacher who marks based on the number of pages you use instead of their content, this is not a very good idea. Offering unnecessary information instead of a precise answer is simply a waste of your time, and it might be tempting to show off and offer all the information you have on the topic, but remember that it isn’t the examiner’s job to locate the answer in your wall of text!
What you should do: Take a moment to plan what you will write. It might help to jot down some of the main points and see how you should construct the answer. Make your answer as clear as possible, show your step-by-step working, and help the reader follow your logic and train of thought. Use an easy to follow layout, and make use of gaps and headings where suitable.

Poor time management
Either by forgetting to keep an eye on the clock, or by simply ignoring the clock and spending too much time on certain problems, especially those that have fewer marks, many students struggle with time management and fail to finish the whole questionnaire in the given time. And as the time runs out, thoughts become hurried and muddled, handwriting illegible, and chances of making careless mistakes exponentially greater. But failing to allocate time for each question isn’t the only mistake. Students can catch some of their own slip-ups if they leave themselves some time to go over their answers. So remember that you don’t only need time to answer the questions; it is also vital to allocate time to recheck your work afterwards.
What you should do: First of all, don’t panic! Assess the approximate time required for each question, and try your best to wind up each part during the allotted time. If despite your best efforts you find yourself almost out of time and with still a couple of questions left to answer, then summarise the answers in the form of bullet points; this might not lead to full marks, but it is still better than leaving some questions completely unanswered. And, try your best to save some time to recheck your work. Nerves can lead you to silly mistakes, so it helps to double check your answers (and verify that you’re lining up your questions and answers correctly) after every test.

Using txt-speak
Wen u hav 2 go thru an ansr ritn in a languig tht is not ez 2 decifer, let alone make sense of, then u’re seriously left 2 1der wat da student wuz thinking! It is completely inacceptable to use improper spellings or texting lingo in any examination, no matter how lenient the marking will be, because even when your inability to spell “through” or “easy” isn’t overtly costing you marks, it is still grating the person reading your answers. And you don’t want to irritate the person who controls your grade. (The only thing more annoying is wh3n p30pl3 wr1t3 1ik3 th15 and th1nk 1ts sup3r c00l! News flash: it really isn’t!)
What you should do: Never use txt-speak. Ever. Not even in texts, and especially not in tests. Seriously. No.

Not planning for contingencies
Mr. Murphy summed it up best: whatever can go wrong, will. Ok, so chances are that everything won’t go wrong, but what if something does? What if your pen runs out of ink? What if you get to the exam location and realise you forgot to bring your calculator with you? Not bringing required stationary/material, and not carrying spares are a common problem for students, and few instructors are likely to allow you to borrow stationary or shuffle calculators back and forth. And, what if you get stuck in a traffic jam on your way to the exam hall or have trouble finding its location? Arriving late is just a bad start to the exam; you might not even be allowed to enter the exam hall, and even if you are allowed to sit for the exam, you have already lost precious time.
What you should do: Prepare the night before the exam instead of shuffling to put everything together at the last moment. Carry a spare pen (and extra items of other essential stationary) in case one decides to bail on you. Know the location of the exam hall, plan the journey, and make allowances for traffic jams and vehicular problems when leaving for the exam hall to get there on time.

And no matter what happens, don’t let yourself get flustered. Just stay calm and carry on. May the force be with you!

- S.A.
Us Magazine, The News - 20th April, 2012

Sunday, April 08, 2012

We Bought a Zoo

movie review: in the picture

We Bought a Zoo **1/2

*ing:  Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Elle Fanning, Angus MacFadyen, Patrick Fugit, John Michael Higgins, and Carla Gallo
Directed by: Cameron Crowe

In 2006, the Mee family bought and relocated to the Dartmoor Wildlife Park in Devon.

In 2008, Benjamin Mee wrote a book about this experience, detailing the many tribulations encountered in the process, including the difficulties of purchasing, financing, renovating, and reopening the venue, while dealing with his wife’s illness and death.

In 2011, Hollywood decided to strip the story of all its nuances, pump it with sap, and release it as a motion picture. The result: a formulaic feel-good flick called We Bought a Zoo.

Our protagonist is journalist Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), a bereaved widower, still grieving over the recent death of his wife. In search of a fresh start for himself and his kids – angsty 14-year-old son, Dylan (Colin Ford), and adorable 7-year-old daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) – he moves his family into a house that happens to have a decrepit wildlife park in its backyard. With no prior zoological experience, Benjamin must now try to renovate and reopen the zoo while trying to put his life back together. The menagerie (the action has been moved from England to the Rosemoor Animal Park in Southern California) is run by a crew led by no-nonsense head zookeeper, Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), who is assisted by her teen cousin, Lily (Elle Fanning), both of whom serve as convenient love interests for the Mee father and son respectively.

Clichés abound as the film proceeds, and you’re never in doubt of what the final outcome will be. It is obvious that the characters are operating in a world that was constructed by Cameron Crowe’s imagination, and in which events unfold without even trying to dodge the shackles of predictability and complications are invariably sorted out with relative ease; it is a charming and (ultimately) uplifting world, but it’s hard to mistake it for real life.

Despite the clichés though, it would be unfair to deny the film’s warmth. We Bought a Zoo tugs at your heartstrings as it explores the processes of getting over loss, taking chances, and letting go. Matt Damon is likeable as Benjamin Mee, and tackles whatever is thrown at him – be it a sick animal, a petulant teenager, or a fussy zoo inspector – while maintaining his character’s earnest appeal. Scarlett Johansson and Thomas Haden Church (playing Benjamin’s elder brother, Duncan, who appears intermittently to air his concern over his younger sibling’s impractical decisions) both put on solid performances, as does the supporting cast, despite the fact that most of the supporting characters aren’t given a chance to fully develop. Icelandic musician Jónsi (of Sigur Rós fame) adds gentle ambience to the movie through his score, and the proceedings are, as you would expect (what with this being a Cameron Crowe film and all), accompanied by the tunes of artists including Neil Young, Tom Petty, and Bob Dylan.

But in an attempt to give the film an idyllic Hollywood sheen, the filmmaker has veered off the real life course of events. With details ignored, altered, or completely reworked for convenience, the movie is very loosely based on the actual story as presented in Mee’s memoir of the same name. The original account is genuine, intricate, and intriguing, and most of that simply doesn’t translate to the film, which is content with being fairly sterile and painfully formulaic. The characters and relationships portrayed in the movie are stereotypical, the proceedings lack energy, and the various crises and their outcomes seem contrived. As a result, We Bought a Zoo is a well meaning but predictable portrait of coping with loss and moving on with life. It still offers enough warm moments to be touching and conventionally inspirational, and the solid performances from the cast, especially Matt Damon who injects a degree of realism to the otherwise contrived developments, keep the viewers engaged in the movie for the duration of its overlong two hour running time. So while it may not be essential viewing, it is pleasant enough to while away an idle evening.

- Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 8th April, 2012

Sunday, April 01, 2012

The Boss returns with Wrecking Ball

album review

On his new album, American rock 'n' roll giant Bruce Springsteen offers social commentary on the state of America, which, it turns out, he isn’t particularly pleased with

Artist:  Bruce Springsteen
Album: Wrecking Ball

Offering socio-political commentary through music is not always easy to pull off, at least not with conviction. Yet that is exactly what Bruce Springsteen has been doing for nearly four decades, that too with a very considerable amount of success. The world first met the singer-songwriter in 1973, when the then-twenty-something released his debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. The ensuing years saw the musician perfect his brand of heartland rock, and release albums like Born to Run (1975) and Born in the U.S.A. (1984), which cemented his place in history as one of the greatest artists of all time.

With his knack of storytelling through narrative lyrics, Springsteen has often used his music as a means of documenting the struggles of the working class. There’s an emotional resonance to his work which explains his longevity; this is what he is known and loved for. And this is what he has chosen to do on his new album, Wrecking Ball, a powerful set that offers more commentary on the state of America, which, it turns out, he isn’t particularly pleased with. Like always, The Boss has something to say, and he is not afraid to share his anger and air his frustration.

His 17th studio offering, Wrecking Ball features 11 songs, all written and composed by Bruce Springsteen himself, some of which (including the title track) will already be familiar to his ardent fans. With producer Ron Aniello in charge of the project, the record sees the musician plunge into a diverse vault of sounds to come up with an innovative musical output, and proves that Springsteen is still at the top of his game.

The album speaks of corporate greed, decaying morals, and abandoned ideals, chronicling an everyman’s struggle in these hard times. “Where’s the promise from sea to shining sea?” he asks in the stomping album opener ‘We Take Care of Our Own’, a song that questions America’s commitment to the welfare of its people and laments the erosion of the social fabric. ‘Easy Money’ and ‘Death to My Hometown’ take the Wall Street honchos to task, while job struggles surface in the “trudging through the dark in a world gone wrong” tale of ‘Shackled and Drawn’, and the affectingly mellow ‘Jack of All Trades’. The disc might talk of hardships and be fraught with anger, but despite all these very obvious frustrations, Wrecking Ball isn’t simply a tale of doom and gloom. It’s a raw and raucous rally cry driven by anthemic energy that makes the listener want to get through these hard times and realize the promise of what could be.

But no matter what one’s views may be about its message, it is hard to argue that Wrecking Ball isn’t musically interesting. The “what’s a poor boy to do in a world gone wrong?” sentiments (as displayed on ‘Shackled and Drawn’) are powered by warm tunes and catchy hooks that operate on a diverse canvas of sounds borrowed from a number of genres. Touches of folk, gospel, and - brace yourself - even hip hop are sprinkled throughout the record, and the country twang of ‘We Are Alive’ brings Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire’ to mind, but the most obvious presence is that of the Celtic influence which permeates many of the songs on the disc; even bonus track ‘American Land’ takes a page out of Dropkick Murphys’ playbook and presents one of the album’s most hearty tunes. There are musical contributions on the album from E Street members, including some of the final recordings of late saxophonist Clarence Clemons; Springsteen’s wife Patti Scialfa contributes backing vocals to various tracks, and Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello guests on ‘Jack of All Trades’ and ‘This Depression’.

All in all, Wrecking Ball is a testament to why Bruce Springsteen’s music continues to be as appealing today as it was decades ago. It’s an affecting commentary on the world around us, and a chronicle of the unfairness and hardships that befall the working class, delivered as a fiery onslaught that’s powerful, yet intimate, instead of being a bleak, moaning dirge of despair. The album shows no signs of contrivance (provided you can forgive the occasional hat-cat, honey-money rhymes). Its message is relevant, and the use of a diverse musical palette to deliver this message is an auditory triumph. Each song on the record, be it a hard hitting rock anthem or a mellow slow burners, has its own character and place on the album, and it’s safe to say that this material will yield some riveting live performances. In short, it’s all very characteristically Bruce Springsteen, and that’s precisely why it works.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 1st April, 2012