Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Reel-life adventures in Hollywood this year

listomania

A look back at tinsel town’s ups and downs in 2013 – what made this year memorable

* Marvel’s Avengers continued to rule the movie universe. The adequately entertaining Iron Man 3 conquered the global box office and became the world’s highest grossing movie of 2013, while the passable Thor: The Dark World followed suit, becoming the eighth biggest movie of the year. And The Wolverine won Hugh Jackman more praise and also performed well financially. Not to be outdone, DC Comics’ Superman reboot Man of Steel soared to the sixth place in the year’s highest earning list.
* Half of Hollywood got together to make one of the worst movies of the year. Its title, Movie 43, was one of the many things about it that made no sense.
* Before we could even properly rejoice about the fact that there would be no more Twilight movies, Hollywood hurled the adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s The Host at us; it was exactly as bad as we suspected. Other new franchises that failed to take off included The Mortal Instruments and Caster Chronicles, when their respective first installments, City of Bones and Beautiful Creatures, proved to be financial disappointments.
* Scary Movie 5 happened. We wish it hadn’t.
* Our will to live went down as the plans for the 50 Shades of Grey movie picked up. Charlie Hunnam signed on to play Christian Grey, then had a “wait, I did what?!!” moment and promptly left the project; he was replaced by Jamie Dornan. And Dakota Johnson was cast as Anastasia Steele to the excitement of absolutely no one.
* Ben Affleck decided to follow last year’s acclaimed Argo with the abysmal Runner, Runner this year in order to restore equilibrium in his career. Then, in a casting choice that made the world collectively lose its mind, it was announced that Affleck would be donning the Batsuit vacated by Christian Bale for 2015’s Man of Steel sequel, as memories of Gigli flooded many a weary mind.
* The Entourage movie was finally, officially a go.
* Jim Carrey withdrew his support for his new film, the ultra-violent Kick-Ass 2, weeks before its release, saying that he “cannot support that level of violence”. If only he had instead realized what a mess the whole project was when he read the script…
* Former Disney princesses Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens joined their friends to become provocative Spring Breakers, but James Franco stole the spotlight. The ubiquitous actor also appeared in a number of other movies, including Oz the Great and Powerful and…
* … This Is The End, which fittingly became the last movie ever rented from the last Blockbuster store. The film offered some of the funniest moments of the year, as did the somewhat similarly themed but very different The World’s End, which wrapped up Edgar Wright’s Cornetto trilogy.
* The Great Gatsby wasn’t very great. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone wasn’t incredible.
* Fast & Furious 6 made a fast and furious sprint to the top of the box office, before Paul Walker’s tragic, untimely death in a car crash brought the franchise to a temporary halt.
* Action also offered a lot of other variety. Pacific Rim entertained. Elysium underwhelmed. Rush impressed. Prisoners had us riveted. Oblivion borrowed brazenly from sci-fi past. Riddick made a fiery return. Red 2 seemed unnecessary. R.I.P.D. ripped off M.I.B. A Good Day to Die Hard wasn’t very good. And G.I. Joe: Retaliation was thwarted by Pakistani censors.
* The Hangover Part III ended the trilogy, which was also pretty much its only redeeming quality.
* Will Smith’s vanity project After Earth, and his continued effort to pass his son Jaden Smith off as an actor, went awfully awry. Either that or he tried to make a terrible movie on purpose to show us just how bad films can be so that we could appreciate other movies in comparison.
* Films that also landed with a thud included the big screen version of The Lone Ranger; the adaptation of The Reluctant Fundamentalist; the Linda Boreman biopic Lovelace; Sylvester Stallone’s action flick Bullet to the Head; the Machete sequel Machete Kills; and Ethan Hawke and Selena Gomez’s widely slammed Getaway.
* Angelina Jolie’s preventive mastectomy to minimize her risk of breast cancer and her decision to go public about it made headlines, as the actress was applauded for her bravery and for raising awareness about genetic testing.
* Pixar continued to struggle with its creative slump, releasing the middling but successful Monsters University, a sequel to 2001’s Monsters Inc. Its parent company Disney, meanwhile, picked up the slack and received acclaim for its fairytale musical Frozen.
* Elsewhere in animationland, Despicable Me 2 might not have been as novel as its predecessor but it still became the most successful animated movie of the year; The Croods took an amusing prehistoric trip; Turbo and Planes took us to the races; Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 offered some more silly fun; while Epic wasn’t very epic.
* Clearly not content with how awful 2011’s The Smurfs was, the filmmakers took it as a challenge to prove that they can do worse. The result was The Smurfs 2. They succeeded.
* World War Z made us zzZZzzz.
* First Melissa McCarthy lowered our expectations with Identity Theft, then won us over again by teaming up with the lovely Sandra Bullock for the amusing The Heat.
* Sandra Bullock also had us at the edge of our seats with the captivating George Clooney costarring Gravity, although even the film’s awesomeness couldn’t stand in the way of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s nitpicking.
* Horror movie The Conjuring scared us by being based on the scariest thing of all: real life.
* Inside Llewyn Davis was a great combination of a dark, affecting story, good acting, and some fitting music.
* Tyler Perry made yet another Madea movie because he clearly enjoys torturing us.
* The Counselor somehow managed to get Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, and Michael Fassbender on board, and then somehow managed to stuff the whole thing up.
* Robert Redford captivated with his solo performance in the gripping survival adventure All Is Lost.
* Joaquin Phoenix fell for a computer generated voice in the soulful Her.
* Ron Burgundy returned after almost a decade in the comedy Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.
* James Gandolfini passed away, only a few months before the release of the much praised Enough Said.
* Despite (or perhaps because of) her lack of filters, Jennifer Lawrence became someone we wish we were friends with. Her Oscar win and appearances in the lauded The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and American Hustle made 2013 a great year for the young actress.
* Anne Hathaway, on the other hand, may have won a handful of awards but faced the wrath of the Hathahaters, particularly for her prolonged, overly rehearsed acceptance speeches during the award season. But even all that hate couldn’t dethrone Gwyneth Paltrow as the most hated celebrity in Hollywood.
* Adam Sandler continued to win Razzies, and, undeterred, generated even more Razzie-worthy material, this time in the form of the universally criticized Grown Ups 2.
* Katherine Heigl continued to have a movie career for some reason. Even more confusingly, so did Rob Schneider.
* Joseph Gordon-Levitt made his directorial debut in the well-received Don Jon.
* Famed film critic Roger Ebert passed away at the age of 70.
* Biopics of varying quality – from the panned Diana, Winnie Mandela, Jobs, and The Fifth Estate, to the middling Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and the praised The Butler – came out throughout the year.
* Matthew McConaughey made a remarkable comeback with the very impressive Mud, Dallas Buyers Club, and The Wolf of Wall Street, and was followed by unrelenting Oscar buzz wherever he went.
* Also having an impressive year was the great Tom Hanks, who starred in two excellent films, portraying the titular character in the hostage thriller Captain Phillips, and Walt Disney in the touching Saving Mr. Banks, the story of bringing Mary Poppins to the big screen.
* But more than anything, it was a great year to be a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch, who seemed to magically be everywhere all at the same time. From playing the villain in Star Trek Into Darkness and Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate, to his roles in award contending movies like August: Osage County and 12 Years a Slave, the actor was on a roll. He even made a fierce dragon, bringing Smaug to majestic life in the second part of The Hobbit trilogy. And of course he effortlessly raised the popularity of otters everywhere, because he is just that awesome.

- Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 31st December, 2013 *

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Hitting rewind on 2013

annual symphony

The year than was in music, in the words of the people who make it... it’s fun to hit rewind in the digital era

2013 wasn’t exactly the most exciting year for mainstream music in Pakistan. Sporadic singles were the only thing that most artists seemed able to offer. A few albums were promised, then not delivered. Televised music shows failed to make much of an impact, till Pakistan Idol came along and got the masses talking. But through it all, indie thrived, as young musicians with a passion for doing something exciting and different wowed us with their impressive efforts.

As the year draws to a close, Pakistani musicians take a look at the state of the music industry in 2013 and offer a glimpse of what’s in store for 2014:

Haroon Rashid
  • Pakistani music in 2013: TV and radio is way too dominated by Indian content. I enjoyed Ali Zafar’s new songs.
  • My career: I released the first single from Burka Avenger called ‘Lady in Black’ with Adil Omar, which got a lot of attention worldwide.
  • Plans for 2014: I am releasing the full Burka Avenger album with songs sung by stars such as Ali Azmat, Josh, Arieb Azhar, and others.

Junaid Khan
  • Pakistani music in 2013: The Pakistani music scene has progressed this year, though the public has only had exposure to paid content. Only the music that is being pushed by brands is accessible by the public, although it is a good sign that brands have been supporting music and are still doing so today even when the music industry is struggling. Pakistan Idol is a new addition and will be very effective for the industry’s growth as new talent will emerge.
  • My career: As for me, I released two tracks ‘Keh Do’ and ‘Koi Rokey Mujhey’ this year, and also my album is near completion. Thus I’ve had a really productive year and the next will be even more so as I’ll be doing my first solo international tour of US and Canada.

Faakhir Mehmood
  • Pakistani music in 2013: I think it’s fair to say that the music scene in Pakistan seemed stagnant with no fresh music coming out. For me, rehashed old music produced by certain branded shows doesn’t count for much. However, I liked some material put out by Nescafe Basement, it had spark; whereas, Coke Studio has disappointed so far. The oomph and zest of original Pakistani pop that we had grown so used to seems to have fizzled out, at least for now. We saw a lot of British bhangra-esque Punjabi releases and all of them sounded quite monotonous. I liked Sajjad Ali’s ‘Har Zulm’. However I don’t recall any major album release this year, except for an album by Abida Parveen jee. In fact, our major artists haven’t released an album for the past few years. What I liked this year was that a lot of new talented voices came on the scene despite the fact that they were singing old songs or remixes instead of their own music. Also, I felt that the quality and sound of commercial jingles being produced has improved significantly. The cause of concern however is that the artists are continuously looking towards Bollywood for their ‘one hit’ opportunity and that’s a dangerous trend. Also, I observed that PR skill seems to have taken precedence over talent as one’s recognition! I was shocked to see a couple of non-singers bagging awards for their music – a complete disservice to art and music by those at the helm. There should be at least some standards for airing music on national TV. Pakistani music appears to be in a kind of state of confusion and disarray; the artists seem to continue to look towards Bollywood for a playback opportunity to propel their careers whereas original music making seems to be on a decline. Unless and until we have faith in our own local music production (and that includes composing, songwriting, programming, instrumentation, recording, mixing, and mastering) we will not be able to arrest this decline. TV channels also need to have some compassion and dedicate some time to only original Pakistani music.
  • My career: Regrettably, I didn’t produce much new music this year. Actually, I did a lot of touring this year; there were a lot of local and international gigs and regular frequent travel breaks kept me away from the production desk.
  • Plans for 2014: A few music videos are under production, and a lot of compositions that I have been working on over the past year or so during my tours and travels will hopefully see the light of day. I am helping out a few new artists as well and that in itself is exciting.

Nausher Javed (Inteha)
  • Pakistani music in 2013: In my opinion, Pakistani music in 2013 has been growing enormously in comparison with the previous years, but it has grown only in terms of quantity, not quality. Also, the banning of YouTube in Pakistan, shutting down of major music channels, and lack of corporate response has created a dent in [the music industry]. Also, every other person is trying to become a singer these days but they are copying melodies and no new stuff is being produced by them. However the young generation is very capable and talented in playing their own instruments but what they lack is the sense of composition. As far as the new artists and releases are concerned, there were none up to the standards set by artists like Atif, Jal, Call, and us obviously, but in our opinion the original soundtracks of the TV serials have been very good and they have set a standard in this category. And last but not the least, I like ‘Eye To Eye’ by Tahir Shah who broke all standards and records set by the big stars.
  • My career: 2013 was very hectic for us as we were completing our second album, Inteha-e-Rock, which is scheduled to be released in January 2014. We surfed between Pakistan and England while completing this album as the mastering has been done in England. Naukhez has released his solo song ‘Dung Diyaan’ which got a fabulous response from the listeners; the video of ‘Dung Diyaan’ has also been shot and will be released this month on all major channels. I have also recorded a few solo songs and also started vocals as well. We have also recorded some tributes to legends which will be released shortly one by one. The major highlight of the year for us is that our second album has been signed by Times Music India and they are releasing the album all across the world. We have also established our own studio, Chordiology Studio based in Lahore, and we have been producing different artists and bands; we are giving them complete audiovisual facilities. And the lowlight is that we have hibernated since 2012 due to my severe illness which happened after a series of concerts and I remained ill for almost 10 months. That is why we were totally out of scene. Now I am back in action.
  • Plans for 2014: As already mentioned, our album is being released in 2014 so a schedule of concerts and launch shows to be performed in all major cities of India, UK, America, and Canada and also Pakistan as well, has been given to us by the record label. So 2014 seems to be very promising and full of activities. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.

Daniel Arthur Panjwaneey (//orangenoise)
  • Pakistani music in 2013: It’s been interesting. Without trying to sound too biased, the indie scene has really taken off, which is awesome. This is after all the next generation of Pakistani music now. People seem to be a lot more open to it than they were last year. I liked the fact that the indie and electronic music scene got a whole lot bigger this year, plus a whole new wave of music shows online and otherwise. I disliked the fact that Mathira is in everything. And that ‘One Pound Fish’ stuff too. My favourite new releases and artists included Slow Spin, The D/A Method, Nawksh, Lower Sindh! Swing Orchestra, Teeen, and Words from Boxes by Ali Suhail. Zohaib Kazi’s two new singles were brilliant as well.
  • My own career: I released a new EP on my solo project Alien Panda Jury a few months ago. The response has been great; even got a digital distribution deal for two tracks which are now readily available on more digital platforms. The fact that I’ve been playing a few more live shows this year has definitely been a highlight. I was also part of the team for Lussun TV again this season which is always a wonderful experience. The lowlights have been the fact that members of my band //orangenoise have moved to various parts of the country this year, so it’s been tough to make music. However we do have shows planned in three cities in January 2014, which is great. It’s the first time we’ll be performing outside Karachi; I’m really looking forward to that.

Shehzad Noor (Poor Rich Boy)
  • Pakistani music in 2013: It was great, I thought. There was a lot of music, and I think the stuff in Karachi is great and fresh. I liked the music and I disliked the conversations about it.
  • My career: My career? What career? I got a couple of paid gigs. I wouldn’t quit my day job. The highlight: spending time by myself. Lowlight: conversations.
  • Plans for 2014: An album with Poor Rich Boy and maybe some solo stuff.

Faiza Mujahid
  • Pakistani music in 2013: I’ve seen some good upcoming artists, like the Nescafe Basement participants, for a change; they were very refreshing as compared to what we all have been listening to for many years, but having said that, I still believe that our music industry is static. People are still trying to earn something from their passion, but this industry needs a lot of time to recover from the downfall. Nescafe Basement showed a lot of potential with young artists. It goes to show how much young talent we have in our country. They did a brilliant job by putting them under the much deserved spotlight, rather than promoting the same people we have been watching for the last two decades.
  • My career: I’m coming up with my new solo video next week. I tried to do something different this time, made the song and the video around inspirational stories. You’ll see in this video, who are those people we should learn from? What difficulties are there and how to be positive and overcome them? The highlights for me were that I tried something different and sung for a drama serial Numm which was appreciated. I never bother about the lowlights, only care about those in my hair!
  • Plans for 2014: Hopefully, I will be more frequent in releasing my songs. I know it’s not fair to the people who follow my music to keep them waiting for two years to release a single track.

Annie Khalid
  • My career: 2013 was personally a little difficult. Still, I managed to overcome the adversities and released two singles, one with Beenie Man and one featuring Rishi Rich. Both gave me a great response and I feel like it was a good end to the year.
  • Plans for 2014: 2014 will be all about new music and new collaborations!

- Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 29th December, 2013 *

*****
 Atif Aslam
  • Pakistani music in 2013: I don’t have a favourite artist from 2013, but my favourite release was Sajjad Ali’s ‘Hur Zulm’. I dislike the fact that it’s very difficult for beginners to make it big in Pakistan now, and I like how the critics conveniently write stuff about musicians.
  • My career: For me the biggest highlight of 2013 was Sur Kshetra where I had to train every contestant to represent their country in the best form. To face the music giants was completely exciting and something challenging for me. We won a non-scripted reality show in the history of Pakistan. I also loved recording with Peter Gabriel at his house – what a great vibe there was to him and his studio; recording with Michael Andrews for The Reluctant Fundamentalist was also a great learning experience for me. And Peter mentioning [me] in one of his interviews after recording my song, saying “so far the finest falsetto I have heard since Jeff Buckley”, was certainly a highlight for me of 2013. [I also enjoyed] performing for the second time at the O2 Arena in London as a headliner with Shaan, Bipasha Basu, and Malaika Arora. And recording my album was also a highlight for me, as I want to go back to the roots and keep it very simple as opposed to a commercial album. Alhamdulillah, I haven’t had any lowlights in my entire career.
  • Plans for 2014: I guess my fans are waiting for my album, so I will be releasing the album in 2014 for all my fans.

- Sameen Amer
Us Magazine, The News - 10th January, 2013 *

Friday, December 27, 2013

Farewell MMXIII, welcome MMXIV

cover story

As it takes each trip around the Sun, patiently spending 365 days to complete every cycle, the Earth and all its inhabitants spend a year changing, evolving, surviving, and, in a few lucky cases, thriving. Each orbital voyage takes us on a collective journey as we watch the world around us develop in unpredictable ways.

The current year, for instance, was as interesting as any. We endured conflicts, protests, attacks, destructive typhoons, earthquakes, and even a powerful meteor strike. We watched as Pope Benedict XVI bowed out and Pope Francis stepped in, obsessed over the birth of a royal baby, and grieved the loss of a legendary anti-apartheid icon. Edward Snowden concerned us, Lance Armstrong disappointed us, Oscar Pistorius horrified us, Miley Cyrus appalled us, Kimye bored us, and Kim Jong-un worried us. Online hoaxes became a norm, 3D printing gained momentum, iPhone 5S made its debut, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 competed for attention, and Iron Man 3 raked in the cash. It was hard to say goodbye to Breaking Bad, significantly easier to say goodbye to Dexter.

And now, one more trip around the Sun later, it’s time to say farewell to 2013, welcome 2014, and see what it has in store for us.


Political landscape
Yes we can’t
It was out with the old, in with the new slightly different version of old in 2013, as the people of Pakistan let hope triumph over experience once again, when they took to the polls to voice their democratic opinion, eventually coming to the collective decision that tsunamis are indeed very overrated. As a result, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and President Mamnoon Hussain took their respective oaths of office this year and now reign supreme. In the year(s) ahead, we’ll get to reap what we sowed, as we look forward to the long-awaited day when we will finally be able to buy a loaf of bread for a thousand rupees. (At the current rate of inflation, that day will probably be next Tuesday.)
In 2014, Bangladesh, Belgium, India, Hungary, Sweden, Fiji, Brazil, Mozambique, Uruguay, and Lebanon are among the countries scheduled to elect new parliaments, as change will sweep the globe, bringing peace and prosperity to all mankind. (There is however a slight chance that the last bit might not happen.)
Elsewhere, come January, Latvia will become the eighteenth Eurozone country, while Scotland holds its independence referendum in September. And as the United States of America tries to prevent further government meltdowns like the one that happened a few months ago and also get a handle on Obamacare, it will also continue to fume over Edward Snowden’s truth telling mission, while the world will continue to feel the aftershocks of the NSA leaks. The U.S. and the U.K. are also set to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan at the end of the year after maintaining a presence there for 13 years … unless they invoke squatters’ rights which we’re pretty sure suggest that the country is lawfully theirs now.

Books
50 shades of awful
As the hubbub over 50 Shades of Grey shifted from its books to its movie, it was Dan Brown’s Inferno that captured the attention of readers in 2013. The coming year too has a few interesting offerings in store for us from some well known names. Now that J. K. Rowling has been outed as the scribe behind Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling, turning the pitifully ignored tome into an instant chart topper, expect its 2014 sequel to make its way to the bestsellers list when it comes out next year. Also expected to publish a sequel is the annoyingly successful Stephenie Meyer, who might unveil The Seeker, the second book in The Host series. And Cassandra Clare also continues her The Mortal Instruments series with its sixth instalment, City of Heavenly Fire (May). G.R.R. Martin offers the A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms collection (June). Ready Player One author Ernest Cline is set to publish his second novel, Armada (July). And Stephen King is likely to issue not one but two tomes: his foray into crime fiction with the detective novel Mr. Mercedes (June), as well as a novel titled Revival.
And for non-fiction fans, memoirs are expected from celebrities including Lea Michele (Brunette Ambition), Demi Lovato, Carlos Santana, and Paul Stanley (Face The Music: A Life Exposed), as well as Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, in 2014.

Movies
1234: the sequel
Get ready for the overuse of the colon: franchise flicks are here! Just like the year before it, and the year before that, and the year before that, and the year before … well, you get the drift, prequels and sequels are set to rule the box office in 2014. Most of the highest grossing films of 2013 came from established franchises, and 2014 isn’t likely to be any different. Reunite with old friends, as a number of series unveil their next instalments. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) struggles with his role in the modern world in Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier (April). The young X-Men try to change history in X-Men: Days of Future Past (May). It’s a revamped return for the Transformers series in Transformers 4: Age of Extinction (June). The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I (November) follows the tradition of splitting the last novel in a series into two flicks, giving us the first instalment of the finale, as Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) becomes the symbol of a mass rebellion. He had to endure twelve labours, we have to endure not one but two movies about him, first the origin story of the Greek demigod (Kellan Lutz) in Hercules: The Legend Begins (January) and then the graphic novel adaptation Hercules: The Thracian Wars (July). And Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and his companions wind up their quest in The Hobbit: There and Back Again (December).
Then there’s 300: Rise of An Empire (March), Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return (May), Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (January), Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (August) … but worry not, colons aren’t the only thing in copious supply next year, there are also numbers! Enjoy a return to the animated worlds of Rio 2 (April) and How to Train Your Dragon 2 (June). Watch as Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) tries to balance great power and great responsibility in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (May). Get ready for some more ensemble action in The Expendables 3 (August). Prepare to be amused with the arrival of 22 Jump Street (June), Horrible Bosses 2 (November), and Dumb and Dumber To (November). Brace yourself for a fright as Paranormal Activity 5 (October) hits the big screen. And try to fake some excitement for Resident Evil 6 (September).
Other familiar names include I, Frankenstein (January), The Lego Movie (February), RoboCop (February), Muppets Most Wanted (March), Godzilla (May), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (July), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (August), and the highly anticipated Maleficent (May), the retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of the fairytale’s villain (Angelina Jolie).

Music
The (electronic) beat goes on
The EDM oversaturation of 2013 is likely to spill over into 2014, as new music makes its way to our unsuspecting ears in the next 12 months. Glee star Lea Michele makes a Louder debut, Toni Braxton and Babyface join forces to talk about Love, Marriage & Divorce, while Mariah Carey discusses The Art of Letting Go. And best of all, we welcome back Bruce Springsteen, as The Boss returns with High Hopes. New albums are also expected from Adele, Blink-182, Blondie, Chris Brown, Ed Sheeran, The Fray, Foo Fighters, Frank Ocean, fun., Garbage, Linkin Park, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and U2, while the confusingly odd pairing of Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga unite to give us the record Cheek to Cheek. And if we are unlucky enough, Miley will continue sticking her tongue out as some form of a cruel and unusual punishment for our (clearly numerous) sins.
In Pakistan, meanwhile, things will probably be exactly like they were last year: several bands will announce their plans to release a new album; then most of them won’t. Pakistan will also choose its first Idol who will join the ranks of such global Idol-winning sensations as people-whose-names-we-no-longer-remember.

Sports
The art of losing
They doped and cheated and then doped some more, leaving the international sporting arenas significantly sadder and trust deficient.
On the home front ... let’s face it that Pakistan isn’t exactly on top of the world right now as far as sports (or anything else for that matter) are concerned. Our performances have been uneven at best (Pakistani cricket is practically synonymous with unpredictability at this point) and appalling at worst (the fact that we didn’t even qualify for the Hockey World Cup is still too traumatic to process).  Now, 2014 provides us a chance to redeem ourselves. Or a chance to continue being inconsistent.
Either way, the sporting calendar is packed to the seam with events and games in every sport. There is major sporting action to help us cope with the onslaught of both winter and summer. The Winter Olympics head to Sochi, Russia, in February (where Pakistan makes its second appearance and has yet to score a medal), while The Summer Youth Olympic Games take place in August in Nanjing, China (where we will participate in field hockey and weightlifting).
Football fanatics can rejoice as the FIFA World Cup takes us to Brazil in June. The major tennis tournaments will reprise, as Spain’s Rafael Nadal and United States’ Serena Williams try to retain their top spots. Cricket fans can look forward to the ICC World Twenty20 tournament in Bangladesh this spring (March – April), while hockey enthusiasts can catch the Hockey Champions Trophy in India at the end of the year (December). Oh and don’t remind us that the Hockey World Cup will be held in the Netherlands in June next year. Seriously, don’t.

Other than all that, expect solar eclipses, lunar eclipses, and comet sightings. And of course load shedding. Because some things keep happening, no matter what year it is.

Hope you all have an awesome new year!

- S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 27th December, 2013 *

Hits, misses, and all that jazz

music mix

A look back at what the year 2013 took from and gave to the global music scene...

* Daft Punk got lucky when their single ‘Get Lucky’ became one of the biggest hits of the year. The duo’s new album Random Access Memories also met universal acclaim upon its release.
* Robin Thicke tried to make a career out of being sleazy, releasing a single with transparent commercial ambitions and lyrics that made you want to punch the song in the face.
* Miley Cyrus was on a mission to appal everyone she possibly could and even managed to offend the inventor of the foam finger, after she set out on a controversy-generating publicity blitz to promote her new album, Bangerz, which twerked its way to the top of the charts.
* Beyoncé, meanwhile, did the exact opposite and released a new album online with no prior publicity. The Internet promptly imploded. Her husband Jay Z’s new album Magna Carta Holy Grail, on the other hand, was given away as a free download to Samsung customers.
* Kanye West impressed with his new album Yeezus, but made more headlines for his personal life because of his continued relationship with suspected hobbit, Kim Kardashian. Kimye did prove that they have a sense of humour when they named their daughter North West, but practically begged for ridicule with the release of the video for ‘Bound 2’, a chance that James Franco and Seth Rogen promptly took advantage of. Can we stop making fun of Kimye now? No? Yeah ok, you’re totally right.
* When he wasn’t busy getting into trouble, Justin Bieber made some music and started his 10-week long ‘Music Mondays’ project wherein he released a new single every week. Then he gave us an early Christmas present by “officially retiring”. Here’s hoping he sticks to his word.
* Katy Perry unveiled another torrent of clichéd meanderings in the shape of a new album.
* Lady Gaga continued to be shackled by her own shlock.
* Rihanna posted way too many photos of herself online.
* Justin Timberlake subjected us to The 20/20 Experience ... twice. He also reunited ‘N Sync for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it performance at the MTV VMAs.
* Everyone finally decided to notice Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.
* Laura Marling told us that she is a master hunter in one of the standout albums of the year.
* Lorde came to the world’s attention with ‘Royals’.
* Arcade Fire morphed into The Reflektors.
* Bon Jovi toured and made a lot of money. So did Madonna.
* Fall Out Boy got together again for some strange reason.
* The Jonas Brothers were as uninterested in making new songs as we were in listening to them. So they split up.
* Metallica performed in Antarctica, becoming the first band ever to play on all seven continents.
* Lostprophets disbanded after lead singer’s Ian Watkins’ shocking sexual offences case and subsequent imprisonment.
* My Chemical Romance joined the black parade. We’ll miss them more than we’d like to admit.
* Green Day achieved a triple whammy in mediocrity with the release of the last instalment of the ¡Uno!, ¡Dos!, ¡Tré! series. Then Billie Joe Armstrong somehow thought teaming up with Norah Jones to cover an Everly Brothers album would be a great idea. It was not. Now let’s just all sing ‘Basket Case’ together and forget this ever happened.
* Imagine Dragons rose to fame on the back of last year’s Night Visions.
* One Direction released another album, which was a good development for Simon Cowell’s bank balance.
* Taylor Swift fans battled One Direction fans following her breakup with Harry Styles, as he joined the list of exes she will keep making subtle references to in her music. And by subtle we mean not subtle at all.
* Paramour marched on without the Farro brothers, then took a page from Taylor Swift’s playbook and used their new album to diss the Farros.
* Lily Allen complained that it’s ‘Hard Out Here’ for a … respectable, pleasant, decent woman.
* Paris Hilton’s crimes against music continued as she released another single.
* Ylvis’ ‘The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)’ raised a question that no one particularly wanted an answer to. It would have been wonderful if as soon as the song had been made, someone had shoved its master copy into a rocket and then fired it into the sun.
* Ellie Goulding got the fire, fire, fire and let it burn, burn, burn, burn.
* Avril Lavigne released a new album after two years, making us wonder, has it really been a full two years since she released a new album? We should have appreciated her absence more. She also got married to Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger. Here’s hoping from now they exclusively sing to each other and leave the rest of us out of it.
* Psy went from being a one hit wonder to a two hit wonder when he released his new song ‘Gentleman’, which we probably would have liked if we sustained a massive concussion.
* Rap god Eminem returned to both form and prominence with The Marshall Mathers LP 2.
* Paul McCartney released a new album which featured new songs that he had newly written. It was called New.
* U2 recorded ‘Ordinary Love’ for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, a movie about the extraordinary Nelson Mandela.
* David Bowie returned after a decade with a well-received new album.
* Pearl Jam hit us with a striking Lightning Bolt.
* Morrissey’s autobiography caused a stir.
* Kellie Pickler won Dancing with the Stars, and then said she was always gonna be a ‘Little Bit Gypsy’.
* Carrie Underwood made the mistake of thinking she can act and took on the role of Maria for The Sound of Music Live! Relentless bashing ensued.
* Glee, which has not only jumped the shark but also a couple of whales by now, continued to butcher pop songs. The show also faced a setback when Cory Monteith suddenly passed away at the age of 31.
* Lea Michele unleashed a ‘Cannonball’.
* Icona Pop’s ‘I Love It’ became too ubiquitous and overplayed for its own good. After the millionth time we had to listen to it, we didn’t care, and we definitely didn’t love it.
* The judging panel of singing shows continued to be a game of musical chairs. Singers including Jessie J, Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj, Britney Spears, Demi Lovato, Kelly Rowland, and Paulina Rubio joined and/or exited the trend.
* Adam Levine was declared the sexiest man alive by People Magazine, prompting a campaign by the public to raise funds to purchase glasses for the magazine’s staff.
* Avicii breathed some life into EDM with a few inspired collaborations.
* New records by New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys, and Boyzone took us on a nostalgia trip.
* James Arthur released an album, and then got into a spat after using slurs in a song that sounded like whatever the opposite of a hug is.
* The Lumineers generated many a weary groan.
* Agnetha Fältskog sang live on stage for the first time in 25 years at the BBC Children In Need Rocks concert, performing a duet with the event’s organiser Gary Barlow.
* Gary Barlow released his first full length solo album in over a decade, while Robbie Williams released a second swing album, 12 years after the first.
* After trying and failing to give his wife a music career with How to Destroy Angels, Trent Reznor refocused on Nine Inch Nails. Their comeback album, Hesitation Marks, impressed listeners.
* Dave Grohl’s Sound City documentary on the fabled Californian recording studio wowed critics.
* And The Strokes, Travis, Arctic Monkeys, Goo Goo Dolls, Biffy Clyro, Elton John, Tim McGraw, Celine Dion, Cher, Britney Spears, Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, M.I.A., Sara Bareilles, Tegan and Sara, Josh Groban, Brad Paisley, and Phoenix were among the artists who released albums that captured the interest of the record buying public. 

- By Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 27th December, 2013 *

Sunday, December 22, 2013

We’re the Millers

movie review

We’re the Millers **

Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Jason Sudeikis, Will Poulter, Emma Roberts, Nick Offerman, Kathryn Hahn,  Ed Helms
Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Tagline: If anyone asks

A generic dysfunctional-family comedy runs into a giant puddle of raunchiness in We’re the Millers, a profanity laden road trip that offers some laughs but more often mistakes cringe-worthy for hilarious.

The story commences as debt-ridden drug dealer David (Jason Sudeikis) is coerced by his supplier (Ed Helms) into smuggling a “smidge” (which eventually turns out to be a massive heap) of marijuana across the border. Concerned that he might seem conspicuous and get busted if he makes the journey alone, David hatches the scheme to hire a fake family. Posing as his wife is his neighbour, struggling stripper Rose (Jennifer Aniston), while playing the part of their kids are surly runaway teenager Casey (Emma Roberts) and a misfit kid from their apartment building Kenny (Will Poulter). They’re the Millers, and together they set off on an RV trip to and then from Mexico, smuggling two tons of drugs into the United States.

Things obviously don’t go as smoothly as David would have hoped, and they predictably run into problems that are usually more preposterous than amusing. The premise is ripe for some dark comedy, but instead director Rawson Marshall Thurber and his writers chose to go down the obvious, formulaic route. While the plot often takes nonsensical turns, you’re never really in any doubt where this road trip is heading. The character arcs lead exactly where you think they will. Obligatory romances and schmaltzy heart-warming moments eventually creep up as the film stumbles on, frequently confusing crude for edgy along the way.

The dodgy characters struggle to be likable. Jason Sudeikis and Jennifer Aniston are no strangers to this genre and both seem on autopilot. British actor Will Poulter is well cast as the awkward Kenny and perhaps essays the most sympathetic role in the movie. Ed Helms plays the eccentric drug lord with gusto, although he never comes off as believable. And Nick Offerman and Kathryn Hahn are shoehorned in for convenience and provide some laughs as the Fitzgeralds, a couple who are on a vacation with their daughter Melissa (Molly Quinn) and befriend the Millers on the road.

Its uneven script and predictable storyline keep the movie from feeling interesting or fresh. None of that, however, means that the film won’t make you laugh – it might or it might not. Humour is notoriously subjective. Realism isn’t a necessary requirement for comedy. Plus a number of movies that rely on crudity have done well at the box office, which means they clearly have an audience. We’re the Millers is aimed at a particular audience who will enjoy its zany proceedings, but it is very unlikely to appeal to everyone. This isn’t a film with clever writing and award-worthy acting or direction. And it could’ve easily used a more thorough edit that could have done away with some of slower, weaker moments in its 110 minute running time. Still, you might be entertained if you don’t go in with high expectations, and fans of its cast members will be more likely to forgive its many flaws. Enjoying crude humour is a prerequisite to liking this film; not expecting originality or complexity will also help. And if you do watch We’re the Millers, make sure you stick around for the outtakes before the end credits, which deliver the biggest laugh of the movie. Then again, what does it say about a film when its funniest scene is in the gag reel?

- Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 22nd December, 2013 *

Catchy as ever

album review

One Direction's Midnight Memories recalls musical legends in the band's sugary signature style

Band: One Direction
Album: Midnight Memories

They might not have won The X Factor, but One Direction has achieved something that has eluded even the winners of that show: massive worldwide success, powered by a rabid global fan base. The fact that the said fan base is comprised mostly of tween and teen girls is completely beside the point. What matters is that One Direction is the most successful product manufactured by the Syco pop laboratories, and it isn’t even hard to see why they have such widespread appeal in their target demographic. They seem like a group of charming young men who are having a good time and making some saccharine, easy-to-market pop music. And that hair … have you seen the hair?

Since being put together in 2010 for the seventh series of the British singing competition, Harry Styles, Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, Niall Horan, and Zayn Malik have together become a pop phenomenon, selling millions of singles and albums and decimating a number of sales records in the process. This year has not only seen the boy band issue a book, release a 3D documentary movie, and launched a fragrance (yes, really!), but the group has also released a new album.

Their third record in as many years, Midnight Memories sees the band trying to show growth but being too timid to try anything too drastically different. While they previously took their cues from dance pop, here they have traded that sound in favour of McFly styled pop rock anthems and some folksy ballads. With the help of numerous songwriters and a handful of producers (most prominently Julian Bunetta and John Ryan), One Direction have come up with a set of 14 songs (18 in the deluxe edition) that lyrically revolve around routine, PG-rated relationship-related fluff, although things do take a slightly seedy turn once or twice.

Album opener and lead single ‘Best Song Ever’ might not be the best song ever but it is a catchy, bouncy earworm. And the mid-tempo, guitar-driven second single ‘Story of My Life’ might not be as instantly catchy as its predecessor, but its folksy leanings help widen the group’s repertoire. Things, however, start to get a little dull towards the second half, with songs like the Ryan Tedder co-written ‘Right Now’ (which sounds predictably OneRepublic-ish) and the Gary Lightbody and Jacknife Lee effort ‘Something Great’ (which sounds predictably Snow Patrol-ish), which could have potentially been replaced by a couple of the bonus tracks.

What’s hard to ignore though, is that many of the songs sound like watered down versions of something that we have already heard elsewhere. Whether it’s the punchy Def Leppard reminiscent ‘Midnight Memories’, the Van Halen-esque ‘Little Black Dress’, or the Mumford-lite folk pop of ‘Story of My Life’ and ‘Through the Dark’, you can hear their influences loud and clear. And after all the hoopla about ‘Best Song Ever”s similarity to The Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’, you can only hope no one ever hands a copy of this album to Rick Springfield because if he hears bonus track ‘Does He Know’, then we will really have some trouble on our hands.

So yes, it borrows sonically from all sorts of places and is highly derivative. But then again, none of that will keep it from seeming interesting to its intended audience, most of whom are too young to remember the music and artists it approximates from (and who seemingly take pride in not knowing who The Who are). Ultimately, Midnight Memories might be ambitious by One Direction’s standards, but it isn’t willing to really be adventurous and is just inoffensive, polished, generic pop rock. It’s fun and catchy, but all a bit too vanilla. From their perspective though, it is safe enough to help them retain their fan base and perhaps even help the group’s longevity.

Now that that’s all settled, could someone please tell me if I should be embarrassed that the title track is now stuck in my head? And why do I have a sudden urge to listen to ‘Pour Some Sugar on Me’?

- Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 22nd December, 2013 *

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Art(less) Pop

album review

Only the Gaga-ists will like Artpop, because it takes that kind of loyalty to hear the same thing for the third time

Singer: Lady Gaga
Album: Artpop

After a number of female pop singers – primarily Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Britney Spears – released new music within the span of a few weeks, the resulting comparisons were inevitable. The prime targets of this chatter were Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, after the first singles from their respective new albums ended up coming out within days of each other. Katy Perry unsurprisingly won the sales battle (as she often does), but it was still hard to figure out whether Perry’s lacklustre ‘Roar’ or Gaga’s bland ‘Applause’ had more merit. What seemed fairly obvious though was that (despite what the Grammy nominations might suggest) neither delivered a pop masterpiece. Now it turns out that neither of them has delivered a remarkable album either, albeit for completely opposite reasons: Katy didn’t try hard enough; Gaga tried way too hard.

That, however, isn’t exactly a revelation. Ever since Stefani Germanotta donned the persona of Lady Gaga, she has gone out of her way to seek attention and court controversy, often leaving commentators wondering whether she is a serious artist or a hackneyed joke with a stale punch line. All too often, it seems like she talks a big game, overhypes her projects, leaves the listener expecting too much, and then just can’t deliver. And following the incessant spotlight-hogging antics, the music itself feels like a middle-of-the-road letdown. Her latest album Artpop suffers the same fate. There’s no art here – or at least no more than any other piece of mainstream music – but a lot of pop. Messy, laboured, all-over-the-place pop.

A return to familiar territory, her third record finds her singing about – prepare to be shocked – lust, fame, and fashion, and sees her co-write each of its 15 tracks and work with producers including Paul Blair, Nick Monson, and Dino Zisis among others. Neither focused nor coherent, Artpop offers a lot of grandstanding and showcases a singer with a chronic aversion to lyrical subtlety and sonic restraint. The record often finds its songs buried under layers of effects and in insufferable lyrical territory. As a result, the songs sound overdone and convoluted. And then the repetition of phrases or the song titles (“Venus, Venus, Venus”, “artpop, artpop, artpop”, “gypsy, gypsy, gyspy”, “applause, applause, applause”) over and over, the use of the same tempo for much of its run, and the application of similar styles on multiple ditties makes the album seem musically tired.

Not to say that it all sounds the same, but sometimes the different ones aren’t very impressive either. The R. Kelly duet ‘Do What U Want’ works better than the T.I., Too Short, and Twista assisted detour into hip hop in the shape of ‘Jewels n’ Drugs’ which feels misplaced. The synth drenched ‘Donatella’ is so witless that it doesn’t quite make it clear enough if it’s a glorification or a send-up of its subject, Donatella Versace. And while the will.i.am and David Guetta produced ‘Fashion!’ starts with a promising piano intro, it then descends into an uninspired, generic tune. When she gets to the simpler tunes towards the end of the set, though, she truly shines as a singer. ‘Gypsy’ might be a more straightforward, and perhaps even uninventive ditty that could have found home on her previous disc Born This Way, but there is no denying that it is an irresistible, solid pop song. Sure she over-sings on ‘Dope’, producer Rick Rubin’s sole contribution to the album, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is an impressive ballad.

Ultimately, while listening to Artpop, it often becomes hard to decide if she’s taking herself too seriously or not seriously enough. Of course mixing art and pop isn’t a novel idea, but it’s a concept that becomes trickier to carry out when the artist trying to execute it isn’t willing to stray from the mainstream. A generic execution obviously doesn’t work; the songs might be catchy, but the singer seems to be going the ‘vocals on a layer of techno beats’ route that has become commonplace at this point. Yet, even the flaws of this record – and there are many – can’t hide the talent of the singer who made it. It has been obvious from the start that underneath all the makeup and costumes and ridiculousness is a good singer who can come up with strong melodies and infectious tunes. Unfortunately, on Artpop, she seems a little too enamoured with her own shtick, and it’s a pity that her pretentious persona has overshadowed her music, and her focus on spectacle is becoming a hindrance. Or maybe it’s just that flamboyance just doesn’t stand out as much today as it did five years ago. Since she arrived, strange has become the new normal, and the only thing shocking at this point would be if she appeared simple, fully clothed, and makeup-less, and sang a clean, bare pop song without pretending that it’s anything more than just that. And perhaps that’s exactly what she should do – see the art in simplicity, show restraint, and put her powerful vocals to better use, because at this point, creating an album that is raw but powerful might give her career a boost, widen her appeal, and increase her longevity, and truly surprise the jaded audience.

- Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 15th December, 2013 *

Friday, December 13, 2013

Bone

book review

Comic book series: Bone
Writer and artist: Jeff Smith

A few pages into the first volume of the Bone series, a character comes across some comic books and comments that she has never seen one before. “You haven’t?” her companion replies. “You must’ve had a deprived childhood”. If by those standards your childhood has also been deprived, then now would be a good time to rectify this dearth of graphic novels in your life by seeking out some of the best works in this medium. And you couldn’t really ask for a better introduction to the world of comics than Jeff Smith’s high fantasy series Bone.

Divided into nine volumes that were originally drawn and released in black and white (1995 to 2004) and then reissued in colour (2005 to 2009), the series, which is also available as a one volume edition, follows the adventures of the Bone cousins – the money-obsessed Phoncible P. “Phoney” Bone, goofy Smiley Bone, and responsible Fone Bone. After being run out of their hometown of Boneville, the Bones wander across a desert where they are chased by (stupid, stupid) rat creatures, eventually making their way to a mysterious valley where they meet a young girl named Thorn and her grandmother Rose Ben. Little do they know that an epic conflict is brewing; an ancient war is about to reignite and it will soon have them all struggling for survival as dark forces threaten the world.

The yarn gets off to a humorous start and captivates the reader right from the get go before turning into a more complex and thrilling tale that gets darker as it progresses. It never really loses its sense of humour though, and always finds the right balance between comedy and fantasy.

Drawn with skill, written with zeal, and clearly put together with a lot of passion, Bone is as masterful an example of storytelling as you’re likely to find. One of the best fantasy tales in this or any format, this award-winning series is an impressive blend of excellent artwork, effective writing, engaging characters, a riveting story, unexpected plot twists, remarkable depth, and meticulous attention to detail. And that’s why it has so quickly turned into such an endearing classic and become a testament to Jeff Smith’s remarkable talent.

It’s The Lord of the Rings of comic books (a comparison that is apt on many levels as you will discover when you read it), and deserves to be more popular than many of the fantasy series that have taken mainstream traction. And it’s practically begging for a big (or small) screen adaptation (although seeing Hollywood’s track record, perhaps it’s a good thing that there hasn’t been one yet).

All in all, Jeff Smith’s magnum opus is a whimsical and exciting combination of fantasy, action, and adventure, and a riveting tale of perseverance. If you are one of those who haven’t read this 1300 page epic yet, then grab a copy immediately. It doesn’t matter if you like comics or not, and you don’t necessarily have to be a fantasy buff to enjoy this novel. And it wouldn’t be a bad idea to suggest it to youngsters (or even grown ups for that matter) who aren’t into reading. You have a variety of formats to choose from, and no reason to not at least give it a try. This fun filled, action packed adventure graphic novel is very impressive and waiting to take you on an exciting journey.

- S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 13th December, 2013 *

Sunday, December 08, 2013

R.I.P.D.

movie review

R.I.P.D. **

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Ryan Reynolds, Kevin Bacon, Mary-Louise Parker, and Stephanie Szostak
Director: Robert Schwentke
Tagline: To protect and serve the living

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that gives you no clear reason why it exists and leaves you in doubt about the competence of everyone who was involved in its creation. R.I.P.D. is one of those films.

Based on a comic book, the movie follows the story of a man who is recruited by a covert agency and forced to team up with a difficult, veteran partner in order to capture monstrous creatures living on Earth disguised as regular people. Sounds familiar? The premise is such a blatant rip-off of Men in Black that they should owe the M.I.B. crew some sort of royalties. Of course the aliens have been replaced by the undead, and the charm has been replaced by full-on tedium, but the basic backbone remains suspiciously similar.

The supernatural comedy kicks off when detective Nick Walker (Ryan Reynolds) is gunned down by his partner (Kevin Bacon) after he decides not to go along with their plan of keeping stolen pieces of gold that they acquired during a bust. But instead of being sent to the hereafter, he is recruited by the Rest in Peace Department, an agency that hires deceased police officers to capture “deados”, the spirits that have escaped and returned to Earth. To his dismay, his tart commanding officer (Mary-Louise Parker) teams him up with Roy (Jeff Bridges), a marshal from the late 1800s era Wild West. Friction obviously results, before the duo stumble upon a plan wherein the deados aim to rebuild an ancient device and return to the planet, and thenceforth it is up to our mismatched heroes to stop this cataclysmic event and save the living – including Nick’s bereaved wife (Stephanie Szostak) – from an undead invasion.

Okay, so there’s something vaguely like a plot in there somewhere, but what’s bewildering is why no one bothered to fine tune it. Did someone actually think that taking the M.I.B. template and changing “aliens” to “deados” would be a good enough attempt at starting a new franchise? Who decided that this was worth shelling out $130 million over? And why wasn’t any of that budget spent on hiring good writers?

R.I.P.D. plays like a bunch of borrowed, incongruous pieces that have been thrown together without any cohesion whatsoever. Its premise isn’t exactly the worst or weakest idea that anyone in Hollywood has ever come up with, but it’s an idea that needed a lot more work before and during its execution. And the profusely dreary script could have definitely done with a rewrite.

The opportunities that present themselves – like the idea that the R.I.P.D. agents don’t look like themselves to the living; Nick appears as an old Chinese man (James Hong), and Roy as a beautiful blonde woman (Marisa Miller) – are promptly squandered. There is no real tension or suspense; you can see it all coming from a mile. And the chemistry never seems to gel; the relationships you should be invested in leave you oddly indifferent, and it doesn’t even use the hackneyed buddy cop dynamic effectively. The actors can’t do much with the material they’re given and it isn’t very clear what attracted them to this project in the first place. Ryan Reynolds simply looks bored. Jeff Bridges tries too hard and his performance feels strained, but he probably had more fun playing the character than the audience will have while watching him. Mary-Louise Parker is charming but has little to work with. And James Hong and Marisa Miller aren’t used to their appearances’ full comedic potential.

But probably the most frustrating thing about R.I.P.D. is that this film could have easily been better. Instead of lazily replicating a formula that has been successful elsewhere, the filmmakers could have tried to be more innovative. There were plenty of chances to differentiate the movie from the franchises that it’s clearly influenced by, and a lot could have been done with its very sizeable budget as well as Jeff Bridges and Mary-Louise Parker’s acting talent. Ultimately the film doesn’t offer anything more than a few scattered laughs and a lot of scattered ideas that never cohere into a compelling movie. Basically imagine a cross between Men in Black and Ghostbusters, drain all its charm, and you’ll get R.I.P.D. Then forget about R.I.P.D. and watch Men in Black and Ghostbusters instead; you’ll probably have a better time.

- Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 8th December, 2013 *

Katy Perry: Still stuck in a teenage dream

album review

Her loyal fans may lap it up but musically Prism is more of the same from Katy Perry

Singer: Katy Perry
Album: Prism

A few years after her attempts to become a contemporary Christian music star did not pan out quite as well as she would have hoped, Katy Perry emerged with a pop makeover, singing about kissing a girl and liking it, and courting controversy that only helped to fuel her popularity. She didn’t come with the most remarkable voice and she was hardly bringing anything new to the table, but turns out that wrapping controversial content in a catchy hook is as surefire a recipe for stardom as can be. Consequently, her subsequent releases broke a multitude of records, making her one of the most successful pop singers in the mainstream arena. It obviously helped that she seemed likable and came off as charming and interesting during her media appearances, but unfortunately that charm didn’t always make its way onto her records, and her new album Prism is no different.

Her third pop record, fourth studio release overall, Prism follows 2010′s curiously successful, chart-topping, record-breaking Teenage Dream, and comes after her highly publicized marriage to and subsequent divorce from British comedian Russell Brand. If you think that suggests the singer would have come up with a set of songs doused in dark and scathing tones, then think again, because that’s not the case here. Perry does seem to be attempting a slightly more mature sound and has toned down some of her flashiness, but the result is still not particularly different from her previous efforts.

As always, a host of eminent producers – most prominently Dr. Luke and Max Martin, who have worked on a number of these songs with the singer who has writing credits on every track in the album – have been enlisted to construct the 13 songs on this record and polish it off with a radio friendly sheen.

There are a handful of more upbeat songs on Prism: the disco-tinged ‘Walking On Air’ sounds like it was plucked from the ’90s, the innuendo laden ‘Birthday’ proves that Perry is still not a big fan of subtlety, and the catchy ‘This Is How We Do’ (which is already being touted as the song of the summer for 2014) sees her return to the ‘Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)’ territory. But for at least some parts of the record (and as the furor over lead single ‘Roar’ sounding like Sara Bareilles’ ‘Brave’ illustrates), the playfulness has been held back for more contemplative or inspirational songs, although most of them often come off as the singer hurling empowerment clichés at the listeners. ‘Roar’, for instance, purports to be a determined ode to survival, but its lyrics never rise above generic platitudes. And the treatment that has been applied to the record suggests that even the production team didn’t have much faith in her vocal abilities, which is why the more banal material, especially towards the end, leaves you wondering if someone with more vocal prowess could have breathed some life into those ditties.

Overall, Prism is Katy Perry’s measured attempt to be taken more seriously as an artist without straying too far from the sound that has made her popular. Fans will find comfort in the fact that she is still trying to be relatable and uplifting, and are likely to find inspiration in songs like the self-love anthem ‘Love Me’. It isn’t very exciting, inventive, or even particularly compelling for the most part, and if you aren’t a Katy Perry fan, then chances are that the album will fail to make much of an impression. But if her charm has worked on you so far, then you will probably find something to like about this set of songs.

- Sameen Amer 

Instep, The News on Sunday - 8th December, 2013 *

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Electric elementals

album review

Pearl Jam offers a mix of all its thrilling sounds in its tenth studio album

Band: Pearl Jam
Album: Lightning Bolt

Few pioneers of the '90s era grunge scene are still intact, and even fewer can lay claim to any form of relevance in the current alternative rock sphere. Yet two decades on, Pearl Jam have not only survived but thrived, and they've done it all on their own terms, cementing their legacy and inspiring countless others along the way.

Now in their third decade, the group shows us why their career has maintained such longevity with their new album Lightning Bolt. The follow-up to 2009's Backspacer, their tenth album sees the band once again collaborate with longtime producer Brendan O'Brien, as they ponder life and mortality in 12 songs, all penned by the group members. Varying from joyous to somber and gentle to aggressive, the tracks span the various moods that have appeared throughout the band's discography, never straying too far from the standard Pearl Jam sound.

The record begins with an onslaught of hard hitting rockers ('Getaway', 'Mind Your Manners', 'My Father's Son') before giving way to mid tempo anthems ('Lightning Bolt', 'Infallible') and poignant ballads ('Sirens', 'Yellow Moon', and 'Future Days'). A detour into blues territory with the infectious 'Let the Records Play' offers one of the most fun moments of the album, while the folk of 'Sleeping By Myself' (a rework of the song which previously appeared on Eddie Vedder's album Ukulele Songs in 2011) offers more texture (although some will inevitably prefer the intimacy of the solo original).

Even though at times the material does feel less raw and more polished than their earlier records, Eddie Vedder's vocals are as powerful as ever, and Pearl Jam are still full of the angst and energy that initially made a generation fall for them. Their punk still has its edge, and their instrumentation is as strong as ever.

Overall, there is a sense of comfort in the familiarity of the sound that drives Lightning Bolt, as it demonstrates a band that is confident and perhaps a bit complacent. There isn't any drastic experimentation on this record, and Pearl Jam certainly isn't chasing contemporary trends to stay relevant, but at the same time they aren't stagnant or monotonous either. This is an album that their core audience will definitely appreciate, as, in essence, the band is still doing what they have been doing all along, which is what they're known for and what they're good at. There is enough familiarity here to invoke nostalgia, but not so much that it would make the record redundant. Yes, some listeners might think the set gets a little bogged down by predictability, but if at first it seems a little too familiar, give it a few spins, get to know its tracks, and let it grow on you; you will definitely be able to feel its various textures after multiple listens. Ultimately a few decades from now Lightning Bolt might not prove to be as memorable as Ten or Vitalogy, but that doesn't take away from the fact that it's a thoroughly enjoyable record by one of the most consistent and uncompromising bands in rock and roll history.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 1st December, 2013 *

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A return to the signature

album review

Travis delivers more of the same - a good thing for loyal fans who like them just the way they are

Band: Travis
Album: Where You Stand

Their 1999 hit 'Why Does It Always Rain on Me?' gave Travis immense recognition and propelled their sophomore album, the terrific The Man Who (1999), to the top of the charts. The post-Britpop band has released a number of records since, but their overall commercial appeal has tapered off in the last decade. Yes they have retained their core fan base, but they have never been able to capture the attention of the mainstream audience like they did in the late '90s.

Their new album probably won't change things much.

The Scottish band has returned after a five year absence with their seventh studio record, Where You Stand. An affable collection of melodic pop rock, it's mostly mid-tempo, soft-toned, and often gentle in its approach with enough subtle variation to keep the record from becoming too monotone. This is basically Travis doing what they do best: crafting beautiful, contemplative pop rock. They're not trying to be modern, edgy, commercial, or even inventive. They're just being Travis; lucky for them, they're quite good at it.

From the soaring melody of opener 'Mother' to the piano balladry of closer 'Big Screen', the 11 tracks that make up Where You Stand offer little touches throughout that become more apparent with each repeat listen. The more straightforward songs - like the ode to unconditional support in the form of lead single 'Where You Stand' and the somewhat 'Walking in the Sun' reminiscent 'On My Wall' - revel in the band's effortless melodic sensibilities and the comfort of singer and primary lyricist Fran Healy's familiar voice. The few variant efforts come in the shape of the tale of betrayal in the eerie 'Another Guy' and the trip-hop of 'New Shoes'.

But on the whole it's all so trademark Travis that it's hard to see what, if anything, producer Michael Ilbert brings to the album, and therein might lie a problem (as well as a potential solution). Perhaps working with someone more dynamic could have helped the group lift their record from pleasant to remarkable, and create something more memorable while staying true to their sound.

Where You Stand is basically what you expect a Travis record to be. This is gentle music and a comforting reprieve from the sea of EDM that has taken over the charts, and it reveals a band that is relaxed, content, and self-assured. But while it's warm and sincere, it is also predictable and does little to change the band's perception or win over their detractors. Those who have found them mundane, dull, and clichéd so far won't change their opinion after listening to this set. For the rest of us, Where You Stand is nice, familiar, and reassuring. If you have fond memories of the band from their The Man Who and The Invisible Band era, then this record is likely to delight you. And it might even make you find your old Travis records, dust them off, and give them another spin.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 24th November, 2013 *

Friday, November 22, 2013

For the love of the band

book review

Book: Dare to Dream: Life as One Direction
By: One Direction

Unless you’ve been away from planet Earth for the last few years, you must have heard of One Direction, the British pop group that has taken the world by storm. Sure they have their detractors – being a manufactured boy band that was created on a reality TV show and makes cookie cutter pop music isn’t the best recipe for critical acclaim – but they are still Simon Cowell’s most successful product. Their rabid fan base is made up of millions of youngsters around the world who adore the band, and repeatedly want the entire universe to know that they adore the band, thereby relentlessly making the Internet a more annoying place.

But the indisputable fact remains that Harry Styles, Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, Niall Horan, and Zayn Malik, put together make up one of the biggest teen pop sensations of recent years, amassing hit singles, selling millions of albums, topping the charts in dozens of countries, and breaking world records along the way. And they have relayed some of their stories in 2011’s Dare to Dream: Life as One Direction.

An official 1D book purportedly penned by the members of the band, Dare to Dream sees each member relay some of their earliest memories, first experiences, recollection from their time on The X Factor UK in 2010, and embracing their meteoric rise and consequent fame. Harry, Liam, Louis, Niall, and Zayn each have their own separate section in the book in which they share their journey as well as lots of pictures, ranging from some childhood snaps to post fame and tour photographs.

Saying that the book is essential for their fans would be like stating that the grass is green and the sky is blue. How could any obsessed Directioner not want to know random details, no matter how inconsequential, about the members of their favourite group? Do you know how many of them auditioned for The X Factor before and were rejected? How about which one of the boys was born with only one functional kidney? And who was such a good runner that he was on the reserve list for the 2012 Olympics? Want to find out what their individual favourite films, albums, bands, foods, drinks, shops, perfumes, games, and iPhone apps are? It’s all in there, waiting to be perused by the fanatical tween and teen masses.

To be clear though, the book isn’t extremely comprehensive and all encompassing. It is short and a very quick read, written in simple language easy enough for young readers to follow. And some of their personality does seem to have been airbrushed and sanitized to preserve their image. It was clearly written with their fan base in mind, and there is enough in there to make their diehard followers pleased and entertained.

If you don’t like One Direction then you have no reason to buy Dare to Dream; it is highly unlikely that reading it will provide you any astonishing insight or life altering revelations about the group that will convert you into a fan. But if you love the band and for some strange reason still don’t have the book, then now would be a good time to rectify that.

- S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 22nd November, 2013 *

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The World's End

movie review

The World's End ***1/2

Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike
Director: Edgar Wright 
Tagline: Prepare to get annihilated

Whenever director Edgar Wright and actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost join forces, thoroughly entertaining madness is sure to ensue. This British team has now returned to wind up their so called Cornetto trilogy, a set of standalone comedic genre spoof movies, with the science fiction comedy The World's End, and the result is as amusing as you would expect.

In the same vein as the first two films in the trilogy - the zombie movie send-up Shaun of the Dead (2004) and the buddy-cop action spoof Hot Fuzz (2007) - the third flick also delivers drama, emotions, action, and their standard brand of cheeky humour along the way.

The movie begins as Gary King (Simon Pegg), a middle-aged layabout, resolves to track down his estranged friends - Andy (Nick Frost), Steven (Paddy Considine), Peter (Eddie Marsan), and Oliver (Martin Freeman) - and complete the Golden Mile, an epic pub crawl through their hometown of Newton Haven that the group attempted (but did not complete) as teenagers over 20 years ago. Gary clearly hasn't been very successful at growing up, and the fact that his friends have moved on with their lives and settled down doesn't dampen his spirits. Before you know it, the reluctant crew has been coerced, one at a time, to join him for a quest to have a pint at each of the dozen bars on the course that concludes at The World's End, the last pub on the route.

As the five friends return to their hometown and set out to conquer the Golden Mile once again, old issues start to spill out, and resentments resurface; a few pubs later, the group are about to call it quits, when they realize that something peculiar is going on in the town. The film gains momentum as it takes a turn into science fiction when the quintet uncovers why Newton Haven has been transformed into an oddly sinister, Stepford-ish place.

Scripted by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, The World's End is a talky comedy with plenty of well-choreographed action that delivers both excitement and laughs, and a good soundtrack to boot. It goes without saying that the film is well cast and that the comedic talent of the main actors is a big asset for the movie. Pegg and Frost embrace the reversal of roles from their previous efforts; Frost now plays the responsible straight man, while Pegg play the obnoxious yet strangely charming Gary, who despite his self-centred and childish antics exudes enough charisma to take his weary friends as well as the audience along for the ride.

The film is well constructed and generally very sharp in its social satire. Offering a take on friendship, arrested development, addiction, disappointment, living in the past, and modern life, The World's End comes with a layer of sadness just underneath its often zany surface if you take a moment to think about it; but Wright doesn't often give you that chance, hurling the viewer into the chaotic mayhem as the comedy riots on. However, the proceedings could have been more even. Perhaps 12 pubs might have been a few too many for the cinematic crawl, and the film does not have a sustained level of energy throughout. And enjoying some of its choices and its sometimes subtle humour might just come down to personal preferences; for instance, while I wasn't thoroughly satisfied with the ending, I'm sure many viewers will be.

On the whole, The World's End is an amusing conclusion to an impressive trilogy that embraces its very English humour and revels in its Britishness. It's variously smart and silly, and propelled by a very talented cast. If you've seen Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, then you already know what to expect. And if you enjoyed those two films, then there's a very high chance you will enjoy this one too.

- Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 10th November, 2013 *