Sunday, September 29, 2013


movie review

Elysium ***

Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, William Fichtner
Written and directed by: Neill Blomkamp
Tagline: He can save us all

Whether they have been through books or films or television shows, all of my recent encounters with dystopian science fiction have led me to the same conclusion: dystopia is getting exasperatingly overcrowded. It's a setting that can potentially offer thoroughly intriguing tales, but is being used so frequently, callously, and lazily that its mechanics are becoming predictable and losing their charm.

But when it was announced that District 9's Neill Blomkamp was working on a dystopic science fiction action thriller, it was easy to be optimistic. Add Matt Damon and Jodie Foster to the mix, and you know the project definitely has potential. But was this potential capitalized on or squandered?

It's the year 2154, and the world has fallen into disarray. The poor live on a devastated Earth that is policed by robots, while the rich have moved to a space station called Elysium where they live in luxury and comfort. Amidst this divide, we meet Max (Matt Damon), an assembly line worker at Armadyne Corp., stuck in the hostile conditions that plague the planet. But things are just about to get even worse for him. A work accident exposes him to lethal levels of radiation, giving him only five days to live. Thus begins his quest to get to Elysium, so that he can use a medical device known as the med-bay to save his life.

That, however, is easier said than done, as Elysium's Secretary of Defence Delacourt (Jodie Foster) makes sure that all attempts by illegal immigrants from Earth to reach the space habitat are thwarted, no matter what the cost. When President Patel (Faran Tahir) reprimands her for shooting down shuttles carrying asylum seekers, Jessica hatches a plot to usurp power with the help of Armadyne's CEO John Carlyle (William Fichtner).

Max and Delacourt's plans collide, as the action starts to kick in and the film picks up its pace. How events unfold, however, is fairly conventional and often predictable. Blomkamp does a good job bringing both the worlds to life on the screen, and the film is visually impressive. But he fails to come up with a different take on this setup. The South African-Canadian filmmaker's 2009 sci-fi thriller District 9 was different, unconventional, and ambitious - and that's everything Elysium is not. The film breaks no new ground and doesn't do anything exceptionally fascinating. And in light of the inevitable comparisons to his far superior directorial debut, it is a letdown.

Among the things that underwhelm is the filmmakers' decision to use generic characters that lack complexity. Shades of gray make characters compelling, and they are often either negligible or completely missing here. A cursory attempt is made, for instance, to suggest that Jodie Foster's character thinks she is doing the right thing, but we are never left in any doubt that this is not the case. The bad guy is just that, a bad guy, and isn't given enough depth to make him more intriguing. Yes Sharlto Copley makes a menacing mercenary, but his character is too one-dimensional. There is only so much the cast can do with the material they're given after all. Matt Damon is on autopilot as the everyman action hero. Jodie Foster has played more interesting roles and given better performances throughout her career. Faran Tahir doesn't have enough screen time and his character is never fully explored. And Alice Braga's Frey doesn't hold nearly as much emotional resonance as she should; as Max's childhood friend and the mother of a young girl who has leukaemia, Frey's emotional connections aren't nearly as investing as they could have been. Plus the film doesn't explore the space habitat as much as it should have; it might have been interesting to spend more time on Elysium itself and get to know some of its average citizens instead of just its main political occupants.

That said, Elysium is certainly not a mess. The film is very watchable, and even enjoyable if you're in the mood for a relatively straightforward action blockbuster. The writing, directing, action, storyline - it's all serviceable, but there's nothing special or memorable about it. This isn't particularly smart or clever science fiction, even though it probably wants to be, and the socio-political commentary it doles out (by raising the issues of immigration, health care, economic divide, and social equality) is too heavy-handed to be palatable. But Elysium does have its merits: the world it transports you to is interesting (albeit not in any way original), there are some impressive action sequences in the movie, and the cinematography is effective. And if you're not too demanding, the film can certainly be entertaining.

- Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 29th September, 2013

Dull debut: Stars Dance fails to shine

album review
Selena Gomez's first solo album comes off as a lazy effort by a singer who seems lost without her backing band. An unexciting set of songs, the album offers listening pleasure only to the most philistine of tastes

Artist: Selena Gomez
Album: Stars Dance

Prior to the release of her new album, Selena Gomez announced that after issuing Stars Dance she'd be taking a musical hiatus to focus on her acting career. After listening to the album, it's hard to argue with her decision. If this is the best she can do as a recording artist, then stepping away from music just might be the smart move for her at the moment.

Part of her controlled transformation from Disney starlet to a young adult, Stars Dance serves as her debut set as a solo artist, since her previous three efforts were also credited to her backing band, the Scene. But despite being a tad more edgy than her work with the Scene, the record comes off as a thoroughly tepid affair that is just as characterless as it is impersonal. A set of 11 songs, none of which were penned by the singer, the record ebbs under a wave of typical electropop that feels commonplace and unnecessary.

At no point during the record do we get a real sense of who Selena Gomez really is, nor do we get a glimpse of her personality or individuality. These songs could have been recorded by anyone from Britney to Rihanna (in fact RiRi did reject one of the tracks, the “na na na” laden 'Come and Get It') to similar effect, and we would have hardly noticed the difference. The basic template remains the same: autotuned vocals set to EDM and dubstep influenced tunes. To be fair, the album does try to be very current, and makes an attempt to cover as much contemporary pop ground as it can. But the touches of various assorted elements - such as the tabla on lead single 'Come and Get It' and the dancehall of the awkward 'Like a Champion' - just seem latched on to create the illusion of diversity.

And while electropop does seem like the best bet for the singer, who did make the sound work somewhat with the Scene, but the lack of meaningfulness and intimacy work in the album's detriment. Sure fans will enjoy the dance pop of ditties like 'Forget Forever', 'Save the Day', and 'B.E.A.T.' (even if the latter is suspiciously similar to Dev's 'Bass Down Low'), and will happily go along with the singer's efforts to emulate the fun vibe. And listeners who enjoy this kind of music aren't likely to mind if the songs are overproduced and the vocals are autotuned or buried under layers of synths. But anyone who isn't already enchanted by this pop princess will find her latest musical effort generic, sterile, and lazy.

The album does not make an effort to define Selena Gomez as either a person or an artist. Even by the standards of manufactured music, the set fails to display any individuality or innovativeness. It relies too heavily on external personnel, and seems to have required minimal effort on the part of the singer herself. Sure there are fun pop pleasers here that have delighted Selena's fans enough to propel Stars Dance to the top of the charts. But anyone looking for something more than superficial pop sheen is very likely to be disappointed by this record.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 29th September, 2013

Friday, September 27, 2013

Setting up a quest

book review

Book: Ready Player One
Author: Ernest Cline

Dystopian future is a setting so overcrowded with science fiction dramas that it’s becoming hard to come up with ways of revisiting dystopia that are truly unique and interesting. Which is why the idea behind Ernest Cline’s debut novel Ready Player One seems intriguing. Geeky, offbeat, and more than a little quirky, Ready Player One takes us into a universe where people have embraced a virtual world to escape the harsh reality of their actual surroundings.

Ok, so virtual reality is hardly a new concept, but an adventure in a virtual setting still seems exciting. Add to that an obsession with pop culture and the video games, movies, and music of a bygone era, and you certainly have the ingredients of what could be a fun story.

The year is 2044, and the energy, environmental, and economic crises have made life miserable for the masses. It is perhaps the desolation around them that has driven people to retreat into the immersive online world of the OASIS, “a massively multiplayer online game that had gradually evolved into the globally networked virtual reality most of humanity now used on a daily basis”. The unprecedented success of the OASIS has made James Halliday, the video game designer responsible for creating it, one of the wealthiest people in the world.

It is with Halliday’s death, however, that the story begins. A reclusive billionaire with no heirs, he comes up with an eccentric way of finding someone to inherit his massive fortune: setting up a quest to find an Easter egg that he has hidden inside his most popular creation, the first person to discover which will inherit his vast empire. A cryptic clue is all he offers to get them started:

“Three hidden keys open three secret gates
Wherein the errant will be tested for worthy traits
And those with the skill to survive these straits
Will reach The End where the prize awaits”

Thus begins the quest to find Halliday’s Easter egg, looking for the copper, jade, and crystal keys hidden somewhere in the OASIS, and completing the challenges to open each gate until the egg is found.

There, however, is a slight snag – no one really has the slightest idea what it is they are looking for, or where to start looking for it. Millions of people (including a nefarious organisation that will do anything to win the hunt) devote every free moment of their lives to searching for the egg. All they know is that Halliday’s obsession with the 1980s might help them unravel his riddles. But five years pass and there is no success. Then, one day, Wade Watts’ name appears at the top of the scoreboard. He is the first person to find the copper key, and Ready Player One is his story.

The book relays Wade’s adventure as he narrates his quest and tells us about the world – both physical and virtual – that he lives in. The premise is certainly interesting, and the story itself isn’t all that long or complicated and is very easy to follow. It has, however, been extended with overly detailed exposition and intermittent info dumps, which get tedious and kill the pace of the narrative. You have to go through a lot of description to get to the action, and the quantity of exposition can feel exasperating; the quality, too, isn’t all that impressive. The story is told through very ordinary prose, and the stereotypical characters offer little introspection or depth. The writer brings up issues, then dismisses them in an off-handed way.

All of which leaves one confused about the novel’s intended audience. With a teenage protagonist and simple, young adult writing, the book seems to target the youth. But its obsession with the ‘80s makes it a nostalgia trip for those who grew up in that decade and who will probably have more fun with the movie, television, and video game references that are scattered throughout the book; then again, they might find the endless details that go with each reference thoroughly tiresome, and the writing unimpressive.

All in all, Ready Player One certainly is a fun adventure, albeit not necessarily an unmissable one. If you are a video games fanatic and don’t mind reading detailed descriptions of a character using a gadget or playing a game, then this virtual treasure hunt is very likely to engross you. Being able to stand copious references to pop culture is also essential. In short, fans of gaming and people obsessed with ’80s trivia who don’t mind pedestrian prose are very likely to enjoy Ready Player One.

- S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 27th September, 2013

Sunday, September 22, 2013

This Is the End

movie review

This Is the End ***1/2

Starring: Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson
Written and directed by: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg
Tagline: Nothing ruins a party like the end of the world.

A bunch of actors - basically Seth Rogen and his famous Hollywood friends, mostly the cast members of various Judd Apatow projects - portraying amped up versions of themselves in an apocalyptic comedy co-written and co-directed by Rogen himself? If you look at it on paper, it might seem less than impressive, and you'd be forgiven for thinking it's nothing more than a vanity project.

Yet, shockingly enough, it all somehow works surprisingly well, at least for its (somewhat limited) intended audience.

An audacious stoner bromance based on Jason Stone's short Jay and Seth versus the Apocalypse, This Is the End sees Superbad scribes Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg pair up once again to not only write but also direct a film that is simultaneously goofy and incisive, and offers plenty of laughs along the way.

The main premise is simple: a group of young celebrities scramble for survival as the apocalypse strikes. It all begins when Jay Baruchel arrives in Los Angeles to hang out with his old friend Seth Rogen, who then convinces him to attend a party at James Franco's house. Baruchel reluctantly agrees, and the pair arrive at Franco's place, where the famous - including Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Michael Cera, Emma Watson, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, and Jason Segel - have convened for a party that is disturbingly hedonistic in standard Hollywood style, with many in attendance either inebriated or stoned or both. But the festivities are cut short as the end of the world strikes. The righteous ascend to the sky, while Franco and his guests are (eventually to their bewilderment) among those left behind. Many quickly perish in the ensuing chaos. The few who survive try to figure out what is going on and struggle to get along with each other as they take refuge in Franco's mansion.

Of course actors have lampooned themselves in movies and on television before, and this isn't exactly a novel idea. The whole 'celebrities playing ridiculously obnoxious versions of themselves (while clearly insinuating the opposite)' thing has already been done before many times. Here the filmmakers have taken this idea to the extreme. Everyone plays an exaggerated version of themselves, or perhaps an extreme version of their public perception, and the filmmakers use this setup as an excuse to mock celebrity lifestyle (as well as how it appears to the rest of us) and offer a cheeky take on friendships in Hollywood while also using the film to satirize the incessant bevy of apocalypse movies and the apocalypse itself.

The main cast delivers fittingly zany performances (even though Danny McBride isn't too impressed with some of their acting at one point) and a couple of the cameos (Michael Cera and Emma Watson in particular) are very memorable. Plus the film is fairly well executed, and while it doesn't come with any extremely exceptional flourishes and could have been more even, it also doesn't give away the fact that this is the directing debut for its co-writers.

The reception of This Is the End is, however, likely to be very divisive, for the film is definitely not for everyone. To begin with, humour is notoriously subjective, and there is much in here that many would find distasteful. You need to have a high tolerance to profanity and gross-out jokes to enjoy this lark (which should be fairly obvious since this is a Rogen and Goldberg script after all). It's like Superbad meets Pineapple Express, amplified by a notch. If your sense of humour aligns with that of its creators, you are sure to have a fun time watching this movie and might even rank it as one of the funniest movies of the year; but if it doesn't, you are very likely to be put off by the crudity and irked by the antics.

The other factor that restricts its audience is that you need to be aware of the actors and their previous work to fully get the point. As the cast sends up their own typecasting, shoots a homemade Pineapple Express sequel, and ridicules each others quirks and behaviour, a certain degree of familiarity becomes essential to enjoying the film.

On the whole, This Is the End is an irreverent, rambunctious, and often amusing movie that hides a certain level of thought and reflection beneath its veneer of absurdity, puerility, and raunchiness. It is self-aware, perhaps a tad too self-referential and self-indulgent, and definitely polarizing - chances are, you will either love or hate this film, depending on your willingness to give into an outrageous premise and your level of tolerance for crude humour.

- Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 22nd September, 2013

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Only if you like your R&B rough and raucous

album review

Artist: Robin Thicke 
Album: Blurred Lines 

Not only has 'Blurred Lines' been one of the most successful songs of the year, but it has also been the track that has courted the most controversy. Everything from its lyrics to its music videos have come under scrutiny, and Miley Cyrus' by-now-infamous antics during the performance of this song at the MTV Video Music Awards last month has taken the track to an even higher level of ubiquity.

Its notoriety has also propelled singer Robin Thicke to global stardom. A decade after making his debut with the infectious 'When I Get You Alone' and releasing five relatively successful albums without causing much of a furore, the singer is now ruffling feathers with his latest record, Blurred Lines, that not only shares its name but also various other characteristics with its globally hit lead single and title track.

An amalgam of R&B, funk, and soul placed on a canvas of electronic beats and catchy pop hooks, the record puts forth a set of eleven slickly produced songs immodestly bathed in commercial ambition. Some of the industry's biggest names - including Pharrell, Timbaland,, and Dr. Luke - are on hand to apply a glossy sheen to the material, and for the most part they make these songs sonically catchy and chart ready.

There is a mix of throwback and contemporary vibes on offer here, and Thicke's influences - from Marvin Gaye to Prince - are apparent as you go along. Whether he's doing his best Michael Jackson impersonation ('Ain't No Hat 4 That') or taking a page out of Justin Timberlake's book (like on the bonus track 'Put Your Lovin' On Me', or just about any other track on the album), Robin Thicke knows how to put together a catchy tune, which is something he does repeatedly over the course of this album. To their detriment though, he pairs these tunes with lyrics that range from questionable to downright distasteful. Thicke, who wrote or co-write every song on the record, hurls crude remarks, innuendo laden quips, and cheesy pickup lines at the listener for much of the album, mistaking misogyny and sleaziness for suavity, often blurring the line between playfulness and degradation.

There is no doubt about Robin Thicke's vocal abilities, and his soulfulness has been an asset throughout his career. And while his latest attempt to make a mainstream splash has been phenomenally successful, lurching down sleaze lane (coupled with his alleged personal foibles that have recently become tabloid fodder) probably isn't going to win him much respect, if that is something that he in any way craves.

Blurred Lines has made sure that the singer no longer resides just below the radar, but it has also left some of us wishing it came with some deeper or at least less denigrating subject matter. It's lively and upbeat, full of dance tunes and club jams, but if you are likely to be put off by crass lyrical content, then this album definitely isn't for you.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 15th September, 2013