Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Replay: The Year 2014 in film

year in review

From summer blockbusters to indie releases, fairy-tale weddings to cyber attacks, Hollywood kept us entertained aplenty in 2014. Instep takes a look back at its most memorable achievements through the year.

- Jennifer Lawrence continued to be her delightfully effervescent self while continuing to be insanely successful. The actress was 2014’s highest grossing performer, thanks to the latest installments of the X-Men and The Hunger Games franchises, with her blockbusters earning $1.4 billion globally this year.

- In a development that we totally did not see coming, 2014 turned out to be the year of the confusingly gorgeous (how and when did that happen?!) Chris Pratt, who was the highest grossing ($1.2 billion) male actor of 2014, and starred in the year’s two most exciting, entertaining, enjoyable movies, namely …

     … The Lego Movie, which made it hip to be rectangle, and told us that everything is awesome!

     … and Guardians of the Galaxy, which practically forced us to have a good time, no matter how hard we tried to resist its charms. Now we’re not quite sure how to hear the line “we are Groot” without bursting into tears. Excuse us while we find a towel.

- Transformers: Age of Extinction was one of the worst films of the year. Transformers: Age of Extinction was also the highest grossing film of the year. Trying to reconcile these two facts makes our head hurt.

- Captain America: The Winter Soldier was impressive despite not being wintery enough.

- The Grand Budapest Hotel was quite grand.

- The Amazing Spider-Man 2 wasn’t very amazing.

- Birdman soared.

- Chef delighted.

- Godzilla was one of the better attempts at rebooting a franchise. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was not.

- Dawn of the Planet of the Apes left us wondering how Andy Serkis still does not have an Oscar nomination.

- Snowpiercer explored socio-political divides with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

- Maleficent tried to cast a positive light on Sleeping Beauty villain Maleficent, although it forgot to explain why her parents chose to name her “maleficent” (literally: harmful, evil) in the first place if she was a good fairy.

- Boyhood took 12 years to make and 3 hours to watch, and will take an entire award season to celebrate.

- The absolutely terrific Gone Girl’s dark, twisted, creepy drama left us wondering what it says about us if this is one of our favourite movies of the year. We think we might need therapy.

- The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything told the stories of two incredible scientists with stellar performances by Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch.

- Ellen DeGeneres hosted the Oscars and orchestrated a selfie that broke Twitter. She also got pizza for everyone, which makes us think we will get along really well with her. Alfonso Cuarón became the first Mexican to win the Best Director trophy while 12 Years A Slave won the Best Picture award.

- The McConaissance was upon us, as Matthew McConaughey took home the Best Actor Academy Award and then starred in Interstellar which was (quite literally) out of this world.

- It was declared compulsory by law for every single person on planet Earth to comment on Renee Zellweger’s new face.

- Angelina Jolie continued to look incredible even after she got chicken pox because the universe is annoyingly unfair. She also married the drool-generating Brad Pitt because the odds are somehow stacked in her favour.

- George Clooney married Amal Alamuddin to the endless fascination of everyone with too much time on their hands.

- Not content with simply doing a hat trick of terribleness, Nicolas Cage went the extra mile and released four awful movies in one year. That statistic is quite impressive in its own appalling way.

- Dumb and Dumber To: a project so dumb that they even got the spelling of “two” wrong.

- The world lost some of its brightest stars, including Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Shirley Temple, Harold Ramis, Casey Kasem, James Garner, Joan Rivers, and Jan Hooks.

- Everyone was so busy being overly amused by celebrities pouring ice water over their heads that most of us still won’t be able to tell what ALS actually stands for.

- Kickstarter resurrected Veronica Mars.
- Leapin’ lizards! The remake of Annie took some hard knocks from critics. Summary of what was wrong with it: everything.
- Based on religious accounts, Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings did not please the censors in various Muslim countries and were promptly banned.

- Selena Gomez tried (and failed) to have a movie career.

- Jaden and Willow Smith transcended to a whole new level of enlightenment never attained by an earthling before.

- Apparently Tilda Swinton was in some of the films we watched. We’re still not quite convinced that this is true.

- Dracula Untold would have been better left untold.

- Kirk Cameron’s attempt at saving Christmas (and then saving Saving Christmas from bad reviews) went awfully awry.

- After watching Melissa McCarthy’s Tammy, we can honestly say, don’t.

- Adam Sandler starred in another award-worthy film, presuming the award in question is the Razzie.

- Jennifer Aniston continued to generate envy by being gorgeous.

- Young adults found themselves in dystopian settings a little too often.

- Shailene Woodley gained prominence for Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars.

- The Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer caused a kerfuffle because of a black stormtrooper.

- The massive interest in the Fifty Shades of Grey trailer made us weep for humanity.

- Photos of several actresses were leaked online.

- Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb marked an end to a franchise that we refuse to admit we secretly enjoyed.

- The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies was released, warding off fear that Peter Jackson might be tempted to turn the final film into its own trilogy.

- Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg tried to start World War III by spoofing the supremest of all leaders, his exalted highness, monsieur Kim Jong-un in The Interview. Bizarre events, quite unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, ensued. Sony Pictures was hacked, their documents and films leaked, and terror threats made, but ultimately sanity prevailed and the movie was finally released. Now we are glad we live in a world where we can exercise our own free will and choose not to watch The Interview.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 31st December, 2014 *

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Rewind: The year 2014 in music

year in review

Instep rounds up the highs and lows in music as the year comes to a close

- One Direction continued being the biggest mass-marketed product pop group in the known universe.

- Ed Sheeran made our friends obsolete by giving us all the emotional support we need.

- Solange and Jay Z made the mistake of getting on the same elevator.

- The very generous Beyoncé gave us More.

- Miley Cyrus’ attempts to shock us became increasingly tiring as she pretty much ran out of ways to out-raunchify herself.

- Bruce Springsteen released an album called High Hopes that one should not listen to with very high hopes.

- Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, the two people least likely to release a duets album together, released a duets album together.

- Pharrell Williams and his hat continued to reign supreme.

- Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon, a.k.a. the parents of “Dembabies”, separated, leaving us wondering how hard making a case in their favour in the custody battle will be for whichever parent came up with that moniker.

- Pitbull, Jennifer Lopez, and Claudia Leitte performed the 2014 FIFA World Cup’s official anthem ‘We Are One (Ole Ola)’ which was declared the best football song ever by absolutely no one anywhere.

- Meghan Trainor released a faux empowerment anthem that ended up being the most irritating song of the year, which is quite a feat considering it was a year during which Iggy Azalea was active.

- Justin Bieber finally discovered something he actually has a talent for: breaking the law. Now if he could just stop pretending to be a singer.

- Maroon 5 released their fifth album, V. The first time we heard it was also the last.

- Demos of Madonna’s upcoming album were leaked.

- Taylor Swift broke up with Spotify. Prepare to hear all about it on her next album. Meanwhile, her latest record, 1989, sold copies by the bucket load.

- Robin Thicke tried to win Paula Patton back by making a creepy album and naming it after her. The logic behind that plan was lost on everyone, including Paula Patton, who filed for divorce.

- Bella Thorne released an EP because every Disney actress is bound by the laws of the universe to do so.

- Nicki Minaj was amazing. Or insufferable. Or amazingly insufferable.

- Lily Allen realized (quite rightly) that her new songs are rubbish, which means there’s still hope for her.

- Lea Michele’s debut album underwhelmed, much like everything else she did.

- Backstreet Boys’ Nick Carter and New Kids on the Block’s Jordan Knight teamed up for an album, because two has-beens are obviously better than one.

- Boyzone released an album of Motown covers. No one knows why.

- Former Take That singer Robbie Williams live-tweeted the birth of his son (because why not) before releasing an album with a cover that made us wish we had the power to unsee things.

- Meanwhile, one of the four remaining members of Take That exited the band, leaving the group with only three members: Gary Barlow, Mark Owen, and the one who isn’t Gary Barlow or Mark Owen.

- Sam Smith was like the new Adele. Meanwhile, rumour has it that Adele continued to be the original Adele. We have been unable to confirm this unsubstantiated claim.

- Lana Del Rey said she wished she was dead already, much to the chagrin of Francis Bean Cobain, who promptly admonished the singer not to glamorize early death.

- So much ink was wasted on the now-married Kanye West and Kim Kardashian this year that the mere fact that we are writing another sentence about them right now should be considered a punishable offense. We’re sorry.

- After putting a paper bag on her head, Sia warbled some words, possibly while her mouth was full of marbles. What those words were is anyone’s guess.

- Jessie J made a banging comeback.

- Shakira and Rihanna couldn’t remember to forget each other, although many of us wouldn’t mind forgetting that song ever happened.

- Cheryl, who had repeatedly said she was never, ever, ever going to return to The X Factor, returned to The X Factor.

- Ariana Grande and her (reportedly) grande ego got her big break in the industry, leaving us with one more, one more problem.

- Soon after Rita Ora released the Calvin Harris penned ‘I Will Never Let You Down’, the couple broke up. In other words, that song was a lie.

- Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars revived the ‘80s with their contagious ‘Uptown Funk’.

- Kiesza revived the ‘90s.

- Beck, Damon Albarn, Kasabian, Jack White, and Thom Yorke impressed with their new releases.

- Nickelback continued to exist, much to everyone’s dismay.

- The Pixies, Smashing Pumpkins, Blondie, Linkin Park, and Weezer tried really hard to be relevant again. Is it weird to still fancy Rivers Cuomo? Asking for a friend.

- Coldplay made a breakup album, as Chris Martin consciously uncoupled with Gwyneth Paltrow.

- Pink Floyd’s last album marked the end of an era.

- Eric Clapton got together with some of his friends to show his appreciation of JJ Cale.

- Not to be outdone, The Flaming Lips recreated The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band with a little help from their fwends.

- U2 ate a slice of humble pie when it turned out that some people don’t want to listen to their music even if it is free, especially if it is shoved into their music libraries without their consent. Music spam was (hopefully) nipped in the bud.

- A second Michael Jackson posthumous album was released, making it two too many.

- MacCauley Culkin’s pizza-themed Velvet Underground tribute band The Pizza Underground failed emphatically, bizarrely enough.

- Weird Al Yankovic taught us grammar by pointing out our word crimes, and also released the best Foo Fighters song the Foo Fighters had nothing to do with.

- Foo Fighters made a TV series about making their new album Sonic Highways.

- And new releases by artists including St. Vincent, Tori Amos, Annie Lennox, Barbra Streisand, George Michael, Enrique Iglesias, Kylie Minogue, Jason Derulo, 50 Cent, Jason Mraz, Chris Brown, The Script, Boyz II Men, Olly Murs, David Guetta, Tim McGraw, Blake Shelton, Kenny Chesney, and Garth Brooks also captured listeners’ attention.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 30th December, 2014 *

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Best of 2014: Movies

year in review

2014 may not have been a wonderful orbit around the Sun for the world in general, but as far as films were concerned, the year certainly had its fair share of impressive projects. The good ones took us on thrilling journeys to mysterious places, helping us discover more about ourselves and the world we live in. The best ones connected with us on an emotional level while exciting us with their ideas and visuals. So as the year draws to a close, we take a (subjective) look at some of its most distinctive and exhilarating cinematic offerings. Here are five of the finest films that 2014 had to offer:

There is a reason Boyhood is one of the most celebrated films of the year: it quite simply deserves to be. The most unique movie of 2014, Richard Linklater’s opus was shot intermittently over a 12-year period, following the same characters portrayed by the same actors for a dozen years in an ambitious foray into temporal continuity.
In the beginning, we meet Mason Evans Jr (Ellar Coltrane) when he is a six-year-old, living in Texas with his elder sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s real-life daughter) and single mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) who has separated from their father Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke). By the end, Mason Jr is 18 and off to college. Encompassed therein, in all its messy shades, is ‘boyhood’ — the evolution of a little boy into a young man. The film subtly showcases the often mundane complications of human life, while exploring issues like divorce, alcoholism, and heartbreak.
With its footage captured over a decade, then collapsed into a piece that runs for nearly three hours (around 165 minutes to be precise), Boyhood is quite an experience. Its concept could easily have turned out to be nothing more than a gimmick; instead, while it is the approach that initially lures you to the project, it’s the emotional resonance that makes an impact and leaves you with one of the most memorable experiences of 2014.

Gone Girl
After a woman (Rosamund Pike) goes missing, her husband (Ben Affleck) starts to emerge as a likely suspect in her disappearance. But nothing is as it seems in Gone Girl, and that’s what makes this dark, twisty tale one of the most riveting episodes of 2014. Gillian Flynn’s gripping screenplay (which she adapted from her own 2012 bestseller that bears the same title) meets David Fincher’s meticulous, stylish execution to take the viewers on a two-and-a-half hour rollercoaster filled with suspense. With casting choices that may seem peculiar at first glance (you don’t expect to see ‘Blurred Lines’ model Emily Ratajkowski in a David Fincher film), the movie brings out the best in each actor and puts them all to perfect use; the leads in particular deliver outstanding performances.
You can see it as a thriller about a sociopath, an intelligent satire of media circuses, or a deeper look at deception and entrapment, but no matter what lens you view it through, there is little doubt that you will be transfixed to the screen. This, ultimately, is what the perfect pairing of material and director can achieve.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Almost no other film this year can compete with the amount of acclaim that has been showered on Alejandro González Iñárritu’s dark comedy Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Made to look like most of it is one long, continuous take, the film follows the story of a washed up actor (Michael Keaton), once famous for playing a superhero called Birdman, who is trying to reinvigorate his career. The movie hits all the right chords in almost every department — direction, acting, screenplay, and cinematography — and has emerged as an early favourite this award season. The reason it might bag many accolades in the coming months is that it blends its smart satirical edge with a spectrum of human emotions. The supporting cast is exceptional, and (former Batman) Michael Keaton is an inspired choice for the lead role, almost (but not quite) like art imitating life.

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Its premise — akin to a Wodehousian farce on steroids — might not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but anyone would find it hard to deny the film’s visual dexterity. The Grand Budapest Hotel is the whimsical story of a concierge (Ralph Fiennes) at an esteemed hotel, who teams up with the lobby boy (Tony Revolori) to prove his innocence after he is framed for murder. The composition of each scene, from the production design to the fluidity of the camera work is impeccable. The film has been shot beautifully from start to finish. There is no argument that Wes Anderson has created a visually stunning feast, but that isn’t the only thing about this project that makes it exciting. Quirky, well-cast and delightfully scored, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a stylish riot with more underneath its polished surface than initially meets the eye.

The Lego Movie
You  know what's awesome? Everything! It would have made all the sense in the world to be weary of The Lego Movie before it was actually released, but how were we to know that a 100-minute long advertisement could be this good?
We find ourselves in the Lego universe, where a construction worker named Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt) lands in the middle of the quest to stop evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell) from using a superweapon called Kragle. A prophecy suggests that Emmet is ‘the Special’, despite the fact that everything about him seems to prove otherwise. Zany hijinks inevitably ensue. The result is smart, inventive, funny, silly, charming, touching and thoroughly enjoyable.
If there is a statement to be made about the value of fun, then The Lego Movies makes it very convincingly, and does so with much gusto (a characteristic it shares with the equally enjoyable Guardians of the Galaxy). The film is full of heart and clearly made with a lot of love. And it’s the utter passion it displays and the exhilarating ride it takes us through that makes it one of the standout movies of the year.

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 28th December 2014 *

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Theory of Everything - physics and chemistry

movie review

Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking may have a theory on everything, except love

Stephen Hawking’s life has been nothing short of remarkable. Not only has the world-renowned physicist achieved a plethora of accomplishments and distinctions in his illustrious career, but he has done so by defying all expectations while traversing a path that has been profoundly inspirational. It is primarily this latter aspect of his story that is captured in The Theory of Everything, the biographical drama about the trials and triumphs of the cosmologist’s life.

The narrative spins around Hawking’s relationship with his first wife, Jane Wilde, whose book Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen inspired the movie.

It is the early 1960s, and Stephen Hawking (portrayed brilliantly by Eddie Redmayne) is still a graduate student at the University of Cambridge, where he meets literature student Jane (Felicity Jones). She is a devout believer while he is an outspoken atheist; yet they fall for each other. But then life throws a spanner in the works — at the age of 21, Hawking is diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a degenerative motor neuron disease. The prognosis? An average life expectancy of two years.

Life practically hands him a death sentence but with Jane’s unflinching support, he defies all odds. They marry and have three kids while he continues coming up with groundbreaking scientific theories while searching for “one simple, elegant equation to explain everything”. It’s a beautiful love story, complicated by reality. The agony of the situation is matched by the strength of the human spirit, but even that can’t prevent the union’s ultimate dissolution.

As with many biopics, some of the wrinkles have been ironed and rough edges smoothed out. Every character is displayed under a positive light, stripping the story of some of its more prickly aspects. And the film is by no means comprehensive; those who are looking for an exploration of Stephen Hawking’s scientific work are bound to be disappointed by The Theory of Everything’s focus on his personal life. Still, the theoretical discourse that is presented in the film is finely weaved into the narrative, and director James Marsh occasionally employs some stellar, artistic shots and sequences that beautifully supplement its protagonist’s ideas.

The main highlight of the movie, though, is Eddie Redmayne’s wonderful performance in this very challenging part. His transformation into Hawking is remarkable, and he embodies the character’s charm brilliantly while conveying the emotional depth of the role. Felicity Jones is also terrific as Jane and carries her part radiantly.

Filled with love, sadness, wit and wisdom and propelled by Redmayne’s standout, award-worthy performance, The Theory of Everything succeeds in relaying an extraordinary story that emotionally resonates with viewers. Its overall approach may be conventional and both the journey and the science may have been simplified, but the film on the whole is impressively made and very affecting.

Rating: 4 out of  5

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 21st December, 2014 *

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Nightcrawler - breaking news

movie review

Some people will go to unusual lengths to make headlines

People in the news business rush around the clock to satisfy the insatiable appetite of the monster that is the 24-hour news cycle. They do this while simultaneously racing against their competitors to break the biggest stories and bring the latest visuals to our television screens. Inured viewers don’t pause to think about where the footage came from, who shot it, or how it was obtained. But perhaps they should. The breakneck pace and demands of the media machinery leave it susceptible to cracks that could be exploited by those with shaky morals, which is what happens in Nightcrawler, a crime thriller that shows what can transpire when actions are driven by a union of opportunism and depravity.

The story revolves around Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), an unemployed petty thief who ekes out a living by selling stolen scrap metal. By chance, he encounters a camera crew that is out chasing late night news stories so that they can sell the gory footage to local news channels. If there is carnage, the cameramen descend like vultures. Enthralled and inspired, Louis obtains a camcorder and police radio scanner and joins the hunt for tragedies to exploit, selling his clips to Nina (Rene Russo), a producer working the graveyard shift at a flailing network. He subsequently hires homeless drifter Rick (Riz Ahmed) as an ‘intern’, as his sociopathic tendencies start to take over.

Nightcrawler presents a fascinating character study of a disturbed person who is willing to profiteer off the misery of others, and if need be, orchestrate that misery himself. The film also satirises the television news business, taking a swipe at the media’s “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality by giving us a very extreme version of events and showing us how awry things can go if this morbid tendency is not kept in check.

In his directorial debut, screenwriter Dan Gilroy has proved himself a master of creating tension, gradually increasing the intensity of the proceedings as the film goes on till it reaches its climactic clash. He has also equipped his characters with distinct, dark personalities, and chosen very suitable actors to fill each role. Jake Gyllenhaal is terrifyingly impressive in the unsettling part for which he reportedly lost over 20 pounds, and he is perfectly paired with Russo and Ahmed as his partners in crime.

Overall Nightcrawler makes for an intriguing albeit uncomfortable watch as it takes the viewer on a dark journey into the life of a disturbed soul ambitiously following his newfound passion unhindered by things like morals and ethics. Louis isn’t given a detailed backstory, a choice that will please some viewers while leaving others wondering how he became who he is and why he thinks sounding like a cross between a business brochure and a self-help pamphlet is a good thing. Ultimately, Nightcrawler’s fascinating look at an extremely dislikable yet riveting protagonist and the workings of the murky universe he ventures into may not be pleasant viewing, but the movie is very likely to make an impression on viewers and give them something to think about.

- By Sameen Amer
Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 7th December, 2014 *

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Soch - keeping the dream alive


After the success of their contribution to Ek Villain’s soundtrack, Soch is coming back for more…  

Some artists are very visibly driven by fame, going out of their way to employ every gimmick and chase every avenue that is likely to get them noticed. Others prefer to let their music do the talking, choosing projects that focus on their musical talents, content with creating songs they can be proud of and hoping their efforts also make a connection with the audience. Soch is proud to be in the latter category.

Still as humble as they were when they first appeared on the scene in 2009, the Lahore-based musicians have managed to create a loyal fan following by making melodious and inspirational pop tunes and being true to themselves. So far, their journey has seen them release a handful of singles, participate in the talent show Nescafe Basement, and appear on the soundtrack of the Bollywood movie Ek Villain.

“Soch does not claim to be absolutely different and groundbreaking,” says Rabi Ahmed, the group’s guitarist. “We simply make music and tunes that are based on our everyday life. We try to give voice to a common man’s problems; we try to raise our voices for people who cannot raise it themselves. With our tracks like ‘Bandeya’, ‘Jinnah’, ‘Uth Jawana’, and ‘Khabar’ (which was part of the Chambeli soundtrack), we have tried to make music with the intention of not only entertaining everyone but also getting them thinking.”

“Money and fame are never on our list,” adds vocalist Adnan Dhool. “We went into Bollywood with just one purpose in mind: to promote Pakistani talent and music. The pride we felt when ‘Awari’ took the Indian charts by storm is something we can never explain. And being referred to as the ‘Pakistani’ boy band in the Indian and foreign media fills us with pride.”

Soch has since been busy making more music. They recently released their latest song ‘Neray Neray Vas’, a mid-tempo ditty about the yearnings of love. “’Neray Neray Vas’ is a melodious Punjabi track. Anyone who loves or has ever loved can relate to this song easily.” The group also recruited a fellow Basement alumnus for the project, getting Season Two singer Ruttaba Yaqub to contribute backing vocals to the track.

The duo says there was no specific reason they chose to write the lyrics in Punjabi, and that the choice just naturally applied itself to the song. “When Rabi and I get together, we brainstorm, make tunes, groove on the guitar, and simply go with the flow. We don’t intend to make songs in Urdu or Punjabi,” Adnan explains. “The look and feel of the songs always end up being completely different from what we actually start with,” Rabi adds. “We also rely on the feedback of Murzie bhai (Murtaza Niaz), our manager; we would be nowhere without him.”

Adnan and Rabi wrote, composed, arranged, mixed, and produced ‘Neray Neray Vas’ themselves and are happy with being fully in charge of their own sound. “Our approach is not always DIY,” says Adnan, “but we have had our own setup, PMR Studio Works, from the very beginning. Considering the financial and time constraints, we decided to do everything ourselves and master these arts too.”

“And believe me the DIY formula is rocking for us,” enthuses Rabi. “In fact, we have other pretty established artists and musicians coming to us for recording, mastering, and mixing now.”

A video for ‘Neray Neray Vas’ is in the pipeline, but before that, the band plans to release the clip for their song ‘Arz’. “‘Arz’ is a beautiful ballad, and we have got a tremendous response for the audio of the song. The video is going to be superb,” Adnan promises.

The guys confirm that their album is also in the works, but they aren’t sure when it will be released. “Our music industry is going through bad times,” opines Adnan, “and releasing an album at this point is actually not a very good option, not only for us but for any other artist too. We are waiting for the right time to release it. Unfortunately Bollywood is what rules our music scene at the moment. I must say, I pretty much blame our TV and radio broadcasters too; they need to be more responsible and start giving Pakistani music a major portion of air time.”

Rabi points out that this is not the only issue plaguing the Pakistani music industry. “Piracy is killing us!” he says. “And the situation right now is really bad, with absolutely no room for concerts and gigs and nothing original coming up, no genuine singers and composers. With all this, we are pretty much headed down the hill.”

Things are, however, looking up for Soch. Their imminent plans include a tour, as well as more audio and video releases. “We have Bollywood offers on hand, and a few Pakistani soundtracks and movie offers as well. Plus the ‘Arz’ video will be out soon, and it’s absolutely amazing; you really need to hang in there and watch out for that!”

- By Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 4th December, 2014 *

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Choose Your Own Autobiography - the many routes to success

book review

Book: Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography
Author: Neil Patrick Harris

If you have ever been a child - and chances are quite high that you have - then you are probably familiar with the Choose Your Own Adventure series, the set of children's books that see the reader assume the role of the protagonist and make choices that determine the story's outcome.

And if you happen to own a television set and have even a cursory interest in international entertainment, then you have almost certainly heard of Neil Patrick Harris, the American actor who has had a successful career spanning nearly three decades.

Put these two elements together, and you get Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography, the unconventional memoirs of the multi-talented entertainer.

Harris takes inspiration from the aforementioned children's series (which he discovered while working in a bookstore at his very first job), and tells the story of his "twisty-turny" life by styling it as an adventure book with multiple options that lead to alternative endings. Choose wisely and you get to read all about his enviably amazing life and career. Take a wrong turn and you might find yourself meeting an early (and ridiculously fashioned) demise.

The reader assumes the guise of Neil Patrick Harris, as the second-person narrative puts "you" in the middle of the action. Over the course of the book, you get to read about "your" childhood and upbringing, foray into the world of acting as a child star in the 1980s, and gaining global recognition for playing the titular role in the television series Doogie Howser, M.D., consequently becoming inextricably associated with the character.

Luckily, Harris manages to "navigate the waters of child stardom without crashing into the rocks of egomania, the shores of self-entitlement, or the cape of cocaine," and goes on to star in a number of made-for-television movies before returning to global prominence by portraying everyone's favourite womaniser Barney Stinson on the popular sitcom How I Met Your Mother.

Television isn't the only medium Harris has conquered, and we also get an insight into his love for theatre and his stage career (which recently pinnacled with a Tony win for best lead actor in a musical for his performance in Hedwig and the Angry Inch) as well as a look at his big screen, voice-over, and online projects. In addition, we are given a behind-the-scenes peek at his hosting career as he helms various award shows, find out about his fascination with magic, and get a glimpse of his personal life. He talks about his sexuality, perhaps revealing more about his hook-ups than you might care to know, before gushing about his partner David Burtka and their twins Gideon and Harper. Interspersed throughout the text are testimonials from his friends and co-stars, including Kelly Ripa, Sarah Silverman, Whoopi Goldberg, Nathan Fillion, Seth MacFarlane and (former nemesis) Perez Hilton, which range from saccharine to bizarre.

Put together with the help of former The Daily Show head writer David Javerbaum, Choose Your Own Autobiography is warm and witty, full of good natured humour and propelled by an affirmative take on life. Just like his public persona (as well as that of many of the characters he portrays), Harris comes off as extremely likable and incredibly charming, and it's the charm that makes you plough through the book even when its gimmicks start to wear off. After a while of shuffling back and forth to follow the narrative, the Choose Your Own Adventure idea starts to feel unnecessary and tiresome; after a few pages, the only choice you'll make is to ignore the detours and read straight through the tome, which works just as well, if not better, than following the different paths (which of ten just lead you to a different part of his story instead of actually changing the course of his life).

The second person voice also feels distracting. Combined with his humour and the presentation style, the prose keeps the portrayal from being truly intimate, as the writer seems more like an observer of events instead of the actual subject of the text. Additionally, the testimonials seem a tad too self-serving, and some parts of the book might be overly suggestive for certain readers` taste.

Overall, Choose Your Own Autobiography sees Neil Patrick Harris exude his trademark charm while giving us a fun, entertaining look at his journey so far, as he discusses his friendships, rivalries, missteps, and successes. Just like Harris himself, his book is pleasant and different. Instead of going down the conventional autobiography route, Harris employs a number of devices to keep the book interesting, but in the process also loses some of the personal touch that comes with a more direct approach. Yet it still makes for an amusing read, and his fans are very likely to enjoy the book's of f beat look at the life of this overachieving multi-hyphenate.

- Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 30th November, 2014 *

Into the Storm - a natural disaster

movie review

The tornadoes are the only heroes in Into the Storm

Disaster movies often seem to be an excuse for filmmakers to splurge millions of dollars on elaborate special effects, expending more effort on computer-generated imagery (CGI) and less on script and character development. This is the very problem that befalls Into the Storm, a disaster thriller that is visually impressive but leaves much to be desired in every other department.

Employing the found footage trope to tiring effect, the film comprises of intertwined segments, following the arcs of different sets of characters that cross paths as the movie progresses.

Each team is (forcibly) given a reason to carry a (seemingly damage-proof, perpetually charged) camera. A group of storm chasers — filmmaker Pete (Matt Walsh), meteorologist Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies) and their cameramen — are working on a documentary, trying to shoot footage of an elusive tornado. A high-school vice principal (Richard Armitage) has asked his teenage sons (Max Deacon and Nathan Kress) to make video time capsules and to film the school’s graduation ceremony. And a bunch of daredevils (Kyle Davis and Jon Reep) are intent on behaving like an amateur version of the Jackass crew, taping their crazy antics and eager to become the next YouTube sensations.

Then the tornadoes strike. Some of the players willingly venture into the danger. Others inadvertently end up in the path of the disaster. Ultimately, they all find themselves caught in a struggle for survival.

Unconcerned with plausibility and consistency, Into the Storm shows us nature’s wrath through the lens of people who keep filming when both instinct and logic would tell them to forget about the video and focus on staying alive. The characters are dull and generic since their dialogues are mundane, their actions absurd and their relationships clichéd, while the acting is mostly serviceable. The cast may not comprise of Hollywood’s biggest names, but you can still tell that these performers have been in better projects.

The real stars of the movie, though, are the tornados — spectacular, fierce, horrific, and beautifully rendered. Visually, the film is a sight to behold and one will come out of the theatre grateful that they haven’t had to experience these forces of nature themselves. But director Steven Quale doesn’t succeed in complementing the visual spectacle with compelling human drama. And you know something has gone amiss when the weather patterns have more personality than the characters.

Ultimately, Into the Storm comes off as bland and vacant, as it fails to make much of a connection with the viewers. The one-dimensional characters don’t give one a reason or the chance to be invested in their storylines or their ultimate fate, which strips the movie of emotional weight and suspense. Watch it for its special effects wizardry and you will be impressed. But if you try to look for something deeper underneath its shiny CGI surface, you will be left disappointed.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

- Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 30th November, 2014 *

Friday, November 28, 2014


the scrapbook   

They might just seem like small adhesive pieces of paper that fit in the corner of an envelope, but they serve a bigger purpose than facilitating the postage of letters and parcels. Take a closer look at them, and they give you a chance to explore different parts of the globe. So, this week, we are on a mission to discover a little bit more about the world through stamps.


The duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-footed platypus looks like it’s made of random parts of other animals put together. And, to top it off, it’s a mammal that lays eggs! AND it’s venomous! The platypus sure is a curious creature. It lives in eastern Australia, and is an iconic symbol of the country as well as the animal emblem of the state of New South Wales.

The kookaburra is a member of the kingfisher family and is primarily found in Australia and New Guinea. Its most distinctive characteristic is its loud call, which sounds like echoing human laughter (and if you haven’t heard it, then you’re totally missing out!). The Aussie men’s field hockey team is also nicknamed after the bird that is depicted on this stamp.

Hong Kong, China

Collared scops owl
Many species of birds live in Hong Kong, and the collared scops owl is one of them. The brownish, nocturnal bird that is pictured on this stamp inhabits well wooded areas of South Asia, and is the largest species of the scops owls, which are small and agile members of the Otus genus.

Long-tailed shrike
Beautiful shades of chestnut adorn the long-tailed shrike, a melodious bird that is known for its mimicry of the calls of other animals (including cuckoos, puppies, and squirrels). These shrikes are found across Asia, including parts of China.


Fabrikstillverkad kakelugn (Factory-built fireplace)
This homage to factory-built fireplaces refers to the masonry heaters that are surrounded with ceramic tiles and are popular in Sweden. The stamp depicts a round heater from the late 1800s, which is a classic Swedish design. These Scandinavian tile stoves are used for both heat and decoration.

Mariebergs porslinfabrik (Marieberg’s porcelain factory)
Marieberg’s porcelain factory produced pottery during the 1700s, and was a leading manufacturer of exclusive tile stoves during that time. This stamp shows a closed brass door surrounded by decorative tiles that is mounted on a Marieberg tile stove.

New Zealand

The coastline of Fiordland, the south-western corner of New Zealand’s South Island (Te Waipounamu), is home to fascinating sea life. This stamp celebrates Fiordland’s coastal waters with a picture of the underwater beauty of Red Coral, a polymorphic hydrocoral which is a protected marine invertebrate.

United States of America

The beauty of the bonsai, the art of growing a small tree in a pot that originated in China and has become popular in America, is shown in this image, which depicts a common type of bonsai, known as banyan, in cascade style.

William H. Johnson
One of United States’ foremost African-American artists William Henry Johnson (1901 - 1970) is honoured through this stamp. Pictured here is his painting Flowers (1939 - 1940), an oil-on-plywood artwork that depicts brightly coloured blossoms in a dark container placed on a maroon table.

- By Sameen Amer

Us Magazine, The News - 28th November, 2014 *

NaNoWriMo successes

books and authors

November is in its final week, which means there are only a few more days to go till the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) comes to a close. Aspiring novelist around the world are taking part in this yearly activity and attempting to write a 50,000 word first draft of a novel in 30 days. So to encourage the participants as they cross the finish line (and inspire the rest of you to participate next time), here are some of the biggest successes that have come out of NaNoWriMo in the years past...

Time Off for Good Behavior by Lani Diane Rich 
Lani Diane Rich started writing her first book, Time Off for Good Behavior, during NaNoWriMo. The book was eventually published, making her the first previously-unpublished author to have a NaNoWriMo manuscript printed. The story of a woman who is suffering from a string of bad luck and decides to give her life a makeover, Time Off for Good Behavior connected with fans of chick lit and won praise for its blend of humour and poignancy.

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Perhaps the biggest NaNoWriMo success so far is Water for Elephants by Canadian-born author Sara Gruen. The book has sold millions of copies worldwide and was adapted into a movie (starring Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, and Christoph Waltz) which was released in 2011. An animal lover, Gruen’s work often features animals, a trait that also makes its way into Water for Elephants. Published in 2006, the historical fiction novel tells the story of a veterinary student who is hired to care for the menagerie of a circus that is struggling to survive the Great Depression. He forms a bond with the travelling show’s star performer, Marlena, and a seemingly untrainable elephant, Rosie, as the tome gives us a touching look at a fascinating chapter in history.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
The circus seems to be a popular topic with Wrimos and is also the setting of Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel The Night Circus, which was published in 2011, thanks at least in part to NaNoWriMo, and is now on its way to becoming a movie. The writer had been participating in the yearly writing activity since 2003, and first wrote what would eventually become The Night Circus in November 2005. It is an enchanting tale of a wandering magical circus that only opens after dark and the mysterious characters associated with it.

Wool by Hugh Howey
After the success of his terrific novella Wool in 2011, science fiction writer Hugh Howey decided to continue the tale during the National Novel Writing Month. By the time the self-published Wool omnibus was completed, it contained five stories and had a 160,000 word count, around 80,000 of which were written during NaNoWriMo. Set on a post-apocalyptic world where humanity lives cooped up in a Silo that extends far beneath the surface of the Earth, Wool has since become part of the now-expanded Silo universe, which also includes the prequel series Shift and the final act Dust. A film adaptation is also in the works, and Ridley Scott is among the directors who have expressed an interest in helming the big screen project.

The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer
Fairy tales with a modern spin have become all the rage during the last few years, and jumping on that bandwagon has help Marissa Meyer become a published author who has now penned a successful series. The first three books of The Lunar Chronicles began as NaNoWriMo novels and were all drafted together when she participated in the writing contest in 2008. The first book, Cinder (2012) retold the story of Cinderella with a science fiction twist, while its follow-ups Scarlet (2013) and Cress (2014) did the same with Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel respectively.

- S.A. 

Us Magazine, The News - 28th November, 2014 *

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Life of Crime - a crime that doesn’t pay

movie review

No ransom for kidnapping in Life of Crime

The influence of O Henry’s classic The Ransom of Red Chief — the story of a kidnapping gone amusingly wrong — can be perceived in a number of works that have come after it. Joining this considerable list is the new dark comedy Life of Crime, a film that attributes its existence more directly to Elmore Leonard’s 1978 novel The Switch.

Life of Crime is a drama with a compelling premise but waning intensity. In the film, writer-director Daniel Schechter takes us to ’70s Detroit, where two conmen hatch a get-rich-quick scheme but are flummoxed when its execution and aftermath don’t go exactly as planned.

Louis (John Hawkes) and Ordell (Yasiin Bey, previously known as Mos Def) are small-time crooks who, along with their neo-Nazi accomplice Richard (Mark Boone Jr.), are hoping for a big pay day. Their target is Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston), the wife of a corrupt property magnate, Frank (Tim Robbins). But when they kidnap Mickey, the abduction is witnessed by her would-be paramour (Will Forte). When they ask her husband for a million dollar ransom, their plan hits an even bigger snag as they realise Frank has no intention of making the payoff. Unknown to them, he is actually in the process of filing for a divorce and is happily shacked up with his young mistress Melanie (Isla Fisher).

Propelling this series of twists and turns is a winning cast who make a valiant effort to bring their characters to life. Aniston is charming, Hawkes and Bey are reliably impressive with their on-screen chemistry as inept partners in crime and Fisher is amusingly jovial as the conniving Melanie. On the whole, the cast do the best they can with the weak material in hand.

Despite the great setting and feel created by director Daniel Schechter, the project would have benefited by opting for a co-writer. For the most part, Life of Crime just plods along, albeit smoothly, but fails to leave a lasting impression. Even the twist thrown at the end is amusing only if one hasn’t already figured it out halfway through the proceedings.

Everything about the movie seems a little too familiar. It mostly comes off as Ruthless People meets Jackie Brown by way of American Hustle, but with subdued wit and spark. The viewer is never invested in Mickey’s fate (or anyone else’s for that matter) to really care about how things fold out eventually. Although the cast adds more depth to the characters, the material lacks the inspiration that could have made this production truly noteworthy. Ultimately, Life of Crime is watchable, but not nearly as gripping or memorable as it could have been.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, Express Tribune - 23rd November, 2014 *

Friday, November 21, 2014

My teen years: Maha Ali Kazmi


Maha Ali Kazmi

Star and date of birth
Cancer, 14th July.

The best thing about being a teenager
The great thing about being a teenager is that you are young enough to dream dreams and old enough to one day realize your dreams.

I was always listening to
Rolling Stones, John Lennon, and many American rock bands from the late '70s and '80s.

I was glued to the TV for 
Friends and Charmed.

My favourite movie was 

My favourite actor was
Ryan Gosling playing Noah in The Notebook.

My favourite book was
There wasn't one but many. The ones I can recall are Memoirs of a Geisha, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and Dracula.

My friends were
One of a kind.

My room was full of
Music CDs, movie collection, perfumes, and scented candles.

My room walls carried the posters of
Kurt Cobain.

My closet was full of
All the things teenagers generally own. I had a secret compartment where I used to hide things that in my opinion defined me as a person, from small souvenirs to some of my most cherished photographs.

My first crush
A 6th grader named Hasan in school.

What hurt me the most
When my best friend stopped talking to me.

My dream was to become
The most famous singer in Hollywood.

I wish I had known then
That dreams do come true.

Relations with siblings
As the sayings go, "Hey, I'll help you hide the body" or "Don't even breathe in my direction". Nothing in between.

Relations with parents
Loving. It was always full of trust and communication.

My school was
Where my friends were.

Ragging at college/university
That nameless boy who hid my bag every day after school.

I couldn't stand
My Urdu teacher.

My favourite hangout was
Eating candy popcorn and watching movies with my bestie.

My favourite superhero was
I didn't have superheroes.

My favourite sport was

My favourite pastime was

- S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 21st November, 2014 *

Gleesome moments

book review

Book: Brunette Ambition
Author: Lea Michele

Glee actress Lea Michele appears to be having a very busy year. The 28-year-old starlet is currently working on the final season of the series that has made her a household name, but that’s not the only project which has been keeping her occupied. Her debut album, Louder, came out a few months ago, as did her first book, Brunette Ambition.

Partly autobiographical and partly motivational, the tome sees the actress share the story of how she got to where she is today, while dispensing advice on how to live a healthier life.

Lea talks about her family background and upbringing, landing the role of Cosette on Broadway when she was eight years old, her subsequent career trajectory, and the lessons she has learned along the way. Also featured are lists of her favourite things, as well as significant anecdotes from her life, like meeting her role model Barbra Streisand and singing in front of her idol. And if you want to see her childhood and family photos, then Brunette Ambition has that covered too.

The book doubles as a self-improvement guide, with tips on healthy living and motivational thoughts meant to inspire the readers. The actress encourages her fans to celebrate their quirks and roots, and enrich their lives with extracurricular activities, while also illustrating her beauty and self care essentials and no-nos, at home pampering rituals, and favourite exercises. Her love for food takes centre stage often, and her favourite recipes also find a place in these pages.

With its simple style and limited content, Brunette Ambition is a short, quick read. It isn’t meant to be a proper autobiography and doesn’t give a very comprehensive account of her life, as she opts to hold back on many topics. Most notably, while her best friend Jonathan Groff gets his own chapter, her late boyfriend and co-star Cory Monteith (who passed away last year) does not, although he is mentioned a couple of times and she does state that he provided feedback for the book in terms of notes and edits.

At times, the book, perhaps inadvertently, gives the impression that she is more focused on physical appearance than intellectual development, but it is still commendable that she is trying to inspire her young fans to improve their lifestyles by exercising and making better dietary choices. Also, her message of not letting the stress of the outside world impose on ones sense of perspective is definitely apt and important.

On the whole, Brunette Ambition is a quick, light read that takes a brief look at its writer’s world without delving too deep into its complexities. If you want a tell-all with intimate details about her life and Glee, then this isn’t the book for you. The book paints Lea as an ambitious young performer and is clearly capitalizing on her current success. As with most showbiz biographies written by younger stars, it could have been better if she had waited a few more years to rack up more (both life and professional) experience, and come up with more substantial content. As it stands, if you’re not particularly fond of Lea Michele, then it’s very unlikely that you will find the content of Brunette Ambition interesting. But her fans, who are obviously the target audience of this effort, will enjoy this look at the actress’s life.

- S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 21st November, 2014 *

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Tyranny - little right, little wrong

album review

The Voidz debut album is not meant to cater to a mainstream audience, and it won’t

Side projects can provide musicians with an avenue to express themselves outside the confines of their main acts, and that is precisely what Julian Casablancas has done with his new group The Voidz. The latest musical venture by The Strokes frontman sees him team up with a group of eclectic musicians — guitarists Beardo Gritter and Amir Yaghmai, bassist Jake Bercovici, keyboardist Jeff Kite and percussionist Alex Carapetis — and take full advantage of this opportunity to create the eccentric Tyranny.

Helmed by producer Shawn Everett, the group’s debut album delivers a raw blend of punk and alt rock, giving up the more polished sound of The Strokes in favour of an experimental visage. The musicians explore interesting ideas that sometimes come together nicely and at other times collapse under the raucous musical avalanche that envelopes them.

Bathed in angst and disappointment, the first single ‘Human Sadness’ represents the album fairly accurately. The song merges some terrific musical moments with self-indulgent overtures to create an 11-minute opus that is definitely ambitious but perhaps overly so. When these elements are successfully put together — as they are on songs like ‘Where No Eagles Fly’, ‘Crunch Punch’, and ‘Dare I Care’ — the result is exciting. At other times, the output seems too laboured and unfocused. There’s a lot going on in these 12 songs. Furious guitars, angry drums and frantic synths frequently make an appearance as the tracks play with melody and chaos, often at the same time. The effect falls closer to the industrial kick of Nine Inch Nails than to the indie and garage sound you would associate with Casablancas, who also wrote or co-wrote each of the songs on this set.

Experimentation arguably is the best use for a side project, and on that front, The Voidz emerge victorious. Tyranny was clearly not made to appease fans of its singer’s main act, nor does it seem concerned with the opinion of his detractors. It showcases a band that intended to create something interesting, but it also leaves you with the sense that the musicians who made it were perhaps trying a tad too hard. Instead of cramming every idea they could come up with into these overlong tracks, the output could have been more pleasant and accessible if they had reined in the discordance, making the songs less busy and more coherent (although that sentiment probably undercuts the attitude on display here).

As it stands, Tyranny is an unconventional effort by a group that seemed too enamoured with itself. The songs fall on a spectrum that ranges from compelling to grating, although the response to it simply comes down to the listener’s preferences. Even if you are a fan of The Strokes or enjoyed Casablancas’ solo album Phrazes for the Young, there is no guarantee that you will enjoy Tyranny. But if you are drawn towards music that is intriguingly weird, then you might want to give The Voidz debut record a spin.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

More for rock 'n' roll fans

1. Phrazes for the Young by Julian Casablancas
The first (and so far only) solo album by the lead singer of The Strokes, Phrazes for the Young saw Casablancas experimenting with ideas more freely while creating a short but enthusiastic set of alternative rock.

2. Comedown Machine by The Strokes
The slickness of the indie rock band’s latest album, their fifth release overall, might leave you yearning for more rawness, but its diversity and well crafted melodies still make it an interesting effort.

3. Hesitation Marks by Nine Inch Nails
The return of industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails (who briefly hired Alex Carapetis as a touring drummer in 2005) saw Trent Reznor and co. come up with their intriguing, inventive eighth album, Hesitation Marks.

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 16th November, 2014 *

Friday, October 31, 2014


the scrapbook 

Easy Halloween crafts

Paper jack-o’-lantern

- Sheet of orange card paper
- Pieces of green and black paper
- Scissors and/or paper cutter
- Glue

1. Take a sheet of thick orange coloured paper or card paper. Fold and refold lengthwise and cut into eight roughly equal strips. (You can add another two to four strips from a second sheet of paper if you want to decrease the empty space between strips in the finished jack-o’-lantern.)
2. Place the strips in an eight pointed asterisk arrangement with one end overlapping in the middle, gluing them together as you add each strip to the formation. You can staple the centre for reinforcement.
3. Lift the open ends of the strips upwards, and glue each of them at the top till they form a round shape.
4. Paste green paper leaves and stem on top and add black eyes, nose, and mouth to finish the jack-o’-lantern appearance.

Paper web

- Sheet of paper
- Scissors (or cutter)

1. Cut the sheet of paper into a square.
2. Fold across the diagonal to get a triangle.
3. Fold across the middle to get a smaller triangle.
4. Lift the right edge and fold one third of the way in. Repeat with the left. (This is the same fold that is commonly used for snowflakes.)
5. Cut equidistant (straight or slightly curved) slits across on one end while leaving one edge intact. Cut off the pointy end as well as the excess paper at the top.
6. Unfold.

Halloween candy wrappers

- Sheet of white paper
- Black marker
- Scissors
- Candy bar

1. Place your candy bar in the middle of a sheet of paper, and cut the paper to about three times the width of the bar and two inches longer than the bar’s length.
2. Cut a round shape at the top of the paper and draw a ghost face in it.
3. Fold the bottom of the paper inwards.
4. Fold the paper inwards from the left and right till it covers the bar.

- S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 31st October, 2014 *

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Begin Again - once more, without feeling

movie review

Ironically, Begin Again lacks the very same authenticity that its characters are searching for in their music

The popularity of a movie often tempts its film-makers to repeat the same formula in their subsequent projects in the hopes that they will replicate the success of their previous hit. That appears to be the motive behind musical drama Begin Again — director John Carney’s revisit to the stylings of Once, the 2007 film that impressed audiences and critics alike. This time, however, the experience has been stripped of pretty much everything that made his breakthrough effort special.

The movie revolves around Gretta (Keira Knightley), a young singer reeling from her breakup with musician Dave (Adam Levine), who strays as soon as his career takes off. Heartbroken and dejected, she reluctantly takes the stage at an open mic night, where she is spotted by troubled record executive Dan (Mark Ruffalo), the co-founder of an independent record label. Blown away by her potential, Dan offers to help Gretta land a record deal. But instead of coming up with a demo, the duo eventually sets out to work on a live album in New York City, recording each song outdoors at a different location.

Along the way, the struggling songwriter and disgraced producer try to sort out the various fractured relationships in their lives, with Gretta seeking closure on her breakup with Dave, and Dan trying to connect with his estranged wife (Catherine Keener) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld).

Corny to its core, Begin Again fails to exude the sincerity that is necessary to elevate its premise into something memorable. Its most glaring flaw lies in the fact that the very authenticity its characters claim to seek in their music is missing in the movie itself. It also doesn’t help that the run-off- the-mill indie pop tunes it tries to pass off as exceptional are, in reality, disappointingly forgettable. Passion — the very thing that should be the driving force behind the music — is sorely lacking in the songs. And while Knightley is lovely, she is completely unbelievable as the singer-songwriter unwilling to compromise on the authenticity of her craft, which makes it hard for viewers to be invested in her journey. Compared to the very real talent in the actual indie scene, both the film’s protagonist and its music seem unremarkable.

That said, the cast, on the whole, is very likeable (possibly with the exception of Levine, who could have been replaced by just about anyone else and it would have hardly mattered). Knightley is (perhaps overly) delightful, despite being miscast; Ruffalo exudes scruffy charisma; and Keener is engaging, making her scenes with Ruffalo the most affecting parts of the film.

Carney does apply some interesting touches to the storytelling (particularly in the flashbacks towards the beginning, and how Dan visualises Gretta’s song when he first hears her sing), but the film fails to capture the magic of the significantly more organic Once or create compelling character portraits like the far superior Inside Llewyn Davis did not too long ago. There is nothing unique about the very clichéd, splintered relationships the film’s protagonists are trying to heal, but, to its credit, the film handles the chemistry between its two leads with grace and doesn’t take them down the predictable path. Overall, Begin Again isn’t nearly as genuine as it wishes it were, and its lack of plausibility and mediocre soundtrack make it far less compelling than it could have been.

Rating: 2.5/5

Recommended movies for music fans

Once (2007)
A Dublin busker (Glen Hansard) and a Czech immigrant flower girl (Markéta Irglová) come together to make music in John Carney’s acclaimed Once, which has also spawned a successful stage musical.

Crazy Heart (2009)
Propelled by an Academy Award-winning performance by Jeff Bridges, Scott Cooper’s adaptation of Thomas Cobb’s 1987 novel follows the story of a washed-up country music singer-songwriter, whose relationship with a young journalist (Maggie Gyllenhaal) inspires him to turn his life around.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
The Coen brothers’ latest drama Inside Llewyn Davis is a skillfully crafted case study of a folk singer (Oscar Isaac) who is struggling for success and marred by a series of self-inflicted misfortunes.

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 19th October, 2014 *