Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

movie review

Pretty as a picture, and nothing more

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Starring: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Patton Oswalt, and Sean Penn
Director: Ben Stiller
Tagline: Stop dreaming. Start living.

In his famous 1939 short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, James Thurber introduced the world to his daydreaming protagonist who would end up becoming a part of the vernacular, his name synonymous with someone who is given to flights of fancy. After inspiring a 1947 movie of the same name, the story now yields another loose big screen adaptation in the form of Ben Stiller’s comedy drama The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which takes very little from the original narrative and dials down its poignancy by several notches to arrive at something less involving and far more belaboured than the text that inspired it.

Walter Mitty’s latest incarnation sees him working as a negative assets manager in the photograph department at Life magazine, pining over his genial co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) but too timid to ask her out, and prone to getting lost in escapist fantasies wherein he performs daring, heroic feats. But when the magazine is acquired and its print edition shut down, and the negative of the “quintessential” image meant to be on its last cover goes missing, Walter goes on a quest to look for photojournalist Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) who took the photograph in question, in the hopes of finding out what the image was and where it went.

As he sets off on his globetrotting adventure with perfunctory visits to Greenland, Iceland, and the Himalayas, the tedium starts to set in. At times it feels like you’ve been transported into the middle of a travelogue that is doubling as a motivational discourse, but the impact that these visits are supposed to have and the joy and awe that should come with his “stop dreaming, start living” epiphany feels to be missing. It also doesn’t help that even when he has set off on his actual adventure, things don’t really feel like real life and still keep playing out like his daydreams; as a result, the character never seems real or vulnerable enough for us to care about him.

The exotic locations do, however, make beautiful backdrops, and between its location shoots and special effects you can see where the nearly $100 million budget went. The film is visually beautiful, smoothly executed, and buffed with a thick layer of polish. The problem, however, is that it fails to engage, and the excess starts to turn a simple, poignant story into a display of privilege. As a result, the forcibly motivational vibe feels oddly superficial and doesn’t seem as profound as it’s meant to be.

To their credit, the cast deliver good performances, even if their characters are thinly written. Ben Stiller (who deserves props for pulling The Secret Life of Walter Mitty out of development hell where it had been floundering for nearly two decades) makes a passable Walter, although his character isn’t necessarily as relatable as it should be. A toned down Kristen Wiig makes a likable Cheryl, and her sweetness helps overcome her role’s blandness. Patton Oswalt is amusing as the eHarmony representative who prods Walter to beef up his dating profile. Adam Scott’s obnoxious corporate transition manager role is too stereotypical. And Shirley MacLaine and Kathryn Hahn are charming as Walter’s mother and sister respectively.

The actors have chemistry, the special effects are impressive (albeit excessive), the locations are exotic, and the cinematography is polished. Yet, despite all its earnestness, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is too lifeless. Perhaps the filmmakers have focused too much on its visuals and not enough on its soul, and therein lies the problem. Its underlying, uplifting message should have been inspiring, and if the film could have drawn us in emotionally and made us empathize with its characters, then it would have been a triumph. Instead it gave us something beautiful to look at, but it didn’t give us enough to feel about. And that is why this cinematic Walter Mitty probably won’t leave nearly as lasting an impression as his literary, textual counterpart did.

- Sameen Amer 

Instep, The News on Sunday - 26th January, 2014 *

A single again


Faiza Mujahid's latest girl power anthem has brought back the spotlight upon this fleeting songstress with powerhouse vocals

Singer Faiza Mujahid recently unveiled her new song ‘Uth Oye’ and its accompanying video, a project through which she aims to inspire and motivate her audience by showcasing women who have set an example through their resilience and perseverance. In a chat with Instep on Sunday, the singer talks about her new release, and also tells us what she has planned for the coming months.

Instep: You recently released your new song ‘Uth Oye’. Please tell us about it.
Faiza Mujahid: The song ‘Uth Oye’ has been created with the impulse to encourage positive sentiments that can be identified as central to healing, flourishing, and individual wellbeing. When composing the song, lyricist Haider Hashmi and I were very keen on invoking a sense of resilience and optimism within people to counter a deep sense of despondency.

Instep: The video for the song features strong and inspirational women. Please tell us about the video and the concept behind it.
Faiza: The video is directed by Fatima Shah. She is a young, up and coming female director. The video builds on the themes of the song, attempting to reflect the fearlessness required to create and inspire meaning in one’s life. It reveals multiple psychological dimensions in the face of distress, and establishes a connection between the present moments and the motivating resolve of each personality.
Farah Deeba, who is only 26 years old, decided to dedicate her life to supporting underprivileged children and adolescents with a means to receive wholesome education. She started teaching at the age of 20 and with a handful of students. She is now administering a large educational institute called Aalam Bibi Welfare as an independent initiative.
Sabira Sultana is a burn victim who persevered in traumatic circumstances and is now the patient coordinator at the Depilex SmileAgain Foundation, dedicated to rehabilitating burn victims. She is a source of inspiration for many women and activated the process of healing and reconciliation for many more.
As the capacities of individuals to create and inspire meaning triggers emotional and psychological responses, the video also presents the strength of women in number, vis-à-vis Pakistan’s women’s hockey team. With little or no financial aid and the stigma of women in sports, these young women defy the influential mechanisms of the media as well as hegemonic masculinity by using the power of sport as a transformative tool.

Instep: Was it easy or difficult to get everyone (Farah Deeba, Sabira Sultana, and the Pakistani women’s hockey team) on board? Was there anyone you approached who decided not to be in the video?
Faiza: I am already affiliated with Depilex SmileAgain Foundation and had met Sabira several times. I was put in touch with Farah Deeba through a friend. I love playing sports and our national hockey and cricket teams are both very understated. And no, these are the only women I approached.

Instep: Can you tell us about any other songs or projects that you’re currently working on?
Faiza: I recently gave my vocals for the soundtracks of two drama serials that have aired on Hum TV and Geo: ‘Toota Hua Dil’ for Bunty I Love You and ‘Mumkin Hai’ for Numm. I have also collaborated with an Indian pop artist Anurag Dixit for ‘Baatain Ho Chuki’; the song will be released worldwide on Anurag’s second album. And I have already recorded two songs: ‘Jeenay De’, which has a very old school rock sound and has a grander sound than ‘Meri Zindagi’, and ‘Guzray Din’, which is a ballad. I am working on videos for both songs. They will be released within this year.

Instep: You have been releasing sporadic singles over the years. Is there any chance you’ll come up with a full length album anytime soon?
Faiza: Full length albums require a lot more time and resources and a reliable record label to support the artist. Also, our audiences now have a shorter attention span and the Internet has made it more convenient for people to view music videos and download singles with more ease than a full album. I am still very open to experimenting and collaborating. Releasing an album requires a much more focused and specific theme and content. I think an EP in the future may be possible though.

- Sameen Amer 

Instep, The News on Sunday - 25th January, 2014 *

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

movie review

The Lord of the Rings goes downhill with The Hobbit Part Deux
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug ***   

Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Luke Evans, Aidan Turner, Ken Stott, Lee Pace, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Stephen Fry
Director: Peter Jackson
Tagline: Beyond darkness…beyond desolation…lies the greatest danger of all.

After the massive success of his stunning adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, it hardly came as a surprise when Peter Jackson was chosen to helm the adaptation of its prequel, The Hobbit. But somewhere along the way, Jackson seems to have convinced himself that he is a better storyteller than Tolkien. And that is the tragedy of the unnecessarily long trilogy’s second instalment, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, a haphazard slog that needlessly strays too far from its source material, only to go off in the most tiresome directions.

The follow-up to 2012′s An Unexpected Journey, the film sees our beloved hobbit Bilbo (Martin Freeman), wise wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and the twelve Dwarves, continue on their quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain, where the fiery dragon Smaug hoards a massive treasure amongst which is the Arkenstone, a sacred gem which the company aims to retrieve.

They do eventually reach the Mountain during Desolation’s 160 minutes trudge, but instead of getting there with wit, nuance, and emotional depth, they choose to take the weary, stony route.

At the beginning, the party seeks refuge at the house of skin-changer Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), but we don’t really get to explore the host or the boarding like we could have. Then they make their way through Mirkwood, and we never get a proper sense of the dangers and vastness of this massive forest. Gone are the twinkling lights and fires in the glades, all discarded in order to insert LotR veteran Legolas (Orlando Bloom), a new Elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), and a pointless love triangle into the proceedings, and to make room for gimmicks and combat. Lots and lots of combat.

‘Battle must ensue at every turn’ seems to have been the directive for this movie, and subtlety is the first casualty of this decision. Orcs and Elves have been stuffed into the story, while thrusting the titular hobbit and any chances of character development out of the frame. As a result, the movie ends up being so bloated with tired action sequences that it starts to feel like Jackson was on a quest to figure out how many decapitations he could cram into the film without losing its PG-13 rating; the answer, it turns out, is way more than necessary.

It’s Smaug’s eventual appearance that rescues the film and truly stands out as something memorable. The imposing dragon is a vision to behold, stunningly rendered and very intensely voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. Just like Gollum was the highlight of Journey, Smaug is the most impressive part of Desolation. But while their interactions with Bilbo might feel a bit similar, Gollum compelled with the exploration of his internal conflicts, while Smaug does not get the same kind of treatment. Like much of the film, too much focus is expended on visuals and not enough on the characters. And ultimately it is a pity when even Smaug’s majestic presence degenerates into one of the silliest sequences of the whole series when the Dwarves try to trick the dragon towards the end.

It is also unfortunate that Bilbo has been marginalized in his own movie. Martin Freeman continues to make a charming Bilbo, but the filmmakers don’t pay as much attention to him as they should have; the ring’s affect on him, in particular, remains to be examined. And the rest of the cast, in general, is also impressive. Ian McKellen’s take on Gandalf, who goes off to pursue the Necromancer in this chapter, is as powerful as ever. And Benedict Cumberbatch, of course, is remarkable as Smaug.

But, like it has been said countless times already, taking the slender, playful children’s novel and reimagining it as an epic trilogy in the same vein as LotR wasn’t exactly the best idea that anyone’s ever had. That, however, isn’t the biggest problem here – the execution could still have been better than what we’ve seen in the first two instalments. The film needed more Bilbo, less Orcs and Elves, no love triangles, and absolutely no dialogues about searching anybody’s trousers. And it wouldn’t have hurt if less focus was placed on action and more on character building. There is a middle ground between being overly constrained by the original material and overusing your creative licence and taking pointless liberties, and The Desolation of Smaug fails to find that balance; at times it starts to feel like fan fiction, and not particularly good one.

If this was an average fantasy movie, then it might not have seemed like such a letdown, and if it was just another blockbuster then the director and writers’ choices would have made more sense. For the casual view, Desolation might still seem like an improvement over the sluggish Journey, and if you want to view it as merely another commercial action adventure then you might enjoy the proceedings. But for readers familiar with the original story, especially those who have some sentiments attached to it, as well as viewers who place importance on nuance and character development, this instalment is a further step in the wrong direction. No, it isn’t a complete mess, and yes, Smaug’s presence makes it worth a watch, but if the series has failed to charm you so far, then this desolation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit will feel like a long, cluttered, tedious slog that could have potentially been much more compelling.

- Sameen Amer 

Instep on Sunday, The News - 19th January, 2014 *

Sunday, January 12, 2014


movie review

Frozen ****

Voice cast: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, and Santino Fontana
Directed by: Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee

Sisterhood takes centre stage when we are taken to the mythical Scandinavian kingdom of Arendelle in Frozen, an animated musical fantasy loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen, as Disney continues its tradition of making princess movies but gives the concept a little tweak this time around.

After she struggles to control her magical powers of creating snow and ice that can be both spectacular and dangerous, young Princess Elsa (Idina Menzel) is told to conceal her abilities from everyone, including her younger sister, Anna (Kristen Bell), and consequently isolates herself, straining the relationship between the siblings as they grow up. But when their parents perish in a sea storm, Elsa is forced to re-emerge and accept the throne of the kingdom. Things, however, get out of control on the coronation day when Anna announces she wants to marry a man, Prince Hans (Santino Fontana), who she has just met. Elsa objects, triggering an argument, which results in her powers being exposed to everyone, as she inadvertently sets off an eternal winter on the Nordic kingdom and flees.

Anna then goes after her in the hopes of making everything right and bringing back summer. On the way, she encounters a reclusive mountain man and ice vendor Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his beloved reindeer Sven, who (very reluctantly) agree to join Anna and help her on her quest. Before they get to the ice castle that Elsa has created, they meet Olaf (Josh Gad), a snowman the sisters built when they were children and who has now been brought to life, and who loves the idea of summer, charmingly oblivious of what it will do to him.

Together they must find Elsa, put an end to the winter, and mend the sisters’ relationship, all of which will ultimately rest on an act of true love that will thaw a frozen heart.

The writers (co-director Jennifer Lee is credited with penning the screenplay) have created some spunky, powerful characters who are struggling with their need for affection in their own different ways, and that makes them relatable and affecting. And their insecurities, and struggles with living in fear, being fraught with loneliness, not accepting who they are, and trying to protect the people they love make them more likeable and easier to root for. Elsa and Anna aren’t your typical Disney princesses, and the story breaks a few Disney clichés, although it would have been even more impressive if the studio had been brave enough to wander even farther from convention while also trying something different as far as the looks of the princesses are concerned.

Frozen makes good use of celebrity voices that work well and don’t distract by being overly familiar. Kristen Bell is charming in the lead role, and is very likeable as the voice of the lively Anna. And Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, and even Josh Gad have already demonstrated their talent on Broadway (and Frozen, in fact, could work really well as a stage musical), and each of them is great as their respective character’s voice in this movie.

The animation itself is stunning. You may think winter and snow would make a drab landscape, but Frozen shows just how gorgeous it can be. Elsa’s ice castle in particular is stunning, and everything in the movie is beautifully rendered.

The score (composed by Christophe Beck) and soundtrack (with the songs written by the husband-and-wife team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez) are also impressive. The film features a number of well-placed songs that help explain how the characters are feeling, including Anna’s touching ‘Do You Want to Build a Snowman?’, Elsa’s standout ‘Let It Go’ (which makes full use of Idina Menzel’s vocal prowess and explains why she was recruited for the role), the sisters’ ‘For the First Time in Forever’, Kristoff’s amusing ‘Reindeer(s) are Better Than People’, and Olaf’s comical ‘In Summer’.

At the film’s core, though, is a simple, straightforward story that has been stretched to a certain degree with some padding, both for running time and excitement purposes. That, however, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Olaf, for instance, seems to have been shoehorned in as the obligatory comic relief, but that would be a gripe if the delightful snowman wasn’t amusing, which he definitely is. The plot isn’t overly intricate, but the storyline is engaging, touching, and often quite funny; plus the film breaks away from some of the trappings of princess movies and its focus on sisterhood is refreshing. And it obviously helps that the movie is visually gorgeous and comes with a catchy, well sung soundtrack.

All in all, Frozen is a tale with plenty of warmth and a heart that’s definitely in the right place. It isn’t as creative and spectacular as some of the animated films we have seen in the recent past (particularly from Disney’s own subsidiary Pixar, which pretty much set the standard for animated features during the last decade when it was at its peak), but it is well made, perfectly cast, visually gorgeous, and comes with a number of positive messages, and young viewers as well as animation fans of any age are very likely to enjoy it.

- Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 12th January, 2014

The Fratellis make a comeback

album review

Band: The Fratellis
Album: We Need Medicine

The speed at which they shot to fame was just as rapid as the speed at which they disappeared. The release of their self-titled debut EP saw The Fratellis being showered with hype, and it was not exactly a shock when the trio from Glasgow took over the world with their raucous, vibrant first album Costello Music (2006) and their singles – ‘Chelsea Dagger’ in particular – became ubiquitous. Their upbeat, catchy tunes and big choruses were so infectious that they were even generating the band some backlash for their transparent commercial ambitions, and getting them labelled as bland guitar pop that was riding the coattail of the garage rock revival. But with their throwback sound, contagious melodies, strutting guitars, playful lyrics, and plenty of attitude, The Fratellis were also being deemed the best new band in Britain. Either way, the momentum was not to last. For their sophomore release, Here We Stand (2008), the group decided to go in a moodier, more bluesy direction. The audience wasn’t too pleased. Mainstream interest waned. Before you knew it, the band had announced an indefinite hiatus. And just like that they were gone.

Now, half a decade and a couple of side projects later, The Fratellis are back with their third album, We Need Medicine, an 11 song set that has been written, composed, and co-produced by lead singer and guitarist Jon Fratelli. The record takes its cues from classic rock and blues, with flavours of rockabilly occasionally thrown in, and sounds like a logical, albeit delayed, follow-up to their second album as well as Jon’s solo effort, Psycho Jukebox. There is more lyrical and musical variety here as compared to Costello Music, but at the same time, the album isn’t as fun and quirky as their breakthrough first release.

From the country and western tinged album opener ‘Halloween Blues’ to the layered five and a half minute onslaught of closer ‘Until She Saves My Soul’, the record shows shifts in style as the band tries to add different touches and instruments to the sound without losing themselves in the process. The stomping standouts ‘This Old Ghost Town’ and ‘Jeannie Nitro’ prove that the band can still write catchy melodies, while the zesty, banjo-driven ‘Whiskey Saga’ reminds of ‘Creepin’ Up the Backstairs’. The slower ‘Rock N Roll Will Break Your Heart’ impresses with its beautiful, poignant melody. And depending on your level of tolerance for repetitive chants, the title track ‘We Need Medicine’ will either seem anthemic or more than a little irritating.

We Need Medicine makes it quite clear that The Fratellis want to be more than just the band that made Costello Music. But while the album does show signs of ambition, at times it feels overly polished, and there really isn’t anything exactly groundbreaking about this material. The songs don’t sound extremely different or innovative, and the tracks aren’t immediate and memorable enough to buoy this comeback album into the mainstream conscious.

On the whole, We Need Medicine is less infectious and doesn’t hit you with quite the same, consistent level of energy as the set that put them on the map, but it definitely grows on you with every listen. The album revels in its retro sound and doesn’t offer any surprises, but it helps the band display growth and maturity instead of blindly recreating the same sound that initially made them popular.

- Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 12th January, 2014 *

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Psych it up!


No psychic powers? Don’t you worry... just fake it like they do on TV


Season 8
Starring: James Roday, Dule Hill, Timothy Omundson, Maggie Lawson, Kirsten Nelson, and Corbin Bernsen

Everyone’s favourite fake psychic returns as we go back to Santa Barbara for the eighth season of the detective comedy drama Psych, which starts on USA Network today. The amusingly offbeat series follows the story of Shawn Spencer (James Roday), a gifted detective with impressive observational skills, who pretends to have psychic abilities to assist the Santa Barbara Police Department in solving crimes with the help of his reluctant partner and best friend Burton Guster (Dulé Hill). Psych has been on air since July 2006, and while its ratings may have tapered off over the last few years, it still attracts a very loyal fan following that has been waiting anxiously to see what the new season has in store for us.

Where were we?
When we last saw them, Shawn and Juliet (Maggie Lawson) were trying to repair their relationship after she figured out that Shawn isn’t really a psychic; Lassiter (Timothy Omundson) had married Marlow; and Chief Vick (Kirsten Nelson) had been suspended for six months. And then, just to confuse us, an anachronistic musical was plucked from the middle of the seventh season and aired as a separate, standalone entity in December, more than sixth months after the season itself had ended, making it chronologically misplaced and out of synch with the rest of the series.

What now?
Now the series returns with a truncated new season that comprises of 10 episodes (as opposed to the usual 16), beginning with 'Lock, Stock, Some Smoking Barrels and Burton Guster’s Goblet of Fire', a Guy Ritchie homage with a touch of Harry Potter added to the mix to put a Psych spin on things. The season premiere sees the return of one of Shawn’s most memorable nemeses, Pierre Despereaux (Cary Elwes), as Shawn and Gus get tangled in a situation involving British gangsters, while Gus wants to go to a Harry Potter festival. Vinnie Jones guest stars.
Coming up later in the season is 'Nightmare on State Street' (previously titled 'Dream Therapy'), James Roday’s zombie episode that was chosen out of three contenders by fans through an online poll. The runner up episode 'Food Truck' is also expected to be in the season’s line up.
Also, Kirsten Nelson makes her directorial debut with '1967: A Psych Odyssey'. And an old Psych episode gets its own remake! Yes, they are remaking one of their own episodes from season one – ‘Cloudy... with a Chance of Murder’, which has now become ‘Cloudy... with a Chance of Improvement’ – that has been cast with people who’ve been on Psych before and are now playing new, different roles.

Where to next?
All good things must come to an end, and fans are speculating that Psych might be nearing its end too. Despite no official confirmation, rumours have been running rampant that this could be the final season of the show, especially after Maggie Lawson joined the ABC comedy drama Back in the Game (2013); that series, however, proved to be short-lived and has since been cancelled, but Lawson will reportedly be in only 5 of the 10 episodes in season eight. The shorter length of the season has also fuelled the rumours of its impending demise, but everyone’s reluctance to confirm whether time is up for the series or not gives hope to the loyal Psych-Os that USA Network’s longest running original program will get renewed for more seasons. The show has had a good run, and series creator Steve Franks (who also hopes to do a Psych feature film) has promised that there will be some closure at the end of season eight. So for now, we still have at least ten more episodes to enjoy, and from what we can see, there is a lot to look forward to in this short season.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 8th January, 2014 *