Sunday, June 29, 2014

Maleficent - Fair(l)y Average

movie review


Starring: Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville
Director: Robert Stromberg
Tagline: Evil has a beginning.

Over the decades, Disney has seen both critical and commercial success of its princess movies, many of which have become timeless hits, leaving a lasting cultural imprint. It is one of these classics that the studio is now revisiting in the form of Maleficent, a revisionist retelling of the 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty from the viewpoint of the story’s arch-villainess, who has been transformed into a heartbroken anti-heroine.

We begin in a land divided by age-old hatred between humans and fairies. Despite the animosity between men and the magical folk, a powerful young fairy with a good heart, confusingly named Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) — which literally meaning evil — befriends a human boy, Stefan (Sharlto Copley). She falls for him, while he is enticed by power and ambition, eventually betraying her to become king.

Hell hath no fury like a fairy scorned, and so Maleficent retaliates by placing a curse on King Stefan’s infant daughter Aurora (Elle Fanning), destining her to eternal slumber that can only be broken by true love’s kiss. The king entrusts the princess to three fairies (Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, and Lesley Manville), who turn out to be inept dimwits, incapable of raising a child. Maleficent lurks in the background with her shape-shifting raven, Diaval, helping the princess when her guardians falter, growing fond of the young girl in the process.

In their attempt to tell an old story anew, the filmmakers wander so far from the 1959 animation that they end up losing its essence. The moments of familiarity during Aurora’s christening highlight how entertaining it could have been to revisit some of the original material. Similarly, not using any of the iconic Sleeping Beauty scores feels like a missed opportunity.

The changes to some of the characters cast them as extreme. To acquit Maleficent, King Stefan is framed as the outright villain in this retelling, transformed into a one-dimensional opportunist. The three good fairies share almost no characteristics with their animated counterparts and are mostly redundant in the story. Princess Aurora is underwritten and passive to the point of being uninteresting.

There is one person, however, who inarguably shines throughout the movie: Angelina Jolie. In her first film appearance in nearly four years, the actor delivers a stunning performance, embodying Maleficent with elegance and poise, despite it lacking the nuances of a well-written character.

The film also incorporates beautiful visuals but lacks attention to detail in every other department. You can tell the director — first-timer Robert Stromberg — comes from a special effects background. But he clearly wasn’t the best choice to lead this picture as he lacks the skill to manage the pacing and tone, or to iron out the inconsistencies in the narratives.

On the whole, this visually gorgeous reimagining of a Disney classic is not as fluid or refined as it should be. Its feminist angle isn’t entirely forceful, and the film ends up treading some of the same ground that Frozen did with much more gusto just a few months ago. Still, Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent is a sight to behold and her strong performance is probably the most memorable aspect of this project.

Rating: 3 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 29th June, 2014 *

Friday, June 27, 2014

All in one rhythm

sports: ground reality

2014 FIFA World Cup (12 June – 13 July 2014)

Whether you like football or not, you will probably find it hard to avoid the fact that the biggest tournament of one of the most popular team sports in the world is currently underway in Brazil. People all over the globe are transfixed in front of their television sets, eager to watch soccer’s biggest stars in action. And while Pakistan may not be participating in the game, we do have our own special connection to the World Cup. Here’s a quick look at some of the elements of the tournament:

The attention of the world turns to South America, as the República Federativa do Brasil (the Federal Republic of Brazil) hosts the 20th edition of the FIFA World Cup, making this the second time the country is hosting the competition (the first being in 1950). 32 teams are taking part in a total of 64 matches that are being held at 12 venues (7 new, 5 renovated) in 12 cities (each the capital of its state) over the course of a month. The Portuguese-speaking Brazil, the world’s fifth largest country, is very enthusiastic about football and is one of its finest competitors, having won the World Cup a record five times.

A blue and yellow armadillo in a white shirt and green shorts is serving as the mascot of this tournament. His name, Fuleco, which was chosen after a three month public voting campaign, is a portmanteau of the words Futebol (Football) and Ecologia (Ecology), reflecting the tournament’s commitment to communicating the importance of the environment and ecology. Fuleco belongs to the vulnerable Brazilian three-banded armadillo species, which is one of only two armadillo species that can roll into a ball; they are known as “tatu-bola” in Brazil, which has also become Fuleco’s affectionate nickname. Fuleco turned 14 on the 1st of January this year, and his official song ‘Tatu Bom de Bola’ has been sung by Brazilian singer Arlindo Cruz. He is friendly, cheerful, and obviously very passionate about football.

The tournament’s official match ball bears a multicoloured design and was developed by Adidas. Its name, also decided by a public vote, is Brazuca, which is a term used by Brazilians to describe “national pride in the Brazilian way of life”. Originally, the ball was supposed to be manufactured in China, but when the demand became more than the original manufacturer could meet, a second supplier was brought in to coproduce the ball. That manufacturer was from our very own Sialkot, a city that has always been well-known for its sports goods. Over the next few weeks, the Adidas Brazuca will be the centrepiece of the activity on field, and we can take pride in knowing that Pakistanis helped make the whole thing possible.

Ole Ola
‘We Are One (Ole Ola)’, the official song of the World Cup, was recorded by Cuban-American rapper Pitbull with guest vocals from Puerto Rican American singer Jennifer Lopez and Brazilian star Claudia Leitte. And the reviews have been less than flattering. The confusingly irrelevant choice of the first two artists instead of Brazilian singers has been criticised; the song’s melody and music have been seen as too generic and pop instead of an homage to Brazil’s rich musical heritage; the lyrics have been described as a bundle of clichés; and the fact that the song doesn’t really have much to do with football or the host nation hasn’t gone down well with spectators. But on the bright side, the effort really has brought the world together, if only to criticise it!

- By Sameen Amer

Us Magazine, The News - 27th June, 2014 *

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Different shades of pop

music review

Tori Amos reinforces her popularity while Linkin Park reveals its intense side

Singer: Tori Amos
Album: Unrepentant Geraldines

Over the last two decades, few artists have managed to excite both mainstream and alternative audiences quite like Tori Amos has, and her new album Unrepentant Geraldines offers a concise summation of everything that has made the singer such a prominent presence in the world of music.

Tori’s 14th album marks her return to contemporary pop after pursuing other projects (like a classical album, orchestral reworkings of music from her back catalogue, and a musical adaptation). Inspired by visual art, some of which is referenced in the song titles, Unrepentant Geraldines sees stunning songwriting and sublime vocals take center stage, gracefully gliding across a canvas of melodious piano tunes.

The 14 songs on the new set range from beautifully simple to mysteriously enchanting. The piano ballads, like ‘Selkie’, ‘Oysters’, and ‘Invisible Boy’, are lush and compelling. The singer also adds more textured and experimental touches to some of her songs, including the electro-tinged ‘16 Shades of Blue’ which comments on aging and ageism in the industry, and the Beatles-esque baroque pop of ‘Giant’s Rolling Pin’ which takes an offbeat look at the NSA surveillance scandal. And for one of the album’s most intimate moments, 13-year-old Natashya Hawley, Tori’s only child, shares the vocals on ‘Promise’ for an endearing conversation between mother and daughter.

Unrepentant Geraldines focuses on delivering solid tunes that are variously laden with longing and whimsy, often evoking Tori Amos’ early work and occasionally exploring new, refreshing ground. And while it may not be uniformly memorable, the album serves as yet another testament of the talent of this quirky singer.

Highlights: ‘America’, ‘Trouble’s Lament’, ’16 Shades of Blue’
Rating: ****


Band: Linkin Park
Album: The Hunting Party

While Linkin Park still remains fairly visible, interest in the band has been progressively declining. TheirHybrid Theory (2000) became one of the best selling debuts of recent times, but their subsequent records have wandered farther and farther away from the sound that brought them their initial success. Now, in an effort to rejuvenate their image, the rap rock outfit is taking a step back from the electronic influences that have shaped their recent work and opting for a harder, more metal-oriented vibe on their sixth album, The Hunting Party.
triumphant first disc

For the new set, the group has chosen to part ways with Rick Rubin who produced their last three albums, and instead handed the reins of the project to band members Mike Shinoda and Brad Delson, while also writing and composing most of the material themselves. Guest musicians add more flavour to some of the songs, although the effects of their contributions vary. Helmet’s Page Hamilton provides vocals and guitars to the unadventurous ‘All For Nothing’; rapper Rakim delivers a verse on the over-long ‘Guilty All The Same’; System of a Down’s Daron Malakian adds fury to ‘Rebellion’; while guitarist Tom Morello’s input to ‘Drawbar’ is mostly squandered amidst the plaintive piano and drums on the track.

It’s impressive to see Linkin Park firmly and emphatically take charge of the creation of The Hunting Party and produce their heaviest record to date. But while the effort is generally competent, it doesn’t feel particularly fresh. It also doesn’t help that the lyrics are occasionally insipid and the individual songs often fail to stand out. Still, fans of their earlier material who were dismayed by the direction that Linkin Park took on their last few albums will welcome the return of the band’s more intense side.

Highlights: ‘Keys to the Kingdom’, ‘War’, ‘Until It’s Gone’
Rating: ***

- By Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 25th June, 2014 *

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Brick Mansions - a solid disappointment

movie review

Brick Mansions

The untimely demise of celebrities often generates a lot of interest in their final projects. And that is perhaps the biggest (and quite possibly the only) draw of action thriller Brick Mansions, the last film actor Paul Walker completed prior to his death in a car crash last year.

Brick Mansions takes us to a dystopian Detroit, where the city’s most dangerous criminals are holed up in housing projects known as brick mansions, located in an area cordoned off and abandoned by the government. The drug kingpin Tremaine (RZA) has become its ruthless overlord. But when the city’s mayor, who wants to restore Detroit to its former glory, assigns undercover detective Damien Collier (Paul Walker) with the task of recovering a stolen bomb in the troubled region, the cop sees this as a chance to avenge his father’s death. To infiltrate the brick mansions, Collier has to team up with ex-convict and parkour enthusiast Lino (David Belle), whose girlfriend Lola (Catalina Denis) has been kidnapped by Tremaine. Together they must untangle the web of deceit and save the city from destruction.

The film is written by Luc Besson (the co-writer of the cult hit District 13, the French film on which Brick Mansions is based) and Robert Mark Kamen, who was also behind films such as Taken and Taken 2. The directing duties have been thrust into the hands of first-timer Camille Delamarre (the editor of Taken 2). But instead of producing an exciting romp, the filmmakers have ended up creating a project that falters on almost all counts.

Clichés abound. The film proceeds with action movie mechanics and preposterous antics at every turn. Fights break out every few minutes, and the story primarily exists to cursorily link action sequences, taking us from one combat or chase scene to another. The parkour acrobatics are fun for a while, but with no solid plot to back them up, they soon start to feel redundant.

There are clunky attempts at sociopolitical commentary every now and then, and the narrative arcs of some of the characters — especially its chief villain — are too ham-fisted to be engaging. The jittery editing doesn’t help either. The supporting cast is sub-standard and the interactions of their underwritten characters are tiresome, thanks to the piffle that passes for the movie’s script.

David Belle’s acrobatic moves are impressive, although no degree of athletic agility can make up for a disappointingly bland character. Paul Walker is right at home in the film, even if the film completely lets him down. But as he goes around chasing bad guys, often in (or on) a car, it gets hard not to think of the actor behind the character. Thereon, the proceedings start bordering on uncomfortable.

Ultimately though, Brick Mansions’ biggest flaw is that it just isn’t fun enough, even in the way that silly action movies can be. The film could and should have been more exciting and amusing, but a ridiculous plotline and bad filmmaking choices result in a project that even its charismatic leads cannot salvage.

Rating: 1.5/5

- By Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine - 22 June 2014 *

Friday, June 20, 2014

Lights, camera, CGI!

cover story

Summer movies 2014

The blockbuster season is upon us, and, as always, Hollywood is ready to unleash some of the year’s biggest flicks, all for your viewing pleasure. Surprising absolutely no one, the  summer’s most anticipated big budget adventures come to us courtesy of already established franchises. Adaptations, sequels, reboots, reimaginings, and even the occasional original effort – we’ve got ‘em all. So, grab the soft drinks, prepare the popcorn, and get ready to overdose on special effects. Here are some of the most eagerly awaited films that are slated to come out in the next few months:

Distressing news, animation fans; you guys might want to sit down for this: Pixar is not going to release a movie this summer. Unimaginable, I know! The Good Dinosaur, their planned release for 2014, has been pushed to next year. So yes, the next few months will be depressingly short on animated movies and with no Pixar awesomeness coming our way, we might as well just cancel summer and be done with it. But before you officially decide to jump straight to fall, take heart, because there are still a couple of animated releases in the cards from other studios to help ease your pain:
- How to Train Your Dragon 2 (June): Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and Toothless return for the DreamWorks Animation series’ second outing, setting out on new adventures, discovering new lands, and finding themselves at the centre of a battle that impacts the future of both humans and dragons. The movie serves as a sequel to the 2010 film, while the third film in the trilogy is slated for release in 2016.
- Planes: Fire & Rescue (July): Also returning to cinemas is Dusty (Dane Cook), the crop-duster that became a famous air-racer, in DisneyToon Studios’ spin-off of Pixar’s Cars franchise. In this sequel to last year’s Planes, Dusty is on a mission to battle a wildfire along with a courageous attack team, as he learns what being a real hero is all about.

Can you imagine a summer without superheroes? Neither can Hollywood! If you haven’t been keeping up with the action so far, then now would be a good time to catch up with some of the superheroes that have already stormed cinemas this summer. The Avengers’ cohort Captain America has clashed with the Winter Soldier; Spider-Man has spun a web around his many nemeses; the X-Men have been shuffling between the past and the future in an effort to save all of existence; and Godzilla has returned to wreck some more havoc.
But that, of course, isn’t all the season has to offer. There’s plenty more yet to come. Coming up, we have the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (August), who are joined by April O’Neil (Megan Fox) as they thwart Shredder’s (William Fichtner) evil plans; Lucy (August), the Scarlett Johansson led story of a drug-mule turned superhuman warrior; and the first outing of the Guardians of the Galaxy (August), Marvel’s lesser known superhero posse who are now getting their own series.
Various other franchises are also making a return. Slated to take over the big screen is the revamped Transformers: Age of Extinction (June) with a new cast and no Shia LaBeouf (who isn’t famous anymore, obviously). Caesar and his genetically evolved friends tussle for dominance with a band of human survivors in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (July). The aging action heroes’ collective led by Sylvester Stallone continues their very successful run in their third outing, The Expendables 3 (August). And it’s a belated return for the Frank Miller series as Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (August) finally hits the screens.

If that’s not enough to satiate your action needs, then fear not because there’s even more on offer. Dwayne Johnson brings the Greek demigod to life in Hercules (July); and Pierce Brosnan goes back to the CIA for a personal mission in November Man (August).

In the mood for some horror thrillers? Then prepare for some scares with the various spine-chilling offerings of the season. A cop (Eric Bana) and a priest (Édgar Ramírez) combat paranormal forces in Deliver Us from Evil this July (which gets all the more creepy when you consider the fact that it is based on *allegedly* true memoirs). 2013’s The Purge gets a sequel, as a stranded couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) run to survive the annual lawless night in The Purge: Anarchy, also in July. A team of explorers search for treasure in the French catacombs in As Above, So Below this August. And a woman (Sarah Snook) faces off against a spirit intent on killing her when she returns to her childhood home in Jessabelle, which also comes out in August.

If the combination of the summer heat, holiday homework, and no Pixar movie gets too hard to take, then there are a number of comedies you might want to try to cheer yourself up with. Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) go undercover once again to take down a secret drug ring in 22 Jump Street (June), the follow-up to 2012’s hilarious 21 Jump Street that was based on the 1987 television series. Also a sequel to a 2012 comedy, Think Like a Man Too (June) sees all the couples return for a wedding in Las Vegas. The popular British sitcom Mrs. Brown’s Boys makes its way to the movies in Mrs. Brown’s Boys D’Movie (June), as Agnes Brown (Brendan O’Carroll) tries to save her fruit and vegetable stall. After having an exceedingly bad day, a woman (Melissa McCarthy) goes on a road trip with her profane grandmother (Susan Sarandon) in Tammy (July). Woody Allen gives us a romantic comedy about an Englishman who is brought in to help unmask a possible swindle in Magic in the Moonlight (July). And two friends (New Girl co-stars Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans, Jr.) dress up as cops for a costume party, but eventually get tangled in real crime in Let’s Be Cops (August).

Two of the most anticipated dramas of the summer – romantic drama The Fault in Our Stars (adaptation of John Green’s 2012 novel with Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort in the lead roles) and fantasy adventure drama Maleficent (the Angelina Jolie starring retelling of Sleeping Beauty from its villain’s perspective) – have just been released, and there’s a few more waiting to join them in cinemas soon.
A man tracks the people who stole his last possession in June’s crime drama The Rover, a futuristic western that stars Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson. A struggling actor (Zach Braff, who also directed and co-wrote the project) struggles to find purpose in his life, but things change when he ends up home schooling his two children (Joey King and Pierce Gagnon) in July’s Wish I Was Here. Dramatisation of Gayle Forman’s novel, August’s If I Stay follows the story of a young girl Mia (Chloë Moretz) whose life hangs in the balance as she flashes back to her past and decides what will become of her future. Lois Lowry’s 1993 novel is brought to cinematic life in August’s sci-fi drama The Giver – set in a seemingly perfect world, the film tells the story of a young boy (Brenton Thwaites) who discovers the secrets of the real world; also stars Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep. A med school dropout (Daniel Radcliffe) falls for a lively animator (Zoe Kazan) in August’s What If. And an Indian family moves to a small town in France and open a place across the street from a French restaurant, owned by an icy proprietress (Helen Mirren), in August’s The Hundred Foot Journey.

Music and dance
If music is food for the soul then our souls are in for a treat as a number of musical offerings make their way to the cinema this year. Clint Eastwood brings the Tony Award-winning musical Jersey Boys (June) – which relays the story of ‘60s musical group The Four Seasons – to the big screen. There’s yet another instalment of Step Up, as the series makes its fifth trip to the cinema for an all-star dance battle in Step Up: All In (July). Biographical drama Get On Up (August) chronicles the life of singer James Brown (portrayed by Chadwick Boseman). And musical comedy Begin Again (July) sees a record label executive (Mark Ruffalo) form a bond with a young singer (Keira Knightley) who has been betrayed by her ex (Adam Levine) after he found fame.
There’s something in store for everyone, so take your pick and let these adventures take you on some exciting journeys in the next few months. Have an awesome summer!


Retrospect: What Hollywood did last summer

The summer movie season is big business for the film industry, with some of the most lucrative releases of the year slated for release during this time period. 2013 too had its fair share of blockbuster hits. Here are five of the most successful movies of last summer:

- Iron Man 3 (worldwide gross $1,215 million): Robert Downey Jr.’s third outing as the titular superhero in the Iron Man series which came out in May last year was the most successful live action movie of 2013, second only to winter’s animated release Frozen in the overall highest grossing list. Both critics and audiences approved of the adventure that saw Tony Stark face off against the terrorist Mandarin, amassing over a billion dollars along the way.

- Despicable Me 2 ($970 million): Illumination Entertainment’s sequel to 2010’s Despicable Me was a massive hit last year, and it made many people very happy (probably none more so than Pharrell Williams). Minions all over the world rejoiced in July, as a domesticated Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) reluctantly joined the Anti-Villain League to help deal with a new super criminal.

- Fast & Furious 6 ($788 million): Few franchises have seen the kind of success and longevity as Fast and the Furious. The crew were given a chance to clear their record in exchange for taking down a mercenary organisation in the sixth instalment of the series which was released to mostly positive reviews last May, only months prior to its star Paul Walker’s untimely demise in a car crash.

- Monsters University ($743 million): The quality of Pixar’s releases may have gone down a notch, but their box office performance still remains strong. Last year, the studio made its first prequel, giving us the back story of Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman), the characters from 2001’s Monsters, Inc., in last June’s Monsters University which got a generally positive reception.

- Man of Steel ($668 million): Never going out of style seems to be one of Superman’s superpowers, and the superhero’s return (with Henry Cavill in the lead role) to confront his extraterrestrial origin in June 2013 with a reboot of the franchise was a financial success, despite the fact that the critics didn’t really like it.

- By Sameen Amer

Us Magazine, The News - 20th June, 2014 *

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Old hands, old tricks

music reviews

Singer: Lily Allen
Album: Sheezus

After taking an extended hiatus from music – or “retiring”, as many like to offhandedly call it – and starting a family, singer Lily Allen returns with a new album, her first studio release since 2009’s It’s Not Me, It’s You. Helmed primarily by producer and co-writer Greg Kurstin, Sheezus (a play on Kanye West’s Yeezus) offers a dozen new tunes, all of which have been co-penned by the singer herself. But just as you would expect based on the quality of its singles (which were “docile pop rubbish” by Lily’s own admittance), the record is a decidedly middling affair. The melodies aren’t as memorable and lyrics aren’t as sharp as you would expect from this talented British songstress.

Controversial lead single ‘Hard Out Here’ criticises the subjugation of women in the entertainment industry, which is well-intentioned and relevant but comes with no subtlety - a problem that resurfaces on the title track ‘Sheezus’. Elsewhere, the content is more personal, as Lily sings about domestic bliss (‘As Long As I Got You’), her privileged upbringing (‘Silver Spoon’), and the heartache of a miscarriage (‘Take My Place’). Tinges of electropop and R&B surface often in these songs, but sadly, nothing really stands out; the content lacks definition, the lyrics end up sounding more defensive than biting, and the tunes aren’t as vibrant as they should be.

It has a few witty moments and offers some enjoyable tracks, but instead of being a fiery comeback with more incisive commentary and infectious pop hooks, Sheezus, Lily Allen’s third album, is also her least impressive. If she really aspires to be the titular “Sheezus”, she’s going to have to come up with something much better than this.

Highlights: ‘Hard Out Here’, ‘As Long As I Got You’
Rating: **1/2


Band: The Fray
Album: Helios

The Fray’s last album, Scars & Stories (2012), faced the same criticism that has often plagued the band: monotony. The foursome from Colorado has gained recognition for their sublime piano-driven pop rock which has sound-tracked many a poignant moment on television. But the group has mostly chosen to play it safe and stick to the sound that has given them success. Listen to their latest single ‘Love Don’t Die’ though and you will instantly know that change is afoot. And just like the song would suggest, their new album Helios does indeed find the band trying to expand their sonic palette and taking a few risks. Whether it’s a step in the right direction or not is mostly a matter of taste.

To make their fourth album, The Fray have teamed up with producer Stuart Price to record 11 songs, with Ryan Tedder joining the team for the aforementioned lead single. The piano has generally been relegated to the background while guitars, drums, and even synthesizers have variously been given more prominence.

Helios is bouncy and energetic, and songs like the disco inspired ‘Give It Away’, the new-wave tinged ‘Closer to Me’, and the U2 evoking ‘Hurricane’ see the group inject various sounds into the mix. The result mostly isn’t as melodic as their previous efforts, and their trademark lush piano balladry is in scant supply here, but Helios does get points for being more diverse, even if it might not necessarily be what their audience wants or expects from them.

Highlights: ‘Love Don’t Die’, ‘Hurricane’, ‘Our Last Day’
Rating: ***

- Sameen Amer

Instep, The News - 18th June, 2014 *

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Ghost Stories - drifting away

album review

Band: Coldplay
Album: Ghost Stories

Coldplay’s new album, Ghost Stories, was one of the most anticipated releases of the year even before Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, the band’s front man, split after 10 years of marriage and introduced us to ‘conscious uncoupling’ — the idea that you can love your partner and still choose to leave them. But the announcement of the split has helped shed some light on the record’s narrative, although none was needed to decode the fairly straightforward musings on separation and heartbreak. The group’s sixth album finds Martin wading through the sadness that accompanies a breakup, a theme that succinctly ties into his personal life.

Over the course of nine tracks, Ghost Stories, that follows 2011’s divisive Mylo Xyloto, dwells on melancholy, offering sparse arrangements that employ acoustic and electronic touches to emote its feelings of loss and longing. Decorated with Míla Fürstová’s delicate artwork, and penned and co-produced by the band with the help of collaborators, including Tim Bergling, Paul Epworth and Jon Hopkins, the record sees Coldplay step away from their standard anthemic stadium-fillers and opt for more subtle, mellow tones.

The gentle album opener ‘Always in My Head’ and the touching piano ballad closer ‘O’, parenthesize the album competently while the tracks in between range from haunting to lifeless. The electronic melancholy of the intriguing ‘Midnight’ is beautiful but too reminiscent of the band Bon Iver’s music to feel original or fresh. ‘Ink’ wastes a lovely Peter Gabriel-esque melody on cloying lyrics. And, perhaps in a bid to seem current, the penultimate song, ‘A Sky Full of Stars’, jarringly thrusts DJ Avicii into the proceedings, creating a sound that seems desperate to pander to the masses and is as a result completely out of place on the album (albeit right at home on the charts). Strip the EDM (Electronic Dance Music) star’s tired production from the single and you’ll be left with something more distinctive and in keeping with the feel of the record.

Sentiment wise, Ghost Stories turns out to be a breakup album that doesn’t really go anywhere. Instead of ploughing through the stages of grief, the record mostly flatlines at depression. The set is often so preoccupied with its own misery that it forgets to progress to other emotions. And perhaps it might have helped if the pretention of the breakup that accompanied it had not painted our experience of this record and let us discover the songs on their own merit.

As it stands, Ghost Stories lacks the grandeur of the terrific Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends and the charm of A Rush of Blood to the Head, but it does offer some beautiful sonic touches and heartfelt, honest moments. It is mostly cohesive — with ‘A Sky Full of Stars’ being the glaring exception — and succeeds in creating a melancholic mood. The album doesn’t offer anything particularly new or original, nor does it venture into different, unexpected territory but grows on you eventually. Although fans of the band are more likely to connect to this mellow side of the group, Ghost Stories doesn’t really do anything to convert the band’s detractors.

- Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune Sunday Magazine - 15th June, 2014 *

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

How movie magic turns to the TV


Instep gives the verdict on the journey of three Hollywood films from the big screen to the small

Instep gives the verdict on the journey of three Hollywood films from the big screen to the small - See more at:
As soon as a film does well at the box office, the Hollywood machine goes into fifth gear to churn out a sequel and capitalize on its popularity. But there is a more interesting concept that has sometimes been employed to tap into a film’s success: bringing movies from the big to the small screen by turning them into weekly television series. If it’s done right, it adds a companion piece to the franchise and not only attracts the viewers who enjoyed the original flick but also helps expand its appeal. Yet, there is always the chance that the series will be weighted down by comparisons to its silver screen counterpart and wilt in the shadow of the film that preceded it. So it’s no surprise that some of the latest projects that have made the jump from cinema to television have varying potential. Here’s a look:

Fargo (FX)
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Allison Tolman, Colin Hanks, and Martin Freeman
Based on: The Coen brothers’ film, don’tcha know? The unforgettable 1996 dark comedy follows the story of a car salesman (William H. Macy) who hires two criminals to kidnap his wife so that he can collect the ransom money from her father, and the police officer (Frances McDormand) who investigates the homicides that result. The film received acclaim from critics upon its release and won a number of awards. Nearly two decades later, the premise is being brought to the small screen for a ten episode mini-series (which is likely to become an anthology, à la True Detective) spearheaded by Noah Hawley (who previously worked on Bones). The episodes begin with the familiar “this is a true story” title card, while everything that follows remains just as fictional.
Promising? You betcha! Despite the fact that the white male anti-hero has lost its novelty and is becoming an overused motif at this point.
The Breaking Bad comparisons are inevitable, even more so because of Bob Odenkirk’s recurring guest spot, but Fargo is odder and more sinister with deadpan comedic touches, and the two series are very different in tone. And so far it hasn’t really given us any reasons to root for most of its characters who are by and large nasty and have no redeeming qualities.
The TV series follows the misadventures of an insurance salesman (Martin Freeman) who becomes embroiled in crimes after a drifter (Billy Bob Thornton) arrives in town, while persistent police deputy (Allison Tolman) tries to pin down the culprits. The cast is excellent and the acting is solid across the board, plus there are guest appearances by the likes of Kate Walsh, Adam Goldberg, and Oliver Platt. The Coens are serving as executive producers of the endeavor, and the series borrows the film’s atmosphere, ambience, affectations, and of course the accents!

About a Boy (NBC)
Starring: David Walton, Benjamin Stockham, Al Madrigal, and Minnie Driver
Based on: The Weitz brothers’ film, which was in turn based on the Nick Hornby novel. The story of an immature man with an empty life (Hugh Grant) whose interaction with a lonely young boy (Nicholas Hoult) helps him grow, the comedy drama was very well received and offered an affecting take on darker subjects. The movie has now spawned a midseason sitcom, which has been developed for television by Jason Katims (who also brought Parenthood to the tube).
Promising? Somewhat. Although mostly it’s just a bit unnecessary.
Stylistically and tonally different from both the book and film, About a Boy targets a different audience than its predecessors and goes for a less bleak and more goofily sitcom-ish style. And because of the Jason Katims connection, the show shares the Parenthood universe, which is (occasionally) fun.
The first episode is basically a less charming, half an hour recap of the movie, and it pretty much misses the point by making Will (and not his father) the writer of the hit Christmas song, and undercutting the extent of Fiona’s depression. And a few episodes into the series, the show hasn’t offered anything that wasn’t corny and cloying. The characters share the very bare of characteristics with their film and book counterparts and seem very different overall. (Although that is probably a wise move as sticking to the same feel would have generated too many comparisons to the original, and Hugh Grant would have been a very tough act to follow.) But the series seems well-intentioned, and the cast has chemistry. If you loved the movie, then there are no guarantees that you will love the sitcom it has inspired, but give it a chance anyway and you might end up enjoying it on its own merits.

Bad Teacher (CBS)
Starring: Ari Graynor, Sara Gilbert, Ryan Hansen, Sara Rodier, Kristin Davis, and David Alan Grier
Based on: The Cameron Diaz starring Jake Kasdan film that came out in 2011 about a gold-digger who poses as a teacher at a school in order to meet rich single fathers. It wasn’t a hit with the critics but triumphed at the box office nonetheless. Now Hilary Winston has brought it to our television screens. (And curiously, a cine sequel is also in development.)
Promising? As promising as a TV series based on a mediocre film can be. Why someone though it would be a good idea to make a television series out of a middling movie … add that to the list of life’s big mysteries.
Ari Graynor has been cast in the lead role, portraying the divorcee who is left with nothing because of a prenuptial agreement and starts teaching at a school to meet men. And even two installments in, the template that is being following here is painfully obvious: spend the entire episode making her look awful and shallow, then have her act like a better person in the final minutes. The premise is tired, the plotlines are dull, and its promising supporting cast has been under utilized so far. Based on first impressions, the series will struggle to find an audience that wants to sit through these antics every week, but we’re only two episodes in and the show might figure out what works and what doesn’t and hit its strike in the coming weeks. (Bad Teacher was cancelled shortly after this piece was written and ran for only five episodes.)

- Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 11th June, 2014 *

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Lights Out - more of the same

album review

Artist: Ingrid Michaelson
Album: Lights Out

Ingrid Michaelson has mastered the art of making music for schmaltzy small screen melodrama; without a doubt, her claim to fame are her songs that have served as the aural backdrop of tear-jerking Grey’s Anatomy episodes, mushy One Tree Hill moments, and when heartbroken Pretty Little Liars curl up in bed and cry. With her sixth studio release, however, the indie pop darling is trying to prove that she is more than just a soundtrack artist, but does so without venturing too far from her established territory.

Despite her narrow range and often limited subject matter, no one can deny Ingrid Michaelson’s knack for coming up with moving, memorable melodies, and she offers plenty of those on her new record. Lights Out sees the singer-songwriter present a mix of mid-tempo toe-tappers and warm ballads. In effect, she is once again covering the expected ground and still writing songs about love, but now her words seem more assertive, her delivery more confident. A handful of indie guest vocalists also appear on a number of tracks, adding more flavors to the record while allowing Ingrid to stay in her safe zone.

Lights Out tries (and succeeds) to be effusively radio-friendly, particularly with songs like the infectious pop of lead single ‘Girls Chase Boys’, an undeniably irresistible earworm; the rock-tinged ‘Warpath’ and ‘Time Machine’ that will have you humming along immediately; the rousing ‘Afterlife’ which is armed with uplifting lyrics and a sing-along chorus; and subdued album closer, ‘Everyone Is Gonna Love Me Now’, a ballad which has an Abba-esque quality to it. The tracks that see guests lend their vocals to the tunes include the atmospheric ‘Wonderful Unknown’ featuring her husband, Greg Laswell; banjo-driven ‘You Got Me’ with Storyman; the catchy, mid-tempo ‘One Night Town’ featuring Matt Kearney; piano ballads ‘Open Hands’ and ‘Ready to Lose’ with Trent Dabbs (who also co-wrote six of the 14 songs on the album); and ‘Over You’ featuring A Great Big World, hot on the heels of their commercially successful collaboration with Christina Aguilera.

The duets are a nice touch, especially since her lovely voice blends well with the featured artists. That said, the collaborations also seem very safe as she is working with artists whose sound is very similar to her own, and the results are pleasant but predictable; a more diverse choice of artists could have made the project more adventurous.

But even with all that considered, Lights Out is still a very impressive and enjoyable pop album, with some beautiful melodies, many heartfelt moments, and lots of infectious pop overall. The album doesn’t really distinguish her from other indie pop singer-songwriters, making it highly unlikely that the set will win over her detractors, but it is guaranteed to appeal to her fans. And yes, you can easily picture many of these tunes playing during poignant moments on your favourite TV series, so rest assured that some of these songs will be coming to a TV set near you very soon.

- Sameen Amer 

Instep, The News on Sunday - 8th June, 2014 *

Sunday, June 01, 2014

“Spreading Sufism’s message is the need of the hour” - Abbas Ali Khan


Abbas Ali Khan on his latest album and the importance of Sufi music

Singer Abbas Ali Khan is one of the few notable solo artists in Pakistan. After a hit single ‘Sun Re’, the talented artist took a hiatus to brush up his skills in classical music. Abbas has now returned, merging his classical training and interest in Sufism to come up with his latest album, Tamaam Alam Mast. In an interview with Instep, the musician talks about his new release, embracing unconventional ways of selling music, and the state of the Pakistani music industry.

Instep: Tell us about your new album, Tamaam Alam Mast.
Abbas Ali Khan: Tamaam Alam Mast is a Sufi album with kalams in Urdu and Persian. The genre of the album is fusion and each track has been composed in a different raga. I have worked with some of the best musicians in Pakistan and India for this album, like Faraz Anwar, Sarmad Ghafoor, Sameer Ahmed, Allan Smith, Arnab Chakraborty, Gumby, Taimoor Mirza, and many more. The poetry has been chosen from poets of different  eras – from Hazrat Baba Gulzar Sabri who is a contemporary Sufi poet to Hazrat Zaheen Shah Taji, Jigar, Hazrat Shah Niyaz, Siraj and eventually Hazrat Ameer Khusro. So Tamaam Alam Mast covers poetry from a time period of over 800 years.

Instep: Why did you choose to make a Sufi music album?
Abbas: This album is a result of my personal spiritual transformation. Things came to me from different sources – from the lyrics to the name of the album, it’s like every piece of the puzzle fell into the right place by itself. I just knew that I have to spread the message of Sufi leaders to the new generation and that is exactly what I’m doing.

Instep: What makes Tamaam Alam Mast different from other Sufi-inspired projects?
Abbas: It has a different sound with a personal take, combined with the choices of different ragas for each track and then the selection of the kalam. Sufi kalam has never been presented in such a way. The music is heavy on the strings (orchestra), arranged like the real strings are played. The songs also feature ethnic instrumentalists, who play sarod, sarangi, flute and shehnai.

Instep: How many songs are based on traditional tunes and poetry? And how many of the compositions are original?
Abbas: ‘Man Kunto Maula’ and ‘Aey Ri Sakhi’ are traditional. The rest are original compositions that I have done.

Instep: Are you promoting the album through any live performances?
Abbas: Yes, the promotional launches have been planned in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. Also I’m planning to take the album abroad and perform it in Sufi festivals around the world, Insha’Allah.

Instep: It’s been around eight years since your previous album. Why was there such a long gap between your albums?
Abbas: Honestly, I didn’t realise that eight years have passed, but I think I spent these years well in learning classical music, rediscovering myself, and evolving spiritually into a better human and more mature artist.

Instep: How lucrative is it for musicians to release albums in Pakistan?
Abbas: It’s not! And that is the reason why very few artists are releasing albums, and are instead focusing only on singles. I took a risk but I’m delighted to see the response of my listeners. I feel if we give enough ways for people to purchase music easily, people will buy music. I was initially very double-minded about releasing a CD, but eventually I came up with an idea to sell the CDs through home delivery and it is working. Locally, the CDs can be ordered for home delivery through Bluekart. Other than that, the album is also available for purchase through iTunes and and so far the sales are going great.

Instep: What are your feelings about the new platform
Abbas: is a revolutionary platform. My album was one of the initial albums to be uploaded on Taazi as part of the struggle of ‘giving back’ to the artists. Haroon came up with this website through which the listeners will be able to buy songs using their mobile balance. This feature will be active by the end of May. The best thing about is that it’s non-exclusive and free for the artist. Moreover, 70 percent of the sales will go to the artists – now that’s amazing!

Instep: You were also part of an anti-piracy song recently. What inspired you to join that cause?
Abbas: Even though the style of the song was nothing like my sound, but the cause behind it inspired me. Someone had to say it out loud. We had to educate the audience that piracy is eating up the music industry like termites and if we don’t stop using torrents and buying pirated CDs, then the industry will soon become extinct. This song was an initiative of Haroon who has been working for about seven years to implement intellectual property rights in Pakistan, where the artists get royalties for there work from TV and radio channels. I think all artists should join him for this cause and help him raise the voice.

Instep: You are classically trained. How important is that?
Abbas: Be it classical or any other form of training, it’s extremely important. I chose classical training because I love classical music and I like the type of vocals that need the technicalities that classical training teaches you. But even if you are a rock singer, training and exercise is extremely important.

Instep: How do you feel about the current situation of the Pakistani entertainment industry?
Abbas: I’m optimistic. I think we are picking up and good days are ahead. With the rise of the film industry, I think a lot of opportunities will be created for musicians as well, and platform like will surely work in favour of artists, provided that the public supports us.

Instep: What are your views on corporate-sponsored music shows on TV?
Abbas: I think they are playing a very positive part. I’m all for these shows as long as they are unbiased and do not influence the true sound of the artists.

Instep: Are you working on any other projects at the moment? What can we expect from you in the coming months?
Abbas: I’m working on songs for two films. I’m also working on a couple of background scoring projects, music videos for the new album, and much more which will unfold when the time comes.


A look at Tamaam Alam Mast

It has been nearly a decade – eight years to be precise – since Abbas Ali Khan released the successful Sun Re, making his presence felt in the music industry with his very first release. In the ensuing years, the singer has worked on refining his craft by pursuing classical training, while also immersing in the discipline of Sufism. His spiritual journey has now led to the creation of his new album, Tamaam Alam Must.

A set of ten tracks, the album features Urdu and Persian Sufi poetry, including both traditional and contemporary verses. The lyrics variously speak of ‘ishq’, or love for the Creator and his creations, while giving listeners room for interpretation. You can hear instruments ranging from the guitar and drums to tabla and sarangi on these songs, as a charming fusion of Eastern and Western music adorns the tracks.

From the melodious ‘Mujhay Baar Baar Sada Na De’ to the gentle ‘Man Kunto Maula’, Abbas Ali Khan’s musical prowess is on display throughout the album, and his musical background reflects in each touch that he applies to the record.

There’s a sense of peace to these tracks, and its spiritualistic messages will resonate with Sufi music enthusiasts. They are bound to make an emotional impact on listeners who are inspired by Sufism, while those who don’t fall into its target audience will appreciate the singer’s grip on his craft, even if they don’t necessarily follow his philosophies. That said, this record is, after all, guided by Sufism, and it only offers as much variety as a project can while being confined to a chosen theme and musical style.

On the whole, Tamaam Alam Mast is a soothing and pleasant offering from a very competent singer. The songs are mostly mellow and soulful, the vocals are impressive, the compositions are beautiful, the instrumentation is skilled, and the ideas are likely to make a connection with fans of this type of music.

- Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 1st June, 2014 *