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 *