Friday, February 27, 2015

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies - an unexceptional journey

movie review

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Starring: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Benedict Cumberbatch
Director: Peter Jackson
Tagline: The defining chapter.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a remarkable little book that evokes fond childhood memories for many readers who first experienced its magic when they were young. But it is plain to see that this tale of unexpected courage and destructive greed does not hold the same level of epic scope as its mammoth counterpart The Lord of the Rings did. That is why turning the slender tome into a trilogy did not seem like the best idea to anyone; anyone, that is, except Peter Jackson, the very person in charge of bringing the story to the big screen. Now that the third and final film has been released, it is painfully clear that the project hasn’t benefited from being expanded, stretched, and bloated into a three part slogfest.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (abruptly) picks up where The Desolation of Smaug left off, as the dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch) unleashes his wrath on Laketown. Meanwhile, a battle brews over the Lonely Mountain treasures. Stricken with dragon sickness, Dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) obsesses over finding the Arkenstone and refuses to share even a fraction of the fortune with the Elves (led by Thranduil (Lee Pace)) and Men (who have chosen archer Bard (Luke Evans) as their reluctant representative). Meanwhile, an Orc army approaches the Mountain, and the titular battle looms ominously.

There is nothing surprising or exceptional about how events unfold, both visually and story-wise. After spending over a dozen hours in Middle-earth already, we are well familiar with its inhabitants as well as its epic combats fuelled by Peter Jackson’s tendency to douse his action in over-the-top chaos. If you enjoy those sequences, then Five Armies will be right up your alley; there is plenty of CGI-overloaded action in this installment, so much so that it almost feels like watching someone play a video game (while Orlando Bloom is stuck in an entirely different video game altogether). But if you think the heart of the series lies in the quieter, craftier moments (like An Unexpected Journey’s 'Riddles in the Dark'), which in turn elevate the action into something more meaningful, then you will be disappointed to see that there isn’t anything clever on offer here.

The scant plot and lack of depth make it hard to be engaged in the proceedings and empathize with the characters. It’s a pity that the individual we are meant to have the strongest emotional connection to has been further sidelined in his own franchise. As with the previous installment, there isn’t enough hobbit in The Hobbit. Martin Freeman does make a delightful Bilbo (and the ever-dependable Ian McKellen is also characteristically terrific as Gandalf) but very often he seems more like a bystander than the protagonist of this fantasy adventure. When he does get a chance to be a part of the proceedings, the film comes to life and we start to care about the events and consequences, but that doesn’t happen often enough. Instead, Jackson uses empty excuses to transport extraneous LOTR characters into The Hobbit, possibly in an attempt to establish continuity, but the side plots don’t offer the kind of compelling payoff that would justify their inclusion.

Five Armies does not play like a self-contained chapter of a larger arc. If there were any motives other than financial to turn the story into a trilogy, then they haven’t been conveyed in these films, and the story’s “greed is a curse” lessons have been lost to irony along the way. No one can deny that there is talent both behind the camera and in front of it, and The Battle of the Five Armies isn’t a terrible film, but it isn’t the suspenseful, riveting, touching outing that one would have wanted it to be. The movie never quite succeeds in finding the right balance between moments of drama and levity, and as a fan of both Tolkien’s work and Jackson’s LOTR films, we expected (and deserved) better.

- S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 27th February, 2015 *

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Better Call Saul - a spin-off done right


Breaking Bad’s prequel/sequel meets the high expectations of the original’s fans

Starring: Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Rhea Seehorn, Patrick Fabian, Michael Mando, and Michael McKean
Created by: Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould

 A heady mix of anticipation and apprehension bubbles in the recesses of your mind when you know that someone is in the process of making a prequel or sequel to a TV show you hold dear. Breaking Bad fans know exactly what that feels like. The wrap-up of the drama in 2013 left a huge Walter White-shaped hole in our lives, a void that series creator Vince Gilligan promised to fill with a Saul Goodman spin-off. But would the new show be any good? Or would it just tarnish the perfection of one of the best television series of all time?

That’s what we’ve been wondering for one and a half years. But now the wait is finally over, we are rather pleased to report that the first few episodes of the new series were quite terrific.

The look and feel of the setting remain true to the original show as the spin-off takes us back to the familiar terrain of New Mexico for a new set of adventures. This time round, the protagonist is Walter White’s slick, seedy lawyer Saul Goodman (portrayed by the delightful Bob Odenkirk). We first met him in the second season of Breaking Bad; despite the fact that we grew to love him over the course of the series, we didn’t really get to know much about him. And that's what the new show plans to rectify.

Before he crossed paths with Heisenberg, Saul was a struggling, small-time lawyer still going by his real name James “Jimmy” McGill. The show gradually pieces together his back story, telling us about his relationship with his brother Chuck (Michael McKean), and how he met his future henchman Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks, reprising the role) in a very amusing meet cute that is sure to please fans. Meanwhile, his quest to land what could be a lucrative case goes awry; after a run in with a familiar face, things start to get more and more complicated. But, to borrow a line from Weird Al, that’s just the way things go in Albuquerque!

Like its predecessor, the comedy drama is smart, affecting, darkly funny, and very well crafted. The direction remains impeccable, as does the remarkable camera work and thorough attention to detail. Even the most mundane things unfold in impressively creative ways. The acting by everyone, old and new, is top notch. Odenkirk and Banks remain predictably reliable, and McKean is a solid addition to the cast.

The series does benefit from the fact that we care about its protagonist, and it definitely helps that we are already invested in Saul and Mike’s stories. Those who haven’t seen Breaking Bad won’t be as readily excited about the mere presence of these characters and might struggle with the show’s pacing, a gripe that is likely to diminish as the plot becomes more intricate over the course of the season and things speed up.

Of course it remains to be seen how Better Call Saul develops, but what is obvious from the very first scene is the level of thought and care that has gone into this show. This isn’t a half-baked attempt at milking an old cash cow, nor is it your average legal drama. Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have managed to produce exactly what they set out to do. The new project upholds its predecessor’s legacy and is a worthy companion to the former drama. For now, its strong start suggests that it will be interesting to discover how James McGill became Saul Goodman (and the promise of seeing a few more familiar faces is certainly also exciting).

This is a well-written, quirky outing fuelled by thoroughly entertaining storytelling, and it’s definitely good to be back in Albuquerque.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 26th February, 2015 *

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Big Eyes - fame and betrayal

movie review

Big Eyes is the classic tale of a woman’s suffering in a chauvinist environment

Starring: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Jon Polito, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, and Terence Stamp
Directed by: Tim Burton
Tagline: She created it. He sold it. And everyone bought it.

Despite being based on a fascinating tale about the union and eventual rift between an artist and a con artist, Tim Burton’s surprisingly conventional execution of Big Eyes is not nearly as compelling as it should have been.

Set in the late 1950s, the film tells the story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) as she flees her marriage and moves to San Francisco where she falls for and eventually marries the charismatic Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz). She paints big-eyed waifs, he paints Parisian street scenes, but neither receives much attention for their art. However, through persistent hard work and some luck, Walter succeeds in generating interest
in Margaret’s paintings, but also ends up claiming credit for them. Margaret reluctantly goes along with the fraud, as the artwork receives recognition despite being loathed by art critics. Walter, a gifted promoter, builds a successful enterprise by mass producing prints of the paintings, while Margaret toils away in secret, becoming increasingly discontent with the setup.

It may not be the most exciting plot, but the real-life story behind Big Eyes is definitely intriguing. What the film lacks, however, is the depth and complexity that would have lifted the project into a truly impressive cinematic experience. Its straightforward, almost bland execution leaves its nuances unexplored and the one-sided take on events robs the movie of the more realistic shades of grey that could have captivated viewers as the events unfold.

Big Eyes does succeed in bringing the mid-century world to life and is visually well-made. The acting talent is also noteworthy, despite the fact that the supporting cast is mostly underused. Adams’ gentle performance as a protagonist is the highlight of the movie and she adds a much-needed layer of emotion to the proceedings. On the other hand Waltz’s over-the-top performance, though not necessarily bad on its own, takes his showmanship to cartoonish proportions and clashes with Amy’s tender turn. It almost appears as if the actors were operating in two different films and did not belong in the same frame.

Populated by one-note characters and bogged down by an uneven tone, Big Eyes ultimately leaves you with the impression that it does not paint a complete picture of events. The film’s approach is too straightforward and uninspiring, especially coming from someone like Tim Burton, whose trademark offbeat touch is mostly missing from this subdued outing. But thanks largely to Amy Adams, Big Eyes is worth a watch and at times even enjoyable, although the overall experience falls short of memorable.

Rating: 3 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 22nd February 2015 *

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Into the Woods - happily never after

movie review

Despite featuring various fairytale characters, Into the Woods fails to create the magic

Starring: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, and Johnny Depp
Directed by: Rob Marshall
Tagline: Be careful what you wish for.

While the idea of fractured fairytales might have been relatively fresh when Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine wrote the musical Into the Woods almost three decades ago, much of the novelty of the concept has since worn off. Reworkings and mashups of classic fables have become increasingly popular in the last few years, generating a number of books, television series and films. That might be one of the reasons why Into the Woods’ film adaptation does not feel quite as impressive as it probably should.

Inspired by the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, the fantasy crossover film combines some familiar stories. A vengeful witch (Meryl Streep) offers to lift a curse she placed on the family tree of a childless baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), if they can procure four items for her: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold. The couple’s quest leads them into the woods, where they cross paths with Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) from Jack and the Beanstalk. But just when things seem to be going as expected, the film takes a darker turn and strips the stories of their happily-ever-after ending.

While musicals abound in the enchanted land of fairy tales, Into the Woods tries to set itself apart in the second act with its bleak take on relationships, riddled with deception and regret. But things get so convoluted that it’s easy to lose interest in the proceedings. The film becomes more of a drag than an exploration of the complexity of morality. The overlong running time doesn’t help and neither does the fact that the speak-sung music numbers — although clearly very competently put together — aren’t exactly catchy or instantly memorable.

The acting, however, is very impressive. Each role is perfectly cast and everyone from Meryl Streep and Emily Blunt to Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen (who play Cinderella and Rapunzel’s respective princes; their duet ‘Agony’ is perhaps the film’s musical highlight) delivers strong performances.(And while the Broadway musical might have been soft-pedalled in its transformation into a Disney movie, Johnny Depp’s glorified cameo as the Big Bad Wolf is still uncomfortably creepy.)

Despite not being very inventive, Into the Woods is visually impressive but its execution is not as seamless as it could have been. The developments seem more haphazard than elegant and the humour is often not effective. Ultimately, the film doesn’t leave you with much of an emotional impact and, despite its fantasy setting, is strangely devoid of magic.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 15th February, 2015 *

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Jon Stewart calls it a day

tv time

The Daily Show host shocked his audience with the announcement on Tuesday

“This show doesn’t deserve an even slightly restless host, and neither do you,” an emotional Jon Stewart told an audibly shocked audience at the recording of Tuesday’s episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, as the 52-year-old made the surprise announcement that he will be stepping down as the host of the long running satirical news program later this year. The revelation left his many fans teary-eyed, but even those who don’t agree with his politics will be hard-pressed to deny his enduring cultural significance.

In his nearly 17 year tenure as a fake newsman, Jon Stewart – who has been helming the Comedy Central series since 1999 when he took over from Craig Kilborn – has helped turn the show into a cultural force with global resonance. Stewart has wielded the power of satire to bring a semblance of sanity to a political world mostly bereft of it, carving a unique place for himself at the crossroad of journalism and entertainment. The Daily Show has consistently had a sharp edge underneath its many layers of silliness, and while Stewart’s liberal stance may not have resounded well with his right-leaning critics, his witty take on the news has remained insightful and refreshing.

From skewering the press and highlighting the media’s hypocrisy to grilling politicians and media personalities, Stewart’s skill has made him “The Most Trusted Name in Fake News”, and his political satire has inspired many young viewers to take an interest in politics. While the topics and themes of his analysis have mostly been U.S.-centric, those whose interests have intersected with America have also found themselves as the subject of his sharp wit. That, of course, has included Pakistan, and it would be hard to forget the moments when he offered green tea and Twinkies to then-President Pervez Musharraf and was left speechless by the remarkableness of female education activist Malala Yousafzai.

Under his watch, The Daily Show has won 18 Primetime Emmy Awards and also served as a talent incubator. Former correspondent Steve Carell has gone on to have a remarkably successful television and film career; Ed Helms, Rob and Nate Corddry, Rob Riggle, and Josh Gad are also all enjoying a fair amount of success in their acting careers; John Oliver now has his own weekly show on HBO (after serving as an interim TDS host while Stewart’s was directing Rosewater in 2013); and Stephen Colbert, who became the host of the brilliant spin-off The Colbert Report, has recently wrapped up the Report to replace the retiring David Letterman on The Late Show.

Stewart’s departure means that Comedy Central is losing its two most prominent faces within months of each other. The exact date of his exit has not been revealed yet, and the network says The Daily Show will continue without him. There is much speculation on who will replace him, but his successor will certainly have big shoes to fill.

As for his own future, there is one thing that Jon Stewart is particularly looking forward to. “I am going to have dinner on a school night with my family, who I have heard from multiple sources are lovely people”. He said he does not have any specific ventures planned, and while we will miss his scathing take on current events, it will still be exciting to see what he does next.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 12th February, 2015 *

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Fury - war horrors

movie review


Starring: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña, and Jon Bernthal
Written and directed by: David Ayer

World War II is one of the most disturbing chapters in human history and has been a source of endless fascination for both film-makers and viewers alike. Its dark complexities gives storytellers a chance to examine brutality, morality, camaraderie and shed light on just how devastatingly terrible war is. David Ayer’s latest fictional film Fury sets out to do all of these things by exploring the story of a tank crew during the final days of the conflict.

It’s April 1945. The Allies are encountering ‘fanatical resistance’ in the heart of Nazi Germany and the American tanks are being outgunned by the far superior German military vehicles. Amidst the warfare, the M4 Sherman tank Fury has considerably seen more success and longevity than most of its counterparts, thanks largely to its commander, US Army staff sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt). He has led his crew — Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal), and Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña) — through gruesome battles and they have emerged weary and hardened, with their morals unavoidably tangled if not entirely shattered.

The replacement for one of their fallen comrades, however, is quite the opposite. Inexperienced army typist Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) is abruptly transferred to the crew, only to be left flabbergasted when he is faced with the amoral realities of war. “Ideals are peaceful, history is violent,” he is told, summing up the premise of the movie.

The ugliness of war is on full display throughout Fury’s over two-hour running time. There is no room for subtlety in the pressure cooker that Ayer has created and every idea is delivered in literal strokes. Gratuitous gore and disturbing imagery riddle the film and the intensity never lets up. The dynamic of its central ensemble may not be as complex as the film wants us to think, but the bonds between these broken men are nevertheless affecting. The actors embody their roles remarkably and make their often stereotypical characters seem convincing despite the fact that most of these portrayals are underwritten and haven’t been fully developed.

As it goes along, Fury takes some turns that seem driven by cinematic considerations at the expense of realism and its final act will probably not impress viewers who worry about accuracies and plausibility. But despite its heavy handedness and overly dramatic tone, the movie doesn’t fail to make an impact and bluntly delivers the harshness of its subject matter. Although, like many other war movies before it, this one too lacks the perspective from the other side that remains largely anonymous.

Ultimately, Fury’s dramatic impact outweighs its efforts at realism, and even when its twists aren’t entirely convincing, its cast still does an impressive job in bringing this tale of death and destruction to life.

Rating: 3 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 8th February, 2015 *