Friday, April 24, 2015

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt - for weekend binge viewing

tv series review

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Season 1

Starring: Ellie Kemper, Tituss Burgess, Carol Kane, and Jane Krakowski
Created by: Tina Fey and Robert Carlock
Tagline: Life begins when the world doesn’t end.

By changing the way audiences consume entertainment, Netflix has brought much joy to the world, while simultaneously ruining many a life, turning viewers into zombified couch potatoes  unwilling (or unable) to look away from their television screens until they finish binge watching the entire new season of their favourite shows. A major factor behind the on-demand streaming service’s ability to take over lives is the quality of their original programming and premium content that is both innovative and intelligent. One of their latest offerings, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt may not be as novel as some of their flagship series, but it still lives up to the standards of the now-celebrated online service.

The brainchild of comedy goddess Tina Fey and her 30 Rock collaborator Robert Carlock, Netflix’s first proper comedy series follows the story of Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper), a 29-year-old Indiana native, who was kidnapped as a child by doomsday cult leader Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm) and imprisoned in an underground bunker with three other women. Events kick off with Kimmy’s rescue from captivity and her subsequent arrival in New York, where she impulsively decides to stay, determined to start afresh. As she attempts to find a place for herself in the big city, she ends up living with a flamboyant roommate, the aspiring actor Titus (Tituss Burgess), and finds a job working as a nanny for billionaire trophy wife, Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski).

Even though there is a dark subject at its core, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt offsets its thematic darkness with literal brightness and colours that envelope the series. Despite its peculiar premise, much of the show’s comedy is rooted in conventional sitcom humour, with oddball characters navigating through (overly) zany turn of events. Kimmy’s wide-eyed acclimation to modern life is the show’s primary source of laughs, by way of dated references and her anachronistic naiveté, and it’s this same conceit that also allows the writers to offer a sly take on the modern world. But underlying this buoyant strain is a dark undertone, always ready to remind us that Kimmy has been through hell, which makes her resilience all the more remarkable to the viewers.

There are, however, instances when the series stumbles. Its characters and developments are not all evenly amusing, and at times the show takes some less effective detours. (SPOILER ALERT) Kimmy’s love life, for instance, ends up going down a less than satisfying arc; her pairing with Adam Campbell’s upscale Logan Beekman initially creates a more interesting contrast than her subsequent boyfriend, the very bland Dong Nguyen (Ki Hong Lee). 

Also, the show’s suitability for binge-watching is debatable. Unlike House of Cards or Orange is the New Black, the story here doesn’t have the level of suspense that would merit obsessive viewing. Plus its style starts to feel a bit repetitive if you watch too many episodes in a row, and its humour works better in smaller doses.

But the acting talent more than makes up for the show’s occasional flaws. The delightful Ellie Kemper effortlessly brings Kimmy’s brightness to the screen without making her sunny disposition feel forced or cloying (which it could very easily have been). Despite the fact that their characters don’t seem very original, Jane Krakowski and Titus Burgess totally own their roles, and their presence will especially appease 30 Rock fans.

Ultimately, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a bright, lively comedy sprinkled with clever elements (like its theme song, which takes the shape of a viral video and finds The Gregory Brothers at their best) that inspires with its protagonist’s resilience and skewers the world around us in the process. Of course humour is notoriously subjective; just like any sitcom, Kimmy Schmidt’s style and tone won’t resonate uniformly with all viewers, and its offbeat humour and comically exaggerated character depictions are likely to divide opinions. No one will, however, argue the fact that its diverse cast is totally committed to their, at times, kooky roles, and Kimmy’s strength really does shine through as it leaves viewers with the message that you can’t let the bad things that happen in your life define you; it’s how you deal with what life throws at you that shows who you really are.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 24th April, 2015 *

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Human Body - in the shadow of war

book review

Book: The Human Body
Author: Paolo Giordano

Literature is rife with discussions on the many complexities of war and its effects on everything and everyone whose path it intersects. Some writers choose to look at the physical destruction caused by the action on the battlefield; others focus on its psychological toll, studying the impact war has on the mind and soul. Paolo Giordano’s latest novel, The Human Body, falls in the latter category. The book tells the story of a platoon of Italian soldiers who find themselves living in the shadow of a war in a foreign land. The narrative unfolds in three parts, following its characters as they first see war from a relatively sheltered distance, then experience combat first-hand, and finally try to come to terms with the incident they encountered.

Deployed to a forward operating base in Afghanistan, the soldiers of the Charlie Company are initially faced with the stress of being in a war zone without yet having engaged in combat. Languishing at the base with scant supplies, the young men and women find their own ways of dealing with the inherent loneliness, boredom, and uncertainty of their situation.

Medical Officer Lieutenant Alessandro Egitto, an orthopaedic specialist assigned to the Alpine brigade, is using his deployment as an excuse to run away from his own life and avoid dealing with his dysfunctional family. Troop leader Marshal Antonio René, who used to moonlight as a gigolo, is trying to come to terms with the fact that his side job may lead to him becoming a father. Senior Corporal Major Francesco Caderna is a bully who picks on his underlings and “never knows when it’s time to shut that stupid mouth of his”; the main target of his callous jibes is Corporal Major Roberto Ietri, a young, inexperienced virgin. First Corporal Major Angelo Torsu is struggling with a bout of food poisoning while pining over his virtual girlfriend whom he has never actually met. And Corporal Major Giulia Zampieri, the only female in the platoon, is trying to hold her own in the male-dominated environment, and eventually becomes the subject of two of her colleagues’ attention.

Left to wrestle with their inner demons, the soldiers tussle with their thoughts and concerns, and how each of them copes with their challenges reveals a lot about their character. But then their lives change forever when an ill-advised mission goes awfully awry and the platoon is hurled into a lethal battle. The incident leaves everlasting marks on each individual, irrevocably damaging their psyche and influencing how they behave thereafter.

The Human Body is a character-driven tome, the purpose of which is not to debate the politics of war but to explore its effect on the human mind. Giordano uses the first part of the book to define his characters, then throws them into disarray in the second part, and explores their post-traumatic behaviour in ‘Part Three’. Vignettes — like recollections from Egitto’s past about his once prodigal sister and overbearing parents; instant messages exchanged by Torsu with his online flame, Tersicore89; and emails between Senior Corporal Major Salvatore Camporesi and his wife Flavia — are occasionally featured to bring the characters to life and make them seem more real. The result is an engaging and thought-provoking novel that illustrates the transformation of young individuals as they experience unimaginably difficult circumstances.

Many of the imperfect people that inhabit this book are largely unexceptional, which is what makes them all the more significant and relatable; their tribulations resonate with the readers and generate empathy. But that is also the reason why sometimes the progress seems a little laboured. Giordano takes his time to flesh out his characters and study their proclivities by exploring their lives before, during, and after being thrust into the ugliness of war, and creates some powerful imagery, but while the story is consistently interesting, it is not always riveting, and the pace is probably too slow for some readers. The Italian author has full command of his subject matter and never loses control of his narrative. His exceptional translator Anne Milano Appel does such a good job converting the text from Italian to English that it doesn’t even feel like you are reading a translation. A brief translator’s note at the end helps clarify some of the details and would have been even more helpful if it were placed at the start of the novel.

Ultimately The Human Body is an engaging look at a difficult subject. While the ideas it explores aren’t new or unique, they are delivered very competently and are likely to leave an impact on readers. That said, if you want an action packed, battleground-centred war thriller, then this isn’t the novel for you. This may be a war novel, but its underlying themes and concerns go beyond the parameters of a warzone; Giordano has actually created a subtle yet vivid portrait of being human, and those who enjoy reflective character studies will surely appreciate his efforts.

- By Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 19th April, 2015 *

Agent Carter - an agent of change

tv series review

The first season of Marvel’s Agent Carter is refreshing with a strong female lead

Marvel's Agent Carter
Season 1

Starring: Hayley Atwell, James D'Arcy, Chad Michael Murray, Enver Gjokaj, and Shea Whigham

Marvel’s ever-expanding Cinematic Universe is very noticeably dominated by male characters. All their biggest franchises, such as Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and The Hulk, have male leads with female characters (like Black Widow and Maria Hill) usually supporting them in secondary roles. This is one of the reasons why their latest television series Agent Carter is so refreshing.

The drama follows the story of Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), a prominent character in the Avengers franchise, who we are familiar with as Steve Roger’s love interest, and whom we know will eventually help establish the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (better known as SHIELD). But in 1946, Carter is still getting over the apparent death of Rogers and struggling to make a place for herself in a male-dominated world. Treated like an unglorified secretary by her chauvinistic Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR) colleagues, Carter finds herself undervalued and sidelined. But when inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) is accused of selling dangerous weapons to criminals, he reaches out to Carter for help in clearing his name, leaving his butler Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy) to assist her.

Unlike her depiction on the cheesy Captain America Adventure Program radio show, snippets of which intermittently appear in the series, tough and resourceful Carter is determined not to be frazzled by how she is depicted and treated, and uses her skills and smarts to outwit everyone around her, including both the bad guys and her SSR cohorts.

The cast gives solid performances across the board. Atwell is perfect in the lead role, as is D’Arcy, who is fantastic as the amusing sidekick to Atwell’s smart Carter. Shea Whigham, Chad Michael Murray and Enver Gjokaj are all competent in the roles of the SSR chief and agents, respectively. Their characters, however, sometimes seem to be built around stereotypes, and the series doesn’t always dig as deep as it should into some of its underlying themes.

Still, while its central mystery might not be exceptional, Agent Carter is an entertaining watch, propelled by terrific performances by its leads. It is great to have a strong female character at the helm of a Marvel series, and the drama neatly ties in with the other ongoing projects in this shared, comic book-based universe. Ultimately, Agent Carter delivers a focused and engaging eight-episode season and fans of its accompanying franchises will surely enjoy Carter’s adventures.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 19th April, 2015 *

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Suits season 4 - legally boring

tv series review

The fourth season of Suits turned a legal drama into an emotional one

Legal dramas have a constant presence on television and their popularity is showing no signs of waning. Viewers tune in week after week to be entertained by the brickbat of legal minds as they try to outwit each other with their every move. USA Network’s Suits initially employed this tactic generously and effectively, creating a series that was entertaining despite not being particularly innovative. In its fourth season, however, the focus has shifted from intriguing cases to ego clashes and relationship dramas, and the result is significantly less engaging than before.

More people have become implicated in the felonious lie that drives Mike Ross’ (Patrick J. Adams) legal career, and protecting the secret becomes increasingly tricky for his mentor Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht), Specter’s loyal secretary Donna (Sarah Rafferty) and Pearson Specter’s managing partner Jessica Pearson (Gina Torres). With their careers and reputations at stake, the lawyers face challenges from both within and outside the firm; a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigation looms, while investor Charles Forstman (Eric Roberts), who has a history with Harvey, comes back into the picture to cause more trouble.

Meanwhile, the characters’ personal lives often come into focus; Mike has moved in with Rachel (Meghan Markle), who is now juggling work and law school, Louis Litt (Rick Hoffman) tries to win back Harvard placement official Sheila Sazs (Rachael Harris) and Jessica is seeing SEC Attorney Jeff Malone (DB Woodside). But the intersection of their personal and professional relationships inevitably leads to issues. Secrets cause friction, personalities clash and general melodrama ensues for most of the season, especially in the second half.

The show, however, is still impressive to look at, thanks to its attractive cast, their designer outfits and the fancy sets. But there isn’t much substance beneath its glossy surface. The acting talent has delivered consistent performances, but the characters they portray have become less appealing as the season has progressed. The protagonists are hard to root for; most of them are annoyingly smug and at times hypocritically self-righteous. The storylines are bland, their resolutions overly convenient, and the whole fraud premise, which was never quite as convincing as the show would have hoped, is starting to grate.

Viewers who prefer their legal dramas with more emphasis on drama, and have a higher tolerance for romantic banter, will probably like how Suits has evolved (plus fans of Louis Litt are particularly likely to enjoy his arc). For the rest of us though, the series would be better if it returned its focus to the legal twists and turns that made it so enjoyable to begin with.

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 12th April, 2015 *