Sunday, May 31, 2015

Home - no heart in Home

movie review

The animated adventure fails to invade our hearts due to the plot’s predictability and underwhelming performances


Starring: Jim Parsons, Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez, Steve Martin
Directed by: Tim Johnson
Tagline: Worlds collide.

There has been no shortage of excitingly creative animated adventures in recent times. Animated movies increasingly rank among the best releases of the year and many of them find ways to simultaneously entertain both children and their parents. DreamWorks Animation’s latest venture Home, unfortunately, is not one of them.

A loose adaptation of Adam Rex’s 2007 children’s book The True Meaning of Smekday, the buddy comedy tells the story of Oh (voiced by The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons), a hapless, misfit alien who finds himself on Earth after his race, called the Boov, pick the planet as their new home. On the run from their enemy the Gorg, the aliens, led by Captain Smek (Steve Martin), invade Earth, relocate humans to a region they christen Happy Humanstown and proclaim the rest of the planet for themselves.

But a young Barbadian girl named Tip (Rihanna) gets left behind during the mass exodus of humans. Alone in a world now inhabited by colour-changing extraterrestrials, she sets out on a journey to find her mother (voiced by Jennifer Lopez). Along the way, Tip runs into Oh, who has inadvertently revealed the new location of the Boov to the Gorg, and is now a fugitive from his own race. Together, the two must help each other out of their respective predicaments, while learning lessons about acceptance and courage.

The main problem with Home is that it plays like a rehash of elements borrowed from better films, served as a cheesy, saccharine cocktail drenched in mind-numbing predictability. The plot itself is underdeveloped and at times nonsensical, and it also doesn’t help that the Boov in general aren’t very likable. The gags will only please youngsters, and its humour won’t even draw a chuckle from grownups.

The voice acting is also underwhelming. Steve Martin’s performance is fun, but the same can’t be said for the rest of the cast. As soon as you hear Oh’s voice, it’s hard not to think of Sheldon Cooper and imagine Jim Parsons standing in a studio, speaking his lines into a microphone. Rihanna’s delivery is mechanical, and both her and Lopez’s inclusion in the film have also resulted in their bland songs being unnecessarily shoehorned into the proceedings for no real reason. The musical filler is neither memorable, nor enjoyable.

It’s disappointing that a film, which supposedly aims to inspire us to take risks and value individuality, forgets to take its own advice. There is no magic in this animated fable. Only very young viewers won’t notice the clichés and predictability of this lacklustre movie, but they definitely deserve better. The bar has been set high for animated features, and thankfully, the audience has plenty of superior options they can enjoy instead.

Rating: 2 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 1 June, 2015 *

Friday, May 29, 2015

Action, adventure, comedy, drama - summer movies 2015

cover story 

Nothing in life is certain, except death, taxes, and the fact that Hollywood will unleash its onslaught of big budget movies every summer. And yes, it’s that time of the year once again. Get ready for a few trips to the cinema to experience the continuations of film franchises, as well as new offerings that aim to entertain you. Here’s a rundown of what you can expect from some of the world’s most successful filmmakers in the coming months:

Summer would be incomplete without superhero capers and high-adrenaline blockbusters. The action has already kicked-off with Avengers: Age of Ultron (May), but there are more superhero adventures still to come. Ant-Man (July) will launch another Marvel superhero on the big screen when it arrives in cinemas in a few weeks, with Paul Rudd portraying the protagonist who acquires a substance that allows him to shrink in size, but increase in strength. Fantastic Four (August) gives the Marvel superhero series a reboot, led by an all-new cast that includes Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, and Jamie Bell.
Some other well known franchises are also back this year. Jurassic World (June), the fourth Jurassic Park instalment, marks a belated return for the series, as a hybrid dinosaur escapes from the theme park and causes havoc, leaving it up to Hollywood heartthrob Chris Pratt to save the day. Agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is back and intent on bringing down an international rogue organization in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (July), the fifth instalment in the series. Moreover, Arnold Schwarzenegger reprises his role as the eponymous character in Terminator Genisys (July).
Also, the Hitman video games’ series spawns the film Hitman: Agent 47 (August), which finds actor Rupert Friend portraying an elite assassin who squares off with his nemeses. Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (August) revives the ‘60s television show and stars Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer as agents on a mission against a criminal organization. And in San Andreas (May), a chopper pilot (Dwayne Johnson) journeys to rescue his estranged daughter (Alexandra Daddario) after an earthquake.

A number of films are on a task to scare viewers this summer. If you are faint of heart, then you might want to skip Insidious: Chapter 3 (June), which marks the third outing of the Insidious series. It is a prequel to the first two films, and stars Dermot Mulroney and Stefanie Scott. 2012’s Sinister also gets a sequel, as a family moves to a house marked for death in Sinister 2 (August). Plus, a group of students resurrect a failed show to mark the 20th anniversary of a horrific tragedy, but things turn deadly in the found footage horror movie The Gallows (July).
In the adjacent territory of thrillers, a dying, wealthy aristocrat’s (Ben Kingsley) consciousness is transformed into the body of a young man (Ryan Reynolds) in Self/less (July). A mysterious present throws a couple’s (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) lives into disarray in The Gift (July). The Ethan Hawke-led Regression (August) finds a father accused of a crime he has no memory of committing. And mystery thriller Dark Places (August) brings Gillian Flynn’s novel to cinema, starring Charlize Theron as the only survivor of her family’s horrific massacre.

Judging from the number of comedies on offer this summer, Hollywood is fairly convinced that we are all in need of a heavy dose of cheers. The Pitch Perfect 2 (May) girls have already taken the box office by storm, but they aren’t the only familiar faces who are making a return this year.
Expect a host of cameos when we are reunited with our old friends, Vince (Adrian Grenier), Eric (Kevin Connolly), Drama (Kevin Dillon), and Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) as Entourage (June) jumps from the small to the big screen, continuing the story from the HBO comedy drama. Seth MacFarlane’s crude teddy bear is also back, and this time, he has to prove that he is a person in the court of law in Ted 2 (June).
Elsewhere, a CIA analyst (Melissa McCarthy) goes undercover on a mission in Spy (June). Cameron Crowe gives us Aloha (May), the tale of a defence contractor (Bradley Cooper), who reconnects with a former love (Rachel McAdams), while unexpectedly falling for an Air Force pilot (Emma Stone). Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck (July) finds a commitment-phobic woman (Amy Schumer), facing her fears after she meets a nice guy (Bill Hader). Aliens misinterpret ‘80s arcade games as a declaration of war in Pixels (July), which sounds so promising till you realize that it stars Adam Sandler. Adventure comedy Vacation (July) sees a man (Ed Helms) taking his family on a road trip to a park that will be closing forever. The lovely Meryl Streep portrays an aging rock star, who abandoned her family to become a famous musician in Ricki and the Flash (August). Jesse Eisenberg stars in American Ultra (August) as a stoner whose past lands him in trouble. And action comedy Masterminds (August) finds a night guard (Zach Galifianakis) organizing the biggest bank robbery in American history.

Amusing shenanigans await in animationland, as the animation powerhouse makes its highly anticipated return, and everyone’s favourite little, yellow henchmen get their own feature outing:
- Inside Out: After being a no-show last summer, Pixar is back to reclaim its place atop the world of animation with its new film Inside Out, which comes out this June. Initial reception has been very positive for this fantasy comedy about different, personified emotions - like Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), and Anger (Lewis Black) - as they compete for control of a girl’s mind.
- Minions: The Minions from Illumination Entertainment’s Despicable Me films get their own spin-off prequel this June when Stuart, Kevin, and Bob (all voiced by director Pierre Coffin) set out on a journey to find a new despicable master and get recruited by super-villain Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock), who, along with her inventor husband Herb (Jon Hamm) plans to take over the world.

An aged Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) reflects on his life and grapples with an unsolved case in the mystery drama Mr. Holmes, which will hit the cinemas this June. A military working dog is adopted by his handler’s family after suffering a traumatic experience in the adventure Max, also set to be released next month. The “post hip hop generation” gets its own coming of age drama with June’s Dope in which a geeky teenager (Shameik Moore) is led to a gritty adventure. Sports drama Southpaw, which comes out in July, tells the tale of a successful boxer who has to deal with his life falling apart, and stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, and Forest Whitaker. A woman’s energized faith transforms her life in War Room, which will be out in August. And July’s romantic mystery Paper Towns, which is an adaptation of John Green’s 2008 novel, tells the story of a young man (Nat Wolff), who goes in search of his missing neighbour (Cara Delevingne).

There are a few music biopics, as well as a documentary in store for music fans in the coming months:
- Love & Mercy (June): This Brian Wilson biopic follows the story of the Beach Boys’ front-man (portrayed by Paul Dano and John Cusack) through two periods of his life as he struggles with psychosis and works with his group to craft what would become one of the most influential albums in the history of popular music.
- Straight Outta Compton (August): This biographical drama revolves around the history of the hip hop group N.W.A. - the members of which included Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E -who gained notoriety in the late ‘80s.
- Amy (July): Asif Kapadia’s documentary about troubled singer Amy Winehouse - whose life was cut short by her untimely death in 2011 at the age of 27 - aims to tell her tragic story, and will include previously unseen archive footages of the late songstress.

So, no matter which genre you prefer, you’ll find something that meets your preferences at the cinema, ready to take you on a fun- filled adventure. Have an awesome summer, everyone!


What Hollywood did last summer

Like every year, the Hollywood machine was in full gear in 2014, churning out movies that collectively grossed billions of dollars around the world. Here’s a recap of what happened last summer and which films came out on top at the global box office:

- Transformers: Age of Extinction (June) - $1.1 billion: Few series are as critic proof as the Michael Bay Transformers franchise. No amount of criticism and bad reviews could take the wind out of the fourth instalment of the series, which was a soft reboot of the franchise. The movie starred Mark Wahlberg and ended up becoming the highest grossing film of the year.
- Guardians of the Galaxy (July) - $774 million: Marvel’s delightful superhero caper Guardians of the Galaxy was one of the most amusing outings of the year, and its oddball pairing of reluctant heroes led by Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord set the series off to a good start. A sequel is expected in 2017.
- Maleficent (May) - $758 million: Angelina Jolie’s return to acting after a nearly four-year absence in this Sleeping Beauty retelling from the perspective of the story’s antagonist may not have been a critical success. But it pleased viewers nonetheless, becoming one of the most successful films of the year.
- X-Men: Days of Future Past (May) - $748 million: The seventh X-Men instalment found Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) travelling to the past to save humanity, and its massive box office haul ensured the production of a sequel, X-Men: Apocalypse (2016).
- Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (June) - $708 million: A stunning motion capture performance by Andy Serkis powered this Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) sequel, which will eventually be followed by War of the Planet of the Apes (2017).


- By S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 29th May, 2015 *

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The many faces of Faran Tahir

cover story: interview

The actor talks to Instep about working with Hollywood royalty, the changing face of Pakistani cinema, and finding empathy through acting

It is always heartening to see an artist of Pakistani origin make an impact on the international stage, even more so when the thespian establishes his or her name by demonstrating their skill, not by generating controversies and chasing headlines. That is precisely why Faran Tahir is so impressive. The actor is a frequent presence on the international screens, both big and small, with appearances ranging from guest spots in television series to co-starring roles in feature films.

Silver screen success

Building a career in Hollywood as a Pakistani-American actor had its challenges, but Faran thinks there are always some obstacles on the road to success. “Anyone’s path in trying to make it in the entertainment industry is going to be hard,” he says. “I had my set of challenges, but I always took these challenges as fuel to my fire and never as fuel that burns me out.”

While choosing roles, does he feel any added responsibility because of his Pakistani roots? “I try to avoid characters that are written as caricatures regardless of what and who I am portraying,” Faran answers. “Of course, I never forget my roots. To me, the biggest factor is if I find the character challenging in some way.” There are some projects that he has walked away from in the past because of cultural or religious considerations, but none of them were important enough for him to dwell on. “To be honest, projects like those never end up being anything great. I honestly couldn’t remember the names of trash projects. I would have to go back and look at my records.”

Faran’s resume now includes appearances in films like Iron Man (2008), Star Trek (2009), Elysium (2013), and Escape Plan (2013), working alongside the likes of Robert Downey Jr., Jodie Foster, and Matt Damon, all of whom he describes as “extremely talented, giving, humble, professional people”. His interaction with Downey Jr. in particular remains memorable. “When Robert and I read for Iron Man,” Faran recalls, “he pulled me aside and told me that he was game for anything I threw his way and that we can hug, apologize, or pat each other on the back after the reading. I thought that was pretty cool.”

Iron Man is, of course, the film that Faran is best known for, and his opinion also prompted the reshaping of his character in the movie as well as some changes to its script. The actor also says that the choice to have the members of the film’s terrorist group in Afghanistan speaking Urdu – something that might have stood out for Pakistani viewers – was deliberate.  “We made a deliberate choice to mix many languages so as not to implicate one country or one people,” he reveals. “Some of my minions spoke Urdu, Hindi, Arabic, Hungarian, etcetera. We wanted to show that this group was made up of people from all over the world. My character also spoke fluent English. It was never established that the cave where we imprisoned Tony Stark was actually in Afghanistan. He was abducted in Afghanistan but could easily have been taken elsewhere.”

Starring in films that have grossed hundreds of millions of dollars hasn’t given the performer any airs. He remains passionate about the Pakistani film industry, and recently supported director Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s documentary Song of Lahore (2015) by attending its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. When asked about the Pakistani industry, he speaks with enthusiasm. “I think Pakistani artists are redefining Pakistani cinema. There are some extremely talented directors, actors, actresses, and writers on the horizon. I couldn’t be prouder. Bravo!!”

Small screen saga

With his name and image firmly established in the international entertainment industry, the actor will next be seen in one of the most anticipated series of the year: Supergirl.

In the last few months, Faran has appeared in shows including Criminal Minds, How to Get Away with Murder, The Blacklist, and Backstrom, and he will now play the recurring role of an evil alien called The Commander in the new action drama Supergirl, which is based on the DC Comics character and will follow the story of a young woman bestowed with super powers, learning to embrace her talents. “I play a character whose mission is to bring down Supergirl,” Faran confirms. “It’s a very fun and delicious role.”

The show is set to premiere later this year on American channel CBS, and stars Glee actress Melissa Benoist, whose casting in the lead role has drawn a lukewarm reception from potential viewers, especially those who were hoping actress Laura Vandervoort would instead reprise her Smallville role for the new series. The unveiling of the Supergirl costume also drew a mixed response, with some likening it to a cheap Halloween costume. But with firsthand experience from the Supergirl set, both the actress and the outfit have received Faran’s seal of approval. “These mixed reviews are based on the opinion of people who have not seen the costume or Melissa’s portrayal of the character since the show has not aired yet. I think [Melissa] rocks,” he enthuses.

Supergirl joins DC’s other small screen ventures like Arrow, The Flash, and Gotham, and Faran thinks the show will benefit from being a television series as opposed to a film series. “Television gives us the ability to delve deeper into characters because we have the freedom to explore the character slowly,” opines the actor, “so I think it would be an interesting series.”

This isn’t the first time Faran has been cast as a bad guy. Even his most prominent role – Raza, the leader of a terrorist organization in Iron Man – saw him portray the baddie. But the performer says he has no qualms about playing the villain. “I have no issue playing a bad guy,” he asserts. “It would be an issue if that was the only kind of character I played. Fortunately, I have been able to play a fairly wide variety of roles. I also did six projects this year where I didn’t play a bad guy.”

Still to come

Faran’s upcoming projects include the movie Flight World War II (2015), which is expected to be released this summer. “It is about an ordinary commercial flight taking off from Washington DC destined for London,” he reveals. “The plane is hit by a lightning storm and the next thing we know is that we are flying over Germany during World War 2. I play the captain of the flight and it is my job to bring my passengers and crew back home safely. Fun stuff!”

Also in the pipeline is the movie The 11th (2016), which is set to star the likes of Christopher Lee and Michael Nyqvist. “It is the story of 11 lives directly and indirectly interacting right before 9/11 in Copenhagen. It is a very smartly written screenplay. It shows what effect a historical event like that can have on ordinary lives that are not directly impacted by such an atrocity.”

Film and television aren’t the only mediums keeping the actor busy. Faran is also going to portray the lead role in Shakespeare’s Othello onstage with the Washington, D.C.-based Shakespeare Theatre Company. “The director, Ron Daniels, and I have worked together in the past,” he mentions. “We did Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream together at the American Repertory Theater many years ago. He is an amazingly talented director, a visionary and a teacher. We had been talking for a while about the timeliness and timelessness of Othello since it deals with prejudices and racial divides, how these things can unravel and ultimately destroy a decent and honourable man. We proposed the idea to Shakespeare Theatre Company and they saw the merit in it. We hope we can do this wonderful classic justice and at the same time show how the story still relates to the present.”

There is plenty in store for Faran’s fans, and the actor is excited about his career and future. “Acting affords us the opportunity to find empathy with others,” he says about his craft. “It gives us a chance to walk in someone else’s shoes for a bit. It reminds me that the kindest and the cruellest actions on this earth are committed by humans. This notion intrigues. I am pleased that I have a TV show, a film, and a stage play to dig my teeth into.”

- By Sameen Amer 

Instep, The News on Sunday - 24th May, 2015 *

Backcountry - basic instincts

movie review

Backcountry barely survives when it comes to showcasing originality in the genre

Starring: Missy Peregrym, Jeff Roop, Eric Balfour, and Nicholas Campbell
Directed by: Adam MacDonald
Tagline: Survive.

The dangers that lurk in the wilderness have given film-makers many opportunities to inflict horror on their characters by pitting them against abominable forces, thereby giving viewers a harrowing glance into the abyss of nature’s fury. Joining the list of these cinematic thrillers is the Canadian film Backcountry that stars Missy Peregrym and Jeff Roop as a couple whose camping trip goes awfully wrong.

Purportedly based on a true story, Adam MacDonald’s directorial debut is pretty standard man-versus-wild fare that relies on characters making poor choices as a substitute for an inventive storyline. After much convincing, Jenn (Missy Peregrym) goes on a hike with her boyfriend Alex (Jeff Roop), who is adamant on taking her to a secluded trail that he visited when he was younger. Confident about his familiarity with the area and his outdoor skills, Alex promptly ignores warnings that the trail is closed for the season and — to please viewers who don’t appreciate subtlety — declines a map offered by a park ranger (Nicholas Campbell). Soon, they find themselves injured, lost, coming across a sinister stranger (Eric Balfour) and facing a hungry predator — an aggressive black bear whose territory they have stumbled upon.

Sadly, the couple runs into clichés about as many times as they run into danger. The film does not craft a unique or interesting plot to land its leads into their predicament, and instead, relies on their lack of common sense and basic precautions. That in itself ensures that the duo does not make compelling protagonists.

MacDonald does succeed in creating an ominous vibe and shrouding the film in a feeling of impending doom. But when stretched to a full length movie, the proceedings seem to drag on before they reach the climax — the horror of which is delivered quite forcefully and disturbingly — and grow repetitive in its aftermath. The interplay between its central characters’ physical and emotional isolation is thematically interesting, but not executed with the depth it deserves.

Viewers who enjoy typical survival thrillers (and also happen to be fans of the obvious) will probably enjoy Backcountry. But if you are looking for something that adds some intelligence and innovation to the genre, you are very likely to be disappointed in this outing.

Rating: 2 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 24th May, 2015 *

Friday, May 22, 2015

New talent on the block: Mashhad Sharyar

cover story: interview

Everyone who followed the Pakistani music scene in the 2000s probably remembers Mizmaar, the Karachi-based pop rock group that released two albums – Kash (2003) and Sitara (2007) – in the mid-noughties before parting ways. Earlier this year, guitarist Kashan Admani and drummer Alfred D’mello announced Mizmaar’s comeback with a revamped line-up; their new vocalist is Mashhad Sharyar, a young singer who recently joined the group, making his debut on their new single ‘Jee Longa’. Us caught up with Mashhad to find out more about this rising talent.

Us: Please tell Us a bit about yourself.
Mashhad Sharyar: I was born in Karachi. We basically are from Occupied Kashmir but my grandmother belongs to the Gilgit-Baltistan province. I have one younger sister and we are just two siblings. I completed my schooling from The City School and did my A Levels from Southshore. Then I joined the Institute of Business Management (IOBM) for my degree in finance, which I switched to media studies, as it is closer to my passion.

Us: Tell Us about your musical journey so far.
Mashhad: I started my journey with an underground band that I made with my friends. It was amazing how in almost no time we were opening for big names like Ali Azmat, Sanam Marvi, Josh, Noori, and many more! But slowly I got bored of doing covers. I wanted to sing something that I had made, so I told my friends to record this song that I had written and change our band’s name, as it was a difficult one to remember. We went to the studio, recorded the song, and started doing shows with a new name. People started to take us seriously; they enjoyed our music more and danced more. I went to Islamabad with this band to open for Ali Azmat once again, and when I got back, I was invited to the studio by Kashan Admani. I recorded around two or three projects with him. After that I was offered to be the lead vocalist for the band called Mizmaar and I said yes!

Us: How did you become interested in pursuing music? What inspired you to become a singer?
Mashhad: Since the age of nine, I’ve wanted to sing. I have never been able to answer, even to myself, why I started taking singing so seriously. I guess it was meant to happen. My father loved singing and so did my mother. I guess that’s how I got it. When I turned 15, my friends pushed me to make a band and that is when I started to take this profession seriously.

Us: How did the chance to join Mizmaar come about?
Mashhad: It all started with one composition called ‘Rani-e-Kashmir’ that I wrote and composed when I was 16. After hearing me in the studio over different projects, I was offered the job by Kashan. I thought about it and said yes.

Us: How does it feel to be a part of Mizmaar? And what do you bring to the band?
Mashhad: It’s wonderful to get this chance at a young age. I am learning so much as every day goes by. I believe I bring the diversity. That is the reason they chose me. By diversity I mean the ability to do different music genres. Previously Mizmaar did a lot of rock; however this time around it’s very different and I am very excited to see the response of all the Mizmaar fans.

Us: Has your life changed in any way since you joined the group?
Mashhad: No, not much. Now I am just caught up with music. The rest is the same. When I’m free, I still hang out with the same people, still go to the same places, and still live the same life. So, no, it hasn’t changed much and I am very grateful for that.

Us: ‘Jee Loonga’ is the first Mizmaar song with you on vocals. Please tell us about the song.
Mashhad: ‘Jee Loonga’ is a song about living your life the way you like, the way you want, and the way you love. We wanted a song that sounded current. Kashan quickly came up with this acoustic riff that just sounded perfect. Then Alfred came up with the idea of incorporating dubstep in the chorus. I chose the theme of the song and contributed towards the melody, which we then collectively refined. The final song, after the intensive production period, sounded great. It had the punch, the feel, the charm, the aggression. And we thought it was a great single to relaunch the band with.

Us: How soon will you guys release your next song? And when will the full-length album be released?
Mashhad: Very soon. This next song is going to be a big surprise for Mizmaar fans; I am very certain of that. The album will be released after a couple of singles.

Us: What kind of music do you listen to? Who are some of your favourite bands and artists?
Mashhad: I love all kinds of music. I like whatever sounds good. My favourite bands are Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Queen, and from the newer acts I like Muse, Radiohead and Porcupine Tree. My favourite artists are Jeff Buckley, John Mayer, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and I also love what Pharrell does. Ed Sheeran is a great artist too.

Us: Mizmaar recently performed live for the first time in seven years. How did the show go?
Mashhad: We were all very pumped up. All we wanted to do was make sure that people enjoy the show when we perform live again. It felt great singing as Mizmaar. The crowd loved it. We had a really nice debut gig. Hopefully there are many more to come.

Us: How do you feel about performing the band’s songs that you weren’t originally involved in creating?
Mashhad: For me, it’s a great experience. I grew up listening to a few of those songs, and it is funny how I didn’t know that I would be singing them live to all the fans one day.

Us: Do you have any acting aspirations?
Mashhad: No, not really. I want to focus on singing and making myself a better vocalist, but you never know what the future holds.

Us: What can we expect from you in the coming months?
Mashhad: Lots and lots of music. I hope everyone will love our music and the fact that it’s diverse.

Rapid fire

Us: Who was the last person you called? And what did you talk about?
Mashhad: The last person I spoke to was my dad. I was at the recording studio and he wanted to know where I was.

Us: When was the last time you used a pen or pencil to write something down? What did you write?
Mashhad: I wrote down the lyrics of a song. I can’t recall what I had written; apologies for that.

Us: What do you have in your pockets right now?
Mashhad: Lyrics of the new song we are recording.

Us: Which movie did you watch most recently?
Mashhad: I watched this movie called Whiplash. Loved how they showed the amount of hard work it takes to become a virtuoso musician. Didn’t dislike anything as such about it.

Us: Would you ever consider getting a tattoo? If yes, what would the tattoo depict?
Mashhad: I wish I could, but my mother would kill me. So, say no to tattoos.

Us: Do you have any pets?
Mashhad: Never had any pets but my cousins did, so we would end up bringing it home all the time. It is a poodle named Shifu.

Up close

- I love... my family.
- I dislike... liars.
- I want... respect.
- I wish... for the world to live in peace and harmony.
- I fear... losing a loved one.
- I hope... to never hurt anyone.

- By Sameen Amer

Us Magazine, The News - 22nd May, 2015 *

Paddington - a delightful adventure

movie review


Starring: Ben Whishaw, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, and Nicole Kidman
Director: Paul King
Tagline: A little bear will make a big splash.

Like everyone else, I am familiar with the story of how Michael Bond created the character of Paddington after spotting and purchasing a lonesome teddy bear from a London store. However, I didn’t really know what to expect from the recent Paddington film, simply because the anthropomorphic bear didn’t hold much relevance for me, as I didn’t get a chance to read his stories when I was growing up and didn’t, therefore, form a meaningful connection with the character. Now, after watching the movie, I am fairly convinced that my childhood was a complete travesty; I clearly missed out on one of the most delightful kids’ series ever written, and I now demand a childhood do-over so that I can rectify this appalling oversight, restore sanity, and experience the magic of Paddington as a kid.

Yes, the movie is that charming.

The film that blends live action and animation begins in darkest Peru, where a little bear (voiced very amiably by Ben Whishaw), lives with his aunt and uncle (voiced by Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon), who were once visited by a British geographer (portrayed by Tim Downie), who introduced them to the deliciousness of orange marmalade and the allure of London. After an unexpected tragedy befalls the bears’ house, young Paddington is sent to the English capital with the hope of finding a new home.

Things don’t get off to a promising start, but eventually, the accident prone Paddington is temporarily taken in by the Brown family - parents Henry (Hugh Bonneville) and Mary (Sally Hawkins), their children Judy (Madeleine Harris) and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), and their housekeeper Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters) - till they can find a place for him to live permanently, potentially with the explorer who visited the bears and invited them to his homeland; only they have no idea who he was or how to find him. Meanwhile, a museum taxidermist Millicent (Nicole Kidman) becomes aware of Paddington’s presence in London, and sets out to hunt him down.

Crazy hijinks ensure, as the film offers zany antics and slapstick humour (which will delight younger viewers), along with the message of respect and compassion (which will leave everyone with something to think about, although some jaded viewers might find its unsubtle take on immigration a bit heavy-handed). The characters win you over immediately from the very start, thanks to the film’s charm-drenched execution and likable cast. Paddington himself is beautifully rendered, and a cameo by author Michael Bond also makes a sweet nod to the story’s origin.

On the whole, this family friendly adventure is fun and enjoyable. Its whimsical twists and turns will not only entertain its audience, but hopefully also inspire them to have a kinder, more empathetic view of those around them. Oh, and it will probably leave you with a hankering for marmalade; it might be prudent to prepare a sandwich in advance!

- By S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 22nd May, 2015 *

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Blacklist - James Spader continues to be the show’s saving grace

t-view: tv series review

The Blacklist 
Season 2

Starring: James Spader, Megan Boone, Diego Klattenhoff, Ryan Eggold, Harry Lennix, Amir Arison,and Mozhan Marnò
Created by: Jon Bokenkamp

When it premiered in fall 2013, crime drama The Blacklist instantly became the biggest new show of the season on American television. The NBC series about a criminal mastermind teaming up with the FBI to capture the world’s most dangerous crooks was never the most intelligent or creative adventure on the tube, but thanks to its placement at a coveted slot on the schedule as well as the magnetic appeal of its terrific star James Spader, it was a considerable success.

In its second season, however, The Blacklist ended up struggling to retain its viewers, and it wasn’t hard to figure out why. The basic reason for the sharp decline in numbers could be attributed to NBC’s decision to shift it to a competitive timeslot, stuck between two new, weak programs, under the misguided impression that the show was strong enough to generate high ratings on its own. But a deeper reason – and one with more global resonance – for the audience bailing on the drama comes down to how the serialized narrative was handled throughout the season.

The Blacklist gave us another set of 22 episodes in its second outing, as Agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) and her cohorts – task force head Harold Cooper (Harry Lennix), her partner Agent Donald Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff), tech expert Aram Mojtabai (Amir Arison), and Mossad interrogator Samar Navabi (Mozhan Marnò) – chased more bad guys, hunting down criminals with the help of Raymond Reddington (James Spader), who, in turn, continued his battle with nemesis Berlin (Peter Stormare), sought the mysterious Fulcrum, and took on a nefarious organization known as the Cabal. Meanwhile, Liz tried to piece together clues about her childhood to reveal the mysteries of her past and figure out how Reddington is linked to her.

Convoluted twists and turns riddled the proceeding, but by now we have all made peace with the fact that the show isn’t exactly a bastion of plausibility and is not particularly keen on letting sense stand in the way of the next preposterous detour. With that in mind, even though the developments frequently bordered on nonsensical, they still managed to entertain (in a bad action movie sort of way).

The show’s saving grace continued to be the actor who portrays the protagonist and who is perhaps the sole reason we are invested in Raymond Reddington’s story. The Blacklist is basically an elaborate excuse for celebrating the awesomeness of James Spader, spending an hour each week watching him chew the scenery with relish, delivering jabs like only he can. Also, Harry Lennix’s character was finally given a solid sub-plot, with Harold Cooper suffering from an inoperable brain tumour and facing the choice of compromising his ethics in order to save his life, which made for an interesting arc.

The main reason the series faltered lies in its decision to give undue attention to the drama in Elizabeth Keen’s personal life. At this point, the Liz and Tom Keen (Ryan Eggold) romance makes little sense. And withholding the truth about her past for two seasons wasn’t nearly as gripping as the writers seem to think. The Blacklist’s protracted inability to deliver answers tested the audience’s patience and took the punch out of the mystery. Eventually it felt anti-climactic when the truth was finally revealed in the season finale. That said, the direction they chose for Liz in the finale is likely to make her character more intriguing and deliver a storyline which may lack originality but could still reinvigorate the show in its third season.

On the whole, the second season of The Blacklist offered more guest baddies and over-the-top conspiracies that functioned as a platform for Spader to deliver menacing lines. And while it laboured for most of its run under its inability to give substantial answers about the life of a character we aren’t significantly invested in, the season did leave us with a resolution that could potentially signal a more exciting (if equally nonsensical) third season.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 20th May, 2015 *

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Skylight - a mosaic of unhappiness

book review

Nobel Prize winner José Saramago's first novel, published posthumously, looks at the domestic life of the middle-class Portuguese

Book: Skylight
Author: José Saramago

It isn't particularly unusual for writers to choose not to publish one or more of their manuscripts during their lifetime. A number of celebrated authors have specified that some of their writings would only be shared with the world after they were no longer with us; while there have been others who preferred that their works not be made public even after they're gone.

Mark Twain, for instance, decreed that his lengthy autobiography only be published 100 years after his death so that he could speak with his 'whole frank mind'. J.D. Salinger reportedly left explicit instructions detailing how and when several of his unpublished works would be released, years after the reclusive author's demise. And we wouldn't even have access to a chunk of Franz Kafka's catalogue if his friend Max Brod hadn't ignored Kafka's wish to have the manuscripts destroyed after his death. 

José Saramago's decision not to print Clarabóia (Skylight), therefore, doesn't seem all that peculiar, but the reason that prompted this decision is what makes the novel all the more fascinating.

Written in the 1950s, when the then-unknown Saramago was making a living as an office worker, Clarabóia was submitted to a publishing house in 1953. It took the publisher 36 years to reply. The manuscript was relegated to the archives for nearly four decades before it was rediscovered in 1989 and Saramago was offered the chance to publish the novel. He, however, declined. Being snubbed by the publisher had discouraged the Portuguese author so much that it would take him nearly two decades to once again pursue his passion for writing. He would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998, but he clearly never got over this slight of ignorance. He did not re-read Clarabóia, and did not allow it to be published in his lifetime.

A year after his death in 2010, the novel, which he referred to as 'the book lost and found in time' was finally released in his native Portuguese, and an English translation, titled Skylight, subsequently followed in 2014, over 60 years after the original tome was written.

Set in late-1940s Lisbon, the novel tells the story of the financially-strained occupants of an apartment building, whose paths occasionally intersect as they go about their day-to-day lives. The families that inhabit each of the apartments have their own unique issues and frustrations, but nearly all of them have something in common: unhappiness.

Silvestre and Mariana, an elderly cobbler and his plump wife, are struggling to make ends meet, and take in loner Abel as a lodger to help pay the rent. Justina, who is unhappily married to the philandering linotype operator Caetano, is still grieving the death of her only child, daughter Matilde. Lídia, the mistress of businessman Paulino, is judged for her lifestyle and choices. Rosália and Anselmo dote over their daughter Maria Cláudia, whose beauty attracts a much older man. Reading enthusiast Isaura and her sister Adriana live with their widowed mother Cândida and her likewise bereaved sister Amélia, and bond over their love for music. Salesman Emílio and his Spanish wife Carmen, the parents of young Henrique, flounder miserably in their failing marriage.

Saramago creates a mosaic of working-class strife, and the mundanity of everyday life, as his characters face domestic issues, deal with financial difficulties, and wrestle with their repressed desires, therein proffering an examination of the intricacies of union, sexuality, and society. When they grapple with their thoughts, the drama takes on a philosophical air, serving as a platform for poignant reflections and existential questions. But these thoughts and subjects aren't tackled with the same level of creativity that would eventually make the author an acclaimed voice in the world of literature. There is an inbuilt elegance to the intersecting arcs and their execution, but not all the stories that are woven through the narrative immediately draw you in or ultimately prove to be remarkable and memorable. Likewise, the thorough descriptions of faces, features, feelings, relationships, and thoughts suggest that the writer hadn't yet developed the level of trust in his reader's imagination that could allow him to convey the same information in more subtle strokes. Also, at times, translator Margaret Jull Costa's choice of words seems a tad repetitive and dry, although only those who are fluent in Portuguese can comment on whether much, if anything, has been lost in translation here.

It is hard to deny the fact that Skylight probably would not have generated the same level of interest had it not been for the fascinating history associated with it, and as part of the study of an author's evolution, the novel is definitely an intriguing read. With Skylight, Saramago is still honing his style, which, we all know, will eventually go on to power much more creative endeavours. But even in this, one of his earliest pieces of work, the Nobel laureate has created an affecting portrait of unhappiness by way of the preoccupations of the ordinary, and done so with considerable skill. Everyone who admires Saramago's contributions to fiction will surely acknowledge the significance of Skylight and appreciate the chance to go on this anachronistic literary journey.

- By Sameen Amer

 Books & Authors, Dawn - 17th May, 2015 *

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Sing for the moment - Junaid Khan


Junaid Khan announces a new single and talks about his upcoming acting projects that may include a Bollywood debut 

Junaid Khan all smiles with Lollywood heavyweights Syed Noor (left) and Shehzad Rafique (right)

Socio-political turmoil in Pakistan often overshadows all other aspects of our lives. Politics is on everyone’s mind, and our musicians are no different. That’s why it comes as no surprise that singer/actor Junaid Khan is planning to release a politically-inspired song as his next single.

Titled ‘Taqdeer’, the track motivates listeners to strive for self-improvement instead of relying on others to fix the problems of the country. “The idea behind ‘Taqdeer’ was circling in my head for the past ten months,” Junaid explains. “We trust the individuals who run the country and the world, and believe that they will do something for our betterment. We place our destiny in their hands ourselves. Then when we end up with problems, we complain and blame the system. Instead, we should own up to our mistakes, and look at ourselves first rather than pointing fingers at others.”

Junaid is hoping that his new song will inspire his countrymen to take their destiny into their own hands. “We as a nation should not trust and follow fake idols; after all they are human too,” he cautions. “We should stand up for ourselves to excel in our own particular divisions, so that we progress as a nation. If we improve our individual selves, we can improve the nation.”

Junaid’s plan to release his debut solo album is currently on hold.  “I am actually waiting for the right time to release the album,” Junaid elucidates. “The songs are almost ready, and I am almost done with the production part of the record. I think, after I release ‘Taqdeer’, I’ll have a better idea about when I should release the album.”

As for how soon ‘Taqdeer’ will be unveiled, Junaid says he hasn’t finalized a specific date yet. “I’m still thinking about the right medium and way to communicate the message of the song,” he says.

Keeping him busy is his acting career, with roles in multiple television dramas that are airing on various channels. His current project is the Geo series Neela Mausam. “I shot Neela Mausam a few months ago,” he says. “It has Ushna Shah, me, and Zainab Ahmed as the lead cast, and has been directed by Ali Faizan, who has also directed plays like Chhoti and Piya Mann Bhaye for Geo. It will start airing later this month.” The drama revolves around “the lives of four friends who end up at a turn in life where the only solution left is making a huge sacrifice.”

Junaid will also be seen in the upcoming series Main Awara Hoon. “This project is being directed by Shehzad Rafique, who is a well known Lollywood film director. He has been directing successful films for more than a decade, and is making his television debut with this series. He has really high hopes for it and he’s working really hard on it. The cast has me, Javed Sheikh sahab, and film star Saima in the lead roles. The story is very interesting – it is complicated, and full of emotion and drama.” Also in the works is Kuch Ishq Tha Kuch Majboori, which Junaid describes as “very deep, very dark”, and “close to reality”. It is being directed by Awais Khan and also stars Hareem Farooq and Mansha Pasha.

There are two things that Junaid kept in mind when choosing all these acting projects. According to the entertainer, the script is the most important element of a series and the most vital aspect when selecting a television drama. His next consideration is the director. “A director actually controls the fate of the actor and the project,” he observes, “so a good director, who can tell you what he has in mind and teach you, is very important.”

The actor, who recently made a guest appearance in Momina Duraid’s feature film Bin Roye, says he is in talks for a few movies, but is “still waiting for the right script and the right team” to make his proper big screen debut. A Bollywood project might also be in the cards. “I am in discussion with a couple of people from across the border,” Junaid reveals, “but I can’t really disclose anything about that right now. Until something materializes I can’t discuss it, but hopefully I will have some news on that front pretty soon.”

- By Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 14th May, 2015 *

Sunday, May 03, 2015

The Duff - a standard issue

movie review

The Duff is a typical high school survival guide

The Duff

Starring: Mae Whitman, Robbie Amell, Bella Thorne, Bianca A. Santos, Skyler Samuels, Romany Malco, Chris Wylde, and Allison Janney
Directed by: Ari Sandel
Tagline: You either know one, you have one, or you are one.

Even though teen movies usually revolve around the same stereotypes and cliches, they remain popular with their target audience, partly because of their ability to give viewers a chance to root for the underdogs and watch mean kids receive their comeuppance. New teen comedy The Duff employs the same formulas that we are already familiar with, and does so amusingly, albeit unexceptionally.

The story revolves around high school student Bianca (Mae Whitman), an intelligent teenager who is close friends with the popular Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca A Santos), while being tormented by mean girl Madison (Bella Thorne). But when her neighbour, jock Wesley (Robbie Amell), offers unsolicited insight into her role in the social hierarchy and informs her that she is a ‘Duff’ — the designated ugly, fat friend to her stylish besties — Bianca is left devastated.

Before you point out that the lovely Mae Whitman is neither fat nor ugly, the movie clarifies that the term isn’t a literal identifier and just refers to the person in a clique who simply “doesn’t look as good” as the others. Determined to overcome her wallflower status, Bianca seeks Wesley’s help to teach her how to attract the guy she is pining over (Nick Eversman), in exchange for helping him pass chemistry.

Events thereafter unfold dutifully and predictably. Director Ari Sandel’s attempts at making the film appear modern begin and end with references to social media and viral videos that are shoehorned into the proceedings, but nothing particularly innovative or subversive ever happens.

Yet, the film is quite charming, thanks in no small part to Whitman and her co-star Amell, who try to make the most of the very average story and script they have to work with. The leads work really well together; not only does their chemistry make the film feel genuine, but also infuses the movie with much-needed nuance. Whitman in particular is a delight, and her performance will compel viewers to identify with Bianca and be invested in her story.

Coated in amusing banter and peppered with silly antics, The Duff revisits the topic of high school pettiness and leaves you with the standard message of self-acceptance, but the movie is never as biting, engaging or funny as the more memorable teen films, like Mean Girls and Easy A. Still, amiable performances by its main cast help win over the audience and ensure that the proceedings are relatable, although the movie itself ultimately doesn’t succeed in rising above the predictability of its genre.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 3rd May, 2015 *