Monday, June 29, 2015

iZombie - brainy it’s not

tv series review

Season 1

Starring: Rose McIver, Malcolm Goodwin, Rahul Kohli, Robert Buckley, and David Anders

In their eagerness to capitalize on the ongoing comic book adaptation trend, television networks have churned out programs of considerably varying quality, ranging from excitingly brilliant to disappointingly dull. Not everything has been emphatically good or bad, of course. Some projects have just been very thoroughly middling, and the recent adaptation of iZombie falls in that category.

Based (very loosely) on the Vertigo Comics (which is a DC Comics’ imprint) series of the same name, the comedy drama was developed for television by Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero-Wright, and follows the pursuits of Olivia Moore (Rose McIver), a medical resident who is turned into a zombie while attending a boat party, leaving her with a craving for human brains. Her new nutritional requirement leads her to a job at a morgue, but this dietary preference also has its side effects; consuming a brain leaves her with random personality traits of the victim, and she also inherits the memories of the brain’s original owner, which manifest themselves in occasional visions.

Using this newfound ability, Liv helps solve murder cases by pretending to be a psychic and assisting detective Clive Babineaux (Malcolm Goodwin) catch murderers and unravel crimes. Her medical examiner boss, Dr. Ravi Chakrabarti (Rahul Kohli), serves as her confidant after finding out about her undead condition, which she has kept secret from all her loved ones, including her ex-fiancé Major Lilywhite (Robert Buckley) and best friend Peyton Charles (Aly Michalka). Meanwhile, fellow zombie Blaine DeBeers (David Anders) has found a way to use the zombie epidemic for his financial benefit, setting up a criminal empire that relies on hurting innocent people, and he, therefore, needs to be stopped.

Led by a snarky heroine and strictly aimed at The CW’s teen audience, iZombie plays out like a cross between Rob Thomas’ own Veronica Mars and the Fox drama Tru Calling (which starred Eliza Dushku as a medical student who works at a morgue and uses her power of reliving the previous day to prevent murders), with some casual cannibalism thrown into the mix. The leads – Malcolm Goodwin and Rahul Kohli in particular – are very well cast and successfully embody their characters.

Initially, the show’s zombie conceit comes off as just an elaborate excuse to make yet another procedural; the mystery of the week isn’t always as intriguing as one would hope and leaves you wanting them to explore the zombie experience more instead of using it as a plot device whenever convenient. The zombie plotline eventually does become more integral towards the end of the season as the various underlying subplots converge, but the time it takes for the show to get to that point leaves you feeling like the writers just didn’t have a solid story that would have made a strong, fast-paced season and had to come up with a lot of filler to make 13 episodes.

On the whole, iZombie is moderately entertaining albeit tiresomely corny. Its protagonist’s brain-munching proclivities may be atypical, but her personality doesn’t fall too far from Veronica Mars; nor does the show try to do much that hasn’t already been done before and seems all too familiar. And while the series does build an interesting universe, it doesn’t explore it to its full potential. Committing more enthusiastically to its zany premise from the start and going for a less meandering, more focused execution throughout the season could have made iZombie a lot more exciting. Still, if you fall in the show’s target demographic and aren’t too demanding, you are likely to enjoy Liv Moore’s adventures and be invested in her fate.

- By Sameen Amer 

Instep Today, The News - 29th June, 2015 *

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Pitch Perfect 2 - out of tune

movie review

Pitch Perfect 2

Starring: Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Hailee Steinfeld, Brittany Snow, Skylar Astin, Adam DeVine, Katey Sagal, Anna Camp, Alexis Knapp, Hana Mae Lee, John Michael Higgins, and Elizabeth Banks
Directed by: Elizabeth Banks

Three years after their first big screen outing, The Barden Bellas are back in musical comedy Pitch Perfect 2, a sequel which, like most follow-ups, isn’t as good as the original, but offers enough entertainment to please fans of the franchise.

After becoming the first all-female a cappella group to win a national competition, The Bellas are riding high on their success, but their journey hits a snag when Fat Amy’s (Rebel Wilson) wardrobe malfunction during a performance results in the group getting suspended from competing at the collegiate level. To get reinstated, the girls must win the a cappella world championship, a tournament in which no American team has ever been victorious.

Meanwhile, group leader Beca (Anna Kendrick) secretly starts a recording studio internship, Chloe (Brittany Snow) has trouble imagining her life without The Bellas after graduation, Amy is pursued by Bumper (Adam DeVine), and new student Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), whose mother Katherine (Katey Sagal) was once a Bella, joins the group.

Director Elizabeth Banks steps behind the camera and sticks to the template of the original to make a fun, pleasant sequel that is enjoyable but doesn’t try to be exceptional in any way. The film plays it safe by following its predecessor’s formula, and while its sarcastic and bawdy humour may not be up everyone’s alley, it is likely to connect with viewers who loved the first instalment.

But even with its style, tone, and target audience in mind, Pitch Perfect 2 suffers from a number of missteps. The story at its core isn’t very strong and the events just seem to have been strung together as an excuse to bring the girls back on the screen. Some of the song choices, Jessie J’s 'Flashlight' in particular, are bland. And Steinfeld lacks the charisma, at least in this instance, to carry her role and has been given a bigger part than her character deserves.

Overall, this sequel to 2012’s surprise hit Pitch Perfect may not be as charming, but it still manages to entertain. There are a host of cameos in the movie, most of which are quite amusing. And even though there is nothing particularly exceptional about the storyline or execution, fans of the series will still enjoy the chemistry between the cast, as well as their a cappella performances and zany antics.

Rating: 3 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune, 28th June, 2015 *

Friday, June 26, 2015

Faran Tahir’s big moment at the White House


The actor was among the prominent Muslim-Americans invited for the annual Iftar party, hosted by the U.S. President

Outside the White House
It’s hard not to be impressed by Faran Tahir, what with his successful acting career which has seen him rub shoulders with the Hollywood elite and appear in blockbusters like Iron Man (2008) and Star Trek (2009). But if carving a niche in Hollywood hasn’t been a significant enough feat, then here’s something that will convince you of his awesomeness: the Pakistani-American actor just dined at the White House at an event hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama, and we couldn’t be more jealous proud.

Faran says it was “an honour” to attend the White House iftar dinner that was held on the 22nd of June. The tradition of hosting a yearly party for prominent Muslim residents of the United States during Ramadan is attributed to former First Lady Hillary Clinton, who held the first such annual gathering in 1996. So how many guests was Faran a part of? “There were less than a hundred or so people at the event,” the thespian tells Instep. And did someone accompany him to the dinner? “I would have loved to take [my] family [with me] but the invitation was strictly for invitees. I knew people there though so that was nice. Congressman AndrĂ© Carson – one of the first Muslim members of the U.S. Congress – was at my table.”

At the White House with Razi Hashmi
“We were greeted by being shown copies of the Holy Quran that Thomas Jefferson kept at The White House – that was extremely memorable,” Faran recalls. “What struck me most about The White House itself was that every corner is filled with history,” he reflects. “Some of the major decisions that have impacted the world were made within those walls.” It’s these very decisions, however, that have also made the iftar party somewhat controversial, with detractors highlighting the negative impact of the U.S. foreign policies on Muslims, and urging invitees to boycott the event. Faran, though, thinks the only way forward is through engaging in dialogue. “If we want to resolve issues, we need to create dialogue whenever we can rather than stop conversations,” he points out.

President Obama speaking at the White House iftar

President Obama spoke about denouncing religious prejudice in his remarks during the evening. “The conversation and major theme was about how to focus on the giving, generous, and principled nature of Muslims and how to encourage a counter narrative to what the news focuses on at present when discussing Muslims,” says the actor. “It was heartening to see that the President shares this belief deeply. President Obama said that Americans stand united in rejecting the targeting of any religious or ethnic group. He also expressed that no matter what one’s faith is, we are all one family.” While Faran didn’t get much one-on-one time with the President, he did have a brief exchange with the POTUS about “work[ing] with a singular vision and break[ing] down negative stereotypes of Muslims”.

The White House iftar menu
As for the iftar meal itself, the dining experience was as impressive as one would expect. Faran very graciously agreed to be our impromptu food critic and told us how the menu fared. “The salad was good, but the lamb was out of the world! It had the right balance of spices and overall great flavour; I was very pleased by it. The flourless chocolate cake was also delicious and not too heavy.” And was the amusingly tautological “chai tea” twice as good as your regular tea? “I had coffee,” he replies. “I only trust tea in the hands of Pakistanis!”

So now that he is a successful Hollywood actor, has a lovely family – he is happily married and is the proud father of two kids – and has even dined at the White House, is there any item still left unchecked on his bucket list? “Flying to Mars and starting a colony – that is the item still left unchecked!” he jests. With his luck, we won’t be shocked if a script for a sci-fi adventure set on Mars lands on his desk very soon!

- By Sameen Amer 

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

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Food: A Love Story - the funny side of gastronomy

book review

Comedian Jim Gaffigan's book serves as an ode to all things edible

Book: Food: A Love Story
Author: Jim Gaffigan

No matter how much you wax poetic about its many joys and benefits, it is still virtually impossible to overstate the importance of food in our lives. Not only is food one of the basic necessities essential for human survival, ranking right up there with air and water (and books, of course) in the list of things our species simply cannot exist without, but it also provides us the chance to experience scrumptious flavours while exploring culinary delights that leave us euphoric and satiated (and riddled with guilt over the number of calories we have just consumed).

Yet few, if any, of us have spent as much time thinking about food as Jim Gaffigan has. Best known for making fun of Hot Pockets, a microwavable snack that he refers to as 'Pop-Tart filled with nasty meat', the comedian often riffs about food during his stand-up shows. The topic has given him a lot of material over the years, and has now inspired his latest tome, Food: A Love Story.

An 'in-depth, thoroughly uninformed look at everything from health food to things that people actually enjoy eating,' the book basically serves as the writer's ode to all things edible. Built around the premise that he is an 'out-of-shape Midwestern guy' who is 'a little fat', and is therefore, ipso facto, qualified to write a book about food, the tome takes the form of a collection of short essays. All the food related knowledge he has gained while travelling across America is distilled into this 340-page volume. The text finds him taking an amusing peek at the culinary world, and what he likes and dislikes about it. In the process, the author both skewers and embraces unhealthy eating, before sharing his philosophy that you should eat every meal like it is your last.

The comedian's passion for food takes centre stage as he looks at the geographical food tendencies, major food chains, and food trends across America. After performing in all 50 states while eating his way through pretty much every major city, the writer says he has started thinking of the geography of his country as it relates to food, creating the 'Jim Gaffigan American Food Map' which uses the regional preference for certain cuisines to identify different areas, such as Seabugland, Steakland, Mexican Foodland, Wineland, Coffeeland, and Food Anxietyland. Each of the major regions then gets its own chapter wherein he humorously dissects the food choices, habits, passions, varieties, and trends popular in that place. Everything from savoury dishes to desserts is examined, and major eateries are scrutinised.

Along the way, he also relays his memories, talks about his lovely children, shares photos of his family, and repeatedly reminds us how beautiful his wife is in case we have forgotten about it since he last mentioned it two sentences ago.

The focus is primarily on American gastronomy, and international food only gets a few short paragraphs, but most readers will still be familiar with many of the dishes and food chains discussed in the book. If you are very sensitive to the mention of certain types of meat, then you might want to give Food:A Love Story a pass. The steak-loving, fast food-obsessed writer's conviction that 'healthy' is synonymous with 'tastes horrible' will make vegetarians squirm and leave kale fans infuriated. Of course it goes without saying that this book isn't the best choice if you are on a diet; you'll find yourself craving junk food, and the number of pizzas you order while reading it will simply come down to a test of will.

For the most part, there isn't anything particularly unique about Gaffigan's observations. He is mainly just stating the obvious, albeit in a funny way. Yes, we all know that fast food is unhealthy, people generally don't like eating vegetables, and seafood basically comprises of 'creepycrawly giant insects on the bottom of the ocean', but the way he talks about these topics is still enjoyable. That said, it might be better to read Food: A Love Story in small doses instead of going through the whole volume in one sitting. After a while the humour starts to feel a bit predictable.

Also, throughout the book it is quite apparent that these chapters have been written by a stand-up comedian, and there is a very simple reason why it reads like a (very lengthy) stand-up routine: a lot of the material in the book actually comes from his shows and specials. If you have seen his performances, or even the clips from his shows on YouTube, in which he delivers these jokes almost verbatim,then you won't be as impressed with the recycled nature of this collection.

Still, Gaffigan's style is entertaining and amiable, and it is very obvious that food really is one of his favourite subjects. Readers who share his passion for food and are looking for a light, witty read will enjoy Food:A Love Story. The text offers plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, and will leave you amused (and craving a burger with some French fries).

- By Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 21st June, 2015 *

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Last of Our Kind - The Darkness casts a warm shadow

album review

Band: The Darkness
Album: Last of Our Kind

The Darkness have always been a band that people seem eager to write off, but anyone who fails to see the sense of fun behind their ridiculously over the top schtick is simply missing the point. With tongue firmly in cheek, the band has made a career out of simultaneously embracing and lampooning old school hard rock since first coming to the world’s attention over a decade ago for believing in a thing called love.

Their journey as a group, however, has been far from smooth. A slew of personal problems, health issues, and line-up changes culminated in the band taking a hiatus after making only two albums. The quartet eventually reformed, mounting a comeback with the release of their third record Hot Cakes in 2012, which may have received a tepid response but still proved that the band continues to be capable of crafting exuberant rock tunes. Now, with their fourth album, Last of Our Kind, The Darkness offer more soaring choruses and rip-roaring guitar solos, this time opting for a sound that seems slightly less glam, and more metal-inspired than their 2003 debut.

Produced by guitarist Dan Hawkins at his own studio, the set was recorded with drummer Emily Dolan Davies, who has since left the group and been replaced by Rufus Taylor (the son of drummer Roger Taylor, a befitting choice considering Queen’s influence on the band).

The album kicks off with the relentless ‘Barbarian’, a rager inspired by the legend of the Viking invasion of East Anglia, before yielding epic anthems like ‘Mighty Wings’ and ‘Roaring Waters’, and melodramatic ballads like ‘Wheels of the Machine’ and the album closer ‘Conquerors’ which features bassist Frankie Poullain on vocals. Also present are songs – like the hair metal tinged ‘Mudslide’ and the playful guitar pop of ‘Hammer and Tongs’ – that hark back to the band’s earlier work.

Retro influences are often on display on the ten tracks that appear on this set, which sometimes works to the album’s disadvantage. Last of Our Kind mostly sound like a ’70s and ’80s rock pastiche, and the rehash of rock past leaves the listener playing a game of “spot the influence” –Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Def Leppard, and Queen, to name just a few – as you listen to each track. And while the tunes are competently put together, you still need to give the disc a few spins to get a sense of each song, because there isn’t much that is instantly distinctive or memorable about many of these tracks.

On the whole, Last of Our Kind may not be as joyous or instantly catchy as Permission to Land (which remains the group’s most successful record to date) and it may not have the power to convert their detractors, but it still has enough energy and exciting riffs to please fans of The Darkness. Yes, the album isn’t exactly ground breaking, but then again, it isn’t meant to be. The band has toned done the campy vibe they initially went for without wandered too far from the sound they are known for, creating a record that is confident and enjoyable, albeit a tad too derivative for its own good.

- By Sameen Amer

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

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Magic Whip - Blur’s triumphant comeback

album review

Band: Blur
Album: The Magic Whip

At the height of their fame in the ‘90s, British band Blur commanded a place of prominence in the world of music, releasing a number of albums that met critical appreciation and landed atop the charts. By the turn of the century, however, a clash of egos and diverging artistic interests had fractured their union, ultimately resulting in the group parting ways with guitarist Graham Coxon and embarking on an extended hiatus. But even though they were not making music as a collective, the ensuing years did not signal a creative lull for each individual talent. Between their side projects, Coxon’s solo albums, and Damon Albarn’s output in all his incarnations (and Alex James’ cheesemaking, of course), the decade yielded a plethora of treasures from each of their respective camps.

The musicians eventually found their way back together in 2009, thereafter performing at a number of venues and festivals, and have now made their triumphant studio comeback with the new album The Magic Whip.

The group’s first record in over a decade, their first as a four-piece in 16 years, The Magic Whip was conceived in Hong Kong during an unexpected five day break because of a cancelled festival appearance in spring 2013, before being shelved for over a year till Coxon and producer Stephen Street started shaping the recordings into an album. Albarn then added the lyrics and vocals, and the disc was eventually finalized earlier this year. The result is a set of 12 contemplative tracks that sees the band create music that ranks amongst their finest to date.

Melancholy simmers beneath the surface as the group ponders alienation and loneliness, the mundanity of modern life, and the search for something better in these songs. The album opener ‘Lonesome Street’ gives a gentle nod to their Britpop past while proving that Blur has returned with a more mature sound; the chasm of the years is bridged effortlessly, and the execution never feels forced or strained. Unburdened by commercial considerations, the band also creates songs like ‘Thought I Was a Spaceman’ and ‘Pyongyang’, each nearly six minutes in length, which let the group infuse peculiar flavours into their music. The moody experimentation doesn’t mean there’s any shortage of elegant tunes on the set. ‘Ong Ong’ is charmingly melodic, and the band puts their Britpop sensibilities to perfect use in tracks like the bouncy ‘I Broadcast’, which is instantly catchy and delightfully reminiscent of their ‘90s output.

But even in its throwback moments, Blur’s eighth studio album firmly establishes that the group isn’t stuck in the past, content with reliving their glory days. While the band retains its essence, this isn’t just a static revisit to their heyday. There are surprises aplenty on offer here. The convergence of their musical identities and the merging of indie rock flourishes with electronic embellishments creates a sophisticated concoction that is intriguingly eccentric. Albarn’s vocals may be wearier now but there is no musical struggle or friction on display in this deceptively effortless set. A decade of their individual evolution has come together in the shape of The Magic Whip. This is a smart, exciting return and it has the potential to please Blur’s long-term fans as well as win over new ones.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 11th June, 2015 *