Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Transporter Refueled - a redundant reboot

movie review

Jason Statham’s loss means The Transporter Refueled is the worst of the series

The Transporter Refueled

Starring: Ed Skrein, Ray Stevenson, Loan Chabanol, Gabriella Wright, Tatjana Pajković, Wenxia Yu, Radivoje Bukvić, Lenn Kudrjawizki, Anatole Taubman, and Noémie Lenoir
Directed by: Camille Delamarre

Ed Skrein takes the driver’s seat in The Transporter Refueled, a reboot of the French franchise spearheaded by Luc Besson. But EuropaCorp’s decision to resurrect the mediocre series sans its star doesn’t really pay off, not just because Jason Statham is no longer behind the wheel, but because the project, on the whole, is even less entertaining and more ridiculous than its three predecessors were.

Directed by Camille Delamarre, the fourth Transporter film — potentially the first instalment in a planned trilogy — finds driver-for-hire Frank Martin (Skrein) recruited by vengeful prostitutes on a mission to destroy the gangster (Radivoje Bukvic) who victimised them. But after being tricked into serving as their getaway driver in a bank heist, he discovers that the women who have employed him are holding his father (Ray Stevenson) hostage as leverage; he must, therefore, acquiesce to their demands and assist them in accomplishing their mission.

Silliness abounds as the frantic action ensues, with car chases, shootouts, and hand-to-hand combat sequences cropping up every few minutes throughout the film. The result just feels hectic instead of exciting. Coherency has been chucked out the window, and the threadbare plot serves only to connect one action sequence to the next. No attempts are made to add depth to the proceedings, nor to define the main characters and give them any sort of personality, which is why there is no reason to be invested in anyone’s story or care about their fate.

Then again, this is the fourth film in the series, so by now you know not to expect any brains from the franchise. What you do expect is a certain amount of exciting, albeit brainless, fun, but that too is in scant supply here. Jason Statham’s absence doesn’t help; while he may not be a terrific actor, he does have this role down pat. Skrein isn’t appallingly unsuitable for the part, but ultimately doesn’t have the charisma to convincingly pull off all this ridiculousness with any kind of grit or nuance.

On the whole, The Transporter Refueled is an unnecessary, forgettable addition to a series that wasn’t very good to begin with. If you want any kind of plausibility or originality to go with your action, then this isn’t the movie for you. If you do, however, like generic, derivative action films and don’t mind ludicrous plot developments, cringe-worthy dialogue, and unconvincing characterisations, then there is a chance you might mildly enjoy this film; just go in with very, very low expectations and they will be met.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, Express Tribune - 27th September, 2015 *

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Funny Girl - the sitcom star

book review

Nick Hornby's latest novel falls short of the standard set by his popular works, About a Boy and High Fidelity

Book: Funny Girl
Author: Nick Hornby

The cover of his latest novel, Funny Girl, helpfully tells us that Nick Hornby is “the author of About a Boy”. The intent of this declaration, one would assume, is to remind us of the power of the writer’s magnum opus; its actual effect, however, is a bit more depressing — the inscription simply serves as a reminder that the author hasn’t written anything that even comes close to his most famous tome ever since. Sure his subsequent fiction has been pleasantly charming, but none of it has been able to match the memorability of his first two novels — High Fidelity and About a Boy. The aforementioned Funny Girl similarly adds to the list of Hornby’s amusing but ultimately inessential comedies.

The writer’s seventh novel shares both its title and era with the 1960s Barbra Streisand musical and film; its focus, however, is on a different medium of entertainment: British television.

The protagonist is Barbara Parker, a stunning 19-year-old aspiring actress who is coaxed by her Auntie Marie to enter the Miss Blackpool pageant. Despite not wanting to be a beauty queen, she ends up becoming one anyway as she wins the competition, but then promptly relinquishes the title to pursue her dream of becoming a comedienne instead. Inspired by Lucille Ball, she heads to London in the hopes of finding fame as a television actress, a goal she achieves (improbably) easily.

After fortuitously running into theatrical agent Brian Debenham who immediately offers to represent her, Barbara changes her name to Sophie Straw and starts looking for work as an actress. An audition for an episode of BBC’s Comedy Playhouse leaves the project’s team — writers Tony Holmes and Bill Gardiner, producer Dennis Maxwell-Bishop, and actor Clive Richardson — enamoured with her. The writers promptly discard their script and start working on a new one just for her with the hopes of transforming it into a series. This results in the development of the sitcom Barbara (and Jim), which is, of course, a big hit. Sophie thereby becomes an overnight success as she goes from being a complete unknown with no acting experience to the star of the “most popular comedy series in Britain”.

Funny Girl chronicles the entire seasonal run of Barbara (and Jim), using the events and developments surrounding the show as a chance to capture a snapshot of ’60s pop culture while exploring subjects like fame, politics, sexuality, love, fulfilment, and the merits of light entertainment. Hornby’s wry wit continues to be his strength. His breezy prose and amusing dialogues make the novel an enjoyable read (while reminding you that the author has clearly been busy working on screenplays of late).

What makes Funny Girl significantly less engaging than Hornby’s previous efforts, however, is the book’s protagonist. The story revolves around Sophie even though she is the least compelling individual in it. It seems like the writer is smitten with his own character and keeps telling us how wonderful she is without giving us any evidence of her talent, wit, or charm. We never get a sense that she actually cares about making people laugh (or cares about people at all for that matter). Her arc is simultaneously stereotypical and unconvincing. There isn’t enough struggle or conflict in her story, which makes it hard to empathise with or relate to her. The other, more fascinating characters that appear in the book — like the writers Tony and Bill, for instance — could have been more interesting in the central role; delving into their tales could have potentially led to a more original plot that would have made the novel more insightful and rewarding.

Its setting, too, could have been explored with more depth. Hornby doesn’t take full advantage of the era he sets the story in. As he looks at the changing landscape of Britain with a young generation breaking away from restrictions and powering societal change, the writer introduces several weighty topics but then merely skims their surface and moves on without a satisfying look at their intricacies.

On the whole, even though Hornby’s style remains enjoyable, Funny Girl doesn’t rank among his best novels. The book offers an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the makings of a ’60s Britcom, but its execution is too safe and predictable. Its storyline isn’t very strong, and focusing it on a conventional character robs it of the potential quirks and originality that could have made it more memorable. Neither the book nor its protagonist is as funny as the title suggests. Still, the novel is sweet and pleasant, and if you are looking for a light, easy read, then Funny Girl will fit the bill.

- Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 20th September, 2015 *

Friday, September 18, 2015

Stay Clean


Cristina von Sperling Afridi tells Us about her new anti-drug foundation

It’s a serious health issue that can have harmful consequences and even claim the lives of those it ensnares. Yet drug abuse isn’t a topic that is widely addressed in our society. Now, inspired by a personal tragedy, Cristina von Sperling Afridi has started the Karim Khan Afridi Welfare Foundation, a non-profit organisation that aims to raise awareness about drug abuse and hopefully curb its prevalence amongst the youth of Pakistan. In an interview with Us, the founder of the foundation talks about what led to the creation of the organization and what she hopes to achieve with this initiative:

Us: Please tell us a bit about your background and life before you came to Pakistan.
Cristina von Sperling Afridi: I was born in Brazil into a German family who had settled in Brazil for the past four generations. I studied art in Italy and then moved back to Brazil. I worked in Brazil in various capacities, from marketing director to interior designer to entrepreneurship.

Us: What brought you to Pakistan? And how has your life changed since then?
Cristina: I met Tariq Afridi in Brazil. He was the Pakistani ambassador there. He played polo and I enjoyed horse show jumping. I suppose our love for horses brought us together. We got married. After Brazil, we were posted to Jordan, Portugal, and Libya. Then we came to Pakistan.

Us: Could you please tell us about the tragedy that led to the creation of the Karim Khan Afridi Welfare Foundation (KKAWF)?
Cristina: My son, who was 19, passed away, most probably due to drugs as he was a healthy boy. He went out with friends one night. We never expected that he would not return to us. He had just finished his A Levels and had many dre
ams. I was told to hide the truth regarding what may have caused his death - drugs. I was not going to do that. Hiding such things is the main reason why drug abuse has spread so rampantly in Pakistan. I could either sit and sulk about the tragedy that I was faced with or do something to eradicate this menace that is consuming our youth. I decided the latter and established the Karim Khan Afridi Welfare Foundation.

Us: We’d love to know more about your son, Karim Khan Afridi. What was he like?
Cristina: He was a popular young teenager. He enjoyed sports and was passionate about his roots. You could say he was a proud Pathan. He had the traits of a leader and was, at the same time, kind. People loved being around him.

Us: What do you aim to achieve with KKAWF?
Cristina: A difference. To improve the existing situation. To make both the youth and their parents aware of this menace. To educate them on the negative impact that this will have on their lives and to engage through the four pillars of the organization, which are: drug awareness, sports, the environment, and developing civic sense. Our aim would be to develop the personalities and lives of the youth to such an extent that they have no place for drugs.

Us: What are some of the initiatives that you have planned for the foundation so far?
Cristina: The first project, which is in process at the moment, is the production of a play on drug abuse that will be staged in all major cities of Pakistan. In addition, it will be filmed and shown to both public and private schools. Both English and Urdu versions of the play will be available for distribution. The first performance of this play was staged in Islamabad on September 1 at Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA). Through interaction with students attending the play we will appoint some students as ambassadors of the foundation working in their respective schools.
Simultaneously, we will be commencing our sports campaign. We hope to partner with the relevant ministries to make sports facilities available for schools and to engage the students in healthy interschool competitions.
In addition, KKAWF is planning on developing a wing named MAD, which stands for Mothers Against Drugs. MAD will consist of volunteers who will spread the drug awareness campaigns in their respective localities.

Us: The play about the destructive nature of drug use, the foundation’s first project, is titled 19: A Shattered Dream. Is it based on your personal experience? What can you tell us about the play?
Cristina: One of the forms of pure expression is the theatre. I had met Mushfiq Murshed and he wrote a play for this cause. This play reflects my own story; however, the writer has been given the liberty to build fictitious scenes in order to get the message across in the most powerful way. Dr. Farooq Beg and Huma Beg of Serendip joined this project as directors and producers. We feel that the desired impact will be made with our target audience which is the youngsters of Pakistan and their parents.

Us: A number of prominent political figures were present at the official launch ceremony of KKAWF. Is the foundation associated with a political party? If not, then how will you ensure that the foundation remains politically neutral?
Cristina: The foundation and its cause are apolitical. There is no political affiliation. If we were to affiliate with any political party it would jeopardize the cause, as its motivating factor is keeping the youth of the entire nation drug free, and a political agenda will only damage and restrict the foundation’s objectives.

Us: The focus of the foundation seems to be on educational ventures aimed to increase awareness and prevent drug abuse and addiction. Will the organization also offer practical help for rehabilitating those who are already abusing drugs?
Cristina: Our main focus is drug awareness. However, the organization has links with psychiatrists, psychologists, and rehab centres, and any individual identified with drug issues will be referred to them. The foundation’s core goal is to reverse this trend of drug abuse in schools by engaging the youth in multiple activities that will develop them into confident and useful members of society.

Us: Any message for the readers of Us and the youth of Pakistan?
Cristina: Stay clean.

-  By Sameen Amer

Us Magazine, The News - 17th September, 2015 *

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Lila and Eve - from victim to vigilante

movie review

A revenge thriller fails its all-star leads with an implausible plot

Lila & Eve

Starring: Viola Davis, Jennifer Lopez, Shea Whigham, Julius Tennon, Lisa Maffia, Chris Chalk, Andre Royo, Yolonda Ross
Directed by: Charles Stone III
Tagline: Torn by loss, bound for revenge.

A grief-stricken mother sets out to take revenge for the murder of her son in Lila & Eve, a vigilante drama that may be ridiculously implausible but still offers a few poignant moments thanks to a solid performance by its lead actress, Viola Davis.

After her son Stephon (Aml Ameen) is gunned down in a drive-by shooting, his only fault just being at the wrong place at the wrong time, Lila (Davis) joins a support group for mothers who have lost a child. There, she meets fellow grieving mother Eve (Jennifer Lopez), who reluctantly agrees to become Lila’s sponsor. Frustrated by the inability of the police to find the culprit, Lila is urged by Eve to take matters into her own hands.

“The grief of your loss can be so debilitating that it can cloud your judgment,” the leader of the support group says at one point, and this sentiment forms the basis of the film’s premise. With Eve hovering at her shoulder like a proverbial bad angel, Lila sets out to find the people responsible for Stephon’s murder and brings them to justice. But as the revenge plot unfolds, the movie becomes increasingly preposterous. A twist towards the end is so heavily foreshadowed in the second half of the film that it doesn’t comes as a surprise, nor does it makes the developments seem any less ludicrous.

The movie revolves around some interesting and difficult topics but doesn’t handle them with the grace they deserve. The vigilante idea at its core is overly familiar, and many elements therein feel clichéd; its moral complexity largely goes unexplored, and the proceedings often end up feeling awkward and uncomfortable.
The film’s saving grace is the terrific Davis, who adds much needed nuance to her character and predicament. The actress is fiercely committed to the role, which is why the grief Lila feels is palpable. Lopez also gives a fairly decent performance and supports Davis competently as they Thelma and Louise their way through the film.

On the whole, Lila & Eve is a predictable drama that isn’t nearly as refined as one would hope. Even an impressive performance by its leading lady can’t hide the many flaws that the movie falls victim to. The storyline and how the events unfold are far from realistic. The film doesn’t instil its revenge theme with enough depth and weight, and ultimately opts for a conclusion that is pandering, nonsensical, and far from satisfying.

Rating: 2 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 13th September, 2015 *

Friday, September 11, 2015

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? - succinct, but disappointingly slim

book review

Book: If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice for the Young
Author: Kurt Vonnegut

After the massive success of his best-selling novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), American satirist Kurt Vonnegut was frequently invited to give speeches, lectures, and addresses around his country. The writer became one of the most popular graduation speakers of his time, and If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice for the Young illustrates just why he was such a sought after speaker. This posthumous compilation of some of his commencement speeches offers unique advice to graduating students from the author whose stories have been taught in high school classes and have won him recognition all over the world.

Nine of his speeches appear in this 2013 compilation that puts together the writer’s candid messages to graduates which are often laced with wry humour and always leave readers with much to think about.

The humourist, who was known for his morbidly comical social commentary, makes several astute observations about the human condition as he shares his thoughts and ideas with students. He emphasizes the importance of kindness, urges youngsters to embrace forgiveness instead of seeking revenge, sheds light on dealing with loneliness and boredom, highlights the need of serving one’s community, and advises his audience to get more people in their lives and create extended families instead of opting for a small, “terribly vulnerable survival unit”.

Vonnegut also blends historical references into his talks, referencing things as varied as the Code of Hammurabi and the Sermon on the Mount (for which he shows great admiration). The writer - who dropped out of university, enlisted in the army, was deployed in World War II, captured by Germans and taken a prisoner of war, then returned home to marry his high school sweetheart, had three children with her, and adopted his sister’s three sons upon her death from cancer two days after her husband’s death in a train accident - clearly lived a remarkable, eventful life, and his personal experiences as well as reminiscences from his past often come up in these speeches. If you aren’t familiar with his background, then you might benefit from reading about Vonnegut before you delve into this book so that you can fully appreciate his viewpoints by understanding where the author is coming from.

Many of his observations are straightforward. Some might even seem blunt. The book certainly isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and you might not agree with everything the writer says, but his words will definitely give you something to mull over.

The book, however, is almost disappointingly slim and it’s such a quick read that it leaves you wishing it had been longer. Plus, while all the speeches are different, there is some repetition in their content. Among the subjects he revisits multiple times are the importance of marking the passage from childhood to becoming “officially full-grown” adults, and, what appears to be his favourite topic: acknowledging happiness. He recounts how his uncle, Alex Vonnegut, taught him what a waste it is to be happy and not notice it, and that it is important to acknowledge simple moments of happiness by saying out loud, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

It is highly unlikely that the commencement speech at your graduation will be anything like Vonnegut’s addresses, and if you think you could benefit from some engaging, frank, memorable advice from one of the most celebrated authors of recent times, then you might want to give this book a read.

- S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 11th September, 2015 *

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Hot Pursuit - a hot mess

movie review

Hot Pursuit

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Sofía Vergara
Director: Anne Fletcher
Tagline: Armed and sort of dangerous.

Some bad movies leave you with the sense that the project went awry despite the seemingly good intentions of its film-makers. Others leave you wondering whether any effort was expended at all during any stage of the making of the film, and how numerous people associated with it thought it would be a good idea to insult the audience by subjecting them to something this shoddy, lazy, and dim-witted. Hot Pursuit very vehemently falls in the latter category.

The stale buddy comedy shamelessly employs the various clichés of the genre without bothering to come up with anything vaguely original or even mildly amusing.

The story revolves around Rose Cooper (Reese Witherspoon), an uptight, by-the-books police officer who has been relegated to the evidence room after an embarrassing incident that has left her name synonymous with screwing up. Her chance to return to the field presents itself when she is tasked with the responsibility of helping escort a drug cartel informant’s wife, Daniella Riva (Sofía Vergara), to Dallas so that she can testify against the cartel’s notorious leader (Joaquín Cosio).

But things, predictably, go wrong. The incompetent cop and the flighty witness — who are unsurprisingly polar opposites of each other — find themselves on the run, chased by crooked cops and hitmen. Hilarity, unfortunately, does not ensue. The hackneyed humour simply doesn’t work.

Borrowed banalities and recycled plot points await the audience at every turn of the film. The brunt of the blame falls on David Feeney and John Quaintance’s script, although why someone decided to green light this project after (presumably) reading the script remains a mystery. Director Anne Fletcher fails to bring any kind of personality or depth to the movie. The lead actresses have some chemistry, but the acting remains mediocre, with Witherspoon playing up her Southern accent and Vergara sticking to her over-the-top Latina shtick.

The outtakes and bloopers suggest that the actresses enjoyed themselves while shooting the film, but even though it may have been fun to make, it certainly isn’t fun to watch. All Hot Pursuit does is make you wish the talent associated with it had opted to actually put in some effort and work on a fresh, intelligent female-led comedy instead. Its bland story, lame attempts at humour, dire gags, grating characters, and sloppy executions aren’t likely to impress any viewers and ultimately amount to nothing but 87 minutes of wasted time.

Rating: 1 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 6th September, 2015 *