Sunday, December 27, 2015

Rerun: The Year 2015 in Television

year in review

- The continued existence of Game of Thrones ensured that people could keep telling us over and over (and over) again that they have read the books, and effectively made it easy to identify people we don’t want to be friends with.

- Better Call Saul was a delightful masterclass in prequel-making.

- Broadchurch spotted a shark off the Jurassic Coast, then promptly jumped it.

- The Doctor said goodbye to yet another companion. Based on the fate of everyone he travels with and eventually tragically loses, if you ever run into the Time Lord and he asks you to join him, just smile politely and back away slowly.

- We suffered from a severe lack of Sherlock in our lives.

- The Big Bang Theory continued its descent into rom-com drabness.

- Marvel impressed with its new offerings: the brilliant Daredevil, the classy Agent Carter, and the fierce Jessica Jones.

- Supergirl joined Arrow and The Flash in DC’s small screen world of melodramatic mediocrity.

- iZombie was like a cross between Veronica Mars and Tru Calling with added cannibalism.

- Desperate to be provocative, American Horror Story: Hotel recruited Lady Gaga and tried to gather attention by featuring sleazy encounters. Viewers shrugged and moved on.

- The massive success of The Walking Dead led to a companion spinoff series that was very creatively titled Fear the Walking Dead. Shockingly, the title wasn’t the worst thing about it.

- The Mindy Project was cancelled by Fox, then picked up by Hulu, so that instead of not-watching it on Fox, we can now not-watch it on Hulu instead.

- Backstrom was created to find out what would have happened if House had been a police procedural instead of a medical drama and had been written by significantly worse writers. The answer was a swift cancellation.

- With her movie career going nowhere fast, Katherine Heigl somehow found her way back to television in the implausible State of Affairs, which brought with it a big mystery: who thought this series was a good idea and how did it manage to get picked up by a major network? Thankfully it didn’t last long.

- The leads of Stalker, Dylan McDermott and Maggie Q, got engaged, so at least the project wasn’t a complete waste of their time, just ours.

- Unlike its protagonist, Forever didn’t have a very long life.

- Jon Stewart made the world a sadder place by leaving The Daily Show which decided to continue with new host Trevor Noah just so it could be a constant reminder of how much we miss Jon Stewart.img1

- The Nightly Show was unwatchably dire, yet inexplicably remained on air.

- Stephen Colbert took over The Late Show and turned it into a watered-down version of The Colbert Report.

- The Simpsons remained in our lives like old, faithful friends.

- South Park helped us cope with a world gone politically correct.

- Barack Obama went on a wilderness walk with Bear Grylls, ate leftover salmon that had been nibbled on and then discarded by a bear, drank catkins tea, and then struggled with taking a selfie because the most powerful man in the world doesn’t know how to use a smartphone. We are not making this up.

- Fargo returned for a second outing, dispensing crime and violence from the 1970s for viewers who are tired of crime and violence from the 2010s.

- Everyone was frustrated that we couldn’t figure out if Orange is the New Black is a comedy or a drama, because everything must be neatly classified into categories to maintain order in the world.

- House of Cards gave us major trust issues.

- The terrific Mr. Robot was so awesomely confusing that it left us a little woozy.

- Viewers remained riveted to Scandal.

- How to Get Away with Murder remained true to its title.

- Empire turned into a game of “spot the random, unnecessary, pointless celebrity cameo”.

- Quantico showed us that you can make a semi-successful series by putting together an intriguing premise, terrible writing, and atrocious acting.

- It was decreed by law that Amy Schumer must appear on every talk show in the known universe.

- Kimmy Schmidt’s unbreakableness was charming.

- Scream Queens was a sporadically entertaining mess.

- Bruce Jenner transitioned into Caitlyn and starred in the reality show documentary series I Am Cait because the Jenner-Kardashian family isn’t ubiquitous enough already and should totally be in even more television shows.

- Finally noticing its ever-increasing irrelevance, someone pulled the plug on American Idol, but decided that we deserve to suffer through one more season, obviously as some sort of penance for our sins.

- Jeremy Clarkson’s foot-in-mouth disease finally led to his sacking from Top Gear.

- The Muppets made a somewhat triumphant return to television.

- International treasure Stephen Fry decided to say goodbye to QI after 13 years.

- Mad Men and Downton Abbey joined the "gone but not forgotten" club.

- The Grinder surprised us by being thoroughly amusing.

- The Odd Couple left us concerned about the fact that someone has clearly stolen Matthew Perry’s acting ability.

- The Comedians forgot to be funny. Viewers forgot to watch it.

- The delightful Rachel Bloom wowed in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which was so much “gooder” than we expected. #HumbleAndBlessed

- Steve Harvey accidentally (on purpose?) announced the wrong Miss Universe, creating a controversy that reminded us the pageant still exists.

- After having a long, successful run and spawning a number of entertaining spinoffs, CSI, formerly the most popular dramatic series on television, bid us farewell.

- Mythbusters decided to end, leaving us in a sad world where all myths henceforth will forever remain unbusted.

- Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 27th December, 2015 *

Supergirl - to the moon and back

television series review

The spectre of the Man of Steel looms large over the series, and the inability to actually show Superman (so far) is instantly frustrating 


Starring: Melissa Benoist, Chyler Leigh, Mehcad Brooks, Jeremy Jordan, David Harewood, and Calista Flockhart
Tagline: A new hero will rise.

Between their many cinematic and televisual offerings, Marvel and DC Comics have collectively saturated both the big and small screens with their superhero sagas. Their ever-expanding franchises have taken over the blockbuster and broadcast realms, and given us some of the most entertaining viewing experiences of recent years. From The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and The Avengers films to the Daredevil, Agent Carter, and Jessica Jones television series, the standout superhero offerings have not only generated massive global interest but have also received critical acclaim. The bar has been set high for any project that follows these notable adventures, which might be why the new television series Supergirl seems so disappointingly unimaginative.

The CBS action drama tells the story of DC Comics character Kara Zor-El (Melissa Benoist), one of the last surviving Kryptonians, who was sent to Earth by her parents, just before Krypton was destroyed, to protect her then-infant cousin Kal-El. But her spacecraft got knocked off course, ending up in the Phantom Zone where time stood still. When she finally got to Earth 24 years later, Kal-El had already grown up to become Superman.

Hoping that she would have a safe childhood, her famous cousin placed her with an adoptive family – father Jeremiah Danvers (Dean Cain), mother Eliza (Helen Slater), and their daughter Alex (Chyler Leigh). For a while she hid her powers from the world, taking a job as an assistant to Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), the founder of CatCo Worldwide Media, in the hopes of fitting in and leading a normal life. But then an accident forces her to use her super abilities, making her realize that she didn’t travel 2000 light years just to be an assistant. As she embraces her powers, Kara discovers that Alex works for the Department of Extra-normal Operations (DEO), a secret government agency that monitors alien activity on Earth. While trying to master her abilities, she starts helping the DEO protect National City from alien beings and anyone else who poses a threat.

Simultaneously charming and cheesy, Supergirl might have been impressive had it been made a couple of decades ago. In the current environment, the show simply doesn’t have enough creative elements to stand out, and seems to target a younger, less discerning audience. While it is exciting to have another female-led series, Supergirl’s in-your-face female empowerment agenda feels patronizing as it unwisely relies on (constantly, repeatedly, boringly) telling us the things that the series should instead be showing us.

Its cliché-ridden storyline and script as well as a near-complete lack of dramatic tension also don’t help. Instead of being inventive, the writers leave us feeling like we’re watching the same formulaic twaddle over and over again, week after week. Add to that a cringe-worthy love triangle – between Kara, her tech expert friend Winn (Jeremy Jordan) who has a crush on her, and former Daily Planet photographer James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) whom she fancies – and things start to feel forced and sophomoric.

The cast, like the show, is charming but unexceptional. Beautiful but bland, Melissa Benoist makes an affable Supergirl, but while she looks the part and seems personable, she doesn’t have an imposing screen presence, especially in the action sequences which don’t always pack the required punch. The writing too lets her down, as the character of a privileged super-being, who is pretty much a demigod on Earth, gets bogged down by constant teenager-like angst delivered through tedious dialogues.

The spectre of the Man of Steel looms large over the series, and their inability to actually show Superman (so far) is instantly frustrating. Supergirl isn’t for people who enjoy the grittier take on the comic book hero genre, but is more geared towards younger viewers who prefer something lighter, and fans of The Flash and iZombie might enjoy this lively caper. The series can still appeal to a wider audience if it ups the ante in the coming episodes by making its scripts sharper, its gender commentary smarter and subtler, its action sequences more exciting, and its storyline less predictable and more gripping.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 27th December, 2015 *

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Intern - charming but dull

movie review

The film is a light comedy that touches on women’s rights and seniors at the workplace

The Intern

Starring: Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, Rene Russo, Anders Holm, and Andrew Rannells
Directed by: Nancy Meyers
Tagline: Experience never gets old.

The more recent arc of Robert De Niro’s acting career has followed a trajectory that generally hasn’t been a big success with both critics and fans of his earlier work. Viewers who are hoping for the actor’s return to more intense terrain won’t be pleased with The Intern, a comedy drama that somehow ends up being both charming and dull.

In the hopes of filling the hole in his life left by retirement and his wife’s death, Ben (Robert De Niro), a 70-year-old former executive at a telephone directory company, joins a senior citizen internship programme at an up-and-coming e-commerce fashion firm. Ben’s old-school charm instantly wins over the young workers at the office, but the company’s founder and CEO Jules (Anne Hathaway) is initially unreceptive to the elderly newcomer. As she tries to juggle the rapidly-growing start-up and her increasingly strained family life, she eventually begins to see Ben’s value, and learns to benefit from his advice and gentle wisdom.

The privileged individuals in The Intern are so unrealistically nice and everything is so cordially resolved that there is no real tension in the proceedings. Even when its characters are put in a potentially tough situation, the stakes are never quite palpable. As a result, the movie’s dealing of its weighty subject matter seems shallow, over-simplistic and lacks edge.

Instead of creating interesting characters, writer and director Nancy Meyer seems content with employing caricatures and spends two long hours enamoured with her own one-dimensional creations. The film mostly relies on the talent of its lead actors to add life to Meyers’ self-satisfied script, and to their credit, both De Niro and Hathaway are amiable in their roles, although there is nothing in the project that would actually challenge the actors or bring out something remarkable or memorable in their performances.

Not particularly smart or amusing, The Intern spends most of its time just being pleasant. While it does succeed in exuding warmth, its lack of tension makes it bland. As long as you don’t expect anything profound from it, you might still enjoy the movie primarily due to De Niro’s easygoing charm and Hathaway’s genial presence.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Sunday Magazine, The Express Tribune - 20th December, 2015 *

Friday, December 18, 2015

My Teen Years: Abbas Hasan

Abbas Hasan

Date of birth and star
November 12, Scorpio.

The best thing about being a teenager was
Growing up in the Paris arts scene.

The worst thing about being a teenager was
Saying bye to all my friends when I moved countries.

I was always listening to
Everything from pop to rock; from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Junoon.

I was glued to the television for
I didn’t have time for TV!

My favourite movie was
I was a bit of a film buff and liked to appreciate cinema from all over the world. I thought I was too “cool” to have a favourite!

My favourite actor was
It was a tie between Al Pacino and Muhammad Ali.

My favourite book was
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Reading this book had a profound effect on my life.

My room was full of
Music. I had CDs everywhere.

My room walls carried the posters of
The various places where I had lived.

My closet was full of
Clothes and specifically a lot of leather jackets

My friends were
Crazy, hilarious, creative, and intelligent.

My first crush/date was
A girl that I studied with.

What hurt me the most was
Waking up early.

My dream was to become
An artist.

I wish I had known then
The difference between good friends and people who will let you down.

Relations with siblings were
Always a lot of fun. My sister is like a really good friend who shares my strange sense of humour.

Relations with parents wereVery special. Like all parents, mine want what’s best for me, but they have also always been my friends.

My school was
More like my “schools” were — I studied across different parts of the world, but they were definitely great places to grow up and become who I am today.

Ragging at college/university
I never really experienced ragging, but high school and university were definitely among the best times of my life growing up.

My favourite subject was
Society, Challenge, and Change. I know, sounds very dramatic.

My least favourite subject was

I couldn’t stand
Phoney people.

My favourite hangout was
A coffee shop near my school.

My favourite food/dish was
It’s a tie between a really good biryani and perfectly cooked, al dente pasta with a really good sauce.

My favourite superhero was

My favourite sport was
Bodybuilding and physical conditioning.

My favourite pastime was
Making music.

I learned that
Good friendships last forever.

- S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 18th December, 2015 *

Sunday, December 13, 2015

No Escape - shot down

movie review

No Escape tackles Third World chaos from a First World perspective

No Escape

Starring: Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Sterling Jerins, Claire Geare, and Pierce Brosnan
Directed by: John Erick Dowdle
Tagline: Survive together or die together.

An American family finds itself being chased by a murderous mob in the midst of a foreign coup in John Erick Dowdle’s action thriller No Escape.

After getting a new job with an American engineering firm abroad, Jack (Owen Wilson) and his family — wife Annie (Lake Bell) and their two daughters Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and Beeze (Claire Geare) — relocate to an unspecified Southeast Asian country. Upset about the upheaval but hoping to forge a better future for themselves, they make their way overseas, but soon realise they have landed in the middle of a violent revolution.

Armed rebels descend like a tsunami of death and destruction, pulverising everything and everyone in their path. The onslaught is relentless and the tension never lets up. The result is both thrilling and exhausting. Jack and his family are put through all kinds of harrowing ordeals. Even though the story at its core isn’t very inventive, the fast-paced, gripping action makes the movie an intense watch. Solid performances delivered by Wilson and Bell also help make the narrative more effective. Pierce Brosnan — appearing in the role of an English expat who befriends the protagonists — is stuck portraying a character whose arc is quite predictable, but still plays the part with zeal nonetheless.

Even with a suspenseful setup and good acting, No Escape doesn’t come together quite like it should have. The movie falters in its half-hearted attempt at humanising the locals. Viewers are asked to invest in the fate of one Western family, while the situation of the natives is given only a cursory explanation. Their predicament and revolt against unchecked foreign business interests is never fully fleshed out, nor are they given a chance to appear as anything but sadistic murderers hell-bent on killing all seemingly-innocent people they come across.

Overall, No Escape’s promising premise is marred by an uneven execution and a seemingly prejudiced worldview. Still, if you can look past its unconvincing political commentary, you have to admit that the movie is undeniably thrilling. Had this intensity been wrapped in a better story and delivered through stronger characters, the film could have been a lot more interesting and entertaining.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

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

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend - delightfully quirky

tv series review

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a fun watch for those who can embrace both its darkness and mirth

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend 

Starring: Rachel Bloom, Vincent Rodriguez III, Santino Fontana, Donna Lynne Champlin, Pete Gardner, Vella Lovell
Created by: Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna
Tagline: Never. Let. Go.

Don’t judge a television show by its title – that’s a lesson networks have taught us time and again. A number of promising series have suffered as they failed to attract viewers atleast partly because someone thought it would be a good idea to give them a title that was either lazy (Complications, Better Off Ted), bland (Go On, The Neighbors), confusingly irrelevant (Terriers, Cougar Town), or just plain bad (Don’t Trust the B In Apartment 23, Selfie, Trophy Wife, and many, many others).

Likewise, the name of CW’s latest comedy drama, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, seems to have been picked by someone who appears to be under the impression that titles should actively serve as audience repellents. Without any context, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is more than likely to turn people off, and the series itself seems to be aware of that. “That’s a sexist term,” the protagonist interrupts the “she’s the crazy ex-girlfriend” chorus in the show’s theme song. “The situation’s a lot more nuanced than that!”

And it is. Because once you move past the cringe-worthy title, you encounter a delightfully compelling, charmingly zany musical comedy with a lot of potential. The series follows the story of Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), a single woman who is smart, strong, and successful. Also profoundly disturbed, and quite possibly in the middle of having a nervous breakdown.

A chance encounter with her former boyfriend Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) – a guy she dated at a summer camp a decade ago when they were teenagers – makes Rebecca realize that she isn’t happy with her life and needs a change. In an attempt to seek happiness, she turns down a huge promotion, leaving her job at a law firm in Manhattan to move to West Covina, California, the “pride of the Inland Empire”, only two hours from the beach! Oh and it just happens to be where Josh lives.

As she tries to get closer to Josh, she befriends his buddy, bartender Greg (Santino Fontana), only to discover that Josh is actually dating a stunning woman, Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz). Rebecca’s new co-worker Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin) soon finds out about her obsession with Josh, and starts attempting to help her win back her lost love.

Proceedings generally take the most ridiculous route possible. The show presents an interesting character study, offsetting the underlying darkness of its premise with often-sarcastic humour while having a lot of jaunty fun in the process. The cast periodically breaks into exuberant Broadway-style musical numbers that are amusingly absurd and often annoyingly catchy. The show is consistently self-aware and mostly finds the right balance between embracing and lampooning its tropes and stereotypes. Every role is well cast, and the series is a perfect showcase for the very talented Rachel Bloom who is terrific in the lead role.

But as with most projects, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend definitely isn’t for everyone. Certain viewers won’t enjoy both its darkness and mirth. It is risky to make the protagonist so quirky, and Bloom is so good at portraying the unhinged Rebecca that the result is almost disconcerting. It’s amply clear that Rebecca has serious issues and is chasing a fantasy in an effort to recapture a moment of happiness from her past in the midst of a crushing depression. Also, at times some of the show’s less engaging arcs are given more focus than they deserve, and you are left to feel that the series might have been better off as a half-hour comedy (which it was originally intended to be when it was developed for Showtime) instead of going for a longer, one-hour format.

Ultimately, not all viewers will enjoy Bloom’s quirky brand of humour, and if the idea of an offbeat, campy, over-the-top musical comedy doesn’t appeal to you, then Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is not for you. But those who fancy a fresh, fun escapade that is sharp and has a lot of musical fun along the way will be pleasantly surprised by this new, often bizarre comedy.

- Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 13th December, 2015 *

The Forgers - ominous signs

book review

The Forgers takes readers into the world of rare books through a murder-mystery plot

Book: The Forgers
Author: Bradford Morrow

“They never found his hands.” Thus begins Bradford Morrow’s crime thriller, The Forgers, grabbing the reader’s attention with its intriguingly disturbing first sentence while setting a fascinating scene around which the narrative unfolds. The former possessor of said hands is Adam Diehl, a reclusive book collector, who succumbs to his injuries 10 days after he is attacked. A murder investigation ensues. The press is drawn to the story, with one tabloid dubbing the slaying “The Manuscript Murder”. But with few further developments in the case, the media soon begins to lose interest.

The narrator, however, does not. He is the boyfriend of the victim’s sister, Meghan, and doesn’t like being referred to by his name, which is only mentioned once in the book: “shadow men never like being called by name,” he tells us. His past is evidently chequered. He is a former forger who specialised in mimicking Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s inscriptions, but was exposed as a fraud and shunned by many in the rare books community after receiving a series of menacing letters in Henry James’s handwriting. Now, as he tries to rebuild his life and forge a better future with Meghan, a spectre from his past returns. Threatening letters penned in the handwriting of long-dead authors once again start showing up after Adam’s death. The anonymous correspondent claims to have disturbing information about the murder, and threatens dire consequences if his demands aren’t met. As the web of extortion is spun, it soon becomes abundantly clear that his nemesis will stop at nothing to get what he wants.

The protagonist’s shifty character is intriguing (albeit not particularly likable), despite the fact that from the very get-go, it is fairly obvious that his account isn’t necessarily reliable. But shady and strangely elusive as he may be, he is our only source of information. We have nothing to go by but his words, and we spend much of the book wondering how accurate his telling of the tale is. Is someone who describes history as “subjective”, “alterable”, and “little more than modelling clay in a very warm room” worthy of our trust?

His flawed personality does, however, help create a captivating setup. His past proclivities and his association with the literary sphere give us a chance to discover the oddly fascinating world of forgery, which serves as a terrific setting for a literary mystery. The thoughts of an unrepentant forger, who sees his work as art, offer a unique peek at the complex world of rare books and manuscripts as well as the sinister underworld of forgery, a universe most of us have probably never thought of or know much about.

But even though the narrator and his world are interesting, the mystery he’s trying to spin, sadly, isn’t. After a promising start, the tale slows down and the action stalls. Character development continues without much plot development, and the novel turns into a detailed character portrait instead of a riveting, eventful murder mystery. The proceedings end up focusing on the clash between “two forgers interested in the same authors, furtively competing in the same small market, and forced by specialisation to share some of the same contacts”, putting the murder in the background for much of the novel, and then wrapping up the mystery in the last 10 pages, more as an obligatory afterthought than a satisfying conclusion, in thoroughly underwhelming fashion.

It also gets a bit frustrating that we are never sure how much of what we are being told is true. Seemingly honest one moment and duplicitous the next, the protagonist lies to and deceives Meghan, but he is only “withholding certain things that would hurt her or cause her undue worry,” he assures. Instead, his actions and justifications leave us wondering if he is simply doing everything to shield the woman he genuinely seems to love or if he has something to hide. After a while, this constant unreliability gets tiring.

The prose has impressive moments of flair, and Morrow’s passion for literature shines through in the details, but the overall execution of the novel is decidedly uneven. The Forgers will charm bibliophiles, and readers are more likely to enjoy the book if they don’t expect it to operate as a detective novel and see it as a character study instead of a mystery thriller. After a riveting beginning The Forgers quickly runs out of steam, and even though it is a short, quick read, the novel still leaves you feeling you’ve spent more time than necessary with the main protagonist. There are some interesting thoughts in the book, but the novelist could have spun a better tale.

- Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 13th December, 2015 *