Saturday, December 24, 2016

Rewind - Hollywood's biggest fails of 2016


Films fail in different ways. There are financial failures – good movies that earn critical praise but just don’t excite audiences, thereby disappointing at the box office. There are critical failures – bad movies (like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and the downright shambolic Suicide Squad) which earn the ire of critics but still interest viewers and make bucket loads of cash. And then there are films that hit the double whammy of failure – critics hate them and so do moviegoers, making them derided box office bombs. Here are ten such movies that simply couldn’t please anyone and ended up among Hollywood’s least successful projects of the year:

Max Steel 
Budget: $10 million
Box office: $6 million
Rotten Tomatoes: 0%
Metacritic: 22
Just when you thought Fantastic Four was the biggest superhero failure, along came Max Steel to show you that it can actually get worse. The adventure based on the Mattel action figure didn’t get a single positive review from critics (as per online review aggregators) and failed to recoup its budget, becoming one of the year’s biggest flops. Dull, unexciting, and unoriginal, Stewart Hendler’s cinematic dud was ultimately just a waste of everyone’s time.

Budget: $100 million
Box office: $94 million
Rotten Tomatoes: 25% 
Metacritic: 38
Instead of trying to come up with something original, Hollywood decided it would be a good idea to make an adaptation of Ben-Hur. Again. For the fifth time! It’s baffling that someone thought it would be wise to readapt the 1880 Lew Wallace novel after the 1959 historical epic not only proved to be the definitive cinematic version of the story but was also deemed one of the greatest films ever made, willing a record 11 Academy Awards in 1960. It’s even more baffling that someone reckoned Jack Huston had the talent and charisma to step into “Charlton Heston’s sandals”. Ultimately, the CGI drenched film only managed to turn the epic into an epic failure.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies 
Budget: $28 million
Box office: $16 million
Rotten Tomatoes: 42%
Metacritic: 45
It’s quite hard to figure out why Pride and Prejudice and Zombies exists. Sure, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is one of the most popular books in the world. And yes, zombies are kinda popular. But Pride and Prejudice AND zombies? Why? Why would humanity, as a whole, let that happen? Should we blame Seth Grahame-Smith for writing the novel, or the person who decided to turn that novel into a ridiculous movie? What happened to the intelligence of everyone involved in the project? Did the film lack brains because the zombies ate them all?!

Ratchet & Clank
Budget: $20 million
Box office: $13 million
Rotten Tomatoes: 16%
Metacritic: 29
Ok, so the Ratchet & Clank movie wasn’t AS terrible as its review scores make it seem, but it was so lacking in originality and depth that the film was ultimately downright disappointing. The project was such a missed opportunity considering the success of the video games series that it is based on. The viewers weren’t interested, the critics didn’t like it. It’s a shame the potential movie franchise just failed to take off.

Keeping Up with the Joneses 
Budget: $40 million 
Box office: $28 million
Rotten Tomatoes: 19%
Metacritic: 34
Jon Hamm could pretty much read the phone book and still make it riveting. That should give you some sense of how bad the script of Keeping Up with the Joneses must have been that even Hamm’s presence couldn’t make the film watchable. Isla Fisher tried her best. Zach Galifianakis was basically just there (and his other film Masterminds was similarly also a dud). So much comedic talent ... if only the filmmakers had put it to better use.

Budget: $35 million
Box office: $25 million
Rotten Tomatoes: 37%
Metacritic: 44
The often controversial Sacha Baron Cohen is something of an acquired taste, but his latest film was just too, well, tasteless for most viewers. The British-American action comedy was your typical Cohen affair and just as polarizing as most of his other work. The bright spot: Mark Strong, who was quite good in the otherwise lame movie, although it did feel sad to see him in such a shoddy mess.

Yoga Hosers
Budget: $5 million
Box office: $39,585
Rotten Tomatoes: 20%
Metacritic: 23
Celebrities keep trying to buy their offsprings a career. They don’t always succeed. Case in point: Yoga Hosers, director Kevin Smith and actor Johnny Depp’s attempt at giving a boost to the acting careers of their respective daughters, Harley Quinn Smith and Lily-Rose Depp. The reviews and earnings were both dismal. Almost no one watched it. And almost no one who watched it liked it.

I Saw the Light 
Budget: $13 million
Box office: $1.8 million
Rotten Tomato: 21%
Metacritic: 47
When making a biographical drama about an American country music legend, it probably isn’t the best idea to cast a British actor in the leading role. Had someone shared this nugget of wisdom with Marc Abraham and his team while they were planning the Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light, it would have spared us from the resulting controversy and a film that just didn’t work (despite Hiddleston’s best efforts).

The Disappointments Room 
Budget: $15 million
Box office: $4.9 million
Rotten Tomatoes: 0%
Metacritic: 31
Wentworth Miller is awesome. His script for The Disappointments Room, unfortunately, is not. A horror movie devoid of scares and a project altogether devoid of creativity, the aptly titled film was indeed a disappointment, both in terms of revenue and reviews.

Budget: $7 million
Box office: NA
Rotten Tomatoes: 3%
Metacritic: 27%
If there was a “what were they thinking?!” award, Nina would be the leading contender for 2016. One of the worst cast, most misguided films of the year, the Nina Simone biopic was such a misconceived mess that it was slammed from all directions and only got a limited release. Critical of Zoe Saldana’s casting in the lead role, Simone’s estate even declined to endorse the film.

- Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune Blog - 24th December, 2017 *

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Allied - average, unexciting, and forgettable

movie review


Starring: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Simon McBurney, and Lizzy Caplan
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Tagline: The enemy is listening.

The hoopla around the real life of thespians can occasionally overshadow their work, but few films have been upstaged quite as ferociously by gossip as Allied has. The movie found itself being thrust in the middle of the Jolie/Pitt split (quite like Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005) landed in the centre of the Aniston/Pitt divorce around a decade ago). It doesn’t bode well for the film, however, that its alleged – and categorically denied – involvement in the Brangelina breakup is perhaps the most exciting thing about this otherwise mediocre project.

Set against the backdrop of World War II, Robert Zemeckis’ romantic thriller tries to evoke the feel of classic Hollywood cinema but struggles to create a memorable, moving drama.

Allied tells the story of a Canadian intelligence officer, Max Vatan (Brad Pitt), and a French Resistance fighter, Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), who are partnered with each other for a mission in Casablanca. The duo have to pose as a married couple while planning to assassinate the German ambassador, but end up developing real feelings for each other.

The couple eventually get married, settle in wartime England, and have a child. Their life is interrupted one day when Max is informed by his superiors that Marianne is suspected of being a Nazi spy. Devastated at the possibility that the woman he loves might be betraying him but convinced that his wife can’t be a traitor, Max tries to find out if the whole thing is a test or if he is actually being deceived.

With a plodding pace and unexceptional story, the film pales in comparison to the movies – like Casablanca (1942) – that it is trying to emulate. The filmmakers appear to value style over substance, as they create stunning period settings but fail to populate them with engaging characters and events. Even actors of Pitt and Cotillard’s calibre can’t breathe much life into their on-screen romance.

The proceedings become more implausible with each clumsy turn. The movie feels overlong; its 124 minute running time begs for better editing. Some scenes are so drawn out that you can figure out where things are going long before they actually happen. There are some extraneous characters, like Max’s sister (portrayed by Lizzy Caplan) who adds nothing to the storyline.

Allied is slow and inconsistent. Its action lacks suspense; its heavy-handed emotions are unconvincing. The plot has potential, but Allied is never given the chance to develop into a riveting thriller because of its dull script and uneven execution. The project wastes the talent of its (remarkably good looking) cast and ultimately just comes off as average, unexciting, and forgettable.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune Blog - 22nd December, 2016 *

Friday, December 16, 2016

Remembering Junaid Jamshed

in remembrance 

Goher Mumtaz: Don’t know from where to start writing, as I haven’t been able to come out of shock. I still remember the day when we were about to go on stage. He asked me, “Goher! Since I can’t sing the songs of Vital Signs [anymore], so can you sing your favourite Vital Signs songs?” As I knew all their songs and sensed that he really wanted to sing a few now, I started one line of ‘Kabhi Kabhi’ and he sang the rest (without music). I saw him closing his eyes, grabbing my hand. He made me sit on the stairs – maybe he just wanted to tell me to sit with him and sing so the world wouldn’t judge him. I felt that I made him happy by making him sing all those songs in front of the LUMS crowd without letting anyone judge him. He had such a beautiful voice, such charisma and presence, that at one point I started looking at him as a fan who used to have his posters all over my room, a fan who dreamt about making a band like his, to be as cool as he was. But nothing can buy this moment. He is Junaid Jamshed, a great friend, brother, and inspiration for all of us. He is going to live in our hearts forever.

Naukhez Javed: Junaid Jamshed was a legend. It all started when I saw Music 89, a music show hosted by Nazia and Zohaib Hassan where they introduced new bands, including Vital Signs and Jupiters (Ali Azmat). From that time onwards, Junaid bhai was my crush. I was a diehard fan of his. I started my musical career in school by singing ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’. At the time, Junaid bhai was a heartthrob. I used to collect Pepsi bottle caps and other stuff in order to get the latest cassette of Vital Signs. I never thought that when I’d grow up, I will be a musician and a renowned vocalist and in the same league as Junaid Jamshed.
I met him in person when he transformed himself for the path of Allah. He had a very helpful, caring, thoughtful personality. I discussed my career in music with him and he guided me for the future. I asked him “Junaid bhai, you don’t feel like singing again?” He replied “Naukhez yaar, shayed nahi, but dunya kisi haal main jeeney nahi deti.” I felt that there was still a passion for singing inside him, but the path he chose was above all other passions. And then his song haunted me after this incidence – “hum kyoun chaley us rah par jis rah par sab hi chaley, kyoun na chuney woh rasta jis par nahi koi gaya”. Junaid bhai, you were a legend and you will be missed by us forever. Rest in heaven!!!

Junaid Jamshed Khan (1964 – 2016)
  • Born on the 3rd of September 1964 in Karachi, Pakistan.
  • Aspired to become a fighter pilot in his youth.
  • Graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore.
  • Started singing and performing in the 1980s, joining pop group Vital Signs as their lead singer. The group gained fame in 1987 with the release of their hit ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’, and made four albums before parting ways in the mid ’90s.
  • Pursued a solo career, releasing three studio albums, before giving up music to devote his life to religion.
  • Also started the successful clothing brand J.
  • Died, along with his second wife, on the 7th of December 2016, when PIA Flight 661 – en route to Islamabad from Chitral – crashed near Havelian. Is survived by his first wife, Ayesha, and four children.
- S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 16th December, 2016 *

Sunday, December 11, 2016

“All the stories in the world have already been told ... but our stories have not been told from every angle.” — Robert Glancy


After amusing us with the tale of an amnesiac lawyer in his debut novel Terms & Conditions, Robert Glancy now takes us to a fictional African kingdom in his second book, Please Do Not Disturb, which takes a poignant look at the downfall of a dictator. In this conversation with Books & Authors, Glancy tells us about the inspiration behind his latest novel and shares his experiences of the beautiful continent where he was born and raised.

How would you describe your latest novel?
Please Do Not Disturb follows five very different people in the lead-up to the Big Day, which is a huge independence day celebration of a small, crumbling African kingdom. More importantly, it is the only day in the year that the ailing king comes out to talk to his people. He is a cuckoo-clock dictator — he only pops out from time to time. The book has a very colourful cast of people, from hip-hoppers, hustlers, buffaloes, and drunken Irish men to a dictator who is madder than a bag of snakes. There is something in there for everyone.

How much of Please Do Not Disturb was inspired by your childhood in Africa?
I stole liberally from reality. I peeled lots of the events right out of my life experience.
Bwalo is a very thinly veiled version of Malawi. Tafumo, the fictional dictator, is based on Hastings Kamuzu Banda, Malawi’s real dictator. He was a strange man who controlled Malawi with an iron fist. He banned all media bar the BBC, which whispered in on the airwaves; he banned miniskirts; he didn’t let men grow their hair; he got rid of people who stood up to him; and he dressed like an Englishman. Having lived in Britain for so many years, Banda was a chimera, part British and part Malawian.
Charlie is a warped version of me, inspired by memory and a hilarious diary I found from when I was young, which reminded me how naïve I was. Sean is based on a crazy friend of my father’s, Hope is a mix of my mother and her nursing friends from Malawi, and Josef and the rest are reflections of real people who I knew, or knew of, in Malawi.

The story is told through the eyes of five characters. Why did you decide to use this multiple-perspective approach?
 Each time I wrote it from an omniscient perspective I hated my own voice in it. The characters were rich and real enough without me bumbling into the picture. Also, to avoid proclamations about Malawi or Africa in general — the world is already stuffed with plenty of those — I wanted it all to be tightly woven into the point of view of very different characters.
I was conscious of two things. Of Chinua Achebe saying: “We should welcome the rendering of our stories by others, because a visitor can sometimes see what the owner of the house has ignored. But they must visit with respect.” The second was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s superb lecture ‘The Danger of a Single Story’. And I felt that I resolved the potential pitfall of the single story trap by splitting the story into five complementary, and at times conflicting, narratives.

How did you choose the main narrators of the story? You could have told the tale from the point of view of a number of other characters such as the Hotel Mirage’s owner or manager, or someone from pop star Truth’s entourage. What made Charlie, Sean, Josef, Hope, and Jack the best choices?
Great question! All the stories in the world have already been told; we’ve been telling them to each other since time began, but our stories have not been told from every angle. So I spent a lot of time just looking for the most interesting angles to tell this story, and the best angles were Sean, Jack, Josef, Charlie, and Hope.
In some sense the book is a dichotomy between Charlie’s very innocent view of his utopian world, balanced by Hope’s rather more cynical view of her dystopian world.
If I’m being honest, it all sounds so calm, calculated, and academic now, but in truth I spent years writing the book from so many angles until finally these five characters won the war and came out as the most entertaining.

It is particularly interesting that King Tafumo himself hasn’t been given a voice here...
Yes, I knew there was no real point in giving him a voice. First of all, leaders like him are very limited in their self-reflection. More to the point, leaders, and particularly dictators, are to some extent merely amalgamations of the false images they project. I liked the idea of just sewing Tafumo together with all these false images and the ‘idea’ of who he was. To some he is a god, to others the devil.
I’m a huge fan of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and reading those books you see that the main characters — Kurtz and Gatsby — are, in fact, rarely given their own voice. You see them mainly through the eyes of the other characters; they are constructs of fragmented assumptions, prejudices and misconceptions. That fascinated me. The technique allows the characters to go beyond the limits of a human — they become an ideal, and then, most interestingly, they fall short of that ideal.
Also, these old dictators spend their lives preaching, patronising, and spreading their voice and propaganda. I figured they have enough airtime in real life without me devoting a book to more egomaniacal ramblings.

Did you consume a lot of African literature in your youth?
 My parents had an amazing library full of Achebe, Ayi Kwei Armah, lots of Paul Theroux. Although Theroux’s books were banned in Malawi, my parents had a few illegal copies stashed away — illicit books hidden in brown paper bags. Gosh, the intrigue! No wonder I became a writer. Also, I love William Boyd, Nkem Nwankwo, Giles Foden, Peter Godwin, Alexandra Fuller, and, more recently, the wonderful Adichie and NoViolet Bulawayo.

Please Do Not Disturb is both thematically and stylistically very different from your first novel. How did the experience of writing the second novel differ from the first?
 Every book is a reaction to the last. Terms & Conditions was strangely placeless; it sort of existed in a corporate bubble in some ways, as I didn’t want descriptions of place to slow the comedy pace. But I knew Please Do Not Disturb was all about place, about building a country, a very surreal country that had to be carefully framed to be believed. That I loved, and I loved writing it. Because this book was so personal to me, I really was pleased that I managed to translate a lot of my own life into entertainment that I hope brings some joy to people.

What can you tell us about your next novel?
I always have a couple of books on the boil at the same time, so it’s a question of which one wins the race to the finish. One is almost, nearly, not-too-far-off finished. Although I’ll temper that by saying the last mile of the marathon is always the hardest. It’s a very different book again, a coming-of-age story about two boys told through their diaries. It’s about idolising people and the dangers of that; it is about the dulling effect of time on hopes, dreams and ideals. Which makes it all sound a bit heavy. Ha! It’s actually quite a funny book.

Any message for readers in Pakistan?
I was so pleased people in Pakistan enjoyed Terms & Conditions and I know Please Do Not Disturb is a very different book. But I hope some people enjoy the crazy story of Charlie and the amazing Hotel Mirage. 

- Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 11th December, 2016 *

Please Do Not Disturb - out of Africa

book review

One day, one event, seen through five very diverse points of view

Book: Please Do Not Disturb
Author: Robert Glancy

With its dichotomous backdrop of beauty and turmoil, Africa has provided fertile ground for the imagination of writers, inspiring several literary works that have explored the region’s many complexities. A recent venture into this fascinating landscape comes from author Robert Glancy, who paints a dark but witty portrait of “a broken nation” in his new novel, Please Do Not Disturb.

The story is set in the fictional eastern African country of Bwalo, the “sweet soul of Africa”, with events revolving around the nation’s independence day when the state’s ruler, King Tafumo — the man who brought freedom to the land, ridding it of its British oppressors before himself turning into a brutal dictator — emerges from his palace and delivers his annual address to the public. The tale is told through multiple points of view, its intersecting first-person narratives ultimately converging to a violent crescendo that will shake the nation and have far-reaching consequences.

Five different voices come together to weave the threads of the yarn. Some of the narrators are natives, others are expats, but all unwittingly become tangled in a life-changing experience.

Charlie is the son of Scottish parents, brought up in a country of “black people, tea and sunshine”. His father manages the Mirage Hotel, giving him access to the establishment’s assorted guests. His habit of eavesdropping on the adults often gives him the chance to overhear secrets that he is too young and innocent to fully understand.

Sean is an Irish writer and teacher struggling with his second novel. He drinks too much, is in a toxic relationship with his crazed fiancée, and is very upset about a wonky, rotten bookcase in the university library which, to him, has come to symbolise everything about “this wonderful, beautiful country, bursting with so much potential and greatness” that he knows will never be realised.

Josef is a minister in Tafumo’s government as well as the reason Tafumo has a government — he paved the way for the latter’s rise to power, creating the myths that helped the dictator transcend from “real man to false god”. But Josef knows too much, and when he finds himself blacklisted and fallen from favour, he realises that his life is in danger.

Hope is Josef’s first wife, a woman who married “a brave man who risked his life to free [the] nation” but then saw their marriage fall apart. She works as Tafumo’s nurse, helping the old man maintain the illusion of power while he wastes away behind the scenes.

Finally there’s Jack, a smuggler bringing something into Bwalo. Just as Jack starts to realise what’s in his possession, the reader starts to get a sense of what’s about to unfold.

The dictator who stifles the voices of dissent is, ironically, not given a voice here. Instead, the novel relies on Charlie, Sean, Josef, Hope, and Jack — as well as occasional, brief snippets from DJ Cheeseandtoast’s Bwalo Radio broadcasts — to help readers see the stark reality of a struggling nation as it prepares for its ‘Big Day’. The characters tell us about their situations, sometimes experiencing the same events and relaying them from different angles. It takes a while for things to fall into place and for readers to get a clearer idea of what is actually going on. And when they do, the picture that emerges is distressing, poignant, and disturbingly authentic.

The narrators don’t get an equal share of focus. Some, like Jack, for instance, only exist to further the story. Others are fully developed and play an intrinsic role in the drama that unfolds, although sometimes their interactions and dialogues seem a bit affected. Nearly all are flawed, either harbouring secrets about their past, battling their own demons, or struggling with the consequences of their actions and choices. They may not be the most memorable characters you’ll ever come across, but these individuals are distinct enough to be interesting and while the situations they find themselves in are quite exceptional, their views still make them relatable.

The author contrasts Charlie’s innocence with the jadedness of Sean, Josef and Hope, and even though the style and tone at times betray the fact that there is just one hand behind the prose, the multiple-perspective technique is still successful in presenting an engaging story. It is to Glancy’s credit that a novel with such underlying darkness remains entertaining from start to finish. Please Do Not Disturb isn’t as emotionally intense as other African novels that are tonally harsher, and the levity shows that even a gentle touch can effectively convey heavy issues. Meanwhile, the dry wit keeps the book from becoming too morose even when the themes at its core explore harsh terrains.

As the characters relay their tales, their accounts unveil the backstory of the land and its people. It is impressive how the writer brings the sights and sounds of the region to life by skilfully entwining the imagery into the story instead of droning on in dull, descriptive paragraphs. The vivid world that Glancy has created in Please Do Not Disturb seems sadly realistic, and the dictatorship angle feels all too familiar for a reader in a country with a history of military men derailing democracy by anointing themselves head of the state.

Perhaps the realism also comes from the fact that the author actually has first-hand experience of his subject matter. Glancy — who was born in Zambia, raised in Malawi, educated in the UK, and currently lives in New Zealand — seems to have drawn upon his own experiences of growing up in Africa. The character of young Charlie, in particular, appears indebted to Glancy’s upbringing in Malawi, and one can’t help but wonder if the writer felt any of Sean’s frustrations in writing his second book. Glancy’s first novel, the corporate comedy Terms & Conditions, that was peppered with footnotes and built around the idea that no one reads the fine print of contracts, was a quirky, fun read, but it shares almost no similarities with the writer’s second effort. While that illustrates the author’s range, it also means that if you liked or disliked the previous book, there is no guarantee you will feel the same way about his new one.

On the whole, Please Do Not Disturb is a well-crafted, thought-provoking look at a difficult reality. Its story may be deeply rooted in the soils of Africa, but you don’t have to belong to the region to find its premise relevant. The novel’s exploration of the horrors of dictatorship in a struggling, postcolonial region is realistic and arresting, and despite its heavy themes, the author’s affable style makes the book an enjoyable read.

- Sameen Amer 

Books & Authors, Dawn - 11th December, 2016 *

Keeping Up with the Joneses - dull and devoid of any significant laughs

movie review

Keeping Up with the Joneses

Starring: Zach Galifianakis, Jon Hamm, Isla Fisher, Gal Gadot, Matt Walsh, Maribeth Monroe, Patton Oswalt, and Kevin Dunn
Directed by: Greg Mottola 
Tagline:  The lived a normal life ... until the Joneses moved in.

There are two basic things that you can logically expect from a film that is marketed as an action comedy: action and comedy. That detail may seem pretty obvious to you, but somehow Hollywood still hasn’t quite managed to grasp this fairly straightforward concept. The least an action comedy can do is entertain you with its excitement and wit, but ever so often, the movies that supposedly fall in this genre fail on both counts. The latest such project is Keeping Up with the Joneses, a spy adventure that despite being powered by an impressive, talented cast (and Gal Gadot) is disappointingly dull and devoid of any significant laughs. 

The film takes us to a suburban neighbourhood that is home to HR executive Jeff (Zach Galifianakis) and his wife Karen Gaffney (Isla Fisher). But their peaceful lives are interrupted when new neighbours – travel writer Tim (Jon Hamm) and his cooking blogger wife Natalie Jones (Gadot) – move into the cul-de-sac. Karen is immediately suspicious of the newcomers who seem a little too perfect. She soon realizes that the Joneses are actually spies, blowing their cover in the process. The Gaffneys then find themselves in the middle of an espionage plot.

Improbable, predictable, and largely unfunny high jinks ensue. To be fair, the film doesn’t come off as an unmitigated disaster. But everything about it only manages to generate an indifferent “meh” from viewers. The action is bland. The comedy never surpasses the mildly amusing mark. The storyline just feels generic, as does the movie itself. Director Greg Mottola and writer Michael LeSieur simply don’t seem interested in rising above the spy comedy clichés or even using those tropes to create an entertaining satire.

As for the cast, Fisher is the only one who seems to be really trying to make something out of her part; her presence exudes the verve that most of the others lack. Galifianakis and Hamm are amicable but their performances are basically unremarkable. Gadot continues to be gorgeous but her stunning looks can’t hide the fact that she still can’t act; a cardboard cut-out would have been just as effective in the role.

Keeping Up with the Joneses is unsurprising and uninspired, and it feels even more disappointing when you realize that (almost) everyone involved in this film has helped create significantly better projects in the past. This movie, too, could have been more entertaining had the writer and director used their imagination and put in a little more effort.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune Blogs - 11th December, 2016 *

Friday, December 02, 2016

Savage Stone Age - darker themes from the past

book review

Book: Savage Stone Age (Horrible Histories)
Author: Terry Deary
Illustrator: Martin Brown

Brutality is often exorcised from the history books that are intended for young readers, especially the volumes that students come across in their school curriculum. These sanitized, censored works don’t necessarily convey the dark aspects of the past or paint a complete picture of how things really were. The Horrible Histories books are on a mission to change that. A view of history “with the nasty bits left in”, the series aims to present not just a black and white version of accounts but detail the many interesting greys that shaded the picture.

Savage Stone Age, one of the many volumes in the Horrible Histories series, is an exploration of the earliest known period of human culture that sheds light on how people used to live ... and die.

The book chronicles the timeline of the development of early hominids and shares interesting tidbits from the life of our ancient ancestors. Amusing illustrations accompany the words, making the book more attractive for younger readers, while the text details lots of peculiar facts that even grownups can enjoy.

The contents of the book include chapters that talk about the foul foods, groovy games, batty beliefs, and rotten rituals of ancient times among other, equally offbeat, topics. You can read about the first ever horrible human history event (a family of nine hominids killed in a sudden disaster), see evidence of early sexism (men were buried with meat and tools, women with nothing), and find out about everything from the first houses to the world’s oldest barbecue.

The book doesn’t shy away from presenting the less flattering aspects of the human condition. The pages talk about how ancient humans hunted some animals to the point of extinction, pinched corpses from killer animals, ate all sorts of nasty things, and even committed mass murder.

The volume is very likely to help readers, who aren’t interested in history, develop a fascination with the subject by giving them an alternative view of the past. But as is obvious from the title of both the book and the series it is part of, Savage Stone Age is probably not best suited for sensitive readers. And some of its darker content - like the disturbing tale of an archaeologist who committed suicide because new methods of archaeology proved his research wrong and made his books outdated - is likely to be upsetting for those who are experiencing some sadness or loss.

Also, the book makes you wish that the author had cited the sources of the information he is including in the book for those of us who’d like to read more about certain topics that the text touches upon.

The past isn’t as attractive as it may seem, and if darker themes upset you then this definitely isn’t the book for you. But if you are either curious about bygone eras or simply think that history is boring, then you might want to give Savage Stone Age - or some other volume in the Horrible Histories series for that matter - a try. Its friendly, humorous tone along with its focus on information you are unlikely to find in conventional history tomes make this an interesting book that readers, both young and old, are likely to learn from.

- By S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 2nd December, 2016 *

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Accountant just doesn’t add up

movie review

The Accountant

Starring: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J. K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Tambor, and John Lithgow
Directed by: Gavin O'Connor
Tagline: Calculate your choices.

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that seems to exist just to remind you of other big (and small) screen projects. That pretty much appears to be what The Accountant is trying to achieve. Like Dexter meets Jason Bourne by way of A Beautiful Mind, Gavin O'Connor’s action thriller comes off as an amalgam of various (significantly better) projects that have preceded it, as it jumps haphazardly from one familiar plot point to the next.

The film tells the story of Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck), an autistic math whiz with extensive combat training who is running a shady accounting firm and harbouring quite a few dark secrets. He works with dangerous criminal organizations, helping companies that are experiencing internal financial issues by tracking discrepancies in their finances. An assignment takes Christian to robotics corporation Living Robotics, where he is tasked with figuring out the source of suspicious transactions that have been detected by their in-house accountant, Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick). But when he unveils the truth behind the embezzlement, he finds himself and Dana being targeted by assassins. To further complicate things, the treasury department is also pursuing him and trying to unmask his identity. Christian must now try to get himself out of this pickle, using both his brains and brawn as necessary.

The Accountant seems to have many of the ingredients that could potentially make an engrossing thriller, but unfortunately its parts just don’t come together with any kind of elegance or believability. The cast, admittedly, is quite impressive. Affleck is passable as the stoic, awkward protagonist; Kendrick is charming, even though the film doesn’t give her much to do; and names like J. K. Simmons, Jeffrey Tambor, John Lithgow, and Jon Bernthal are on hand to round up the very solid supporting cast. But the scattershot plot is too unconvincing and absurd for even these accomplished performers to salvage the project.

There is a lot of drama on offer here, but much of it comes with a sense of déjà vu.  The storyline seems like a disjointed jumble of ideas, none of which are even remotely original. The Accountant creates a collage of familiar pieces that remind you of everything from Good Will Hunting to Batman. And its tone seems to have some sort of a multiple personality disorder – one moment the film wants to be an intense corporate thriller, the next it’s a silly action flick, and, one flashback later, it’s a drama about family.

As it stands, The Accountant is an erratic, unremarkable offering that fails to make any lasting impression, but, ultimately, leaves you with the sense that the movie could have been a lot more entertaining had the filmmakers focused on fewer threads and settled on a more consistent tone.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune Blogs - 27th November, 2016 *

Friday, November 25, 2016

Real Madrid Foundation Campus Experience - uniting youngsters by their passion for sports

cover story

Pakistan may not have a significant presence in the world of football but there is certainly no shortage of soccer fans in our country. Ardent football enthusiasts cheer for their favourite international and league teams, while youngsters passionate about the game participate in matches that are held at their schools and colleges, yearning for more opportunities to pursue the sport.
Certified trainers and coaches from the Real Madrid Foundation - which is a subsidiary of world renowned Spanish football club Real Madrid - are planning to travel to Pakistan to launch their Campus Experience. This initiative has become an international and multicultural meeting point that more than 3,000 children from 80 countries have experienced together in 2015.

In an interview with Us Magazine, the Director of the Real Madrid Foundation Campus Experience, Joaquín Sagués, talks about this initiative and what the programme hopes to achieve.

Us: Could you please tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
Joaquín Sagués:
I have over 30 years [experience] leading teams in the areas of corporate events, logistics, and services sector. Since January 2010, I have been the world CEO of Real Madrid Foundation Campus Experience. [I am in charge of] the direction of the team, [defining the] strategy of growth and economic control.

Us: Please tell us about the Real Madrid Foundation and its goals.
Real Madrid Foundation is the means by which Real Madrid presents itself effectively in society and develops its goals of human and cultural nature. The Foundation nurtures, in Spain and abroad, intrinsic sport values and promotes them as an educational tool, contributing to the overall development of the personality of those who practice in sports, while also serving as a factor of social integration, benefiting those who suffer any kind of exclusion, as well as disseminating all cultural aspects related to sports. Campus Experience is one of the projects developed by Real Madrid Foundation within its programme of activities.

Us: What are the aims and objective of the Real Madrid Foundation Campus Experience football camps?
Campus Experience combines sports training with a value-based education seamlessly, so that values are not only worked in the field but in other activities where children are involved to reinforce the educational aspects, creating a unique model worldwide. Besides the sport training, we encourage participants to foster friendships by interacting with children from other countries and to become familiar with other cultures.
Participants are united by their passion for Real Madrid and sports. Concepts such as leadership, self-control, teamwork, effort, and respect are the basis of all activities and games organised at the campus. Top-notch professionals involved at Campus Experience including monitors, professional coaches and passionate teachers work during school holidays to provide attendees the best possible experience.
But Campus Experience is not only football and fun. One of our main goals is to help children realise how important diet and hygiene are for an athlete. We are committed to teaching children a proper nutritional regime adapted for youngsters who practice soccer frequently. Real Madrid Foundation Campus Experience has professionals in the field of nutrition that develop a comprehensive, balanced and personalised menu to deal with the physical qualities of participants so that they acquire the essential nutrients to practice sports. The other habits we encourage among our young participants at Campus Experience is for them to take care of their personal hygiene as we believe it is essential for the education of players. Our objective is to instil habits that impact their health and relationships in a positive way.

Us: When and why was the project initiated, and what has it achieved so far?
We started the organisation seven years ago. Now, it is the strongest sports and educational project in the world. Since 2009, we have trained more than 30,000 children all around the world, and we have developed Campus Experiences in more than 74 cities.
For us, it is really important to work with a strong partnership in every country we are. We have been working with QSports for three years now, developing Campus Experience in Qatar.
QSports is a company from Qatar, but with strong basis in Pakistan. They proposed that we come to this wonderful country, and after evaluating the possibilities we agree with them that it is a really good option.

Us: What activities are part of Campus Experience? What can youngsters expect from the camp?
We want our participants to live for a week as Real Madrid players do on a daily basis. Usually, people just see Real Madrid players during the games, but they don’t know what they do on a Tuesday morning or a Thursday afternoon. Our programme is designed to submerge our participants into Real Madrid players’ way of life, teaching them how to eat properly, how to stretch their muscles, or how to rest enough in order to have energy for the next day’s activities.
Campus Experience combines two parts: football training and fun activities based in Real Madrid values.
The training and the football technical aspects of Campus Experience are taught by coaches who come from soccer schools from the Real Madrid Foundation led by Rafael García Cortés, a former player of the first team of Real Madrid and the current Sports Director of Campus Experience. The coaches are in charge of channelling a value-based education through sports practice, with exercises in the playing field. These sets of professionals, mostly coaches from Real Madrid Foundation Football Schools, are qualified professionals with a national coach card (from INEF graduates to physical education instructors). Our coaches are trained to know how to work with the values from Real Madrid and how to convey them to children so that they can have fun while learning and working their sports techniques.
The other very important part of Campus Experience is given by our team of monitors (most of whom are teachers and psychologists) whose preparation allows them to apply the expanded education system characteristic of Campus Experience. Their purpose is to apply dynamic and educational content to the timeframes not scheduled for sports on campus. This content should be interesting to all participants through a playful approach in a number of social and solidarity values, relating them to attitudes and skills associated to sports.

Us: Why are the applicants being chosen on a first come first serve basis instead of athletic abilities and merit?
Our goal with this project is to educate and teach our participants the essence, the base of football. We don’t do scouting – we want to teach the essence of the sport to every boy and girl equally.

Us: Can you tell us which trainers and coaches visit the countries where Campus Experience has been launched? Do Real Madrid players join them?
Real Madrid Foundation coaches - professional coaches working in Real Madrid city all year long - form our coach team. They are graduated in sport science, with at least level 1 coach title, and with a lot of experience training children.

Us: How has your experience as the director of the Real Madrid Foundation Campus Experience been so far?
It is really gratifying to work on this project, educating and teaching boys and girls from all over the world. It also allows me to learn a lot about the cultures and languages, and discover new countries, which is priceless.

Us: As far as football is concerned, Pakistan doesn’t have a significant presence on the world stage. Why, in your opinion, has the country struggled in this sport?
They have asked me a similar question when I’ve been to the United States, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Panama, where the main sport used to be baseball but football is the number one nowadays.
In Pakistan, as in many Asian countries, the main sport was cricket, and now football is getting [more popular]. It is just a matter of time [before] Pakistan evolves and improves its football level.

Us: What can be done to improve football in Pakistan?
The main key is to teach and educate boys and girls since they are young. This is a long term project and it is important to start from the base.

Us: Are there any other projects that the Real Madrid Foundation is working on? Can we expect anything from you guys in Pakistan anytime soon?
Among Real Madrid Foundation programmes, you can find Campus Experience and Social Schools for boys and girls at risk of social exclusion. Our job is Campus Experience, and we hope to do a lot of them in Pakistan in the future.

The Real Madrid values

Joaquín Sagués tells Us about the "Real Madrid values":

All children want to be like their idols, but to be an elite footballer not only implies hard sports training, but one must also take into account a series of values that characterize and define the white club. Through a comprehensive program of educational activities, the Campus Experience of the Real Madrid foundation promotes human development through integral values associated with the merengue team. The participants will train with the five main values of Real Madrid: leadership, effort, self-control, teamwork, and respect.

1.    Leadership: Through examples such as that of Cristiano Ronaldo, participants will learn that in order to exercise leadership one does not need to be the captain of the team, but needs to know how to detect the moments where that role should be adopted, encouraging colleagues and taking strategic decisions, thinking about what is best for the team.

2.    Effort: Taking Sergio Ramos as an example – who plays every game as if it was his last and establishes that same attitude to the rest of the team – they will learn the value of effort.

3.    Self-control: Through the ability of self-control from players like Bale, the standard when it comes to the domain of emotions in pressure situations, monitors will explain to attendees that it is important not to lose self-confidence despite criticism or a bad result on the field. In addition, they will learn how to celebrate goals and accept those marked by the opposing team, where humility must always prevail.

4.    Teamwork: Toni Kross is a reference of teamwork at Real Madrid, controlling the game from the centre of the field not only at the tactical and technical level, but looking for communication and understanding with his peers to achieve common objectives, even in moments of weakness.

5.    Respect: Finally, through the game of James, participants will work towards respect for others. Sportsmanship is one of the signs of identity, and he proves it with peers, opponents, and referees. He also approaches criticisms with education and respect, learning from them, always showing humility and respect for the efforts of others.

- By Sameen Amer

Us Magazine, The News - 25th November, 2016 *

Friday, November 11, 2016

Wildflower - tales from Drew Barrymore's life

book review 

Book: Wildflower
Author: Drew Barrymore

Celebrities find it imperative to share their life stories in autobiographical books, especially if they can make a few million dollars in the process. Some artists actually do come up with touching and inspiring tomes, but most of the time, literary skills are optional in such endeavours and a fine-tooth comb is needed to find any substance in the often vapid content. A combination of genuine and idle curiosity results in substantial sales of such volumes, which in turn leads to constant new additions to the celebrity memoir bookshelf.

Drew Barrymore published one such book last year, titled Wildflower. Reluctant to call it a memoir, the actress instead described the book as ‘an elaboration on times in [her] life as [she] remember[s] them’ and ‘not a sweeping life story’, which is just another way of saying that it is even less substantial than most celebrity memoirs usually are.

The book offers a collection of reminiscences from the American film star’s life as she shares random personal stories in no particular order. The content is a mix of anecdotes, ranging from childhood accounts to episodes that shed light on the more recent developments in her life.

Many of the chapters in the book are about her family. We get a glimpse of the troubles she had with her parents as a child that resulted in her becoming a kid with no guidance. The actress states that she never had a dinner with both of her parents (who separated before she was born); she describes her absentee father as the ‘kind of man you saw in small doses’ and talks about being emancipated from her mother at 14 and the experience of being on her own (and how laundry taught her how to tackle everything moving forward). Barrymore also writes about her most recent marriage and the joy of having her daughters, and gushes about her in-laws - or now her former in-laws, as she got a divorce from her third husband, Will Kopelman, a few months after this book was released. Wildflower is quite baby-centric as it was written soon after the birth of her daughters who are mentioned frequently in the text; the book even includes a letter to each of them.

The other main topic of the book is, of course, Hollywood. The former child star doesn’t dwell on her troubled youth, only mentioning her problems briefly in passing. Instead, she talks about things like her working partnership with Adam Sandler, going scuba diving and skydiving with Cameron Diaz, establishing her production company (Flower Films), and how Stephen Spielberg singlehandedly changed her life.

The actress switches from topic to random topic with each chapter, mentioning everything from her friends to her dogs to travelling, although she rarely takes a deep, satisfying look at any of the subjects she broaches. No matter what she is talking about, Barrymore comes off as guarded, unwilling to properly open up or share the more exciting stories from her clearly extraordinary life. The scant information on offer here is not particularly interesting to casual readers, which is why Wildflower is likely to appeal only to her most ardent fans.

Drew Barrymore seems more charming on screen than she does on paper. Her pieces read more like blog posts than book chapters, and the writing is pedestrian; a master of prose she certainly is not. For a volume that she states she had wanted to write for seven years, Wildflower is quite disappointing and leaves you wishing that if the actress really wanted to publish a book, she would have at least put in a little more effort and come up with something more interesting and memorable.

- By S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 11th November, 2016 *

Friday, November 04, 2016

Storks - lacklustre

movie review


Voice cast: Andy Samberg, Katie Crown, Kelsey Grammer, Jennifer Aniston, Ty Burrell, Anton Starkman, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Danny Trejo, Chris Smith, and Stephen Kramer Glickman
Directed by: Nicholas Stoller and Doug Sweetland
Tagline: Find your flock.

The recently founded Warner Animation Group hit it out of the park with its first release, the joyously zany The Lego Movie, in 2014. The animation division of Warner Bros. has since been busy preparing the many sequels and spin-offs in this prized franchise, two of which – The Lego Batman Movie (2017) and The Lego Ninjago Movie (2017) – are slated to come out next year. In the meantime, the studio has tried to keep its audience entertained by releasing the lively Storks, an amicable but unexceptional offering that pales in comparison to the significantly more imaginative (and, of course, awesome) Lego masterpiece which won our hearts two years ago.

The film puts a spin on the baby-delivering storks fable, and is set in a world where the birds are no longer in the business of transporting bouncing bundles of joy to their parents. Instead, the storks now deliver packages for the Amazon-esque Internet retailer The company’s top employee is Junior (voiced by Andy Samberg), an ambitious stork who is on his way to earn a top management position in the organisation. All he has to do is fire the clumsy Tulip (Katie Crown), Cornerstone’s only human worker, who has spent her entire life on Stork Mountain because she never made it to her parents as an infant due to a failed delivery. But instead of letting her go, Junior reassigns her to a fake, dead end job, setting off a series of events that lead to the resurrection of the company’s long-dormant infant production unit and the creation of an adorable baby girl.

Afraid that he will lose his promotion if his boss Hunter (Kelsey Grammer) finds out about the production of an unauthorised infant, Junior teams up with Tulip to deliver the child to her parents (Jennifer Aniston and Ty Burrell), a perpetually busy couple whose lonely son (Anton Starkman) had put in the request for a sibling.

Directors Nicholas Stoller and Doug Sweetland have made sure that there is plenty of cuteness on offer here that viewers – especially new parents – will find irresistible. A couple of gags are also quite amusing; two inventive sequences in particular – one revolving around a wolf pack that, akin to lupine Legos, can transform themselves into various vehicles, and the other, an action sequence in which all the participants try to fight quietly so that the sleeping baby doesn’t wake up – stand out. Many of the jokes, however, fall flat. Others are too dull to be memorable.

The movie’s themes and threads are all too familiar. The execution is overly frenetic, and amidst the fast-paced chaos, Storks generally doesn’t try to make sense of its plot or explain the nitty-gritty of its premise. While the film’s Looney Tunes-ish humour seems to be targeting younger viewers, parents should be prepared to field some “where do babies come from?” question from kids who watch the film. As for the voice cast, Crown delivers the most charming performance, but there isn’t anything particularly remarkable or unforgettable about the rest of the voice acting.

On the whole, Storks is an uneven, at times even lacklustre film. Sure it offers a few fun moments, but ultimately it’s hard to deny that this is a middling, muddled project that can’t hold a candle to the many superior animated features that have preceded it in the last few years.

- By Sameen Amer 

The Express Tribune blog - 4th November, 2016 *

Sunday, October 30, 2016

How to be Miserable - in search of happiness

book review

A humorous and pleasant take on combating misery using reverse psychology

Book: How to be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use
Author: Randy J. Paterson, PhD

Whether we’re consciously aware of it or not, most of us spend our entire lives striving towards one goal: happiness. Yet happiness often proves to be an elusive target; the actions that we thought would, directly or indirectly, bring us joy end up pulling us in the wrong direction and fail to prevent our descent into the deep, dark valley of misery. Irrespective of our financial and social status or the amount of good fortune that is showered upon us by fate, most of us will, at one time or another, struggle with sadness and when we do, a whole industry is waiting in the wings, ready to dispense advice on how we can deal with our issues and cure our gloom through a readily available tool: the self-help book.

The self-help genre constitutes a lucrative industry with many such manuals being published every year. And while their efficacy remains dubious, they are still immensely popular with an audience that is trying to find ways to improve their lives — by becoming slimmer, prettier, smarter, wealthier — and find happiness.

In one of the latest additions to the sagging bookshelves in the self-help section, Canadian psychologist Randy J. Paterson has put a different, more interesting spin on the concept with How to be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use. Instead of trying to advise readers on how to be happy, he has turned the idea on its head and decided to do the exact opposite by telling us how to be miserable.

Inspired by a talk the author gave at a lecture series for the public, How to be Miserable aims to analyse the actions and thought patterns that ultimately make people less happy. Most of the strategies in the book arose from an unorthodox discussion exercise for depression groups wherein the participants were asked what the writer calls the 10-million-dollar question: “Imagine that you could earn $10 million for just half an hour’s work — let’s say tomorrow morning between 11:00 and 11:30. All you would have to do is make yourself feel worse than you do now. Worse, in fact, than you’ve felt in the past week. How would you do it?” The responses presented the opportunity to learn what we do to feel worse instead of better so that we can (hopefully) make a conscious effort to mend our ways.

Before dispensing his advice, the writer acknowledges that we all encounter unwelcome circumstances that are beyond our control, and that these “capricious whims of fate” aren’t the subject of the book. Instead, the volume focuses on the “mood-influencing factors that lie within the scope of our own choices”.

The tongue-in-cheek guide to misery is divided into four main sections, presenting a total of 40 strategies (10 per section) that lead us to unhappiness. The first part, titled ‘Adopting a Miserable Lifestyle’, describes the day-to-day choices such as avoiding exercise and nutritious food, reducing the hours of restorative sleep, seeking emotional fulfilment by purchasing things, and spending too much time in front of a screen, that we can make to enhance our gloom. The second section teaches the reader ‘How to Think Like an Unhappy Person’ by creating a low mood via alterations in your thinking, such as rehashing the regrettable past, constructing future hells, valuing hope over action, and aiming for perfection. Then comes ‘Hell Is Other People’, the third part of the book, which deals with generating unhappiness through social interactions, by employing techniques such as having high expectations, cultivating toxic relationships, and holding others to higher standards than we do ourselves. In the fourth and final section, the writer talks about ‘Living a Life Without Meaning’ through methods such as being ruled by our impulses, deferring life in favour of meeting duties, staying in our comfort zone, and turning everything into a competition.

By following his guidelines, the author assures us that we, too, can dive into the abyss of despair, although his real intent, of course, is the opposite. At the end Paterson explains how to apply what we learned from the book to make our lives better. By dissecting the ways in which so many of us mess up and complicate our lives, the readers will hopefully become aware of these pitfalls and avoid these mistakes, ultimately opting to escape the cycle of misery and striving for long-term contentment instead of chasing short-term highs.

Laced with irony, How to be Miserable provides information and inspiration to shun unhealthy habits. The author offers a different take on ideas that you’d think were positive — like giving 100 per cent to your work, and being well informed — by highlighting their negative impact on our lives. Other points discussed in the book seem more familiar and obvious; still it’s hard to deny that we’re guilty of many of these things anyway, and it really is interesting to see what mental tricks we play on our unsuspecting selves. That said, while the ideas in the book really do sum up the many bad habits that we fall prey to, they don’t offer anything remarkably innovative to the readers. All of the 40 strategies mentioned basically come down to common sense and there isn’t anything particularly surprising in its content that you haven’t already realised or read elsewhere before. In effect, the book is an engaging, witty summary of well-worn ideas about healthy living, but with a reverse psychology spin. While you won’t find anything here that will blow your mind, the content is still likely to help shed light on your failings and inspire you to work on them. Also, since How to be Miserable touches upon 40 points, it obviously isn’t easy to remember everything the author talks about — or even be mindful of just the strategies that apply to you — at all times. The reader will need a fair amount of dedication to truly benefit from this text by repeatedly going back to the book, picking a few strategies at a time, and then trying to apply them to his or her life.

Paterson’s gentle, amicable tone, with humour sprinkled throughout the text, makes the book pleasant and friendly while the short, succinct chapters make it a quick read. The writer has distilled years of experience into this book (and on occasion also refers to the work of other experts), explaining the kind of things that you would probably learn in therapy, although the book is obviously not a substitute for professional help, nor is it intended for those with severe depression as the author himself points out. Its effectiveness also depends on the reader and their willingness to embrace these principles. Ultimately, How to be Miserable will let you identify some of your weaknesses, and, if you’re willing to put in the effort, it could help you tweak your life and make it more fulfilling.
- Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 30th October, 2016 *

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Skiptrace - silly but fun

movie review


Starring: Jackie Chan, Johnny Knoxville, Fan Bingbing
Directed by: Renny Harlin
Tagline: Watch your backup.

The success of action comedies like Rush Hour (1998) and Shanghai Noon (2000) helped Jackie Chan gain international recognition. For his latest cinematic endeavour, the star from Hong Kong has teamed up, yet again, with an American actor for another action comedy, Skiptrace. Joining him for the buddy adventure this time is Johnny Knoxville, the Jackass crew member who may not have the star power of Chris Tucker or Owen Wilson, but still manages to deliver the requisite comic relief in a movie that is considerably more enjoyable than it has any right to be.

The story revolves around Hong Kong detective Benny Chan’s (Jackie Chan) pursuit of a notorious crime boss known as the Matador, whose identity is unknown, but Benny believes to be businessman Victor Wong (Winston Chao). After his partner Yung (Eric Tsang) dies while the duo are on the Matador’s trail, Benny becomes obsessed with exacting revenge for his fellow officer’s death.

Nine years later, when Yung’s daughter Samantha (Fan Bingbing), whom he promised to look after, gets in trouble with Wong’s crime syndicate, Benny must find a way to ensure her safety and unravel the case of the Matador. This involves tracking down an American conman, Connor (Johnny Knoxville), who has unwittingly witnessed a murder in Wong’s casino.

The film turns into a buddy road comedy as Benny tries to take a very reluctant Connor back from Russia to Hong Kong. Silly shenanigans predictably ensue. The story is paper thin and overstretched, but then again you don’t go for an action comedy if you want a realistic, intricate plot and stirring emotions. Skiptrace does exactly what you’d expect it to do, offering goofy gags instead of brains for some escapist fun. The laughs come from amusingly random antics – as random as Jackie Chan spontaneously bursting into an Adele song! There’s some sort of a cultural festival everywhere they go, and the countries they traverse provide stunning backdrops.

The leads are charming and make their characters likable. Chan brings energy to the proceedings; he may not be as spirited as he was in his youth, but he also doesn’t let his age – he is now 62 – get in the way of elaborate action sequences. Knoxville assists him with zeal, and proves to be a capable sidekick. The lovely Bingbing, however, isn’t given a chance to make much of an impact, even though her damsel-in-distress character is the main female role in the movie.

Ultimately, despite its generic storyline and overall ridiculousness, Skiptrace remains surprisingly watchable, mostly because of its affable leads and the steady supply of humour. This isn’t a ‘good’ movie, not by any metric. It’s overlong, predictable, clichéd, and all kinds of preposterous. But the over-the-top action and amusing high jinks will try their damndest to entertain you if you’re willing to turn off your brain and just enjoy the silly ride.

- By Sameen Amer  

The Express Tribune blogs - 26th October, 2016 *

Monday, October 03, 2016

Suits (season 6) - an overlong, predictable slog

TV series review

Season 6 (summer season)

Starring: Gabriel Macht, Patrick J. Adams, Rick Hoffman, Meghan Markle, Sarah Rafferty, and Gina Torres

USA Network’s legal drama Suits’ mid-season finale reminded viewers why the series has successfully been on air for six seasons, and has already been renewed for a seventh one. In a touching, poignant episode, the finale bids goodbye to a beloved regular character while gazing at the uncertainty and promise of the future. The series clearly knows how to offer some engrossing, moving drama, which is why it was frustrating to watch it deliver much less for the first nine episodes of the season.

With the reveal of Mike’s secret (Patrick J Adams) throwing Pearson Specter Litt into jeopardy, it was up to Harvey (Gabriel Macht), Jessica (Gina Torres), and Louis (Rick Hoffman) to buckle down and face the daunting task of rebuilding their firm. So they ‘obviously’ decided to spend the season doing other things instead.

The primary focus of the summer run was on Harvey’s mission of getting Mike out of prison, where another inmate – Frank Gallo (Paul Schulze), a criminal who has a vendetta against Harvey – threatened Mike’s safety. Things quickly went from unrealistic to preposterous, and Suits turned towards a predictable conclusion. With Harvey bending and even breaking the law in his bid to get Mike released, it was obvious from the get-go the series did not want Mike to face the aftermath of his mistakes, learn from them and seek redemption. Instead of character growth, we were given an unconvincing and an uninteresting plot, offering us little to empathise with.

Elsewhere, Jessica got roped into taking on a pro-bono case by Rachel (Meghan Markle). But it was flabbergasting how Rachel’s character remained so grating even when she was given the promising story line of defending a death row inmate. Louis fell for a random woman we hardly know, making it one of the least convincing romances the series has ever subjected us to. And with no real story line of her own, Donna’s (Sarah Rafferty) character was lost in everyone else’s chaos.

Exciting cases and interesting legal battles were no where to be found. Suits gave us an overlong, predictable arc that wasn’t nearly as thrilling as one would have hoped. The writers didn’t do a good job in character developments and, for some odd reason, couldn’t find anything substantial for Donna to do, making her feel underutilised.

However, the summer finale was (almost) everything a Suits fan could hope for. The 10th episode, which felt more like a series finale than a mid-season pause, tied up loose ends, bid an emotional adieu to a character without whom the series won’t be the same, and gave us compelling legal and emotional drama. For once we were given the chance to root for the characters, something we missed doing throughout the previous episodes.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune website - 3rd October, 2016 *

Monday, September 26, 2016

Sully - grace under pressure

movie review


Starring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, and Laura Linney
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Tagline: The untold story behind the miracle on the Hudson

The remarkable images of the Airbus A320 jetliner floating on the Hudson River with passengers standing on its wings were beamed all over the world after Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot of US Airways Flight 1549, made a forced water landing following engine failure in January 2009, saving everyone on board. The incident and its aftermath are the subjects of director Clint Eastwood’s latest film Sully, a biographical drama that takes a moving look at the ‘miracle on the Hudson’ and its impact on the life of the man who made the memorable landing.

The story at the core of the movie is an account that we’re all familiar with. Soon after taking off from La Guardia Airport, the ill-fated aircraft hit a flock of geese. The bird strikes disabled both engines, leaving Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and co-pilot Jeffery Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) with limited options. After realising that they did not have the power, speed or altitude to return to the airport, Sullenberger decided to ditch the plane in the Hudson. His incredible landing, combined with a swift rescue effort by ferries and responders thereafter, managed to save all the 155 passengers and crew on the flight.

This well-known incident forms the basis of the plot, but that is just part of what Sully is about. The film’s primary focus is on the aftermath of the episode. Sullenberger is left with recurring nightmares about the event and its worst case scenario, and even though he is being lauded as a hero by the media and public, he is also being scrutinised by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) – led by investigator Charles Porter (Mike O’Malley) – who think the plane could have made a safe landing at an airport.

Hanks delivers an absolutely stellar performance as the (immensely likable) Sullenberger, and is supported by a terrific cast, which include a moustached Eckhart and the lovely Laura Linney who portrays Sullenberger’s wife, Lorraine.

A lot of the credit for how impressive the film is goes to Eastwood, who does a solid job bringing the horror of the emergency situation to life – the depiction feels surprisingly unnerving even thought we already know how things will turn out – while creating an intense atmosphere as the pilot faces sudden, overwhelming attention and deals with the hearing that could end his career. But, as with most films based on real events, the drama has been amped up by fictionalising some aspects of the story, primarily the elements and personnel of the NTSB investigation which have been depicted as overly hostile in the film; this extraordinary story didn’t need distracting exaggerations, and a gentler approach would have been much more effective.

Ultimately, Sully is a bright spot in an otherwise lacklustre summer. Even though unnecessary fictionalisation occasionally detracts from the fascinating, well-made drama, the film remains captivating from start to finish, thanks to Eastwood and Hank’s efforts as well as the amazing story at its centre of a compelling, unassuming hero.

Rating: 4 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune website - 26th September 2016 *

Monday, September 19, 2016

Don't Breathe - a breathless thrill ride

movie review

Don't Breathe

Starring: Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, and Stephen Lang
Director: Fede Alvarez
Tagline: This house looked like an easy target. Until they found what was inside.

Hollywood hasn’t exactly been at its best this summer. Many of the biggest, most anticipated blockbusters of the season have turned out to be downright disappointing. However, some of the smaller projects that have come along have been considerably well-crafted than their more expensive counterparts, and horror-thriller Don’t Breathe falls in this category.

The film revolves around three friends whose attempt to burglarise a house ends up in a struggle for survival.

Rocky (Jane Levy), her boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto), and their friend Alex (Dylan Minnette) have been making a living by robbing houses. They target homes secured by Alex’s father’s security company, taking only items they can sell. But the group decides to loot cash when they find out a sightless army veteran (Stephen Lang) is hiding thousands of dollars – the settlement money he received after a wealthy young woman killed his daughter in a car accident – in his heavily secured, barricaded house. Seeing this as a chance to escape their poverty-ridden lives, the trio breaks into the blind man’s home, only to discover their target isn’t exactly as helpless as they might’ve expected. The friends find themselves being mercilessly hunted by the owner of the house that is also hiding a shocking secret within its walls.

While its setting may not seem exceptional, Don’t Breathe gives an interesting spin to the home invasion premise, giving us an intense thriller that keeps the viewers on the edge of their seats. The movie averts many common clichés, and instead of just relying on gore or jump scares, it opts to focus on creating a dark, sinister ambience where obstacles constantly worry the protagonists. Best enjoyed by avoiding all spoilers before you watch it, the film’s storyline surprises you midway with a twist you definitely won’t see coming. But you may or may not find it ludicrous, depending on how much you analyse it.

Director Fede Alvarez amps up the suspense as the house turns into a claustrophobic prison for the thieves, building up the dread with each turn. Although where he and his team don’t succeed is in making the central trio particularly interesting. A few stereotypes are at place in some of the characterisations. Money, in particular, isn’t presented as anything beyond a caricatured thug. Rocky, however, gets the most character development, with her wish to move from Detroit to California with her sister to get away from her neglectful-mother. You are, ultimately, left with the feeling that the writers could have made the characters more compelling, although the solid cast makes up for some of the deficiencies. Levy delivers an impressive performance as the criminal-turned-victim, but the standout is definitely Lang, whose menacing blind man makes the film scary.

On the whole, Don’t Breathe is well-made and engrossing, as the tense execution turns the relatively simple premise into a suspenseful and creepy thriller. While it isn’t exactly the most memorable horror film you’ll ever see, Don’t Breathe offers plenty of scares and is likely to please the fans of the genre.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

- Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune website - 19th September, 2016 *

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Van Gogh - portrait of an artist

book review

A talented life cut short by mental illness, Vincent van Gogh’s magic endures through the precious works he left behind

Book: Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings
Authors: Ingo F. Walther and Rainer Metzger

He may not have gained fame and fortune during his lifetime, but Vincent van Gogh has since been recognised as one of the most important artists of all time. During his short life, the Dutch painter created hundreds of pieces of art, and even though he famously only sold one painting — ‘The Red Vineyard’ (1888) — while he was alive, his canvases now rank among the world’s most expensive art works. Several of his paintings have gained widespread popularity since his death, while accounts of his troubled life have made him the subject of public fascination. The acclaimed post-impressionist and his work are the focus of Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings, a volume that is part of Taschen’s Bibliotheca Universalis series and has been written by art historians Ingo F. Walther and Rainer Metzger.

The very comprehensive tome chronicles the life of the artist and reproduces the approximately 870 (mostly oil) paintings that he made from the early 1880s till his suicide in 1890 at the age of 37. Biographical and historical details add context to the works of art, as do the excerpts from his letters — most of which were addressed to his brother and lifelong supporter, art dealer Theo van Gogh — that provide a running commentary on his paintings as well as shedding light on the thoughts and circumstances that led to their creation.

Divided into six sequential sections, the pages capture a snapshot of the painter’s life while charting his evolution as an artist. Born to a Dutch pastor and ominously named after his parents’ stillborn first son, van Gogh arrived into a family that had ties to the art community. Three of his uncles were art dealers, one of whom — his godfather, Vincent van Gogh or “Uncle Cent” — found him work at a dealership where the younger Vincent would “make his own first contacts with paintings and drawings”. He eventually took up painting after deciding to become an artist in 1880, then developed his skill over the next decade.
A talented life cut short by mental illness, Vincent van Gogh’s magic endures through the precious works he left behind

The volume of art van Gogh produced is beyond impressive and shows his dedication to his chosen craft, even when it wasn’t paying the kind of dividends the artist would have hoped for. The book explains how the painter tried to express his own views of the world in his symbolic pictures. Whether he was creating portraits of peasants or searching for the anthropomorphic side of nature in rural landscapes, the canvas served as a means for delivering his concept of artistic truth. The authors analyse how van Gogh’s work was shaped by his Christian upbringing, romantic intensity, socialist hopes, deficient training as an artist, his mental issues, and how his style changed with each relocation, ultimately reaching its zenith towards the end of his life when he created “a stupendous series of masterpieces arguably unequalled in any other artist’s oeuvre”.

Van Gogh as a subject is downright riveting. He may not have fit society’s standards of “correctness and ability” as an artist or a man, but that is precisely what makes him so interesting both as a painter and a person. The telling details that contextualise the art works highlight the striking presence that even the most ordinary objects have in van Gogh’s work; it is astounding how much he can express in a painting of something as common as grass, and how a motif as simple as chairs can be laden with so much significance.

The authors’ depth of knowledge is very impressive and clearly on display throughout the book. Walther and Metzger create a very detailed portrait of van Gogh. Also, in comparing him to the painters and movements of his time, they bring the whole era to life. The book is an education in the world of art and tries to make its topic accessible to both the public and scholars. You would, of course, have to be significantly interested in the Dutch artist to purchase this book; those who aren’t intrigued by the topic probably won’t want to read a discussion this detailed.

The main draw of the book, as is obvious from its subtitle, is that it offers a collection of “the complete paintings” by van Gogh. This isn’t a compendium of his complete works — there are a few drawings peppered here and there, but the focus remains on his paintings. These paintings — which are more or less in chronological order — are each identified with a title, along with information about the place and month of creation and their current location. Most of the pictures are in colour. Some, however, are black and white, primarily the ones that were destroyed, have gone missing, or have landed in “anonymous private hands” and colour reproduction was not permitted. Not all images, however, can be seen in a very significant level of detail. The hardback book is over 700 pages long, but the size of its pages is smaller than your average hard cover. Some of the more prominent canvases — like The Night Café in Arles (1888), Starry Night (1889), Old Man in Sorrow (On the Threshold of Eternity) (1890), and Portrait of Doctor Gachet (1890) — have been given one or even two pages to themselves; others share the page with text, while the remaining have been crammed into the margins. The size of many of the images, therefore, is quite small, which makes it difficult to see the intricacies of his art.

Also, it takes a while for the text to catch up with the illustrations. Initially the words and photos are out of sync, with the authors discussing pictures that were depicted nearly a hundred pages ago. The writers acknowledge this fact, saying that “the text and illustrations may be far apart because of the sheer number of illustrations”. The font size, too, is very small, and likely to cause eyestrain. If you don’t have perfect eyesight or want to see detailed images of the paintings, then it might be a better idea to seek out a different volume that is bigger in size.

On the whole, Van Gogh: The Complete Paintings is an interesting, well-researched look at a compelling figure. The text helps the reader decode the meaning behind the artist’s pictures by grasping the background of his efforts and analysing the significance he saw in them. The book will also leave you with an appreciation of van Gogh as a letter writer, and its discussion of everything from his bond with his brother, dream of an artists’ community, and the circumstances that led to his tragic demise will give you a better understanding of the painter. While this edition might not be ideal for those who want large, clear pictures of the artist’s paintings (or want a complete collection of all his drawings and other artworks), it is still a terrific compilation for everyone who wants to see the painter’s work as well as understand what it symbolises.

- Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 18th September, 2016 *